Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Islam: Puritan and popular religion

Throughout the history of religion, the question that arose from time to time was whether religion should evolve according to social, political and economic needs of society or should it retain its original teachings. Those who are in favour purity of religion argue that despite changes in society, believers of a religion must observe its original teachings which should be retained in their original form and shape.
But generally the result is that such people alienate themselves from other sections of society by living in their own world with a separate identity. On the other hand, progressive thinkers point out that if religion cannot respond to emerging challenges, its utility is lost and it becomes stagnant. Therefore, in order to survive, it should be reinterpreted and reconstructed in view of the requirements of the modern times. The two trends are seen in every religious movement. Puritans emphasise on the textual meaning of revealed books or revered scriptures. According to this view, nobody has the right to change the meaning and interpret them in view of one’s own time and ideas. Modernists, on the contrary, believe that they could reinterpret religious texts and adjust according to the changing ideas and thoughts of their time which would make religious teachings more workable and useful to society. The two trends remain in conflict. Puritans accuse the modernist of distortion of religion and polluting its purity by interpretation which benefits or is in the interest of the ruling classes. One can find examples in Islamic history when jurists and ulema interpreted religion to fulfill the wishes and demands of rulers.
For instance, when the institution of kingship was introduced, religious scholars justified it on the basis of religion. When aristocracy accumulated wealth, private property became sacred. Being in the service of the monarch, the jurists validated their actions by issuing fatwas and it became a norm for the rulers to consult jurists and ask them to find religious justification for their debauchery and exploitation.
The modernists believe that by reinterpreting religion they could protect it against the onslaught of modernity, so that outdated traditions in religion could survive new challenges. When a society passes through a crisis and modernists or secular ideologies fail to solve problems of the masses, puritans gain support and popularity. At this stage, puritans attracted the deprived and the poor by offering them solutions for their grievances to make them believe that it would end class differences and restore their dignity in society.
Puritans regard themselves as the custodians of original teachings and look down upon others as misguided heretics. They believe modernists or progressives are against religion which creates in them a sense of arrogance. It is interesting to note that the puritans’ teachings were more suited to the economically well off classes. For example, their women could observe purdah, while women belonging to lower classes had to go out and work in the fields and in the houses of rich people to earn some money. This created a gulf between the rich and the poor.
The masses generally favour religious interpretation that bears religious and spiritual recreational value for them. They participate in festivities at shrines of Sufi saints where people can sing, dance and listen to devotional songs as well as partake in food and sweets being distributed as offerings to the shrines.
The two trends are known as puritan and popular religious culture. The former is led by religious scholars who study religion minutely while a popular religious movement is led by ordinary mullahs and Sufi saints. The puritans are always in a minority while popular religion has a large following. In the subcontinent the puritan and the popular trends are represented by the Deobandi and the Barelvi schools of Islamic thought respectively.