Who Needs Reformation - Islam or The Muslims?
By Bashy Quraishy, New Age Islam
28 December 2015
At present, very heated and often prejudicial discussions are taking place in most of the western world, concerning Islam. It is said that this particular faith is incompatible with the modern times thus it keeps its followers backward and away from enlightenment. Islam, it is argued, needs reformation like Christianity did, by casting away the medieval robe of outdated and out of tune practices, symbolism and rituals.
I have given a lot of thought to this hypothesis. While I do not see the Islam that I cherish and uphold, going in the right direction, I also fervently believe that it is not the faith itself that needs reformation but the odd 1.7 billion adherents do. Most of them are trying to cling more and more to the model that is neither beneficial nor in line with the simplicity that Islam represents. Unfortunately, this new scheme of things is being pushed by certain movements within the Islamic world that are very vocal, well connected and resourceful.
In my layman’s mind, there are many approaches that can be taken to understand, practice and preach a faith.
First, an enlightened, context related, space oriented and according to the need of the time. The other approach is dogmatic, assertive, rigid and authoritarian.
Simply put, any faith that does not accept its follower’s quest for exploratory questioning or fulfilling the ordinary human desire for spiritual and moral advancement, would in the longer run have difficulty in appealing or contain ability to fill the inner void resulting in the lack of peace.
That is why, it is alarming that some groups within Islam wish to enforce a puritanical form of faith that was prevalent 1500 years back. The practices of 7th century are gaining ground in 21st century, among Muslims communities at large and even some of the educated and aware Muslim youth are attracted to it, both in the Islamic world as well as in the western part of the planet. This “going back to the roots” movement could be beneficial if intentions were matched by the sound character of the followers. After all, any good idea needs practical implementations and a noble cause. These qualities are rare among Muslims of today.
I am convinced that if Prophet Moses was alive today, he would not preach; an eye for an eye or if Prophet Jesus Christ reappeared on the planet, he would not advise his disciples to; give the other cheek in the time of confrontation or injustice. In the same spirit, if Prophet Mohammad turned up in the middle of today’s cosmopolitan and complex society of millions, he would certainly not ask his followers to pray 5 times a day at specific or fixed times in mosque or allow cutting of hand for theft. 5 daily prayers are an important pillar of Islam that was easy to uphold in a 7th century small desert town but would be unpractical or even possible for everybody to strictly adhere to performing prayers in time in Western countries while one works to earn livelihood.
Islam is not at all rigid to compel everybody to go to mosque five times in a day under the prevailing conditions in western countries. One can pray at home and in some favourable conditions can offer prayer during the work, as well as pray later. After all, God is omnipresent and knows what is in your heart. On top of this, during the early days of Islam, a mosque was not only a place of worship but served as a community centre, a school, a social office and most important of all, where non-Muslims could come and indulge in discussions and a dialogue with Muslims.
As for cutting hand of a thief, it is one of the deterrent punishments that was common in the Middle East long before Islam came into being. Today, such punishments are considered barbaric and against human rights.
So, not enforcing such medieval punishments would not be against the teaching of Qur’an.
My argument is not the negation of the message of justified revenge of the old Testament, practice of non-violence to disarm the opponents as preached by Jesus Christ or establishing a connection with the Almighty in a practical manner as instructed by Prophet Mohammad. The issue here is the context in which these messages and commandments arrived and if these are relevant in the same fashion that was the case in ancient history.
I, look at all the great prophets as reformers who came at a certain time, place and who wanted to improve the situation of the masses. Their messages were well received at the time because it served a specific purpose, namely to challenge the status quo and bring about a change for the better in the society, these reformers lived. Islam is no exception.
Islam to Muslims is the last message of God and the Qur’an offers a complete way of life but one forgets to add that these solutions can not be like in 7th century. These should meet the requirements of time under various conditions and at various places on the earth. This is why a legislative body is the need of every country to guide and govern. So to claim in a rigid manner that Islam is a complete way of life and its 7th century practices or norms can be transferred to 21st Century situation and that it can provide answers to all questions, is not appealing to people outside the realm of Islam and not even many inside Islam subscribe to this theory.
This hypothesis can be seen and confirmed by the presence of 72 sects in Islam. While the basic tenants and message of Islam is there, various strands in the faith read, understand and practice the Quranic injunctions in their own particular way, depending upon pre-Islam knowledge, native cultures, old languages, customs and traditions that have existed in those countries and have richly influenced Islam.
This diversity while not diluting the original message entirely, has made it imperative that Muslim communities today re-evaluate their practice of Islam. Just look at the mighty a river that needs a constant flow to provide nourishment to the surroundings – crops, humans and even animals. And these are just materialistic needs. In the case of Faith, religion or Deen* as Muslims prefer to call Islam, this flow stopped centuries ago. This glaring reality however has not sunk in the Muslim psychic. They still claim, believe and insist that Islam as a Deen, is a complete way of life and is applicable until the day of judgement. While this interpretation is widespread and assumed as valid for Muslims, there is no room to discuss it or even explain it in a much more rational and intellectual way. Faith is faith and so it should be. This textual literalism and self-righteous certainty of the religious elite is the core problem; many Muslims are confronted with today.
But the fact remains that this literal interpretation flies in the face of reality. There are 60 countries with Muslim majority population, stretching from Indonesia to Morocco and no two countries – even not two neighbouring Arab countries – has exactly the similar way of practicing the faith. Their laws, customs and traditions that are presented as Islamic are far away from the Islam of 7th Century or tally with Quranic teaching.
So who is a true Muslim or who is Muslim Light or what is right or wrong, depends on an individual’s course of action. That is why, I believe that faith is personal and an invisible relation between the maker and the human. No one can or should come between this private arrangement that varies from human to human, religion to religion and area to area. This is also the teaching of Sufi’ism and to some extent according to the spirit of Islam.
The great Indian/Pakistani philosopher/poet Allamah Iqbal put this point very elegantly and forcefully.
He said; Social reformation of Muslims could only come through education, and religious awakening, with logical thinking and not so much with the version of the religious class of the time that rejected progress and critical thinking.”
To sum it up, for me, Faith is a matter of the heart, something only God — not other human beings — could evaluate. That leaves the door open for reinterpreting the divine revelations to suit the present time and conditions while keeping the eternal spirit of its original message of love, compassion and brotherhood of mankind.
That is why, it is not Islam that needs “Protestant like” reformation but those who interpret it in a rigid manner, practice it blindly and refuse to use God given intellect to understand it, are the ones who are in dire need of reformation of their mind and symbolic attachment to the practices of 7th Century Islam.
As long as, these zealot monopolists have this firm hold on interpreting Islam to suit their own agendas, Islam would not breath properly or flourish as a true universal faith. Muslims of today need to look at the Golden era of Islam in Baghdad, Damascus, Qurdoba, and Istanbul where free thinking was a must, inclusive society a norm and respectful learning a routine. Here Quran was understood as a tool of progress and not just to recite and then put it on a shelf. Only one way of understanding the Quranic message is not desirable and should be replaced with common interpretation, according to the needs of time. One of the greatest Islamic Scholar Imam Ghazali was reported to have said; “There are 6 ways, 66 ways and 666 ways to understand Quran.”
Bashy Quraishy is Inter-faith Consultant, Secretary General - EMISCO -European Muslim Initiative for Social Cohesion – Strasbourg.