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Defining "Religion": Is It an Easy Task?

Interview With Expert
By Fahad Faruqui
Writer and TV Presenter
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Religion like tribal and national identity is a resource for political legitimacy.

Dr. Muqtedar Khan is the Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. He is also the Director of the Islamic Studies Program.

Fahad Faruqui, the US based freelance writer, discusses the meaning of religion with Dr. Khan in a short interview.

Faruqui:  Religion has different meanings for different people, and it is hard to pinpoint a definition of religion. Every attempt to narrow down the meaning of religion and draw a boundary of what it, stands for raises more and more questions. Some have tried to define religion by differentiating it from an "ism," like Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism etc., but then there are many who would argue that making such a distinction is not conducive. As an academic, what does the word religion mean to you?

Prof. Khan: ‘Religion’ is a post-enlightenment idea that refers to beliefs outside the realm of reason, science and politics. It is a form of ethics without the foundations based in philosophy or political values. Islam to me is not a religion – it is Deen – a way of life. It is a philosophy that provides meaning to the ontology of my existence. It is a critically dynamic and evolving ethics that shapes my politics. It is a spiritual path that bridges, for me, the chasm between the temporal and the eternal -- between me and Him.

Above all, I find the Qur'an as the only source of comfort when I am overwhelmed by the incredible wonder that is God’s creation. My faith also forms both the inner and the outer of my identity. It determines who I am in the inside and who I am on the outside. It is a compass that shows me where I am and it is a beacon that lights the path that will lead me to where I want to be.

 

Secularism is a device that seeks to protect religion from the corruption of politics and politics from becoming usurped by religion. Its good intentions not withstanding, I think it is a myth.

Faruqui: Does religion in political sphere pose a problem or is it meant to be part of the solution, if it is well integrated in the social system?  

Prof. Khan: Religion like tribal and national identity is a resource for political legitimacy. National interest based on the uncontested virtue of nationalism legitimizes war and discriminatory policies such as citizenship. Similarly religion too can be deployed in the interest of partisan politics legitimately. Therefore as in the past, religion has been a source of boundaries, discrimination, violence and oppression in modern times, too. The crimes in the name of religion are not limited to modern times.

But religion also holds the potential for empowering what is good in each one of us and for moving us to act in the interest of justice, goodness, compassion and beauty.

I believe that when religion acts as a source of ethics, it does a lot of good. But when it acts as an identity it divides humanity and is not necessarily salutary.  

Faruqui: Many Western scholars and political theorist favour a secular state, where there is clear divide between the religion or the church to be more precise and the state. The Muslim East is considered backward for the influence religious clerics have in the governments and the laws. As a Muslim intellectual, how do you view secularism?

Prof. Khan: I have always marvelled at the durability of the idea of secularism. For a civilization that boasts considerable sophistication in most areas, to assume that politics and religion constitute two separate realms or that the two can be separated is uncharacteristically naïve.

 This belief, not in separation of church and state, but in the separability of church and State, in my opinion is one of the enduring myths of modernity. This myth rests on the false assumptions of pure politics and pure religion. Secularism is a device that seeks to protect religion from the corruption of politics and politics from becoming usurped by religion. Its good intentions not withstanding, I think it is a myth.

Yes, in some societies, religion acts in a vulgarly open way to influence politics and in others it is more subtle and less ominous. Even in contemporary Europe, where religiosity is withering away, religious identity manifests itself in politics in the form of Islamophobia.

Faruqui: Has media played a positive or a negative role when it comes to covering religion?  

Prof. Khan: The situation with the media is today very complex. New technologies are definitely democratizing news and views giving more and more perspectives opportunity to make their case. But more views do not necessarily translate into more clarity. News channels now are twenty-four hours. More coverage does not mean more depth or more insight. Plus media is now user driven and the consumer determines what news is and what truth through exercising choice in media selection is.

Most sources do try to simplify their message and portray religion in monolithic, static and stereotypical ways. But there are others who deal with it in thoughtful, deep and nuanced ways too. PBS and NPR for example in the US have looked at Islam in a very thoughtful way; understanding its complexity and recognizing its diversity. But others have demonized and stereotyped it.

It is important here for scholars and public intellectuals to engage in public discourses in order to bring expertise, depth and critical thinking to the narratives proliferating in the media.

Faruqui: Who should be considered an authority on religion, especially when there are so many sects and various divisions within those sects?

When Pope Benedict visited Jordan, the entire royal family was in attendance and he was treated like an emperor. I cannot think of one Muslim scholar who would get the same respect and regal treatment in Jordan or anywhere in the Muslim World that Pope Benedict got.
Prof. Khan: Every religious tradition today is facing a crisis of legitimacy.   It is inevitable. The project of modernity that now pervades the global consciousness is skeptical of organized religion and particularly of religious authority. Religious authorities in all religions have been tainted by corruption and authoritarianism. They are also widely incompetent and do not inspire respect and obedience from their own congregations.

In the Muslim World, the institutions that produce the so called Islamic scholars are far behind, sometimes even centuries behind secular institutions in foundational sciences like, philosophy, jurisprudence, economics, logic, political and legal theory. They lack rigor in their pedagogy and have a weak culture of research, critical thinking and analysis. As a result of this; arguments, fatwas and positions, taken by religious authorities sometimes border on the ridiculous undermining their own credibility.

In the past one hundred years, Muslim "Ulema"and "great scholars of Shariah" have given laughable opinions such as telephone is a devil’s device, the earth is flat (in the 1980s!), Jinns can be harnessed as an energy source etc.

Because of the profound weakness of traditional scholars, most initiatives for reform and revival within Islam have come from autodidacts. The tension that has emerged between weak traditional scholars and dynamic autodidacts – both of whom lack legitimacy – has further weakened religious authority.

The masses, the consumers of religious knowledge and opinions are so illiterate in religious knowledge that they lack the ability to recognize genuine scholar from the charlatan. The reality of the Muslim World is truly tragic and even comic.

When Pope Benedict visited Jordan, the entire royal family was in attendance and he was treated like an emperor. I cannot think of one Muslim scholar who would get the same respect and regal treatment in Jordan or anywhere in the Muslim World that Pope Benedict got.

Muslims need to take scholarship seriously. Stop confusing demagogic Imams for scholars. Demand rigor and detail from their Ulema. Then perhaps we can begin to restore some dignity and legitimacy to religious institutions and authorities.

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