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Talking about a reformation of Islam


by Shariq on 5th April, 2006 at 1:10 pm    

“It is conceivable, yes, that there are those in the West with as much sadomasochim (or courage, if you will), as the reformists of Islam; with as great a penchant for human rights as the reformists of Islam; with as great a willingness to face off against the edifice of a corrupt theology as the reformists of Islam. We must embrace them as our brothers, be they Latino, Black, or dare I say, white; be they Hindu, Jew, Christian, or dare I say, secular-humanist”

Ali Eteraz has written an open letter to fellow reformist muslims. His argument is that while there may be some ‘Westerners’ with ulterior motives, to be successful the reform project has to accept those non-Muslims who show an interest in changing the world for the better.

The idea of overcoming the threat of those with ill-intent is just applicable to Muslims however. One finds it amongst those who are reluctant to let ijtihad devolve outside the exclusive preserve of religious scholars. There is an understandable fear that if religion is to be democratised then there would be widespread chaos which would undermine the basic tenets of Islam.

However as Ziauddin Sardar eloquently put it, in a recent talk at LSE, when engaging with religion and making progress we must not be constrained by the banks of a river. Instead the future should be imagined as an ocean - where every assumption may be challenged and people can shape their own destiny.

Of course this may lead to the conversation within Islam occasionally veering towards areas which are uncomfortable. Mistakes will definitely be made, but this criticism makes the assumption that things are fine the way they are right now, they are not.

In a way, Ali’s piece demonstrates that for reformists to be both consistent and successful, we need to open their movement to those who are willing, just as we argue that the application of Islam should also become more open.

Sunny adds: Talking of ‘reformation’ alone makes many Muslims uncomfortable, and not without reason sometimes. Who is to impose this reformation? Why is it needed? Is it just to serve Western interests? These are valid questions.

Some of these points Ali addresses - yes, many westerners would also dearly love some sort of reform movement in Islam that creates bridges that are sorely needed in modern society. Others may not. You have to pick the ones with the best intentions.

On reform itself, Ziauddin Sardar is again very useful as a guideline. In his book Desperately Seeking Paradise, he says an Islamic ‘Reformation’, European style, is not needed because Islam already has those inbuilt capabilities to address reason and logic. In other words, the ideals of the European reformation exist. He just wants itjihad to continue at a time it seems to have come to a stop.

For me, the problem seems to be that somewhere along the lines, those ideals of ‘universal love’, wanting peace, questioning everything, applying logic and reason etc, seem to have been lost amongst the religious conservatives - certainly in the Middle East. Thus the talk about ‘reform’, however you choose to see it.

Additionally, this is not just a Muslim issue. One of the reasons I don’t identify myself with any religious community is precisely because I don’t want to be identified with the madmen that dominate most of the religious discourse. A reformation is needed of all religions.



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19 Comments   |  


  1. Roger — on 5th April, 2006 at 1:25 pm  

    There is a muslim reformation taking place- the wahabis are the most obvious element of it. It’s following the christian reformation in emphasising absolutely literal interpretations of the quran and intolerance of those who abandon or ameliorate the true word of god. A reformation is a return to the basic texts and doctrines of a religion and an abandonment of the later amendments and additions.
    What islam needs is an enlightenment. It came very close to having one before. Ibn sina and Ibn Rushd, not al-Ghazali should inspire inetrpretation of the quran.

  2. Jay Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 1:41 pm  

    When people say that a religion has the mechanisms or capability to address reason and logic they are making a basic error.

    Religion is not about reason or logic it is about faith and belief - often in deeply strange and illogical things, with practices and traditions that have no logic or belief. Talking of the great Islamic tradition of reasoning, philosophy and logic misses the point - it just so happened that those individuals who were nominally Muslim and made contributions to reason logic science and philosophy did so in an Arab context at a time when there was largesse and liberalism enough to allow them to do so - it is as useful as describing western philosophers scientists and rationalists as belonging to a Christian tradition when in actual fact their endeavours were often inimical to, in opposition to, and in reaction against, basic Christian precepts.

    Amartya Sen talks about this in his new book and has been talking about it in inteviews and excerpts.

  3. Jay Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 1:56 pm  

    The point is, seeking to reconcile reason and logic and science with basic religious and civilisational precepts is doomed to failure and cause madness.

    The whole point of reason, logic and science is that it is reckless and rebellious, caring nothing for accepted notions of etiquette for identity-culture or the feelings of warm cosy civilisational comforts - it throws an intellectual bomb in the cafe and demands that the reasoner and scientist and philosopher absolves himself of his ties and bonds and places himself on the plane of common universal humanity - beyond religion or loyalty to a tradition or school or religion.

    In other words - a prerequisite for it is to throw a cat amongst the pigeons of religion - it places religion and its civilisational corrolaries in the role of by stander or as punch bag for the intellect to beat against or rebel against. Institutionalised orthodoxies of entrenched religions are neutered by this - terrified and scared. There can be no reconciling of these because to suggest that it needs the temperance of religious sanctification, with its in built checks and balances to deal with rationalism and logic, suggests that rationalism and logic requires the blessing and sanctification of religion - as if religion is doing us a favour by patting it on the head and saying, OK, I can handle you, I have mechanisms, no carry on playing, I will cope with you, well done.

    No!

    Religion will be poked in the eye eternally by these things. If there are scientists, logicians, rationalists, artists, philosophers living in socially conservative societies stewed in religiosity they have a place to go to express and mind themselves - and they do not need to worry about reconciling themselves within the framework of any tradition or hope that their ideas can rock the boat without sinking it. This goes for all religions, not just Islam.

  4. Jay Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 2:04 pm  

    It is only if a religion places itself at the centre of the Universe and believes that all planets must orbit around it that this friction and mental breakdown occurs - when it cannot understand why its laws of gravity are being broken - why it is not the star around which all resolves - why its laws and traditions are being refuted. Then it tries to explain this by saying - ah - this rationalism and logic thing, it can be brought back into the fold of our laws of gravity, we must explain it this way.

    But this is doomed! It is seeking a way to place religion at the centre of the Universe and bend the world back to its laws of gravity when the world has been bending laws of gravity and ignoring religion for a long long time! And treating religion as a fancy brocade and golden antique - charming to look at, good for weddings and funerals, pretty pictures, nice rituals - now pass the Darwin and Einstein and John Stuart Mill please!

    This is about religious ego being battered - religion that is dumbfounded that it is not considered the centre of the Universe anymore.

  5. Siddhartha Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 2:09 pm  

    The Muslim philosophers that Roger has mentioned were not considered to be heterodox or heretical to the body of Islamic doctrine. In fact they were popular, well received and patronised by sultanates and universities of the day. There is a precedent for ummah-endorsed reform. The problem is, there is nothing anything as homogeneous as the what the word ‘ummah’ implies.

  6. Jay Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 2:14 pm  

    But Sid, can you not see, that this:

    There is a precedent for ummah-endorsed reform.

    Is part of the problem? That reform (or any enquiry) should seek to be ‘endorsed’ by the ‘ummah’ or any other body of people?

    And there is confusion here - philosophers or scientists are one thing - they belong to a plane beyond religion. Reform is when you talk about reforming laws and traditions - these are the scholars of a religion, activists who seek to reform traditions themselves - people like Martin Luther, Swami Vivekananda, etc etc etc

    These are two separate things.

  7. Siddhartha Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 2:20 pm  

    Jay

    I think the writer of the article is understood, and that is my understanding, in distinguishing between a scientific/philosophical reform with a cultural and legal/theistic reform. The first is unnecessary given the chasm between post-Enligtenment emperical rationalism and spirituality - that you have nicely and roundly covered. The second is how Muslims re-jig their religious lives to be congruent with modern life

  8. Siddhartha Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 2:21 pm  

    And its the second wherein lies both the difficulty and solution to the problems.

  9. David T — on 5th April, 2006 at 3:07 pm  

    Jay: top comment. Nail that to the doors of a cathedral.

    Sid:

    “And its the second wherein lies both the difficulty and solution to the problems. “

    Exactly. What most religious but rational people I know do - and I’d include my father, who is a scientist in that category - is to treat religion as a matter of observance and spirituality, and as an source of/inspiration for their ethics. In other words, they regard themselves as religious, because they fulfil their obligations as practitioners of that faith, by belief and by fulfiling the duties placed on them by the religion.

    What they do not do, typically, is to engage that closely with the most problematic ethics of the religion or the claims it might make in relation to science. Therefore, the account of the creation of the world is allegorical rather that to be understood literally. Likewise, the punishments for sinners and the unequal treatment of the sexes are treated as a matter of divine rather than temporal law, or some other sophistry, or to be ignored altogether, etc

    That is actually what most people of most faiths do. I don’t regard an intrinsic difference between Islam or liberal Christianity, in practice - because, frankly, the world is and in the post-Enlightenment era, has been full of people who operate in precisely this way. It doesn’t matter that islam “has not had a reformation”. “Reformations”, these days, are primarily a matter of the practice of believers, not formal reinterpretation by clerics (although that can happen too).

    There are two linked phenomena which push the other way. The first is literalist revivalism: again, this isn’t restricted to Islam by any means. The second is religious politics: and yet again, this isn’t only something related to Islam.

  10. soru — on 5th April, 2006 at 3:21 pm  

    In European history, the distinction between Enlightenment and Reformation is important, although not every reform is a Reformation, so I am not sure the author meant that reference.

    For a Christian church that has had one but not the other, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_Reconstructionism.

    In general, dubious premises + rigorous logic are a bad combination, it is hard to avoid coming to conclusions like ‘kill them all, God wil sort it out’.

  11. David T — on 5th April, 2006 at 3:30 pm  

    Incidentally, even the attempt to reconcile Aristotle and Plato with religious philosophy caused problems for some Jews and Muslims, (and to a lesser extent, Christians). What has happened in the last 900 years is the task of reconciling science and non-religious thought with religion has become so difficult, it can only be achieved by restricting religion to the personal domain. Unsurprisingly, clerics - who are often well organised - are pushing back.

  12. Siddhartha Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 4:08 pm  

    Except that I don’t believe Aristotle and Plato considered their work to be non-religious philosophy any more than an Indian philosopher such as Vyasa (Krishna Dwaipayana) of the Vedas did.

  13. David T — on 5th April, 2006 at 4:45 pm  

    Precisely. Which is why it was so much easier to reconcile them with a God centred world view 1000 years ago, and so tricky now

  14. Siddhartha Singh — on 5th April, 2006 at 5:26 pm  

    Tricky yes. Impossible - no.
    The problem lies in the fact that there are millions who will and have the right to live their lives as per a traditional doctrine. And they’re perfectly entitled to do so.

    The tricky part is decoupling the theistic component from liberal secular governance. There are Islamic countries who have managed to do so. Moreover their constitutions are good documents. Turkey, Bangladesh and to an extent Malaysia are good candidates. Sure they are beset by endemic social and economic malaise but as far as their legislation in the separation of religion from state - they’ve done well, all things considered. The difficulty has always been in creating a constitution that defines in crystal clarity the differentiates between secular ethics from religious morality.

  15. sonia — on 5th April, 2006 at 5:42 pm  

    good points Siddhartha

  16. Siddhartha Singh — on 6th April, 2006 at 10:16 am  

    Thanks Sone. Nice to see you back…

  17. Roger — on 6th April, 2006 at 12:44 pm  

    It isn’t “ummah-endorsed reform” but reforms that alter the ummah- if the ummah exists except as a set of shared prejudices- that is necessary. I agree, Sid, that Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd were respected in their time (though both were silenced and depended on protectors to live), but islam as it is now for nearly everyone has been defined by al-Ghazali and i don’t think it is possible for the kind of reforms in islam, what muslims believe and the way muslims think that are necessary for muslims and others to live comfortably together on equal terms are possible while that is so. You mention Turkey, Bangladesh and Malaysia as examples of countries where there is some separation of state and religion, yet Turkey needed a fundamentalist army- a very different kind of fundamentalism, but just as real for all that- to do so- and I doubt if the constitution would help a peasant in Anatolia who annnounced they no longer believed. Both Malaysia and Bangladesh prescribe punishment for people who abandon islam. Even if they didn’t, i doubt if it would do much good until the islamic mind-set has changed.
    Aristotle and Plato were not nonreligious philosophers, but their religious beliefs derived from their philosophies rather than influencing it. There were other Latin and Greek philosophers who influenced the philosophers of the enlightenment- most notably the stoics and the epicureans- who either did not consider the gods or thought them irrelevant to their philosophy. I don’t know, but I suspect that the enlightenment idea of the “prime mover”- a halfway step to agnosticism and atheism- may have been easier to accept for people who had read them. I could be wrong, but I don’t think tghhese philsophers had the same influence on islamic philosophy- even on philosophers who had similar ideas.

  18. Siddhartha Singh — on 6th April, 2006 at 1:06 pm  

    No Roger, I’m afraid you’re wronng. Neither Malaysia nor Bangladesh have implemented Shariah, which is why there is no law that would punish Muslim apostates in either country. Although Bangladesh is fighting a war against extremist Muslim elements who would very much like to turn it into their definition of an Islamic state. God preserve from that!

    Also, if it were not Muslim philosophers, neoplatonism and the witings of aristotle would not have entered into European thought.

    But this is diversionary. There is not going to be a Reformation nor an Enlightenment in the Islamic world in the Western definition of these terms. The real question is, how quickly will Muslims be able to adopt Democracy and, having done that, dminish religious morality from their constitutions.

  19. Roger — on 6th April, 2006 at 4:57 pm  

    “The real question is, how quickly will Muslims be able to adopt Democracy and, having done that, dminish religious morality from their constitutions. ”
    The two are separate, though. It would be perfectly possible to democratically decide to be ruled by muslim theocrats- it seems to be happening in Iraq, in fact- and to impose quranic restrictions on everyone else. If you look at what happens in Malaysia- it varies from state to state- that seems to be what happens there. Apostates may not be killed by the state but the state makes life uncomfortable for them.

    Aristotle and the neoplatonists were available in mediaeval Europe in Greek, regardless of the muslim sources, through the Byzantines. the important thing is that ibn Rushd and and ibn Sina and their interpretations of them had more influence on European philosophy and thought and so on later science than they did on later muslim societies. It is both a cause of optimism- the potential for abandoning religious certainty is still there- and pessimism- islamic philosophy and societies rejected it once which would make it much more difficult for it to happen again.

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