02/12/2014 12:21 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 05:59 GMT

When Is a Religion Responsible for the Acts of Its Followers?

Acts of violence in the name of Islam evoke two seemingly opposing responses. One takes these acts as an inevitable outcome of Islam, linked almost causally to the teaching of the Quran. The other tries to defend Islam against these charges and aims to demonstrate that any reference to the Quran is an abuse and misinterpretation of the text. Who is to be believed? What is the relationship between the teachings of a religion and the actions of its followers? What is the relationship between the text and the act? When, if ever, a religion, in this case Islam, can be credited with the acts, good or bad, of its followers?

Answering these questions requires exploration of the idea of a religious tradition, the nature of scriptures and the ways they are interpreted. Due to the limitation of space, the discussion below will focus on the tendency to blame Islam for the morally reprehensible acts committed in its name. The underlying conceptual point however is applicable equally to the opposite trend of crediting Islam for the morally praise worthy acts of individuals.

Both these positions share two assumptions which are ultimately unsustainable. First, that there is a set of clear, durable and fixed doctrines and teachings in the sacred texts of Islam. Second, that people's actions are a direct outcome of such teachings. In other words, the underlying claim is that Muslims do what they are told in the Quran which in turn is transparent and unambiguous.

It is easy to see why these assumptions seem credible. Discourse of the extremist movements is replete with references to the Quranic verses (for example chapter nine titled Tauba) and biography of the Prophet (for example treatment of Jewish tribes in Medina) to justify quest for Islamic dominance through violence as well as to rationalise acts such as beheading. Similarly, it can be argued that the inspiration for the creation of caliphate is rooted in a particular interpretation of some Quranic verses (such as 24:55). Finally, it is not difficult to find Quranic support for the harsh attitude towards those who the extremists come to regard as non-Muslims.

However, the claim that religious texts, or for that matter almost any text, have clear, unambiguous meanings which have almost causal relationship with the acts, good or bad, of the readers is ultimately untenable. It fails to answer many questions that observation throws up. Why, it can be asked, if the encouragement of violence is unambiguous and persuasive, overwhelming majority of Muslims, both today and in the past, have not been extremists? Why it is that the Jihadists are attracted to a few versus which lend themselves to their narrative of Islam and neglect many others that can serve to challenge it?

More importantly, blaming Islam for the acts committed in its name disregards what we know about the ways people relate to their sacred texts. Hermeneutics, the study of the processes of interpretation, tells us that texts, particularly religious texts, are open to interpretation and reinterpretation. In fact, their power to inspire generations after generations lies in this fertility. On the other hand, the reader has a consciousness and context and comes to the text with expectations, dispositions and even foreknowledge. Meaning of a text emerges through an encounter, or what Gramsci calls the fusion of horizons, of the text and reader. The meaning is neither wholly in the text nor is it arbitrary imagined by the readers. The reader interprets the text - an act shaped both by the characteristics and context of the text and by the intellectual capacities, social, political and historical location, fears, hopes, and anticipation of the reader. It is thus a common experience that a text, says a novel, can invoke different responses in different people and indeed in the same person at different times of life.

Even a cursory glance at the history of Muslims shows the soundness of this hermeneutical insight. Muslims have rarely agreed on what is Islam and what different verses of the Quran mean. Rather we find a diversity of doctrines, norms and institutions each claiming to be based on sacred texts. Take, for example, the question of Muslim relationship with non-Muslims. At least seven different ways or degrees of openness in Muslim views of other religions in the pre-modern period can be noted. These range from hostility to other religions to a degree of positive interest in learning about them to claims of spiritual unity among all religions. All of these positions were held and justified through an appeal to the Quranic verses and examples from the Prophet. They are reflective of the fact that the Quran's own attitude to non-Muslims is complex, ranging from that in verse (2:62) which forges a common bond among people from different religions to that in verse (5:51) which cautions Muslims against taking Jews and Christians as waly (allies and, in some translations, as friends).

Muslims of today are heir to these rich and diverse possibilities. The fascinating question is which of these possibilities get realised, by whom and why. How the symbolic resources of a tradition are put to social use in different contexts? This question focuses on the role played by believers' agency, reason and socio-political circumstances in keeping religious ideas applicable across time and space. Religions, including Islam, are thus both a product and a process, simultaneously closed and open ended.

So, when is a scripture responsible for the acts of its follower? If the above analysis has any force, it should by now be apparent that the question itself is misguided. The acts of Muslims, positive or negative, are not a direct consequence of the Quranic teachings but a result of complex processes in which religion may play a part but always through a mediation of a variety of intellectual, social and political factors.

What does this mean with regard to dealing with the spectre of extremism, among Muslims as well as in other religious groups?

Ideologies are hard to kill but they can be contained. But, to do that we need to understand what makes them attractive in the first place. Thus, instead of debating how Islamic or un-Islamic extremist ideology is, we must ask why it has become attractive at particular times and to particular people. This sociological question is rarely asked by those who blame Islam or by those who defend it. But, it is through this question that we are forced to look at socio-political contexts for the attractions of extremist narratives of Islam. Any genuine and effective response will thus have to be multifaceted involving education, ideology critique and theological re-orientation. It will have to include socio-economic development, privileging of human interests over short term national or corporate interests and, perhaps most importantly, availability of space for social critique and hope for a better world based on non-religious world views.