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The Spectre of History: Thoughts on an Islamic Reformation


By Ali Minai

April 13, 2015

The call for an "Islamic reformation" is ringing out across the world in response to the rise of Jihadi militant groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram, asking "Where is the Muslim Luther"? In the many opinion pieces and outright prescriptions gracing the pages of magazines, newspapers and blogs, one hears a clear message of "reform or die!" Given the menace posed by Muslim militant groups, this is neither surprising nor unreasonable. But is it really useful to think in terms of reforming the religion of Islam?

This article argues that seeking a religious reformation in Islam is neither feasible nor especially useful as a strategy for countering the current rise of Islamic militancy. While this militancy undoubtedly draws upon Islamic beliefs, groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are emergent products of an underlying societal attitude, and until that attitude changes, such groups will continue to arise. Of course, it is critical to fight today's particular militants with every available tactic, but it is even more important to understand why such groups emerge and persist in Muslim societies today, and how this dynamic can be changed.

Proponents of "Islamic reformation" have often invoked the Protestant Reformation in 16th century Europe as an example of the radical change that's needed in Islam today. But as perceptive commentators have pointed out, this argument is fatally flawed: An illiberal and puritanical movement directed at a specific institution – the Roman Catholic Church – is a poor model for reforming an illiberal and puritanical system with no institutionalized clergy. Ultimately, the possibilities for change in Islam are constrained by its historical nature. More than an organized religion, it is a normative ideology defined implicitly by the attitudes of believers towards sacred texts and personages. Unlike Christianity, which is mainly about doctrine, Islam is mostly about history – past and future, personal and universal.

Through its first three centuries, Christianity was a faith without temporal power. This is reflected in the New Testament, which focuses almost entirely on spiritual, ethical and doctrinal matters. When Christianity finally achieved power under Constantine, it necessarily institutionalized a distinction, though not yet a separation, between Church and State – a recognition that God had His domain and Caesar had his, albeit with God's sanction. Notwithstanding the active participation of the Church in politics for centuries thereafter, the formal aim of Christianity has always been to shape souls, with personal Redemption and Salvation as core ideas. In contrast, Islam acquired temporal power during its earliest period, and developed a strong vision of itself, not only as the basis of individual piety, but also as the shaper of history and an organizer of societies.

This is reflected in the Qur'an, which includes extensive legal and political prescriptions in addition to doctrinal ones. Almost from its inception, serious thinkers in Islam worked to develop an integrated framework of doctrinal, personal, legal and political rules that came to be known as the shari'a – the Islamic code – and aspired to make this the organizing principle of humanity as a whole. Most of the issues vexing the world today in the name of Islam arise from this universalist vision of Islamic law as exclusively "right" for all people and all times at all levels of societal organization.

Draconian laws against blasphemy and apostasy, the suppression of free expression, the relegation of non-Muslim minorities to secondary status, the "House of Islam" vs. "House of War" view of the world that foments jihad, the preference of loyalty to God over loyalty to the state – all follow from this inherently transcendental and supremacist attitude. It means that the "separation of church and state" is conceptually more alien to Muslims than it ever was to Christians. And though the ideal of an "Islamic state" ruled by the shari'a has never truly been implemented, its allure has been a powerful cultural toxin throughout Muslim history – especially today when centuries of being powerless have removed most constraints of reality from zealous imaginations.

It has been asserted that the current surge of Muslim militancy is a modern phenomenon, rooted in an a historical response to modernity by those with revivalist or apocalyptic visions of Islam. That is true enough, but it is certainly not the whole truth: One also has to explain why these revivalist and apocalyptic visions are emerging today, and where their roots lie. In fact, these visions represent the atavistic re-emergence of an early tendency in Islam. A vision born in 7th century Arab garrison towns and gradually ground into dust by a thousand years of history has been resurrected by ideologues taking advantage of circumstances such as intellectual decline, colonial occupation and the geography of oil. In a real sense, it is history that today is repeating itself a historically – as both tragedy and farce!

The intense desire for a righteous Islamic polity arose early in the history of Islam. Even as Umayyad rulers assimilated the norms of Byzantine culture and the Abbasid caliphs self-consciously adopted the Sassanian "Great King" model for themselves, significant groups of what Marshall Hodgson calls "piety-minded" Muslims arose in both the Shi'a and Sunni sects of Islam, seeking to implement a state modeled strictly on Islamic principles derived from the Qur'an and the Prophet's life. Over time, Shi'a and Sunni Muslims developed two distinct models for achieving this. The Shi'a model, based on the concept of a charismatic leader – an imām – allowed greater institutionalization of the shari'a, and ultimately proved to be more successful politically. The Sunni model was based on the consensus of the larger community around the shari'a, which was a more challenging approach. Neither was ever able to achieve full implementation, but most of the piety-minded Sunnis accepted an accommodation with the Abbasid rulers based on infusion of the shari'a into the legal and social fabric. For some among them, however, this was a betrayal of principle, and the history of Islam from the 7th century through the 10th is one of smoldering religious rebellions throughout the realm by both Shi'a and Sunni groups seeking to establish their visions of a purer Islamic order. The Sunni rebels of that era, typically called the Khawārij (the excluded), are the true conceptual ancestors of today's Jihadi groups.

In time, Islam's view of itself as the universal organizing force of history and society was diluted by human nature. Piety took on a much more mystical and personal aspect, leaving the shaping of history to rulers with largely secular ambitions. The few notable exceptions – such as the Zaydis in Yemen, the Fatimids in Egypt, and the Safavids in Iran – occurred in the more organized Shi'a tradition. Most of the successful Sunni dynasties that arose after the dissolution of the Abbasid Empire in the mid-10th century – Samanids, Ghaznavids, Seljuks, Mamlukes, Mongols, the Delhi Sultans, Ottomans, Mughals, and others  – were rather non-religious in their exercise of power, using religious trappings mainly as symbols or as instruments of their ambitions. It is interesting to note that this occurred just as the ruling classes shifted from being Arab to becoming more Turkic, Iranian or Mongol. Though it had claimed universality and involved participation from all ethnic groups, the vision of the shari'a was always rooted in an Arab ethos. The Turks and Mongols brought forth a very different model of the state – one based on absolute rule, concrete geopolitics and a worldly culture rather than on religious abstractions. The model found its final great expression in the Ottoman and Mughal empires, which were not very different than their European counterparts in giving religion mainly a ceremonial place in governance.

The ruler in these empires was absolute – the "shadow of God on Earth", the "emperor of the land and the sea", the "commander of the faithful", etc. The Indian emperor, Jalāl-ud-Dīn Akbar, even used a pun on his name to appropriate the honorific "jalla-jalaluhu" – "may his glory be exalted" – a phrase hitherto reserved for God alone. By then, the vast majority of Muslims had already come to accept this model that was replicated at scales ranging from empires to city states for centuries. All authority rested with the ruler, including the authority to prescribe religious norms through appropriate officials. Of course, most of these rulers were still cruel despots – and especially merciless in their persecution of non-Muslims – but this was almost always a political rather than a religious choice, as shown by their willingness to make close alliances with the same groups against other Muslims when needed.                                     

Evidence of this gradual change in Muslim societies can be seen in the high culture that emerged during the Abbasid period and reached spectacular heights in later eras nearly up until colonial times. This was a culture – or rather, a constellation of cultures – of great diversity, intellectual vigor, and a decidedly unorthodox, cosmopolitan outlook exemplified in the Muslim heartland by figures such as Abu Nuwas, Al-Jahiz, Ibn Sina and Al-Ma'arri, but also manifesting itself in all its variety from Spain to India in geniuses such as Albiruni, Ferdowsi, Omar Khayyam, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, Rashid-al-Din Hamdani, Jelaluddin Rumi, Sa'di Shirazi, Hafez Shirazi, Amir Khusro Dehlavi, and many others – not all of them Muslim. This diverse intellectual tradition was paralleled by – and often intermingled with – an equally vigorous and diverse tradition of Sufi mysticism that spread its message of individual enlightenment and humanism in Muslim lands from Spain to India, amalgamating ideas from Hinduism, Buddhism and Iranian religions with the Semitic heritage of Islam to create a trans-civilizational culture of remarkable complexity. Though occasionally set back by eruptions of puritanism – as under the Abbasid Caliph Al-Qadir or the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb Alamgir – the cultures of Muslim lands became remarkably rich and eclectic between the 8th and 17th centuries.

It is difficult to say whether, left to itself, this system would ultimately have moved towards greater modernization and democracy, as occurred in Europe, or if it would have evolved in some other direction. Progressive or not, it is unlikely that any such process could have avoided the challenges that modern ideas presented to the organization of societies. Something new – despotic or democratic, but grounded in real history – would have emerged if the process of political evolution had not been interrupted.                                                     

It has become fashionable to blame the decline of intellectual vigor in Islamicate culture on the Mongol invasion, the Plague, or on orthodox scholars such as Al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, and Shaykh Ahmad Sarhindi in India. These may all have been factors in the decline of science and philosophy among Muslims after the 13th century, but art and literature prospered for centuries after. More importantly, so did the tradition of non-theocratic rule. What truly arrested the development of Muslim societies was their disconnection from the historic process by the weakening of Muslim rulers through internal factors (e.g., the consequences of Aurangzeb Alamgir's catastrophic policies in India) and the subsequent advent of colonial powers. All secular innovation stopped – including innovation needed to develop a more modern social and political order. After all, practical models of statecraft evolve in sovereign states with real power, not in subject populations or subservient societies. The powerless, freed from the responsibility of consequences, can wallow in their misery, create imaginary histories, and nurture delusions of promised grandeur. In imposing their new order, the European powers took away both the capacity of governance from Muslim rulers and the possibility of challenges to this governance from reformers, leaving a vacuum in political thinking. In time, this vacuum was filled by the detritus of history - revivalist ideologies and fantasies in the quest to reclaim a mythical lost state of purity and virtue – leading directly to the situation before us today.

All this is not to imply that colonialism created the modern Islamic militancy – that the Europeans "did this" to the Muslims. As discussed earlier, the seeds of this problem were inherent in the Islamic worldview, but had largely lain dormant for centuries. This was already beginning to change as the gunpowder empires weakened, but colonization certainly amplified this by creating an ungoverned intellectual space in many Muslim societies where the seeds of radical ideologies could re-germinate and take root without significant notice. In the language of evolutionary biology, a "neutral space" was provided for the intellectual "genotype" to change without being reflected much in the "phenotype" of actual action. It is interesting to note that the modern corpus of revivalist ideologies in Islam developed mainly, though not exclusively, in opposition to Western ideas such as nationalism, democracy, capitalism and communism. The one significant region that retained its historical continuity – Ottoman Turkey – was also the one most ready to modernize, though obviously not for this reason alone. Today, what was at best an undercurrent of originalist thought embodied in figures such as Ibn Taymiyyah and Ibn Abdul Wahhab has come to pervade large parts of the Muslim population – even in regions such as South Asia, which was dominated by the mystical strain of Islam prior to the early 18th century. And interestingly, this has coincided with the re-emergence of peninsular Arabia as a major force in the Muslim world thanks to oil wealth. Perhaps it should not be surprising then that the spirit of 7th century Arab garrison towns should be stalking the world again.

For all their visible depredations, groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda are not the core problem today; they are symptoms of a deeper crisis in the community of Islam. Muslim societies, put to sleep and disconnected from their history, have dreamt themselves an ancient dream. Waking up in a new world, and having lost the realistic balance developed over many centuries, all they can imagine today is either to recreate that lost 7th century vision or to impose modernity by diktat. The organic historical process that could, over time, have brought them naturally into modernity is completely disrupted. Reigniting that process must be the primary aim of any reform in the Muslim world.

In the absence of any institutional religious authority, it has been suggested that changing Muslim societies today requires top-down imposition of modern ideas by governments – that only a Sisi can counter an ISIS. Indeed, this has been the preferred post-colonial model of Western powers for the Muslim world for decades – essentially re-creating, in an almost farcical way, the situation of Islam's early days, when ultra-puritanical groups fought absolute rulers whom they saw as corrupt and ungodly. Today, there are many such rulers and many such groups, but, embedded in the modern context, both the powerful and the rebellious are mere simulacra of their historical models. The fact is that true change across a diverse set of societies encompassing more than a billion people can occur neither through the edicts of scholars nor the concerted actions of dictators. It is even less likely to occur as a result of lectures by Western intellectuals. The space for militant ideologies will disappear only when a sufficient number of individuals professing the Islamic faith develop an attitude that celebrates humanity, seeks to engage with the universe on rational terms, and comes to value life in service of Man more than death for the glory of God. And these things will not occur through reformist fatwa’s, but by modern education, political participation, cultural renewal, reconnection with actual history, a change in economic incentives, and – as happened in Europe – by courageous individuals within the Muslim community reimagining the roles of Faith, Justice and Reason in society. The Muslim world does not need a Reformation; it needs a Renaissance – leading, perhaps, to an Enlightenment. Ultimately, it isn't "Islam" that needs to change, it is Muslims.

It is by no means certain that this change can happen. The triumph of the European Renaissance was to shift the framework for understanding the Universe and Man’s place in it from a theocentric one to a rational, materialistic one. That shift – and the explosion of scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs it generated – was critical both to the development of a materialistic human-centered philosophy, i.e., secular humanism, and to the rise of the West as the shaper of the modern world. Regardless of politically correct assertions to the contrary, it is not possible to truly adopt liberal humanist values without also buying into a fundamentally secular, human-centered and at least provisionally materialistic world-view - to believe that material things matter and that the universe can be understood in material terms. This tension is a problem not only for Muslims but also for Christians and others, and the inability to reconcile faith with modernity still generates conflict in Western societies. However, most people in these societies have learned the “mind trick” of following secular laws and accepting materialistic science while keeping faith alive at an individual level. Mechanisms for this are available within the Muslim intellectual tradition too, but the recent tendency in most Muslim societies has been to move away from these towards greater literalism. How, and whether, this trend can be reversed should be the question on the minds of all would-be reformers of Islam.

If history is any guide, the various militant groups of today will never be able to coordinate sufficiently to become a truly global territorial threat. The very lack of institutionalization that makes Sunni Islam hard to reform may also have made it incapable of supporting coordinated movements on a large scale. However, in a complex system, it is always dangerous to predict the impossibility of a phenomenon – especially in today's globalized communication environment. At the same time, the distributed but highly connected nature of the system also makes it susceptible to rapid global transformation under certain conditions – a phase transition, so to speak – for better or worse.

That last possibility is especially ominous today as the world faces imminent demographic and environmental crises. The stresses generated by these crises cannot but fan greater conflict – and not just in the Muslim world. One consequence is likely to be a sharp increase in nationalism and intolerance across the world, which will only strengthen the current militancy. It is easy to imagine, in fifty years, a world beset by conflict everywhere, divided between governed and ungoverned spaces, which has been the natural state of the world through most of human history. Indeed, ungoverned spaces are on the rise even today – in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Central America and elsewhere. As oceans rise, water runs out, droughts grow and catastrophes multiply, a time could come when today's troubled world looks like a quaintly peaceful place. And perhaps the change needed to solve today's crises will emerge only after these crises have inflicted the full measure of their violence on humanity, and created a truly new world. Hope springs eternal!