Muslim Philosophers on Religious Sectarianism and Pluralism


By Dr Muhammad Maroof Shah

03 Aug 2017

Reading Muslim Philosophers on Religious Sectarianism and Pluralism

Better philosophers don’t ideally seek to convert but illuminate a problem for us to consider. We can take or not take their take on an issue but we can’t afford to be old selves after reading them. Encountering such philosophers is like encountering spiritual Masters who indelibly mark us. They open up our eyes and one begins to see another world. One learns to appreciate the other, the other point of view or other paths to truth. One learns negative capability (the capacity to be in uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts, without anxiety to foreclose or jump to conclude or exclude other possibilities) that made, as noted by Keats, Shakespeare great.

Amongst contemporary Muslim philosophers, Abdul Karim Soroush is such an amiable and forceful presence that one can’t avoid falling in love with the man or at least his style. He is amongst the very few important intellectuals who has been formally trained both in tradition and modernity. One can’t accuse him of being ignorant of either classical or modern scholarship. He is brilliant, creative, bold, focused mind who carefully navigates very sensitive issues such as prophecy. What distinguishes him from most modernists is his rejection of early Orientalist dismissal of Sufism as alien to Islamic spirit and what distinguishes him from more conservative or traditional camp is his critical but respectful attitude towards modern developments in philosophy and other disciplines. He open up a window of dialogue that both Ulema and intellectuals may treasure. He embodies Islam’s characteristic middle path attitude towards all binaries such as ultra-conservativism and modernism, fundamentalist Islamism and fundamentalist secularism. Reading him is such an illuminating encounter with the best of traditional and modern minds that one can’t overemphasize importance of his work, especially his The Expansion of Prophetic Experience: Essays on Historicity, Contingency and Plurality in Religion from which few extracts bearing on pluralism we read today.

In this book that meditates on the profound issue of meaning of Revelation and how it both transcends and negotiates history or other contingencies. Attention to this issue is pivotal to Muslim response to modernity and it is unfortunately least theorized issue. And one finds even such stalwarts as Maulana Thanwi or Anwar Shah Kashmiri open up little on this issue and content with merely narrating/briefly explicating well known traditional narratives. Even the great Shah Waliullah mostly chooses silence here. Iqbal opened up to an extent, but unfortunately, didn’t expand. It is Fazlur Rahman especially who took the risk of expanding it and engaging with modern developments in hermeneutics and other fields that have a bearing on the issue but his work has yet to penetrate in the Muslim world and was also initially grossly misunderstood. It is Soroush who has taken the onerous task to meditate on the issue in a style and manner that one can’t afford to ignore him or accuse him of ignoring more important traditional self understanding of it. It requires much space to even begin to engage with his key formulations and therefore I chose to focus on some passages that clarify the question of religious pluralism. Here goes Soroush and I hope the rest of commentary need not be done as he would strike the chord in readers and there would ensue a dialogue between the reader and him.

“There are numerous Hadiths that tell us that the Quran has seven or seventy layers. There are other Hadiths that have it that some verses in the Quran are intended for very insightful people who will come at the end of time. The history of exegesis, whether in the realm of Islam or in other religions, makes it clear that there have been many different interpretations of God’s words.”

The point that later periods will find new hitherto unnoticed meanings in scripture has been highlighted by diverse Masters of Islamic Tradition including Ibn Arabi whom Soroush respectfully engages with. Trying to find everything in the classical age is simply unIslamic as it would retire moderns from thinking/Ijtihad/Tafaqqu. Soroush also notes “In the realm of interpretation we have always been pluralists and acted pluralistically; in other words, we have accepted plurality and have never accepted anyone as the final interpreter or the final commentator.”

Questioning the much rehearsed notion of “pure Islam” (there is a brilliant essay on the notion “Khalis Islam” by Hasan Askari that shows problems with the argument that we have unmediated access to originary content of Islam) or one standard interpretation of Islam or more naïve view of un-interpreted Islam supposedly bequeathed to us by Elders or first generation or in the classical age – even there we find so diverse and even divergent understandings and there is a great tradition of debate and discussion amongst the Companions on many issues – Soroush writes:

“Islam means the history of a series of interpretations of Islam and Christianity means the history of a series of interpretations of Christianity, and so on and so forth. These interpretations have always been multitudinous and, whenever someone has not liked one interpretation, they have opted for another interpretation—not seized quintessential religion itself—and religious knowledge is nothing other than these interpretations, faulty and sound. We are immersed in an ocean of interpretations and conceptions, and this follows, on the one hand, from the nature of texts and, on the other, from the nature of ourselves as human beings and the way we understand things.

Sunni Islam is one understanding or conception of Islam and Shi’i Islam is another. Both of them, along with their components and implications, are natural and official. No religion in history has been devoid of this plurality. The history of theology is testimony to this fact. What has been lacking is that this plurality has not been theorised or justified, because no one has taken it seriously (except in rare instances).

Every sect has always considered itself as being in the right and everyone else as being in the wrong. It is as if, in assuming that every other sect is wrong, each sect has also assumed that every other sect is doomed to non-existence. No one has considered the possibility that this unavoidable plurality of interpretations, conceptions and sects, to which no religion is immune, might have some other meaning and significance.

Every sect thinks to themselves that the others are probably not to blame for their misunderstanding of religion and that they are little more than unfortunate victims, but we have been fortunate enough to understand things correctly and thus become God’s chosen people. But the moment one brushes aside this delusion, the moment a person is prepared to accept that they are not chosen or fortunate or different from the rest or God’s special favourite, and see themselves instead as a member of the human race sitting at the same table as everyone else, then they will start taking pluralism seriously. They will reflect anew on the meaning of rightful guidance and salvation and felicity and truth and falsehood and understanding and misunderstanding. Pluralism in the modern world is the product and outcome of this kind of reflection.”

Soroush Anticipates an Objection and Clarifies:

“I know that some people will immediately cry out, but what is the point of all this? Are you saying that we should abandon what we consider to be the truth? Or that we should consider people who have gone astray to be on the path of truth? Or that we should equate truth and falsehood? No, this is not the point at all. The point is that we should not ask these questions in the first place and we should look at the plurality of people’s views and beliefs from a different perspective and that we should see and read a different meaning and spirit into them. We should bear in mind that the arena of religious understanding is a playing field in which there are numerous contestants and that there is no such thing as a single-player contest and we should see the game as being contingent on this plurality.”

Here Soroush is not saying something from his own imagination but stating or describing the situation that has been obtained in the classical period and thus largely a self understanding of Islamic tradition – one notes, for instance, scores of theological, philosophical, juristic schools or sub-schools developing, dialoguing or sometimes conflicting with one another in a lively fashion without any official delegitimation of anyone as long as there is preserved commitment to Revelation/Tradition.

I recall Shatibi’s point that problematises hasty Takfeeri approach that has been our bane lately.  Contesting the other image of Shatibi in some circles, Fazlur Rahman notes that, after analyzing in detail doctrines of heretical sects, Shatibi categorically states that “it is not possible to locate absolutely the capital errors of these sects so that they may be stigmatized as Kuffar.”  Shatibi argues that it is impossible to define and identify the saved sect (Firqa Najiya). Shatibi clarifies that even the Hadith speaking about 72 sects apparently counts them within Islam, yet the “Hadith means those sects whose innovations don’t exclude them from Islam.”

He recognizes the need to expose erroneous beliefs and practices but notes that “it is impossible to locate absolutely the holders of these practices” (One also recalls Rumi who said that all 72 sects are in him and from a metaphysical-mystical viewpoint what is really to be resisted is the psychological root of sectarianism which is ego or one’s absolutist attachment to one’s view. Reading, between the lines, Shahrastani’s Kitab al-Milal wa’l-Nihal, one appreciates his non-polemical approach and his reticence in pronouncing Takfeeri verdict on almost all the sects considered deviant in various degrees. Ghazali’s project of reconciling/tolerating different sects in Faysal al-Tafriqa Bayna al-Islam wa al-Zandaqa combined with Ibn Taymiiyah’s great confession that he doesn’t indulge in takfeer of Ahli Qibla should also be kept in mind while reading Soroush on pluralism.