Islamabad : Islam is as liberal to discuss and debate differences objectively as secularism claims to be, and questioning secularism as the only way to inclusiveness, peaceful coexistence and tolerance means the decolonisation of thoughts and society.
This was crux of the thoughts shared by panellists in a webinar organised by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), Islamabad, in collaboration with the Decolonial Dialogue, an international network of scholars, as part of the Book Discussion series meant for bringing international scholarly debates to Pakistani academia.
Sher Ali Tareen, a professor at Franklin and Marshall College, USA, put forth the key themes of his book titled Defending Muhammad in Modernity.
He analysed the Deobandi-Barelvi polemics and debates in the aftermath of the fall of Mughal Empire and the Muslims, and the rise of the British colonial empire.
Complicating the secular perceptions of 19th century Islam, the expert declared those debates the ‘competing political theologies’, which, he said, couldn't be understood through the Western Eurocentric binaries.
Using the Deobandi and Barelvi theological assertions primarily, he challenged the binaries of traditional/moderate, progressive/conservative, and legal/mystical embedded often in secular perceptions of Islamic tradition.
Prof Tareen reflected on how the concepts of Divine sovereignty, prophetic authority of the Prophet (PBUH), and ritual practices gave birth to two intellectual streams in the Subcontinent in the 18th and 19th centuries.
He regarded the understanding of modern constructions of religion and particularly the study of Islam through Eurocentric epistemology and world view in contradiction with decolonisation. "Secularising or westernising religious concepts does not consider epistemological and ontological frames of thought of a particular religion," he added.
Dr Humeira Iqtidar of the King’s College London noted that much is lost in translation from the vernacular to the Western episteme.
She highlighted the notion of ‘sovereign’ and ‘sovereignty’ that scholars borrow from the West to use as a synonym of ‘hukum’ or ‘hakimiyat’ in Islam.
"Believing in and exploring options other than secularism for ensuring peace and stability, tolerance and peaceful coexistence is tantamount to decolonisation as the concept of secularism has its own history of how it developed in the West over the centuries."
She maintained that criticism of the secular paradigm should not be taken as the total rejection of the secular idea, but as the valid criticism of considering secularism as the only solution to all the evils.
Dr Anis Ahmed, vice-chancellor, Riphah International University, Islamabad, argued that both Deobandi and Barelvi schools of thought had the same origin and were not in contradiction with each other and that they shared many commonalities in principles and practices.
He, however, said the difference lied in the theological approach adopted by scholars of both streams.
"There is coherence in all sects of Islam and it was the application of Western epistemology when applied to study the Muslims and their debates that particularly underscores divergences among the sects."
Dr Anis stressed the need for adopting Islamic epistemology or methodology in place of Western epistemology and ontology to comprehend religious concepts and differences prevailing among various groups.
He observed that Muslims have a rich corpus of words that can be explained and understood in their own context and from within the Islamic traditions, without comparing or contrasting them with the Western episteme.
Dr Nauman Faizi of LUMS, Nazeer Mahar of the Research Initiative and Zaigham Sarfaraz of the Royal Hollaway University, London, also participated in the discussion.
Concluding the session, IPS vice-president Syed Abrar Hussain acknowledged the efforts of Prof Tareen for highlighting convergences and divergences between the Deobandi and Barelvi traditions of the Hanafi school of thought.
Referring to a hadith, the former ambassador said the dialectical debate or constructive argumentation was appreciated in Islam as it added to the flexibility and pluralist thoughts in its realm.
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