15 August, 2022


Orthodoxy & Change: A Perennial Muslim Issue

By Ameer Ali

Dr. Ameer Ali

For a better future, Muslims need a civil Islam that admits religious reform and cultural change and helps people of the Islamic civilization to accommodate to their international environments” (Bassam Tibi, Islam’s Predicament with Modernity, London & New York: Routledge, 2009, p. 173).

Whether Muslims live as minorities in non-Muslim countries or as majorities in a total of fifty seven countries, the clash of orthodoxy with modern challenges is a perennial issue that bedevils progress on several fronts in these communities. It is a historic battle and will continue for ever as long as orthodoxy remains obstinate and static while modernity continues to change and remain dynamic. In politics, economics, education, law, culture, faith and in several other areas one could witness a constant clash in Muslim societies between traditionalists and their challengers. Even though such a clash is common to all societies, it is more acute among Muslims because bulk of their traditions is grounded in the Islamic faith. This is why Islamic orthodoxy is more formidable to breach than orthodoxies in other societies. Orthodoxy in Islam, which has a history of at least nine to ten centuries, demands taqlid or unquestioning acceptance of what has already been stated or written, whereas modernity demands an ongoing process of ijtihad or independent reasoning in the light of advancing knowledge and an ever changing world. It is the dialectic tension between these two phenomena that characterise many faith-based issues in Muslim communities.    

To resolve this tension society should encourage intellectual discursiveness, understanding, compromise and accommodation, which is not new to the Muslim world. In fact, if one could trace the history of Islam back to the period between 9th and 12th centuries, one would see how vibrant that world was in confronting and managing challenges arising especially from a group of rationalists called mu’tazilites, who questioned the very foundation of many of the prevailing faith-based traditions. Unfortunately, after this period traditionalists with political support succeeded in halting that vibrancy and made conformity to tradition the rule without exception. When religious orthodoxy allies with ruling political regimes as in Saudi Arabia for instance, heterodoxy is condemned as heresy and intellectual debates on religious issues are stymied.    

In Sri Lanka, the current controversy regarding Muslim marriage and divorce, madrasa education, Muslim attire, halal food and so on clearly reflect this confrontation between tradition and modernity.  It appears that the Muslim community is becoming polarised between those who hold orthodoxy sacrosanct, as championed by members of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulema (ACJU) on the one hand, and a coalition of other groups such as secular intellectuals, professionals, writers and civil society leaders on the other, who want to make orthodoxy at least malleable. One particular constituency that has entered this coalition are Muslim women who are agitating for their views to be heard in matters that affect their life directly. This coalition while remaining faithful to the core principles of Islam demand changes be made to manmade laws and regulations, which are defended by the conservatives in the name of guarding the shariah or divine law. 

However, there is an understandable and fundamental fear among champions of orthodoxy, and that is, whether a relaxation now in certain areas would open the flood gates to further changes in other areas in the future and leading ultimately to a radical overturn of the core principles and values of Islam. This was the same fear that haunted one of the most profound thinkers in the history of Islam, al-Ghazali (1058-1111), which compelled him to counter the mu’tazila rationalists of his time. In the introduction to his criticism of rationalism and its philosophers , he wrote: “I have seen a group who, believing themselves in possession of a distinctiveness from companion and peer by virtue of a superior quick wit and intelligence, have rejected the Islamic duties regarding acts of worship, disdained religious rites pertaining to the effects of prayer and the avoidance of prohibited things, belittles the devotions and ordinances prescribed by the divine law, not halting in the face of its prohibitions and restrictions. On the contrary, they have entirely cast off the reins of religion through multifarious beliefs …” (Michael E. Marmura (Al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2000, p. 1-2). Al- Ghazali’s fear pervades the thinking of modern day conservatives, which explains their resistance to change. 

In spite of this fear, knowledge outside the religious realm is growing and will continue to grow until the end of humanity. The Quran and the acts and sayings of the Prophet never discouraged that growth, but encouraged and blessed it. Therefore, the challenges facing orthodoxy are those emanating from a confluence of multi-disciplinary knowledge that is, like the rationalists of yore, viewing truth from different perspectives. That confluence is unstoppable. Reasoned knowledge demands reinterpretation of revelatory knowledge to keep pace with modernity. The task before the ACJU functionaries therefore, is to understand the nature of and the rationale behind that knowledge, and harness it to make revelatory knowledge dynamic and progressive.  There are more serious challenges the so called guardians of shariah have to confront in future if they are aware of such challenges that are currently destabilising other religions already.  Persistent obstruction to every challenge will only make future challenges become even harder to manage. This management therefore requires a collective effort from learned men and women from different branches of knowledge to act as mediators between old and the new, and synthesisers of the best in both. Condemning any new idea as bid’a (innovation) or heresy and to hurl fatwas against the originators of those ideas will only polarise the community. It is time ACJU includes ulama (I am using this term in the Quranic sense of knowledgeable people) from other disciplines apart from theology.       

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Latest comments

  • 2

    All three Abrahamic Religions came after Buddhism. So, they have the influence of Teachings of almighty Buddha. But, none of those founders intended to founders of religions. the circumstances were such it lead to religions.
    In Asia, Islam became a Peaceful religion. But among more democratic Europeans it is not a peaceful religon and each other may be suppressing the other.
    Muslims were stupid to create Wahhabism and Salafism and some of the Sri lankan ministers, Risahd Bathiuddin and Rauf Hakeem are connected highly to Wahhabis PArticualry, Risahd Bathiuddin has lot of Wahhabi connections. Probably because of his Arab money donated as political donations, if not some some one from behind is pushing the politicians to keep them as ministers. SO, muslim voters must remember. Other wise, every muslim Politician becomes Wahhabi because behind that is Arab Money given to convert. West is using that money to promote their ends. that is Saudi Araba is not that rich or not rich they way they should be.
    It is a must that Wahhabi attire which covers whole body be banned. I have mentioned earlier even the constitutional president of the Islamic country Tunesia banned all those whole body covering in order to stop female Suicide bombers. Sri lanka can ask them to cover the whole body but not the face. They can design attire to suit that need. Because, by looking at the face of the woman may not get sexual feelings. If muslims men are scared about that, the Saudi Arabian rule of every woman must accompany a male, at least a child, should be legalized. Then in order to blow up they have to go at least with another male.
    One another reason that Islam is being highly used as a political weapon to destroy other cultures. That can only lead to the demise of Islam.

  • 2

    Even some muslim scholars say, I read in a Sri lankan newspaper what was written by a islamic academic, that ISlam is ideology which requires interpretation by some one. So, islam has to learn that it is not complete. Christianity is mostly one book. so, it has 41000 or more denomination. Islam will reach that disintegrated state too. International politics hastens that. Arab countries must understand that. In Srilanka, it is voters who should be careful. Acadmics and Scholars can explain to the voters the difficult situation that they are in.

  • 2

    The civilizational responsibility of unbelievers, non believers and other non Muslims on whom the Muslims hang like parasites for their existence is to phase out Islam with minimal physical harm to the brainwashed. This latter requirement is a serious constraint that will prolong the operation into a couple of centuries. However it is imperative that non Islamic ethical standards are maintained in this long drawn out process. Therefore the brainwashed should not be hated but looked upon with empathy, while of course safeguarding your life and limb.

  • 2

    In September 2006, Pope Benedict XVI provoked outrage in the Muslim world with a speech given at the University of Regensburg in Germany.
    During his address, Pope Benedict quoted a 14th Century Christian emperor: “Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.”

    • 3


      The Muslims missed out in the 9th Century to get to the age of Reason and Enlightenment, due to Ulama hegemony and control of the rulers, whereas the Christians were able to discard the Papal control , and reach the age of Reason and enlightenment in the 16th and 16th centuries.

      For the Muslims, as the writer says, the issue is to wrest control from the Ulama hegemony, and use reason.

      In the 14th Century, The Popes and the Emperors believed that the Earth was stationary , and the heavens went around the Stationary Earth, including the Sun, stopped for a whole day by Joshua, and they practiced indulgences, much worse than the corruption of the Sri Lankan politicians , because the victims rotted here on the moving Earth, after death..

      Did they use Roman numerals to calculate, or the Arabic-Indian numerals and Algebra?

      So, the Popes were infallible, the King were all divinely appointed , until corrected by Martin Luther’s reformation and the age of Reason and Enlightenment.

      Islam was the only competition to Catholisam in the 14 th Century, but they were burning heretics wholesale by the Inquisition .

      Just go to you tube and search under Crimes of the of the Catholic Church by Chris Hitchens over 20 centuries, a summary.

  • 2

    Concern by Brother Ameer Ali for the reform in Muslim community in Sri Lanka is very much appreciated.
    However, he should remember the fact that the Shariyah (legal system ) in islam is faith based not intellectually drafted.
    Moreover, the role of women in Islam is unique compared in any other communities. Woman is entrusted to her father from birth and to her husband after marriage. Welfare of the women who are under the trust of the man would be the major accountability that he would be questioned or interrogated for in the Hereafter. A man may be judged to go to hell in account of 4 women, his mother, sister, wife and daughter if he has not fulfilled his obligations towards them in this world. Last words of the Prophet (pbuh) was to fear Allah in account of women who are entrusted with men.

    Over the period of time since the Shariyah was prescribed till to date women have been made independent in many societies thanks to the liberal Western social system, education, requirement for additional work force in may areas, economic hardship etc.

    Muslim communities whether they are majority or minority in a country can still cope up with such changes by keeping the original status of women that man is ultimately responsible for women under his trust.

  • 6

    Ameer Ali

    “It is time ACJU includes ulama (I am using this term in the Quranic sense of knowledgeable people) from other disciplines apart from theology.”

    You want to use the word Ulama which has a “Quranic sense” to include those “from other disciplines apart from theology.”

    Can you specify what these “other disciplines” are and what the minimum qualifications from these “other disciplines” should be?

    • 1

      Ameer Ali

      I am waiting for your reply. Don’t insult those who spend their time to read what you write by IGNORING questions/comments. You may be qualified but that does not mean that you are a know-all and whatever you write is perfectly correct. You may think so but you are Totally WRONG to think like that.

  • 4

    St. Ameer Ali,

    Thanks for your succinct article.

    Yes, it is about the hegemony of the theologians and they felt threatened ever since Greek Philosophy, love of wisdom, entered Islamic rational thoughts. Al Ghazali’s Incoherence of the Philosophers, saved the Ulama Theology, until Mohamed Ibn Rushd came 50 years later with the Incoherence of the Incoherence, showing Ghazali was incorrect 17 of the 20 arguments. The Ulama got Ibn Rushd exiles, burned his philosophy books and the philosophy books in Spain.

    Cotton burning is an example. We now know it is oxidation.

    Three centuries later, the Spanish kicked out the Ulama and the Muslims out of Spain. Clearly God did not like the treatment given by the Ulama and the ruler .

    For the Ulama, the Earth is spread out like a carpet, the Sun goes around the Earth and sets in muddy waters, and man came from Adam , and evolution is not true, despite the fossil and molecular biology evidence.

    Should ask the Ulama about their chromosome no. 2, why was it formed by the fusion of two chromosomes, with telemeres stuck in the middle.

    Do they have the IQ and intellect to understand this?

  • 1

    Is there any difference between orthodoxy and modernity in Islam?
    Both versions class those not belonging to their mythical beliefs ‘infidels’ and advocate their murder.
    These heathen beliefs are the problem.
    Islam will not be ‘modernised’ until its contemporary understand and acknowledge that ther so-called religion, like Judaism, is based on halucinations of a violent, pedophilic old man.

    • 1

      Quite true. Teaching of a man is in keeping with his practice. One who told lies as a trader to merchandise his goods, asked people to tell lies when necessary. One who practiced marrying a child told others to do so. One who was violent in behaviour told others to kill those not conforming. This is why it is a barbaric hypothesis.

  • 0

    AMeer ALI: Muslims need to be mindful about their their everything.
    Sri lanka says, they arrested all the Wahhabis who were trained. That can not be true, as the estimated number of suicide bomber training said to be (in the media) about 1000.
    India says, Sri lankan Wahhabis are trained to send to India for Violence. These can affect normal Muslim life. So, People need to be active.
    Another funny occurring is UNHCR within a month or so, send three Rapporteurs. One is for allowing people gathering. HE wants to write a report saying that Sri lanka does not allow gathering. I heard, HE was interested in the DEMATAGODA incident.
    There are two two more coming or came. Both about, about justice, religious freedom and some other crap. This is all for the next March UNHCR report.

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