Masood N. Khan M.D.

Every literate Muslim blessed with the uncommon commodity of common sense, must subject religious scholars to rigorous critical evaluation. The myth that only a scholar can critique a scholar is actually a manipulation of human intelligence that places religious scholars beyond the reach of scrutiny, rendering them immune to critique.

There is a difference between the assessment of scholarship, and a critique of the ideas that a scholar would present publicly to huge audiences. The former task certainly would require prerequisite qualifications as in the formulation and evaluation of standardized tests by experts in the respective fields. But the latter task of critiquing the ideas – the processed and translated products of scholarship – should always be available to its recipients, the people. As the shaping ingredients of mindsets, these ideas are more important for the people than the fund of knowledge itself. If not passed through the sieve of critique, dangerous ideas will gain currency in society and with repeated reinforcements, become unchallengeable truths over time. The recipient therefore has every right to critically evaluate these ideas and accept or reject them based on their potential utility or detriment

One of the most foolish arguments advanced by religious scholars states that just as the common man cannot evaluate an engineer or a doctor without studying engineering and medicine, similarly a scholar cannot be evaluated by the common man. This comparison is inherently false and implicitly meant to build a wall of impunity around religious scholars. A scholar has an open access to thousands of individuals and is able to freely influence their minds insensibly, even without their knowledge, while a doctor or an engineer, in contrast, is obliged to advise and has access, only to those who by necessity seek his professional services. Religious scholars as such enjoy immense impunity unlike any other profession they would like themselves to be
compared with, to impress their indispensability to common people. But for the noble principle that upholds freedom of thought and expression, they could easily deserve legal action for spreading highly noxious ideas in the society.

In fact, a reasonably educated, intelligent, and practical human being will be more qualified to conduct the required critique on ideas coming from a scholar than any scholar supposedly qualified to do so. While a common person would evaluate an idea according to not only its moral worth but also its practicality in his daily living, a qualified scholar would be more inclined to a myopic entanglement in the academics and technicalities of knowledge. As an example, let us consider a scholar addressing an audience of several thousand suggestible individuals: Referencing the various sayings of the Prophet (Hadiths) and events from centuries past, he may declare that any individual who commits blasphemy, regardless of the faith he belongs to, should be killed. This idea is dangerously capable of creating a mindset that devalues human life to the extent that the insult of a person’s beliefs
justifies execution of another. Such an idea cannot be left uncensored, especially on the simplistic reasoning that a scholar’s work (ideas) is beyond the critique by a layman. A common man knows better that human life cannot be taken over the atrocity of a mere insult. He also, better understands the potential damage of such an idea and its inapplicability in the real world. On the contrary, a scholar will very likely approve the same idea, based solely upon the authenticity of a particular Hadith, often without considering its contextual interpretation and/or its limited time- bound applicability. Moreover, a scholar may also defend the idea with spurious and superficial arguments to thrust it upon people.

Similarly, the punishment awarded by Islamic scholars to apostasy, also requires a thorough scrutiny. The idea that in an Islamic State the crime of apostasy is akin to treason and hence punishable by death, is unfortunately tolerated by Muslims without a baffle. Incisive examination of this comparison, however, reveals a marked difference between treason and apostasy. A human being is born with freedom of choice which, if used judiciously, should not impinge on the rights of others. Why on earth should he then be killed for the benign exercise of his freedom to choose his personal beliefs? Religious scholars have defended this nonsense with circuitous arguments, again based on irresponsible interpretation and application of Hadith, or an event from Prophet’s life. Such an idea should deserve outright rejection.

In another example, it is observed that almost every religious scholar with perhaps rare exception, would hold the opinion that woman’s role in the society is restricted to procreation, taking care of children and household duties. To justify this, the lifestyle and conduct of women at the time of the Prophet, is presented as a model which a Muslim woman of today must emulate. Yet, it is not hard to understand that this is totally incompatible with today’s world where the role of woman in society has been redefined and changed. Should a common man then accept such a regressive idea and attempt to reverse the change which has already occurred, creating conflicts and tensions that may devastate modern families? A religious scholar who obviously is blind to such consequences because of his pitiable inability to comprehend the inevitability of change inherent to the very order of creation, should not be allowed to cause such damage.

Such unchecked ideas have two highly detrimental effects: One, they promote dangerous mindsets among common people. For example, consider a mindset that is of an anti-science impetus. Religious scholars often articulate a kind of confrontational juxtaposition between science and religion, whereby religion must always triumphantly prevail over science. This has resulted in an anti-science mindset among Muslims even today. It is very common to hear scholars discussing about earth being stationary and flat against all scientific evidence to the contrary, and about sickness being cured by supernatural and non-medical remedies that a scholar, in order to degrade modern medical science, would present as happening almost always when doctors have admitted humiliating helplessness.

Secondly, an anti-progress mindset which is a natural corollary to an anti-science mentality, frequently follows. Religious scholars habitually degrade progress, as well as the enlightenment and modernity which it brought to fruition. They do so by highlighting only the vices of the western world’s liberal and free societies. They dishonestly try to attribute a bad name to human progress, intentionally ignoring the fact that it has tremendously contributed to the well being of mankind. The anti-science and anti-progress mindsets have invariably thrown Muslim world into a regressive and highly conservative misfit.

Dr. Israr Ahmed, a well known Pakistani scholar, proudly credits Islam for its contribution to European society: By showing Europeans the superiority of the inductive (observed) knowledge over what he calls the deductive (logically drawn) knowledge which is prone to error, he argues that Islam helped them get rid of omen-ridden and superstitious lifestyle of the dark age. However there is no assignable proof to this assertion. Furthermore, Dr. Ahmed is diplomatically silent as to why the bearers of Islam – the proud originators of inductive knowledge – so miserably lagged behind Europe and the West, in scientific advancements and discoveries. He also has no explanation as to why, with the inductive knowledge disseminated, as he claims from Muslim Universities in Spain, a strong movement against human intellect simultaneously gained a foothold among Muslims spearheaded by conservative scholars. This inexplicable paradox only confirms that even if the idea of Islam’s intellectual contribution to Europe has some merit, it bears no relevance today except in unfortunately giving rise to a fascist mindset among Muslims who vainly enjoy Islam’s glorified past. In the same lecture Dr. Ahmed contrarily declares that the enlightenment which Muslims provided to Europe was then converted by Jews into a perverted intellectualism causing moral degeneration in the west: This was done in order to avenge centuries of their oppression and mistreatment at the hands of Christians. He could not cares less that such an irresponsible assertion will only result in hatred against followers of another faith.

It is common for religious scholars to declare that Islam, as a divine and final message has come to prevail over other religions and to one day exercise its mighty dominance throughout the world. This notion leads to nothing but fascism and self-righteousness among Muslims, not to mention idleness and inaction due to a toxic belief that their future is inevitably good. Such ideas from the scholars based upon wild imaginative hypotheses, have adversely affected Muslims’ minds. The educated and intelligent Muslims are therefore duty-bound, to rigorously critique such reproachable and dangerous ideas.

Apart from pernicious mindsets developing because of the pliant acceptance of such harmful ideas, there is another virulent and urgent reason not to let scholars off the hook. Time and again, they have wreaked havoc on society by creating polarizing divisions, hostility, cofrontational behavior, violent political unrest and destruction of peace and tranquility and even making a country unstable. Governments are repeatedly forced to waste energy and resources to restore law and order, control the damage, prevent loss of life and often succumb to the unreasonable demands of the addled-pated scholars and their blind followers. Examples of such meaningless crises in the Muslim world are numerous.

Few years back in a Muslim country, a very talented economist was forcibly moved from his position as an advisor to Finance Ministry to which he was appointed earlier, only because bigoted religious scholars raised hell and gathered enough support against Ahmedi should not be appointed for that post. The country was deprived of a very skilled and talented economist.

In another example, the government of a country was forced to accept the demand of the hardliners, most of whom followers of a religious scholar, for the resignation of the Law Minister, who was accused of amending the declaration of faith in a way that compromised the finality of the Prophet. The country was thrown into a bloody turmoil, as week-long violent protests resulted in the death of seven civilians and two policemen.

A far-right religious group led of course, by a religious scholar, demanded the expulsion of French ambassador over offensive depiction of Prophet Muhammad in a French publication. The followers blocked roads, clashed with security forces resulting in pitched battles between the two sides in which three policemen were killed and over seventy injured. Finally, to calm the situation, the government agreed to present a resolution in the senate that condemned the derogatory depiction and recommended a debate about expulsion of the ambassador.

Over centuries, the cumulative, effects of the unchecked ideas coming from religious scholars have produced four highly damaging results:

1. The deceptive notion that a common man is not qualified to critique a scholar, has deprived intelligent Muslims of their potential to reflect, evaluate and confidently make prudent and practical conclusions. Instead they have outsourced their analysis and reasoning to the so called scholars. As a result, common man’s self confidence is eroded and replaced with intellectual timidity in matters of faith.

2. Spurious ideas have transformed the divine message of benevolence, compassion and moral well being, into one of bigotry, hate and fascism. The suffocating heap of misguided notions has not only harmed society but has also obscured the fresh and pristine natural energy and dynamism of the message.

3. These ideas have given rise to dangerous mindsets among Muslims, that are rigid, bigoted, fascist, anachronistic, anti-science and anti-progress. A submissive toleration of these ideas and their internalization has facilitated development of such mindsets.

4. They have created bloody crises in Muslim countries with senseless loss of life and wasteful diversion of energies and resources from nation building to stupid damage control and restoration of peace, law and order.

Finally, the question must always be addressed as to what should be the responsibility of those who feel obliged to critique the ideas of religious scholars. The critique certainly demands sincerity, self-confidence and an honest evaluation, backed by research and investigation. It must be bold and non-reluctant. Any critique that does not take a clear stance on issues will simply be reduced to useless intellectual time- pass. Aside from nurturing an open-minded grasp of the issues involved, the critique should also be aimed at possibly undoing any residual damage. Though difficult, this goal can only be achieved through social debates over these deleterious ideas, such that people are sensitized to their ill- effects, if not altogether willing to substitute them with ones that make sense. If Muslims don’t rise up to the challenge posed by the ‘Mullas’ who act like mafia destroying the peace and impeding all progress, the vicious cycle will continue withits augmenting effect leading ultimately to an irreversible decline of Muslims in the world.

Muslims should come out of the fear that since they are not scholars, they are not qualified to critique a religious scholar. Any idea that has been presented in the name of faith must be thoroughly evaluated by the common man, not only for its interpretive variance but also for its utility and applicability in the modern world.