Freethinking Islamic Scholars

Amira Nowaira laments that well over a thousand years ago, Islamic scholarship had more room for rationalists than it seems to have today:

Although many of those thinkers, according to Badawi, did not attempt to disprove the existence of God, they lashed out against the notion of prophethood and argued against the privileged position occupied by the Prophet Muhammad and his followers.

Most prominent among those scholars was Abu Bakr al-Razi (865-925 CE) who believed in the supreme importance of reason. He argued that the mind had an innate capacity to distinguish between good and evil, and between what was useful and what was harmful. According to him, the mind did not need any guidance from outside it, and for this reason the presence of prophets was redundant and superfluous.

Al-Razi directed his most vehement attack against the holy books in general, including the Qur’an, because he saw them as illogical and self-contradictory. He also believed that all human beings were equal in their intellectual capacities as they were in all other things. It made no sense therefore that God should single out one individual from among them in order to reveal to him his divine wisdom and assign him the task of guiding other human beings. Furthermore, he found that prophets’ pronouncements and stories often contradicted those of other prophets. If their source was divine revelation as is claimed, their views would have been identical. The idea of a divinely-appointed mediator was therefore a myth.

Al-Razi understood the hold of religious belief on society, which he attributed to several factors. Firstly, systems of beliefs spread mainly through the human propensity for imitating and copying others. Secondly, religion‘s popularity rested on the close alliance between clerics and political rulers. The clerics often used this alliance to impose their own personal beliefs on people by force whenever the power of persuasion failed. Thirdly, the lavish and imposing character of the attire of religious men contributed to the high regard in which they were held by common people. Lastly, with the passage of time religious ideas became so familiar that they turned almost into deep-seated instincts that were no longer questioned.

Her takeaway is that Islam need not be as closed to a range of interpretations and possibilities any more than Christianity has proven to be so closed.  This is clearly true of any religion insofar as it is always possible for any tradition to re-imagine itself and what its symbols and texts mean.  Nonetheless, it is hard to see how Al-Razi’s views remain at all distinctively “Islamic” and how if universalized among Muslims they would not collapse all the intellectual barriers between Muslims and all rationalists of all stripes (including atheists).  In that case why would we call it “Islam”?  Maybe they would remain “Islamic” if various cultural traditions and practices would be retained and, maybe, if freethinking Muslims wound up endorsing many of the same traditions and ethical codes to which they presently adhere, just for rationally defensible reasons, rather than dogmatic ones?  Maybe Islam would remain as simply sets of rituals and allegiances to traditional identity and little more?

Of course, thankfully, there can be (and I’m quite sure in practice are) numerous ways to be in practice a relatively freethinking Muslim, sufficiently modernized to embrace democracy, separation of church and mosque, religious freedom, the independent authority of science and philosophy, equal rights for women, gays, and atheists, etc.,  all of which do not involve an explicit rejection of Mohammed as a prophet or the Qu’ran as a non-contradictory holy book.  In other words, the world can (and often does) get by with far less an ideal freethinking Muslim than Al-Raza’s thoroughgoing rationalism apparently represented.  It’s always possible (and in many cases a fact) that Muslims can disregard and subordinate all that is irrationalistic, ethically or politically repulsive, dogmatistic, and/or anachronistic about the Qu’ran and Sha’ria, etc., and decide to interpret the Qu’ran in comparably modern, humane, rationalistic ways nearly all Western Christians do to at least some extent (and usually to a rather great extent).  Whether or not this makes textual sense or logical sense, if they want to do this, it is far better than the fundamentalist alternative and clearly worth encouraging for political reasons and at least as a step towards rationalistic values in practice (even as it might require puzzling contradictions in theory as it clearly does for contemporary Christians).

But is it possible to dream of a Al-Raza’s completely rationalistic Islam as something that could go by the name of “Islam” and allow those billion-plus people with deep allegiances to Islam as a religious and cultural identity to comfortably free themselves from the reign of a long outdated presumer of divine authority without losing their feeling of connection to their heritage and traditions?

Or is a prophet-less Islam a pipe dream or an unworkable, practical contradiction which would be simply the end of Islam and, so, an untenable alternative for those to whom allegiance to the religion is non-negotiable?

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