Saturday, April 13, 2013

Iqbal and the anti-blasphemy law in Russia

Picture from See It Through My Eyes 

Russian MPs have given initial approval to an anti-blasphemy law with tougher jail terms or fines for anyone found guilty of offending religious feelings... The bill says blasphemy could incur up to three years in jail or a fine of up to 300,000 roubles ($9,700;£6,300). (BBC News)
The anti-blasphemy law passed by the lower house of the Russian parliament is making headlines these days. This may remind us of what Iqbal wrote long ago, at a time when Russia was the stronghold of Bolshevism and a role model for the atheists. In an open letter to the British author Sir Francis Younghusband, published in The Civil and Military Gazette on July 30, 1931, Iqbal wrote:

I do not myself believe that the Russians are by nature an irreligious people. On the contrary, I think that they are men and women of strong religious tendencies and the present negative state of [the] Russian mind will not last indefinitely, for no system of society can rest on an atheistic basis. As soon as things settle down in that country and its people have time to think calmly, they will be forced to find a positive foundation for their system.
Whether or not the present anti-blasphemy law is a step towards "a positive foundation" for the Russian system, the bill contains a reference to religions that are "an integral part of Russia's historical inheritance" (i.e. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism). Indirectly, this assertion corroborates Iqbal's basic assertion that Russians are "men and women of strong religious tendencies".

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Two perceptions about Islam

I have received very encouraging response to the emails about spiritual democracy. Before I share my understanding of this concept, I would like to clarify a basic point. There are two different perceptions about Islam today, and spiritual democracy is relevant only to the first.

The first version dominated the Muslim thought from 1887 to 1953. Its followers included Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, Syed Jamaluddin Afghani, Muhammad Ali Jauhar, Iqbal, Muhammad Ali Jinnah and many others. On their behalf, Iqbal summarized the purpose of Islam in these words:

“Give man a keen sense of respect for his own personality, let him move fearless and free in the immensity of God’s earth, and he will respect the personalities of others and become perfectly virtuous.” (Iqbal, 1909)
This, according to Iqbal, was the unique idea which Islam contributed to human thought and which did not exist before the advent of Islam.

Since 1953, a different perception has gradually become dominant in Muslim thought and has also been recognized by the academia in the West. We may call it conservative Islam, but whatever name it is given, the basic idea behind it is that a human being cannot be let alone and needs to be constantly supervised by authority figures.

This is actually an antithesis of the spirit of Islam. It is a recycling of the pre-Islamic worldview, if we are to believe Iqbal, who said:

“The opposite view, the doctrine of the depravity of man held by the Church of Rome, leads to the most pernicious religious and political consequences. Since if man is elementally wicked, he must not be permitted to have his own way: his entire life must be controlled by external authority. This means priesthood in religion and autocracy in politics.”
It should not surprise us that this pre-Islamic “doctrine of the depravity of man held by the Church of Rome” manifested itself in the Muslim world soon after independence: some of our religious elite must have been influenced by the European masters during the long night of colonialism (and Iqbal anticipated this as “the religion of slaves” in 1927, in Persian Psalms).

The difference between these two perceptions of Islam is important to be remembered. “Spiritual democracy” is “the ultimate goal of Islam” only according to the first perception. This needs to be clarified before any meaningful discourse on this issue can take place.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

5 Principles of Spiritual Democracy

The following five statements, in my understanding, constitute the basic principles of spiritual democracy.

The statements are simple but they can bring a paradigm shift when understood in context (and that shall be attempted in the future posts). Also, they form a process and must be taken in the order suggested here. For instance, the proposition that Islam does not allow separation between Church and State is well-known but its practical implications would obviously depend upon our beliefs about the individual and his or her relationship with society. Therefore, those concepts must be clarified before attempting this rather advanced proposition.

More in the future posts. For now, as we go through each of these statements, let's ask ourselves: does it challenge our existing views in any manner?

1. Individual:
“The essential nature of man, then, consists in will, not intellect or understanding.”
2. Society:
“The idea of universal agreement is in fact the fundamental principle of Muslim constitutional theory.”
3. Leadership:
“By leaders I mean men who, by Divine gift or experience, possess a keen perception of the spirit and destiny of Islam, along with an equally keen perception of the trend of modern history.”
4. Religion and State:
“The State with us is not a combination of religious and secular authority, but it is a unity in which no such distinction exists.”
5. Goal:
“…the immortality of a people, as Nietzsche has so happily put, depends upon the incessant creation of worths. Things certainly bear the stamp of divine manufacture, but their meaning is through and through human.”