Islamic Reformation

Bravo Mr. Mehdi Hasan for writing a quick article in the Guardian on what’s wrong with simplistic notions of the need for an Islamic Reformation, a la Martin Luther. Now as Muslims, we know something’s wrong. We can’t point to a single “Muslim” country that would have remotely the same socio-economic appeal as the Western world in general. Kudos to the West for that. It’s not undeserved. The West generally tolerates all types and kinds, from religious to irreligious, educated or not, rich and poor (though we definitely prefer you come with money).

I won’t stop there. For instance, I quite comfortably practice my religion, including performing my five daily prayers, fasting, and even taking a leave of absence for hajj. This is at a Fortune 500 company. And recently the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of a hijabi who was discriminated against for being denied a job at a clothing store because she wears a hijab. The West generally affords people the freedom to be as materially productive as you wish while also observing your religious practices. There are some negative outliers (France!) but generally the atmosphere is be productive at work then just be whatever outside of work.

Now what does all of that praise have to do with an Islamic reformation? Well, for one thing, this sort of multicultural society or mode of thought isn’t completely new to world history, nor is it alien to Islam. The Ottomans’ general modus operandi was this; pay your taxes and obey the ruler and be on your merry way with whatever religion you follow. Until they took over Arab lands, the Ottoman Empire was majority non-Muslim. For anyone that’s surprised by this, just think about all those Muslims in Eastern Europe (oh, wait, there are basically none between Albania and Russia). In reality, the Ottomans and their general laisse faire attitude toward your religion was the preferred choice in contrast to the Roman Catholics who would not tolerate any other brand of Christianity.

Likewise, the Moghuls in India reigned over a predominately non-Muslim population who is today still a predominately non-Muslim (Hindu) population. And until the formal fall of the Ottomans in 1922 and then the creation of Israel, the Middle East was as diverse as ever with its Muslims, Jews, and Christian groups. So one point I am making is that the Muslim world as we see it today looks very different than 1300 of the 1400 years since the revelation of the Quran. Muslims were not governing or living within almost exclusively Muslim populations. However, since the partitioning of Ottoman lands post-WWI into arbitrarily defined Arab states, the creation of Israel through the displacement of Christian and Muslim Palestinians, and the partitioning of British India leading to the creation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, in relatively recent history (as in, the age of our fathers and grandfathers) we have seen a paradigm-shift in Muslim populations unlike any since the beginning of colonialism.

It’s important to remember this context when reflecting on Muslims, Muslim societies, and challenges faced today. All of it – whether discussing culture, extremism, liberties, politics, or war – relates to these major changes in societies, borders, and leadership that have yet to be fully worked out today. When we keep this in mind then we can avoid making the mistake of blaming the problems in the Muslim world on Islam.

But why would it be a mistake to blame Islam?

First, I have a hard time believing that the peaceful coexistence and relative prosperity of non-Muslim groups under Muslim rulers is somehow a longstanding deviation from the religion that is only recently being corrected by their expulsion. The Quran is clear that there is no compulsion in religion. The history during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saw) and his immediate successors is also clear that non-Muslim religious groups were safe and secure under his jurisdiction. The golden age of Jewish art and thought corresponds to their presence in Muslim lands and the golden age of Islamic thought. Eastern Orthodoxy, Coptic Christianity, and a number of other non-Catholic and pre-Protestant forms of Christianity found safe haven from the domination of Catholicism within Muslim lands.

Even in regard to apostasy, the hadith that are cited as justification for killing apostates from Islam also contain a key feature that undermines the legal logic in support of that justification; each hadith concerns a person who both 1) killed another person and 2) left the fold of Islam. It’s important not to gloss over the first point because, under Islamic Law (Shariah), the penalty for killing someone is death. Even in the more gruesome of hadiths, involving eye gouging and being left to die under a desert sun, there are other verified (sahih) hadiths that include the point that the killers had themselves done the same to their victims. The Quran allows for “eye for eye” punishments against the perpetrators of crimes. But what has happened is that many have missed the first point and instead have interpreted hadith that involve leaving the fold of Islam as being punishable by death. Under that line of legal reasoning, there is no basis in the Quran.

Second, it would be a mistake to blame Islam for the Muslim world’s issues because I believe most Muslims are unknowing and unappreciative of the Quran and hadith as a body of jurisprudence, as well as guidance, and what that entails. This accusation could be made of people in general. But with Muslims specifically, when we are unaware that there are subtleties in Islamic law, the fact that there are many valid interpretations on many subjects (“valid” also including the Prophet’s (saw) willful refusal to decide one party as more correct than another on certain matters), then we may make the mistake of creating requirements or restrictions when such did not exist nor was it created by the Prophet himself. It’s one thing to encourage positive behavior; it’s also one thing to strongly discourage negative behavior; but it’s another thing to require either.

For instance, some will say we are required to pray at the mosque instead of at home. Typically, what follows is many hadith strongly encouraging and advocating that we pray at the mosque. There is even a hadith where the Prophet would have liked to burn down the houses of the Muslims who did not come to the mosque when the call for prayer is announced. But what is missing is the requirement. What is missing is the evidence that the Prophet actually did what he may have wanted to do. Therefore, without evidence of that follow-through or requirement we cannot create a new religious requirement to pray in the mosque for each prayer.

I believe these distinctions and observations are very important to a Muslim and non-Muslim’s perception of Islam. For Muslims, if you are not aware of what is truly required of you versus what is strongly recommended, and if you’re not aware of the permissible variations or exceptions to these requirements (e.g. traveling or illness), then Islam becomes a much harder religion to practice faithfully because you’ve created that many more requirements and made it that more strict to comply with those requirements. Our general loss of Islamic thought, study, and cultivation in many “Muslim” socieities as made the religion stagnant and subject to blind following by unaware Muslims or general apathy by non-practicing Muslims. This can manifest itself from apathy or outright abandonmnet of Islam to fundamentalist extremism or rigid cultural adaptations.

For non-Muslims, this can make a general tolerance for Islam more difficult to maintain if Islam is convoluted with mindless rigidity, foreign cultural practice, while also seeing that there are other Muslims who don’t seem that way but they are also non-practicing. Islam involves certain practices that differentiate it greatly from other religions; formal, regular prayer and fasting within certain parameters, and guidance on certain social behavior and norms. Adherence to these things on an everyday basis by all Muslims differentiates us from other religious groups that may restrict these everday practices to a small class (e.g. monks, priests, ultra-orthodox Jews) that may be largely removed from mainstream society and business.

The bottom line is this: Muslims are suffering from a lack of widespread intellectual Islamic thought and self-imposed rigidity that is not mandated by the Quran or tradition of the Prophet. We, Muslims and not, are under a belief that the world is, was, and will be a certain way based on what we see now, without appreciating that as recently as our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, the world, and the Muslim world particularly, looked very different from today. Those who blame Islam certainly don’t know much of its history or theology. And Muslims who feel straight-jacketed by Islam need to learn more of it in order to understand what is really required versus what is strongly recommended versus what your cultural norms may be dictating.


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