The 'True' Islam
Kunwar Khuldune Shahid wrote an article in Pakistan Today, which states an opinion that is all too common in the Pakistani atheist community: The Islam of Taliban is the true authentic Islam.
First, let me pre-emptively state to counter any possible ad hominem criticism that I am not one of the 'moderates'; I have never declared Islam to be the 'religion of peace' (if anything, I have been critical of the notion) and, if my memory serves me right, I have never accused Taliban of 'misinterpretation'. I state this only so that I am not reflexly dismissed by the readers as one of those whom the author mocks as: "you live in oblivion with your extremely palatable, but simultaneously blatantly fallacious, brand of religion and then claim that the Taliban are misinterpreting and misapprehending your ideology?"
A lot of our Muslim liberals and moderates do follow cherry-picked, fallacious brands of religion, and it is not something I wish to deny nor do I defend such faux religiosity.
The crux of the author's argument lies on a particular binary thinking that has been expressed succinctly in the final lines, and that is what I do not accept:
"It’s time our ‘thinkers’ stopped taking the easy way out and finally picked a side. You either follow a religion in its true form or you’re irreligious. The Taliban know which side they are on. Do you?"
My disagreement is by virtue of the fact that there is no 'true form' of a religion. The idea of a true or authentic religion is a myth. It doesn't exist. I have expressed this in the past as well.
How do you determine what a religion actually is? For instance, what is ‘true Islam’ and how do you determine that? “From the scriptures, of course” is not an adequate answer, because the scriptures don’t provide you with any finalized ideology per se. They are always in need of interpretation with regards to their application in a particular scenario, they are always context-dependent, and they only mean something in the background of theological assumptions. It is precisely these 'pre-text' assumptions that guide you how to read the scripture. It is only a theology that links various portions of scripture in a coherent manner, resolves apparent contradictions, and provides a legal and moral framework for that religion or sect. Interpretations vary, and so do theologies, and furthermore, these evolve with time. So, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a ‘true religion’ or ‘actual religion’; there are only different theologies, all based on the same scripture, interpreting it and relating to it in different ways, none of which is “true” or “false” in any objective sense. Of course, some of these interpretations will be more consistent than others, and some of these arguments will be more valid than others, but consistency and logical validity are not sufficient to decide the question of 'truth', which depends on the assumptions of the theological reasoning.
The notion of true religion as the version of religion which existed in the time of the Prophet is also not immune to scrutiny. First of all, the question of what shape and form Islam possessed in the time of the Prophet is a historical question. Believers take their versions of history as a matter of faith, but faith does not decide what really happened. There are significant differences regarding Islam's early history, with Sunni and Shia being the two dominant, but not the only possible, versions. The authenticity of even these historical accounts can be challenged. Hence, there is a certain unresolvable uncertainty regarding the religion which existed at that point and time in history, and many aspects of it may forever be lost to us. Secondly, even if we know for a fact what Prophet said and did 1400 years ago, it remains a matter of debate as to how much of that is still to be applied as it is in the modern age. A traditionalist may hold that it is to be applied in all its exactness and purity, but that is no more than a theological assumption which another believer may not accept. Quranists and many others maintain that the practice of the Prophet was meant to serve only as a historical example, and is not binding for all times and places. None of the answers can be declared to be 'true', because their validity depends on theological assumptions that you accept on faith and that are subject to disagreement.
'You either follow a religion in its true form [that of Taliban] or you’re irreligious.' The notion is too reductionistic to be correct. Take the case of an Ahmedi. A devout Ahmedi believes that he is following Islam in it's true form, he has a somewhat consistent theology, has a particular version of history and has a particular interpretation of Quran, and is clearly not the Taliban, so how on earth do you declare this devout follower to be 'irreligious'? Take a Shia, or take a Quranist, or take someone like Amina Wadud, and the argument doesn't hold. Hell, even take some non-Taliban orthodox Sunni and the argument doesn't hold!
A historical study of the development of Islamic Sharia and it's many schools of thoughts, including the four traditional Sunni schools, opens our eyes to the flexibility of religious interpretation, and how each interpretation arises and gains dominance out of a complex interplay of scripture, historical circumstances, theological challenges from within and without, geographical and cultural factors, philosophical engagement, and the socio-political power structures.
Instead of lazily declaring one or the other interpretation of religion as the 'true religion', religious critics should try to understand why this or that particular interpretation has gained dominance and consensus, and how that balance may be shifted in a more progressive direction, if it is so desired. If your desire is to abolish religion in its entirety, so be it, good luck with that, but it wouldn't help to reply on erroneous arguments to do so. A spade, after all, is a spade.