A Muslim’s Case for Islamic Reform: The idea of reform is not actually new in Islamic history, as there have been reformist movements throughout many Muslim societies.

Secular and religious Turkish women took to the streets to protest against Prime Minister Erdogan, who sparked outrage when he delivered two fiery speeches attacking abortion and Caesarean births as

Secular and religious Turkish women took to the streets to protest against Prime Minister Erdogan, who sparked outrage when he delivered two fiery speeches attacking abortion and Caesarean births as "secret" plots designed to stall Turkey's economic growth in May 2012. (Photo: @ Reuters)

Since the attacks of 9/11, there have been plenty of discussions about Islamic reform and a number of wide-ranging searches for reformers who are—or would be—leading such projects. There are those who say that Islam needs reform; those who say Islam does not need reform and those who say Islam cannot be reformed. Among Muslims, there are those at one end of the spectrum that totally reject the idea of reform, whereas others in the middle desire a limited amount of reform and, on the other end of the spectrum, those who are calling for a total, open-ended, inside-and-out reform and reconstruction of Islamic theology and societies.

The idea of reform and renewal is not actually new in Islamic history, as there have been a number of reformist and revivalist movements throughout many Muslim societies. The important things for Muslims at this juncture in history is to figure out whether reform is necessary and, if so, what the reform’s goals must be and what mechanisms to use to make it happen.

The five pillars of Islam are essential to the faith, so there is no serious effort by any credible groups or persons to reform them. These basic pillars are not a threat to anyone. However, beyond these five pillars, there are a whole host of issues that must be carefully examined.

 

How Sharia Was Formed

We need to understand how Islamic law, or the Sharia, was formed and the role played by the interpretations of fallible people.

The limited comprehension of mortal human beings limits understandings of Islam and any interpretation of it. Historical Islam, as interpreted and understood by human beings, is not constant or infallible. It has evolved through every age and time based on the outlooks and mentalities of Muslims interpreting it.

Over a span of several hundred years after the passing away of the Prophet Mohammed, the Muslim scholars developed a set of principles known as the Sharia (The Way to Allah) and the Fiqh/Ahkams (understandings, commandments and laws).

The Sharia/Fiqh, as developed over the centuries, did not come directly from Allah, nor did it come from the unadulterated legacy of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Quran was progressively revealed to the Prophet Mohammed over almost 23 years and then compiled into its present form several decades after the passing away of the Prophet Mohammed.

In most cases, the Quran does not provide the background or context of the messages in sufficient detail. This was not a problem when the Prophet Mohammed was alive to explain it, but when he passed away without any contemporaneous notes left behind, the so-called “occasions of revelation (asbab-ul-nuzul)” were constructed over generations into the Sunna and Hadith.

The scholars worked for generations in writing commentaries and then commentaries on the commentaries, called the “tafsir.” In order to reconcile contradictory passages, the theory of abrogation (nasikh-wal-mansukh)—the canceling or superseding of one Quranic passage in favor of a newer passage—was invented, without prophetic or divine guidance.

Scholars in the first 300 years of Islam after the Prophet Mohammed’s death determined which records of the his sayings and conduct (the Sunnah) would make it into the books of Hadith, giving different accounts varying degrees of authenticity and reliability. This science of Hadith authentication (ilm-ar-rijal) concentrated on the piety and personal character of the narrators, and not the historical accuracy or logical consistency of the narrators’ reports.

No matter how meticulous and pious these scholars were, they were humans subjected to all the imperfections and limitations of being human beings. Plus, they worked in a highly charged political atmosphere, rife with sectarian conflicts between Muslims for power, wealth, glory and religious fanaticism.

This encouraged misinterpretation and altogether fabrication of hadith, both in terms of content and the chain of narrators. The hadith collection projects were neither done contemporaneously when the Prophet was alive, nor were sanctioned by the Prophet or his immediate successors, the so-called “Rightly Guided Caliphs.” The collections were approved by later generations based on the perceived need (darura) and the consensus (ijma) of the scholars of the time.

The sharia is the codified consensus of these human scholars. Therefore, sharia is man-made and fallible. And because traditional Islam is based on this sharia, it has absorbed a lot of the values of the times in which the sharia was formed. As a result, traditional Islam has rough edges intermingled with a great deal of ethical goodness and serene spirituality.

In forming the sharia, the jurists’ method was to follow the literal meaning of the clear-cut texts. Enormous effort has been spent in analyzing the lexical semantics and the linguistic morphology of the texts, at times employing casuistry and engaging in hair-splitting. This came at the expense of a historical-critical method marshalling a whole range of analytical methodologies to uncover deeper and fuller meanings.

These scholars categorized all human acts into one of five categories: obligatory, recommended, neutral, frowned upon and prohibited. It is important to note the ambitious goal of this sharia project: to categorize every human act—past, present and future—in order to be consistent with Allah’s will.

However, the creation of God is so immense that no human project can encompass His will fully and completely. It is true that the message of the Quran is valid for all times and places, but it mustn’t be interpreted literally by fallible human beings without having the full context available.

We have God-given reason (aql) so we can continuously work and use trial-and-error to get closer to the will of the creator. The accumulated experiences of human history must be incorporated into our understanding of the texts.

If God wanted us to follow blindly, then He would have given us an oracle or a search engine that would spell out all His detailed instructions for every question. Instead, He gave us ethical guidance in the form of the Quran and a brain.

One can see a similar phenomenon when looking at the history of Christianity. At the dawn of Christianity, the Christians were persecuted severely, but when they triumphed, they not only persecuted non-Christians but also got mired in internecine bloodletting for long periods of time.

Again, Christianity is not fundamentally a violent religion but with the attainment of power, combined with the values and mentalities of the Middle Ages, it got transformed from a peaceful and humble lamb to an intolerant, fire-breathing dragon inflicting many deaths and much destruction.

 

The History of Reform in Islam

There have been a number of revivalist and reformist movements, especially since the decline of the great Islamic empires, as permitted by the Islamic doctrine of ijtihad, or independent rethinking.

There are a number of reasons for the failure of these previous reformist movements.

First, the reform movements felt that adhering very closely to the literal meaning of texts kept them closest to the divine intent behind them. Instead of emphasizing the spiritual and ethical meanings, they focused on the letter of the texts.

Next, they overlooked the true nature of the sacred texts and presented their interpretations as foolproof and comprehensive. Also, the whole mental outlook and the ethos have been highly conservative and very suspicious of change and innovation.

Lastly, ignoring the continuous revelations to mankind provided from the arts, history and natural sciences resulted in stagnation and ossification and superficial interpretive changes, without transcending static interpretations.

The invention of the printing press and translation of the Bible into the vernacular languages made the Bible and its message more accessible to the masses and facilitated the reform of Christianity. In a parallel fashion, we now have the internet empowering Muslims worldwide to be better informed and ultimately take back their religion from the clutches of outdated dogmas.

 

Seven Essential Elements for Reform

My recommendations for a renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) are as follows:

1. Acknowledge deep problems in classical Islamic thought.

These problems are an inevitable product of God’s message passing through imperfect human minds. We do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting traditional Islam wholesale, but we should continuously work to improve our understandings.

2. Educate About the Formation of Sharia.

We must educate everyone about the sacred texts and how sharia was formed by humans interpreting them. We must make a solid case for avoiding literal interpretations and instead include all the relevant facts and analytical methodologies, textual and contextual and experiential.

3. Reform Traditional Sharia.

The first step is separating the religion from the state. The core of Islam—the five pillars—are not about political governance. Traditional Islamic scholars can be experts on matters of ritual and worship and they are free to voice their opinions, but they must not be allowed to issue edicts for everyone to comply with.

4. Promote and Protect Freedoms

We must acknowledge that medieval misinterpretations are responsible for issues like slavery and concubines; blasphemy and apostate laws and unfair discrimination against women, minorities and non-Muslims. These are not consistent with universal human rights and freedoms or the fundamental Quranic principles of justice (fairness) and mercy.

5. Accept the Equality of Humanity

Instead of demeaning and rejecting non-Muslims as kafirs or infidels, which are historically loaded terms, we must acknowledge the basic humanity and equality of everyone and accept that all of us, believers and non-believers, are all seekers of the Truth (Haqq) in our own way. This demeaning of non-Muslims must stop both in public and behind closed doors.

6. Hope and Patience

Be hopeful for a bright future for Islam, but do not expect quick changes. In fact, it might take generations. Therefore, assiduously cultivate the young but do not neglect the older believers.

7. Avoid False Reformists

There are many Muslim individuals and groups claiming they stand for reform and ijtihad, but if they do not embrace the above items, they are not for real reforms consistent with the universal values of justice and mercy.

Most of the leading Muslim organizations around the world, including in the United States, fall short in regards to the reform agenda. That is because they are basically stuck, running around in circles within the deformed and misguided man-made theology.

The leading Muslim groups in the U.S. defend this highly illiberal traditional sharia by using the freedoms of religion and speech. They are rightly worried about harsh rhetoric that puts all Muslims under a single dark cloud, but they are not willing to take the necessary steps of reforming the sharia.

These groups do not want to stand up to the Wahhabi/Salafis, the political Islamists like Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-e-Islami and the Deobandi and the Tablighi groups, either because they are a part of them or are sympathetic to them.

 

Conclusion

Reforming traditional sharia is necessary and it is not apostasy. Doing so is in the best interest of Muslims and non-Muslims.

The U.S. government has been turning a blind eye to the problematic nature of pro-sharia American groups and the importance of Islamic reform. It is unconcerned as long as these groups are not directly involved with violence, but these groups contribute to the radicalization of Muslims because the traditional sharia they support is inimical to the basic concepts of the U.S. Constitution.

The events of the so-called “Arab Spring” that began in 2010 and turned into the “Arab Winter” have amply demonstrated that the reform of religious ideas among Muslims is essential. This Islamic reform must take place before successful and meaningful political reforms can happen that lead to vibrant, prosperous, truly democratic and just Muslim societies.

Ahmed Vanya is a Muslim-American activist and an electronics engineer in San Jose, California. He is a fellow with the American-Islamic Forum for Democracy.

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