Following the Paris attacks in November 2015, Mehdi Hassan, Al-Jazeera presenter and popular debater wrote an article to denounce the call for Islamic reform. In it, he warns that an Islamic Martin Luther-esque reformer is unnecessary as Islam is perfect as it is and does not constitute of a system of religious hierarchy as is the case with Christianity.
To further demonise the notion of Islamic reform, Hassan declared that any such attempts would produce more individuals to the likes of ISIS and Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of the Wahhabi movement in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century.
The term ‘Islamic reform’ is received with much doubt and suspicion by many British Muslims. Earlier this year, a conference in Coventry titled ‘The British Islam Conference” saw a variety of views and ideas being shared. Yet, the responses from some British Muslim voices have been increasingly critical of the idea of reform to the extent that the notion of a British Islam is described in one blog as “deformists’ subversion.” As the title and content of the blog indicated, reforming interpretations of Islam was paramount to deforming the doctrine itself.
One wonders what the reasons for this negative attitude towards reform are. Is it because in Islam there is no singular religious authority that dictates ‘correct’ interpretations? Is it the strict adherence to the Islamic tradition that advises outright rejection of any kind of change? Or perhaps traditional interpretations act as safe havens and provide protection from feelings of insecurity in an unstable and volatile world? Is this negative propaganda driven by competing conservative ideology that considers reform a threat to long-established religious authority?
In order to answer these questions, one has to first eliminate incorrect assumptions that are taken to be true. What strikes me first and foremost is the conjecture that Islam does not need reform because, unlike Christianity, it does not have a religious hierarchy. In theory, indeed it appears that Islam is free from any system of authority, but in reality, Muslim history and Islamic tradition tell us that there is indeed a chain of command. Religious authority has been the exclusive right of a particular class of people, particularly those who acquired the teaching of Islamic sciences and have been declared scholars or ‘alim’.
Religious prerogative rests in the hands of the scholars of al-Azhar in Egypt, those in Saudi Arabia, the Deobandi in the Indian sub-continent, and Qum in Iran. Where unofficial interpretations are concerned, the situation is similar in that every movement or strand of Islam refers to the views of designated individuals. Despite the fact that such views are not officially binding, in reality, ordinary Muslims have no choice but to abide by their fatwas, indicating that in Islam, just as is the case with other religions, power lies in the hands of a few.
The key texts in Islam, the Qur’an and the sayings of the prophet (hadith), have been subject to scrutiny and interpretation by several fallible humans (scholars) who cannot claim the sanctity of their views. A well-known saying attributed to Imam al-Shafi’i goes as follows: “My opinion is right with the possibility of being wrong, and your opinion is wrong with the possibility of being right.” Muslims today repeat this statement as a matter of pride in the relativism of Islamic scholarly thought.
In comparison to early Muslims, it is clear to see that they had much more confidence in their traditions than followers of Islam today. Due to their awareness of their imperfections and limitations of time and place, early Muslims such as al-Ghazali discussed the idea of fatigue of the Shari’a (futur al-Shari’a) in his great book al-Mankhul. By this term, he meant that the initial interpretations of Islam could only make sense for about five hundred years on from his time, after which they would be rendered insubstantial and unable to offer valuable solutions to Muslims.
This means that the element of a changing context challenges existing interpretations and this necessitates continuous engagement with the text over time. Unwilling to be as flexible as al-Ghazali who openly accepted the limitations of human understanding, today’s Muslims base their confidence on apologetic and weak grounds that provide them with the deceptive sedative of being on the right track. Their attitude towards reform is not based on a sureness of their view but a lack of confidence and unfamiliarity with the rich tradition of interpretation. Al-Ghazali, and many others like him, were motivated to regularly rethink their understanding because the Qur’an and hadith themselves endorse this unceasing process.
For British Muslims, the word ‘reform’ is repugnant and considered to be a distortion of doctrine, whereas in Arabic, the closest word to ‘reform’ is ‘islah’ or ‘tajdid’ (renewal) which is mentioned and encouraged in both texts. Amongst the derivatives of this root employed in the Qur’an are the verb ‘aslaha’, the corresponding infinitive ‘islah’, and the noun ‘salih’, all of which have positive meanings that revolve around promoting peace and bringing harmony. Most of the historic reforms are also called so because they harmonise the relation between the key texts and changing contexts.
The second closely-related term that is more explicit in its reference to developing interpretation of texts in the light of contexts is called ‘tajdid’. This is also grounded in the prophetic tradition in which it is predicted that, in every century, God will send a ‘renewer’ (mujadid) to the Muslim peoples to renew their faith.
The main reason for the existence of these traditions is the conviction that, with the passage of time, Islamic principles become misinterpreted, distorted, and at worst, forgotten. Consequently, from time to time, Islam requires a revival, and therefore the idea of reform is essentially enshrined within the Islamic tradition.
However, Muslims could potentially disagree regarding the legitimacy of reformers, on the content of what is needed to be reformed, and on what is fixed and what is changeable. Though all of these are matters that may be debated, this does not devalue the process of reform and it most certainly does not deform Islam. Ideally, this is the dynamism and vigour with which Muslims should debate in a civil manner without excommunicating or accusing the other side of heretical innovation.
Ultimately, some Muslims will always believe this process of reform holds the potential to produce organisations like ISIS. Yet in my view, ISIS’ version of Islam and other radical interpretations are, in part, derived from the stagnation of rationality and intellectual bankruptcy, following the end of independent reasoning (ijtihad) in Islamic history. This state of philosophical laziness assumes that all solutions lie at the end of classical literature, the very narrative that groups like ISIS use to justify their atrocities. The way I see it, this lack of ‘tajdid’ and reform will only result in more ruthless and unforgiving versions of terrorist organisations in the future
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