Renewal and reform are important dimensions of the Islamic world’s history. Within this historical experience, we can see a lengthy tradition of reform, which takes the form of a special focus on the purification and revival of the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. Despite this reality, the discussion of Islamic reform has undergone a process of over-politicization, limiting the discourse to two polarizing positions.
Clearly identifiable camps have been drawn playing upon the Muslim/Orient and non-Muslim/Western divide. Because of this divide, we witness a peculiar reaction to current calls for reform. Neither its hostility nor its resistance defines its peculiarity. Since this would be expected by definition, reform will challenge the status quo; otherwise reform would be redundant. What is problematic of this current aversion to reform is that it is rooted in suspicion and fear of an external threat. With this view, reform is perceived as nothing more than Western interference attempting to covertly ‘de-Islamise’ Muslims. Regarding those Muslims who advocate reform, they are perceived as pawns located within an ‘Islamophobe’ camp doing their bidding. Indeed, reform can be spelled out in different ways, not all calls for reform are equal. Some have ulterior motives, and some simply lack internal rigour. However, to claim that all calls for reform are of this sort would simply be the product of a paranoid mind overburdened with conspiracy theories.
Islamists and alike are plagued with paranoia as they see the world in polar opposites, the source of this being the Manichaean worldview that is characteristic of the extremist mind-set. All thinking that does not originate directly in a straight line from ‘Islam’ is seen as ideological opposition. More importantly Islam is synonymous with Occidentalism, a hatred of the West. Whatever the West is, Islam is defined by its opposite. For example, Democracy and Liberalism, with its historical experience emanating from the West, are by default seen as diametrically opposed views and antithetical to Islam. The discussion of reform has unfortunately been placed within this narrow spectrum, thus calls for reform of Islam are seen as Western hegemonies inability to tolerate Islam. But are extremists, Islamists and puritans not privy to Islamic history, and are they not aware of it being punctuated with efforts of reform and renewal? Could it be sheer ignorance of the Islamic history that sees reform as mere Western interference and a form of neo-colonisation? Perhaps, but I think there is something more profound at play here. They are aware of those facts, however extremism blinds the person and conceal the objective facts, making him see the world through enchanted eyes.
In my view, this enchantment is responsible for most of the resistance to reform and taints discussions surrounding it. Some take issue with the word ‘reform’ itself and that it has negative connotations drawing upon the western experience of the Reformation in as much as it was riddled with bloody sectarian conflicts and therefore argue that to speak of an Islamic reformation would be catastrophic. However, I find this a peculiar objection. The Reformation cannot be solely defined by the conflicts that were born out of it. Indeed, the Reformation was a culmination of many events and circumstances that shaped the theological debate. In spite of this, when we speak of reformation in terms of Islam it is obvious that what is meant here is to initiate a critical overview of its theology and practices, not to indulge in power games and sectarian conflict. If we study the reasons for the Reformation and its contributors like Martin Luther, war mongering was not on the top of the list. Theological issues, such as the status of women, indulgences and eradicating an intermediary between Man and God were important factors in eradicating the abuse of religion. Why on earth some commentators reduce the Reformation to its wars in this debate is puzzling. There are also quasi-theological objections to reform that are banded about which caricature reform as an egregious display of unfaithfulness to the religion and to God, tantamount to Kufur, a major sin that puts one outside the fold of Islam. One common reason for this is that reform is seen necessarily as an endeavor to “change the religion” in other words, to deface or to deform it. Detractors, especially Islamists, often assume this within discussions on reform. This view is supported by the idea that Islam as a religion is ‘complete’ which implies it does not need to be amended nor modified. In support of this view the following Quranic verse is invoked, Q. 5:3 “This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion”, which was interpreted to mean that religion has been completed and that the Quran enclosed all that Muslims need in order to live by the commands of their religion. The line of thinking here is that if Islam is complete and that God has stipulated dictates for us to live by until the end of time, then calls for reform simply have no place within the religion.
However, overlooking the relationship between the text and its human realities contorts the intended meaning of a verse. A more detailed look into the verse, an enquiry into the actual occasion the verse was revealed (asbab al-nuzul) provides a different meaning to the verse. The verse was revealed at a time when the Prophet Mohammed and his companions were in Mecca on pilgrimage, this is the defining feature of the verse. The revealing of the ritual practices of the pilgrimage meant the religion had become completed and reached its perfection. The second is that reform is regarded as an attempt to challenge God’s knowledge and ontological position. Questioning the Sharia’s ethical viability (or what is understood to be the Sharia) is tantamount to questioning God’s judgment. Human beings, so the argument goes, do not have the capability to ascertain their duties by reason alone; instead they are directed to revelation in order to ascertain right and wrong. Moreover, right and wrong is nothing more than obedience to divine laws. Often the mantra is invoked, “Who knows better, you or God?” This rhetoric can be traced back to Syed Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the last century; he utters those very same words when discussing the ‘Islamic system’. With a cursory glance we can observe clear comparisons between contemporary Islamists and Qutb’s writings. For Qutb, the image of a transcendent and omnipotent God was what made the Islamic system unique from all other social organisations. In Qutb’s view, any system of belief and practice grounded in human imperfection, namely reason, is by definition faulty, deficient and most importantly opposed to divine judgment. Qutb regarded reason ( ‘aqil) and revelation (wahi) not as equal counterparts, rational argumentation was not the main means of disseminating truth and faith should be in its place. In the mind of Qutb there is this constant clash between reason and God’s judgment, diametrically at odds with one another. For Qutb reason was based on speculation and “assumption” but Islam was based on “actuality”.
What is clear is that Qutb’s writings consisted of an aggressive front to reason – in particular philosophy. Qutb attempted to refute the efforts of medieval Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Rusd, Ibn Sina and al Farabi, regarding them as imitators of Greek thinkers. In Qutb’s view, philosophy was as a great danger to faith; it denigrated the status of the Quran and was a gateway for dangerous elements to enter the Islamic faith, namely Western culture.
This association with decay of the Islamic faith with reason and Western culture being at fault is quintessential of current Islamist thinking. Islamist writings are full of cries to purge the Islamic faith of ‘Western ideas’, philosophy and the ‘excessive’ reliance on reason. Is reform necessarily a front to God’s knowledge and his divine position? I regard the objection to as a textbook category mistake. Muslim reformers are not questioning the omnipotence of God nor God’s omniscience, but question how we interpret the manifestations of these divine attributes in the world with regards to the Sharia. To scrutinise the ethical viability of some edicts is not to say that we “know better than God”, it is to say we “know better of God”. To clarify, from what we know of God as the source of goodness, justice and wisdom, God would not command such things. Thus we can see that the entire objection is misplaced. As a consequence, discussions should begin based upon this premise and only then there can be genuine discussions on reform. Discussions on reform should not begin with the view that reform is attacking the nature of God and labeling the other as a blasphemer. Moreover, to regard reform as a way to contravene God’s nature overlooks the great degree of human agency in interpreting scripture. Not to mention, the chasm that Qutb and alike invent between reason and revelation itself, ironically, a philosophy without bases.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that this anti-rationalism does not begin with Qutb and far extends beyond Islamist thinkers. This doctrinal fundamentalism of taking a stance against reason is reminiscent of the positions held by the eleventh century Asharite theologians, who were visceral opponents of the rationally inclined Mu’Tazilites and Marturidi theologians. The Ashariite modus operandi was to subordinate reason to revelation. In opposition to the more rationally inclined theologians, they rejected that God’s commands conform to rationally comprehensible criteria. Again, emphasising on God’s omnipotence, God could do whatever he wanted and could have well chosen to do the opposite. By definition God’s will is good and human beings acting justly is nothing more than obedience. Thus, human beings cannot know good and bad on their own without scripture.
This Divine command theory over time became the first principle of Islamic law in most Sunni schools. Today the lay Muslims will not know the inner subtleties of theological debates between the Anti-rationalist schools and rationalist schools. Unfortunately, inadvertently through their Islamic education they would have adopted anti rationalist sentiments and given that the majority Sunni schools are based upon Ash’ari theology, this seems very likely. This Divine command theory is the key factor as to how it is an immense challenge for some Muslim Scholars to reject abhorrent edicts like stoning. They are morally blinded even in the face of barbarism. Such abhorrent views can be perfectly absorbed within the Islamic framework, in particular the Sharia, since there is no external criteria to eliminate unethical interpretations nor justifying barbarism with the appeal to spurious Hadiths.
Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov, using Ivan Karamazov, that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. I argue it is possible if one adopts a particular faith that we have discussed (God included in the equation) that will end with a similar consequence. Perhaps not everything, but certainly some things that we see as overtly abhorrent can be permitted within faith. The aversion to reason, in my opinion, is the single most important factor in discussions on reform and extremism. The re-establishment of the primacy of reason within the Islamic faith is essential in any effort to reform how we understand the faith.