On Some Aspects of Liberation Theology

Citation preview


I What are the prominent features of liberation theology? And why liberation theology? Does not theology, as it is, liberating for humanity? It is necessary to answer these questions satisfactorily before we talk of liberation theology in any religion. Liberation theology, according to me, concerns itself primarily with here aod now of buroan life and only then with the hereafter. Secondly, it does not support status quo which favours those who have a~ against those who do not. Liberation theology in other words would remain annthetical to establishment, whether religious or political. Thirdly, it would play artisan role in favour of the oppressed and dispossessed and provide these sections of the society w1 a owe u ideological weapoo lo fight against their oppressors, Fourthly, the liberation theology· does not merely emph~ise one single polarity of metaphysical destiny beyond historical process but also takes due cognizance of its opposite polarity, i,e. human freedom to shape t~mporaLdesti~. In fact it helps develop a praxis borne o~t of interaction between human freedom and sense of destiny treating them complementary rather then opposite polarities. The second important question is why liberation theology? Does theology by itself not imply liberation ? I am afraid the theology in its · received ·form does not imply human liberation in the above defined sense. in the spatio-temporal frame; it concerns itself exclu_sively with liberation in purely iuerapby~ica] seose aod outside the process of history. It is therefore not at all surprising that theological works are full o f metaphysical obfuscations and obscure issues. It is because the received theology has been an ally of establishment and the theologians benefactors of status quo. Orre can even fonnulate a hypothesis that the greater the degree of metaphysical obscurity the more it tends to serve




Islam and Liberation Theology

the forces of status quo. The history of theology so far would bear this out. Hence it is necessary to develop a liberation theology if religion has to be meamngf ul to the oppressed and weak who fUllow it most. Marx described religion as opium of people, it must be understood, not to condemn religion per se as it is often thought; he called it opium in the sense that instead of changing unbearable conditions of life, it is used to perpetuate them. If it becomes an instrument of change, it would become a powerful weapon in the hands of the exploited masses. Traa itional rehg1on, 1£ reformulated in the form of liberation theology, can be made to play a central role as a revolutionary praxix, rather than a marginal one in the form of often meaningless rituals. ~eligion in its traditional form is only an illusion, it can become a powerful reahty 10 its liberating form. It is precisely in this sense that Engels pays rich tributes to Munzer, a revolutionary priest who broke away from Martin Luther for his support to the princes of Germany vis-a-vis the peasants. Engels writes: r--- Munzer's political doctrine followed his revolutionary religious conceptions very closely, and just as his theology overstepped the current conceptions of his time, so his political doctrine went beyond the directly prevailing social and political conditions. Just as Munzer's religious philosophy approached atheism, so his political programme approached communism, and even on the eve of the February Revolution, there was more than one modem communist sect that had not such a well-stocked theoretical arsenal as was "Munzer's" in the sixteenth century. (F.Engels, "The Peasant War in -Germany", See Marx & Engels on Religion, New York, 1964, p-112.) Thus we see that Engels describes Munzer's theology as 'more than modem communist sect'. Engels also describes Munzer's sermons as 'militant and revolutionary' (ibid., p-113). Thus even according to Engels religion has the potentiality of being transfonned into a revolutionary and militant force. II 1 lam during the lifetime of the Prophet and a few decades

ther~fter,' remained what can be called a revolutionary force. Any .. . h1stonan wo uld bear it o'ut that the Prophet, as the messenger of God,

Liberation Theology in I slam


threw a powerful challenge to the rich traders of Mecca These traders belonged to the leading tribe of Mecca called Quraysh. These rich traders were arrogant and drunk with power. They violated the ·tribal norms and. com letel disregarded the poor· -~II d need . When die Prophet began to preach his vine message~ it was the poor and oppressed of Mecca, including many slaves, who joined him . The Prophet himself was an orphan and came from a poor but a noble family of the tribe of Quraysh. · \

The Prophet, through his revealed message, castigated the rich of Mecca in no -uncertain' terms. The Quran ·says, "Woe unto every !landering traducer, Who hath ga1beced wealth ( of this world) and ~anged it: He thinketh that his wealth will render him im but e w1 ung to the Consumin2: one. Ah, what will convey unto thee what tne Consummg One is! (It is) the fire of Allah, kindled .... " (The Quran, chapter 104.) Similarly, in c~apter 102, the Quran says: .

Rivalry in worldly increase distracteth you; Vntil ye come to t h ~ gra~es. Nay, but ~e will come to know!... Then on that day, ye wHl be asked concernmg pleasure.-

The Quran, in the conditions then prevailing, could not abolish slavery altogether, the details of which need not detain us here. But it not only encouraged emancipation of slaves, it gave them, in religious matters, complete equality with other· faithfuls. It even encouraged marriage between slave-girls and free men and vice versa. One of the closest of the companions of the prophet w~ a negro slave called Bilal. He-was appointed by the prophet to be his moazzin (Le., one who called to the prayer). The prayer in· those days was no less than a stirring call for a revolutionary change. Here I would like to quote ·a forceful passage of ~ f Khoury, a Lebanese Marx~st belonging to the Christian community: How often we have heard the call of the muezzin from the minarets of this eternal Arab city: Allaho Akbar! Allaho Akbar! How often we have read or been told that Bilal, the Abyssinian, was the first LC? make the air of the Arabian peninsula ring with this call, at the time when the prophet's mission was in its infancy, when he was enduring the persecutions of the persecutots and the obloquy or stubborn conservatives. Bilal's call was a summons, a fanfare sounding the beginning of a struggle between.an epoch which was ,. drawing to an end and an age whose su~ was just rising. But have

Islam and Liber ation Theology


you ever dwelt on what was linked to that call, on what it contained? Do you remember, each time you hear the echo of ~at · · age: punish pnsun e cal.1 , that Allaho Akbar means, in plain langu · c fi those who acq 1mu!a l'e pca[il s! th e greed y uS-~refs -~ ' Tax --~::...::: .:.;;;;;.:_.;----...-...- . • on 1scate .__ the possessfo~.!.~f t~~ t}!i._evin_gmgn~_p_o.lists' Guarantee breact to lli~ people-! Open the ro~ • those who pray but are heedless in their prayer; who make a show of piety and gi~e no alms to the destitute'' (The Quran, Chapter 107).


Islam, thus it can be seen, came to change the status quo in favour of the oppress~d and exploited what can be termed as the weaker sections of the society. AID' society which perpetuates exploitation o( the weak and the oppressed cannot be termed as · · even if other Islamic ntu s are enforced. The Prophet, in one of his ttaditions, has equated poverty with kufr (i.e., unbelief) and has sought refuge-in-God from both. Thus abolition of poverty is sine qua non of an Islamic society. Another tradition of the-Prophet makes it dear that a country can survive with kufr (unbelief) but not with zulm (i.e., oppression) . . Allah has made .iu~stice as the kingpin of a society ·"Say: My Lord enjoineth justice" (The Quran, 7:29). And also, "Lo! Allah loveth those who act in justice" (The Quran, 49:9). According to the Qurao evrn piety cannot be divested of the element of justice. '"Do justice, it is ·nearer to piety" (The Quran, 5:8) ~:Thus piety in Islam is not merely a meticulous observation of ritual prayers. Wj thout social justice, there can be no piet . In social affairs 'ad/ an · · d benev_g ence), according to the Quran, are key· conqa>IS ..Nawab Haider Naqvi, a Pakistan( economist, rightly maintains that " ... social justice iri Islam is rooted in man's fai h. Jnrl,e>.a.r1 ' lief in o en ails aa automatic duty ta da ju.stice-Ihe one cannot exist without the other ... "(N.H. Naqvi, Ethics and Economics-An Islamic Synthesis: Leicester, U.K., 1981.) Unfortunately, the revolutionary Islam was soon transformed into the status quoist Islam within no time after the death of the Prophet. Right through the medieval ages, it further imbibed.feudal pract(ces and the 'ulama' also came to support the powerful .establishments. -~ wrote moi:e on the ritual practices and spent th.e ir energy on subsidiary matters (juru' at) of the-Shari' at aod.comf)l~cy_play,ed down its elan for _



Islam and Liberation Theology


social justice and it~ ~ctive sympathy with the weak and the oppressed (mustad' ifin). Th~y came to identify themselves with mustakbiri~ (the powerful al]_g_~ ogg0.1),. Thus the received Islam is a status quoist Islam. It 1s fi1ghly necessary to abolish the capitalist system based on exploitation of man by man, if true Islamic spirit is to pervade in an Islamic society.

III We have examined certain aspects of liberation theology vis-a-vis conventional theology in the previous pages. We propQSe to examine, in what follows, a few more aspects invo,ved. Liberation t lo , it may . be ~ted, put!._!!lo re e111P .b~- uraxis rather than on metaphys1ca theorisation in~C!_lvil}&,. abs.tracuague and ,ambiguous notions. I Ire praxis empnasised is of liberative charact er and in_volves dialectical interaction of 'is' and 'ought' . I must say with due emphasis at my comma nd that lslam~ horn of its receive d metaphysico-theological obfuscations and seen in its e ry the ologica l formulation through the Ouranic revelations is Pleem2_nently h 6erat1v_s; in.Jts...ch aractei:-As is has already been pointed oui earher, Islam took shape as a p9werful r- ballengeJ.o_-t.he ricb leaders of M~~~ ho h~~ .00. the_~s.!fl.Jili.§Iim t:.r~J__and f2.1Jg W.,iur;iunsJ)' .against the Prophe t of !~1!!!:!J.Q..~eroetuate the. status gu9:-.The whole ideologic~ charact er of this latest and one of the greatest religions of the world is informe d of anti-sratus-quoist spirit. The fact that Islam is praxis-oriented comes ringing and foud . . ' through many verses of the Quran. Thus a mujahid (one who strives, . fights for the _right caiiseJ bas-been...s~ @~~ f-in.. .lhe 9P£fill· "Tnose of the believe rs", thus says the Quran, "who sit still. otbeJ than those who have a (disabling ),,hurt, ar.e.noi .on.an._~qual.i.L)Lwilh tho.s_e .who sh in the way of Allah w~tJL,.their_weppr¢~sive.es4tpli~~ment. Both ~~ Khawarij and the Zaidiyah led many 1=1ptjsings against' the Umayyads and were sevei:ely persecuted. The ta1diy~s., (t is interesting to note, were under the-influence of the fo~nder of M'_utazila group of thinkers Wasil bin' Ata. -

.~: ; ..








·,:··: Imam Hasan,_the illustrious elder son of Hazrat 'Ali, the 4th caliph, and from whom Amir Mu'a_wiyah snatched away the office of caliphate, was. involved in ac;_tive struggle . and hence he emphasised the importance of ik!ztiyar~In one of his letters to the people of Basrah, a city in Iraq, he maintains th_at man is creator of his actions (s~i'i af alihi), whether evil or good. God, according to him, is not re~'J)Onsible for these actions, God\does not compel men to act this way or that way; if He did the reward or p~nishment wool~ have no justification. \

'Ali, the 4th caliph and one of the great thinkers of early Islam, also subscribed to the doctrine of free will. He is reported to ~ave taken a more balanced view. When someone asked him whether man i~ free or his legs which he did; then he asked not, he told the person to lift one of '--. him to lift his other leg also which he could not. He thereupon said man has limited freedom. He is partly free and partly dependent on forces external to him. However, when an Arab questioned.him on the doctrine of qada and qadar (fate and des.tiny) in relation to the insurrection agai~st his rival Mu 'awiyah he s"ai(l that man is responsible for his actions and that neither fate is a necessity nor is destiny final. If it were so, the concept of reward and punishment would have no legitimacy.

Liberatio n Theology in /slam ,-


God has decreed men to_ do good and forbidden him from ev.il. His servants have the choice ..(S~e Nahj al-Balaghah, Cairo, 1968, p.·375.) . Imam Has~ ~-Bas~, an· eminent theologian of the Umayyad pen?d,_ also matntatned, 1n his letter to the Umayyad ruler 'Abd alMalik 1bn Marwan (685:.. 728 A.D.) that all our predecessors (meaning thereby all the eminent companions of the Prophet and others prior -lo the Umayyad period) believed in the doctrine of ikhtiyar (free will) and mas' uliyah (i.e. respon•~ibility for actions). He also clearly says in the above letter that the doctrine of jabr (i.e. pre-determination) has been invented and popularised by the Umayyads. (See Rasa' i al-' Adi wa alTauhid,. Vol. I, Cairo, 1971, pp. 83-84.) .



Thus we see that the doctrine of free will and pre-detennination had acquired a great deal of importance in I~lamJc theology. Those who stood for struggle against oppression and exploitation supported the doctrine of free fill and those who were with the establishment opted for helplessness of men and beljeved in fate and destiny: The Shi' as; the Khawarij and M'.utazilas, all were opposed to the Umayyad rule which was oppressive and exploitative, advocated the doctrine of free will. Man is not merely a plaything in the hands of destiny, his fate is- not . completely pre-determined, As far as liberation theology is concerned man is free agent reponsible for his actions. He is permitted by God to shape his _destiny either remaining within the limits (hudud) fixed by Him or transgressing these limits and in either case responsiblity is of man, a ;Jree age~t. If the doctrine of qada and qadar is accepted then man is· fated to accept the what is as against. what ought to be. Most of the p~o-establishment theologians denied the concep_l_of freedom of action for man and reduced him as a mere puppet in the hands of fate. .




On the lighter side of this debate which raged among the theologians and i~tellectuals of the time there is an interesting joke. A supporte r of the doctrine of jabr (pre-determination) from Baghdad came to Basrah, the centre of M'utazilas. He visited one of the noted / M'utaza lite Abul Hudhail al-' Allaf and ask~d him (thinking this question would silence him on the question of fate) who brings two fornicators together? Prompt came the reply from 'Allaf: 'Brother, in Basrah they say it is the pimp who brings them together and I hope the people of Baghdad would not refuse to accept this.' The man from Baghdad felt .greatly embarrassed and became silent.


Islam and Liberation Theology

The Sufis were also generally opposed to the tyrannical rulers and had great sympathy for the downtrodden and the oppressed although they did not' believe in active struggle and preferred to withdraw from the process rather than get sucked into it. However, their sympathy for the oppressed drew them towards the doctrine of free will. The great Sufi saint Muhiuddin Ibn 'Ara6i, the propounder of the doctrine of Wahdat al-Wujud (i.e., Unity of Existence), also believed in the concept of free will. He has discussed this question at length in his famous book Fusus al-Hikam (The Gems of Wisdom). lbn 'Arabi believed in the concept of responsibility of man for his actions. In this dispute he maintains that God has the knowledge but it does not mean that this knowledge is the final detennin ant of man's actions. God has created the potentialities and guidelines but not the final destinies of all the things. According to Ibn 'Arabi it is knowledge which follows the known and not otherwise. God's knowledge must·be taken in the sense that He knows what shall happen if the gbject of His knowledge behaved in a certain way, the choice of action depending on the object concerned. Thus according to lbn 'Arabi the fore-knowledge the God has does not imply pre-determination. He quotes the Quran · wherein God says "We are not wrong-doers for (Our) servants'·' and that "But they do wrong to themselves". lbn 'Arabi puts it very forthrightly that man is free and responsi ble for his deeds. He says very categorically that it is we who order and execute, not Haqq (i.e., God) · (See Fusus al-Hikam, Cairo, 1964, p. 82). Similarly the concept of Sovereignty of God has also to be seen in proper perspective as far as the liberation theology is concerned. Normally, in the traditional theology, sovereignty of God implies passive surrender of man to the will of God. However, a careful scrutiny of the Quranic text would not bear out such a categorical conclusion. God is sovereign but not in the sense that man will have no freedom or initiative. God is sovereign in the sense that he lays down the limits, creates potentiality for accepting. His guidance lays down the framework of values leading to promoti~n of social health, relief from oppressi ve socio-ec onomic structure s, restorati on of dignity of humanity and weakening of opprtsso rs and·exploiters. The initiative to act ,and to actualise the potentialities endowed by God rests with individuals. Sovereignty of God in no sense deprives man of his initiative to execute what is good and to forbid what is evil. In fact the Quran exhorts man to do th~s. If sovereignty of God meant abject

Liberation Theology in Islam


surrender of man arid loss of all initiatives why should He ordain him to promote good and forbid what is detrimental to humanity? The Qur~m, on the other hand, urges upon man to engage continuously in the struggle to better human lot, to wipe out what is evil and to end oppression and exploitation. It does not want corruption and fttna on earth. Man, i~ order to, promote these values, is free to act according to his circumstances. The Quran and sunna (the Prophet's practice) would serve him as a guideline in this direction. Following sunna does not mean, as implied in traditional theology, imitating it r,nechanically. It means drawing inspiration from it and to understand its spirit to grapple with the knotty and complex problems of life according to ones circumstances .. Notes and References 1.

2. 3. 4.

Sira /bn Hisham Urd. tr. Maulana 'Abdul Jalil and Ghulam Rasool Mahar, Vol. II, p: 812 (Delhi, 1982). See also Tarikh Tabari, Vol. III, (Cairo, 1962), p. 210. Taqi Amini, Islam Ka Zar' i Nizam (Delhi, 1982), p. 88. Ahmad Amin, D' awal al-Taqrib, p. •95 cf. William Shepard, The Faith of a Modern Mus/ im Intellectual (Delhi, 1982), pp. 105-106. Erich Fromm, Psychoanalysis and Religion (Yale University Press, 1972), p. 39-40.