Calling for an ‘Islamic Reformation’ has become nothing short of a farce

For quite a while now, Islam has remained the main focus of news’ channels. Be it terrorism, sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, civil wars in Arab countries or issues like patriarchy and human rights violations; Islam is at the centre of the debate and, of course, so are commentators who have little to do with Islam or the Muslim world. But discussions have reached a new level, where it is now popular practice on TV to call for an ‘Islamic Reformation’. What does ‘Islamic Reformation’ even mean? Does the Muslim world need one? Who are the people propagating a reformation?

Let’s start by addressing the problem with some of these overhyped, self-proclaimed and often ignorant ‘reformers’, many of whom seem to make an attractive and decent living out of it, droning on and on about how Islamic theology is responsible for much of the chaos ruling the world today. Unfortunately, I feel myself obliged to watch many of their talk shows but five minutes of them is all I recommend to someone concerned about the survival of his sanity.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali seems to be leading the debate nowadays (at least on TV). Ayaan is a former Muslim who had great suffering inflicted upon her in the name of Islam and left the faith after 9/11. The problem I have with Ayaan’s reformation project is that she draws a simplistic global conclusion on the basis of her own personal experiences and does not advocate a reformation in the real sense but a black and white confrontation with Islam. In a 2007 interview, she clearly states her belief that Islam is first to be militarily crushed and then the religion shall be left to experience a rebirth as a liberal, humanitarian and feminist religion. That’s quite the plan.

Next on the line, we have prominent ‘New-Atheist’ Sam Harris who gave his famous sweeping statement on the Bill Maher Show last year, describing Islam as ‘the mother lode of bad ideas’. Harris sees himself as a logical man, and so realises that expecting 1.6 billion Muslims to give up their faith is unrealistic. But neither does he believe that a reformation can come from within Islam – as the faith is seen by him as inherently evil, violent and backwards. Therefore, he wants a reformation of Muslim attitudes towards Islam, hoping that one day Muslims who ‘don’t take their faith seriously’ will outnumber the Muslims who do .

Joining the reformers’ club is Maajid Nawaz, former ‘Islamist’ and author of the autobiography, Radical. Maajid believes … well it is complicated. He has never been precise about what exactly he wants from an Islamic Reformation. From what I’ve grasped, he appears to want to transform Islam into a religion that is in complete accordance with all western values.

What all these great reformers of Islam – many of whom believe it is a bad idea that Islam exists in the first place – are leaving out is that reformations have their own context, are done from within and always keep their roots intact. Calling for a Christianity-type reformation is a farce, as Mehdi Hasan rightly points out in his piece ‘Why Islam doesn’t need a Reformation’. Islam and Christianity are not analogous and it is naive and illogical to pretend so. They are very different in their theology, culture and history. I am afraid, even the concept of secularism may not be fully applicable in the Muslim world. It is a word born of a strictly socio-historical Christian context of the West.

I hope I am not being misunderstood. I, too, believe that religious thought in the Muslim world needs to be reformed but when advocated with ignorance, hate-filled rhetoric and zero understanding of Islamic culture, history and theology, reformations become a farce.

Putting all these pseudo-reformers aside, recent Muslim history has seen genuine reformers. Sir Muhammad Iqbal was one of them. Iqbal, born in 1877 in British-India was one of the greatest Muslim philosophers, scholars and poets of his time. He enjoys a wide popularity in the Indian subcontinent, mainly for his poetry and has been honoured as the national poet in Pakistan.

Iqbal advocated ijtihad. Ijithad in its literal meaning means ‘to exert’. In classical Islamic terminology, ijtihad has always been understood as exerting with a view to form an independent judgement on a legal question. However, Iqbal transforms its meaning into a principle of movement in the social structure of Islam. Iqbal believed Muslims need to adopt their lives in accordance with the principle of permanence and change. Some principles are eternal which regulate a society’s collective life and give it a foothold in a world of permanent change. But once eternal principles are understood to exclude all possibilities of change, which Iqbal saw as one of the greatest signs of God, they tend to ‘immobilize what is essentially mobile in its nature’. Iqbal saw the immobility of Islam during the last six hundred years as one of the main causes for the decay of Muslims. Iqbal viewed change as ‘real’ and realized that shariah, as formed by the four main schools of Islam law 1,000 years ago, is not fully applicable in modern times.

Iqbal writes:

‘The question of cultural reform among the Muslims is in fact a religious question, because there is no aspect of our cultural life which can be separated from religion. However, because of the occurrence of a magnificent revolution in the conditions of modern living, certain new cultural needs have emerged. It has therefore become necessary that the decisions made by the old jurists, the collection of which is generally known as the Islamic Shariah, requires a review. The decisions delivered by the former jurists from time to time on the basis of the broad principles of the Qur’an and the Traditions, were indeed appropriate and practical for those specific times, but these are not completely applicable to the needs and requirements of the present times’.

Iqbal further elaborates his view, in the sixth chapter of his famous book, Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam, and describes the closing of the door of ijtihad as a grave mistake, suggesting that the crystallisation of legal thought in Islam, partly caused by intellectual laziness, turns scholars into idols.

Modern Islam is not to be restricted by unnecessary surrender of intellectual independence.
But, even Iqbal realised that the process of ijtihad, or modern reinterpretation of Islamic Law requires a huge magnitude of work which would require great Islamic scholars with exceptional understanding of the Quran and Hadith as well as the challenges of modern times.

Has the Muslim world produced scholars who can fulfil this task? It certainly is hard to answer with a positive yes. For now, not even the will seems to be there. Islamic scholars, even today, generally tend to agree that taqleed – following the classical Islamic authorities – in every aspect of life is the way forward for Muslims.

However, if one deeply reflects on the conditions of modern life and the religious/ideological dilemmas facing Muslims today, one is forced to conclude that some sort of reformation is necessary. The phrase ‘Islamic Reformation’ may have a nice sound to it in the West but does not echo well in the Muslim world.

Muslims see their religion as a religion for all times with no need for man-made amendments and refinements. Therefore, advocating a reformation of Muslim thought or a reconstruction of religious thought in Islam, as Iqbal puts it, may resonate better with the Muslims of today. But will Muslims be able to reconstruct their religious thought? Will the doors of ijtihad reopen? Will the Muslim world find a bridge between modernity and tradition? These are all important questions which need be addressed by adherents of Islam and should not be left to Islamophobes.


Khushnood Ahmed is a 3rd year student of Business Management at London Metropolitan University. (Twitter: @Khushi7Ahmed)

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