Answers to Questions on Islam: Part IV of VI

November 30, 2009 at 12:30 am (History, Islam)

Issue four:

Another thing I suppose is, why do you think Muslims have been in the dark fo so long about Islamic textgs and Muhammad’s character. The fact that many Muslims don’t speak Arabic, and certainly not Classical Arabic, well enough to read the texts is one issue. What do you think caused it? It’s indeed interesting that out of the 1.2 billion Muslims-which we must face is a huge number, there are many very smart, upstanding people in this group who look at the Quran, Hadith and Sira and see genuine beauty, wisdom and tolerance in it. Do you think it’s due to mental defficiency, actual brainwashing or self denial? Sijmply a radically different interpretation that sadly not enough Muslims follow? Or simply being severely misguided by Imams who may not understand as much as they think about Islamic texts? The best case scenario is that the interpretations of the Quran, as outlined in the blogging the Quran series on the Islamocritical site Jihadwatch, are not the sole interpretation by Muslims

The issue of interpretations is contentious indeed. And I have a theory, which is has two parts:

One is that while Islam claims to not have a priestly class, there is a clerical class that acts, effectively, as priests. In Urdu, the term is chowdhrihat, and a comparable term can be “priestcraft” (especially as used by Latter-day Saints). The clerics establish themselves as experts, and they make themselves vital by emphasizing the difficulty of understanding, let alone correctly interpreting, the Sources of Islam (Qur’an, ahadeeth, sunnah). On the one hand, they have a point: interpreting each volume of the Sources of Islam is its own field of study, is an art. But this doesn’t mean that the common man cannot delve and master these arts, or that things can be organized (or reorganized, I suppose, at this point) such that the common man can study and apply Islam without the need for clerics. Muslims like to claim that Islam is a simple religion: why, then, all these rules? why, then, the need for clerics?

In any case, such it is, and people tend to ask about, read, and follow the pronouncements of the clerics. So, how people practice and interpret Islam depends on the clerics. It’s not so much that they are brainwashed as much as they don’t know better, and believe they can’t know better.

The other is that interpretations are always biased. (This goes for most traditions, religious and otherwise.) People have certain preconceived notions and expectations and interpretations, and they interpret things through these lenses.

An interesting example is the issue of jihaad. If one comes with the lens that jihaad is non-violent, then all references to jihaad is interpreted from the perspective of a spiritual battle and obviously violent dicta are explained away. If one comes with the lens that jihaad is violent, then all references to jihaad are interpreted accordingly.

Who is right? Who is wrong? From an academic perspective, there is no right or wrong: things are as they are. But from the perspective of a Muslim, it’s hard to say. It’s so common for two sides of an issue to successfully use the Sources of Islam to defend their points that one must conclude that either Muslims are experts at twisting the words of the Sources of Islam or that the Sources of Islam are contradictory. In either case, one cannot really depend on the Sources of Islam to establish what is right or not, and this is why there are so many seemingly contradictory interpretations from the same sources.

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