By Syed N Asad, New Age Islam
17 June 2018
In most of the Muslim communities debate always centres around whether a rational and practical approach to the practice of Islam is required or even possible. We confront different opinions on this question. For example, most Muslims who adhere to the rules of traditional Sharia are convinced that there can never be reform because they see Islam as a complete and perfect way of life that is unalterable. There are others who may not be devout practitioners yet are opposed to reform because they believe that any attempt to reform translates into acquiescing to the demands of the West. For them, this is a societal defeat for the Muslim civilization.
There are others still who consider the word reform to be problematic because for them it implies an emulation of Christian and Jewish reform movements. Muslims of this category think that a Muslim reform movement will take away from the significance of Islam as the only natural and pure religion, with no human intervention over time.
However, the question of whether reform can or cannot take place in Muslim society has already been answered through historical development. A large number of Muslims who live in developed nations, or in large urban centres in Muslim countries, and have access to information and resources have already changed the practice of their faith. Most Muslims in this situation don’t pray five times a day without guilt. Most Muslim women do not wear the “Hijab.” Most Muslims, if given a choice, do not abstain from Riba (interest on loans). It is common for Muslim women to work outside the home as a choice.
Muslim reform is not only inevitable, but it has also been occurring naturally. It is up to us to recognize this and acknowledge that most of the changes are for the good of the society. The reform that has taken place in Muslim communities is in part due to the influence of dominant western culture. Muslims’ need for contemporary education and improvement of the economy has a major influence to adjust to norms of other societies. It includes social reforms (such as discouraging polygamy, or child marriages), educational reforms (a study of modern subjects, women’s education) or legal reforms (such as banning of Sharia laws on the punishment of theft or adultery). However, these reforms have produced mixed results and some discontent among Muslims because these changes were not Sharia-based.
The modern fundamentalist movements such as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia and the Ikhwaan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) in Egypt arose because of the widespread dissatisfaction due to deviation from the Sharia principles.
Muslims who think of themselves as “progressive” identify with the changes that have already occurred but believe that it is too risky to go any further. Their main emphasis is to differentiate themselves from orthodox Muslims who decry the changes that have taken place. The “progressive” Muslims rationalize the changes they have accepted by giving new meanings to the rules of sharia. They would say, for example, that Muslim women can work outside the home because women have equal rights in Islam.
For Islam to continue to thrive in the world, the sharia has to be made consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have to recognize that only those teachings that contribute to personal growth, resourcefulness, freedom, and adjustment to different groups of people with ultimate achievement of happiness represent the real purpose and essence of Islam. If, on the other hand, Islamic teachings that contribute to the reduction of human potential, to discontentment, unhappiness, and lack of productivity, are false, regardless of how famous the scholar who conveys these ideas.
We ought to question the authenticity of religious teachers and scholars if their own lives are desolate, discontented and banal. An honest teacher of Islam has to be a mentor, who has learned to solve problems in his/her own life meaningfully and can relate and share his own experiences with the followers.
Furthermore, Islamic history has to be re-evaluated with objective methods of Historiography, so a false glorification of ancient figures no longer misleads people. The fundamental idea that will help Muslims is that the change is an inevitable part of life. Islam became a global religion because the way Prophet Muhammad taught its principles made his contemporaries into enlightened and empowered people. They became more just in their dealings with others, valued learning, welcomed strangers, discarded superstitions, removed ethnic and racial barriers, gave greater rights to oppressed classes such as women and slaves, their worship was direct and charismatic, and as a result of this dynamism their influence spread all over the known world. Reform means recognizing that the universal empowering teachings of Islam can be expressed successfully according to the maxims of every age.
Several advantages will come from pro-active reform. Muslims can re-interpret teachings in the Quran and Hadith in ways that empower and enlighten themselves and others around them in the modern era. If this type of reform is realized, Muslims will be able to uplift themselves without being alienated from their core values.
Dr Syed N. Asad, MD, FACP served as a vice-president and a treasurer on the executive board of IMANA (Islamic Medical Association of North America) and a physician at Senior Friendship Health Centre, Naples, Florida. He graduated from high school in Hyderabad, India, with high honours; attended Osmania University Medical School; and completed his medical training in the United States. He taught medicine and nephrology at a New York state university for nearly twenty years before opening an independent practice. He is the author of a book, Selected Collections of the Holy Quran in English: A Companion for Young Muslims to Understand the Divine Messages of Prophet Mohammad.