Religious Charlatans and the Captivity of Religion
By: Fawad Merzaie
Recently, I read an article by an Egyptian journalist which was quite thought–provoking. He stated that, since the early 1950s, two figures had emerged in the literary and press space of Egypt: Mustafa Mahmoud and Yusuf Idris. Both of them had originally been doctors, but later they had sought to write short stories and plays, works that would reach and be read by a large number of people and bring them considerable fame. They had endeavored to combine the experiences of a doctor with literary creativity and attain a privileged position for themselves in Arab literature. Over time, however, the paths of these two writers had diverged. Youssef Idris had managed to write numerous literary works which had gained the attention and praise of critics and had won a number of audiences, thus securing his desired position as a renowned and celebrated writer in Egypt and the Arab world. In contrast, Mustafa Mahmoud‘s works had not been able to attract the attention and appreciation of literary experts and critics. Despite not being a highly–regarded academic writer, Mahmoud never gave up and sought out other ways to gain fame and social status. His name is now well–known due to his books and lectures on the relationship between science and religion, atheism, and the scientific miracle of the Quran. Mahmoud turned to religion when he felt that he had nothing of value to offer in the field of literature. Drawing on his knowledge and medical experience, he theorized about religious issues, and his name is now as renowned as those of Shaarawi, Havini, and Ibn Baz. Idris, meanwhile, is placed alongside great scholars such as Taha Hossein, Naguib Mahfouz, and Tawfiq Al–Hakim.
The crux of this story is that Mahmoud found the most expedient route to achieving his lofty aspirations of delving into religious topics. He leveraged an audience that was receptive to religious content to secure a superior and unrivaled position for himself. We do not wish to compare Mahmoud, the highly educated religious writer, to the less educated religious missionaries in Afghan society, but rather to question why people in Islamic societies perceive the realm of religious matters as one of the most straightforward paths to achieving personal ambitions and dreams.
As with any other society, religious society is likely to be impacted by various plagues and illnesses. One of these catastrophes is that the management of sacred matters falls into the hands of uneducated individuals who are unable to communicate the essential message of religion to the public. Religiosity that is disseminated through ignorant and illiterate people in society will naturally have the hue and sheen of the same people and will be associated with degeneracy and crudeness. This makes it appear dark and creates a favorable environment for people to judge the principles of religion unfavorably. In this regard, Afghan society can be considered one of the same types of communities.
Many people are engaged in guiding the faithful through mosque pulpits or other mediums, spending their days and nights explaining the messages of religion to the populace. Many of these individuals have come to the realization that they have no talent for anything else, and so have turned to preaching and elucidating theology. In our society, it is enough to have the capacity to memorize a few verses, hadiths, and religious phrases to become a successful preacher overnight. Furthermore, if one applies some wisdom, they can easily gain considerable fame and wealth. There are people in our society who preach religion and also answer people‘s religious queries. They have studied the Arabic language for two or three years in one of the educational institutions, and thus are the most prominent preachers and religious missionaries, held in high esteem by the religious community. The popularity of YouTubers in the country has led to presenters of low–viewing television programs entering the story and making money by producing low–quality content with a religious focus. What is worse is that some people who claim to be philosophers or psychologists, despite having no expertise in religious matters, have become more enthusiastic than others in promoting religion or even attempting to give researched opinions about it. As a result, the simplest way to gain fame and fortune in Afghan society is to pretend to be religious and deceive the public by using the guise of religion.
The pervasive disorder and chronic unrest in Afghanistan have had a detrimental effect on all aspects of life, causing significant damage to religious teachings. Upon closer examination of the material provided by mullahs or other religious missionaries, either online or offline, it is evident that this material is not reliable and therefore a waste of time. However, due to the low level of understanding and literacy in the country, as well as the simplicity of the content provided by these preachers, it is still engaging for the people. Since illiterate religious missionaries rely heavily on the masses, they will resort to any means to gain the approval of the general public and ensure their satisfaction. This has led to the proliferation of religious propaganda. The popularization of religious discourse is one of the detriments that harms this discourse and provides the foundation for the distortion of religion and the spread of superstitions and illusions in the name of religion, which further contributes to the backwardness of societies.
Indeed, our community is currently on the brink of decline and facing all kinds of suffering and chronic pain. Nevertheless, this harsh and painful reality should not make us forget to search for different solutions. One of the things that can help us to escape this situation is the criticism and analysis of the religious discourse in Afghanistan. It cannot be denied that the Taliban‘s control over Afghanistan, along with many other factors, is due to the popularity of the Taliban‘s interpretation of Islam. Once again, the Taliban were able to deceive and disarm a portion of the population by making religious slogans and claims. Of course, this is not the first time in the history of our country that a movement has used religion to mask their intentions of promoting backwardness and hostility. Previously, similar movements have employed Islamic ideology to oppose or even cause the downfall of progressive reforms. It is uncertain when Afghans will learn from the lessons of the past, and prevent themselves from falling into the same trap again and again.
It is impossible to combat dismantling movements without a rigorous critique of the prevailing religious discourse in Afghanistan, which has caused much distress. Mullahs and uneducated religious missionaries are instrumental in reinforcing the popular religious discourse. We should seek out opportunities to demonstrate their lack of education and their ignorance of religion and the global situation. Religion, as one of the essential elements of our society, should be taken away from the control of those who seek power and are avaricious charlatans, so that we can use it for the advancement of spirituality and morality.