Dr Usama Hasan, Senior Researcher at Quilliam, discusses the need for reform within Islam following the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
Islam, like other major world religions and philosophies, has been a major contributor to civilising the world for the past 14 centuries. The author and academic Richard Bulliet makes the case for an “Islamo-Christian civilisation,” challenging the notion that irreconcilable differences prevent a peaceful co-existence, which is already a reality in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe.
Most Muslims are saddened and shocked by inexcusable violence such as the Paris shootings and the use and abuse of their religion to justify terrorism. In the case of the Paris shootings, it is useful to consider two intertwined factors. Firstly, the issue of Muslim attitudes to blasphemy, satire and mocking sacred symbols. Muslims have every right to hold on to a “sense of the sacred,” but need to abolish blasphemy laws and any notion of responding to offence with violence. The spirit of Islam is mercy: compassion must always dominate anger. Thousands of reformers in Muslim-majority societies are calling for this. Hans Kung, the Swiss Catholic priest and theologian, calls for a paradigm shift within Islam. We are in the midst of one, part of a reformation within Islam that has been happening for a century and a half since the Ottoman reforms of the mid-19th century.
Secondly, a psychology of victimhood and anti-Western hate must be overcome: this often develops in conditions of racism, discrimination and marginalisation. The victim is paranoid and seeks out cartoons to be enraged by, even though the vast majority of the public, Muslim or not, are unaware of the cartoons and ignore them. Extremist ideology spins a satirical or offensive cartoon as part of a binary, global war between Islam and everyone else.
The reformation within Islam is also a struggle to reconcile Islam with aspects of modernity: modern science, universal human rights, and evolution of legal, political and social structures. All of this takes place within the context of a post-colonial legacy. Most of the Muslim-majority world was under European colonial rule until the last century, and Western economic and cultural dominance continues today.
The many millions of us Muslims who support a continuation of reform within Islam know that we are being more faithful to the spirit of Islam than the fundamentalists and terrorists.
We call for a renewal of critical and scientific thinking based on the regular Koranic exhortation to reason, reflect, think and read the signs of God in nature. In particular, one of these sacred symbols and signs is The Pen, glorified in a chapter of the Koran named after it.
We call for human rights or a “humanist Islam” based on humanity being made in the image of the divine; for the absolute equality of humanity, including full gender-equality, based on the equality of humans before God, a very radical idea in patriarchal, slave-owning, racist and tribal 7th-century Arabia.
We call for the abolition of dictatorships and absolute monarchies, and for democracy based on the Islamic principle of shura (consultation), after which an entire chapter of the Koran is named.
We call for economic and social justice based on the Koranic promotion of charity and exhortations against economic exploitation, such as the charging of usury or excessive interest rates.
We call for a reconsideration of all Islamic laws and jurisprudence based on the sophisticated theory of maqasid al-sharia or the universal ethics and objectives of law, such as protecting faith, reason, life, property and family values. This would lead to a “New sharia,” appropriate for the modern world, unlike traditional sharia that developed in the ancient Middle East.
All of the above are underpinned by liberty, upon which we insist based on the famous Koranic principle, “There is no compulsion in religion.”
Fundamentalists also quote the above scripture, of course. But they literalistically stick to ancient and mediaeval interpretation and manifestation, such as justifying slavery and insisting on ancient penal codes that include beheading, flogging, amputation and crucifixion.
Furthermore, their approach to religion is piecemeal, ahistoric, de-contextualised and obsessed with legalistic details. Ours is based on a historical, contextualised and holistic reading of the scripture and tradition, with an emphasis on the sacred, rational, spiritual, ethical and humanist aspects. The paradigm shift involved will include a movement towards rationality, itself consistent with a holistic reading of the tradition, rather than a suffocating traditionalism.
In short, the Islam of the future, if it is to survive, will be based on liberty, equality and fraternity: a fitting tribute to this week’s martyrs of Paris.
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