The Otherness of the Other – Islam Today

Dr Ataullah Siddiqui is the Director of the Markfield Institute of Higher Education and a Senior Research Fellow at the Islamic Foundation, Leicester. This is an edited version of the transcript of his recorded talk given at the SoF Conference in Leicester in July 2006.

In Islamic tradition it is the relation between human and human that counts more than relation with God. The Quran is not an encyclopaedia that you open and you’ll get every answer to that. Quran gives you basic principles and from there you develop your own concept and ideas. There are four main Quranic values, which have been translated as mercy, forgiveness. justice and the fourth, which is very difficult for me to translate into English, means whatever you do, do it as well as you can, do your best. If these are the values, what happened to the Muslim world? I think that question will remain in many minds, quite rightly.

First, I’d like quickly to run through probably a thousand years of history. Until 1250, the fall of Baghdad, Muslim thought and western philosophical traditions went hand in hand; they understood each other very clearly, to the extent that they quoted each other. With Aquinas on the one hand Al-Ghazzali on the other, they were on the same wave- length, with the same world view, philosophical traditions, philosophical aspects and other things. And lots of writings in Islamic traditions influenced the West and the western philosophical tradition influenced Islamic philosophy and Islamic thought. But with the fall of Baghdad in 1250 the intellectual, philosophical traditions declined and philosophy came to be seen as something to disassociate from. It was seen as not good science and increasingly in Islamic religious schools philosophy has been almost abandoned. Logic, elementary logic, was introduced as a subject, but philosophy as wider thought is missing even today..

Then comes another problem: the problem of colonial history, colonialism. The colonial past created a great impact on the Muslim world. With the exception of two countries, Afghanistan and current Saudi Arabia, all Muslim countries were under the rule of the colonial empire. And what happened? The colonial leadership, the colonial masters, were eager to produce clerks, not scholars. They have to run an empire; clerks were produced: those who can read and write and do small work, and a civil service that can run the state, but not thinkers. The result was that large numbers of Muslims decided that colonialism is something that is here for now and one day it will pass and will move on. Therefore there is no need to engage with the current world, the contemporary world. The priority was preservation, not engagement and the seminaries that produced religious scholars were of this opinion in most of the Muslim world. Traditionalism becomes the most important element in all their discussions.

There was another group of people and scholars who said there is no need for seminaries and traditional schools, the way to salvation is modernity, western science and technology, not necessarily intellectual traditions. Secularism in its worst form was accepted. And here I can give you the example of Turkey where secularisation by force was imposed on a Muslim world. When the colonial period was over, leadership was shifted into the hands of those who were influenced by western secular ideas. And many Muslim countries were ruled by military rulers. So, on the one hand there were people who did not want to engage with western thought or to enter into any debate or discussions – they believed the West and western thought was evil. On the other hand, those who looked to western thought were largely dictators and military rulers, or, in some Muslim countries, the western powers appointed kings to rule.

A third group emerged saying, ‘No, let us look at it slightly differently, not everything is bad in western thought and ideas and there is a lot that needs changing within Islamic tradition. There is a need for change in the Muslim world.’ These three groups all still exist in the Muslim world. The traditionalist school still believes the old traditional syllabus is absolutely necessary to foment religious leadership. Seminaries in the Muslim world are largely controlled by them.

After colonialism, what was absolutely necessary was debate. The Muslim world needed to engage with the wider society and relate the past to the contemporary world. But that debate did not take place, simply because the Muslim world is not a free world. You cannot have free thinking in dictatorial regimes, where books for the library are vetted and the committees are there to see what you are reading and even foreign students studying in some Muslim countries have to go through the checks that, yes, your thought is in the right direction. How can you produce a group of scholars who can debate, argue and a leadership who can discuss these things openly?

Then, there is another problem as well, the political agenda, the political domination of the West, has created an idea that the West is monolithic. The West’s philosophical discourse, music, art, all its varied literature has been forgotten. The West is seen as a political entity, as ‘the other’. I remember a few years ago some young people asked me to give a talk ‘Islam and the West’ – see the emphasis ‘and the West’ not ‘in the West’. So I say to these 50 or so young people who were born and brought up here: ‘You gave me the topic, now tell me, what is the West?’ There was silence. Somebody said, ‘Where there are many Christians’. I said, ‘In that case The Philippines is a western country,’ and he said, ‘No, no that is not a western country.’ Someone said, ‘No, it is a direction.’ So I said, ‘If we were sitting in Los Angeles from there the directions changes; it would be a different West.’ He said, ‘No, no that is not the West.’ So what is the West? The concept is not clear even to people born and brought up here. Sometimes I provoke young people by saying we are the West; we live here, we contribute here, we engage here and therefore now we are part of western thought and actions. And you can see the hesitation, but that’s the reality of it.

What we need in the Muslim traditions is some imaginative discourse. Where will it come from? I think that increasingly the debate that is taking place about the soul of Islam is largely in European and North American societies and I believe that there will be a contribution from Muslims who were born and brought up here, because at least they are free to think and debate and discuss. Therefore I can see that in next two generations you will have Islam with a European accent. It will be distinctly different from South Asia, Malaysia or the Middle East and the Islam that we are talking about there. In European western society, its discourse will be predominantly human rights, gender issues and minority jurisprudence. What is the meaning of living as a minority?

Remember Muslim thought is predominantly majority-thought, ruling thought. Sometimes I have had discussions with a Jewish friend. He told me: ‘You do not know as a Muslim how to handle being a minority, you do know how to handle power.’ I replied: ‘You who lived for 2000 years as a minority, do not know how to handle power.’ That’s the reality between Jews and Muslims at the moment. But the problem is that almost 40 – 42% Muslims have lived as a minority for many, many centuries; my own family has lived as a minority for six or seven generations. We have never lived in a Muslim world, but yet we are Muslim. But the religious language, or emphasis, that we use as a minority is not being used by people who live in a majority society.

There’s another debate which comes up quite often in Europe. There is a pressure on Muslims to integrate, participate in the western society or western European culture. But my question is: is integration enough? Let us look at the height of Jewish integration in German societies, which was in the 1920s to 1930s. They even wanted to forget their history, they even wanted to forget that they were Jews, they were Germans, they spoke with a German accent, had German culture, German music, German everything. Yet, what happened to the Jewish people? The height of Muslim assimilation or integration in Europe was Bosnia. But then what happened? When the Bosnian Muslims faced the atrocities that they faced they were not asked why you didn’t integrate, they were asked what happened 900 years ago. When the Jewish people suffered, they were not asked why didn’t you integrate, they were asked about what happened long ago. So I feel that integration is not the answer.

I believe participation is the answer; you must participate with your values. In Asian society Hindus and Muslims live side by side. I remember myself, living in India, born in India, our neighbours were Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and people of no faith, tribal or aboriginals; these four groups were living next to each other, we shared each other’s festivals. Death in somebody else’s family was like a death in my family. We called each others’ elders uncle, auntie and their children were like brothers and sisters to me. Yet there was a perception of the other, that we never explored together. We lived in India in excellent conditions for dialogue but we never discussed theology. When I came to England we always discussed theology but never lived dialogically. In the Indian context we never explored what was so important to the other person and therefore we inherited a suspicion of the other. And that suspicion of the other explodes sometimes, which is what happened in the Bosnian situation, and happens quite often in India.

Therefore my concern would be that in any interfaith exploration, it is absolutely necessary to discuss and value the otherness of the other. We need to see the other as a partner in the well-being of society. We need to have some sort of engagement and working together in this world. This new way of thinking is absolutely necessary, but it is equally important to transform theology. I’ll give you one interesting example. I had in front of me nearly 40 Imams, these are the village scholars, Muslim scholars, living in Britain, and they are Imams in different mosques, they are the community leaders. They also gave me a topic: Islam and the West. I said, as far as I know, Islamic traditions demand from an Imam or scholar that he must know the cultures, customs and practices of the people that he lives with around him. That is an essential part of training an Imam to give a religious opinion. So I said that western thought is Enlightenment thought. Are we teaching that in our seminaries? The philosophical tradition Britain has inherited is an important part of what the Imam here must know, must understand. Secondly, your understanding of religion, even of your own Islam, will be richer if you understand the Judaeo-Christian traditions that contributed in Europe. So understanding the Judaeo-Christian tradition from Judaeo-Christian sources, taught by them, is also very important. It is a mistake to neglect this. Then there was silence for another minute or so. And they said, what you are saying is right but we do not know how to do it, it is very difficult for us.

Now I will come to the last point: what is the Islamic approach to human reasoning? There was an incident in the Prophet’s time and the Prophet told one of his very close companions that he was sending him to Yemen to work there, to help the people there.

‘Now tell me how you will judge people, how you will work there and what your guiding principle will be.’

He replied, ‘Quran.’

‘And if you don’t find anything there? Now this is very important, if you don’t find anything there what you’ll do?’

‘I’ll try to look into our traditions.’

And the Prophet said, ‘If you don’t find anything in our traditions, what you will do?’

And he said, ‘I’ll use my own reasoning.

And the Prophet said, ‘You are in the right direction. Off you go.’

The Muslim situation is that the book or the principles of Quran and its prophetic tradition will remain core but it has to adapt to the context in which we are living. It has to be contextualised, That is not something new in Islamic history. It is the consistent view of jurists and religious scholars.

A debate that is taking place in the Muslim world, particularly in the European context, is about sharia; that most dreaded word sharia. I have my own problem with that. When I hear sharia’s been implemented, implemented as if there’s something here to implement. Sharia doesn’t have a book of sharia that you implement. The literal meaning of sharia is ‘leading to the water’, but sharia also means you must take account of the context in which we are living. I believe the issue of human rights, which is nowadays a consensus, that there is a set of standards that we must follow, could easily become part of Islamic tradition. Contemporary jurists and contemporary Islamic scholars are debating those issues and saying let us accept this as part of humanity’s collective consensus on a standard of human rights. Science and technology and all other areas are now debated. I am saying reason must always be applied with religion’s basic values, and that reasoning has a measured part to play in shaping the theology of the future.