How Freethinking In Islam Is Suppressed: Part 1

Radical Islam as a political tool took shape in the 9th century, when the ordinances for sharia as divinely ordained and accepted in their totality without question were invented.

| Updated: 07 November, 2022 5:53 pm IST
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Whenever there is a claim by jihadi terror groups that they blew up x, y or z in the name of Islam, the common apologia we hear is that it has nothing to do with Islam. But it has everything to do with Islam, which was made possible by Muslim religious scholars in the past and by extremist leaders in the present by creating their brand or version of Islam.

Whether we call it Wahhabism, the Saudi version, or Salafism, return to the early Islam of the Quran and the Sunna. This hijacking of Islam by the Saudis was exported to Muslim-majority countries and countries having sizeable Muslim populations through petrodollars or oil money. This Wahhabi/Salafi brand of Islam subverted the core message of Islam, that is, justice, peace and equality, and replaced it with sharia or Islamic law.

The global Muslim masses, who only recite the Quran in Arabic without knowing, reading, or understanding its meaning, were taught that sharia laws are divinely ordained and that they are immutable. These religious orthodox extremist scholars and leaders decreed that apostates and philosophers and blasphemers should be killed. They are the ones waging wars and courtroom battles against states to keep women shrouded and confined to the four walls and emphasise that men are their guardians.

This brand of radical, political, extremist Islam is the mainstream version, which gets amplified by the media, which ironically also acts as a recruiting tool for more followers into such a brand of Islam. Dissenting religious scholars, objective, rational Muslim intellectuals, and visionary Muslim leaders refute this brand as a manufactured one and take strong objection to the claims that the Wahhabi brand relies on the Quran or the life of the Prophet Mohamed.

This begs the question why then is this brand of Islam so mainstream and keeps getting defended publicly by scores of Muslims? The answer is because of the political ambitions of extremist leaders for power and domination. They make sure that this manufactured brand of Islam is the only one drilled into the minds of Muslims.

This isn’t a modern trend. Historically, the extremist leaders also realised that religion could perform a very useful function – firstly, the masses could be controlled according to their political will and secondly, they ensured that power would remain in the hands of the elite upper-class few.

Radical Islam as a political tool took shape in the 9th century, when the ordinances for sharia as divinely ordained and accepted in their totality without question were invented. This was the first step in building the totalitarian characteristic of thought control that we know and is seen today. These ordinances were invented two centuries after the Prophet’s death – a fact much suppressed by the ruling clergy and political leaders.

The 9th century was the rule of the Abbasid dynasty. As happens in every empire, there was a tacit understanding between the imperial state of that time and the ulema (clergy, elite few) who formulated the law of apostasy to discourage revolt against the caliphs – better known as the ulema-state alliance in Professor Ahmed T Kuru’s book ‘Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison’.

The state-sanctioned blasphemy laws became sacrosanct throughout the centuries and are now part of constitutional laws in many Muslim-majority countries and in countries trying to keep the peace between their permanently mistrustful populations, such as India.

These state-sanctioned blasphemy laws were first introduced by 19th-century colonial powers to keep the peace between different religious communities that they ruled over and who would frequently erupt in bloody riots over perceived offences and insults to their religions and revered symbols and icons. It can be fairly concluded that the offences taken were mainly by the Muslim populations, who resorted to violence every time blasphemy was committed.

In colonial India, or under the British Raj, blasphemy became a crime in 1860, with both India and Pakistan inheriting this colonial law after the Partition of 1947. Although India drafted Article 295A, which does not mention the word blasphemy, it is generally used to interpret it as such to keep the peace.

Pakistan, however, expanded the statutes of 1860 in 1982, when the military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq made the penalties of blasphemy much harsher, just to get support from the ultra-conservative religious parties (the state-ulema alliance in play again). Today, Muslim populations in both perpetually-at-war countries consider the blasphemy laws as divine revelation.

This convenient ulema-state alliance can be traced back to a momentous decree from the 10th century, from the Abbasid Caliph Abdul Qadir, who denounced critical thought and rendered it un-Islamic, simultaneously ordering the ostracism of philosophers (falasuf) and freethinkers. Characteristic of caliphs going against the Quranic instruction for believers to think, reflect and ask questions, the Caliph ordered the heretics, as they eventually came to be known, to repent.

This decree was formalised when the Caliphate shifted from Baghdad to Cairo under the Mamluks, when religious scholars banned independent thought and reasoning – which is an important part of Islamic theology called ijtihad. This historic point of time is what is labelled the ‘closing of the gates’ of ijtihad, or ‘shutting the door’ on Muslim Enlightenment.

Ironically, an already established Arab scholarship had laid the foundations of what came to be known as the “Western Enlightenment – made possible by Western thinkers and rationalists discovering and celebrating the views of the last Muslim Aristotelian, Ibn Rushd or Averroes, standing up for reason, even as the Muslim world banished him and his thoughts from the Islamic Civilization.

The Mamluks allied with the religious scholars, who formalised this shutting of the gate on independent thought and reasoning, did so on the theological claim to have solved all the problems of humanity – an absurd claim.

This absurdity can be seen in modern times too, with religious scholars, semi-literate or educated, claiming all scientific discoveries have a mention in the Quran, and then, hypocritically, in the next sermon, demonising all scientific and mathematical explorations because they encouraged scepticism about sharia.

The intentions behind the historic banning of the exploration of truth by Muslim freethinkers and the contemporary demonization of reasoning, humanism and rationality are clear – that the Islam that caters to the self-appointed guardians of Islam is the only one and must be accepted unconditionally, without doubt, or questions.

These self-appointed guardians or gatekeepers of Islam also keep emphasising and reiterating that they are the word and will of God, especially to the gullible masses still under mediaeval superstitions and the hold of the illiterate, extortionist pirs, fakirs, mullahs, qazis and imams.

To be continued…

Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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