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20 January 2011

Dissenting for love

Dissenting for love

DISSENT and heresy are words with deeply troubling connotations. They are regarded as the epitome of betrayal, the harbinger of sedition in a community, associated with ‘dangerous thinkers’ and ideas that undermine the fragile minds of the youth. In most Muslim communities, these words are usually tinged with the satanic.
We have examples of intellectuals such as Arundhati Roy in India or the late Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd, an Egyptian Islamic thinker and one of the leading liberal theologians in Islam, who break with the prevailing consensus and are seen as existential threats to the ‘fabric of the nation.’
Socrates too was accused of ‘corrupting the minds of the youth’ and fostering impious thinking, before being sentenced to death by the Athenian authorities. But Anouar Majid’s fascinating work,  A Call for Heresy: Why dissent is vital to Islam and America challenges the orthodox narratives of heresy as seditious, satanic, unpatriotic and self-hating.
Majid is a stylish Moroccan-American intellectual at ease with the subtleties of Muslim and American history and keenly attuned to the tensions and contradictions plaguing contemporary American discourse as well as Muslim societies that struggle to grapple with modernity. In A Call for Heresy he makes it clear that both Americans and Muslims are ‘strait-jacketed’ by economic, political, social and religious ‘orthodoxies’. That we become so accustomed to staying in our comfort zone that our habits of mind have morphed into unshakeable prejudices which prevent any real understanding of the ‘other’.
Majid’s model of a polycentric world is one where we should be, ‘questioning dogmas at home, reaching out to progressive elements in other cultures, and forging global alliances in the building of a genuinely multicultural human civilisation’.
Majid’s response is typical of a new generation of Muslim intellectuals based in Europe and America who are advocating a form of ‘double critique’, simultaneously challenging the actions and opinions of their fellow citizens at home and their co-religionists abroad. Figures such as Tariq Ramadan and Hamza Yusuf, to mention a few, have done well in recent years to popularise this type of sophisticated discourse which Majid advocates.
Perhaps the most controversial and decisive aspect of the book is the discussion of contemporary Muslim thought, and the historical evolution from a relatively free-thinking culture to the Wahabbi-inspired authoritarianism that is present in Pakistan and spreading in his own native Morocco.
Majid points to the vibrant history of free thinkers in Islam, such as Omar al Khayyam, Hallaj, Ibn Rushd, al-Ma’arri, al Kindi and al Farabi, to name a few. He notes that it was their literary genius, philosophical logic, scientific advances or language skills which prevented them from being maligned, to the extent that today fundamentalists rather than engage and confront this creative legacy simply air brush these figures out of Muslim history, replacing them with the caricature of the wise holy sheikh.
Majid’s survey of Muslim intellectual history is breathtaking and a cultural delight, with elegant descriptions and poignant narratives about the tragedy of religious genius trying to mediate between the sacred and the secular in societies wallowing in frustration.
Eminent names and works such as AbdolKarim Soroush, the outspoken reformist philosopher, to the abstract eloquence of Mohammad Arkoun, are all mentioned. But Majid sustains the lens of critical investigation probing into the works of contemporary ‘heretics’ such as Nasr Abu Zayd who was persecuted and hounded out of Egypt for his views on Quranic interpretation.
Indeed, it is as if the great opposition to critical thought in the Islamic world stems from a childish and sentimental attachment to an idealised vision of history.
Any attempt to critically analyse the traditions, dogmas and authorities of the past is seen as blasphemy, but as Majid points out, the so-called ‘heretics’ of contemporary Muslim thought are not defying the Divine at all. Majid points out that these religious intellectuals made sure that the attempts of reform were made ‘without questioning the authenticity of the Revelation, making sure to separate the two in any meaningful discussion of the Holy Book’.
Majid, in a call reminiscent of 18th-19th century Christian theologians, argues for a comprehensive review of the way we engage with the Quran.
He argues for a critical introduction of linguistics, hermeneutics, sociology, historical studies and other academic fields in an effort to fashion a new field of rigorous Quranic studies.
His call may be too bold for many, but Majid’s plea should be taken seriously and be given due respect as an individual who cares deeply about his Muslim heritage and only wishes to do justice to it by calling for a deep intellectual engagement.
The bankrupt nature of fanaticism has only produced destruction, nihilism and totalitarianism. It has snuffed out any chances for democratisation, human rights and social progress.
But Majid also rails against economic orthodoxy of free market capitalism, the cut throat nature of neo-liberalism, the troubling influence of globalisation and the nefarious rise of neo-Conservative ideology with the ominous baggage of Christian fundamentalism in the United States.
He laments the waning liberalism of the American project, and argues that some of the same tensions facing Muslim societies today can be found in the fractures and stresses in a deeply polarised America today. Majid’s narrative, in line with his ‘polycentric’ thesis, is that liberty, creativity, dialogue, freedom and peace are under attack everywhere from fundamentalists and conservatives in all societies and countries.
In many ways his work resembles that of the liberal Catholic intellectual Hans Kung, who calls for believers of different faiths and non-believers to come together to affirm common values and share common concerns. 
@[Note: This is the message of Qur'an see below]
Majid’s work is brave, controversial and passionately argued. He challenges the easy stereotypes in mainstream American and Muslim societies, constantly asking for ‘heretics’ on all sides to reach out to each other. The ‘heretic’ in Majid’s account is an individual with the moral and intellectual tenacity to speak out and weave new narratives of existence out of the opulent cloth of ambiguity and complexity.
We need to celebrate dissent and encourage it, for as Majid poetically concludes, ‘Any attempt to repress the voice of life-affirming dissent under the cloak of economic, political, and religious orthodoxies, or through the dead weight of force, will simply prolong our agony and deprive future generations of the chance to make our long-suering world anew.’
A Call for Heresy: Why dissent is vital to Islam and America
Reviewed By Ahmad Ali Khalid
By Anouar Majid,  University of Minnesota Press, US, 
ISBN 978-0-8166-5128-3, 
@ (Qur'an; 3:64) Say: 'People of the Book! Come to a word common between us and you: that we shall serve none but Allah and shall associate none with Him in His divinity and that some of us will not take others as lords beside Allah.' And if they turn their backs (from accepting this call), tell them: 'Bear witness that we are the ones who have submitted ourselves exclusively to Allah.'