Religious Liberalism – Our Greatest Hope?

Posted on June 10, 2010 by


by A.A Khalid

Is religious liberalism an oxymoron, or is it something long established? More to the point is there something known as Islamic Liberalism, or Liberal Islam? Surprisingly, there is indeed something, a discourse known as Liberal Islam. And contrary to popular perception it is not a contradiction in terms. Charles Kurzman a Professor in Sociology who deals with Islamic movements asserts there is a tradition with specifically Islamic context known as Liberal Islam (pdf file) . What’s more Liberal Islam is not monolithic it has multiple schools and traditions each with a different approach and (pdf file) different methodology. Each tradition within the Liberal school faces different challenges and has differing prospects. If such a tradition exists how is it that within the Pakistani discourses it is eerily absent, with instead conservatives and political Islamists dominating the interpretive discourse of Islam. It should be noted ‘’Liberal Islam’’ is known under many rubrics from Islamic Modernism, Islamic Reformism, Reflexive Revivalism to movements professing Ijtihad, Islaha, Ihya and Tajdid.

The situation in Pakistan is a paradox. Its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah was a secularist in the sense he sought an institutional division between mosque and state, the clergy and the government and to a greater extent religion did not have such an effect in his personal life. His political ideals are liberal a vision of a pluralistic society where the citizens of the State would be equal in rights and responsibilities. Towards the end of his life Jinnah attempted a synthesis, coining terms such as ‘’Islamic democracy’’, ‘’Islamic social justice’’ Jinnah tried to weld his liberal politics and ideals with religious faith. Muhammad Iqbal on the other hand was not a politician per se but a thinker and intellectual, hence his ideas are always going to attain a greater sophistication. Though Iqbal too can be seen as an Islamic humanist, a critical humanist, critical of both European ideas and traditions and the Muslim traditions, Iqbal focused on the free will of all human beings, an original and unique position among Muslim intellectuals and scholars. Iqbal’s focus on self development and his synthesis of philosophy, theology, mysticism and law which he tries to achieve in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, where he puts many traditions both from Islam and Europe in critical conversation is till this day and probably for some time to come an inspiration to religious reformists and liberals.

Two of Pakistan’s founders and cherished personalities were liberal, humanistic incorporating a religiosity which was enlightened and in the case of Iqbal a mystical and poetic religiosity which engendered reflection instead of the hollow and dogmatic repetitions of today’s religious discourse. The fact the same cannot be said of today means something has seriously gone wrong.

Liberal Islam with its different approaches and schools of thought is indeed established in Muslim history, because there always have been thinkers, mystics, poets, theologians and philosophers who were mindful of diversity, pluralism and sought a religiosity which was inclusive. Another trait is that of the worth of the individual, within the Islamic traditions the notion of individual conscience before Allah and the individual relationship between human beings and the One is a powerful notion. This is a sacred relationship where the worth of the individual is stressed before the majesty of the Creator.

The cause of this situation where there is no fully fledged discourse of Liberal Islam in Pakistan is one which deserves more attention, but determining the cause of this absence is a question beyond the scope of an article. However, it should be noted that translating and synthesizing liberal idioms, nay actually discovering that what Pakistani liberals aim for can actually be found within the traditions of Islam itself is the greatest blow that can be struck against the religious right and fundamentalism. Reclaiming the interpretive discourse of Islam from individuals who have far right conceptions of faith is paramount; the field of interpretation of such a majestic faith cannot be left to puritans, demagogues and fundamentalists. This is the ultimate failure of the apathy of Pakistan liberals, if Pakistani liberals lack faith at least forges partnerships with Muslim intellectuals and scholars who share their views.

The failure of Pakistani liberals to connect with their religious, cultural, literary and social traditions has proven disastrous and opened the interpretive discourse to fundamentalists; this failure has to be reversed. The greatest failure in the religious discourse of Pakistan is the failure to generate a political theology of liberalism, a religiosity which is shaped by rationalism and tolerance, and connecting the desire for spiritual elevation with social justice. Secularists and liberals continually complain in Pakistan about the fact religion is in the public sphere, this is but a theoretical concern and an abstract argument. It is also a misplaced anxiety and worry, religion is going to be in the public sphere in Pakistan because people are religious, there is no escaping that. But the liberals and secularists do and try and escape this by surrendering the discourse of religious interpretation in Islam to the regressive and the conservatives. The liberals and secularists do not do religion and the conservatives and the right get it totally wrong. The failure of liberals and progressives to offer a viable an alternative political theology has been allowed a vacuum that has been filled with the type of political theology and puritanism we see today in Pakistani institutions and in the organs of the State.

It is easy to blame the radicalising forces of the religious discourse in Pakistan for the current situation, but where is the response? Where are the progressive and liberal political theologians? Where are the progressives and liberals when it comes to intra-religious debates in jurisprudence and theology? The term ijtihad is used a lot but where has been the practical implications of this call? Quoting solitary Quranic verses, adopting piecemeal, utilitarian and piecemeal adoptions of the Islamic traditions is not going to work and has not worked when it comes to constructing a political theology of liberality. A truly engaged, rigorous and critical project of Islamic liberalism needs to be adopted to counteract the current trends in the Pakistani religious discourse.

Hence liberals and secularists should stop asking the question if there is too much or too little religion. The question which should be asked is what type of religiosity do we need in order for Pakistan to flourish? What type of religiosity supports democratic governance, human rights, pluralism and tolerance? How can such a religiosity be constructed? The liberals and progressives need to bring to the table a genuine political theology of liberality which can find its legitimacy not only in civic reason but in religious reason in terms of establishing a link with the Quranic text.