Reviewing the sources of Islamic jurisprudence and the interpretation and relative significance accorded to Quran and Hadees is no doubt important. But Muslims need to look beyond that. They need to look at the world not simply as a preparation for the afterlife but maybe as the only life they will ever have, at least as the conscious individual beings they recognise themselves as. Most importantly, they need to view themselves not simply as “Muslim,” but as individuals imbued with agency and enterprise, who have the choice to lead the life they want and the attendant responsibility to let others do the same.
Many Muslims today feel the need for religious reformation to bring their faith closer to the ideals of the modern age, in particular values such as religious tolerance, human rights, women’s rights, democracy, separation of religion and politics, scientific temperament and so on. The spurt in terrorism over the past couple of decades and the hijacking of Islam by a handful of extremists have been crucial in precipitating this desire, especially among Muslims in the West and the educated classes within the Muslim world.
But this desire is by no means new. A number of Muslim intellectuals yearned to inculcate European values in Muslim culture, politics and society during the rarely remembered Al Nahda renaissance movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The question then was, and remains: what should this reformation look like?
Early reformers such as Rifa al Tahtawi considered modernity and Europe to be synonymous; for them becoming modern effectively meant giving up the traditional way of life and becoming European in every possible way. In contrast, Jamal al Din Afghani and Muhammad Abduh argued for an Islam-inspired reformation. For them, the Islamic doctrine incorporated the essential tenets of modernity, and so while modernisation was necessary for Muslim societies, they did not need to give up Islam to do so.
Al Nahda culminated in the Arab nationalist movement of the mid-20th century (nationalism, it ought to be remembered, is itself is a modern European project), only to be crushed by military dictators―ironically at the behest and with the blessings of modern European nations. This, in turn, gave birth to a clutch of pan-Islamist movements in the late 20th century, including militant and non-militant ones.
Fresh Approaches to Reform
But the wheel of history has come full circle. The brutality and ideological indigence of these movements, coupled with abject political failures, have revitalised calls for reform―within these movements as well and in the broader Muslim milieu. Muslims who consider themselves moderate, liberal, progressive, and more in tune with the modern world are seized of a growing sensibility that unlike the Christian West, the Islamic world never underwent reformation, and blame this shortcoming for much that is wrong in Muslim societies.
But a century after Abduh’s death, little agreement has emerged on what reformation should mean―not just among the masses, but even among scholars. Those who talk of the need for reform believe that established schools of jurisprudence are either insufficient to meet the requirements of the modern age, or that they are misleading and even at odds with the verities of Islam. Many of them feel that the Islamic religious canon needs to be reinterpreted in the light of modern-day realities, so that the religion remains meaningful in ways that are relevant for Muslims today.
Tariq Ramadan has termed this approach, which aims to facilitate the integration of Muslim societies with the modern world, as “adaptive reform.” He himself, however, thinks that such reform will not be enough. Instead, he argues for “transformational reform,” which will challenge the sources of Islamic laws and norms as they are accepted today. He wants to rid the religion of centuries of ossification and bring Islam in tune with its original rational and spiritual values. And he wants scientists and social scientists to be a part and parcel of this process. Other scholars have argued, along similar lines, for a radical relook at Islamic literature, for downgrading the value that is typically accorded to Hadees in deriving laws and norms, and even for marking out portions of the Quran that they think are no longer relevant.
Both adaptive and transformative reform, in so far as they aim to reproduce European reformation in the Muslim world, miss the forest for the trees. That is because European reformation did not take off with the modern values of human rights, democracy and scientific temperament in mind. These values emerged later as the social and psychological consequences of a deeper change in the meaning of religion itself for Europeans.
The religious implication of reformation in Europe was the dawn of the secular age. Secularism is often taken to mean ungodliness or even anti-godliness. Post-reformation, science is supposed to have replaced religion in European society. But this received wisdom is incorrect. Never mind the common folk, virtually every major European philosopher and scientist, from Galileo to Einstein, also believed in God.
What Secularism Means
Secularism, as philosopher of religion Charles Taylor has persuasively argued in ‘A Secular Age,’ did not mean the death of God. Rather, it meant a change in how people began to understand God and other religious concepts. God, from being an “out there” entity that lorded over Earth and the rest of the Universe, became an “in here” presence―residing inside human beings. Heaven and Hell, from being places that souls would go to after death, became the joys and sorrows that people experienced in everyday life. Divinity was no longer transcendental, it instead became immanent in the physical sphere of existence.
This profound spiritual transformation had very mechanical roots. The invention of the printing press led to a dramatic upsurge in literacy as well as the mass printing of the Bible. Soon, virtually every household had a Bible that its denizens could read. Indeed, people started keeping personal copies of the Bible. This gradually altered religion from being a social to a personal phenomenon, undermining the power and status of the church. When people had and could read the Bible on their own, they began to develop personal relationships with God and individualised views of religion. In other words, God came to reside within them.
This great transformation imbued human beings with great agency and enterprise. It generated the consciousness that people not only had to do things themselves, but they also had the power to do it on their own. These attitudinal changes proved crucial for the industrial revolution. As all the fantasies of the spiritual world came to reside in the physical, science and technology became the new sources of magic. Shakespeare portrays this change eloquently at the end of ‘The Tempest,’ when his protagonist Prospero gives up his magical powers in the face of human enterprise and leaves the island where he has lived with his magic to live among other humans.
This growing sense of human power and enterprise was the precursor of Milton and Mill’s liberalism―the notion that every human is born free and can choose to do what he wants, Cartesian rationalism, and Kant’s reconceptualisation of morality as a human, as opposed to divinely ordained, virtue. In time, these ideas spelled the separation of church and state, the birth of nationalism and democracy, universal human rights and the related concepts of women’s and minority rights, and most other ideals that constitute the cornerstones of modern society. Through all this, however, God was never spurned, nor was religion castigated―the way people understood these things simply changed.
Lessons for Muslims
What meanings can Muslims today draw from this history? One is a deserved sense of pride. As has been extensively chronicled, Europe owes many of its scientific, technological and philosophical advances to Muslims who not only translated ancient Eastern texts into European languages but also made original contributions in many of these fields. Beyond that, however, Muslim reformers should reconsider the direction and emphasis of their own reform efforts.
Reformation was not simply a change in religious text. It was a change in attitude and philosophy, a change in how people viewed the world and what lies beyond (or does not). Most importantly, it was a change in how people viewed themselves. That should be the goal of Islamic reformation too. Reviewing the sources of Islamic jurisprudence and the interpretation and relative significance accorded to Quran and Hadees is no doubt important. But Muslims need to look beyond that. They need to look at the world not simply as a preparation for the afterlife but maybe as the only life they will ever have, at least as the conscious individual beings they recognise themselves as.
Most importantly, they need to view themselves not simply as “Muslim,” but as individuals imbued with agency and enterprise, who have the choice to lead the life they want and the attendant responsibility to let others do the same. This freedom of choice in their individual identity construction is crucial if Muslims are to stop killing other people for not being Muslims, killing other people for not being the right kind of Muslims, forcing other Muslims to wear burqas and beards, and themselves feeling as victims of global anti-Muslim conspiracies who need to strike back.
Saif Shahin, a regular columnist for New Age Islam, is a doctoral student of political communication at the University of Texas at Austin, US.