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In this very brief paper I wish to raise the question: Is Islam really a total code of life? This is a crucial issue as the over-whelming majority of traditional Islamic leaders or thinkers, and even intellectuals familiar with western thought hardly ever raises it as a question. A positive answer to the above question is rather taken as an assumption or a point of departure. Even Iqbal is no exception to this, although the founder of the Aligarh Movement questioned this assumption.

A further assumption is that among the world religions Islam and Islam alone is a total code of life, while all others are more or less a body of rituals or rules concerning the believer’s individual behavior or relationship with God. The above two assumptions inevitably generate a conception of Islam which ipso-facto transforms Muslim living in plural societies into second class Muslims, as it were, since they are precluded from practicing full Islam or living the Islamic way of life in all its fullness in a non-Islamic or secular state. This conception of Islam implies that such ‘second class’ Muslims can become full-fledged Muslims (enjoying equal status with the privileged Muslims living in Islamic or Muslim states) only when the entire world becomes one Islamic commonwealth, or, at least, when their own society becomes an Islamic state. In other words, the above two assumptions stand in the way of accepting cultural pluralism on the part of Muslims, as committed Muslims, rather than as merely indifferent believers.

The proper way to answer the crucial question that I have just posed is to look at religions (including Islam) historically and not to confine our selves to the state of any religion at a particular point of space and time. If we look historically we would find that all religions have had a more or less ‘totalist’ character till the 18th century, since they all comprised a thought-cum-value system, a set of rituals or symbolic practices and a body of oral conventions or written laws governing all social relationships. This ‘totalist’ character of religion cannot be deemed to be a peculiar or unique feature of Islam. Thus even though present day Christianity (especially Protestantism) or the liberal Hinduism of savants like Tagore and Radhakrishnan is far from being a total code of conduct, the classical Judaic, Christian and Hindu casuistical codes, which are integral parts of their respective religions, are as universal in their scope and application to different spheres of human life as the ‘shariat’ as such.

The present style or conception of Christianity (consisting of a spiritual view of Reality or theological dogma supplemented by basic moral values without any insistence upon a fixed or rigid map of the good life in its totality) is basically an 18th century development. Exactly the same remarks apply to contemporary Hinduism or Buddhism; through perhaps Buddhism has always tended to be relatively ‘de-totalist’ in character from its very inception, because of the philosophical genius of its founder.

The above-mentioned inner transformation (according to some, it was a fatal degeneration) of Christianity took place in the latter half of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries due to the impact of the scientific revolution of the 18th century. Hindu religious reformers and liberal thinkers from Ram Mohan Roy onwards, later followed the same line. But I submit, in all humility, that this revolution has not yet touched the religious sensibility of the Muslim world in general, barring individual Muslims or very small elite groups. I include ‘true’ Aligarians in this elite group, and the founder of the Aligarh Movement remains even today, perhaps, the most outstanding example of a ‘teetotalism’ approach to Islam. He was more perceptive and his approach was more valid, in this sense, than Iqbal, although the latter’s range and depth of thought was far greater.

I further submit that Muslims would not be able to achieve lasting and all-round excellence in the human enterprise, to say nothing of giving an effective lead to the human family in its ceaseless quest for value, unless Muslim religious thought redefines the nature and function of religion in human society which is a living process and not a fixed artifact. This redefinition requires not only a critical historical approach to the study of human institutions, but also the moral courage to apply one’s intellectual insights to one’s own culture and religion. The founder of the Aligarh Movement showed this courage. But unfortunately, his successors have not proved equal to the task he bequeathed to us. Muslim intellectuals in general have failed to keep pace with him, to say nothing of developing his thought and removing its inadequacies or defects.

This duty of Muslim intellectuals is crucial. But no matter how well they perform, this will not suffice. There must be an organized movement for helping Muslim masses to understand the changed functions of religion, including Islam, and for projecting a style of Islamic piety in consonance with man’s growing insight into his own unfurling nature and the plasticity of institutions, concepts and values. Although masses cannot have the degree of historical awareness or philosophical sophistication proper to intellectuals, the masses could and should be encouraged to become intelligent believers.

I further beg to submit that the Aligarh Movement will not come of age and prosper among Muslim societies unless the fear of plural versions of Islam or the concern for a total uniformity of interpretation is removed from our midst and Muslims are allowed full freedom of thought and expression. Moreover this value of inner freedom should be viewed as an essential part of the true Islamic way of life rooted in the Quran, rather than as a mere heterogenetic value imported from the west. This is indeed a vital condition for the spiritual and intellectual renaissance of Muslims the world over. But I may be permitted to say that this condition is sadly lacking in the Islamic world in general. India alone ensures this vital condition. I, therefore, submit that Indian Muslims owe it to themselves and also to the world Muslim brotherhood to take the lead in educating Muslim public opinion to accept the desirability of a plural approach to Islam as well as cultural pluralism in general.

No Islamic movement including the Jamat-e-Islami gives a well-informed answer to the crucial question posed above. Their study of social and cultural history is extremely limited and this restricts and blurs their vision of the past as well as of the future. Their program of reforming or modifying the ‘shariat’ (primarily its minutiae) does not reflect any awareness of the need for redefining the essential functions of religion in the modern age. However, this redefinition must be made not in the spirit of adjusting to modernity for worldly gain or expediency, but in the spirit of a dynamic and authentic Islamic worldview rooted in the study of history, philosophy, social sciences and lastly (but most importantly) the Quran itself.

Is Islam a Total Code of Life?
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.