Rethinking Islam

It is now obvious that Islam itself has to be re-thought, idea by idea. We need to begin with the simple fact that Muslims have no monopoly on truth, on what is right, on what is good, on justice, nor the intellectual and moral reflexes that promote these necessities. Like the rest of humanity, we have to struggle to achieve them using our own sacred notions and concepts as tools for understanding and reshaping contemporary reality.

Serious rethinking within  Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long. 

This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have been suggesting for well over a century that we need to make a serious attempt at ijtihad, at reasoned struggle and rethinking, to reform Islam. At the beginning of the last century, Jamaluddin Afghani and Mohammad Abduh led the call for a new ijtihad; and along the way many notable intellectuals, academics and sages have added to this plea — not least Mohammad Iqbal, Malik bin Nabbi and Abdul Qadir Audah. Yet, ijtihad is one thing Muslim societies have singularly failed to undertake. Why?

The why has now acquired an added urgency. Just look around the Muslim world and see how far we have travelled away from the ideals and spirit of Islam. Far from being a liberating force, a kinetic social, cultural and intellectual dynamic for equality, justice and humane values, Islam seems to have acquired a pathological strain. Indeed, it seems to me that we have internalised all those historic and contemporary western representations of Islam and Muslims that have been demonising us for centuries. We now actually wear the garb, I have to confess, of the very demons that the West has been projecting on our collective personality.

But to blame the West, or a notion of instrumental modernity that is all but alien to us, would be a lazy option. True, the West, and particularly America, has a great deal to answer for. And Muslims are quick to point a finger at the injustices committed by American and European foreign policies and hegemonic tendencies. However, that is only a part, and in my opinion not an insurmountable part, of the malaise. Hegemony is not always imposed; sometimes, it is invited. The internal situation within Islam is an open invitation.

We have failed to respond to the summons to ijtihad for some very profound reasons. Prime amongst these is the fact that the context of our sacred texts — the Qur’an and the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, our absolute frame of reference — has been frozen in history. One can only have an interpretative relationship with a text — even more so if the text is perceived to be eternal. But if the interpretative context of the text is never our context, not our own time, then its interpretation can hardly have any real meaning or significance for us as we are now.

Historic interpretations constantly drag us back to history, to frozen and ossified contexts of long ago; worse, to perceived and romanticised contexts that have not even existed in history. This is why while Muslims have a strong emotional attachment to Islam, Islam per se, as a worldview and system of ethics, has little or no direct relevance to their daily lives apart from the obvious concerns of rituals and worship. ijtihad and fresh thinking have not been possible because there is no context within which they can actually take place.

The freezing of interpretation, the closure of ‘the gates of ijtihad’, has had a devastating effect on Muslim thought and action. In particular, it has produced what I can only describe as three metaphysical catastrophes: the elevation of the Shari`ah to the level of the Divine, with the consequent removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the State. Let me elaborate.

Most Muslims consider the Shari‘ah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’, to be divine. Yet, there is nothing divine about the Shari‘ah. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shari‘ah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context. This is why the bulk of the Shari‘ah actually consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid period when it was actually formulated and codified. But when fiqh assumed its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects of Muslim society of the Abbasid period.

At that juncture, Muslim history was in its expansionist phase, and fiqh incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism of that time. The fiqh rulings on apostasy, for example, derive not from the Qur’an but from this logic. Moreover, the world was simple and could easily be divided into black and white: hence, the division of the world into Daral Islam and Daral Harb.

Furthermore, as the framers of law were not by this stage managers of society, the law became merely theory which could not be modified – the framers of the law were unable to see where the faults lay and what aspect of the law needed fresh thinking and reformulation. Thus fiqh, as we know it today, evolved on the basis of a division between those who were governing and set themselves apart from society and those who were framing the law; the epistemological assumptions of a ‘golden’ phase of Muslim history also came into play. When we describe the Shari`ah as divine, we actually provide divine sanctions for the rulings of by-gone fiqh.

What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the Shari‘ah — the demands of Muslims from Indonesia to Nigeria – the contradictions that were inherent in the formulation and evolution of fiqh come to the fore. That is why wherever the Shari‘ah is imposed – that is, fiqhi legislation is applied, out of context from the time when it was formulated and out of step with ours — Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel.

We can see that in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and the Taliban of Afghanistan. When narrow adherence to fiqh, to the dictates of this or that school of thought, whether it has any relevance to the real world or not, becomes the norm, ossification sets in. The Shari‘ah will solve all our problems becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary for a group with vested interest in this notion of the Shari‘ah to preserve its territory, the source of its power and prestige, at all costs. An outmoded body of law is thus equated with the Shari‘ah, and criticism is shunned and outlawed by appealing to its divine nature.

The elevation of the Shari‘ah to the divine level also means the believers themselves have no agency: since The Law is a priori given, people themselves have nothing to do except to follow it. Believers thus become passive receivers rather than active seekers of truth. In reality, the Shari‘ah is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values, that provide Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are not a static given but are dynamically derived within changing contexts.

As such, the Shari‘ah is a problem-solving methodology rather than law. It requires the believers to exert themselves and constantly reinterpret the Qur’an and look at the life of the Prophet Muhammad with ever changing fresh eyes. Indeed, the Qur’an has to be reinterpreted from epoch to epoch — which means the Shari‘ah, and by extension Islam itself, has to be reformulated with changing contexts. The only thing that remains constant in Islam is the text of the Qur’an itself — its concepts providing the anchor for ever changing interpretations.

Islam is not so much a religion but an integrative worldview: that is to say, it integrates all aspects of reality by providing a moral perspective on every aspect of human endeavour. Islam does not provide ready–made answers to all human problems; it provides a moral and just perspective within which Muslims must endeavour to find answers to all human problems. But if everything is a priori given, in the shape of a divine Shari‘ah, then Islam is reduced to a totalistic ideology. Indeed, this is exactly what the Islamic movements — in particular Jamaat-e-Islami (both the Pakistani and Indian varieties) and the Muslim Brotherhood — have reduced Islam to.

Which brings me to the third metaphysical catastrophe. Place this ideology within a nation state, with the divinely attributed Shari‘ah at its centre, and you have an ‘Islamic state’. All contemporary ‘Islamic states’, from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan to aspiring Pakistan, are based on this ridiculous assumption. But once Islam, as an ideology, becomes a programme of action of a vested group, it looses its humanity and becomes a battlefield where morality, reason and justice are readily sacrificed at the altar of emotions.

Moreover, the step from a totalistic ideology to a totalitarian order where every human situation is open to state arbitration is a small one. The transformation of Islam into a state-based political ideology not only deprives it of all its moral and ethical content, it also debunks most of Muslim history as un–Islamic. Invariably, when Islamists rediscover a ‘golden’ past, they do so only in order to disdain the present and mock the future. All we are left with is messianic chaos, as we saw so vividly in the Taliban regime, where all politics as the domain of action is paralysed and meaningless pieties become the foundational truth of the state.

The totalitarian vision of Islam as a State thus transforms Muslim politics into a metaphysics: in such an enterprise, every action can be justified as ‘Islamic’ by the dictates of political expediency as we witnessed in revolutionary Iran.

The three metaphysical catastrophes are accentuated by an overall process of reduction that has become the norm in Muslim societies. The reductive process itself is also not new; but now it has reached such an absurd state that the very ideas that are supposed to take Muslim societies towards humane values now actually take them in the opposite direction.

From the subtle beauty of a perennial challenge to construct justice through mercy and compassion, we get mechanistic formulae fixated with the extremes repeated by people convinced they have no duty to think for themselves because all questions have been answered for them by the classical ‘ulema, far better men long dead. And because everything carries the brand name of Islam, to question it, or argue against it, is tantamount to voting for sin.

The process of reduction started with the very notion of ‘alim (scholar) itself. Just who is an ‘alim; what makes him an authority? In early Islam, an ‘alim was anyone who acquired ‘ilm, or knowledge, which was itself described in a broad sense. We can see that in the early classifications of knowledge by such scholars as al–Kindi, al–Farabi, Ibn Sina, al–Ghazali and Ibn Khuldun. Indeed, both the definition of knowledge and its classification was a major intellectual activity in classical Islam.

So all learned men, scientists as well as philosophers, scholars as well as theologians, constituted the ‘ulama. But after the ‘gates of ijtihad’ were closed during the Abbasid era, ilm was increasingly reduced to religious knowledge and the ‘ulema came to constitute only religious scholars.

Similarly, the idea of ijma, the central notion of communal life in Islam, has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma literally means consensus of the people. The concept dates back to the practice of Prophet Muhammad himself as leader of the original polity of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision, he would call the whole Muslim community – then, admittedly not very large — to the mosque. A discussion would ensue; arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the entire gathering would reach a consensus.

Thus, a democratic spirit was central to communal and political life in early Islam. But over time the clerics and religious scholars have removed the people from the equation – and reduced ijma to ‘the consensus of the religious scholars’. Not surprisingly, authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reign supreme in the Muslim world. The political domain finds its model in what has become the accepted practice and metier of the authoritatively ‘religious’ adepts, those who claim the monopoly of exposition of Islam. Obscurantist mullahs, in the guise of the ‘ulema, dominate Muslim societies and circumscribe them with fanaticism and absurdly reductive logic.

Numerous other concepts have gone through a similar process of reduction. The concept of ummah, the global spiritual community of Muslims, has been reduced to the ideals of a nation state: ‘my country right or wrong’ has been transposed to read ‘my ummah right or wrong’. So even despots like Saddam Hussein are now defended on the basis of ‘ummah consciousness’ and ‘unity of the ummah’.

Jihad has now been reduced to the single meaning of ‘Holy War’. This translation is perverse not only because the concept’s spiritual, intellectual and social components have been stripped away, but it has been reduced to war by any means, including terrorism. So anyone can now declare jihad on anyone, without any ethical or moral rhyme or reason. Nothing could be more perverted, or pathologically more distant from the initial meaning of jihad. It’s other connotations, including personal struggle, intellectual endeavour and social construction have all but evaporated.

Istislah, normally rendered as ‘public interest’ and a major source of Islamic law, has all but disappeared from Muslim consciousness. And ijtihad, as I have suggested, has now been reduced to little more than a pious desire.

But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant compared to the reductive way the Qur’an and the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad are bandied about. What the late Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman called the ‘atomistic’ treatment of the Qur’an is now the norm: almost anything and everything is justified by quoting individual bits of verse out of context.

After the September 11 event, for example, a number of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3: 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an.

In this particular verse, the Qur’an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. It was revealed during the battle of Uhud, when the small and ill–equipped army of the Prophet, faced a much larger and well–equipped enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an reassures him and promises the enemy will be terrified with the Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on what was happening at that time.

Similarly hadiths are quoted to justify the most extreme of behaviour. And the Prophet’s own appearance, his beard and clothes, have been turned into a fetish: so now it is not just obligatory for a ‘good Muslim’ to have a beard, but its length and shape must also conform to dictates! The Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols — the spirit of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions, his humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated have all been subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

The accumulative effect of the metaphysical catastrophes and endless reduction has transformed the cherished tenets of Islam into instruments of militant expediency and moral bankruptcy. For over two decades, in books like, The Future of Muslim Civilisation (1979) and Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come (1985), I have been arguing that Muslim civilisation is now so fragmented and shattered that we have to rebuild it, ‘brick by brick’.

It is now obvious that Islam itself has to be rethought, idea by idea. We need to begin with the simple fact that Muslims have no monopoly on truth, on what is right, on what is good, on justice, nor the intellectual and moral reflexes that promote these necessities. Like the rest of humanity, we have to struggle to achieve them using our own sacred notions and concepts as tools for understanding and reshaping contemporary reality.

The way to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires confronting the metaphysical catastrophes and moving away from reduction to synthesis. Primarily, this requires Muslims, as individuals and communities, to reclaim agency: to insist on their right and duty, as believers and knowledgeable people, to interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam: to question what now goes under the general rubric of Shari‘ah, to declare that much of fiqh is now dangerously obsolete, to stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam confined by a geographically bound state.

We cannot, if we really value our faith, leave its exposition in the hands of under educated elites, religious scholars whose lack of comprehension of the contemporary world is usually matched only by their disdain and contempt for all its ideas and cultural products. Islam has been permitted to languish as the professional domain of people more familiar with the world of the eleventh century than the twenty–first century we now inhabit. And we cannot allow this class to bury the noble idea of ijtihad into frozen and distant history.

Ordinary Muslims around the world who have concerns, questions and considerable moral dilemmas about the current state of affairs of Islam must reclaim the basic concepts of Islam and reframe them in a broader context. Ijma must mean consensus of all citizens leading to participatory and accountable governance. Jihad must be understood in its complete spiritual meaning as the struggle for peace and justice as a lived reality for all people, everywhere. And the notion of the ummah must be refined so it becomes something more than a mere reductive abstraction.

As Anwar Ibrahim has argued, the ummah is not "merely the community of all those who profess to be Muslims"; rather, it is a "moral conception of how Muslims should become a community in relation to each other, other communities and the natural world". Which means ummah incorporates not just the Muslims, but justice–seeking and oppressed people everywhere.

In a sense, the movement towards synthesis is an advance towards the primary meaning and message of Islam — as a moral and ethical way of looking at and shaping the world, as a domain of peaceful civic culture, a participatory endeavour, and a holistic mode of knowing, being and doing. (June 2002). 

Archived from Communalism Combat, February 2000. Year 9  No, 84, Forum



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