By Mon Qazi, New Age Islam
5 September 2015
Sultan Shahin’s highly scholarly article: Preventing Further Radicalization Is the Challenge Muslims Must Undertake: Some Concrete Suggestions which was laden with wisdom and prudence was published in April. But it came to my notice just a few days back. The issues he addressed and the suggestions that he offered have continued relevance for us .His doctrine reminds us of earlier revolutionary thinkers like Muhammad Abduh and Fazl ur Rahman who also suggested radical reforms to purge Islam of the accretions had gathered around the Quran and restore its pristine philosophy. Fazl ur Rahman was far ahead of his times and espoused his doctrine in a highly conservative society. The result was a powerful retaliation by the clergy who labelled him a heretic compelled him to migrate from Pakistan. It is only now that we are realizing the depth and breadth of his vision. Sultan Shahin‘s theory comes at a time when the Muslim society is undergoing a new orientation and is mentally receptive to the reform agenda and responsive to the new paradigmatical approach of Sultan Shahin. I reproduce the gist of Shahin’s suggestions to help readers recapitulate them and then proceed to analyze them in the backdrop of Islam’s political, cultural and historical context
Sultan Shahin’s suggestions
1) Open the gates of Ijtihad, rethinking all tenets of Islam in the light of the situation prevailing today. As we have not done our homework for over a millennium, this will have to be pretty revolutionary.
2) Declare that only constitutive and essential, not the contextual and allegorical verses of Quran are meant to guide us today.
3) Compile Qur'anic verses in the order in which they were revealed, thus restoring primacy to Meccan verses that mostly constitute the essential and universal teachings of Quran, as they can be understood without any need for knowing the context in which they were revealed.
4) Declare that Ahadees cannot be considered any form of revelation from God. Islamic State’s millenarian thesis is almost entirely based on Ahadees, though they use some allegorical verses of Quran as well. The claim of al-Baghdadi leading an end-time war, al-Malhama, just before the final Armageddon, has been a big draw. Some Muslims have come to think life on earth has no meaning left in the times of al-Malhama and so are rushing to join the war.
5) Declare that Sharia (Fiqh) is not divine. It was created over a century after the demise of the Prophet by Ulema who tried to codify laws on the basis of Qur'anic postulates and Arab cultural practices.
6) Declare clearly that Islam believes in co-existence with other religions, not dominion over the world.
7) Re-define commonly used Islamic terms like Muslim, Kafir, Mushrik, ahl-e-Kitab, Jihad, Qital, Farz, Sunnat, etc.
The modernists distinguish the pristine faith and way of life of the Prophet and his first community from later manifestations, which resulted from the internationalization of Islam, that is, its expansion outside of Arabia’s borders, and a host of ultimately damaging acculturation processes. To derive the living value system as it was practiced in its sacred origins, modernists require Ijtihad, individual interpretation of scripture-and also the need of legal reform (perceived as separation of the true Shari’a from its medieval juridical formulation, the Fiqh).
The late-nineteenth-century founders and leaders of the Salafi movement, such as Jamalad-Din Afghani (1839–1897), the advocate of Islamic modernity; Mohammad Abduh (1849–1905), the jurist and Mufti of Egypt; and Rashid Rida (1865–1935), considered to be among the most influential scholars of his generation, were rational, inventive thinkers. Driven by a passion for social justice, they were keen on western innovations particularly in technology and education’. While the Salafis are motivated by an intense desire to ‘build a moral order within which Muslims can lead “the good life”. To Abduh, Islam was eminently compatible with modernization. His main goal was to “renew” Muslim morality and reform the traditional social structures of his day and particularly his region, Egypt, by way of a return to the pristine and dynamic faith and morality of Islam’s first generations. Reformation of Muslim society in that moral mould, he believed, would bring about an Islamic modernism, indigenous and also righteous, internally dynamic and externally powerful. Abduh approaches the Qur’anic text in new ways. He pays attention to time and place of the revelations (“occasions of revelation”), emphasizes the literal meaning of the Qur’anic verses as well as their context, and largely de-emphasizes the Hadith. By way of an interpretation “purified of foreign lore,” Abduh seeks to rediscover the original meaning of the Qur’an, which shaped the faith and ethics of the “righteous forefathers” (aI-SaIaf aI-SaIih), that is, the members of the first Muslim community, in order to recapture a sense of their morality for infusion into his own society. Here, Abduh places great importance on the notions of woman’s full humanity and equality with the man before God, both because they are Qur’anic in origin and also because they are, in his opinion, indispensible in shaping a truly moral society.
Another great contemporary in the field is the great philosopher poet Mohammad Iqbal. To Iqbal the Hellenic –Persian mysticism was ‘nihilism’. He was bitter in his attacks against it. As he observed: “Having lost the vitality to grapple with the temporal, these prophets of decay apply themselves to the quest of a supposed eternal, and gradually complete the spiritual impoverishment and physical degeneration of their society by evolving a seemingly charming ideal of life which reduces the healthy and powerful to death”. Iqbal refused to uphold the status quo in Islam; he attacked the closure of the doors of Ijtihad and demanded readjustment of Islamic principles to the needs of present times.
Iqbal, it is true, is essentially a poet of Islam, but his Islam is not the Islam of primitive punishments, the veil and bigoted mullahs, but the Islam which provided a new light of thought and learning to the world, and of heroic action and glorious deeds. He was devoted to the Prophet and believed in his message. Iqbal regarded as ‘nullification’ the search for ‘inner meanings’ or ‘hidden meanings’ in either the code of Muhammad (peace be upon him) or in his way of life, which he found not only satisfying but also convincing. He blamed the Persian poets for confusing the message of Islam. As he put it, “the Persian poets tried to undermine the way of Islam by a very roundabout, though apparently heart –alluring, manner. They denounced every good thing of Islam and made contemplation in a monastery the highest crusade in the way of God”.
Iqbal preached action. He was a rebel against all the accretions that had gathered around Islam as a result of the Hellenic and Persian influences, and wanted to cleanse it so that the world could, once again, witness the glory of Islam in its pristine form. For the indolence and lethargy that had gripped the Islamic fold, Iqbal blamed the Sufis who, with their Iranian background and Greek ideas, had corrupted the religion of Muhammad (peace be upon him). As Iqbal explains, “it is surprising that the whole poetry of Sufism in Islam was produced in the period of political decline. The nation which exhausts its fund of energy and power, as was the case with the Muslims after the Tartar invasions, undergoes a change of outlook. The weakness becomes for it an object of beauty and appreciation; and resignation from the world is a source of satisfaction”.
Dr. Ali Shariati, himself a legendary ideologue writes that, “If one were to reconstruct the form of Islam which has been made to degenerate in the course of history, re-assemble it in such a way that the spirit could return to a total body, transform the present dazed elements into that spirit as if the trumpet of Israfil were to blow in the 20th century over a dead society and awaken its movement, power, spirit, and meaning, it is, then, that exemplary Muslim personalities will be reconstructed and reborn like Muhammad Iqbal.”
In Islam renewal and revolution continue to give it dynamism and life. Islamic fervour knows no national boundaries, no class differences, and no racial barriers. Throughout history it has transcended these. Islam emphasizes belief and behaviour over race, practice not blood. It is important how people behave, how their customs, culture and society are organized, not who their ancestors were. Islam in the ideal believes in ‘nurture’ not ‘nature’; it transcends class and nation. Fazl ur Rahman writes in his book Islam and Modernity: “A historical critique of theological developments in Islam is the first step toward a reconstruction of Islamic theology. This critique should reveal the extent of the dislocation between the world view of the Qur’an and various schools of theological speculation in Islam and point the way toward a new theology.” This is a very important suggestion, which should have been considered very seriously and it would have benefited Islamic world immensely. For him it was the intellectual ossification and replacement of scholarship based on original thought by one based on commentaries and super-commentaries, the closing of the gate of Ijtihad, and basing of Islamic method solely on Taqlid (blind imitation) which led to the decline.
Fazl ur Rahman’s goal was to reassess the Islamic intellectual tradition and provide a way forward for Muslims. In his view, a re-examination of Islamic methodology in the light of the Qur’an itself was a pre-requisite for any reform in Islamic thought. Fazl ur Rahman greatly stressed the ethical aspect of the Qur’an. The traditional theology concerned itself more with ritualistic aspects than ethical, though did not entirely neglect it.
Rahman says: “Muslim scholars have never attempted an ethics of the Qur’an, systematically or otherwise. Yet no one who has done any careful study of the Qur’an can fail to be impressed by its ethical fervour. Its ethics, indeed, is its essence, and is also the necessary link between theology and law. It is true that the Qur’an tends to concretise the ethical, to clothe the general in a particular paradigm, and to translate the ethical into legal or quasi-legal commands. But it is precisely the sign of its moral fervour that is not content only with generalisable ethical propositions but is keen on translating them into actual paradigms. However, the Qur’an always explicates the objectives or principles that are the essence of its laws.”
Rahman firmly believed that one of the primary purposes of the Qur’ān was to create a society based on justice. He saw the Prophet Muhammad as a social reformist who sought to empower the poor, the weak, and vulnerable. He viewed the Qur’ān as a source from which ethical principles could be derived rather than a book of laws. He played the role of father, husband, chief, warrior, friend and Prophet. His respect for learning, tolerance of others, and generosity of spirit, concern for the weak, gentle piety and desire for a better, cleaner, world would constitute the main elements of the Muslim ideal. For Muslims the life of the Prophet is the triumph of hope over despair, light over darkness. For instance, Rahman argues that the practice of family law in Islamic history had not accorded females the equal rights to which they appear to be entitled based on the Prophet’s example and teachings of the Qur’ān.
Rahman’s primary contribution to the debate on the Qur’ān in the twentieth century was his position that in order to understand the Qur’ān, Muslims must move away from reductionist and formulaic approaches to the Qur’ān, which does not recognize its social, historical, and linguistic context. His emphasis on the context of revelation has had a far reaching influence on contemporary Muslim debates on key issues such as human rights, women’s rights, and social justice. Rahman argued that without being aware of the social and political conditions of the society in which the Qur’ān was revealed, one could not fully understand its message. Thus the emphasis on the “context.”
The well known Islamic scholar from the west, Mohammad Arkoun is highly critical of the past and present conditions of Islamic thought, and of contemporary Islamic societies. He says that its spiritual transformative power over the hearts and minds of Muslims has been obscured. In his view, the spiritual essence of the covenant between God and man has been allowed to deteriorate into legal codes, rituals and ideologies of domination in the interest of religious and political elites. The great cultural achievements of the early Islamic era in bringing together Qur’anic revelation and Greek rational philosophic humanism have, he argues, long been abandoned. Arkoun believes the Qur’an must be re-experienced as a religious revelation that brings about an inner transformation, and inspires a trust and devotional love of God that transcends all ritual, legal, communal and institutional forms. This renewal of revelation depends on a revival of the philosophic, scientific, humanistic Islamic culture of the classical era (a Muslim renaissance that would allow for a thinking of the hitherto un-thought in Islam) and the assimilation of the industrial and information revolutions, with their modern social, scientific, theological and philosophical insights.
A Muslim has free will and the power to rebel and surrender. Thus, he or she is responsible and the maker of his or her own image. “Every soul is held in pledge for what he earns.” (Q74:38) “And the human being shall have nothing but what he strives for.” (Q53:30) We need to be earnest in our efforts to let the path be enlightened.
For Muslims therefore, it is a good time to pause, to reflect, and to attempt to re-locate the main features of, to re-discover, Islam. God says in the Qur’an that a people’s condition will not be changed until they change what is in themselves (Q13:11) We therefore take stock, not because we have arrived at any significant stage of the Islamic journey but because the sheer range of trajectories and approaches, and consequent confusion, obliges us to attempt clarification. . To put it in the words of the Qur’an:
In the name of God, the infinitely Compassionate and Merciful
Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds.
The Compassionate, the Merciful. Ruler on the Day of Reckoning
You alone do we worship, and You alone do we ask for help.
Guide us on the straight path, the path of those who have received your grace; not the path of those who have brought down wrath, nor of those who wander astray.
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and Islamic researcher. He holds doctorates in Economics and English. He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications and was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur