Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Thought experiment: Qu'ran, ethics and morality

Can a religious society that strictly adheres to their holy books ever become a society like modern Britain? Not to say that modern Britain is the epitome of moral and ethical thought and behaviour. No society is or perhaps can ever be perfect. I have no idea what perfection would even look like. Of course, religious societies have and do evolve. However, positive evolution, i.e. towards more liberal, secular and humane society, only happen at the cost of reduced religiosity. That is, people take their holy books less literally and just ignore some passages or at the very least massively re-interpret them. The answer to the question is then surely 'no'. If that is the case, then what is the purpose of a holy book that is supposed to be divinely inspired or the perfect word of God?

11th-century North African Quran in the British Museum - Wikipedia

This post was inspired by watching youtube videos of Tariq Ramadan talk about the complex issues regarding how the Qu'ran and Islam should fit into the modern world. He usually responds by saying that the Qu'ran and Islamic jurisprudence should be taken into context with modern society and the environment that Muslims find themselves in. This annoys me a little because I get the feeling that he can't quite say what he really wants to say or perhaps could say if certain mental shackles didn't exist. To be fair, we all have mental shackles due to the how we were raised and the society we were raised in. However, I see some form of mental contortionism happening in the minds of religious people who believe that the Qu'ran, or the Bible, is the perfect, unchanging word of God. After listening to Tariq Ramadan, I came up with a simple thought experiment to try and view the religious mental shackle in a different way.

Imagine an immortal man who was born around the time of the Prophet Muhammad and that he was a follower and believer. Then imagine that he receives the first fully compiled Qu'ran and decides that he will lock himself away from the world, remove all external influences and just read, study and contemplate on the Qu'ran. He has no need for food or drink and will not go crazy from the lack of human interaction and external stimuli. Finally, for the sake of argument, let's say that the man is as intelligent as the Prophet, perhaps more so because he can read and write, and has similar moral and ethical views.
After about 1436 years later he finally decides that it's time to come out of isolation and impart his wisdom to the world. The society/country that he appears in , after confirming somehow that he is actually immortal, chooses to appoint him as their leader. They then ask him how they should govern themselves, what rules they should follow in order to create an optimal Islamic society. What would that society or at least his vision of that society look like? Would it be more like Saudi Arabia or Britain? What would his views be on homosexuality, the status and rights of women and people of other religions and apostasy? Would homosexual acts, apostasy and adultery be crimes punishable by death? Would we describe his views as anything other than barbaric?

Tariq Ramadan would probably consider this thought experiment a little silly and may say that we shouldn't rely on the views of one scholar but look to the majority view of scholars. Sure, scholars that live in and interact with the modern world. Not, many immortal scholars locked together with a copy of the Qu'ran. He believes, and it is the majority view, that the penalties are Islamic but they are nearly impossible to implement for some reason. That is, in theory the penalty for theft is amputation but they see it as a cruel and barbaric thing and so think that it should be virtually impossible to carry it out. However, they say the threat of amputation, for example, should remain in order to deter thieves. You have to wonder what kind of deterrent that really is. Let me try to put it another way: they aren't willing to wrestle themselves free from the Qu'ran and the Hadiths but they also can't appear to look completely crazy. Would Tariq consider apostasy a crime punishable by death? If not, is it a crime that should be punishable by some other means? Or, should it be a crime only if the apostate tries to spread his apostasy? Or perhaps Tariq would only view apostasy as a sin but would consider the apostate equal in terms of the law.

I'm not saying or trying to say that Islamic societies, unlike Christian ones, are incapable of changing/modernising and coming up with liberal, secular and enlightenment-like ideas. Both Christians and Muslims are largely becoming less religious and literal in their interpretation of the holy books. However, there are small but vocal minorities within both religions that are fighting to stop that happening and are trying very hard to spread their more literal views.

Whether it is Islam, Christianity or Communism, change has to come from within. However, ideas and pressure needs to come from outside also, to help speed things along.


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