WHAT CAN THE STUDY OF RELIGION CONTRIBUTE TO SOCIETY?
Sheila McDonough (1)
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
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
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
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
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
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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.
(1) Professor of Religious Studies, Concordia University (Montreal).|Retourner au texte|