Religious Basis of the Enlightenment?

Posted on June 12, 2010 by


by A.A Khalid

The calls of liberals and progressives in Pakistan in constructing a model of epistemology suitable for a modern nation state predicated on the notion of a reduced religiosity and a public conscience which adopts a minimalist understanding of religion is false. Historically it is false and from a positivistic point of view in terms of the ground reality in Pakistan in terms of religious observance it is impractical. Rationality need not be predicated on a lack of belief.

The root of this illusion is the same as the illusion of the conservatives and the regressive forces. That there can only be one understanding of Islam and as far as all relevant constituencies are concerned this is an understanding devoid of rational and critical reflection. Liberals and progressives lament about the clerics, ulema and the static nature of the Islamic traditions and falsely equivocate it to Islam itself rather than analysing the humanly constructed parameters and contours of the very traditions the ulema have erected to guard their sphere of religious exclusivity whilst conservatives frequently lambast reason in what they see as a defence against the all sacred and all pure Quranic revelation. Both positions are false.

Indeed one of the great Enlightenment thinkers John Locke was a devout Christian and although a pioneer of modern rationalism did have profound religious sensibilities. We remember Locke has a man who revolutionized the field of political philosophy but one his works was, ‘’A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity’’. This is indicative of his strong religious belief but also his trust in human reason.

All of John Locke’s arguments and theories about freedom of conscience, the basis of authority, the legitimacy of political authority and equality do not stem from a myopic focus on human reason devoid of religious revelation. Rather they must be understood as emanating from a revised reinterpretation of Christianity, setting the parameters for a political theology of liberality. Locke recast religious norms, fought the conservatives of his times on their terms and in their idioms and successfully merged liberal ideals with religious legitimacy, to advocate a unique form of governance. But unfortunately some liberals and progressives are unaware of this.

Rationality is not predicated on a lack of religious belief; it is predicated on the utilisation of one’s own critical faculties to the best of their own potential. Professor Sorkin’s new book the ‘’Religious Enlightenment’’, challenges the grand atheistic narratives about the Enlightenment arguing there were many religious groups and thinkers who were hopeful in achieving a harmonious unison between faith and reason whilst proposing new ideas for political philosophy in relation to church-state relations. (The sample chapter can be downloaded here). The central thesis of the book is that, ‘’ With the Enlightenment’s advent, religion lost neither its place nor its authority in European society and culture. If we trace modern culture to the Enlightenment, its foundations   were decidedly religious.’’

The Enlightenment too frequently cited by liberals superficially is a complex historical phenomenon, encompassing competing narratives and offering different and sometimes contradictory insights into the relation between faith and society and faith and reason. To try and achieve a sense of intellectual homogeneity about the Enlightenment is intellectually dishonest.

If anything the Islamic tradition is multifarious, and diverse. There is no monolithic phenomenon civilizational, cultural or intellectual known as Islam. There are numerous traditions and numerous trends and tendencies. There is the mystic, the rationalist, the legalist (fuqaha and fiqhi understandings), the philosopher and the theologian, and numerous shades of grey in between. The Islamic traditions has its rationalists from the strong advocates of reason in the Mu’tazilites to philosophers such as Ibn Rushd to those offered a more cautious appropriation of human rationality in the Asharites and Al Ghazali.

The point is that neither ‘’Islam’’ nor the ‘’Enlightenment’’ are homogenous phenomena, set in concrete forever destined to clash. If one is truly committed to the usage of reason one must appreciate the complexity and subtleties of these events and traditions. One must appreciate the subtle interplay of faith and reason and be prepared to live with a sense of uncertainty in terms of the relationship between the two.

Secularity is not indicative of reasonableness and religiosity is not indicative of irrationality. For liberals to try and make crude and crass distinctions is to betray their own values and for conservatives to repress rationalism is to betray aspects of their own religious traditions they care so much about.

To truly advance rationalism, tolerance and pluralism one has to speak the language of one’s constituency. The language of the Pakistani people is God-talk (theology). Hence a secular political ideology devoid of religious engagement and religious language is always going to fail but a synthesis in terms of creating a political theology in the style of John Locke could pave the way for challenging the conservatives’ monopoly on religious discourse and open a frank discussion on what type of religiosity Pakistan needs today.