Uncritical Reliance on Authority

A final word on Rushdie–what follows is a response I received from a mentor who served as a former professor of political philosophy at several prominent American universities and holds a PhD from Princeton. Despite being a committed atheist in the tradition of many leftist intellectuals, he appreciates the subjective character of my argument; his endorsement was important to me. Nevertheless, the professor includes one very useful caveat, namely that one should not place uncritical reliance on a particular ‘authority’ before arriving at a merit-based conclusion. I see considerable virtue in that view, particularly given the remarkable absence of contemporary religious scholars who exhibit true intellectual and moral consistency. My late father also had strong disdain for the doctrine of “taqlid,” which roughly translates to “blind adherence” (generally in legal matters). Taqlid seems to me a highly obsolete doctrine in light of the increased heterogeneity and literacy in many parts of the Islamic world. It has never made much sense to me. I hope to write about it in the near future. That said, a lack of moral consistency is not unique to contemporary religious clergy and is practiced by secular journalists, news commentators, public intellectuals and politicians in equal, if not greater, measure. Senators Eric Cantor and Harry Reid, polar opposites on the political spectrum, are excellent examples of men who suffer from moral dissonance. The sorry examples of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, etc. are too obvious to mention.

It’s true one must understand something before summarily rejecting it. Islamic scholars such Ghazzali and Ibn Taymiyyah were known to put forth the arguments of their detractors in a highly lucid, organized, and systematic manner. Ghazzali’s writings on Greek philosophy were thought to be so lucid that his denouncers would reply upon his treatises to understand the very views they were promoting. Ibn Taymiyyah’s “Refutation of the Greek Logicians” similarly shows an extremely impressive command of Aristotelian logic and its philosophical underpinnings. Taymiyyah’s fourteenth-century contributions to logic influenced contemporary computer scientist John Sowa in developing complex algorithms and computer models. Moreover, the back-and-forth intellectual controversy between the various schools of Islamic theology (Asharite vs. Mu’tazilite) showcased an impressive ability to consider arguments from the numberless vantage points. In short, the classical Muslim scholastics did not “put the cart before the horse” and endeavored to understand precisely what they were refuting before embarking upon a point-by-point dismemberment. It’s an indication, it seems to me, that they were very secure in their respective faiths and did not fear engaging challenging ideas honestly and transparently. This is a tradition that needs to be revived.

In the end, Muslims who champion Rushdie’s writings constitute a very small fraction of modern Islam; engaging them, at least on this issue, seems to me a lost cause. Nevertheless, getting my thoughts out was a very rewarding and even therapeutic experience. I’ve spoken my peace, as they say. A final quote from the professor:

I just read your reply, and liked it. The irony is that yours is not a very radical position. It conforms to basic civil libertarian opinion except on one point, but still a crucial one. You say that those who object, or should object, to Rushdie ought to boycott his book. Fair enough. Those who object to a “controversial” speaker often urge others to boycott the talk. So far as I know, no one has ever said the advocacy of such boycotts is illiberal. Speaking against the blacklist, Pete Seeger used to say that if you don’t like a program on television, just change the station. But here’s the objection. How do you know whether something is objectionable unless you first read it on your own? Admittedly, this isn’t always possible, as in the case you cite of illiterates who must rely on respected authority. But if you have the ability and time to investigate on your own — to use your own mind — I cannot see the value let alone virtue of letting someone else do your thinking for you. There’s an inherent tension between the political utility of a boycott and the moral statement it makes versus wanting to think for yourself. Between the two, and notwithstanding the fact that I am fundamentally a political being, I value my independent judgment too much to defer to someone else’s, however respected and revered.

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One Response to Uncritical Reliance on Authority

  1. Salina says:

    As Muslims, “reliance on authority” is essential to our faith. As our Supreme Authority Allah says in the Quran (4:59): “O Men of faith! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and those vested with authority over you [from] among you; and then if you quarrel about something, refer it to Allah and the Messenger….”
    As for taqlid, it is not “blind adherence” but rather adopting the fiqh rulings of a jurist with trust in their correctness. Just like you would take the opinion of a doctor, lawyer, or plumber based on their knowledge and understanding of the matter, we have to go to a learned scholar for Islamic rulings. This, not because they will always be right, but because they are the most likely to be correct.
    Now if someone wants to come to religious conclusions about shariah laws on their own, that is an option too. But it entails spending many, many years studying Arabic, logic, Islamic law etc in an established school and obtaining a diploma that allows one to give his/her opinions. Just like you have to have a medical degree to practice medicine or pass the bar to practice law.
    Yes, there are a lot of “false” scholars, experts etc. out there and there are methods of identifying the legitimate ones. As Muslims, we must all be familiar with the primary sources: Quran, reliable hadith, life of the Prophet (S) and Islamic history to determine which scholars to follow now.

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