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The primal role of religion
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 06 - 11 - 2013

There are no people without stories, French literary critic Roland Barthes tells us. He could also have observed that there are no people without a religion. Religion is essential for spiritual fulfilment and moral advancement and as a broad and profound framework for explaining human and universal phenomena. The philosophy that spoke of the “death of the gods” had the effect of turning the human being, himself, into a “god”, as did Friedrich Nietzsche when he formulated the idea of the übermensch or “superman”. Indeed, secularist extremists have, whether intentionally or not, transformed secularism into a form of earthbound religion. As for peoples who did not turn heavenward for religion, they worshipped mythical beings or idols. In Africa, we even find tribes that worship snakes and trees.
Whatever the case, for most peoples, religion in any particular time and place was not immutable. It underwent changes of varying degrees sometimes as the consequence of the evils and caprices of the human soul. But if it assumed various forms in theory and practice, this should not blind us to the basis, or the original manifestation, or the “straight path” as the Quran terms it, or what Syrian poet Adonis refers to in his famous work, “The fixed and the mutable”, as the “founding text”. It is this that always remains the authoritative frame of reference, the last barrier of defence, the font of argument and proof, the refuge for a faction that will remain in the right and that will remain unharmed by those who differ with them until God inherits the earth and all upon it.
Before discussing the changes themselves, it is important to bear in mind the vast difference between religion, on the one hand, and religiousness and the religious sciences, such as theology, scriptural exegesis, religious jurisprudence and the interpretation of Prophetic hadith, on the other. Religion is manifested in the divine text at the moment of its revelation and proof. Religiousness is the product of the interaction between people and scripture through processes of interpretation in order to grasp its meanings and ramifications. Such processes have led variously to conviction and obedience, to rebelliousness and innovation, as well as efforts to elevate innovation to a systematised and creative interaction with the text by means of theoretical frameworks and practices that are consistent with the needs and demands of the ever-changing flow of life. Whatever the case, religion is sacred whereas the various forms of religiousness and the different religious sciences are manmade products and, hence, not sacred. The trouble is that there are always people who are determined to impose sanctity on religiousness and the religious sciences.
Under the influence of religiousness, as explained or justified by the religious sciences, the practice of religion can be transformed by the following processes:
- Religion as ideology: Religion is reduced to a mere ideology when it becomes linked to power and the drive for power by groups and organisations with religious orientations and agendas. There is continuity between such groups, from those that originate within and coincide with the national community and operate within the frameworks and instruments of the modern state in the form of “Islamist political parties” to those that reject and are hostile to such frameworks, such as Al-Qaeda.
The ideologicalisation of Islam is certainly not a new phenomenon. Indeed, it goes as far back as era of Al-Fitna Al-Kubra, or the “Great Strife” when Muslims were torn in their loyalties to either Ali or Muawiya as the successor to the caliphate. Not only did each camp select and interpret Quranic verses in ways to serve their own ends and purposes, there followed a period in which partisans of one of the other forged sayings that they attributed to the Prophet.
This phenomenon is not unique to Islam; it has affected the other divinely revealed religions. Jews gave their religion a political stamp, using the “Divine covenant” and the “Balfour Declaration” and other religiously inspired instruments to create, for the first and last time in history, a state founded on the basis of religious affiliation, namely Israel. In Christianity, religion and political power became intimately intertwined since Constantine in the fourth century and the emergence of the theory of the “divine right of kings”. The secular power of men of the cloth reached a new height with the edict issued by Pope Innocent III in 1066, according himself the right to pass laws and to have his feet kissed by all the kings and princes on earth. Such was the sanctity he conferred on himself that he was to be regarded as infallible and incapable of sin and above the judgement of men and that anyone taken under his wing of protection was immune to arrest and prosecution.
Politics dressed as religion reaches its most extreme in war. Successive Islamic empires brandished their swords in search of land, wealth and glory, towards which end they took the rightful cause of defensive war, as ordained by the great Quran, and expanded it to include offensive warfare ostensibly in order to spread the religion of God. Christian clergymen and kings went to further extremes when they dispatched their armies of crusaders who, in the course of their marches, killed and displaced hundreds of thousands of fellow Christians before they even made it the “Holy Land” where they engaged in a long series of bloody battles against Muslim armies. Zionist gangs are responsible for horrific massacres in Palestine. There even came a point where the armies of Israel killed Arab prisoners of war in fulfilment of a purported religious prophecy.
Some social scientists and anthropologists are of the opinion that the ideologies of the 19th and 20th century could not have arisen in the agrarian societies that existed prior to the industrial revolution, as religion and tradition had served the function that these ideologies would later perform. Be this as it may, the emergence of these ideologies did not end the social manifestations of religion. Nor could they assume the functions that religion performs in the interpretation of some of the situations that confront people in their daily lives, or supplant the mystical/spiritual needs that religion fulfils. Indeed, some draw the distinction between ideology and religion at precisely this point. The former does not establish a relationship with supernatural expressions while religions ground their existence on divine revelation. In other words, while knowledge of a religion derives from a divine source, ideologies strive to establish their authority on human foundations.
Ideology cannot replace religion or even neutralise it. To believe otherwise is a grave mistake and all experiments to substitute ideology for religion have ended in misery. Simultaneously, when some transform religion into an ideology by mixing it with politics, as do the fundamentalist Christians and rightwing Christian groups in the US, or some ultraconservative Jewish parties, or Islamist groups and organisations from the moderate to the extreme, this does not signify that religion is purely ideology or that the latter can fill the psychological and spiritual needs that religion does. No idea, theory or ideological orientation can take the place of the Divine Self, in all its perfection, grandeur, power and glory.
There exists a condition or state somewhere between religion and ideology. It is the faith in a religious or political leader possessed of seemingly magic powers of inspiration and a powerful irresistible influence over his followers who are so in the thrall of the leader's every word and deed that they are ready to obey his every command.
- Religion as folklore: Some reduce religion to a kind of folklore through its identification with popular custom and heritage, causing it to lose its creedal essence to some extent. Canonically ordained and explicitly described rites are replaced by others recognised, promoted and defended by the community, sometimes to the extent of affecting a rupture with the original rites. A clear example of this is to be found in the religious behaviour of some groups that essentially exercise folk practices clad in a religious garb and which, in their preference for what they deem to be “right” over religious law, abandon full compliance with divinely ordained religious duties and obligations.
- Religion as myth: This occurs when the “legends of the ancients” are intermixed with beliefs and perceptions. The phenomenon is as old as religion itself. Elements of the religions and myths of ancient Egypt and Greece have crept their way into Jewish and Christian religious interpretations, broadening the gap between what Moses and Jesus revealed and the beliefs and practices of the practitioners of these faiths. With respect to Islam, some have expanded the realm of the miracles and miraculous attributes of religious forefathers. The Shia submitted themselves to the concept of the “Hidden Imam” and only partially and temporarily revised this idea under Khomeini through the imposition of the principle of vilayet-e faqih, or rule by clergy. Myth and legend have also filtered into theology, giving rise to a number of gnostic ideas and perceptions on the faith.
- Religion as commerce: Some have attempted to bend religious text to the service of capitalism. They highlight scriptural passages that support the notion of private property and the blessings of material wealth and pleasures, and pass over those that stress the need to ensure sufficiency for all Muslims and ignore that the ascetic spirit is an essence of faith. In addition to this theoretical catering to capitalism, there is an alarming spread in the commercialisation of religion through the transformation of its sciences and pundits into commodities that are on endless display on bookstore shelves or television screens. Religious programmes on satellite television, with the million dollar advertisements they lure, have turned their producers and their religious pundits into multi-millionaires. Over time, money and market mechanisms will begin to work their own magic on this form of production, driving it further and further away from its original religious essence and roots, and generating a looming danger for the faith.
- Religion as cultural discourse: Religion interacts with the inherited cultures and traditions of a society, becoming part of its general culture. The fusion can be so widespread and deep that religious rites, teachings, emblems, symbols and language are recognised and used even by the non-religious and atheists who may be unaware of the religious origins of some of their forms of behaviour. In this context, it is possible to assert that Christians in the Arab world are a part of Islamic civilisation as its terms and features have so deeply penetrated their psychology as to become an intrinsic part of their make up, even if some of them would desire to distance themselves from or rebel against the civilisational vision of Islam. The same applies to Muslim minorities living amidst other civilisations and religions in Europe or in Asia.
In light of the foregoing, some regard religion as “a mode of cultural behaviour” that exists side-by-side with other cultural expressions shaped by customs and traditions or influenced by contact with the religious or even non-religious “Other” abroad. To others, however, the question goes far deeper than modes of behaviour. It is a complete, comprehensive and discrete phenomenon, and it has the ability to “digest” any intake from other religions, cultures or traditions, absorbing what is beneficial while discarding the chaff, without this affecting the essence of the faith or marring the purity of its source at the time of revelation.
Some Muslims believe that there should be a strict rupture with other cultures. They are averse to any alien customs or traditions that have seeped in from abroad and that they regard as manifestations of a new jahiliya, or pre-Islamic period of ignorance, that must be fought either through assertive proselytising or by brute force if that is what it takes to change society and rectify its path. Others are more tolerant and more compassionate towards society. They will praise and encourage what is worthy and beneficial, criticise and work against what is harmful, and engage those with differing views with dialogue, reason and sound advice.
At the practical level, the purity and clarity of “the creed” exists in its source and original manifestation, prior to any infusion by any human beliefs or inclination. It exists in the divinity of the Quranic discourse, not in the religious discourse of men. As for the claim that there is such a thing as a pure and perfect “Islamic cultural discourse” comprehending a single body of knowledge, values and behaviour, it holds little water for the following reasons:
- Islam opened itself to different cultures from the moment the Prophet Mohamed began his mission. The Prophet emphasised and encouraged all the virtues and praiseworthy forms of behaviour of the Arabs of the jahiliya while condemning and uprooting the flaws and pernicious forms of behaviour. This “pragmatic” approach was sustained throughout the ages by all moderate Muslims aware of the spirit of Islam and the peaceful and non-coercive means of proselytising it espouses.
- The very concept of discourse is complex and grew more so over time. In form, it comprises all modes of communication, whether written or oral, material or symbolic, or audio or visual or both. In substance, it is extremely broad and covers a gamut of political, economic, social, cultural, religious ideas and subjects, with frequent overlaps between the various fields. Such an intricate and fluid structure cannot be reduced to a discrete entity or a single frame of reference, except in the broadest sense in which the particular interacts with the general and the cultural self converses with collective human heritage.
- There is no single Islamic cultural discourse in any given time, as from the earliest moments Muslims spread across all continents of the globe. Today we find Muslim societies in fertile river valleys, others in mountainous terrain and yet others in barren desserts. Muslim communities have also come to exist among all the different cultures of the world, from the Anglophone to the Francophone, and from the Asian and African to Latin America, and they are as complex as they are diverse.
- There is no single Islamic cultural discourse in any one place. In a given Muslim country, we will find an official religious discourse and a non-official one, an open-minded discourse and an insular one, an extremist discourse and a moderate one, a Salafist discourse and Sufi one, etc. Add to this the fact that there are many Islamic nations, each of which is home to its own cross sections of people of differing ethnic and linguistic origins, which is to say their peoples differ in their subsidiary cultural affiliations, which continue to assert themselves and which have left their imprint on the original culture that derived from Islam. Therefore, in any single country, several Islamic cultural discourses exist side-by-side. The only exception to this rule might occur in the case of full assimilation into small Islamist groups or organisations that transcend ethnic, linguistic or similar affiliations.
- To many Muslim thinkers and theologians the concept of Islamic discourse is very broad, so broad to some of these that they take it as cause to address all peoples, Muslim and non-Muslim, to convert them to Islam or instruct them in its teachings.
- Islam, itself, is expansive in meaning and origin. “Islam is the face of God Almighty” in accordance with which a person should be an obedient and faithful servant to his Lord, believe in Him and his Unity, depend on Him and observe His existence in every word he utters and in every action he undertakes. Moreover, as the Quran itself states Islam preceded the Prophet Mohammed's mission. The father of the prophets is Abraham, “the first Muslim”. Indeed, in the aforementioned sense, Islam is the religion of man since the moment of creation; it was revealed with the creation of Adam on earth. Regardless of the names that man has given the various prophetic missions and revelations, such as Abrahamic, Jewish and Christian, all these derive from one source and one essence, and any substance or form added and causing them to deviate from that origin and that essence is a human fabrication, caused by erroneous interpretation at times or by deliberate invention and forgery against God, at others.
Therefore, the Quranic verse that states, “The religion of Allah is Islam” (Al-Imran 19), and that states, “He who seeks a religion other than Islam, this will never be accepted of him” (Al-Imran 85), must be understood in light of the foregoing. The religion is one, while the divine revelations through the prophets are numerous and succeeded one another over time. It follows that any notion of favouritism or selection by God is contingent on deeds and the fulfilment of the duties and virtues ordained by God. Jews are not “God's chosen people”, Christians are not “the salt of the earth and the light of the world” and Muslims are not “the best nation that emerged before the people” in the absolute sense applicable to all times and places, regardless of actions, circumstances or conditions.
- There is a dialectic between the particular and the general that applies to all religions without exception. In times of ascent and growing power, missionaries, evangelists and proselytisers boast of having a “value system” applicable to all peoples on earth. In times of weakness or waning power, when those religious messages become the target of other more powerful forces with other religious outlooks, religious pundits tell those others not to meddle in their affairs, not to impose a foreign culture on them, to respect their society's cultural particularity and to abide by the principles of plurality and the freedoms of belief, worship and cultural expression. This is not to suggest that the universality of a religious calling is unrealistic or that it can only occur in a phase of empowerment. Rather, it signifies above all that the quality of universality, which seeks to address and guide all mankind, must reside in the processes of building the creed and acquiring the rites of worship or the essential principles of the faith. It should not rest on coercion with the aim of imposing a certain cultural mode. Not only is this beyond its capacity, little will come of it. True value is to obtained only when the religious calling focuses on offering prevalent cultures a general moral framework that does not encroach on plurality and diversity and that does not sever the cultural roots of a human community in any given place.
However, it should be stressed again, in this regard, that the five transformations in the practice of religion mentioned above cannot alter or eradicate the original essence of the faith. They cannot dry up that pure source that perpetually inspires all in search of a complete religion with its primordial grace and blessings, which God revealed to mankind at the outset. May He preserve its memory until He inherits the earth and all upon it.

The writer is a political analyst.

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