Plurality of expression
By: Muhammad Ali
RELIGION is viewed as divine inspiration and as guidance for the salvation of human beings. When the divine message, which reveals itself through allegorical and symbolic language, is understood and practised by people in different contexts with different focuses, the understanding appears in the form of multiple interpretations.
Hence, in the presence of multiple expressions, if a particular interpretation is considered ‘the’ interpretation instead of ‘an’ interpretation and when attempts are made to impose it through force, it causes conflict and polarisation in society.
According to William Chittick, an eminent scholar in Islamic learning, Islam appeals to different dimensions of human needs such as the mind (intellectual), the heart (spiritual) and the body (rule and law).
Historically, Islam has been understood differently by different groups of people. For example, the theologians and philosophers put emphasis on the intellectual aspect (mind), the Sufis focused on the spiritual dimension (heart) and the jurists paid attention to the legal aspect of Islam.
In the formative period of Islam, there were major developments in different areas of human knowledge in the Muslim world such as theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, Sufism, art, architecture and science. Those developments are considered a valuable contribution of Muslims to human civilisation.
It shows that in the early period of Islam, Muslim societies were considerably flexible and open to studying religion through different perspectives. The diverse exegeses of the Holy Quran during that period reflect people’s interest in understanding Islamic teachings with the help of prevailing knowledge and science.
Society then was also comparatively open to learning from other traditions. For instance, during that period Greek philosophy and science was given considerable attention. The books of Greek philosophers were translated into Arabic and conscious efforts were made to relate them to Islamic thought.
Hence this trend of seeking knowledge from different sources helped Muslims to develop an environment where different views could be tolerated and accepted.
Today, we live in a globalised and multicultural society. This society demands a paradigm of thinking which leads to appreciation of multiple perspectives. In this context, we can learn from the formative period in order to develop a culture of tolerance and acceptance of the plurality of views.
There is a need to re-examine our way of thinking and argument, which is mostly influenced by Hellenistic logic. This logic basically encourages debate and rejection instead of understanding and appreciation. Maltese thinker Dr Edward de Bono has called this way of argument “rock logic” based on the paradigm ‘I am right, you are wrong’, which leads to conflict and polarisation. Today, we require a “water logic” that encourages understanding of different perspectives through dialogue.
Today we need the culture of dialogue rather than debate. Dialogue leads to understanding of different perspectives with a win-win approach. Debate can lead to rejection with a win-lose mindset. From the debate approach it is difficult to develop the culture of harmony and coexistence in a diverse society like Pakistan.
In understanding religion we need to adopt the paradigm of a humble student rather than a proud scholar. When religion is approached with humility, it helps one realise that human attempts to understand the divine message cannot be the final or absolute understanding; rather, a continuous effort is required. On the other hand when religion is approached with scholastic vanity, one tends to reject other perspectives. In such a rigid environment learning stops and stagnation prevails.
In this regard, Maulana Rumi’s allegory about the elephant is very powerful in understanding attitudes towards the truth.
According to Rumi, once an elephant was brought to a place where people had not seen such an animal before. The elephant was put in a dark room and six people were asked to touch the creature and describe it.
The first man touched the elephant’s leg and reported that the unknown phenomenon was similar to a tree trunk. The second man touched the elephant’s stomach and said that the elephant was like a wall. The third man touched the elephant’s ear and asserted that the phenomenon was precisely like a fan. The fourth man touched the elephant’s tail and described the beast as a piece of rope. The fifth man felt the elephant’s tusks and declared the phenomenon to be a spear. The sixth person touched the elephant’s snout and announced the phenomenon was a snake.
The six men started arguing to prove their observation to be correct. However, when the elephant was brought out from the dark room all of them were surprised. They had touched only one part of the elephant but assumed they had absolute knowledge about the creature. Similarly, we understand one aspect of faith and view it as the absolute understanding.
Developing a culture of dialogue and acceptance of the plurality of expression is not an easy job. In this regard education, media and other social institutions can play a vital role to inculcate the culture of acceptance and appreciation of plural interpretations.
In short, our society today is facing critical challenges in the form of violence and polarisation. There is a dire need to understand that we cannot eliminate the differences which have been part of our history. Rather, we need to learn to live with the differences by accepting and celebrating them. In this regard we need to develop new lenses to look at the plurality of expression.