ISLAM and SLAVERY
Core Values and the Necessity of Change
Core Values and the Necessity of Change
Seyed Amir Akrami was until recently a Lecturer at the Al-Mahdi Institute in Birmingham, England. Before coming to Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) as a visiting Muslim scholar, he was a member of the Iranian Institute of Philosophy. He is a member of the academic board of the Institute for Interreligious Dialogue, a non-governmental organization based in Iran, and has served as Secretary for Inter-Religious Dialogue at the Organisation for Islamic Culture and Communication in Tehran. He is interested in Islamic studies, inter-religious relations, philosophy of religion and pluralism. Akrami holds a BA in Islamic Studies, MA in Religions and Mysticism, and PhD in the philosophy of religion.
Yago: Amir, you are welcome to this blog where we are attempting to name and deconstruct the energies of enslavement that keep perpetuating inhumanity in today’s world. One of the assumptions of this blog is that there is nothing “out there.” We are called to analyse enslavement from a lens that creates space for self-criticism. We are subjects of history. This applies to every Religion.
Religion has played a very controversial role dialoguing along history with the energies of enslavement. In previous interviews of this blog, we have named few instances where Religion betrayed its original purpose. We have talked about the role of patriarchy, our anthropomorphic experience of God, our disconnection with the web of life, our lack of enough acknowledgement of historical harms caused by misleading decisions of religious authorities.
In this interview I invite you to share the wonderful richness of the Islam and its contribution to our experience of God. I also welcome you to explore areas within the Islam where its core values have been ignored, where an imperiaslistic and merely human translation of them has taken place.
So, let us begin exploring slavery in the context where the Islam was born. Islamic views on slavery first developed out of the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia. In order to understand the Islam in context, what can you say about the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia?
So, let us begin exploring slavery in the context where the Islam was born. Islamic views on slavery first developed out of the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia. In order to understand the Islam in context, what can you say about the slavery practices of pre-Islamic Arabia?
Amir: Undoubtedly, Slavery in pre-Islamic Arabia was a common practice. Many merchants would bring slaves from different regions and sell them in Mecca. We need to bear in mind that tribal wars were quite common which would normally lead to one tribe becoming triumphant resulting in enslaving many people from the beaten tribe. There were specific markets where slaves would be bought and sold. It was not uncommon that if one was not able to repay his debt he would become the slave of the creditor. Also sometimes people would gamble and the looser would become the slave of the winner. War captives becoming slaves of the victorious army was also quite common as it happened between the Romans and Persians many times. These are highly important facts that we need to consider if we want to have a better understanding of the relation between Islam and slavery.
Yago: Muhammad would send his companions like Abu Bakr and Uthman ibn Affan to buy slaves to manumit them. Many early converts to Islam were the poor and former slaves like Bibal ibn Rabah al-Habashi who was an African of Ethiopian heritage companion of Islamic prophet Muhammad, born in Mecca and who is considered as the first muezzin chosen by the prophet himself. The prophet Muhammad himself said that one of best deeds is to free an slave. What can you say about the attitude of the prophet Muhammad related to slavery and the oppression suffered by the people of his time?
|Islamic miniature from Persia depicting|
Bilal giving the call to prayer.
Amir: One thing is certain that Muhammad did not abolish slavery and the reason is that, I think, it was socially and economically impossible to do. Nevertheless, he tried to make the situation far better for slaves and that is the reason why, as you mentioned in the question, many slaves were among his companions and immediate followers in his time. To explain this point more clearly, one can see in the Quran that humans are understood to be God’s representative or vicegerent on earth (Quran, 2:30) and this applies to all humans not some of them. Furthermore, the Quran regards humans as the bearers of God’s trust (Quran, 33:72) and again this applies indiscriminately to all humans. Moreover, humans are created from one soul or spirit (Quran, 4:1) and there is no preference or superiority among people except through piety and consciousness of God (Quran, 49:13). More specifically, in the Quran, 90:13 we find explicit encouragement of freeing slaves. The prophet of Islam said: there is no superiority for an Arab over a non-Arab or for a white person over a black one except by God-consciousness. He also said that people are equal like the teeth of a comb. The first Shi’i Imam, Ali, said: do not be servant of anyone because God has created you free. It is also very important that the Quran considers justice to be one of the most salient objectives of all the prophets (Quran, 57:25). All these indicate that slavery cannot be compatible with Islam. However, as I mentioned earlier, Muhammad was not able to eradicate or abolish the institution of slavery because that was tantamount to making such a radical revolution in his society that his time was not prepared for it. Nevertheless, he tried to ameliorate the situation by introducing and implementing mechanisms whereby the conditions under which slaves lived would improve. One important thing that the prophet did was to limit slavery to prisoners of war and to the children of two slave parents. He also said that one of the best actions is to set slaves free. He urged owners to treat slaves like human beings.
Among the actions that Muhammad took to better the situation of slaves was to ask Muslims to free their slaves as a worldly compensation for their sins. Also if, for example, one was not able to fast one could instead free a slave. Zakat was used to free slaves as well. These were some of the measures that Muhammad took to make the situation of slaves better but, as I mentioned earlier, he was not, historically speaking, able to uproot the institution of slavery because that was too much a change that his community could accept.
Yago: You say that “we should not assess the attitude that the prophet Muhammad took with regard to slavery on the basis of our own criteria and sensitivities of the 21st century.” Could you expand your view on this regard?
Amir: This is very important. On many issues such as slavery, women rights or minority rights we tend to evaluate the far past with the standards of our present time. We know that slavery was finally abolished in the second half of the nineteenth century. Women are still struggling for their equal rights even in Western societies. Given all these examples, it would be anachronistic to expect the Prophet of Islam to abolish slavery in his time. Drastic social or political changes need time and the confluence of many historical factors and elements to make it possible for them to occur. If we assess the conditions of the past societies with our twenty first century criteria we are committing a major intellectual mistake that would hinder us from understanding those societies appropriately. To me the fact that the Prophet of Islam was not able to abolish slavery is not problematic at all but what is problematic is for a Muslim individual or society in our time to argue from that historical fact for the impossibility or undesirability of abolishing slavery in Muslim societies now.
Yago: In Islamic law the topic of slavery is covered at great length. The Qur’an (the holy book) urges, kindness to the slave and recommends their liberation by purchase or manumission. At the same time the Qur’an see slavery as an exceptional condition that can be entered into under certain limited circumstances. The Qur’an includes multiple references to slaves, slave women, slave concubinage, and the freeing of slaves. What can you say about the stand of the Islamic law and the Qur’an related to slavery?
Amir: As I said earlier, Slavery was quite common in the Arab society and Muhammad tried to limit it and also urged Muslim to treat their slaves in a humane way. That is why there are so many references to various legal rulings and also ethical precepts by which he attempted to make the situation better. From what we have in the rules of the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet one cannot argue that there is no place for slavery in Islam. Although Muhammad tried to improve and gradually humanise the conditions of slaves, limit slavery and encourage Muslim to set their slaves free, there are many rules in the Qur'an and the Sunnah that fly in the face of anyone who would argue that Islam abolished slavery. But the main question is whether a Muslim like me, who lives in the twenty first century, should still think of slavery as something that Islam would endorse or not. In other words, should generally a Muslim regard the social and economic conditions existing in the seventh century Arabia, of which slavery was part and parcel, as something necessarily and essentially inherent to Islam or, alternatively, should one think of it as something external to Islam and hence changeable.
Also closely related to this question is another important question as to whether Muslims now should stick to the existing rules on slavery and embrace it or should reject slavery on the basis of the ethical spirit of Islam which promotes and emphasizes justice, compassion and equity. I am of the view that the socio-economic conditions of the seventh century Arabia were not inherent to Islam and, therefore, if we live in a totally different cultural and socio-political conditions, as we do now, we can forget about those rules regarding slaves in Islam and rather highlight the ethical dimension of Islam which is evidently against any kind of cruelty, injustice, violence and encourages peace, equity and compassion. We should always keep in mind that Muhammad said that he became a prophet of God to ‘complement moral virtues’ and our present moral standards and sensitivities undoubtedly abhor slavery. The issue of slavery is part of the whole general question of whether and how Islam can be compatible with the human rights. My general answer is that if we stick to the corpus of Islamic rulings on slavery, which exist in Fiqh (the legal dimension of Islam) there is no way to reconcile between Islam and human rights but an emphasis on the ethical aspect of Islam can lead us to an interpretation of the religion that is compatible with the human rights.
|Jonathan E. Brockopp|
Yago: According to Jonathan Brockopp, the idea of using alms for the manumission of slaves appears to be unique to the Qur’an. Also the Qur’an provides for emancipation of a slave as a means (or in one case, a requirement of) demonstrating remorse for the commission of certain sins. Could you expand on this?
Amir: As was briefly mentioned earlier, the Prophet employed some ethical and legal measures to improve slaves’ situation. One was to use Zakat (Islamic term for alms) to free slaves and another was to accept freeing slaves as Kaffarah (Islamic term for compensation) for some shortcomings and mistakes or sins. These were among the concrete ways in which Muhammad encouraged freeing slaves.
|Slaves in a market (Yemen, 13th century).|
Yago: The “Arab” slave trade is sometimes called the “Islamic” slave trade. Patrick Manning states that religion was hardly the point of this slavery. What can you say on this regard?
Amir: I think my previous points would make it clear that ‘Arab’ slave trades cannot be really called Islamic because Islam is essentially against slavery but it can be called Islamic in the sense that the traders were Arabs and mainly Muslim. One needs to make a distinction between Islam as a religion and Islam as a culture or civilisation, like the difference between Christianity and Christendom. Although these are related but one needs to make it clear that when we use Islam in precisely what sense we are using them.
Yago: According to Sharia, slaves are considered human beings and possessed some rights on the basis of their humanity. In addition, a Muslim slave is equal to a Muslim freeman in religious issues and superior to the free non-Muslim. For a variety of reasons, internal growth of the slave population was not enough to fulfil the demand in Muslim society. This resulted in massive importation, which involved enormous suffering and loss of life. How has been perceived and interpreted the non-Muslim along the history of the Islam? How has this affected in the inhuman appropriation of slaves especially in western and eastern Africa by the Arab slave trade?
Amir: I do not have any good knowledge of what happened in Arab slave trade in Western or Eastern Africa. I do not think that the prophet of Islam took non-Muslims as slaves because they were not Muslim. He and his companions and followers tolerated 13 years of persecution, torture and expulsion by their enemies in Mecca and finally had to leave that city and go to Medina. There he made a treaty with the Jews and part of it was to support each other against their enemies. They broke that treaty by going to Mecca and inviting Muhammad’s enemies to come to Medina and attack the Muslims. They initiated the war and it was common to take the captives of the war as slaves. So the slaves were not taken because they were not Muslim but because they were taken as war captives.
|The Abbasid Revolution|
However, in the history of Islam and particularly in the Abbasid period, because of the animosity between their Muslim empire, which one can argue that had not been established on Islamic values, and the Byzantine empire the tendency to think of any non-Muslim as enemy and launching wars to expand territory in the name of Islam started to take form. This resulted in taking non-Muslims war captives as slaves but, I think, it was part of the rivalry between the two empires one of which happened to bear the name of Islam. Again here we face the question of how and where to draw a line between what a religion endorses and what the culture or civilisation formed on the basis of that religion does. As I have argued in my paper entitled ‘Particularity and Universality in Revelation’, I do not think that Islam, as understood from the Quran, is essentially against adherents of other religions or their religions. Rather, I think the Quran invites to a kind of pluralism in which other religions can have a very high status. Therefore, I don’t think that during the time of the Prophet non-Muslims were taken slaves simply because they were not Muslim. My understanding of Islam sees no justification for any inhumane treatment of any human being under any pretext but this is obviously compatible with accepting that in the history of Islam, for example in the 14th and 15th centuries in North Africa, many Muslims have treated non-Muslims in inhumane ways by enslaving them about which I, as a Muslim, am ashamed and for which I apologize.
|Main slave trade routes in the Medieval Age|
Yago: In one particular theological current in the Islam the most important name, attribute, or quality of God is Just. God’s Justice. This has very clear social and political implications in their theology. How does God’s justice shape the Islam understanding on slavery?
Amir: This is highly relevant and important. I already touched upon it but now need to elaborate. All Muslim theologians accept that Allah is just and justice is one of his significant attributes. However, there is a very interesting diversity over what it means and how much emphasis one puts on it. One fundamental difference occurs between the Ash’arites and the Mu’atazelites (both being tendencies among the Sunni Islam) and the Shi’ites here side with the latter. The former hold that whatever God commands is just (something like divine command theory in ethical philosophy) and the latter maintain that whatever is just God commands it. The view of the Mu’atazelites means that, apart from religion or sharia, human intellect or reason can come to see what is just and unjust or good and evil whereas the Ash’arites deny this possibility. Their view naturally leads to a very literalistic and narrow-minded interpretation of Islam whereas the Mu’atazelites’ view makes room for human rational capacities to play an important role in understanding religion. The clear implication of the Mu’atazelites’ view is that if we now find slavery unjust then we should come to realize that it is against Islam and unacceptable. This is just one example but I am sure any thoughtful reader can see the far-reaching implications of this more rational tendency in Islam for many relevant new issues that the Islamic world faces today.
|Mauritania: Slavery's last stronghold|
Yago: Slavery was abolished only very recently in several Arab countries like Mauritania, Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The “Arab” slave trade has continued, on one form or another, for at least 14 centuries. Why has been so difficult the abolishment of slavery in Arab countries?
Amir: I have already talked about this question but another point here seems to be in order. Religions are not abstract entities. They may start with a pure spiritual intention of the founder but later on in their history they become tainted by many different factors. They become humanised in the sense that they take all good and bad human qualities on of which is greed. So it is no surprise that for many centuries not only in the Islamic world but in the whole world slavery becomes so deeply ingrained in various cultures that it is hard to eradicate. Still in many Islamic and non-Islamic societies women are suffering and even in Western countries black people and women are not treated in the way that white people and men are. I had a friend in Britain who told me that he had applied for some jobs there with an Islamic name and also with a Western name with the same qualities under the both names. He said under his Western name he had found many jobs but under his Islamic name just one or two. We still have a long way to go to create a just human society.
Yago: In your article Particularity and Universality in Revelation you conclude that “a more comprehensive approach to the Qur'an can substantiate the view that the text makes a distinction between, on the one hand, some essential and minimal teachings and a set of moral and spiritual attitudes and values closely linked to them, which can be called islam, and, on the other, the historical manifestations or expressions of those essential components of salvation in the various forms of human religiosity with all their particularities, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The universality is accorded to islam rather than to the various historical expressions. Therefore, I propose this as a conclusion that according to the Qur'an islam is universal whereas Islam is particular, and there is no logical contradiction here.” How can you apply this conclusion to the core values of the islam and the historical manifestation of the Islam with regard to slavery? What is the role of interpretation of the Qur’an according to the dominant rules and values and social conditions of each time?
Amir: The main point of that article is to establish that one can clearly find in the Qur'an a kind of pluralistic approach to other religions which means that there is no warrant for any sort of looking down upon other religions. There are core beliefs and values that the Qur'an calls islam, different from Islam, and they can be found in all religions and thus there is no place for any attitude of superiority. All religions are valid and valuable ways to the Truth and salvation. Therefore, there is absolutely no room for treatment of non-Muslims as inferior and hence deserving to be treated as slaves.
Yago: One of the most outstanding customs at the time of the Prophet was a total inequality between men and women. He tried to improve the situation of women but he couldn’t revolutionize it, he couldn’d make it totally equal. What was the strategy of the Prophet and how far religious authorities within the Islam have understood and follow Muhammad’s revolutionary spirit on this regard?
Amir: This is one of the examples of how different understandings of Islam along the Mu’atazelite and Ash’arite lines can have clear implications. If we grant a wider role to human intellect in understanding religion, as the Mu’atezelite do, then we are able to see that we should not stop where Muhammad stopped in his attempts to improve women’s situation of his society. Rather, we should understand his efforts as suggesting a clear direction towards a more just society where any injustice should be resisted and removed. Many historians, for example Karen Armstrong in her book "Muhammad. A prophet for our time," agree that he brought many improvements in women’s conditions. But the problem is that, unfortunately, many Muslims think that he has done all that could be done and we have no share to do. They fail to recognize that, he was not able to change many things in his society, including slavery and the inferiority of women, because deeply seated cultural norms and customs are not easy to transform and they take a lot of collective intellectual efforts and, more importantly, socio-economic developments to change. Now that we are living in the twenty first century and are able to see that the inferiority of women runs contrary to justice then we need to do our share by revisiting and reinterpreting those aspects of Islamic theology and jurisprudence related to human rights in general and women rights in particular which do not square with our human understanding of justice and rectify them. I think injustice or discrimination against women in many societies, and especially in Muslim countries, are modern forms of slavery that we need to abolish.
Yago: You say that “in all our religious traditions we have struggled with the fact that religious beliefs have figured much more prominently than our human common values. So in a Muslim context a Christian would be considered automatically inferior because of non-being a Muslim.” What is the current situation of religious minorities in Muslim countries? Are their basic human right of free association to religion being respected?
Amir: There seems to be more progress than before in Muslim countries with regard to respecting people of other religions. This is mainly due to more relationship which is the result of more communications in the modern world. People are increasingly coming to realize that people of other religious traditions are equally good human beings and the culture of human rights is becoming more widespread and taking deeper roots around the world. These are very important and promising developments that everyone should welcome and foster. However, in some Muslim countries there are problems that we need to be aware of and try to resolve.
In Egypt, in Nigeria and some other African countries the relations between Muslims and Christians are not good and we need to work to reduce the tensions there and promote the culture of peace and reconciliation. Religious leaders bear a heavy responsibility here to direct their followers towards more peaceful relations with adherents of other religions. They are the ones to whom most religious people listen. Unfortunately, they are sometimes also the root cause of many problems as they do not have an appropriate and timely understanding of their religion and are often influenced by evil political affiliations and aspirations which lead to hostility and tension. Many Christians are, unfortunately, suffering human rights violations in Iran. We need to see a change in the attitude of some Iranian clerics and political authorities regarding the rights of other religions in the country. They need to realize that they must respect people of other religions not only verbally but practically by distancing themselves from a strict and unacceptable interpretation of Islam that has not worked in the last 34 years and shift towards a more pluralistic and at least tolerant understanding of Islam that would respect and implement human rights of people of other religious traditions. I hope that the recent presidential election in Iran, which happened some days ago, would also bring about a good change in that context as well.
Yago: Murray Gordon comments that “unlike Western societies which in their opposition to slavery spawned anti-slavery movements whose numbers and enthusiasm often grew out of church groups, no such grass-roots organizations ever developed in Muslim societies. In Muslim politics the state unquestioningly accepted the teachings of Islam and applied them as law. As a result, in no part of the Muslim world was an ideological challenge ever mounted against slavery. The political and social system in Muslim society would have taken a dim view of such a challenge.” What can you contribute on this?
Amir: I do not agree with that generalisation. I think that if we look at almost all religious traditions, as far as their scriptures and theologies are concerned, there isn’t much against slavery and in fact there are many references that implicitly or explicitly support slavery or at most they are silent or indifferent towards it. The fact that anti-slavery movements happened in the Christian world had mainly to do with the socio-economic developments that took place in the modern world, especially the 18th century, and this can also explain why the Islamic world has not made equal progress. The main problem in Muslim countries is this socio-political regress, compared to the brilliant progress that Muslims had in the 11th and 12th centuries, and the fact that Muslim leaders failed to strike a balance between the ethical and spiritual dimensions of Islam, which would pave the way for anti-slavery movements, with its legal dimension in which there are all the rules about slavery.
Yago: You say that the advancement in technology and networking in Western countries has been fundamental in the shaping of a more human society. The Muslim world has been left very much behind on this regard. You also say that we have to be patient and to give time to the Muslim world to get a deeper understanding of our basic human rights. The journey is a struggle. They are not religious beliefs which are the most important thing to pay attention to; it is about our humanness, our attitudes towards others, compassion, moral and spiritual values what in the end matters. In this regard, in which way religious beliefs can become a real obstacle in our search for our real humanity? What is the role of our moral and spiritual journey compared with our inherited religious beliefs?
Amir: I think I have already at least partly answered that question but let me elaborate on that a little bit. We know that all religions consist of various dimensions such as doctrinal, ethics, legal, spiritual, institutional and so on. One can generally say that the fundamental and sometimes irreconcilable differences between the religions occur when they relate to each other on doctrinal and legal levels and convergence and sympathy occur when they relate on ethical and spiritual levels.
Rumi says: "the disagreement of mankind is caused by names; peace ensues when they advance to the reality (denoted by the names)". That is why I think more emphasis on the ethical and mystical traditions of the religions provides a better ground on which we can foster interfaith engagement. When we study Islamic and Christian mysticism, for example Rumi and Thomas A. Kempis, we are able to see that they have much more in common than we would find in Christian and Islamic theologies. My personal view is that, without denying the fundamental importance of theology, it is ultimately the ethical and spiritual dimensions of religions that speak to our soul and direct our actions and attitudes, or perhaps they should do so.
Yago: You say that “there have been always hundreds of sects within Islam, so Islam has a real internal diversity, but at the same time the constant reliance on the authorities has paralyzed its development to some extend.” You point out to the tradition of the reformers, Muslim scholars emerging form the 19th century in different parts of the Muslim World. They are trying to empower the individual Muslim at the grassroots level, making him/her self-critical towards the chronic dependency on the interpretation of the Qur’an by people in authority. They give a high value to the role of the intellect. Could you introduce us this movement and the current impact in the Muslim World?
Amir: The Mu’atazelite tradition, mentioned earlier, was perhaps the first rational movements in Islam that would lead to a less authoritarian interpretation of the religion by its emphasis on God’s attribute of justice and their ethical philosophy which made room for human intellect to play a significant role in understanding religion. The Shi’i tendency also stressed rationality and produced an intellectual theological heritage that could have had non-authoritarian implications though the legal emphasis in the Shi’i tradition did not allow this implication to take practical roots.
In the modern world, the socio-economic backwardness of the Islamic world compared to the West has awakened many Muslim intellectuals to think about ways in which they can reinterpret Islamic sources and revitalise the religion to redress their problems. The common tendency, I think, among many of these intellectual efforts is to make a distinction between what is essential and constant in Islam and what is changeable or accidental. There are various formulations and articulations of this distinction but, I think, the common thread is to distinguish between those Islamic thoughts, values and principles that are beyond time and those injunctions and precepts that are time-bound. One common conclusion is that many things of what we have in the Islamic tradition, particularly Fiqh and specifically the inter-personal aspect of it, are time-bound and hence subject to change. Rules on slavery happen to belong to this realm and, therefore, can change and this change must be in the direction of abolishing slavery and announcing it, in its all ancient and modern forms, as totally unacceptable. This orientation, quite common among Muslim intellectuals, would also lead us to resolve many problems of inequality that women face in the Muslim world as well.
Yago: Richard Rohr, in his book The Naked Now, says that the ego hates change. And that different religions have the same ego resistance. This ego resistance leaves many folks with the peculiar attitude that might be stated in this way: “One of us is wrong, and it is surely not me”. This pattern of thinking is typical of fundamentalist of all religions. (p. 91) You say that “all what we find problematic in all religious traditions has to do with its outer layer and not with its core values. The people in authority tend not to make that distinction and they live from the outer layer. This paralyzes the fulfilment of the prophet Muhammad’ vision, for example towards women." Why is so difficult to take to its full logical implications and conclusions the prophet Muhammad’s vision? Why is so difficult to read the values and signs of our time?
Amir: It is difficult for all of us to change our habits and deeply rooted thoughts and values because, at least partly, we take these things to be part of our identity and changing our identity is like killing ourselves, like suicide, and very few people are willing to do that. The main helpful insight here, I think, is that we, as religious people, need to recognize that truth is more important than our identity. Of course, our religions are hugely identity forming things in our lives but at the same time they all teach us to be truth-oriented and invite us to free ourselves from different things that, consciously or unconsciously, put us in bondage and quite often our attachment to old theologies or religious concepts function as our bondage. We need to strike a balance between our identity and the transformative truth in our religions and, given our overinflated identity, often this means to sacrifice it for the truth. Religions are first and foremost for the transformation of our hearts which would ensue in our actions and this means that although identity is important but not at the expense of the truth.
Yago: You support many Muslims scholars around the world who have said and are saying that there should be absolutely not inconsistency between our understanding of religion and what credible science or philosophy tell us. Could you expand on this? Could you give us concrete examples related to the interpretation of the Qur’an?
Amir: Yes, that is right. The examination of some modern commentaries of the Qur'an reveals that those Muslim scholars that have become familiar with modern scientific findings could not have remained content with old commentaries and tried to reinterpret many verses in new ways. The main reason is that if you come to see, for example, that the evolution theory is scientifically correct then you cannot understand the Qur'an in a way that is not compatible with it. The general direction is to make various parts of our knowledge cohere together; otherwise we would have a fragmented mind or something that is called cognitive dissonance.
Of course, all these happen after the emergence of the natural science which has successfully challenged the authority of religion on scientific matters. This does not mean that whatever is claimed by scientists are correct, as there is always ample disagreements between them, but it means that if for a particular theologian or exegete of the Qur'an a particular scientific theory seem to be correct then he/she cannot understand the relevant Quranic passages in an opposite way. They need to bring consistency and a holistic coherence between various parts of their knowledge of the world. To give you one example, one contemporary Shi’i scholar who became aware of how natural science understands the way in which meteors are thrown in the space has come up with a new interpretation of one or two references in the Quran to meteors. He says that we cannot understand those verses literally anymore, as was the case with pre-modern exegetes of the Quran, and we need to interpret them metaphorically.
Many feminist interpretations of the Qur'an, such as the one by Amina Wadud, can serve as other examples where an scholar of Islam cannot remain content with old interpretations which for him or her did not take into consideration new findings in the natural science, humanities or even common sense point of view.
Yago: You ask yourself: “What is the good ideal political system in a Muslim State?" You elucidate that it starts by a theological origin but it normally leads to a sometimes unacceptable political and social-economic situation that creates what we call new forms of slavery that originates at the State level. In today’s 21st century many people have not the conviction and willingness and satisfaction to accept the authority of the State-Religion. Could you expand on this?
Amir: I think if we can learn from history one lesson is that normally religious states, which give prominence to not only one religion but often to one limited interpretation of one religion, have led to imposition, coercion, and violence and these phenomena are all the true enemies of all religions. This clearly means that a religious state serves the opposite objectives of genuine religiosity.
Many religious people, especially in the Islamic world, tend to ignore the fact that we are living in a multi-cultural and multi-religious world and having religious states means the imposition of their religious values and rules on those who do not prescribe to them and this is unacceptable. One thing religions are quite far from is imposition. The Qur'an explicitly says that there is no coercion in religious matters and coercion is a modern example of slavery. However, this does not mean that religion has nothing to do with politics, as some people may think. Religious individuals and organisations can and should make their voice heard and participate in the political process in order to change it from the bottom of the society by convincing people rationally that their solutions to social problems are better than the secular ones.
Yago: You say that the most problematic areas that we urgently need to address are the situation of non-Muslim and women in Islamic societies. Many Muslim scholars around the world are now conscious on the fact that according to basic human values of the Islamic Tradition this attitude to non-Muslim and women is unacceptable. Could you elaborate this comment?
Amir: Yes, I think women and religious minorities issues are among the most pressing ones in Muslim societies. I have already alluded to these but let me elaborate here. Women in Muslim countries are facing some inequalities that need to be addressed. For example, according to the dominant interpretation in Iran they cannot become president or high-ranking judges. Their inheritance and the value of their testimony in the court are half those of men. They have to wear headscarf even if they do not want to. These are some examples showing that they do not enjoy equal rights. Also various religious minorities, especially Christians and Baha’is are under a lot of pressures. These problems need to be theologically and politically addressed.
Yago: You say that “the key is to empower people to have open minds and a pure consciousness, and pure conscience which will allow them to think on the ethical/moral golden rule.” This pure consciousness is the mystical mind we all need to have in today’s world. At this point in history what is the contribution of the Muslim Mystics towards this process of reformation in the Islam?
Yago: What has been the contribution of the Muslim mystical tradition on social and political issues?
Yago: Muslim Scholar Najeeba Syeed-Miller says that “is important to do perspective taking to be academically successful, but also to be a fully conscious and engaged human being. How do we have engagement that allow us to begin to appreciate the world from someone else perspective? When it comes to religion this is by far the hardest thing to do.” You also mention that in order to live the ethical golden rule we have to develop a strong imagination. What is the role of imagination in the reformation of Islam?
Amir: The ethical golden rule is highly emphasised in all religions. The prophet of Islam said that one does not taste what faith is unless one likes for him/herself what one likes for others. I think this rule is essential to everything in religion and the main function of religions, if understood and practiced properly, is to make it possible for us to live according to this rule. It is also important to contemplate over various intellectual and practical implications of this rule. But in order to put this rule into practice one has to be able to see the situation of others, their problems and sufferings, one has to put himself in the shoes of others and this is not always easy. I think reading literature, especially good novels, helps us cultivate a stronger imagination whereby one can transpose oneself into the situation of others. This is one way of strengthening our imagination necessary for preparing us to realize the moral golden rule.
Yago: The Muslim mystic Ibn al-Arabi said that "my religion is the religion of love," I go wherever it takes me. How al-Arabi inspires us in our journey towards radical inclusiveness?
Amir: Yes, his poem is very inspiring. We need to bear in mind that this very pluralistic poem does not come from someone whose mind, according to some contemporary writers, has become tainted by modern thoughts. He lived in the 12-13th centuries far before the renaissance and modern era. It comes from a deeply committed and practicing Muslim whose profound spiritual insight and mystical experience led him to say that: my heart has become able to take all forms. It is a pasture for gazelles, for monks an abbey. It is a temple for idols and for whoever circumambulates it, the Kaaba. It is the tablets of the Torah and also the leaves of the Koran. I believe in the religion of Love whatever direction its caravans may take, for love is my religion and my faith.
Yago: At the very core of the Muslim tradition is said that whatever you think of God in the most precise way is your own creation and you should get rid of it. How does this challenge the temptation to live the Muslim faith with rigidity?
Amir: This is very important. As a Muslim, we need to worship God not our thoughts however sharp, mature and developed we may think them to be. Rumi puts this beautifully: "I need to have an idol and at the same time I need to break it too." What he means is that in order to worship God we need to have a concept and a perception to be able to relate to the Divine, otherwise we cannot relate to nothingness or some entity without any quality. At the same time we need to be aware that that is our construct and does not correspond to the reality of the Transcendent as it is. This can help us to see that when even our most fundamental religious belief, namely our understanding of God, is limited and relative, then all the rest of our theological beliefs and doctrines are to be thought of critically. We need to take a critical stance towards our religious beliefs if we are really religious.
Yago: Amir, I very grateful for your contribution to this blog. It has been very inspiring to journey with you. Now, we have a more realistic and sincere knowledge of the Islam. Thanks for your openness and self-critical spirit. You have enlightened us!
Amir: Thank you Yago for the interview and all your efforts to bring to the fore the important question of slavery in its old and modern forms.