8: Patriarchal-glorification-and-infallibility

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Q. 8: One main tenet in your writings is a call to free ourselves of father veneration, raising our ancestors above their human place and accepting their way as infallible. You assert that this idealization of ancestors blocks the way to any new approach to things. The question here is: are you calling to dissociation with the heritage of the past? If so, do you not agree that any advance in dissociation with the past is illusive, without any roots?

Interview with "Current Islamic Issues"
1: The major stages in the intellectual progress
3: The main features Jawdat's project
4: Two sources of knowledge
5: Are you advocating the discarding of jihad
6: The basic tenets of Iqbal's project
7: The challenge of globalization
8: Patriarchal-glorification-and-infallibility
9: Is the Islamic mind in a crisis?
10: The present Arabic cultural scene
11: Muhammad Arkoun's attitude
12: Interpretation of the holy texts
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A. 8: Thank you, Mr. al-Rifa'ee. A good question helps engender a good answer; but can I guarantee a good answer? Even if it is not, I am sure questions like yours and answers like mine will help questions and answers to be better and more refined and sophisticated in the future. Future answers will help people get rid of physical suffering and mental anxiety.

It seems that I have, in the course of my previous questions, taken care of your question. But in view of the importance of the topic, and the major part veneration of the fathers has in impeding our progress, there is no harm in taking it up, at the risk of some repetition. Indeed, these issues have not been discussed enough, and it will be a long time before justice has been done to them.

No, I do not call to giving up the Islamic heritage, nor indeed the heritage of mankind right from the first man that existed on earth, so many millennia before men could read and write. The first men who succeeded in domesticating animals and started agriculture laid the basis for all later development. It is a grave mistake to dismiss them from memory, for in that case we shall have to reproduce the whole process of man's development across his long history. And progress will not stop. Man can learn to intervene in the production of plants; there is nothing indeed to prevent him from learning to artificially produce what plants produce, and so have unlimited quantities of the same fruits and vegetables at his disposal, and with the minimum cost. In the same way as men have outlived the era when horses, mules and donkeys were the means of transport to the era of modern transportation, in the same way as man achieved that which no one would have fancied to be possible just a few generations back, men will, a few generations hence, achieve things that we cannot imagine; for God, as the Qur'an tells us: "adds to creation as He pleases;" (35:1). The verse leaves the door open, and no one may claim it should be closed.

To be content with what the ancestors left behind is now suicidal! Must we accept their way of transferring authority? It was an accepted practice in the past to transfer rule with treachery and assassination, and people reveled at it. It happened because it was the way people understood God's 'sunan, laws', but things have changed since. And even now, we still misunderstand the Qur'an when it says: "O God! Lord of Power, Thou givest power to whom Thou pleasest, and Thou strippest off power from who Thou pleasest; Thou enduest with honor whom Thou pleasest, and Thou bringest low whom Thou pleaesest;" (3:26) but we see how God has enabled some people, who know about His laws and act on them, to themselves give power to whom they please, and strip off power from whoever they please.

When we discuss the fathers, we need to determine where they stand. It is right to say for instance that they did not have the knowledge that is now available, they soon fell back for the transfer of authority on treachery, assassination, and crooked ways; all kinds of savagery were justified in the way of capturing the position of ruler. I do realize that this does no go far in replying to your question; but there will be some scholars who can clarify this fogginess. No matter how long it will take the Muslim World to see things for what they are, light will come; what is good for mankind will survive all the froth. But we really must accept the best of the ancestors' deeds and forgive them their ill deeds, as a certain verse of the Qur'an directs us (46:15). We need to understand fully that history does not stop, neither for our forefathers, nor for any other people. There was a time when men slept in the cave and died in their struggle with carnivorous animals; indeed, we have a trace of that in the Qur'an, when Jacob declares to his sons that he is worried that if they take Joseph, the wolf might devour him while they are busy racing.

It will not do to let our love and veneration for the ancestors completely block our expanding our understanding; the Qur'an itself reports how ancestors can be a great impediment to development: "They say: 'Nay! We shall follow the ways of our fathers.' What! Even though their fathers were void of wisdom and guidance?" (2:170) The Prophet, peace be upon him, warned one of his companions that it was quite difficult to be a just witness when a dear kin was involved. It is a common thing in judicial procedures that individuals may not be witnesses when a close relative is involved. Indeed, people are mostly quite biased when something concerns a person who is from their own ethnic group or their town or their religion. It is not such a strange thing that all the opponents of prophets always referred to their fathers in rejecting the prophets' call. Although the Qur'an condemns those who follow their fathers blindly, Muslims take this to apply to all other peoples but not themselves. The problem of father idealization is a most trying one, and it is a huge stumbling block for Muslims; they seem to lose all balance when it comes to going beyond the limits of their fathers; hence the confusion of right and wrong. We are commanded by the Qur'an: "O ye who believe! Stand out firmly for justice, as witnesses to God, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin;" (4:135) which is a most stern command. The way to deal with the fathers is to measure their behavior and convictions against the laws of history: history will not give respite to those who ignore its laws. It must be a firm conviction of ours that what is good for mankind will be given survival.

I have lived through this fascination for the fathers, so have all of us; but it varies from one to one. It may be noted that as time passes, some of that fascination is wearing away, for the veneration had reached such a dimension that it made Muslims incapable of seeking better solutions for their problems. Let me repeat that the same forefathers that we glorify had fought among themselves, had failed to stand for truth, had let falsehood dominate, and had resurrected pre-Islamic ways. But why has all this lingered until today? Why cannot we go beyond the negative aspects in the legacy of the fathers? Why cannot we emulate the perceptiveness of their minds, something that other nations, people who we brand as unbelievers, achieved in doing, and then went beyond the legacy of the ancients? Take for instance the European Union. It is a peaceful, scientific, egalitarian, system; it has been designed and executed with great care; and it is certainly nearer to the commands of God and His Messenger, peace be upon him, and all the wise people in the world, than our disharmony, hostility, and disunity. Are we quite incapable of understanding? Can we not see how our veneration for the fathers impedes our discerning any solutions for our chronic ills? Nonetheless, it may be noted that the severe blows of sectarian struggle in the Muslim World tend to be less excessive as time passes, and they are gradually opening our minds to be more receptive, and our senses to be more sensitive. It was Iqbal who noticed that the world, except for us, got over the complex of the servile attitude to the fathers; Muslims still challenge the whole world, and challenge the facts of history, insisting that God has not, and will not, create any humans like them.

I wonder how those who will come later will think of writings like mine, and how they will judge us! History is indeed a very strict judge! But let us pray to the Exalted Lord to make us respond to the events of history! We have already received enough blows, very severe blows; enough to make anyone learn the lesson.