Ijtihad, Rethinking Islam(13 Dec 2018 NewAgeIslam.Com)
Why the Reformist Scholars Cannot Make a Difference

By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam

13 December 2018

Islamic reform theologians such as Fazlur Rahman and Abdullah Saeed and Turkish Islamic Scholars such as Mehmet Paéaci and Ilhami Güler study the Qur’an via the framework of the time when it was revealed to Muhammad.  Mattson says that "in many of the first Qur'anic verses to be revealed relate to Muhammad’s inner state as he began his prophetic mission". In this sense, if the Qur’an is seen as God’s revelation at a specific time it must be acknowledged that the revelation was influenced by the historical and social conditions of that time (Esack, Saeed).

Abdullah Saeed further says: "Values change according to social, economic, political, legal and intellectual circumstances. When this happens, there should be a change in how we approach the foundation texts that relate to those values. The Qur’an was given in a specific context, within the framework of a worldview that was appropriate to first/seventh-century Arabia, and in a language and symbolism that its audience understood. The Qur’an should be seen as embedded in the context in which it was received."

While Ebrahim Moosa says that he firmly believes that Islam is a religion for all ages and eras, he also says that the key is to interpret it according to the time and world we currently live in. "Muslim communities are based on historical traditions. And I'm not saying everything in tradition has to be thrown out. You don't throw the baby out with the bath-water. I think retaining an element of tradition is important. But some parts of tradition have become outdated and anachronistic in today's world- the question of gender, relationship between self and other, questions about practices that understand the world in a very different way. Our world has changed, and with the arrival of science and scientific thinking, how do you bring all those things together in a conversation?" Moosa asserts that progressive Islam doesn't mean changing the Quran or changing Hadith, but is instead about having alternative methodological approaches that are going to allow us to find different kinds of answers from tradition, and answers that will be much more amenable to our experiences and our way of life, be much more equitable.

"The key thing about progressive or critical traditionalist approach in Islam, to me, is that we must see that all knowledge must substantiate and support the fulfilment of human dignity. Human dignity is at the core of all Islam's messages. And if knowledge does not deliver on human dignity, then that knowledge really is questionable. So those kinds of interpretations of the past that talked about non-Muslims in a particular way that talked about women in a particular way are no longer dignified. That has to change. You can only change it when you are prepared to ask questions, and are prepared to challenge the paradigm of interpretation that has been prevalent thus far." Moosa also believes that that is probably one of the biggest challenges for Muslims collectively, "because certain strands of Muslim orthodoxy do not want the paradigm to be questioned. They think the paradigm is perfect. And because they think so, anyone who challenges it becomes the enemy. But that is the only way we can have peace amongst Muslims today."

The Flawed Argument of Context by Reformist Scholars

Is historical context important to a revelation? It certainly is for progressive revelations. Allah has taken mankind forward progressively from the earliest times time when man did not even have the concept of right and wrong to a stage when mankind was ready to receive the “perfected and complete religion” from Muhammad (pbuh), the last and the seal of the prophets. This was a stage in civilisational development, when the worth of the Deen of Allah (moral principles of religion), had become evident through practice over the ages, and therefore clear from error (Quran 2:256).  Once the perfected and complete Deen (Quran 5:3) was delivered, there cannot be further improvement to it or any addition/subtraction.

The flaw in the argument is in the assumption that lessons on the eternal principles cannot be delivered through a context. No matter what the context, eternal principles remain unchanged and any given context is only incidental, but part of the deliberate methodology of experiential learning followed by the Quranic revelations.  The context is to elucidate but not to define the message itself. It is therefore erroneous to believe that the Deen of Islam would have differed if the context of the revelation was different. No, the context or the process of elucidating the message would have been different but the Deen would have remained the same.

If you believe otherwise like the reformist scholars, then you are saying in effect that Allah did not “perfect and complete his religion” and that religion can never be perfected/completed since it must continue to change with the times. You also reject in effect the argument of Muhammad (pbuh) being the last and the seal of the prophets because who else but a prophet can guide us afresh according to the changed times?

What is possible however is that the traditionalist approach is flawed, and they have misinterpreted the Quran and their mistakes need to be corrected. It is also possible to throw out the traditionalist approach completely if it is full of errors and adopt a more robust methodology to the study of the Qur’an.

Does Religion Shape Our Values, Or Do We Change The Religion According To The Changing Values?

Man did not know right from wrong. It is religion which has exclusively given us the criteria of right and wrong and each one of our ethical and moral principles. The moral/ethical domain has exclusively belonged to religion and not even one of our moral principles has come from outside of religion or outside of Divine Revelation. It is therefore preposterous for the reformist scholars to suggest changing the religion according to the changing values. If the values have come from outside of religion then religion was unnecessary in the past and if the values from religion are inappropriate in today’s world, then the religion has outlived its utility and must be abandoned. The claim of the Quran that the Deen is perfected and complete is then proven false (Nauzobillah). Is this however the case? Far from it as we shall see.

The Argument against Interpretations

First, let us question why the Quran needs to be interpreted. Whose speech requires to be interpreted? We know that we need to interpret the speech of:

1. A Child who has not yet learned to speak well.

2. An imbecile

3. Another category of speech or writing that is interpreted is poetry and literature.

 We never try to interpret the speech of sane intelligent honourable persons but take them on their word or take what they say literally.

 The Quran informs us that it is a Revelation from the Lord of the Worlds (Qur’an 56:80), a Book that makes things clear and not poetry (Qur’an 36:69), nor is it the word of an imbecile or mad man (Qur’an 68:2), but the word of a most honourable messenger of Allah (Qur’an 81:19). It therefore does not require to be interpreted but taken on its word or its most direct literal meaning. Those who interpret and not take the direct literal meaning are those who hold the Message in light esteem and the Quran asks: (56:81) Is it such a Message that ye would hold in light esteem?

What of the Mutashabihat verses? These also do not require interpretation but knowing which of the words have been used as a metaphor, which is also never in doubt. In any case, the Deen of Allah, or right way of living in Islam, is through the Muhkamat verses (verses of clear established meaning) alone.

 So, what do we make of this penchant for interpretation? Why is every scholar interpreting? This is because each one of us reads the Quran with pre-conceived ideas of what is right and wrong and is subconsciously bending the Message to those ideas. Nobody is listening to the Qur’an with an open, clear and blank mind. We therefore have paradigms of interpretation or theological frameworks.

The Meaning vs the Paradigms of Interpretation

However, if all that we do is interpret, then there is no end to the re-interpretations. But if you take the meaning as intended when the Quran was revealed, then this meaning is fixed and can never change. Is it possible to take the meaning? Yes, it is not only possible but easy and simple. The clear meaning is as relevant today as it always was and will forever be as the revelation of Allah is expected to be.

Allah’s attribute of Tawheed or Oneness, manifests itself in the attribute of every verse. The single, easily understood clear meaning, makes taking any other meaning clearly false. This pre-supposes that no verse of the Quran contradicts any other verse of the Quran and no verse of the Quran is abrogated which indeed is the case. Our scholars, with their misinterpretations, however, render the Book a book of many contradictions and provide proof that they misinterpret. The Quran is consistent with itself but not necessarily with the secondary literature consisting of the Ahadith, Shane-Nuzul, commentaries of the scholars and imams. The Quran is best understood by itself. The simple trick is to blank out every other noise and listen carefully to the Quran alone. Nothing can be simpler than that.    

Question the scholars, the traditionalists and every paradigm of interpretation and in fact interpretation itself, but either accept that Islam is eternal, unchanging and perfected as claimed by the Quran, or reject that claim and therefore the Qur’an itself. You are then free to follow whatever you wish to follow. Why should we be constrained by the Qur’an that makes a false claim?  Professor Ebrahim Moosa is debunking the Islam of the traditional schools without bringing out the real Islam because he has no idea of how to bring out the real Islam. He only knows that the Islam of the traditional schools is inconsistent with human dignity. I debunk the Islam of the traditional schools by showing them to be in gross error and misinterpreting.

Debunking the Islam of the Traditionalists

We need to take the bull by the horns. The misinterpretations of the traditionalists cannot be countered by an appeal to modernity. If we need to change the religion with the times, then the religion is man-made and if so, why do we need the Quran at all? We can go wherever our reason leads us. We have a case against the traditionalists only if we can show them to be in gross error or by showing that their Islam is a caricature of the real Islam of the Quran if not a complete anti-thesis of it. If not, then the traditionalists are right and we either accept their Islam or go our own ways. Why should we hang around Islam if we disagree with what we believe to be the authentic Islam? What we need to become is a person of integrity and not a hypocrite.

The fact is that the Islam of the traditionalists is a gross misrepresentation of the true Islam of the Quran as brought out by the clear meaning of the verses shorn of all interpretations.  I have brought out in my articles the eternal Islam of the Quran which is consistent with the most refined ideas of human dignity, as it should be, if the Quran is indeed a revelation, and the last word, from the Lord of the Universe. I also do not deviate from the literal meaning. The meanings of the words that I take is as defined or made clear by the Quran itself, and not the distortions that have crept in from misuse of those words by the scholars. For example:

1.       Kafir is a faith neutral term meaning an ingrate rebel or a wilful denier of the truth, or those who wilfully disobey the commands of Allah but never a simple “disbeliever”, for it is only a believer who can wilfully disobey or deny and therefore be a Kafir. There are several verses of the Quran where “Kafaru” refers to the believer. A simple “disbeliever” is la-Yuminun (one without belief) because he may be la-Yalamun (one without knowledge) and is not a Kafir. There is no verse in the Quran that refers to all the polytheists as Kafir because many of them are simply those without knowledge and are not wilful deniers of Allah’s Oneness. While “shirk” or associating partners with Allah is an unforgivable sin for the believers, it is merely among the prohibitions for the disbelievers without knowledge. There is of course a category of “disbelievers” who have the knowledge and conviction and yet are wilful deniers of Allah. These are among the category of people “who will not believe” no matter what proof comes to them and are among the Kafir. This is covered in my article: Revisiting the Meaning of Kafir

2.       Islam is the Deen (religion) of Allah from the time of creation of the Universe itself, and every scriptures-based religion is a sect of Islam. This is covered in my articles:

Understanding the Religion of Allah through the Ages

The Momineen and the Kafirin

Is It Possible To Logically Derive A Single Meaning Of Every Verse Of The Quran? Or, Does Allah Provide A Level Playing Field To All The People?

3.       The only cause for fighting that is justified and described as fighting in the cause of Allah is fighting to end any kind of oppression against any people by any oppressor. The faith of the oppressor and the oppressed is immaterial. Islam does not justify any other cause for fighting – not even fighting to end disbelief. This is covered in my articles:

The Principles of War from the Quran

The Much discussed and debated Medinian Verses Relating to Fighting

The Correct Understanding of the So Called ‘Sword’ Verses of Surah Taubah

The Story of the Prophetic Mission of Muhammad (pbuh) in the Qu’ran (Concluding Part) Summary

4.       The polytheists (Mushrikin) who had not fought against the Muslims in violation of their treaty had a right to retain their faith and become jiziya paying citizens. Their choice was not limited to either accepting Islam or death as portrayed by the traditionalist. This is covered in my articles:

The Ahadith That Distort The Message Of The Quran - Part I

The Importance of Getting the Story Right on the Divine Plan Allah

5.       Shuhuda does not mean martyrs in the Qur’an. It means witnesses or exemplar Muslims. They are those who provide living evidence of Islam through their deeds and words. Those slain in the cause of Allah are referred to in the Quran by the full description “qutelu fi sabi lillah” and never as the Shaheed or the shuhuda. The meaning of shuhuda has been distorted by the traditionalists to glorify getting slain in violent jihad. This is covered in my article: The Politics of Religion and the Changing Concept of Shuhuda over the Years

6.       A woman’s testimony is not worth half of that of a man’s testimony. The Quran allows women the privilege and option of witnessing and testifying jointly consulting each other. This is not a legal requirement but an option and a privilege. Their separate testimonies are not to be taken but only their joint testimony allowing them to consult each other before testifying or answering any question. This is covered in my article: Is A Woman’s Testimony Worth Half That of A Man?

7.       Jizya as implemented by the Prophet (pbuh), was not a religious requirement under Islam, but a negotiated agreement between the parties. It was value for money. This is covered in my article: The Story of the Prophetic Mission of Muhammad (pbuh) From the Qu’ran (Part 6): The People of the Book and Jiziya

8.       A Muslim is anyone who establishes regular prayers and pays zakat and has accepted to follow the tenets of Islam while he may not yet have become a believer. Belief is something which grows over a period and is not a pre-condition for becoming a Muslim (Qur’an 9:5 and 49:14). You cannot therefore declare a person who establishes regular prayers and pays zakat as kafir for his beliefs no matter what those beliefs may be. A believer can be a kafir but not a Muslim because a Muslim by definition is one who submits to Allah in Islam by establishing regular prayers and spending in charity. Every sect of Islam practices takfir of every other sect and is in error and since the Kharjites started this practice, every sect of Islam is a sub-sect of the Kharjite. This is covered in my article: What Survives Of The Authentic Sunna (Practice) Of The Prophet (PBUH)?

9.       The divorce process in the Qur’an is a two-stage process with a mandatory Iddat period in between, which must be spent in the husband’s house. Divorce by pronouncing Talaq thrice in one sitting is therefore null and void and also divorce through messages. If reconciliation does not take place during the iddat period, then the divorce becomes irrevocable. If reconciliation takes place, then any subsequent divorce will have to go through the same two stages. This can happen any number of times. The Quran does not put the limit of three on it. What the Quran says is that there is no third stage. After the second stage or at the end of the iddat period, it must either end with reconciliation or with an irrevocable divorce because there is no third stage. This is covered in my article: The Process for Divorce in the Quran

10.     The five pillars of Islam is a construct of the Ash’ariyya and the Maturidiyya theology. These are better thought of as the hygiene factors rather than as the pillars of Islam. What Islam rests on are the virtues of the Siddiq, Shuhuda and the Saliheen extolled in the Quran which are the pillars of Islam and covered in my article: The Role Models in the Quran


The traditionalists have relied upon bigoted paradigms of interpretation which has resulted in portraying the religion at odds with the humanistic and universal message of the Quran. The answer to that is not another paradigm of interpretation but rejection of every paradigm of interpretation and establishing the true meaning of the Message of the Quran as demonstrated through my articles. What comes through are the eternal values of human dignity and Allah as the God of all mankind, who provides a level playing field to all people irrespective of the religion into which they are born.

Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to NewAgeIslam.com

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