During a recent lecture at the University of Edinburgh, Aurangzeb Haneef, a Ph.D. student from Pakistan, presented three reasons why the theological questions of tolerance and intolerance remain vitally important for Muslims, even when secular factors such as politics and history are core components of today’s “mess” of violence as well as oppressive narratives framed by religious rhetoric.
His own observations as a Muslim about Islam today offer much also for other believers engaged in their own intra-faith struggles at the edge of, and in the midst of, violence.
The stakes are high. Haneef explains,
Precious lives are being wasted in the name of God to fight wars that have nothing to do either with God or religion…
So, asks Haneef,
If all of this is contextual, if the problems are really political in nature, and the main reason for an extreme manifestation of Islamic scriptural sources is this very messy social, political, and historical context, then is theology or religion still relevant? I mean we’re all talking about political context, and in such a political context, religion acquires a certain narrative, so is religion really irrelevant?
Some would say religion is irrelevant, or even a distraction, in the quest for solutions. He continues,
Tariq Ali, a Pakistani British writer and self-proclaimed atheist would give you an overview which is very similar to mine, but will conclude that theology is irrelevant, he would say that all this discussion on scriptural interpretation, Quran, and peace building, is a theological distraction. The real reasons are political, and so we must focus on fixing the political mess, and religion will automatically fix itself, that’s what he says.
I agree that the main problem is political, I also agree that the main conflict or set of grievances are political in nature, I also agree that it can be a distraction [if] we ignore the political context and if we try to find solutions only within religion but we’re not doing that here, I’m not doing that here.
Haneef presents 3 reasons why engaging theology is relevant, indeed necessary, in these situations.
I think that engaging with theology is neither irrelevant nor a distraction. In fact religious discourse has become so much distorted and extreme because of its political context that it has become an essential part of the problem, therefore it cannot be left alone and this is the first reason.
Second reason for engaging with religion is to be able to preserve what is called by an Islamic legal scholar, Khaled Abou al-Fadl, as the moral integrity of the Islamic religious tradition. What does it mean? It means that while interpreting one must recognize the overall moral thrust of the Quran, which is that of goodness, mercy, harmony, justice, and peace. No interpretation can violate this overall moral thrust. Therefore even when violence is allowed in the Quran, it is heavily regulated, and only as a last resort, in self-defense in order to reestablish the disturbed balance.
The third reason for engaging with religion is to be able to challenge the authority of those pseudo-scholars who speak in the name of Islam, so that one is not gullible to the extremist religious discourse.
And these are just some of the reasons.
Therefore religion needs to be part of the solution as well.
The video of Aurangzeb Haneef’s entire lecture, “Theology of Tolerance and Intolerance: Qur’anic Hermeneutics of Peacebuilding,” is available here, thanks to a video provided by the Islamic Society of Edinburgh University.