By Md Asham Ahmad, Fellow, Ikim
ANDREW Sullivan, in his recent article When not seeing is believing (Time, Oct 23, 2006), believes that the resurgence of “religious certainty” is the cause of the deepening of our cultural divisions, and the consequences – a more polarised political discourse, and a close to impossible global discourse.
The Pope’s recent criticism of the West’s disavowal of religious authority; the thriving of Protestant megachurches, especially in the US, which preach absolute adherence to inerrant Scripture; al-Qaeda terrorists invoking God as sanctioning mass murder; George Bush’s utter conviction that he has made no mistakes in Iraq – all these, and many others, according to Sullivan, make many Western liberals and secularists ever more convinced that religion is the problem.
In his case, Sullivan believes that it is almost impossible to have a rational dialogue with someone who is certain of the truth of his religious faith.
What is construed by the author of the article as the cause of the problem and what is proposed as the solution are not really new ideas in modem discourse.
What could be new are some of the examples given “in support” of the ideas. Here, the question is whether the example given warrants the conclusion.
The Pope, Protestant megachurches in the US, and George Bush are indeed representatives of the mainstream Christian community, but could the same status be accorded to a marginal violent group calling themselves al-Qaeda in relation to the mainstream Muslim community?
What authority does this group have to qualify them as the representative of the Muslim community?
Even if they claim that they are Muslims, how could one explain the link between their invoking God and committing mass murder in such a way that justifies the West blaming Islam as the cause of their crime?
Quoting them invoking God as the sanction for their mass murder and to implicate Islam in their crimes is a gross injustice and is deeply malicious; what more the implication that their behaviour reflects the Islamic faith.
So, what is construed by Sullivan as the cause of the deepening cultural divisions, what he calls the rise of fundamentalism inspired by religious certainty, is refutable on two grounds.
First, it is founded upon an unproven assumption that religious certainty is the cause of irrational behaviour as exemplified above in intolerance, authoritarianism, and terrorism.
Second, it is founded upon the naive assumption that whatever is true of Christianity as experienced by the Christians in their history would also be true of other religions and would be experienced by their followers; hence, his prescription is valid and applicable to all.
Sullivan, who is convinced that “religion” is the cause of the problem, suggests a way out based upon a different idea of faith: one that is not based upon certainty but upon what is called “spiritual humility and sincere religious doubt”.
And that requires “fixing” the religions so as to make their followers moderate, tolerant, and humble.
How? Let them doubt what has all this while been regarded as the truth, and that, to him, is “spiritual humility”.
Sullivan explains: “...doubt is not a threat. If we have never doubted, how can we say we have really believed?
“True belief is not about blind submission. It is about open-eyed acceptance, and acceptance requires persistent distance from the truth, and that distance is doubt.
“Doubt, in other words, can feed faith, rather than destroy it. And it forces us, even while believing, to recognise our fundamental duty with respect to God’s truth: humility. We do not know. Which is why we believe.”
What is suggested by Sullivan is totally irrelevant to the Muslims. From the perspective of Islam, certainty of the ultimate truth, i.e. Tawhid, life after death, and the fulfilment of action in conformity with that certainty is the key to happiness.
Certainty is a permanent condition referring to what is permanent in man and perceived by his spiritual organ known as the heart.
It is peace, security and tranquillity of the heart; it is knowledge, and knowledge is true belief; it is knowing one’s rightful, and hence, proper place in the realm of creation and one’s proper relationship with the Creator; it is a condition known as justice (al-Attas, Islam: The Concept of Religion and the Foundation of Ethics and Morality, 1976).
Any belief, religious or not, unlike knowledge, could be true or false. Hence, we can speak of true and false belief.
When we Muslims talk about faith or belief, we mean that which is reflected by the term iman, namely “true belief”, belief which is sanctioned by knowledge and certainty.
Islam is a conscious and willing submission. Therefore, it cannot be founded upon doubt, since doubt is antithetical to knowledge. Nor can it be founded upon the will to believe, which is against human consciousness.
Even though Sullivan also talks about true belief, his notion of it stands in direct opposition to what is understood by Muslims.
True belief, according to him is the result of doubt, which is attainable through a “persistent distance from the truth”.
If truth is something good and desirable why would one shy away from it? If true belief is about open-eyed acceptance how can it be possible for one to accept a particular belief while at the same time persistently distance one’s self from it?
Furthermore, in order for one to distance one’s self from the truth it is assumed that one “knows” the truth, whereas the very reason we believe, according to Sullivan, is because we do not know. This is clearly absurd!
This idea of belief, as we have mentioned above, is not new. To subscribe to it one must be willing to subscribe to absurdities.
But why must one do it? Why must one believe even though it is absurd? Can’t we just live our life without believing in anything?
Our experience tells us that it is not possible to live without any belief. There are no living unbelievers – those who do not believe in God’s existence are actually believers in His non-existence.
Somehow one has to believe in certain things, at least in things which can be perceived through one’s senses.
One has to believe in something because at all times in life one has to make decisions and to act accordingly. Right actions proceed from right decisions and right decisions proceed from one’s belief of what is right. So, ultimately belief matters.
“Those who can make you believe”, says Voltaire, “can make you commit atrocities.” He means ideas and beliefs have consequences.
Hence, we have the duty to believe carefully. Sincerity of conviction alone can in no way help us.
Many people have acquired belief not by honestly earning it through patient investigation, but by stifling their doubts.
This, as far as Islam is concerned, is not acceptable, because the Religion of Islam must be founded upon knowledge and certainty.
In emphasising this fact, a certain Muslim theologian goes to the extent of declaring that one who holds to a belief without proof supporting it is actually a non-believer.
Even though this tough stance has been criticised by other scholars, they have all agreed that everyone is responsible for his or her beliefs, i.e. one has the responsibility to believe correctly.
Hence, according to the well-known tradition of the Prophet, the first and foremost obligation of every Muslim, man and woman alike, is to seek knowledge of the ultimate truth and then how to act accordingly.