Monthly Archives: November 2009
Major religious figures such as the Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed revealed eternal truths in specific times and places. The truths they revealed must be understood within those contexts. We might prefer, if it were possible, to receive the eternal truth context-free, but then we would be even less able to relate it to our own lives and draw practical conclusions. Even though the world has changed since our great religious teachers, the basic context — being human — has not.
Religious scholars from all traditions have applied great effort to the ongoing process of interpreting the original teachings in ways that apply today. It is difficult to be both faithful and relevant, and not all get the balance right. If they get the balance wrong they achieve neither faithfulness nor relevance. The fundamentalists are desperate to cling on to the literal meaning of every single word, and in doing so they lose the spirit of the original teaching. The modernists are desperate to update the teaching, and in doing so they distort the tradition and throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Within both Judaism and Islam there are sophisticated schools of jurisprudence, which seek to apply the holy law today. The Talmud contains a record of how rabbis have applied the Torah in particular times and places, with their reasoning and discussions. Islam developed four main schools of jurisprudence (fiqh), and the process of interpretation (itjihad) continues today.
It is important to understand attitudes towards itjihad when studying Islamic fundamentalism. Interestingly, the modern Islamic movements most associated with fundamentalism, such as Wahhabi and Salafi, sought to reinterpret Islam, rather than accept the previous interpretations handed down by generations. Their interpretation was very much about taking Islam back to basics, trying to live exactly as the Prophet and his companions would have lived, and strongly rejecting anything they saw as ‘innovation’. But by rejecting the tradition of interpretation handed down through generations they in fact lost touch with the living essence of Islam, relating instead to an idealised version of the religion that they themselves had invented.
The beauty of the religions is their appearance in particular times and places, and their ongoing relevance today. God mercifully provided specific guidance for real human situations. Specificity in religion is a strength, not a weakness. There is a parallel with art here: no painting or novel would show anything true or beautiful were it not for the specific detail. The skill of the artist is to take a specific scene and, while being true to it, lift it beyond the mundane. God has done the same, by offering real people the solutions to their actual, mundane problems, and at the same time revealing eternal truth.
The two basic points are 1) every religion has a valid political dimension 2) every religion has suffered from being harnessed to political interests which have no basis in religion.
Buddhism has a valid political dimension. The Buddha gives clear advice to rulers in the Kutadanta and Cakkavatti-Sihanada Suttas. Islam and Judaism have more obvious political dimensions because both Mohammed and Moses were law-givers. The Qur’an and Torah both provide the bases for legal systems to govern polities of various shapes and sizes.
The Qur’an and the Torah both combine the eternal and the temporal, and this reveals the nature of politics. God is eternal and Truth is eternal, but the actual, temporal conditions in which man finds himself are far from God. Man must find a way back to God so, through the prophets, God reveals His spiritual truths and His laws for good-living.
Politics is an aspect of humanity’s collective striving for good. In our political activity we should be guided by the religious truths to which we are the heirs, but we must not make the mistakes of over-literalism, dogmatism, sectarianism, etc. which have so bedevilled our civilisation.
Within the Islamic world the Islamist tendency over-emphasises the political dimension of Islam at the expense of the spiritual. Because it is has lost connection with the loving aspect of God it is prepared to contemplate or perform violence and terrorism to accomplish its sectarian goals. Islamism has more in common with Trotskyism than it does with Islam.
Although Islamism is a corruption of Islam, this does not mean that Muslims should withdraw entirely from the political sphere. On the contrary, it is important that Muslims who are in touch with the spiritual heart of their religion should be socially and politically engaged, in order to reduce the space available to Islamists. Muslims have an important role to play combating the ever-strengthening tide of greed, materialism, addiction, violence and environmental destruction. Organisations like Christian Aid provide an example of how religious people can make vital contributions if they engage with the key political issues of our time.