Faith and Reason: The Way to Tame Fundamentalism

Article excerpt

"BACK to basics" is a cry heard all over the world. In Muslim countries, the resurgence of fundamentalism has complex roots, including the failure of both capitalism and socialism to bring about prosperous and just societies in the Muslim world.

In countries where Muslims are a minority, they have often experienced marginalisation and even discrimination. This has often had the effect of "radicalising" the politics of these communities, and particularly of the young, in a fundamentalist direction.

It is important for us to avoid "simplistic" answers to the problems with which this fundamentalism confronts Christians and Muslims alike. The first of these has to do with the sharia or Islamic Law. Like all the sacred books of the world's religions, the Koran has within it a great deal of spiritual, moral and legal teaching. In the first three centuries of Islam this was codified by several schools of law to provide systems of legislation which in their complexity are paralleled only by the Talmudic legislation in Judaism.

Throughout the modern period, also, Muslim jurists have used principles of movement within the traditional schools of law to relate the sharia to changing conditions. This has enabled them to extend or to limit the application of certain laws in the light of modern conditions and for the greater good of society. Others have distinguished between the eternally valid principles revealed to the Prophet of Islam and the ways in which they were applied in the first centuries of Islam. According to them, the latter cannot be the same for every age and culture. Some influential scholars have argued for a fresh ijtihad, or rigorous research, into the sources of Islamic Law so that a new ijma, or consensus, can emerge.

In the light of such a tradition of creative thinking about the sharia, we need to ask our Muslim friends, why are so many seeking the literal application of law codes designed for another age?

In the Graeco-Roman world and also in the Persian Empire, the other superpower of the time, there were traditions of limited tolerance for certain minority faiths. The position of the Jews in the Roman Empire and that of the Christians in the Persian are examples of such traditions. This tolerance was often very fragile and the position of minorities was hazardous at the best of times; but it existed.

The notion of the dhimma or protection of certain minorities, i.e. the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, as it emerged in Islam, has certain affinities with the Roman and Persian traditions. The protection is offered only under certain conditions, is limited and imposes quite significant legal, economic and social disabilities on "protected" non-Muslims. It has to be said, however, that it compares favourably with the intolerance found in many medieval European societies contemporaneous with the "classical" Islamic period.

In recognition of the growing awareness of communal rights and also of personal liberty, many Muslim governments have taken drastic measures to reorder their relations with religious minorities. Since the middle of the last century, non-Muslims have been recognised as full citizens in many parts of the Muslim world. In turn, they have made a creative and vigorous contribution to the political life and thought of these countries, Adding this to the contributions they have traditionally made to culture and commerce. …