By Gökhan Bacik
October 04, 2015
The current desperate situation in the Muslim world renders the famous question a new urgency: Does the Islam of today need reforming?
Indeed, the idea of reform arose in the history of Christianity. The call for reform in Islam is inspired by Christian history: It was the Reformation that caused the leap in development there.
Mehdi Hasan, in a recent opinion published in the Guardian, argues against reforming Islam. To him, “Islam isn't Christianity. They are not analogous, and it is deeply ignorant to pretend otherwise.” Some others share Hasan's view. Their main tenet is that Islam and Christianity are different, so what happened in Christianity cannot be proposed for Islam. This perspective is institutional, and focused strictly on the differences between Islam and Christianity.
For others still, the call for reform in Islam is doctrinally alogical. As Ayan Hirsi Ali says, “Muslims are not likely to heed a call for doctrinal reformation from someone they regard as an apostate and infidel.” The traditional and conservative scholars have already declared wrongheaded those who call for reform in Islam.
This debate reduces to a linguistic one, at some point. Though “reform” is rejected, the Islamic tradition itself has its own words, such as ihya (revival) and tajdid (renewal). So reformists can shelter under these words to avoid censure from the radicals. The term tajdid has a particularly strong religious legitimacy.
The words “revival” and “renewal” give us the main divisions in the Muslim world of today. The revivalists believe that Islamic doctrine is perfect but that problems stem simply from the fact that we do not have perfect Muslims who obey its rules. The renewal school, in direct contrast, argues that religious doctrine itself should be updated, and even corrected.
There are two points that we should consider when we analyze the revivalist and the renewal schools. First, the dynamism of Islamic thought has been stagnant for ages. It is very obvious that religious doctrine has never been updated according to the parallel scientific and other developments. Thus, the argument that “Islamic doctrine is perfect” is tautological, on the logical model of the analytical (as distinct from synthetic) statement: “Islamic doctrine” entails “is perfect.” The counter-argument this attracts is that Islamic doctrine is outdated, and that compromises its “perfect” entailment, and ipso facto destroys this putative analytical statement's truth value.
Second, the rise of religious piety has failed to overcome major problems in Muslim societies. This is a major argument of the renewal school. The revival school has argued that the greater the number of pious Muslims, the fewer the problems of Muslim communities. But things have gone in the opposite direction, for we are seeing religious actors and political groups in the Muslim world, from Malaysia to Turkey, promoting anti-piety examples such as corruption and terrorism.
For instance, in a certain sense, the members of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) are very pious, as are many corrupt leaders of the Muslim world. That destroys the main argument of revivalism. Worse, religious people have instrumentalized Islam to make it the tool that helps their political strategies.
The debate should be brought to a simple thought: What does Islam offer the US in terms of space technology? What does Islam offer Norway in terms of urbanization? What does Islam offer women who live in Sydney in terms of civil and democratic rights? What does Islam offer the world environmental movement? What does Islam offer Danish society in terms of work ethics?
The Islamic dawa (cause) that was shaped in the 19th century was practice oriented. Its purpose was to raise a religious generation. (“Religious” here connotes “practical religiosity.”) It was believed that Islamic doctrine is perfect, and the only deficiency is in the scarcity of religious people: so study this doctrine! But in the 21st century, it is clear that the doctrine itself needs renewal. The religious generation of Muslims has failed to solve problems such as corruption and impeded democratization.