RELIGIOLOGIQUES, 13 (printemps 1996) Questions d'éthique en sciences des religions


Sheila McDonough (1)

I want to argue that a much wider appreciation in society generally of the attitudes that typically result from an immersion analytically into the data of the history of the religions of the world can and should make for improved human relations. It is clear that negative stereotyping of other person's religions is one of the major sources of conflict in the world. We are scholars whose training is particularly directed to transcending these stereotypes, and learning to focus on how religions actually function.

We need to envision a world of the future in which peaceful co-existence of persons from many different cultural backgrounds will be taken for granted. The question is: how to arrive at that goal? Certainly professional diplomats need something of the training our discipline offers. Effective diplomacy requires an in-depth understanding of the language and culture of the persons the diplomats are seeking to communicate with, and any sensitive diplomat knows that he or she needs to understand the religious life and thought of the culture in question. A number of the founders of Religious Studies as a new discipline after World War II were persons such as W.C. Smith, Huston Smith, Louis Massignon and Louis Gardet who came from missionary backgrounds. They had learned from working in India, China and the Arab world that the great ignorance of those cultures in Europe and North America was one of the dangers threatening conflict and hostility in the future.

Ignorance of other cultures has been and can be an active force for evil and destructiveness, because it is built into all of us to fear what we do not understand. Such fear probably has some biological roots in our need to protect ourselves against the unknown. We know that for centuries Christian populations harboured dangerous fantasies about what went on in synagogues, mosques and Hindu temples. One useful cure for dangerous ignorance and fantasy is the experience of reality. If children are taken to see synagogues, mosques and temples for themselves, and to talk with the people there, they are much less likely to fear Jews, Muslims and Hindus when they grow up. For this reason, training in Religious Studies can and should begin in elementary school. Children should learn to appreciate the human reality of persons from other religious traditions and to value and appreciate the artistic and ritual lives of those persons.

It can be argued that mutual appreciation of this kind is much better conveyed while children are still quite young and open to wonder at the diversity of the world. To have a real friend from another tradition is the most basic need for anyone who would grow up to appreciate and to enjoy diversity, and to become an effective diplomat. We need effective diplomats in all areas of life. To share understanding of the richness of our traditions should be no more threatening than sharing knowledge of our homes, our art and our literature.

Religious Studies has therefore an important role to play in dissipating much of the fear of other cultures that lies in our common past. But in addition to studying the religious literature, history, languages and practices of others, we also need to learn to think more lucidly about how religious traditions function. One important insight emerging from the discipline of Religious Studies is the functioning of cumulative tradition within all religious traditions. This means that at any point in the on-going history of a particular tradition, adherents are making conscious and unconscious choices as to which of the inherited aspects of their particular tradition they will affirm, or abandon. in reality new aspects of the tradition, music, buildings, forms of worship, philosophies and theologies are also continuously being generated.

Once a person grasps the functioning of cumulative tradition, she or he will be freed from the delusion that any tradition in any sense is static and unchanging. In my view, this is the first and most essential lesson that any student of religion must grasp. Careful study of any period of the history of any religious tradition should make the dynamic process of religious change clear.

In my case, most of my research has been concerned with the Muslims of South Asia in the period from 1857 to the present. During this time, enormous changes have taken place within this community as the people have endured the loss of political power to the British in l857, the collapse of their medieval political and social organisation, the impact of the industrial and scientific revolutions, the horrors of the partition of India and Pakistan, the struggles within two, and finally three, including Bangla Desh, new nations.

The effort to discern how the cumulative tradition of Islam has been operating in the midst of the period of Islamic history requires a many-faceted appreciation of the many factors at work.

The period has been one of death and rebirth in many senses as the society has endured chaotic change, partly because of the political problems of self affirmation over against the British and the Hindus. The death and rebirth image is useful only if we understand that the rebirth is the birth of a new version of the tradition: the new version uses elements from the past, but what emerges is a distinctive redesigned expression of the tradition.

The Asian historian, Ainslie Embree, has recently published a volume entitled Utopias in Conflict. He discusses the emergence of Hindu and Muslim integriste movements in India, and emphasises that both of these groups are articulating new versions of their respective traditions. These new versions are integriste, partly because the tensions of the transitions to a modern industrialised society paradoxically encouraged the collective self-affirmation of groups who find strength in their corporate activism. So these revivalists elicit support because they promise a utopian future in which the particular tradition in question will become strong, effective and dominant. In the case of India, these two utopian visions are harshly and dangerously in conflict because each promises to triumph over the over. A recent article in the Globe and Mail (March, 1995) discussed the very real possibility of nuclear war between India and Pakistan; I agree that this is, and probably will remain a threat over all our heads for the foreseeable future. The discipline of Religious Studies, in as much as it can help us comprehend the effectiveness of integriste movements, may help us understand the nature of this threat.

In addition to trying to understand what the Islamic symbols are coming to mean in the context of South Asia, I also find that locally in Quebec questions are increasingly arising about who Muslims are and what they are doing. While writing this paper in March 1995, I received a phone call from a reporter from the CBC who wanted information from me as to dangerous Muslim integriste groups which might become active in Quebec. My conversation with her highlighted the kinds of difficulties which are present in our society as persons without much comprehension of Religious Studies, and the history of religion, try to grasp a phenomenon like this. Since whatever she writes will influence the society as a whole, it seems obvious that the lack of comprehension of journalists who work in this field is a serious ethical matter for all of us. For one thing, bad reporting about Islam tends to antagonise Muslims, and make them more hostile than they might otherwise be.

The initial flaw in her assumption was that she wanted me to tell her what it was about the Qur'an, which she assumed was a book detrimental to the freedom and liberation of women, which was encouraging what she envisaged as fanatical and dangerous extremists. My problem was how to communicate to her that the Qur'an was not much different than the Bible; the issue was how the scripture was being interpreted in a particular historical period. She was a friendly and open person, but she found it very hard to understand that the scripture was not directly responsible for how persons in a particular historical period happened to interpret that scripture.

If I could have had this journalist in a class for thirteen weeks to do a detailed comparison of the two scriptures, and then later an historical discussion of the on-going processes of interpretation of the two scriptures, I probably could have led her to comprehend the issues at stake. To try to get all this across in one phone call was very difficult. Just to tell someone that the Qur'an is much like the Bible does not usually convince people, particularly if their culture assumes that everything bad Muslims do must be the fault of their scripture. So one of the problems of our society in North American and Europe is the lack of education in Religious Studies among the journalists who are the source of much of the negative stereotypes about other cultures which pervade our societies. The existence of negative stereotypes leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy, because it can happen that Muslims become so irritated by the stereotyping that they become much more antagonistic than they might otherwise be.

Thus this journalist could not see that Qur'an was much like the Bible. Neither could she understand that scriptures have been interpreted in radically different ways in both the Islamic and Christian traditions. Nor did she comprehend that to understand any one particular interpretation of a tradition, you would have to know in depth about the context in which that interpretation occurred. This latter point in probably almost impossible to grasp unless one has actually studied how in practice it happens that diverse interpretations occur. Once a person has grasped how any particular interpretation of a tradition has occurred, then that understanding can usually be transferred to understanding how differing interpretations occur in different traditions. In other words, Religious Studies as a discipline can help develop a frame of mind which is usually able to comprehend what is taking place in religious occurrences in quite different contexts.

The journalist would keep asking me what does the Qur'an say, and I would say that the point was how particular persons interpreted the Qur'an. She thought Islamic terrorism could be explained by the Qur'an, and I tried to explain that was equivalent to trying to explain the IRA by the Bible. She did not understand that Christians also had legitimated violence from the Bible; for example when Cromwell's armies were fighting, they thought they were refighting the battles of the Hebrew Bible. Many Christians talk about crossing the river Jordan, and building the New Jerusalem. But what are they talking about when they use imagery like this? When the British Labour Party got into power after World War II, they sang Blake's hymn about building the New Jerusalem. How would you explain that to a Hindu or a Muslim?

In all traditions, there is poetry, and there are evocative images, as the image of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation in the Bible is powerful. Evocative imagery in any tradition gets picked up by different generations and used differently, depending on the possibility of the context. Thus for slaves in the American south, crossing over Jordan meant escaping from slavery. The intensity of that passion got expressed in powerful hymns.

Jihad could be considered an evocative image for Muslims, comparable to building the New Jerusalem. It means struggle in the cause of God. But what is the cause of God, and how is the struggle to be conducted _ these are the issues which differ according to the context. We hear the word Mujahideen all the time on our television news, but no-one tells us that the Mujahideen are those committed to struggle in the cause of God, and why they are struggling. We should certainly understand that these fighters for God think they are building the future according to the will of God, and that they are the instruments of divine purpose. Embree is right that we need to understand that these instrument of a vision are future-oriented persons. If you looked at all the different groups who call themselves Mujahideen at present you find them struggling for diverse causes. But what they have in common is that they think that their cause is the will of God.

My journalist was also very perplexed on the subject of Islamic religious law, and there too we had a confusing conversation because she wanted simple answers she could use for a story, and all I could do was point out the complexity of the subject. There is a widespread notion among women in North America and Europe that Islam is the enemy of women and the Islamic religious law is the antithesis of good law for women. Implicit in this is the notion that Muslims should get rid of their law and their religion and become people just like us. Women do not think of themselves usually as cultural imperialists, but in this particular matter western feminists are sometimes playing a strongly imperialistic role.

The pictures of veiled women on TV and the newspaper accounts of repressive Islamic religious law all add to this widespread stereotype in our culture. It is paradoxical that westerners like this journalist tend not to understand when I try to tell them that instead of trying to make Muslims exactly like ourselves, we should try to comprehend that they actually are like us in that the processes at work in Muslim society are not very different from the processes at work within western society. They are not enemies who need to be transformed into clones of ourselves if we are to feel secure with them, but they are real people with a long and distinguished religious and cultural tradition which they are striving to relate to the changed conditions of life in industrialised societies. It is true that there are extremists actively at work in Muslim societies, but such groups neither represent all Muslims nor indicate inevitable trends in their societies. The processes that make for extremism in the twentieth century have much more to do with this century's economic and social conditions than they do with anything particular to Islamic thought and practice.

All Muslim societies from the French revolution onwards have in fact been adapting and shifting their laws, just as other societies have been. A good course on the comparative changes in the law in western and Muslim countries since l800 would make it very clear that change is ongoing, and responsive to public opinion in both cases. Organised women's movements in both cultures have been the main force pushing the transformations of the legal codes in directions more just towards women.

We need to ask ourselves why do we apparently have a strong need to imagine the frightening other who is so different from us, and so threatening to women? The paradox is that we seem both to need to imagine the other as radically different, and also to be compelled to force the other to change to be just like us. If we could understand better why we seem to need to do this, we might really be on the way towards a transformed future. I do often encounter disbelief when I try to tell people that Muslims are persons, not so very different, who are able to work out for themselves what kind of society they want to live in. Why that disbelief exists is somewhat baffling, but we need to try to understand it.

Since Muslims are persons they also seem to need to imagine a frightening other - in this case, us. Muslim fundamentalist writing dwells at length on the horrors of western society, particulary on gender issues. Teen-age pregnancies, drug abuse, child pornography, alcoholism, women battering, rampant violence etc. Sermons of this kind are preached throughout the Muslim world, and pious people shiver as they imagine how terrible western society must be for women. If we see veiled women in our midst in Quebec, we should know that they may be persons who consider that they have great courage in demonstrating against what they perceive as the rampant moral corruption of the society around them. Thus you can have a situation in which the veiled Muslim woman sees herself as missionary to a morally corrupt west, and the western feminist may see herself as a missionary to the persecuted Muslim women. To imagine these two women each trying to evangelise each other is a topic worthy perhaps of someone like Molière. It is tragic and also funny, and if we can laugh about it, maybe we can begin to imagine what we might do about it. But of course if each has a machine gun, as may be the case increasingly, it ceases to be funny. If we could remove the weapons, and just let people debate their ideas, we might face a more hopeful future.

What can a religionist do? A well trained religionist ought to have the background to understand that the Islamic tradition is evolving, on legal as on other matters, and that Muslims are likely to differ among themselves as they work out how to design their future societies. No well trained religionist should be guilty of imagining that any large religious tradition could possibly consist of persons with all the same ideas. Thus training in Religious Studies should produce persons who understand that diversity in interpretation is inevitable in all traditions. If the student is one who had friends from other traditions in elementary school, the transition to a scholarly appreciation of other traditions as an adult will usually be much easier.

Further a well trained religionist should be well able to listen. He or she should be able to listen well to the two women evangelists I have imagined, and to undertake the diplomatic task of attempting to devise ways to explain each of them to the other. If you have followed me thus far, and have begun to think about how you might bring those two together, you will see that the task is not a light one. But I am arguing that good training in Religious Studies for each of them would do a lot to make mutual comprehension more feasible. If we think about the future possibility of war between India and Pakistan, or Algeria and France, we have to suppose that for many, war is preferable to the intellectual effort of trying to understand, and to design a system of education so that all the people would comprehend each other better.

A further complexity of the issue of Islamic law is that the imposing a particular version of the law often becomes in the present situation a symbolic statement about other issues. One of the main issues is the role of the traditional religious leaders in a modern society; modernization has tended to undermine the roles of these leaders and to decrease the respect in which they are held. They are fighting in various ways to capture respect and function. I think the issue is not so much exactly what the law should be, but that the religious leaders, trained in the traditional seminaries, are demanding in many Muslim countries that they should be the ones to say what the law should be. This is an issue shared by all democratic countries, namely how are elected legislatures to deal with issues of religious authority.

Iran is a case in point. A key issue is therefore the nature of the training given in the seminaries, the curricula, and the skills the graduates acquire. If the training could be changed, the mind set of the graduates would be different. Most reformers in Muslim countries from the early nineteenth century onwards have been arguing for changes in education and increased democracy.

Another example is Pakistan which was created to be explicitly a new Muslim nation. The country has gone through a number of different phases with respect to the implementation of religious law over the last forty years. From the beginning in 1947, the political leadership has mainly consisted of persons trained in modern universities in modern law; however, the traditional religious leaders have the ear of the masses through their Friday sermons. There has been a sort of intricate dance going on over these years as the leaders have tried in various ways to gain legitimation from the religious leaders without giving those leaders control over the law. One technique has been to function through committees giving a voice to religious leaders, but not giving them the majority of positions.

A further complication is that political leaders in certain contexts think that they can gain political leverage and prestige by associating themselves with Islamic symbols. For this purpose, they normally use the religious leaders to back them up and to prove that one political leader is more 'authentically' Islamic than another. This has obvious dangers in a modern democracy if every time there is an election politicians have to outdo each other in demonstrating which is more Islamic than the other. Such disputes inevitably involve the manipulation of symbols, since personal piety or religious sincerity is rarely the issue, but rather effective use of images.

In Pakistan, for example, a commission to reform the Marriage laws was established in the 1950s. It was called the Rashid Commission and its mandate was to look into reforming the laws with respect to marriage, divorce, maintenance and custody of children. The religious leaders who were members of the commission dissented from the other members and published their views (Mumtaz and Shahid, 1987, p. 56). After General Ayub Khan came into power into 1958, the questions were re-opened. A Family Laws Ordinance was passed in 1961 which led to the implementation of some of the recommended reforms. The religious leaders again published their dissent. The new ordinance aimed to discourage polygamy and regulate divorce. The first wife was now required to give her consent before a husband could take a second wife. With respect to divorce, the traditional form of divorce by repudiation by the husband was replaced by a requirement that a written notice be sent to the government and to the wife, and that a period of arbitration was to be initiated. The Government required that all marriages be registered with the State. It was also made much easier for the wife to initiate the divorce. The minimum age of marriage for girls was raised from 14 to 16 and for boys from 18 to 21. The right to settle maintenance disputes was given to the court. The religious leaders on the commission objected to all these changes, but the other members of the commission, lay men and women formed a majority and the reforms were implemented. This ordinance still forms the basis of practice in both Pakistan and Bangla Desh.

In this case, the political leader, General Ayub, had seized power from corrupt politicians, and had maintained popularity in the early years by convincing people that he was honest and generally concerned to improve the economic well being of the nation. He did not need the approval of the religious leaders since he was popular for other reasons; further, he was not personally sympathetic to what he considered obscurantist attitudes of many of the religious leaders. On the other hand, the religious leaders objected to his marriage laws reforms. The objections of the religious leaders partly took the form of an argument that it was wrong to follow the opinions of lay persons who had not had the required traditional form of religious education and training in Islamic law: their argument was that they alone were qualified to have responsible opinions on matters of marriage and divorce.

The role of the Pakistan women's movement was a significant factor in the reform of the marriage laws, since there have been a few well educated women active in Pakistan politics from the beginning. There also have been several influential womens' movements. The particular changes effected in the law came about because these were the concerns the Pakistani women considered of greatest importance for them. The religious leaders objected to consulting the women at all, on the grounds that they did not have the proper training. The women argued that they had a much better grasp of the issues than the religious leaders did, since they were the ones personally affected. General Ayub was willing to listen to the women.

Under General Ayub Khan, the military was supportive of marriage laws reform. The military is sometimes supportive of reform of this type, and sometimes opposed to it. After 1979, a subsequent military regime, headed by General Zia, took the opposite position with respect to the influence of the traditional religious leaders. Why the army took one position in 1960 and the opposite in 1980 is again explicable only in terms of the context. The second military leader was a much less cosmopolitan man, much more responsive to pressure from Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Under General Zia, the traditional leaders, especially the integristes, were encouraged to become active. Laws were passed to demonstrate that this was symbolically a proper Islamic State. In 1979 (Mumtaz and Shahid, 1987, p. 100), amid much media coverage, it was announced that the new laws would make adultery (zina) an offence against the State. Adultery was defined as any sexual relationship between an adult man and woman outside of marriage. The maximum punishment was stoning to death for married persons and 100 lashes for unmarried persons. According to the Qur'an, four male eye witnesses are required to prove that adultery had occurred. This law as implemented in Pakistan made no distinction between rape and adultery. For this reason, a woman who claimed she had been raped could be accused of adultery, and this happened in several cases during the regime of General Zia. Several women were sentenced to lashing, imprisonment and fines because they gave birth to illegitimate children.

The Pakistan womens' movements became aware of the dangers of these laws when a woman eloped and became pregnant with a lower class man. Her parents insisted that she had been abducted and that no valid marriage had occurred. It was ordered that the woman be given 100 lashes two months after the birth of her child. The case was finally dismissed on appeal because there were no eye witnesses to adultery and the two persons claimed they were married. In another case an 18 year old blind girl was raped and became pregnant. She was accused of adultery and sentenced to a public lashing of 15 lashes, 3 years imprisonment and a fine of 100 rupees. The women's organisation called WAF, Womens' Action Front, made a great issue out of this case. Publicity was given to the affair inside and outside the country. Pakistan's Ambassador in London was questioned by the British press about the affair. In this case too a higher court dismissed the case. One result was that the WAF had become much better organised and efficient. A team of women lawyers attacked the legitimacy of the adultery law.

Another case occurred in 1983. An unmarried woman was publicly flogged in front of 5,000 people. The WAF organised a picket of protest outside the Governor's house. These new laws also decreed that two women witnesses were necessary as the counterpart of one male witness on issues related to economic matters. These were all essentially symbolic matters intended to demonstrate that this general was really making for his people a real Islamic state. The women members of the bar took issue particulary with the two witnesses issue, since it would have had serious implications for them as candidates for judgeships and so on.

In 1983 womens' organisations responded to a call form the Punjab Women Lawyers Association to march down the main street to present a memorandum to the Chief Justice. When the march began, the women were surrounded by the police, a free for all occurred and women ran to the High Court chased by police. Some women were beaten up and rounded up into police vans. Tear gas was used. Fifty women were arrested but many managed to get to the High Court where male lawyers were waiting with garlands to receive them. The impact of the demonstration was tremendous. Many of the women became much more determined after their experiences with the police. More women's meetings were held and women went to lobby all the members of the Parliament. Agitation continued for many years. The women's groups argue that the laws in its Pakistan form went against the spirit of the Qur'an since it denied justice to women (Mumtaz and Shahid, 1987, p. 110).

After 1985, the mood changed when martial law was lifted and new elections were held. More women contested seats in national and provincial assemblies and a few were elected. Women took to the streets in effective demonstrations on these matters, and through the press brought to bear effective criticism of General Zia's policies. The General died in a plane crash and since then most of his reforms have fallen by the wayside. These same Pakistani people have elected Benazir Bhutto and have not elected most of the integristes who have run for Parliament. Given a free press and a democratic system of government, the integristes in Pakistan as elsewhere have to compete with others in terms of their advocacy of their interpretation of the tradition. In this respect, the issue is no different from issues like abortion and divorce in western countries where there are different perceptions of how traditional values are to be understood.

As this example of Pakistan shows, it is not possible to have fixed ideas as to nature of Muslim society in the modern world, or even to know what Muslims might do next. Politicians and religious leaders will campaign for the support of the people, but what the people will decide is unpredictable as always. The more non-Muslims have learned to appreciate the diversity and unpredictability of Muslim societies, the more likely we are to be able to work together with Muslims as with others towards a common better future. A wider dissemination of insights gained from Religious Studies training should help achieve that goal.

Comparative studies can help us understand that all traditions are processes moving and developing throughout history, and that there is not any final version of any one of them that will not go through processes of adaptation and change. We need to focus more on the significant metaphors characteristic of each tradition and to recognise the many ways in which these metaphors serve to enliven those who respond to them in diverse ways. We need to get rid of the simplistic idea that everything Muslims do can be explained by the Qur'an or everything Christians do can be explained by the Bible, or the pronouncement of the Church.

Better relations between persons of different traditions will be more likely once these simple minded notions can be transcended, and persons can enjoy the stimulation of studying the metaphors which give life and energy to the adherents of different faiths. The study of another tradition can be, and often is extremely enriching in many ways, not least in stimulating a new way of understanding one's own roots. The comparative study of the political uses of religious symbols can also help us understand much better how societies work. A comparative study of the uses of symbols about the hijab, and symbols about abortion would be a useful contribution to our knowledge of ourselves.


Cheikh Bouamrane et Louis Gardet. 1994. Panorama de la pensée islamique. Paris: Sindbad.

Cheikh Si Boubakeur Hamza. 1972. Le Coran. Traduction française et commentaire. 2. vols. Paris: Fayard/Denoël.

Embree, Ainslie. 1990. Utopias In Conflict. The University of California Press.

Gozlan, Martine. 1994. L'Islam et la République des musulmans de France contre l'intégrisme. Paris: Belfond.

Mernissi, Fatima. 1988. Le harem politique: le Prophète et les femmes. Paris: Albin-Michel.

Mernissi, Fatima. 1983. Sexe, id‚ologie, et islam . Paris: Tierce.

Mumtaz, Khawer and Farida Shahid. 1987. Women of Pakistan; Two Steps Forward, One Step Back . London: Zed Press.

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(1) Professor of Religious Studies, Concordia University (Montreal).|Retourner au texte|