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Meditation 884
Islamic Reformation

by Douglas Harper

Editor's Note: This article is republished, with the permission of the author. Douglas Harper is responsible for the Online Etymology Dictionary, which I consider to be a valuable resource, at least to those, who like me, have an interest in words. His essays on a number of subjects, in addition to religion, can be found in the site in the Sciolist section of his web site

To open a discussion on this Meditation, please use the contact page to provide your comments.

People in the West talk about the need for an "Islamic Reformation." By which they mean, perhaps, something that will have the same effect as what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, when a monolothic theopolitical power cracked and what emerged, over time, was a Christianity that overall was less oppressive, less domineering, less dogmatic than what had come before. Something like that -- the picture is oversimplified (and never mind that barrels of blood were spilled in the process).

It's a hopeful vision. It's optimistic, and I've learned to be optimistic about the world -- like Churchill, because "it does not seem to be much use being anything else." So I like this idea, too. But I'm not so optimistic that I think it will happen.

For one: We want there to be an Islamic Reformation. There's no particular evidence that Muslims, in sufficient number and in the right places (i.e., not living in America or Canada) want there to be an Islamic Reformation.

Reformations don't happen because rival civilizations want them. Imagine the response if the Ottoman sultan in 1519 had said to the Pope, "Just this and this and this needs to be changed in Christianity so we can get along better." If the sultan had been advocating for exactly the same things Martin Luther spoke up for, you can bet Luther never would have got past the Wittenberg church door.

For another: There already was an Islamic Reformation. It happened while we were sleeping. The result is Wahhabi dominance, and Islamic Brotherhood, and Bin Laden. This is the Islamic Reformation. We're fighting it now.

When religions "reform" -- note the "re-" prefix -- they swim back toward their sources. And in every case, they carry the baggage of the present with them. Every attempt to reform Christianity during the 16th and 17th centuries sought the wellsprings. It turned away from the Catholic Church not because it was wrong to mix political power with religious authority, but because that's not how it was in the Gospels.

So they set out in search of the Christianity of Paul. But they always dragged their own time and place with them -- how could they not? If the command was, "be separated from the world," the shape of your separation would be determined by the shape of the world you lived in. Thus the same motivation, and the same Gospel, in different times and places led one group of people to be Quakers and another to be Pentecostals.

Or Amish. Look at an adult Amishman: he has a beard, but no mustache. Why is that? Because in 18th century Germany it was fashionable for young men to wear mustaches but no beards. So to get back to the Gospel and be not of this world, the Amish enshrined the exact opposite style. And they still wear it.

When Christianity reforms -- when it goes back to its roots -- it tries to foreswear the world. When Islam goes back to its roots, it tries to conquer the world. And it takes modern conflicts and technologies with it.

The Christian Reformation (I prefer the term "Protestant Revolt") was as much about political control as it was about religion. Once Luther opened the door, kings and queens usurped the power of the church in their domains and changed it just enough to suit their purposes without undermining the people's faiths. England is a good example.

Islam has seen this, too, in the strong-arm rule of the men, mostly of military backgrounds, who have led Muslim-majority nations in modern times. The "secularism" of men like Saddam or Musharraf, or nations like Tunisia or Egypt, has been noted, but not so often noted is that it never really dethroned the faith from the hearts of their people, nor did it replace Quranic authority over civil matters.

Instead, secular rulers have tended to fudge their way to non-Islamic legal codes and constitutions by using legitimate, but perverted, aspects of Shari'a. Takhsis al-qada, for instance, the right of the ruler to control the jurisdiction of courts; or Takhayyur, the selection of any opinion within a school of Islamic jurisprudence, not necessarily the dominant one, or Syasa shari'ya, the discretion of a ruler to implement beneficial regulations if they are not contrary to Shari'a.

The "secular strong-man" solution, then, is temporary and insufficient. It is neither valid within the Islamic legal tradition, nor capable of displacing it.

It is the wrong answer for another reason. We in the liberal, modern west tend to regard our civilizational history of the past 500 years or so as the struggle of enlightened values against the dark dogmas of the past, the conservative theologies married to the powers of the state. When we look to the modern Middle East for an "Islamic Reformation" we think in terms of the bold liberals resisting the coercive power of the Inquisition or the official church.

Yet so often in Islamic history, ancient and modern, it has been the "liberal" interpretation of the faith that has been allied with the essentially secular power, and the "conservative" or strict view that was among the people, or locked and tortured in the tyrant's jails.

Corrupt caliphs like a liberal interpretation of this faith. It excuses their excesses and overlooks their failure to live up to scrupulous standards of piety and abstinence. They always have. Throughout Islamic history, it was Torquemada in the poor streets as a man of the people, building charities and preaching God's humility, and easygoing Teilhard de Chardin supping at the sybarite tyrants' tables.

Another path to reformation you sometimes hear promoted is "re-opening the gates of ijtihad." This is a favorite among Westernized and liberal Muslims like Irshad Manji, who writes:

I also propose the revival of a tradition to correct what's gone wrong with Islam. Independent thinking and creative reasoning, known as ijtihad, was something Islam always prided itself on. My foundation, Project Ijtihad, aims to revive this way of thinking and I'm helping young Muslims to set up centres in various countries, including India and the United Arab Emirates.
I would love to think that will work.

Ijtihad (independent juristic reasoning) was the way Arabic scholars applied and interpreted the Quran and the collected sayings of the Prophet. But around the 10th century of our age, stricter theologians like Al-Ghazali came to see this process as "leading to errors of over-confidence in judgement." So they closed the gates of ijtihad, and they've stayed closed. What replaced it was taqlid, unquestioning imitation of established jurists and schools.

But what would you get if you could reopen them? Certainly some aspects of Shari'a could be changed. But key components of Shari'a that bring fundamentalist Islam into conflict with the non-Islamic world, such as the status of non-Muslims, the status of women, the acceptance of slavery and the relationship of the Islamic state with non-Muslim states of the modern world, are literally rooted in the Quran itself, or the Sunnah. Ijtihad can't change them. It only applies to place where there is no clear Quranic injunction.

Another possibility lies in the work of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, which is worth a full consideration and a post of its own. But even his disciples admit there's not much hope they will gain traction in the Islamic world. His ideas, though rooted in Islam, are "considered to be seditious in Sunni theology," and Taha himself ended up as so many would-be Islamic reformers do: executed by a strict orthodox Islamist regime.

Must there be Shari'a? Without it, there is no Islam. Both the Islamic world and the secular West live by the rule of law, but in the one case the law is evolved primarily from secular, rational traditions and in the other it is laid down by the hand of God and is one with the worship of God. [Samuel Huntington, surveying the world, finds that only the West and Hindu civilization separate religion and politics. "In Islam, God is Caesar; in China and Japan, Caesar is God; in Orthodoxy, God is Caesar's junior partner."]

Islam is a path through a defined space, with firm walls and open courses. In Islam, every act of life, from dressing to wife-beating, is an act of worship (or, if done wrongly, a fault in worship).

Some people instantly feel stifled there. Not all traditions fit all people. Huston Smith, the great religious scholar, writes a telling anecdote in an introduction to a book on Islam. Smith writes that he felt an instant affinity for the supple music of the Upanishads, but was repelled by the legalistic rigidity of Islam. Then he met another Western religious scholar who confessed he had no idea what the Hindu texts were talking about, "but when I read the Koran, I'm home."

" 'Umdat al-Salik wa 'Uddat al-Nasik" ("Reliance of the Traveller and Tools of the Worshipper"), is a classic manual of fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) based on the Shafi'i school of thought. As the English translator of my edition of "Reliance of the Traveller" writes:

"I had been a commercial fisherman in the North Pacific for seven seasons, and I remembered a book the captain used to keep in the wheelhouse near the charts, a book of bearings, with the precise compass directions between one point of land and another in Alaskan waters. This was the sort of work I hoped to produce in shari'a, a book that I could open up and find accurate, substantive ethical knowledge to apply in my life."
Muslim jurists count 500 Qu'ranic verses with legal content. Their proportion in the Qu'ran is even greater than that appears, because the rest of the Qu'ran often repeates itself, both thematically and verbatim, but the legal subject matter in it almost never does. And the average length of the legal verses is two or three times that of the average non-legal verses. Some have argued, and it would be difficult to refute them, that the Qu'ran contains "no less legal material than does the Torah."

Even in Mecca, Muhammad was organizing his followers into a community, a political and social unit. In Medina, he not only set up a "constitution" for governing the city, he served as an arbitration judge. "Law can never be deemed Islamic without being somehow anchored in these two sources (Qu'ran and Sunna)" [Wael B. Hallaq, "A History of Islamic Legal Theories"]. But taken altogether, the legalistic aspects of Islamic tradition fall short of a full code of laws. And they fail to take into account, obviously, anything that has gone on in the world since about 800 C.E.

In propounding his message, the Prophet plainly wished to break away from pre-Islamic values and institutions, but only insofar as he needed to establish once and for all the fundaments of the new religion. Having been pragmatic, he could not have done away with all the social practices and institutions that prevailed in his time. [Hallaq]
That leaves Islam in the worst possible situation, commitment to religious law, but with an incomplete and badly dated system of law. A tendency toward legal structure without a finished form. That leaves it vulnerable, eternally, to determined minds that would install their own dark, bloody, reactionary, anti-humanist desires into the word of God.

There are other ways to interpret Islam. Brilliant minds and brave hearts in the Islamic world have advanced them from time to time. But they never seem to make much headway. Even in the modern-day "crisis" of Islamic thought, the bid to give reason a place alongside revelation must be rooted in God, not man. When humanistic and positivist tendencies collide with the imperatives of revelation, in the Muslim world, revelation wins. Even among those who reject the medievalism of the old ways as irrelevant to the modern age. "Except for a minority of secularists, the great majority of modern Muslim thinkers and intellectuals insist upon the need to maintain the connection between law and the divine command." [Hallaq]

This gives Islamic reformers a long, steep path to climb. For instance, Ali Abd al-Raziq (1925) argued that there was no Islamic authority for the caliphate and that Islam has no political component. It was a radical argument yet forcefully made and in the finest Islamic scholarly style. It had some influence among secularizing Muslims in the middle of the last century, before the Islamist Revival swept it off the board.

Yet even if al-Raziq is accepted, the societal rules of the Qu'ran and Sunna -- with regard to women, say, or to religious minorities -- remain binding on individual Muslims.

In Iran a generation later, Mohammed Mosaddeq seems to have held the view (per Roy Mottahedeh) that Shi'a jurisprudence allowed a central role for common sense and for parliaments to pick and choose from Islamic law such dogmas as were appropriate to the modern situation at hand. With that approach, if the CIA and the British oil interests and the shah had not got to him first, he undoubtedly would have faced a challenge sooner or later from the ayatollahs.

The daunting difficulty of breaking through that impasse, I think, is why many Muslims reject rationalism and modernity as Western corruptions, and seek a "puritan" Islam. And since Islam was born in a time of war to the death against unbelievers, only a few small steps stand between fundamentalist Islam to jetliners plowed into skyscrapers.

Thoughtful Muslim reformers in the past century have tried to navigate a path between secularism and Shari'a. If the choice offered to the Islamic people must be between Shari'a and Western secularism, however, Shari'a always will win, as it is the Islamic alternative, bound up in that people's sense of religious duty and resentment of the West. And the Islamists know this, and in their Anti-Western and anti-modern extremism, they prevent a third way. By keeping the Shari'a immutable, by making it heresy to attempt to alter a word of it, the fundamentalists keep control of the political flow.

Their goal is not merely to hold political power. That is their means to the end they seek. It is not to make laws. It is to enforce laws laid down in the mid-Seventh Century C.E., by the word of God.