The primal role of religion

religion in society, its adherents and misuses, and the single source of all divine faith – Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Ammar Ali Hassan, Nov 6, 2013.

… 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 … //
  • … – 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 … //

… 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 … //
  • - 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 … //

… (full long text).

(The writer is a political analyst).

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