When will there be a Springtime of Religious Thought?

The name "Arab Spring" that is given to the changes occurring in the Arab world will not be true until there is a corresponding renewal of religious thought. Religion is an important and influential factor in Arab societies, as has been made manifestly clear in the results and the ballot boxes in more than one country, especially Egypt. Citizens, because of the repressive regimes that have ruled them for decades, have ceased to believe in secular ideologies like nationalism, socialism, and republicanism... So it was natural that they resort to the "religious" option when they gained the opportunity to freely express their opinions.

The current or the dominant religious discourse raises anxiety and frustration among many elements of society who hope for an effective change for more political rights, which had been forbidden to them for a long time. This anxiety and frustration is not limited to members of "religious minorities". It is also felt among those who belong to "religious majorities" who are not impressed with religious rule, religious domination of society, the constitution, and general freedoms. These people worry that they are being freed from tyrannical despotism only to fall under a new despotism, no less tyrannical than the one that preceded it.  

We do not need to search hard for evidence and proof that confirms the backwardness of religious discourse in the Arab countries. The media is daily replete with fatwas, opinions, and behaviors that in their bizarreness go beyond even the most active imaginations and are incomprehensible to rational people. This in no way means that reasonable voices are absent, but they have no influence on the masses and are disregarded by them. What we are witnessing is the tyranny of irrational religious discourse over everything else.

The great Islamic thinker Sheikh Muhammad Abuduh (d. 1905) said, "Ijtihad is not only permissible, it is also an essential necessity." For him, a true Muslim is one who uses his reason in the affairs of the world and of religion. Muhammad Abduh's concern was to show the possibility of agreement between Islam, modern thought and the contemporary world, and to show a means of realizing this. Abduh criticized "extremism in holding to the externals of Shari'a" and those who make no distinction between that which is fixed and essential in religion and that which is unessential and can be changed in it. He also criticized "blind tradition" that leads to decline, according to his words, in Islamic society.

What Sheikh Muhammad Abduh was criticizing over a century ago predominates in our religious societies. Fatwas are copied literally from ancient sources without any effort at interpreting them. Blind tradition that looks at externals more than it searches for meaning, opinions fitting for people of long-past centuries that have absolutely no connection to our present age, confusing what is essential and what is accidental, all finally result in declaring those who do not imitate the tiniest details of religious rulings to be unbelievers.

We long for a civil state that makes a complete distinction between temporal and religious authority, even as we hope when the ballot boxes show a majority with a religious-political character, for a discourse from this majority that is in keeping with the spirit of the age. The majority is responsible for reassuring the minority, not the other way around. For this reason, the majority must strive to innovate for the sake of a discourse that takes into account humanistic thought, especially with regard to human rights, especially freedom and equality in citizenship and human dignity. Without this, we will continue to await the true springtime.

Notes on Arab Orthodoxy

Fr. George Massouh

30 апреля 2012 г.

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