Islam and Liberation Theology

Indeed, this formative experience of oppression and inequality has shaped Engineer’s entire discourse on religion. Like Esack, he approaches Islam and the Qur’an in particular as a revolutionary resource that can be drawn upon to combat states of oppression.[1] Justice, he argues, is a core component of the Qur’anic call, with God commanding the believers to firmly uphold justice (Q. 7:29; 49:9) and even wedding it to taqwa, or piety (Q. 5:8)—a key scriptural term that will be explored in greater depth in the upcoming chapters on Wadud and Barlas.[2] Without social justice, then, piety is lacking, incomplete. Economic equality is an integral aspect of Engineer’s understanding of Qur’anic justice. Far from being a discourse of benevolence centred on goodwill and charity (sadaqa), he writes that the text speaks to the fundamental right of the poor in the possessions of the affluent.[3] And it is this radical language ofeconomic rights, as opposed to simply that of charity, which can confront the sin of structural poverty. Citing God’s commandment to Prophet Muhammad—‘They ask thee what they ought to spend. Say: That which is superfluous.’ (Q. 2:219)—Engineer comments that the faithful should keep only that which will fulfil their basic needs, distributing ‘that which is superfluous’ to the poor and needy.[4] Paralleling Esack, he argues that the Qur’an reflects a deity who not only demands egalitarian conduct, but also stands in solidarity with the powerless against the powerful.[5] Engineer passionately quotes the following Qur’anic passage, referring to the ancient Children of Israel suffering under the despotic rule of Pharaoh’s regime:

It is Our Will to bestow Our grace upon the downtrodden of the Earth, and to make them the leaders and to make them the inheritors of the Earth. And to establish them securely on the Earth, and to let Pharaoh and Haman and their hosts experience through them (the Children of Israel) the very thing against which they sought to protect themselves. (Q. 28:5-6)

That Engineer, in making a theological case for a just deity who intervenes in history to stand alongside the oppressed, cites precisely the same verses as Esack is hermeneutically significant, suggesting the centrality of this passage in Islamic liberation theology.

But in order for the Qur’an to function as a liberating text, it must first become a liberated text. A core critique that Engineer levels against mainstream Islamic thought is that it has taken a radical Qur’anic message of social liberation and reduced it to mere, metaphysical and spiritual abstractions wholly divorced from lived realities. This discursive move, moreover, is an inevitable consequence of Islamic theology’s alliance with the status quo. In fact, the argument could be made, Engineer adds provocatively, that the more abstract the theology, the deeper the political complicity.[6] This historic, hermeneutical shift within Islam from social to solely spiritual liberation is a compelling observation that Engineer makes. The Islamic scholar Abdullah Saeed has noted that with the emergence of the shari‘a in the first three centuries of Islam, Muslims increasingly approached the Qur’an—the substance of which was broadly ethical in nature, espousing values and principles—as a strictly legal document.[7] Because of losing sight of the socially egalitarian vision of the Qur’an, Engineer continues, what has taken centre-stage in Muslim life has not been a commitment to creating a world characterized by justice and compassion, but an obsession with dogmas and rituals. The Islamic revival that has swept through Muslim-majority societies since the 1970s is a contemporary example of a highly ritualized Islam, writes Engineer, pointing to its heavy emphasis on piety and worship,[8] such as praying five times a day, wearing the veil and fasting in the month of Ramadan. An uncritical accent on rites and rituals only serves to entrench further the trappings of religious authority, for ‘rituals require a priestcraft’,[9] thus allowing the ‘ulama to strengthen their already privileged positions as the custodians of Islam. This is not to suggest that Engineer rejects the rituals—on the contrary, I recall seeing him at the Friday Prayer when he spoke at the University of Oxford—but rather that he seeks to problematize understandings and practices of Islam that are blind to human suffering, that are not grounded in historical projects. In order for Islam to become a truly liberating faith, therefore, it needs to be stripped of those accumulated accretions, from ‘soulless rituals’ to ‘sheer metaphysical abstractions’, that have been introduced to perpetuate the status quo instead of subverting it.[10] To put it another way: Engineer’s liberation theology must first entail the ‘liberation of theology’.[11]

And it is struggle that effects this liberation of theology, transforming the Qur’an into a liberated and liberating scripture. Engineer moves beyond a simplistic, sweeping call for social change, for the key question that he raises—in a strikingly similar manner to Esack— is change for whom? That is, change to what ends? According to Engineer, societal transformation, of which religious reform is part and parcel, must be undertaken to benefit the weak and disenfranchised.71 However, liberating exegesis cannot come into being through the work of a detached commentator, but rather an engaged interpreter who actively struggles with the weak against the powerful, and thus partakes in praxis—the hermeneutical hallmark of liberation theology that was discussed in the second chapter. Citing Q. 4:95, Engineer argues that the Qur’an endorses a praxis-based approach, explicitly singling out the mujahid, or one who partakes in jihad.72 The passage reads:

The faithful who sit idle, other than those who are disabled, are not equal to those who fight in the way of God with their wealth and lives. God has exalted those in rank who fight for the faith with their wealth and lives over those who sit idle. Though God’s promise of good is for all, He has granted His favour of the highest reward to those who struggle in preference to those who sit at home.

The text, therefore, has a heavy emphasis on action, and it is this commitment to act that ought to form the hermeneutical key with which to unlock scripture, making it speak to lived realities of suffering and, in so doing, transforming the Qur’an into an empowering text. It is important to note, moreover, that this reading strategy is at epistemic loggerheads with conservative notions of religious hierarchy. The Christian scholar Christopher Rowland sums up the relationship between authority and liberation theology:

The primary text of oppression, poverty and dehumanizing attitudes and circumstances as a result makes theologians out of all God’s people. The experts do not have a privileged position in the understanding of God as there is emphasis on the insight of the poor as interpreters of the word of God.73

Segundo (d. 1996) authored a study with the same title. See Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976).

  • 71 Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 16. 72 Ibid, 6.
  • 73 Rowland, 11.

A characteristic feature of liberation theology, then, is the idea of twin texts. For the Qur’an (or the Bible or the Torah) is not the only text that is to be read and reflected upon. Life—referring to the experience of oppression and the ensuing struggle to combat such injustice—is as central a text that is to be interpreted alongside the text of scripture, and it is at the critical interface between these two texts that a radical theology arises.

Engineer’s hermeneutic is thus a pressing hermeneutic of the here and now, of this world and then the next. Most discussions of justice in Islam centre on the theme of divine judgement: a Day of Reckoning (yawm al-din) in which all human beings will be gathered before the Creator and shown each and every deed they have committed.[12] Upon judgement, the righteous will enter paradise while the sinful will be condemned to hellfire. The Day of Reckoning, therefore, reflects the promise of accountability in the Hereafter—a revolutionary concept for the Meccans of Muhammad’s time, as they did not believe in resurrection.[13] Yet what is so provocative about Engineer’s hermeneutic is that the next world is consigned to the very edges of his exegesis. It is this world that is foregrounded. And it is within this worldly context, and his underlying commitment to liberation, that Engineer reflects on the meaning and implications of belief. Interpreting for the present, he offers a novel reading of the Qur’anic phrase iman bi-l ghayb (Q. 2:3), or belief in the Unseen, customarily referring to the ever-present but invisible God:

If properly interpreted, in keeping with the spirit of the Qur’an, it implies faith in the infinite potentialities which have not yet been actualised and are hence unseen. These potentialities are both within human beings and out there in the cosmos. One should therefore have deep faith in ever developing possibilities and creative powers residing within and hidden from immediate sight.[14]

This is not to imply, of course, that Engineer rejects God, but rather that he approaches Qur’anic meaning as being rooted in two worlds at precisely the same moment. For belief in the Unseen, in an interpretation that speaks to the problems of the present, must refer not simply to faith in God but in the possibilities of building a qualitatively different society marked by compassion, love and equality, encountering God through this transformative process. Consider Engineer’s exegesis of Q. 104:

Woe to every scorner and mockerer, who collects wealth and counts it. He thinks that his wealth will make him immortal. No! He will surely be thrown into the Crusher. And what will show you what is the Crusher?

It is the fire of God, set ablaze, which will spread over the hearts. Indeed, it will close in upon them in outstretched columns.

Whereas conventional commentaries of this short chapter would interpret the Crusher and its fiery punishment as a form of divine justice in the Hereafter, Engineer interprets otherwise. Judgement and retribution must be rendered for this world. The Crusher that will devour those who hoard wealth, he comments, refers to an impending social upheaval, fuelled by popular discontent with the glaring inequalities of wealth in Meccan society,[15] which will ultimately destroy the city elite. Sensing this imminent destruction, Prophet Muhammad’s call was a prescient warning to the Meccan leadership of a grave punishment that will be meted out in this life—a divine will channelled through the insurrectionary violence of the downtrodden— unless they duly repent and reform their ways. Through reinterpreting this chapter, Engineer argues that all such Qur’anic passages that speak to divine retribution need to be revisited in light of both worlds, or what he calls a ‘socio-theological approach’[16] to exegesis—the first term (socio) referring to the Here and Now and the second, and thus secondary, term (theological) to the Hereafter.

It is important to note that Engineer, like Esack, does not see his radical reading of Islam as a theological innovation or a rupture with past practices, but rather as a recovery of an established, prophetic precedent. Engineer points out that all the Qur’anic prophets, with the exceptions of David and Solomon, emerged from the weakest segments of society—a deliberate move on God’s part to ensure that they would be sensitized to lived realities of inequality.79 Indeed, he argues that the Meccan elite’s principal grievance with Muhammad was not his religious doctrine, but rather the socioeconomic implications of his preaching, which challenged their privilege and wealth accumulation.[17] Engineer does not confine his historical argument of an egalitarian Islam to the prophets, referring to early Muslim figures who were committed to justice. He cites, for example, the famous letter that Ali—the first imam of Shi‘a Muslims and fourth caliph of Sunni Muslims—wrote to his governor in Egypt, Malik al-Ashtar, instructing him to treat the Egyptians with justice and dignity. The selected passage reads:

So far as your own affairs or those of your relatives and friends are concerned, take care that you do not violate the duties laid down upon you by God and usurp the rights of mankind, be impartial and do justice, because if you give up equity and justice then you will certainly be a tyrant and oppressor. And whoever tyrannizes and oppresses creatures of God will earn the enmity of God along with the hatred of those whom he has oppressed.[18]

In addition to specific individuals, Engineer mentions social movements in Islamic history. For instance, he describes the Qaramita—a tenth-century Shi‘a Isma‘ili group based in eastern Arabia—as having a ‘revolutionary theology’, noting that they were against private property, sharing the wealth by organizing themselves into communes.[19]

  • [1] literally meaning to divide something into exactly two equal parts and the latter
  • [2] referring to fair and equitable conduct. See Abdur Rashid Siddiqui, Qur’anicKeywords: A Reference Guide (Markfield, Leicestershire: The Islamic Foundation,2008), 4.
  • [3] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 82.
  • [4] Ibid. This verse has been quoted directly from Engineer’s writings.
  • [5] Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [6] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 1-2.
  • [7] Abdullah Saeed, The Qur’an: An Introduction (London: Routledge, 2008), 13.A legal document can, of course, be ethical. The point that I am trying to make here isthat over the course of Muslim history the Qur’an was engaged progressively as a bookof law, as a predominantly legal text. Yet even a casual perusal of the Qur’an wouldreveal that questions of law are not a prominent feature. Rather, the Qur’an is a bookof guidance for humankind, in which moral and ethical commitments to society play acrucial role.
  • [8] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 107.
  • [9] Engineer, On Developing Theology of Peace in Islam, 183.
  • [10] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 22.
  • [11] Ibid, 21. Though Engineer does not cite anyone when making this argument, it isimportant to note that the Uruguayan liberation theologian and Jesuit priest Juan Luis
  • [12] Sells, 35.
  • [13] Ingrid Mattson, The Story of the Qur’an: Its History and Place in Muslim Life(Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008), 45.
  • [14] Engineer, Islam and Liberation Theology, 10.
  • [15] Ibid, 75. While Engineer translates the Arabic word al-hutama as ‘the ConsumingOne’, I prefer Ali Quli Qara’i’s translation: ‘the Crusher’. See Qara’i, 861.
  • [16] Ibid. 79 Engineer Interview, 2010.
  • [17] Asghar Ali Engineer ed., Islam and Revolution (Delhi: Ajanta Publications,1984), 26.
  • [18] Ali ibn Abi Talib, as quoted in Engineer, Islam: Misgivings and History, 120. Thisis an excerpt from Letter 53 of Nahjul Balagha (literally, the Peak of Eloquence), afamous compilation of Ali’s numerous sermons, sayings and letters. See Ali ibn AbiTalib, Peak of Eloquence: Nahjul Balagha, with Commentary by Ayatollah MurtadaMutahhari, ed. Yasin T. al-Jibouri (Elmhurst, New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an,2009), 791-802.
  • [19] Engineer ed., Islam and Revolution, 17.
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