Egypt Independent

Renewing Religious Discourse: Fundamental Dialectics

Most advocates of religious discourse start from a disruptive assumption that makes this discourse inactive and distant from the present. This has led the general public to become reluctant toward it, either doubtful of its benefit or skeptical of its intentions, or skeptical of religion’s ability to keep up with contemporary life and the values of openness, equality, dialogue, nonviolence and belief in science that it espouses.

Others doubt that religion is in keeping with modern life’s visions calling human beings to work, accomplish and participate in building a universal society for everyone in order to achieve happiness, welfare and justice.


In defense of renewing Islamic religious discourse

This disruptive assumption is based on a firm belief among the advocates of religious discourse that they possess the truth and that God entrusted them with it. They also insist that what contradicts it or differs from it is either void and shall vanish on its own, or is a falsehood that ought to be eliminated.

The important thing is that the source of this firm belief in their exclusive possession of the truth is not caused by a psychological reason that can be treated, or a cognitive position that can be corrected. Rather, it occurs because the advocate of religious discourse believes that their discourse is right and correct since it is connected to religion.

And since religion is a right that came from God, every discourse in or on this religion derives the legitimacy of its righteousness from the validity of the religion and of belief. Therefore, clerics believe they are speaking the truth and authorized by God to preserve it.

Based on this assumption, the vast majority of advocates of religious discourse believe in an established principle that determines the willingness of all people to do good and immediately answer its call. Therefore, they do not see any necessity or need to develop their religious discourse, or even develop the religious awareness that directs this discourse.

This has led to poor communication, reduced influence, inability to dialogue with the other, and the evasion of confronting an argument with an argument, especially among those with traditional discourse who fear “religious reform” and question its advocates, and thereby avoid falling into the trap of their “complications” or “maneuvers” as traditionalists themselves say.

This has led to the absence of a clear vision of traditional religious discourse and the prevalence of simplification and shallowness, which made it lose its ability to effectively influence its recipients, to keep up with the issues of the present, and to resolve problems that it should.

Based on the definition of the general concept of discourse defined by the French philosopher Michel Foucault as the “general field of all utterances,” religious discourse, as a broad type of discourse, should not be confined to clerics, preachers, or those employed in any religious matter.

Religious discourse is defined by its subject matter or its field. The context of the concept of discourse clearly and visibly separates between the constant in religion, which is the scripture and the basic rules, principles, provisions and pillars it expresses, and the variable in the discourse, which is based on a subjective understanding of what is fixed and abstract in religion, but within a historical temporal context subject to changing circumstances. Therefore, treating religious discourse as religion itself will lead to sanctification and to accepting what is human, relative and changing, to treating it as absolute and constant.

From the previous distinction between religion on the one hand, and religious discourse on the other, I believe that renewing religious discourse requires an understanding of the relationship between the two elements using a dialectical approach.

This approach reveals that the development process of phenomena and matter is based on the dialectic of its constituent elements, which are characterized with two features: The first is the difference between these elements, and the second is the fact that the conflict caused by this difference is the driver for the development of these elements and the transcendence of their simple nature to create new, more interconnected and more powerful compounds.

In the context of this dialectical approach, I will discuss the most important controversial binaries that I believe will influence the success of any project for renewing religious discourse, and which advocates of religious discourse should pay heed to in order to achieve a contemporary and renewed religious discourse.


The dialectic of the constant and the changing

I believe that the binary of “constant” and “changing” plays a major role in fulfilling the common statement that “Islam is valid at all times and places.” Here, generalization requires the constancy of basic elements of religion that do not change or transform. Hence, they carry its essence and maintain it as one entity at all times and places.

In order for the validity of religion at all times and among all people to be realized, it needs to adapt and adjust to different environments and various human groups, and even to differences among individuals, without changing the essence of religion.

Hence, we see that renewing religious discourse requires a persistent effort in revealing the elements of constancy within religion, most of which have been identified by religious scripture. One such element is faith in God alone, which has been stipulated in many Quranic verses, such as: “Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth.”

Another constant is the pillars of Islam, seen in the hadith (the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad): “Islam is built on five pillars…,” as well as the six pillars of faith. Another constant is the doctrinal and behavioral ordinances that are considered the fundamentals of religion, or that are directly related to these fundamentals, such as uttering declarations of faith, belief, and adherence to the provisions of Sharia.


The dialectic of heritage and modernity

The binary of “heritage” and “modernity” has occupied human thought in general, and Arab thought specifically, for the last two centuries, and is still present today. The core of this binary in Arab thought has focused on religious reform and projects to modernize religious thought as a prerequisite for the modernization and development of society. This is based on the large role religion still plays in Arab societies, especially in people’s social affairs, businesses, and value systems.

If the previous dialectic (the constant and the changing) is about distinguishing between its two elements and monitoring their difference in the context of renewing religious discourse, then the dialectic of heritage and modernity (or the original and the contemporary) requires developing religious discourse projects with a clear vision of the relationship between heritage and modernity.

The former should not exclude the latter, even under the argument of adhering to faith and preserving Islam. Nor should modernity predominate religion and therefore be rejected and fought against by rejects of society in support of their faith and belief. This is what we have seen in many cases in which the discourse of some advocates of modernity has turned into the absolute rejection of religion, which they consider the primary reason for their being left behind.

The renewed religious discourse is therefore responsible for creating a social religious awareness that removes obstacles to progress and civilization from heritage, and adapts the categories, concepts and visions of modernity to society’s needs, perceptions, assumptions and values.


The dialectic of explanation and interpretation

Based on our view that renewing religious discourse should be a constant project, not limited to a specific time or period, the most important thing to be considered in this project relates to explanation and interpretation. These are the tools necessary to understand the main source of religion, which is scripture. Scripture is a linguistic domain, the rules of which are subject to the laws and connotations of language and their relationship to the objective world and behavior.

The relationship between explanation and interpretation in this dialectic is not negation or exclusion, but rather a relationship of plurality and compromise in understanding the levels of the scripture and its historical context. This includes taking into account the circumstances of revelation or saying, and distinguishing between the apparent meaning associated with the explanation and the implicit meaning that can be inferred or approached through interpretation.

According to this distinction, interpretation guarantees the preservation of the purposes of the religious scripture and its continued validity. At the same time, it also comes closer to the efforts of the religious scholar or religious thinker, and therefore closer to the needs, environment and surroundings of humankind. Interpretation is superior to explanation due to understanding, predominance of the mind, and invoking evidence. Explanation, however, automatically links the word and its meaning regardless of the context of the meaning or the background of the reader or person explaining.

The exclusion of interpretation led to shaping and stereotyping the religious scripture within rigid explanations and adhering to those explanations despite their contradiction with the development of science and the discovery of new cosmic truths, as well as their failure to keep up with the progress of societies and their changing characteristics, needs and problems. There are many examples of this, such the problem of the rejection of the spherical nature of Earth due to a religious point of view, or the problems of women’s right to education, work and leadership, as well as the right to be their own guardians.

Interpretation therefore seems to be an urgent necessity, and a prerequisite for the success of any attempt to renew religious discourse. As for explanation, it is indispensable as a history of meaning and a store of linguistic connotations upon from new meanings are derived within interpretative approaches that give reasoning the lead over tradition. This can be achieved without disrupting the consistency of the logic of language on the one hand, or contradiction with the essence of religion, its fundamentals and its overall intentions on the other.

The dialectic of ordinance and fatwa

The practice of giving legal opinions known as “fatwa,” is, as a jurisprudential concept, one of the main mechanisms that has ensured, over the centuries, the response of religion’s rules and ordinances for the development, expansion and diversity of Muslim society on the one hand, and on the other hand, the consideration of some groups’ and individuals’ special ordinances and exceptional circumstances, as well as special cases under the level of society as a whole.

Fatwa succeeds in achieving the aforementioned response when it can be properly distinguished from religious ordinance, and when the nature of the relationship between the two of them can be understood — which also falls under the binary of the constant and the changing.

The ordinances of religion are proven either by a conclusive indication in the scripture, or by the evidence based on it. While fatwa on the other hand represents the method of implementing a proven ordinance, and sometimes suspending it or providing its details, either as permissions and their requirements, or as prohibitions and their limits.

While the basis of ordinance is the definite or clear scripture, then the basis of fatwa is “ijtihad” (reasoning) and “qiyas” (deductive analogy). Therefore, the dialectic of ordinance and fatwa falls under the main dialectic of tradition and reasoning, which should establish the binary relationship between the two concepts based on the rule “neither excess nor negligence.” This ensures that the implementation of the ordinance is not difficult, rigid and cruel, and avoids the situation in which the fatwas do not comply with the goals of the ordinance and the purposes of Sharia.

In order to achieve the rule of “neither excess nor negligence,” the renewed religious discourse should include a clear detailed statement of the absolute fixed ordinances of religion and the positions of these ordinances in the changing relative fatwas. At the same time, it should urge the reestablishment of ijtihad as a main source of Sharia, as well as efforts to research its methods and approaches. Closing the door to ijtihad left religious discourse behind, and failed to respond to the requirements and needs of society.


The need for philosophy

Despite the apparent contradiction between religion and philosophy, the two elements’ history shows that they are related. However, their relationship is problematic. In my opinion, there are two reasons for this: First, there are common points in the essence of each of them; both of them are faiths. But while philosophy is a faith based on the mind and reasoning, religious faith is based on submission, belief, and assent. St. Augustine took an early position on this relationship when he discussed the relationship of faith to reason and the dialectical structure that exists between them according to the development of human faith and mental experiences. He explained the hierarchy of faith and reason in his famous maxim: (I believe in order that I understand, and I understand in order that I believe).

From this Augustinian maxim, the dialogue of wisdom and Sharia, or reasoning and tradition, started in Christianity and then in Islam. It reached its finest form with the jurist and philosopher Ibn Rushd, who stressed that reason and faith have one goal, and that it is likely that separating them will harm both.

Therefore, I believe that the need for philosophy in renewing religious discourse is an urgent and definite need, because discourse in general is a philosophical subject that has received attention in philosophical studies concerned with knowledge, meaning and the philosophy of language. Moreover, philosophy is necessary for being the art of creating and producing concepts, and a renewal project can only be made by rebuilding concepts and clarifying their frameworks, connotations, and intentions.

However, philosophy is also the critical basis from which we can read the need to renew religious discourse and to define the frameworks, modalities, and limits of this renewal. This is especially important since the “direct nature” of most religious discourses is a result of a lack of attention to theorizing and understanding the causes, reasons and outcomes systems in Sharia intentions, cosmic laws, and the nature of things.

This lack is especially felt in relation to human nature and realizing the interrelatedness of the questions and issues that we are working to reform and develop. We also need constant evaluation and review, criticism and self-criticism. Without all of that, we will not be able to see our foothold. All of this needs to “enrich the philosophical dimension” of clerics, as the required awareness of religious discourse cannot be achieved without a clear explanatory philosophy for this awareness.


The need for social sciences

Most Islamic scholars and thinkers have agreed that Islam is a religion of life and the hereafter and that it is valid for all times, places and people. All this makes it a permanent reference for solving problems, facing challenges, establishing justice and equality, realizing social values, spiritually elevating individuals and groups, and advancing civilization to become a general model for all humanity. Nevertheless, Muslims ask themselves the following questions every day:

  • Why did Muslims lose their sovereignty over world civilization hundreds of years after leading it?
  • Why do the poor abound when the Islamic system of justice is the fairest and most just?
  • We, a century and a half ago, diagnosed “disease” and prescribed medicine. However, no progress was achieved. Why has there not been any development on the national level?
  • Why have Muslims, followers of a universal religion, lost the spirit of the initiative to spread awareness and a culture of humanity?
  • Why did extremists and militants who killed people in the name of religion emerge from the “religion of mercy”?
  • Why have nations and peoples been able to establish federations — such as the European Union and the United States — that unite their divisions, while the Muslim community, which recites every day: “People, you are one nation,” is still scattered among its parties, sects, and segments?

These questions and others should be the guidelines for any religious discourse renewal that not only identifies the reasons but also includes action plans to change them to achieve the desired goals of renewal and change. This will not be achieved unless the new religious discourse adopts the human and social sciences, discusses fatwas and interprets them in light of its data, and can understand human nature and its needs as a necessary condition to meet them.


The need for natural sciences

Four centuries ago, and until the present day, scientific awareness has become the dominant human awareness, since science has, through its methods, discoveries and inventions, managed to make a qualitative leap in human life that included all aspects and topics. It has achieved, in a short time, achievements greater to those of humankind over the tens of thousands of years that preceded the emergence of natural science.

Europe became the cradle of science after a difficult process that necessitated a radical change in the Christian religious discourse and its renewal using secular frameworks and rules. This radically separated objective knowledge and religious belief, relieving knowledge of the burden of centuries of ignorance and darkness and forcing the reconsideration of faith as an independent aspect of individual spiritual values and reassurance away from the tyranny and domination.

Today Islam needs, due to its comprehensiveness of all people’s affairs of life, a discourse based on the facts of objective science, and a reliance on the spirit of scientific awareness and the philosophies of science that not only changed the details of our ordinary days, but also how we perceive ourselves, the universe around us, and our perceptions of existence.

The consciousness of science is the true guarantor of achieving Islam’s message and civilization, which was achieved in the ages of the prosperity of Islamic civilization. As for separation between religious discourse and natural science, present-day scientific history has shown that this separation will not strengthen religion, nor will it weaken science.

Finally, the essence of renewing religious discourse is to address the public in the language of the era, to direct the goals of the Sharia towards preserving the interests of people and their rights, and to reshape the discourse on the values of contemporary and modernity.

The foremost of these values are renouncing violence, accepting the other, believing in the partnership between all humans and consider the worldliness of humankind and our right to live and rebuild the earth, to preserve its life and dignity. By this, the essence and purpose of creation will be achieved and we will become God’s successors on earth, in confirmation of the Quranic verse: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.”


Image: Pope Francis stands next to Grand Imam of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb during a visit at Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, May 14, 2020. (REUTERS/ Tony Gentile)