Islam, Muslims, and Reform
By Dr. Nazir Khaja
Islamic Information Service
The Turkish Government has recently launched a reform initiative, which is raising many eyebrows. With the view of modernization of Islam it has embarked upon the task of publishing a document that represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of the religion.
A team of theologians from Ankara University has been assigned the task of revising Hadith, the second most important foundational basis of Islam. The Hadiths are a compendium of Prophet Muhammad's directives and sayings, which the Muslims hold to be authoritative in guiding them in their conduct in all matters. Its authority is next to the Qu’ran, which is God's revealed word to the Prophet, yet it also serves as the principal guide in interpreting the Qur’an itself; it also constitutes the basis of Islamic law or Sharia.
The prevailing attitudes among Muslims regarding the Qur’an and the Sunnah have stood in the way of Reform, which is badly needed in Islam. Many Muslims claim that all injunctions and precepts found in the Qur’an are absolute and applicable to this day. Although the Qur’an has a universal, timeless character, and its text must open to a modern interpretation of Islam that is beyond the strict, traditional literal interpretation of the Qur’an and the spiritual heritage of the religion, there is a great deal of hesitation among Muslims. .
Many reform-minded scholars have suggested that the Qur’an be understood in the historical context of the seventh century, since it dates from this period. And today it must be read anew word by word for the twenty-first century – a project which the" traditionalists" among Islamic theologians categorically reject.
A pre-eminent scholar of the 20th.Century Prof. Fazlur Rahman understood the Koran as a collection of specific examples or general rules, behind which a "true meaning" must be sought. He and others have argued that Islam, like all other faiths, must be understood in its two dimensions: Qur'anic and historical.
Qur'anic Islam is the one that represents a total Islamic worldview based on the genuine and authentic interpretation of the Qur'an. The historical Islam is the outcome largely from its interaction with the blood and flesh of history; this is not always necessarily compatible with the Prophet's true mission as "a grace towards all mankind" just as historical Christianity can be believed to be entirely representing the message of Jesus.
In the countries in which Islam predominates there is widespread institutional failure and democratic deficit. This has contributed to a chronic tendency toward theocratic despotism and there is only fragile institutional structure that can hardly impose some discipline on the chaos and confusion. The Muslim societies therefore remain in turmoil despite being in the grip of authoritarianism. Consequently in the Muslim World today there is a festering revolt against the decay and humiliation of their societies. This has turned the face of Muslim masses towards the idea of "returning to the roots of Islam" - the notion that the "Salafis" and other purists or "fundamentalists" exploit making the situation worse. This has further strengthened the hands of a self-selected or state-sponsored bunch of Sheikhs or Ulemas the right to enunciate for the masses what God means in the Qur’an or other Islamic texts. And it is these largely "traditionalist" scholars with "literalist" orientation who claim to have the right to say on so many things what the community thinks. The rest of the Muslim community remains marginalized and lacks the nerve to challenge them.
Muslims now must come to terms with the many questions that are being raised daily about them and Islam. They must realize that answers to these will have to be discovered in the light of Islam's contemporary experiences and not by seeking refuge in its past historical experience. What is needed now in the thirteenth hour are different ways of understanding and responding to the many dimensional crises.
The process of adaptation which the earlier Muslims used and which largely came to an end later, with the "closing of the door of Ijtihad" (the "struggle," the Islamic word for the use of independent reasoning to arrive at modern solutions) must now be pursued vigorously.
The Turkish initiative is certainly bold and timely. The Turkish argument is that different groups and conservative cultures use the religion for social and political control; that successive generations of them have embellished their interest, and buttressed their point of view and practices by attributing it to the Prophetic Hadith hijacking Islamic tradition. What is needed is to get rid of these accretions and cultural baggage, returning Islam to its original values and those of the Prophet.
It is important to note in the common understanding or impression regarding Islam that it is largely coterminous with The Middle East if not Arabia. This unique legacy of the religion seems to make it for ever indebted to Arab culture not only because of this localization but more critically on account of the language of the area — Arabic which is the vessel of the Divine Message to Prophet Muhammad, the Qur’an. This hegemony of language has a significant bearing on the political and social aspects of the entire Muslim world the majority of which - almost 80 percent - is non-Arab and does not speak and understand Arabic. This is crucial to the understanding of leadership model among Muslims; even among those living in the West whose claim to leadership can only be legitimate if they speak Arabic or at least in their public speaking are able to spout the Qur’anic verses and The Prophet’s traditions in Arabic.
The history of Islam, with Islam's spread away from Arabia the place of its` birth is clearly a witness to this phenomenon of cultural and religious synthesis. In its "fringe areas," or periphery such as the Turkish Ottoman Empire, Africa, or Southeast Asia, Islam was always remarkably open to synergy in developing new systems and cultures from itself and discovered traditions. This actually was the reason for its widespread appeal to diverse cultures. At the same time, the Islamic center of Arabia was always extremely resistant to these new forms at its periphery.
Muslims must not be skeptical or fearful of the Turkish project or the word "Reform". They must remain convinced that The Qur'anic Islam is certainly able to supply that alternative on the condition that Muslims are ready to get out of the 'prison of history', which they themselves have created and engineered. All they must do is to re-engage with it in the spirit of free inquiry which the Qur’an itself emphasizes.
The Muslims have their work cut out; they must now create a space of inquiry into philosophical, political, and spiritual meaning or relevance, of their Faith drawing symbols both from their religious and the ideological past. If framed properly, this will help them move from the past into the future. Understanding and separating the cultural problems, affecting in the final analysis the ideological orientation, is a necessary step forward for reform. The Turks certainly deserve all the encouragement and support for having taken the step in this direction.