A FUNDAMENTAL fault line runs through contemporary Islamic thought. That is, the fault line between a textually-based, and a conscience-based, ethics. This is the demarcation which progressive Muslim thought is straining to prevent becoming a barrier. Essentially, it is the dilemma between scripturalism – the recourse to the authority of a written text – and independent moral judgment. In all religious traditions believers have been content to understand that independent moral judgement somehow enriches the doctrinal heritage. This debate, however, has not yet been settled among the Islamists, for whom textualism still trumps independent ethical thought.
Their argumentation is plain enough. It is that the divine Scripture was communicated to the Prophet, so there can be no doubt about the rightness or wrongness of these in an absolute sense, irrespective of the context or purpose of their Revelation. On the other hand, they argue, a man’s independent moral judgement is a product of his imperfect human brain. So the exercise of making a decision based on the purely moral case is a priori flawed.
Islamist thinkers strenuously oppose what they see as the progressive ‘ethicization’ of Islam since they hold it to be distracting Muslims from the dynamic of a larger war against Western liberalism which has invented false, un-Islamic, moral categories. According to the Indonesian Muslim scholar Ulil Abshar-Abdalla,
the theological insight which supports this ‘scripturalism’ depends upon a rather silly assumption as follows: the more textually we comprehend God’s word, the closer we are to His true will; while the more careless we are in ‘ta’wīl’ or non-literal interpretation, the further we are from His true will.
For the Islamists, the Text is a sort of axis around which all believers’ thoughts and deeds rotate. The closer the believer approaches the central point of this axis, the greater the possibility for the believer to get close to the essence of the religion. Under this conception being amoral is an ethically superior state to being atextual.
With the Text as the central axis like this, contextual human experience is given an inferior, even meaningless status. The result is bibliolatry, a ring-fenced circle where the enquiring mind may not go, a conceptual universe that admits of no language other than its own and which outlaws the possibility of a common intellectual space in which a debate may take place as to the basis of an ethical judgement.
The authors in this section take the bold step to cross over the faultline, to go beyond the Text to a universalist ethical vision that remains sensitive to the moral implications of change and development, and by their courage throw down the most penetrating challenge to the Islamist mindset.
Babikir Faysal Babikir
Some while ago I wrote an article on the subject of ‘slavery’ in Islam against the background of the Mauretanian Association for Human Rights’ burning of some books of Mālikī fiqh which they saw as extolling the virtue of servitude and calling for it to be continued in Mauretania.