Sunday, May 6, 2012

Toward an Islamic Public Theology of Others

In an attempt to understand the role of religion in the public sphere as an inspiration for the integration and complementarity of citizens and communities, I offer thoughts on some of the philosophical reasoning that is required, focusing on the major issue of an Islamic theology of pluralism.[1] While I do not adhere to the notion that conflict in our contemporary world is primarily religious in nature, I am also not convinced that religious people can provide a theological solution to conflict.[2] Conflicts, like much else in life, are neither monocausal nor monosoluble. Similarly, family resemblances among the Abrahamic faiths require that we recognise the extent of the common grounds, common mutualities of trust but also common challenges that people of Abrahamic faiths share in the contemporary world.[3] But clearly, people of faith do need to articulate reasons for co-operation, for mutual respect and compassion to live fruitful and fulfilling lives in this world. My argument will proceed from knowledge to being and then onto ethics, not necessarily indicating this as a foundationalist order of causality but to save the appearances of much of the Islamic philosophical and theological traditions that begin with how we know and proceed to who we were and where we are going – the whence, what and whither of the famous saying attributed to the cousin and successor to the Prophet, ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib when he was asked about the essence of wisdom.

I: Knowledge and Truth
We live in a world of mutually contradictory truth claims; peer epistemic pressure and anxiety dominate, predicated upon the basic notion that each of us is capable of providing a rational account for our beliefs and that we take our truth claims seriously.[4] For many, this is the basic reason why we ought to hold a relativistic concept of truth and to embrace pluralism.[5] While many theological approaches to truth seem to be predicated on the notion that propositions about the nature of God or the world or humanity are predicted on their correspondence to some reality, these approaches would lead to an even more heightened anxiety. One possible response articulated by the contemporary Iranian thinker ʿAbdol-Karim Soroush is to make a distinction, drawing upon John Hick, between the religious truth an sich and our understanding of it.[6] However, a more pragmatic approach to truth could also be useful: the Qurʾan’s recognition of difference as a basic social fact, which is of no consequence, only privileges the moral as a mark of distinction and not the epistemological (al-Ḥujurāt verse 43). Similarly, the famous poet Rūmī expresses this perspectival pragmatism and lack of understanding through the famous Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. Mutuality actually assists us in understanding – and pragmatism may well be the best approach to epistemic pluralism.

II: Ontology of persons
One of the fundamental features of modern life is the desire to be true to oneself, to seek authentic being that is predicated on the individual’s exclusive, introspectively determined personhood.[7] This notion is based on the idea that each of us possesses a basic autonomy and ability to choose and assert our will, unencumbered by processes of coercion – thus, negative liberty becomes one of the foundational myths of our time. A further problem with such a notion of using the inner self as a guide for moral agency (apart from the wider philosophical debate about whether such a self exists and acts as the ground for moral agency), is that one finds any exercise of morality lapsing into subjectivism and emotivism.[8]

The converse of this liberally grounded notion of an atomistic autonomy is the communitarian insight that in fact we are selves embedded in contexts and communities and that our personhood, identity and ability to exercise moral agency is deeply attached to those contexts in which we find ourselves.[9] The danger with this position is that we see individuals purely in terms of their membership of such groups and therefore consider both religious and political relationships to exist between those groups: the personhood of the individual is therefore dissolved in an extended corporate personhood of the community.[10] Autonomy and selfhood are multilogically determined and socially embodied. We need a philosophy not so much of the ‘I’ but of the ‘We’ in which the ‘I’ does not dissolve but is nurtured and nurtures the moral impulses of the ‘We’. Muslim societies need to appreciate the need for balancing the individual and the community in these terms and to deal with the non-Muslim other at both these levels as well. The theological traditions of Islam address the individual as a person with obligations to fulfil moral agency (taklīf), but they also address persons as believers with mutual ties and obligations (ayyuhā l-ladhīn āmanū) and as humans (ayyuhā l-nās). ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib summarised this dual-level mutuality when he is reported to have said: ‘People are of two kinds: either your brothers in faith or your brothers in humanity’.  The social play and interaction of everyday life is not about the relationships between minds or between disembodied selves but between real persons in real mutual situations.

III: Religiously-inspired humanism
So where does religion impinge in this open, social and public sphere upon the ontology of mutual personhood? It is perhaps not too great a generalisation to argue that religious ethics often concern the moral psychology of persons: our selfhood emerges and is negotiated in the public sphere, and our morality enacted on the basis of what we are. If modern, post-Enlightenment ethics is primarily concerned with the value one ascribes to the act, then most religious ethics is concerned with the person. Both scripture and the philosophical traditions of Islam discuss the modes of human becoming, the life of a self that comes into existence with a body to define the person and the human, traverses and develops in an almost unlimited manner in this world existence and continue the process of renewing and becoming with the death of the body, with its resurrection and with the further resurrections and lives of the self in the afterlife. The Safavid thinker Mullā Ṣadrā describes these processes of becoming of mutual personhood, focusing on the individual but recognising mutuality in the important introduction to his Qurʾanic exegesis, precisely because the process of reading scripture is a means to self-becoming.[11]

The act of reading the Qurʾan is therefore a ‘reading act’ which has both lectionary and illectionary aspects. The illectionary has the force of reading as a spiritual practice in which the words and utterances strike the heart and have the effect of self-transformation leading one to realise one’s mutuality.[12] The lectionary is the consistent reading of the exhortation to the good: for the human rooted in a religious consciousness to do good, to seek good and to cooperate for and in the good: ‘.[13] The good cannot be achieved by the individual nor even just by a small group but rather through mutuality and cooperation: the Qurʾan exhorts competing with one another for the good in the context of recognition of religious diversity (al-Māʾida verse 48). It also exhorts people to cooperate for the good and not to cooperate for evil (al-Māʾida verse 2). The exhortation to the good and to justice is complemented with the disavowal of evil and of injustice – again in the famous statement of ʿAlī b. Abī Ṭālib: ‘Be a support for the oppressed and always challenge the oppressor’. This religiously-inspired humanism is about activating the human imagination to see the other as the self.[14] This moral mandate for procedural pluralism has roots in the classical period in what Lenn Goodman has classified as ‘Islamic humanism’.[15]

IV: Political theology and accommodation
An important corollary of this humanism is to account for the possibility of states to recognise and allow for religiously-inspired public policy and to accommodate what are sometimes called theocratic communities within the public sphere as long as they agree to certain ground rules, whether identified as the Rawlsian ‘original position’ or within the rubric of the overlapping consensus within deliberate rational, public discourse required of thinking citizens.[16] However, this entails retaining a basic liberal architecture of the polity and also assumes that we define faith primarily in terms of belief, very much a central dogma of post-enlightenment study of religion. An ethics and public theology of mutuality needs to be more than placing one’s beliefs in the same basket as others and engaging in rational debate in the public: it must also allow for the practice of faith, of ritual engagement and of sharing of experience which far too often we find uncomfortable.

[1] Two useful collections of Muslim theological positions on pluralism are Roger Boase (ed), Islam and Global Dialogue: Religious Pluralism and the Pursuit of Peace, Aldershot: Ashgate Publications, 2005, and Mohammad Khalil (ed), Between Heaven and Hell: Islam, Salvation, and the Fate of Others, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
[2] William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
[3] Cf. Paul Heck, Common Ground: Islam, Christianity, and Religious Pluralism, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009.
[4] David Basinger, Religious Diversity: A Philosophical Assessment, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001.
[5] Manuel Garcia-Carpintero and Max Kolbel (ed), Relative Truth, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
[6] ʿAbdol-Karīm Surūsh, Qabż va basṭ-i tiʾūrik-i sharīʿat, Tehran: Ṣirāṭ, 1989.
[7] Charles Guignon, On Being Authentic, London: Routledge, 2004.
[8] Most famously critiqued in Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd edition, London: Duckworth, 1981.
[9] E.g. Charles Taylor, The Sources of the Self, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
[10] This danger within communitarianism is highlighted in Javeed Alam, ‘Public sphere and democratic governance in contemporary India’, in Rajeev Bhargava, Amiya Kumar Bagchi & R. Sudarshan (eds), Multiculturalism, Liberalism and Democracy, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999, 323-47.
[11] Mullā Ṣadrā Shīrāzī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm, ed. Muḥsin Bīdārfar, Qum: Intishārāt-i Bīdār 1987, I: 2-3.
[12] Cf. Sara Rappe, Reading Neoplatonism: Non-discursive Thinking in Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. ‘Reading act’ – analogy with ‘speech act’.
[13] One of the best arguments in this light and with a view to pluralism is Abdulaziz Sachedina, The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000; idem, ‘Advancing religious pluralism in Islam’, Religion: Compass 4.4 (2010), 221-33
[14] Paul Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.
[15] Lenn Goodman, Islamic Humanism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
[16] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971; cf. Lucas Swaine, The Liberal Conscience: Politics and Principle in a World of Religious Pluralism, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006; Andrew March, Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 

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