Throughout history, there have been groups in all religions that have tried to establish a dogmatic teaching, override divergent interpretations and offer themselves as the sole doctrine, as orthodoxy. The trauma that this attempt entailed for Western Christianity is well known – the battle against heresy dyed the continent red with blood. Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism have also experienced attempts of this type, resulting in religious wars between conflicting views of the same message.
There is a tendency to reify the spiritual experience of mankind’s teachers, as if their message were too open to be adapted to an exercise of power. In this respect, one would have to differentiate between spirituality and religiousness, between a genuine experience of transcendence and its reification in dogmas and doctrines, these being transitory forms too devoted to worldly interests to be able to be passed off as harmless.
In the Koran this phenomenon is called “the religion of the ancestors” and can be defined as a mechanical repetition of rites and instructions which are faithfully applied to the customs of the ancestors, despite the fact that they no longer give meaning to or nourish the spiritual life of those who continue to repeat them. When Prophet Abraham (as) reproaches his people for revering lifeless figures, they answer “But we found our fathers doing this!” (Koran 26: 73). Lack of reflection and questioning and mechanical repetition of dogmas are the signs of a reified religion. “The majority of them never use their ability to reason; since when they are told ‘Come to what God has revealed, and to the Messenger’ they say, ‘What we found our parents doing and believing is sufficient for us’.” (Koran 5: 105).
We have heard this many times in our lives as Muslims. Years ago I heard a young Palestinian (half drunk, by the way) state that anyone who abandons Islam must be killed. A few days ago a young man of Lebanese descent stated that Islam prohibits a Muslim woman from marrying a non-Muslim. When I asked for the source of their statements neither of the two knew how to answer me. They relied on hearsay, repeating phrases whose origins were unknown to them. At no time have they asked themselves if these phrases correspond with the message of the Koran or the example of the Prophet (saws). If they had done so, they would be surprised to discover that the local imam from whom they heard these phrases was not talking about Islam, but rather about the laws of the Omeya or Abbasida Empires.
Thus Islam is reduced to thoughtless repetition of the centuries old interpretations of learned men who lived in very different situations to ours, with the consequent discrepancies that this brings about. All the prophets reacted to this type of attitude. As opposed to reified religion, the revelation presents itself to us as a return to reflection and genuine experience, to recuperate the fullness of those gestures and words whose meaning we had lost.
What is it that maintains such empty worship? Abraham himself offers us an answer, “You worship idols instead of God, just to preserve some friendship among you in this worldly life…”. (Koran 29: 24). What keeps worship of the empty forms of the religion alive is the attempt to maintain the bonds of tribal friendship, bonds based on convenience and the construction of identities rather than on awareness of the one Truth.
In many aspects this reminds us of the type of religiousness that is spread throughout many Muslim-majority countries – a state religion, based on habit and the mechanical repetition of instructions of a legal nature (“he who abandons Islam should be killed”, “Islam prescribes the death penalty in cases of adultery”) or of a theological nature (“God made Creation out of nothing”, “the Koran is the uncreated Word of God”). There is no more to the matter than to say it, to believe it and to accept it as dogmas of faith, without asking oneself neither what it means nor what it implies in our daily life.
One no longer knows at what point in the chain of transmission the content was left behind and was substituted for those types of instructions, which have been so obscure since they were enunciated. We can verify that the transmission of the libertarian message of Islam has been interrupted, that education has lost its ability to awaken in believers the profound sense of the revelation, here and now.
It is at this point that the importance of the presence of Islam in the West is established, in the context of liberty. We find ourselves in a situation similar to that of the first years of the preaching of Prophet Mohammad (saws), when Muslims were a persecuted minority. A situation which favours the experience that man can have of God, the meeting of man with his Provider, without intermediaries and without the burden of an inherited religion, which often takes the form of a prison for our most profound and fundamental hopes.
While they avoid the imposition of dogma and favour plurality of interpretations, democracy and secularism favour the overcoming of the “religion of the ancestors”, with all the generational tensions that this produces. For this overcoming to be effective it is essential that each believer is able to question the entire content of the inherited religion in order to find his or her own path within it. By means of this in-depth study and questioning, the religion transforms us and enriches us, it adapts to change and is able to provide answers to new situations. When religion is reduced to the repetition of dogmas, it is left behind, trapped by history. It can become a useless impediment to progress in the present, as we have seen on many occasions.
There is a paradox in this that deserves to be highlighted. That which is forbidden to believers in a supposedly Islamic context, the radical questioning of Islam as an inherited religion, can be fully expressed in a secular context. All of this means that the presence of Islam cannot be reduced to the appearance of suitable representatives nor to the advice of imams imposed from outside. It is necessary for Muslim men and women to have access to the media, to participate in politics and to be able to argue freely about everything that affects their lives and the lives of their fellow citizens. They need to participate and find a space that allows them to interrelate with society despite the dogmatic structures that block their path.
Democracy adapts perfectly to Islam’s message, plurality favours the renewal of reasoning and our fulfilment as people. This has its basis in the fact that each believer has a duty to receive the revelation and apply it in his or her life according to what God gives him to understand. Every human being is a Caliph of God on earth. As such, he or she ought to assume responsibility for caring for the world, in accordance with his or her abilities.
Mohammad’s prohibition of all dogmatic teachings, as an intervention in the direct relationship between the Creator and man, is well known. The absence of the church necessarily implies interpretative freedom and diversity of doxias, of ways of understanding the same universal message, which is expressed before each person and in each context in a non-transferable manner. Remember Mohammad’s saying, “Diversity of opinions is the mercy of God for the community of believers”. It is an expression of the calling of Islam to establish itself as an open religion, to reject the construction of a sole thought, which has to be accepted by all believers. When different interpretations are given it is incumbent upon each person to choose for him or herself the best of those interpretations, that which best adapts to his or her fundamental needs. This implies the exercise of our reason and personal responsibility before the Revealed Word.
For this, we affirm that democracy is the system of government that best adapts to the needs of Muslims, in as much as it creates conditions favourable to a radical questioning of the inherited dogmas and laws and of the idols that have accumulated throughout the centuries. We know that true Islam is only possible in liberty, outside of the attempts at dogmatic control that are experienced in many Muslim-majority countries. Today this idolatry exists especially in the form of obsolete laws, which restrict the freedom of believers (their right to be mistaken) and have nothing to do with obtaining justice.