By Ameer Ali –
The call for reforming Islam, in spite of the confusions surrounding the word “Islam”, is nothing new and Muslim scholars and activists have articulated that call whenever they felt that certain elements of fiqh or rules derived from the Quran and traditions of the Prophet that are supposed to govern Muslim societies, incongruent with modernity and change. In fact, the late Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010), one of the most influential secular scholars in Islamic studies, titled his “extraordinary” book, “Islam: To Reform Or To Subvert” (2006).
However, there is a new genre of calls arising chiefly from a minority of non-Muslim and once-Muslim agitators, who directly point at the Quran and demand that the reformation should start by “banning” or “excising” the Holy Scripture itself. One of them even compared the Quran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. This scurrilous demand, apart from its bigotry overtone demonstrates an abject misunderstanding not only of the history of the Quran but also of the centrality that it occupies in the hearts and minds of the entirety of believing Muslims. It adds insults to an injury caused centuries ago when Christendom confronted Islamdom. Adding further to its negativity this call has added another weapon to the propaganda armoury of Jihadists to recruit volunteer fighters for the so called “Crusader-Zionist War”.
Reform in reality is not a one off event to be accomplished by introducing a new or revised document or an itemised agenda but an ongoing process that keeps a phenomenon updated and relevant to meet the growing challenges of an ever growing stock of human knowledge and civilization. In that sense the history of Islamic thought bears ample testimony to the fact that Islam had been reforming quite intrusively and extensively during the first six centuries of its introduction and superficially and restrictively thereafter.
The presence of different schools of Islamic jurisprudence today both in the Sunni and Shia sects, and the survival of many mystical sects in Islam, if anything, are an indicator of the dynamics of this reforming trend. In the relative ambience of intellectual and spiritual freedom that prevailed in medieval past the founders of these schools and sects were engaged in translating a religion that was originally revealed to Muhammad in Arabic and in Arabia, and making it accommodative and practicable in societies living in different cultural and geographical climes. That is why unlike in Christianity Islam never produced a Protestant Movement which ended in Wars of Religion in Europe. Reform in Islam was an embedded process.
As a result of this process diversity and not sameness became the hallmark of Islam’s religious topography. It was the quintessential achievement of a historically unmatched atmosphere of intellectual tolerance and rational discursiveness that marked the realm of a selected group of enlightened caliphs, sultans and emperors. Under their rule hundreds and thousands of Muslim scientists, philosophers, theologians, poets, thinkers and critics, not to mention the participation and contribution of a comparable galaxy of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and savants from other faiths, coalesced and cogitated with mutual respect to each other’s expertise, and through the instrument of ijtihad, the Arabic term for independent and critical thinking, produced a civilization unprecedented in any society at least until then.
It was the decline of this reforming process from around the 12th century that made Islam and Muslims enter a prolonged period of intellectual somnolence and material stagnation from which they still have not completely awaken. A civilization that welcomed controversy and diversity, encouraged tolerance and compromise, and accommodated rationalism and individuality received a mortal blow with the ascendancy of politically supported religious orthodoxy. From then on it was not ijtihad but taqlid or unquestioning imitation that ruled knowledge production in Islam. The ideological genesis of today’s violently radical and jihadist Muslim terror outfits can be traced back to this historical reversal.
It has become habitual for Muslims to blame Europeans and European colonization for the decline and stagnation that engulfed Islamdom since the 18th century. Modern scholarship has dismissed this argument as untenable. Muslims were colonized because they became colonizable and that colonizability preceded actual colonization by centuries. Even if colonization is to be blamed how and why then a country like India, which was colonized for a longer period than any Muslim country, managed to come out of it soon and emerged as a competitive power at the world stage when Muslim nations still remain powerless and chaotic?
Therefore, the most crucial reform that Islam needs is to restart that reforming process and resurrect that ambience of freedom for rational discursiveness, intellectual creativity and philosophical pluralism. Freedom of thought and expression is a scarce commodity in Muslim countries. The flight of thousands of intellectuals, writers, academics and scientists from the Muslim world to the West is a colossal brain drain occasioned by an intolerant religious orthodoxy supported by political tyranny. The pithy remark by Abdelwahab Meddeb, the Tunisian Muslim scholar at the University of Paris, “Arab excellence seems to blossom abroad” may be generalised to cover Muslim excellence.
In this reforming process the Quran is neutral. Otherwise, how does one explain the fact that the very Quran which is now being accused of being instrumental in causing all the chaos and bloodshed was the one that was equally instrumental in producing the most cosmopolitan and glorious civilization in the past? The culprit is not the Quran but its use and users. Ironically the reforming light of Islam will be rekindled not from Islamdom but by Muslims living in Christian West.