By Tania Mann
The principal message of the Qur’an? That God is merciful. And according to Prof. Mona Siddiqui, this conviction, along with the importance of belief in God, constitutes a meeting point for the three monotheistic religions. Siddiqui, a prominent Muslim scholar, is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Glasgow and founder of its Centre for the Study of Islam, which she now directs. She is well-known for her broadcasting work in the British media, and on Wednesday, 5 May, she will come to Rome to give a lecture at a conference on interfaith dialogue at the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas (the Angelicum). In the following interview with L’Osservatore Romano, Siddiqui speaks on relations among religions and on how innovative ways of thinking about faith can facilitate meaningful exchanges on a wide range of levels.
You are originally from Pakistan, where Christians have accused Muslims of using blasphemy laws to justify discrimination and even persecution. Do problems like these paint an inaccurate picture of Islam?
What faith represents for one person might be very different from what it represents for another. In many countries, blasphemy laws are simply about state control and it’s very easy to use “an offence against Islam” to silence people or deny people basic rights, with the claim that that is exactly what God wants.
For others, they will turn to Scripture and to Islamic theology and anthropology; they will look at interreligious issues. They will look at the march of human rights and democracy, and they will say that Scripture is fluid enough to give us a variety of interpretations which reflect the reality of a pluralist society. Many Muslims countries have forgotten an intrinsic pluralism which can be found in Islam.
Personally speaking, I think it’s really important for people who are interested in how civil society can be visionary rather than reactionary to keep engaged in these debates and to know that oppression in the name of faith can never be good, and is never good.
You have pointed out the need for an Islamic theology that is based more solidly on compassion as opposed to salvation, and that is therefore also more inclusive. Can you elaborate?
Things are changing now, because there is more interreligious work being done both by academics and others so that people are realizing that in many circles we have moved away from being representatives of faith with exclusivist claims.
So if I were to become entrenched in a way of thinking in which I represent Islam in the context of thinking that my path, in simple terms, is the only path to salvation then I would really be closing myself off to interaction with a lot of people.
Because personally speaking, I don’t know that the truth I have is the only truth. There’s no way I can know. I can’t reduce the Scripture and God to a single truth. This is the case especially if I look at my own scripture. Its insistence really is on belief in God. If belief in God is the essential kernel to salvation, then surely ways of expressing that belief must be open to newer, more inclusive ways of thinking about how we do believe in God and also about what good we can do in human society because of our belief.
So the only thing that I can do is to have a view of other people, whether they are believers or non-believers, that is based on compassion and mercy. If anything, the one consistent message in the Qur’an even if you take away everything else is that God is merciful.
Now if God is merciful, how do I live out that mercy in my real life? And it cannot possibly be by starting off either vocally or intentionally or emotionally by thinking: “Well, I have the full truth and I’m going to start talking to you based on that premise”. That is not a way for me to talk to anyone.
Through your theological work, you have sought to demonstrate that the traditional Muslim perspective according to which the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures are considered “corrupt” can be reinterpreted. How?
The theory of abrogation was eventually developed in Islam, that somehow not only are there verses in the QurÆan that abrogate one another, but it was also asked whether the Qur’an abrogates previous Scriptures. And this was based on this notion that perhaps other Scriptures were valid at their time of revelation, but they had been corrupted by their believers.
But the interesting thing is that the Qur’an does not mention that the previous Scriptures are corrupt and must be abrogated. It talks about people as following wrong beliefs. The prime example would be that with their belief in the Trinity, Christians have divided God, so to speak. Now I’m putting it very crudely but even this debate opened up a whole polemical literature between Muslims and Christians. The challenge for many Muslims is to re-assess their approach to other faiths which is based on reason and compassion
And so for me, even a very cursory approach would be: at the end of the day, what the Qur’an is constantly referring to is essentially about belief in God and surrender to God.
Therefore if I’m looking at Jewish and Christian thought, they are also submitting to God in their own ways, and if that can be the essential kernel that binds us, then that is a very powerful kernel and not something that we can just brush aside.
In your view, given the current conditions, is the search for a substantial ethical common ground possible among the three monotheistic religions?
There are quite a few things happening in terms of humanitarian work. I know for example that Christian and Muslim organizations have come together. But also groups are working together irrespective of whether they are faith practitioners or just people from different backgrounds.
I think there is real practicable advance in that, because people know that with the effects of globalization, cultures, civilizations are colliding and public space is getting smaller and smaller. Especially over the last 50 years, with the effects of migration, people are already living in such mixed societies that there is an inevitability of coming together at some level. Whether it’s at a personal, professional or social level, it is enriching. And I don’t think we should underestimate the human social level, because that’s really where real change take place in people’s minds.
And at the religious level?
At the religious level, it is of course important to see and hear what religious leaders say. Religious leadership is heard by people of that community and also by people of other communities. And when you have two individual faiths and their leaderships say something irrespective of whether you believe in it you know that it’s going to reverberate across the globe.
So at a symbolic level, I think it’s really important that people see that to be religious today is to be interreligious. You cannot just speak for a community, you have to be cognizant that there are going to be other communities that are affected by what you say. Sometimes people feel distant from it, but sometimes it can really cause a reaction in people. It still has a resonance and it still has a presence.
What of the ethics of gender discourse in Islam?
To me gender is very much about the dialectics between both men and women to make society a more just place. It’s about how society works: the result of the relationship between the two sexes. The issue of how women have a voice in private, public and to some extent religious life is obviously very important across the faith traditions. Judaism and Christianity have their own struggles; they have a different religious structure. But in Islam I think we’re looking at how women especially Muslim women in the West are trying to find alternative spaces for religious discourses where their voice carries weight, and where their voice is seen as equal to a man’s voice, because society is made up of both sexes. And for them to be silenced on matters of religion and religious sensitivity cannot work for a flourishing society.
What do you think is the most important thing for the West to keep in mind so as not to have a distorted view of Islam?
On various levels, Islam has come under so much focus in recent years. Much of traditional thinking about Islam has been eclipsed by 9/11 and by equating Islam with not necessarily just fundamentalism but a militant fundamentalism. Whereas before it was very much a religion of the other but didn’t really concern the West, suddenly it’s become a predominant concern among both political and civil circles. It has made people rethink what democracy means and what rights people have in democracy.
I think that for the majority of Muslims in the West, they are enjoying life being Muslims in a western democratic context, and they would never dream of returning anywhere else. But I think what has happened is that a lot of Muslims feel constantly on the defensive, because they see that any discourse about fundamentalism or militant Islam is a reflection on them.
And on the other side of the scale you have people feeling, “Well, we cant really talk about Islam in a negative way, because that will upset people”. So that has created a bit of a polarization in meaningful exchanges among people.
As I have said in the past, the way the media talks about monotheistic traditions albeit the events of the last few weeks, but I think over a period of years has been reduced to saying that the Catholic Church is just about child abuse, Islam is just about terrorism, and the Anglican Church is essentially about homosexuality and the crisis over that. So that any story that is picked up which reverberates to their archetype of these religions has become inflammatory. And then people are constantly reacting to these inflamed reflections of their faith.
I don’t mean one bit to say these are not serious issues. But I think they have been amplified so much that we can’t really talk about anything else. And I don’t necessarily mean the good stuff. I mean real critical thinking that needs to go on about how we can live together, how we can talk about social and economic ethics and education.
Religious debate has to be kept alive in the public psyche, but it has to be kept alive in more nuanced ways, so that people are not just reducing religion to something that’s negative in global society.
Has engaging so extensively with the media affected your academic work?
For me engaging with the media has been a way of opening my own way of thinking. Because the media often asks very direct questions that you can’t give very nuanced or long, rambling responses to. And you need to think, “What is it that I’m really saying here?” For many people, the media is their only way of learning about anything in life.
I do feel that when I give public lectures, there is a hunger for theology made simple, that people want beyond media sound bytes, but that they are interested precisely because of these sound bytes to know “What is other thinking around religions?”.
Even if people think that there is no place for religion or for God in life, they also know that we are almost naturally drawn to something which is beyond ourselves.
© L’Osservatore Romano English edition 04/28/2010