Reason over Revelation is the Answer to Extremism | Hassan Radwan

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The problem many Muslims face in this day and age is that while privately many may hold enlightened, liberal & progressive views, they are unable or hesitant to express them publicly to other Muslims for fear of being seen as a ‘bad’ Muslim. That is because using your own reasoning and expressing your own personal perspective is simply not accepted as a valid basis for judging what is right and wrong. We are taught from an early age that it is God who has provided guidance on all matters in the Qur’an & Sunna

“He who does not judge by what God has revealed is of the disbelievers.” (5:44)

I remember as a young man sitting in an Islamic circle discussing ways of implementing Qur’an and Sunna in our lives. At one point I questioned a brother, saying: “I don’t agree with that, in my opinion I think we should… ” But I wasn’t allowed to finish the sentence as the Amir of the group stopped me and said sternly: “It doesn’t matter what your opinion is nor what you think – the only thing that matters is “daleel” (evidence) from Qur’an and Sunna.” This mentality pervades throughout all Muslims no matter what group or sect they belong to – whether literalist or more progressive – each is constrained to justifying everything with the Qur’an & Sunna. This either means accepting everything at face value as the literalists do or where revelation appears to contradict reason it means stretching and bending them so a more palatable meaning can be squeezed and prized out of them. No Muslim – no matter how liberal – can ever publicly agree with views that appear to contradict the Qur’an. Not human reason, individual opinion nor even scientific consensus is enough on it’s own. It must always be justified by Qur’an & Sunna before publicly acknowledging they agree with those views.

It is amazing that we have managed 1400 years with such a constraint and in my opinion that does the Qur’an & Sunna a great deal of credit. For they have managed to provide a basis for a whole variety of views and societies that have developed over the past 1400 years in different places of the world. However there is a limit to just how many new interpretations can be squeezed and hammered out of these sources. Particularly as the world has evolved much faster over the last 100 years than ever before. Recent attempts at reinterpretation of these sources are looking increasingly tenuous and disingenuous and Muslims in general are simply not buying it. In fact the effect has only been to make some Muslims retreat into harsh literalist interpretations which they regard as more honest, while they view the progressive and liberal interpretations as dishonest & laughable. This is one of the reasons many young Muslims have been attracted towards groups such as ISIS.

So how do we solve this problem? There is only one way. By releasing reason from the stranglehold of revelation. By freeing us from the constraint of having to run everything by a 1400 year-old book. Forget all this nonsense of trying to squeeze modern liberal views out of a 7th century book. It can’t be done – at least not in an honest way that the majority will ever accept. Let’s treat Muslims as intelligent people and not fools. Let’s tell them the truth. They can take it. I know it will be a shock at first and a painful pill to swallow – but they know as well as we do that it’s the truth. The Qur’an is not perfect. It is not infallible. Parts of it at least, are well passed their sell-by-date and the stink is no longer something we can hide. Both the Qur’an and Sunna will be better off. Muhammad himself will be better off. For as the product of a human being from the 7th century, the Qur’an is a truly remarkable and impressive achievement, but as the product of a Divine being it is far less impressive and worse than that – it is subordinating human reason and holding us back.

Of course many Muslims will fear that accepting the Qur’an’s fallible human nature means losing their faith, but that is not the case. The fact that the Qur’an is not literally authored by God, does not mean it wasn’t inspired by God and cannot remain a source of inspiration for us. It simply means that we use reason to judge that which is relevant to us in this day and age. Islam will not simply melt away once we admit the Qur’an it is not perfect and infallible. On the contrary the Qur’an becomes a much more of an extraordinary and remarkable achievement when one considers that it is human literature from the 7th century. Muhammad himself becomes a much more impressive character, a much more understandable character, a much more complex character, when we admit that he was nothing more than a remarkable – and remarkably flawed – human being from the 7th century. Because what this unlettered prophet was able to give to the Arabs, and to all of us here still talking about him, was nothing short of amazing.

Perhaps even more importantly Islam is not just the Qur’an. It is a huge religious tradition and culture built up over 1400 years with a vast amount of practises, scholarship, customs, culture and accumulated wisdom. Islam provides emotional support, comfort, direction, and identity to millions of people. There is no reason why we should throw the baby out with the bath water. The Qur’an is without doubt a remarkable book with a great deal of wisdom. But ironically it is the view that it is perfect and infallible that is undermining it, because it is this belief that leads to the subordination of reason and conscience & drives groups like ISIS to look back to the 7th century as the ideal model for us to live by rather than see the Qur’an for what it is – an inspired but time-bound and fallible human book. A book that can continue to inspire us as long as we subject it to human reason rather than the other way around.

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