Is Modern Man Religious?

Beshara Movement: Responding to the Mess in Responses to Religion Today

Muhammad Maroof Shah
Srinagar, Publish Date: Jan 18 2017 11:37PM | Updated Date: Sep 11 2017 8:39PM
Is Modern Man Religious?

The West has its own way of engaging with religion and spirituality, and a lot of New Religious Movements find their home there. Neo-Sufism, in its New Age dress, has especially making new converts amongst the intellectual elite. Beshara, a New Age Religious movement, seeking to express the most universal and modern aspects of Sufism, has been a presence to contend with. It has made use of Sufism without Sha’riah or religious framework. It has irritated traditionalists, mainstream Sufis and advocates of those who have been suspicious of Sufism for its vulnerability to such a reading. However, there are other ways of approaching Beshara, learning from it and critically engaging with it. Isn’t it puzzling that people, often speaking, fail – and have failed - to follow Sha’riah, as usually understood? If we go by the sermons in the mosque, over 95% Muslims can be tried in Sha’riah courts or by morality police of a strict Islamic State. How come we find, on mass scale, in almost all Muslim regions (to take a specific instance of religion on which the book focuses), missing obligatory five prayers, missing fasts, passion for smoking and recourse to mood altering substances, violating norms for interaction with the other sex or violating norms in sexual ethic, at least in dreams or day dreams if not in practice (whose eye/mind is strictly chaste?). And this applies to traditional Kashmir as well before modernity impacted. Everywhere we find weak sinning creatures and can’t claim to be virtuous, especially in the sense demanded by religious scholars. And in modern times there have occurred, for a host of reasons, further and almost irreversible change in sensibility that makes one less and less strict in observing Sha’riah as usually understood. And there are all kinds of what might be called excuses and less restrictive new interpretations offered for non-compliance. However, non-compliance in the sphere of belief is much greater. In the heart of hearts, most of us aren’t ready to grant that over 6 billion people who follow other religions than Islam are going to be used as fuel for hamam called hell. Accusations of compromising strict Tawhid are widely heard. Sufis, artists, actors and dozen other professions invite censoring. Modern science and some currents of rational thought have sowed the seeds of doubt and if you scratch slightly deeper we find confusion, suppressed doubt, and even unacknowledged heresy or atheism. Apostasy of various orders (if we go by fiqh manuals and see the list of things or notions that imply one’s virtual expulsion from definition of proper Muslim) is too common to raise eyebrows now. Thanks to mobiles and internet, we are bombarded – and wish to be bombarded – by all kinds of sinful transgressive stuff. Much of what we surf, what we read, what we think or imagine are all objectionable. It is not uncommon to find deadly guilt (both warranted and unwarranted), depression, violent calls for reform and protest for suppression of perceived deviations.

Explaining – to be distinguished from accommodating – these “standard deviations” from the mean of Norm is a test for one’s theology and philosophy of religion. How can one maintain that angelic skepticism regarding Adam’s project has been discredited if we see disappointing moral record of man? How can we “exonerate” God for creating a world whose jewel Man fails, in most cases, in his spiritual test to win salvation and prove worthy of his human state? How do we posit coming of the Mahdi and Jesus who heal the wounds in life for a very short period and after a long long waiting and much suffering? How do we propose to understand this situation considering the received understand of unfolding of aakher zamani (end times)? Given our reportedly bad record, is there a scope for mercy? Isn’t it the case that during end times one is only required to follow one tenth of religion for qualifying for salvation? Why is it that the world’s major religions continue to live and conversion into one religion earnestly desired by many isn’t happening on a scale that we can imagine any religion dying? People sin, suffer, invoke mercy, sin again and the cycle goes on. Our fight against Satan seems to exhaust us and who wins, in most cases, we all know. Why are prophets generally not heeded and laughed away? 

To all these questions New Religious Movements including Beshara attempt to respond. These NRMs have been significantly impacting the scenario of religion. Religious establishments have resisted them but it seems they had a point even though they had their own limitations. Somehow they are here to stay. And our job is to try to understand them first. The book of the week Beshara and Ibn Arabi: A Movement for Sufi Spirituality (Kitab Mahal, Srinagar reprint) asks difficult questions and suggests more difficult answers. The question is not if we can take these answers seriously but how do we propose to address these issues if we aren’t merely content with fatwas of dismissal or the policy of indifference. 

The book rigourously defends a position upheld by many poets and some mystics and a few philosophers (and seeks to show that mainstream mystics like Rumi and Ibn Arabi who upheld both the inner and the outer aspects of Religion can be read for this cause – a daring hermeneutic move that fails to convince at times and implies a lot that needs detailed critical discussion at some other time) that the real thing is love and knowledge and the rest is a means – dispensable one – to these ends. Since God can’t allow destruction of souls on such a large scale on which we witness transgression against what is perceived/accepted to be the Norm (a limited stay in hell is not destruction of souls but is, for believers, as great Mawlana Thanwi puts it, like a bath in rather excessively hot water that does cause some distress but not too much and its heat is required for purification), we can’t dismiss the ultimate motivation of Mercy/Love centric ontology that Beshara extrapolates from. Piety complex and legalism get a thrashing from the best minds in all ages and Beshara – echoing many new theologies that developed in the twentieth century as theology itself became less credible – seeks to construct a theology underlying this critique.

This book gives voice to all those people who invoke either Sufism or libertine  thought currents  in the modern world for their lax views that they advocate both in theory and practice and most of ordinary mortals denounce in theory but not in practice. It speaks for those who have been nonconformists in secret and struggling with what can be called a hypocritical ethic in public. It gives sympathetic account of those like Ghalib who feel, despite best attempts on their part, unable to follow stricter received understanding of religion (Jaanta hun thawab i taa'at o zuhd...per tabi'at idhar nahin aati). It is a treat for our hearts that are attracted to the best or essence though are tempted by comforts even at the cost of higher things. We are in a fix, caught between fear and hope, and our minds  - and the policing self  - and hearts – and the carefree Spirit – and our actions often belie our convictions or beliefs. And God, let us not forget, has taken a rather lenient view of our weaknesses and  warns us not to boost of our moral uprightness.

The central argument of the book is that in these last days God wants more of the inner or esoteric religion and less of the outer or exoteric or formal codified religion that Shariah ordinarily represents. It interprets certain traditional religious views to this effect and selectively reads both Ibn Arabi and Rumi to buttress its viewpoint.  The central issues in defense of Law that Ibn Arabi raised by claiming Sha’riah is Haqiqah and discrediting esotericism contradicting exoteric Law and by his acknowledged status as the Master of secrets of Sha’riah can’t be explained away as marginal or of temporal significance. However, his thrust against rigid legalism and against privileging of theological viewpoint compared to metaphysical one, is to be given due weight that mainstream Sufi scholarship hasn’t given so far. Beshara school has given us great scholarly works and it has decisively impacted on Ibn Arabi reception. However  its position regarding the role of Sha’riah in the wake of modernity and postmodernity calls for more debate. I am inclined to apply salvation/falah centric theology and Wittgenstein’s caution to examine language closely and seek to show, in upcoming articles, that the disagreement with mainstream Muslim and Sufi scholarship extends to only a very few issues in practice and we need to extend conceptual resources and revisit standardized terminology for the debate on the supposed (in)dispensability of Sha’riah issue. And we wouldn’t find much to wrangle about. 

I wish to conclude on the note that the book calls for a response and not a reaction as it presents what  is the case for majority in practice in these trying times when the sacred has been largely exiled from our lives. God can’t be absent but how He chooses to reveal Himself when He is denied normal channels of communication by Promethean-Faustian sensibility of the moderns remains a difficult question that may have diverse answers, all equally orthodox.