Beyond an Islamic Reformation May 4, 2019 – Posted in: Uncategorized

From Makkah to Washington DC Islamic Reformation is the buzz word. Though the reform movement is no new innovation in Islam, nevertheless, the rallying cry for reforming Islam from within had never attained such a high pitch. And despite the fact that reformation has an Islamic basis, the external pressure to do so has cast a shadow of doubt on the nature of the reform itself. Then, there are intellectuals in the west, whose advocacy for reform is not to make Islam more compatible with our time but to tame it, thereby creating a version of Islam that may fit into the liberal western framework. The way they did it with Christianity and Judaism. If the follower of the Islam feel at home in the citadel of Evangelical Capitalism, it is assumed, the West will lose its most dreaded enemy.

Another variety of reformers include Muslim scholars who have been trained and educated in the West. This category of Muslim intellectuals look at themselves as a natural extension of great reformers of the past such as Ibne Hazm, Daoud Zaahri, Ibn Taimiya, Abu Hamid Ghazzali, Mohammad bin Abdul Wahab, Waliullah al-Dahlavi and the like. And if in the past Muslims had acceded to carry on Islamic reform, they argue, there is reason that they should object to it in the new situation. However, the mega question still remains unanswered. If our reformers in the past were unable to achieve the required result how can one guarantee that the modern reformers would achieve it today? For last many centuries Muslim reformers have been calling for a return to the Qura’n and Sunnah, for constructing anew the tattered worldview of Islam. Yet no return to the pristine purity of Islam appears in sight. We must focus our attention on the stumbling blocks that have been turning thus far all our initiatives into non-starters. The new reformers have a double task; firstly, to pin-point precisely the failures of their predecessors and secondly, to devise a viable methodology and appropriate tools for rediscovering Islam in true colours, transcending historical Islam and the human interpretations around it. An open debate questioning almost every thing under the sky in true Qur’anic paradigm alone holds promise of rediscovering that great Islamic sensibility which if properly unveiled today could create an unprecedented revolution.

Before we proceed further the let us make an honest confession. If our reformers in the past failed to rediscover Islam in true colours it was mainly because they, despite their desperate willingness to travel back in time and space to the prophet’s Madinah, failed to realize that the journey demanded from them a new methodology of enquiry and investigation. They wanted to return to pure Islam employing a fiqhi methodology of their choice. Probably, they lacked the courage that was needed to put aside the historical baggage and intellectual garbage that they had accumulated during centuries of interpretive activities. An open investigation into the great Fuqha and their methodology were considered as ‘security zones’ that were conveniently to be left out of the focus of our discussion. To be a Hanafite or a Shafeite was considered crucial for being a Muslim and hence it became simply unthinkable to imagine Islam without its great masters, the fuqaha. Even Iqbal, the poet philosopher of the East, who by virtue of being a distinguished scholar of the Quran was no less than a mujtahid, found it convenient to stick to the Hanafi schools of jurisprudence. He once declared that for practical convenience he had adopted the Hanafi fiqh. Be they the Quranic exegetes of repute or other champions of Islamic reform, it was not possible for them to fashion out an Islamic identity without a fiqhi tag. The rediscovery of Qur’anic intent and a return to Qur’anic weltenshuaang remained elusive. And the disturbing question, nonetheless, kept us haunting: why, despite being the Last Ummah assigned to lead humanity till End times, today we find ourselves on the margins of history?

Today, no doubt, Islamic reform stands a better chance. Firstly, it has become clear to us all that worn out fiqhi methodology of the past and outdated tools of inquiry cannot impart on us a true understanding of the changed realities. Secondly, the movement for Islamic revival so vociferously launched in Muslim lands and later exported to the West have miserably failed. Harping on the same string or employing the same methodology can in no way guarantee a future. Thirdly, as the things radically changed around us; the creation of a virtual world on the internet and the employed smallness of the globe have further emphasized that no isolationist strategy would survive in the future. It is no more possible for any religion to work for its salvation in isolation. Fourthly, Muslim intellectual of our time have come to realize that if today Muslim strategists lack a direction and leadership it is mainly because the shape of Islam that has come down to us is more a product of history than the divine revelation. Purging the human or historical elements is a must if we want to achieve the same result that the sublime revelation had achieved during the Prophet’s time. Fifthly, living in the borderless world of the internet has positively influenced our communitarian sensibilities. Being the followers of an international prophet we aspire, at heart, to become an all-embracing Ummah working for the betterment of entire humanity, yet we find ourselves trapped in the psychological shell of our own making, the cult of the Ummah Muhammadiya. In our time Muslim intellectuals and Ulema have come to realize that for centuries their segregated living in the supposed Darul Islam and their involvement in exclusively communitarian projects have deprived them of their true prophetic moorings, of being a source of mercy and blessings for all. This metamorphosis of an international Ummah into a cult has come under serious investigation today. And the need for rediscovering the Qur’anic intent and reconstruction of a global Muslim outlook have attained an urgency. Amidst great hopes and optimism lurks the danger; if a proper methodology is not put forth the opportunity to rediscover Islam in true colours may slip from our hands once again, leaving the humanity directionless for a few more centuries to come.

Methodology for Reform

The Reform Movement has not to reform Islam as such, rather, it has to purge the human, interpretative elements that have overshadowed the true colours of Islam. Islam is a divine message but it is a paradox that it has to be interpreted by human mind. We are not against the involvement of the human mind as such, on the contrary, we call for making this involvement a continuing process. Great minds of the past have done their job and now it is for us to work out our own Enlightenment. A new beginning has to be made. And it has to be different from the past if we want to avoid the pitfalls of the past reformers. Here are some suggestions:

1. The new reformers must avoid value loaded terminologies such as ‘Reformation’ or ‘Enlightenment’. There is a real danger that reform movement itself is swayed by the cultural and historical connotations of these terms. In the west reformation speaks of a process of undoing church tyranny and a head-on collision with rational thinking. A semblance of this situation is not found in Muslim history where both the Ahbar of Islam and the ruling elite have continuously faced organized dissent legitimized by the Shariah. Those who call for the emergence of a Luther or a Calvin amongst us are in fact unaware of Muslim history and the liberating message of the Qur’an. The same can be said about the term Enlightenment. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have blamed Enlightenment for the Holocaust. Isaiah Berlin levels similar charges of a totalitarian tendencies lurking in the Enlightenment which not only produced Holocaust but also the communist tyranny, the Gulag. The story does not end here. Owing to the western experiment of Enlightenment some great minds of the West, such as Jefferson, Kant and Hume, came to believe in the supposed superiority of the white race. It was Enlightenment that eventually created the ‘stupid white men’ and armed them with ideological and scientific justification for colonizing ‘the other’. The new reformers of Islam must handle such terminologies with utmost caution.

2. No doubt Luther who made a dent on Christian thinking for all time to come had rightly argued that scripture should be the final authority, that the mandate of God must stand supreme to the mandate of fallen humans. In the medieval Christian context, it was a revolutionary Idea. There is nothing wrong in learning from the Lutherian experience. Nevertheless, Muslim reformers of today must not lose sight of the fact that the Qur’an is not a mere scripture in the Christen sense of the term and hence cannot be handled just like any other scripture. Here each word is definite and is preserved in the original language, the way it was sent down to the prophet Mohamed, in verbatim. Reforming Islam from within simply amounts to purging the human interpretative elements in it and not in any case the intent itself.

3. Islamic scholars have usually taken reason as opposite to revelation. They came to believe that rational knowledge and revelatory knowledge do not come from the same source as one is based on observation and the other on intuition. Muslim Ulema have always attached more importance to the revelatory knowledge than the observatory Knowledge. Contrary to this attitude, the Qur’an, the main source of the revelatory knowledge among the Muslims, invites people, oft and on, to think and observe. The Qur’an wants us to lay down the basis of revelatory knowledge on a rational thinking. The Qur’an itself is a rational discourse which calls upon us to be more reflective than dogmatic. Even the most essential creed of Islam such as the oneness of God, the belief in the hereafter and in the agency of prophet hood are not spared of this discourse. It is a great dichotomy of the human mind that despite its limitation it has been assigned to appreciate the cosmos thereby leading to an enlightened understanding about the creator. Throughout the process it is very much possible to commit mistakes and at the same time learn from them. The great Ulema and fuqaha of the past were also humans like us. No wonder then if they made mistakes or could not envision our modern context in their fiqhi formulations. We are not supposed to carry on the burden of others’ mistakes; we have enough of our own share.

4. Taqleed, the blind following and Reform cannot go hand in hand, nor can they together pave way for Enlightenment. There is certainly no harm in learning from the past masters but we should not insist on getting to the same results. If we feel obliged at the outset to come out with the same result the entire reform activity would be a waste of time and energy, a lifeless imitation of the past. With the utmost purity of mind and heart at our command we are equally capable of engaging with the Revelation as our Elders did in the past. We should also bear in mind that revelatory and observatory knowledge are and not opposed to each other, they, in fact, complement each other. True knowledge is always reflective, a combination of the two. It is more of a Buddhist bodhi than what is generally termed as Enlightenment. Reflective knowledge has no dogmatic fixity nor is it a directionless drift characterized by the western enlightenment whose logical destination is post-modernism.

5. There were some ‘security zones’, some sensitive questions beyond any investigation and enquiry which the past reformers did not consider appropriate to divulge with. For example, knowing well that owing to different fiqhi schools of their own making the Ummah is split from within, yet none dared to challenge the ratio legis of various fiqhi schools. Each wanted to achieve broader Islamic unity within the given fiqhi framework. Some even made us believe that the four conflicting schools of sunni Islam are a divinely ordained arrangement to provide us with a selection of choice. This is no different from the popular Christian notion that the writings of Paul that now forms part of the canonized text are divinely inspired. The new reformers of Islam have a daunting task ahead. They need to bring the entire heritage literature under intense investigation. Except the last Revelation that has come down to us through the Prophet Mohamed no inspired words of any individual or scholarly interpretation of any Imam could form the basis of Islamic canon. Unless we are really able to shake up the very basis of fiqhi division and uproot the alien fiqhi institutions of ahbarul-Islam, a return to pure Islam will remain elusive.

6. For centuries we Muslims have been living in a psychological ghetto of our own making. As the Ummah Muslimah we were entrusted with world leadership but we preferred to recast ourselves as Ummah Muhammadiyah, the cult of Mohammed. We were supposed to be a source of mercy and blessings for entire humanity. But the emergence of a cultic thinking amongst us has made it very difficult for us to look beyond our noses. The ghetto mind-set has transformed the once revolutionary Ummah of Islam from within. Swayed by some popular but fabricated traditions we even came to believe that the Prophet Mohammaed, a blessing for the entire mankind and a Warner to all as he is projected in the Qur’an, was only worried about his own folks and that the last words he utteredon hid death bed were ummati, ummati (my folk, my folk). The Quranic basis of a global agenda, the Kalimatun siwaen demands from us that we shed the isolationist mind-set. Each and every effort to create a better world deserve our attention. They are very much part of our agenda and deserve our pro-active participation.

7. It is high time to question each and every bit of our heritage literature. There is nothing beyond criticism except the words of God and the proven Sunnah of the Prophet. There are no security zone of worn out dogmatic beliefs and no issues beyond the scope of rational investigation. Unless we put the entire historical Islam under intense scrutiny we cannot pin-pointedly say where we went wrong.

8. If Ijma or conventional Islamic practise does not properly fit into Qur’anic weltaanshuang, the former must be done away with. Ijma or supposed consensus is a false metaphor. No Ijma has ever taken place on any single issue save it is directly derived from the book of God and the Sunnah of his prophet. An Ijma without a proper rational discourse cannot claim any legitimacy whatsoever. To believe that consensus of the great masters of the past have decided some issues for all time and the issue is now closed for discussion are product of slave mind-set so vociferously condemned in the Quran.

9. The words of God and the wise counsels of our Ulema are two different things altogether. While the former commands our unfailing respect the latter is a human creation. In other words, the intent of Shariah as expounded in books of fiqh may not command the same degree of respect than those enshrined in the book of God. We must distinguish between the dictates of God and the edicts of humans.

In a society where an open debate on issues of vital import are closed for centuries it is not easy to make a new beginning. It amounts to transforming the society from within, journeying from closed to an open society. This indeed is a daunting task. But there is no other way out.