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How Freethinking In Islam Is Suppressed: Part 2

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By: Arshia Malik
Updated: November 15, 2022 2:52
The works of only "approved" imams and scholars are glorified, and the Wahhabi/Salafi brand of sermons are craftily belted out of loudspeakers every week.
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In part 1 we saw that suppression of freethinking started during the Abbasid period and continues to this day by the Saudi brand of Wahhabi Islam. The solution to this brand of Islam is to challenge these conveniently manufactured doctrines.

The culture of the challenge is already present within Islam, among Muslim intellectuals. That culture has been suppressed and censored for centuries by the ulema-state alliance, yet strains, strands, braves, and traditions of those challenging thoughts have survived and continue to flourish into modern times.

Islamic history is full of stories of freethinkers who have stood up to authoritarianism. Even as the ulema were shaping sharia laws, the Persian writer and thinker Ibn al-Muqaffa openly declared that this formulating of the sharia laws as a doctrine had the potential of becoming a political tool in the hands of Caliphs and clerics. He had realised the machinations of the ulema to use credulous and crude facts, views, and sayings to manipulate them for their ambitions, even using the Caliph or State in the process.

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The equally ambitious State or Caliphs joined the clerics in denouncing writers, satirists, and freethinkers who, like Ibn al-Muqaffa, were against dogmatism (the Asharite tradition inspired by Imam Hanbal, which gave legitimacy to a compiled text over the reasoning of the falasufs or philosophers). This was the triumph of Asharite (dogma) over Mutazili (philosophy) and is known to the Western world as an ‘intellectual suicide’ or the ‘closing of the Muslim mind’.

People are surprised when they read about a flourishing Muslim culture when religious scholars were mocked for their descriptions of Paradise as attainable after death. The most notable amongst them was the theologian Ibn al-Rawandi, who commented that this kind of Paradise could only appeal to rustics. He had a contemporary, also censored in Islamic history, the polymath and natural scientist Abu Bakr al-Razi, who insisted constantly in his writings that Islam without reason had no value. This “established religion” of the ulema, who claimed it was God’s criteria, was constantly corrected by the renowned blind poet Abul ‘Ala’ al-Marri.

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni, regarded as a freethinker, not just in his time but celebrated across all ages, specifically in Hind, which he visited and wrote about, insisted on questioning everything – the definition of scepticism. His maxims implore Muslims to be critical of not just religion but philosophy as well and to accept constructive criticism, even of their own religion, to benefit from its arguments.

Towering above all of the freethinkers is the commentator Averroes as known in the 12th century West, Ibn Rushd. Known to the Muslim world for his commentaries on the philosopher Aristotle, he put up a last stand when he wrote the Incoherence of Incoherence, as a rebuttal to the Asharite Imam Ghazali’s Incoherence of Philosophers.

His position was that matters of belief should be decided only on the basis of reason and evidence – a position that brought a ban on his books and a brief exile from his homeland – so dangerous was his philosophy. Yet, discovered by the West as the person who preserved Hellenism in his works, he paved the way for what became eventually the Western Enlightenment and Renaissance.

All these freethinkers converged on one conclusion – that the state-sponsored radical, political Islam fulfilled the aspirations of the ulema and ambitious rulers and that in order to get closer to God, freethinking was the only way to cut through the nonsense of this manufactured Islam that served only politics and organised religion.

It is a question often asked to people like me, who make enough noise about these wonderful freethinking traditions in Islam, why aren’t there more of you and why don’t we hear more about the Hellenised Age of Translation in Islamic history?

The answer is how Islamic teachings reach the common populace – through madrasas, seminaries, ‘Islamic universities’, and the Friday sermons, or ‘khutbahs’. The curriculum in these places and the content of the sermons have been unchanged for centuries.

The works of only “approved” imams and scholars are glorified, and the Wahhabi/Salafi brand of sermons are craftily belted out of loudspeakers every week. Criticism of this censored curriculum is ruthlessly purged.

It is forbidden to teach the ideas and works of Ibn al-Rawandi, al-Biruni or al-Razi in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, according to Ziauddin Sardar, editor of the quarterly journal ‘Critical Muslim’, in his Independent article, ‘Islamic history is full of free thinkers – but recent attempts to suppress critical thought are verging on the absurd’.

Maududi, the chief propagator of the Two-Nation Theory, was till recently taught at Aligarh Muslim University, the place where the idea of Pakistan was finally voiced out – an idea germinating since the time of Shah Waliullah Dehalvi, as has been academically traced by J. Sai Deepak in the second volume of his Bharat trilogy, ‘India, Bharat and Pakistan: The Constitutional Journey of a Sandwiched Civilisation’.

There was a lot of hullabaloo recently about the removal of Maududi’s work from the courses at AMU, but many rational and objective Muslims advocate teaching the critics of Maududi’s ideology alongside his – just as the Muslim freethinkers of Islam would have wanted.

The way Saudi rulers spent billions in the past few decades to export their Wahhabi/Salafi ideology by funding mosques, madrasas, universities, and tele-evangelists (even awarding the notorious Zakir Naik, now a fugitive), countries dealing with radical, political Islam should come together to challenge this suppression of critical thought. Especially in South Asian countries where generations of Muslims imbibe Wahhabi ideology, States should sponsor freethinking to achieve coexistence, assimilation, and integration of their Muslim populations.

There are enough contemporary thinkers who have taken up the mantle of the classical freethinkers. Egypt, Iran, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia lead in contemporary freethinking culture, as judged by the works of the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, from Egypt, or the septuagenarian Abdolkarim Soroush, from Iran, or the late Aziz Nesin from Turkey, the Syrian poet Adonis and many more.

Though objections to their stance and works continue with censorship, banning their works, exiling them, and hounding their families, the Internet provides succour with followers preserving their works digitally so that they can be easily distributed to generations of enquirers, freethinkers in the future, keeping the Muslim traditions of freethinking alive virtually at least.

The manufactured articles of faith in Islam during the Abbasid period and the repackaged Islam of Abdul Wahab, exported globally by Saudis has a firm grip on the minds of 21st-century Muslims who continue to shun all attempts to rethink their understanding and relationship with God, to interrogate orthodox belief, to bring reason back to Islam.

The artificial doctrines belted from the pulpits every week are sweeping away the legacy of Islam’s freethinkers, especially at a time when it is needed the most with sectarian warfare within Islam getting bloodier by the year. The clarion call of modern crusades given by ISIS and other terror groups and the subcontinent, home of one of the oldest surviving pagan and polytheistic civilisations, Hinduism, gearing up for battle for its survival against encroaching, invading monotheistic religions of the Middle East since the medieval age is a ‘clash of civilizations’.

The much harped about, ‘it has nothing to do with Islam’, does not hold water because the extremists themselves have made the Islamic heritage toxic. More Muslims must question this absence of reason and criticism, intolerance and bigotry, fanaticism and violent jihadism. Critical thought, which was and is on the sidelines of Islam, needs to be brought back to mainstream Islam as a challenge to the extremist doctrines manufactured by religious scholars for their own benefit. The traditional curricula in all Darul ulooms or madrasas everywhere need to start imparting critical thinking, doubled with certified imams trained in comparative religions using the tools of critical thinking.

Media can subvert its own role of promoting the violent brand of Islam by broadcasting and producing television series that explore the legacy of freethinkers, giving much-needed materials for Muslims to engage with their orthodox leaders, ambitious politicians and people of other faiths who want to build bridges between communities across the sea of mistrust.

If a series like Ertugrul or Saladin from Turkey can become popular in South Asia, why can’t a series on freethinkers, and sceptics of Islam be produced among Western Muslims, then exported to acceptable populations in the Middle East and South Asia? It seems like a long haul considering the Wahhabised South Asians resort to rioting and arson on the streets if even a whiff of something like the Rushdie Affair is smelled, but they do eventually cope after the violence has subsided. Also, this is the 21st century, not 1989, the Internet has become the largest ally for freethinkers.

Though hashtags on Twitter, Facebook posts, WhatsApp forwards, and Instagram memes against jihad will not work until there is a street protest against this hijacking of Islam – the way the French people of all creeds and origins came together in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the murder/beheading of Samuel Paty with a collective will and slogan – NEVER AFRAID!

The Muslim freethinkers certainly were/are not afraid of where the truth may lead or what it reveals.

Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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