Heretics by Carool Kersten

In 2009, the Moroccan-born Anouar Majid, a professor of English at the University of New England in Maine, capped off his earlier pleas for a critical rethinking of the rhetorical use of religion and the political exploitation of national and civilisational heritages with A Call to Heresy: Why Dissent is Vital to Islam and America. A highly personal meditation building on his earlier writings on the place of Muslims in a postcolonial and polycentric world, the book’s intentionally provocative title does not imply a rejection of Islam. On the contrary, it is meant to give Muslims a morale boost to face the challenge of modernity without fear. Majid contends that Muslims have the emotional and intellectual maturity to ‘confront their own contradictions’. They should display a confidence that ‘is robust enough to allow for troubling questions to be raised’.

Majid’s invitation to entertain heretical views by equating them with dissenting opinions is not new. In fact, his stance is reminiscent of the one taken by Peter Berger in The Heretical Imperative. Returning to the etymological origins of the word ‘heresy’ – from the Greek word hairein, which means ‘to choose’ – Berger takes it as his point of departure to interrogate the theological possibilities offered by liberal Protestantism‘s openness towards human experience. Confronted with the plurality of worldviews that is the hallmark of modernity, humankind must shift from a resigned acceptance of fate towards an ability to make considered choices, relying on the human faculty of thought and reflection. It is very much the same for Majid: ‘modernity, in its Islamic sense, is no more than embracing the right critical method and ensuring a society that doesn’t punish difference or proscribe intellectual pluralism’.

Historically, the introduction of critical thinking into religious discourses has always been controversial and not exactly risk-free. However, in a review of Majid’s book, the American anthropologist of Islam Daniel Varisco also notes that ‘the ashes of the heretics … have bred significant reforms to bring religious traditions into relative harmony with the inevitable pace of culture change’.

The animosity towards religious dissent is not surprising. Calling into question people’s most deeply-felt convictions will obviously invite hostile reactions on the part of believers who feel threatened by ideas that undermine their world view. It can also pose a challenge to the authority of religious institutions or establishment figures. This kind of provocation has even graver consequences, because such organisations or individuals have the power and the means to sanction those whom they regard as infringing on what is perceived as an exclusive domain. They simply cannot tolerate ideas impinging on areas which they have declared off-limits to the common believers. The maverick Muslim scholar of Islam Mohammed Arkoun designates those parts of a religious heritage that are excluded from critical examination as ‘the Unthought’.

Usually that is not the end of it. A ‘thought police’, consisting of administrative office holders assisted by a collaborating clerical class, can effectively bar any interrogation of such intellectual no-go areas by defining and formulating an approved and sancti¬fied body of learning. The hegemony of this ‘Official Closed Corpus’ turns everything else into the realm of ‘The Unthinkable’, and critical minds who venture there do so at their own peril.