Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Islam, Reform, and Social Change

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam 9 August, 2022 In The State Of Stagnation, Islah and Tajdid Require Muslim Intellectuals to Employ Ijtihad, Reasoning, or Intellectual Endeavours, To Offer New Interpretations of the Already Established Notions In Order To Propose Reforms Main Points 1. This essay argues for the importance of reform in Islamic thought in times of change 2. It examines the methodology of reform of one of the most influential modernist thinkers, Fazlur Rahman 3. It also employs Fazlur Rahman’s methodology to demonstrate what change in Islamic thought will look like ----- Like time, society and its values are fluid entities. They change over time. For a healthy society, it is imperative that society progresses in sync with time. If it fails to keep up the pace with the time, it gets inflicted with stagnation. Its values and ideas start losing their relevance. If it happens, some agents after perceiving the chasm between their society and the current time try to bridge the gap by introducing various reforms to their society. In human history, we find several such incidents and movements that bring society through the same process. In Muslim history, these movements are invoked by the concepts of Islah and Tajdid. Deeply embedded in Islamic imagination, the two concepts are sought by reformists to justify their actions in changing times. In the state of stagnation, Islah and Tajdid require Muslim intellectuals to employ Ijtihad, reasoning, or intellectual endeavours, to offer new interpretations of the already established notions in order to propose reforms. Examples of these reforms can be found in the history of Mu’tazilites, and Asharaites, and in the efforts of the scholars like Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah, etc. These movements and scholars, when confronted with intellectual challenges posed to Islamic society, developed a systematic methodology, known as Ilm al-Kalam, which was developed to respond to the intellectual challenges to the Islamic faith, or refashioned the already established methodology in their own times. Based on such historical accounts, one can argue that the idea of reform is not strange to Islam. In the early modern period, Muslim scholars, such as Shah Waliullah, an Indian theologian based in Delhi, realized the intellectual stagnation in Muslim society which resulted in the deterioration of their religious and moral values. To counter this stagnation, Waliullah launched a series of reformative works, the most famous among them is Hujjatullah al-Balighah, in which he offered a rational explanation for Islamic beliefs. Waliullah’s tremendous efforts focused on the steeping intellectual and political decline and predated European colonialism in the Muslim world. For his rationalist approach and construction of his religious worldview, Waliullah relies on ‘Greek metaphysics, ethics, philosophy, and logic as adopted by Islamic tradition.’ Until the 18th century, Muslim thought and religious worldview operated on the foundation of the Neo-Platonic philosophy, as is manifested in the works of Shah Waliullah and other scholars of his time as well. However, this approach was challenged by some reformists during and after the time of colonialism. In the wake of European colonialism in the Muslim world, the Muslim worldview was challenged by the European civilization that had developed a new worldview since the age of Enlightenment. This new worldview had rejected Neo-Platonism, which provided the intellectual basis for the Islamic worldview. The European worldview intruded the Muslim societies, through colonialism, and modern educational systems that the Europeans had introduced to the colonized territories. As a result, a clash erupted between the two worldviews. This brand new worldview was grown out of the scientific discoveries that had been achieved during the time of Enlightenment. On the basis of these discoveries, European societies were able to establish new meanings for their relationship with the world and the divine. They claimed that this breakthrough was possible only because of their rationalist demeanour. The old system/worldview which was based on the Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy was rejected by the new-found knowledge. However, in the Muslim world, the same old system continued. Muslim intellectuals who were trained in the same system, when challenged by the new European worldview, tried to defend it. European intellectuals viewed this defence as an act against rationalism. Ernest Renan, a French orientalist, in one of his lectures that he delivered on March 29, 1883, argued that since Islam was opposed to reason and was not compatible with science, it rendered Muslims abhorrent to science and reason as well. He argued that “starting from about 1275, the Muslim world plunged into ‘the most pitiable intellectual decadence’ whereas Western Europe entered ‘the great highway of the scientific search for the truth.” In the same lecture, he went on to claim: All those who have been in the East, or in Africa, are struck by the way in which the mind of a true believer is fatally limited, by the species of iron circle that surrounds his head, rendering it absolutely closed to knowledge, incapable of either learning anything, or of being open to any new idea. From his religious initiation at the age of ten or twelve years, the Mohammedan child, who occasionally may be, up to that time, of some intelligence, at a blow becomes a fanatic, full of a stupid pride in the possession of what he believes to be the absolute truth, happy as with a privilege, with what makes his inferiority. This foolish pride is the radical vice of the Musalman. Apart from the European intellectuals, Muslim beliefs and practices were also attacked by the Christian missionaries and the so-called modern Muslims who were educated in the western education system. When threatened by these challenges, Muslim responses formulated into three discourses. M K Masud categorizes these discourses as revivalist, non-religious, and modernist discourses. The revivalist insisted upon the Ihya (revival) of the pristine Islam that was practiced and propounded by the Salaf. They rejected various practices, such as visiting shrines, seeking intercession, observing Taqlid, etc., that had been popularized and practiced in Muslim societies for centuries. It rejected the new Western worldview altogether. The non-religious discourse sought Western secularism and modernism as an idea to salvage Muslim societies from stagnation. They argued that the age-old religious system was the main reason for the decline of Muslim societies. However, the third tried to find a middle course to tread on. These modernists argued that the current intellectual, theological, and jurisprudential methodology of Islam has been rendered obsolete against modernity or the worldview provided by the West. Therefore, they advocated for developing a new theology to meet the modern challenges. The approach of the modernists is described as, It aims to root ‘modernism’ in Islamic tradition. it shares with the other two discourses the urge to reform Muslim society but disagrees with their rejection of modernity or tradition. Instead, it affirms that modernity (the Western worldview) is compatible with Islam. The above-mentioned revivalist and modernist approaches are still visible in Muslim intellectual discourses and are invested in trying to formulate an authentic Islamic tradition for modern times. However, the two discourses, revivalist, and modernist, have failed to generate a robust and complex methodology in order to produce the desired results. The revivalist approach is often reduced to mere literalism and failed to be inclusive of the modern knowledge system, on the one hand, and the modernist approach tends to be apologetic, on the other. During the late 20th century, a new strand to the modernist approach was introduced: historicism, which argued that Muslim intellectual and social institutions should be analysed in their historical context. Fazlur Rahman is considered one of the foremost proponents of this approach. Before moving forward with the discussion, I would like to briefly discuss the theory of social change. According to the Encyclopaedia of Britannica, social change is a theory that is propounded by Western sociologists. The theory proposes the idea that the mechanisms within the social structure go through an alteration when changes appear in cultural symbols, rules of behaviour, social organizations, or value systems. Various theories are employed by experts to understand the process of change in society. In the late 19th century, when Darwin proposed the theory of evolution to understand biological change, sociologists prepared a model based on Darwin’s theory to analyse the change in ideas. Marx believed that changes in modes of production can lead to changes in the class system, which would result in creating a new class in society leading to an inevitable conflict between the new and the old classes. Ultimately, this conflict would be resolved by reaching the integration of the new system in society. There are other means that facilitate change in society, including ‘contact with other societies (diffusion), changes in the ecosystem (which can cause the loss of natural resources or widespread disease), technological change (epitomized by the Industrial Revolution, which created a new social group, the urban proletariat), and population growth and other demographic variables. Social change is also spurred by ideological, economic, and political movements.’ These agents of social change have heavily been influencing the progress of human society since the beginning of the modern age. A wholesale alteration of the social institutions forced intellectuals around the world to review and reconstruct the values and ideals of the past. Fazlur Rahman conceptualizes this social change and the proper Islamic response to it in order for establishing the viability of Islam in the modern world. He eloquently puts it, When new forces of massive magnitude—socio-economic, cultural-moral or political-occur in or to a society, the fate of that society naturally depends on how far it is able to meet the new challenges creatively. If it can avoid the two extremes of panicking and recoiling upon itself and seeking delusive shelters in the past on the one hand, and sacrificing or compromising its very ideals on the other, and can react to the new forces with self-confidence by necessary assimilation, absorption, rejection and other forms of positive creativity, it will develop a new dimension for its inner aspirations, a new meaning and scope for its ideals. Should it, however, choose, by volition or force of circumstance, the second of the two extremes we have just mentioned and succumb to the new forces, it will obviously undergo a metamorphosis; its being will no longer remain the same and, indeed, it may even perish in the process of transformation and be swallowed up by another socio-cultural organism. But more surely fatal than this mistake is the one we have mentioned as the first extreme. Should a society begin to live in the past—however sweet its memories—and fail to face the realities of the present squarely—however unpleasant they be—, it must become a fossil; and it is an unalterable law of God that fossils do not survive for long. In this long passage, Fazlur Rahman criticizes the two reformist approaches which I have mentioned above, the revivalist and the anti-religious, as detrimental to Islam and Muslims. For Fazlur Rahman, these two approaches represent two extremes that end up in either giving up one’s identity or imposing the past on our present societies. Instead, he argues that Muslims must critically and creatively engage with their historical tradition and try to differentiate between normative and historical Islam. Falzur Rahman is one of the most ardent proponents of the historicist approach to studying the evolution of Islamic tradition. Historicism as an intellectual movement began in the West in the nineteenth century. Many Muslim modernist scholars also tried to employ the approach to construct a new methodology to study Islam. Historicism, in general, refers ‘to the recognition of the impact of specific socioeconomic and political circumstances on any given cultural formulation, including the formulations that comprise religious heritage.’ Historicism views that the socioeconomic and political conditions of the past were determined by their specific time, and argues that with the passage of time things need to be changed. It views the past transitioning from one period to another. With these transitions, change occurs in society. Therefore, in order to study social change, the methodology of historicism becomes an important means. Even though historicism as an intellectual idea originated in the West in the modern period, Fazlur Rahman employs the Quranic methodology of Naskh in order to substantiate the authenticity of his approach and methodology. The very idea of Naskh presupposes a change in circumstances according to which certain verses were abrogated by others. For example, the verses and injunctions revealed in the Quran in Mecca are very different from those that were revealed in Medina. Fazlur Rahman gives an example of jihad. The meaning of jihad had changed during the time of the revelation of the Quran. Its first usage in the Quran was to refer to the efforts of polytheist Meccans who attempted to stop people to convert to Islam, and to the efforts of Muslims who tried to remain steadfast in their faith. According to the concept of naskh, injunctions that were abrogated later pertained to specific circumstances. And when those circumstances changed, a new message was revealed. The methodology Fazlur Rahman proposes comprises two important aspects. The first one is his reconceptualization of the notion of Asbāb-E-Nuzūl. He argues that limiting the meaning of the Quranic verses to a particular context is tantamount to restricting the universal meaning of the Quran. Fazlur Rahman’s idea of the Quran is that the holy book contains universal principles underlying its verses. Muslims need to engage in a thorough study of the Quran to find out those principles. In order to do so, he states that we need to change our methodology. Fazlur Rahman argues, ‘the multitude of Quranic revelations took place “in, although not for, a given context.” Muslims must recognize the essential feature in the revelation which is meant not only for the specific context in which it was revealed but is intended by the Creator to “outflow through and beyond that given context of history.” Another aspect of Fazlur Rahman’s methodology pertains to the idea of distinguishing the essential and historical Islam. According to Fazlur Rahman, Islamic institutions, like kalam or Fiqh, arose in their historical context. However, he criticizes their methodology of reading the Quran and the Sunnah. To introduce reform in Islam, Fazlur Rahman argues that there is a need for the reassessment of these institutions, which could be possible once Muslims are able to glean the Islamic principles by applying the methodology we talked about above. Tamara Sonn summarizes the main features of Fazlur Rahman’s neo-modernist approach, which she calls, ‘Islamic methodology’, in the following words, Fazlur Rahman’s approach to Islamic reform calls for a critical assessment of the intellectual legacy of Islam, with a view to: (1) understanding how it happened to assume the form in which we have inherited it; (2) distinguishing in the process between essential Islamic principles and their particular formulation as a result of specific needs of specific—and probably now outmoded—socioeconomic and political contexts; and (3) determining how best to apply the essential principles of Islam in the contemporary context (which itself must be critically assessed.) Since past about two hundred years, Muslims have been trying to establish the viability of the principles of Islam in modern times. As we discussed, multiple approaches have been suggested to study the causes that brought about the decline of Muslims, and the possible means that could revive the community. Fazlur Rahman’s methodology can be counted among those approaches. However, there are some merits to this approach. It is more complex and robust than those the three approaches that I mentioned earlier. When applied, it could bring solutions to some of the major theological issues that Muslims have been trying to resolve in the modern period. By applying his methodology, Fazlur Rahman has tried to give some answers to some of the most debatable questions regarding, for example, the status of women in Islam, jihad, etc. I would like to present a case study here in order to demonstrate the efficiency of Fazlur Rahman’s methodology in understanding what is essentially Islamic and what is not. For example, for many Muslims, child marriage is allowed in Islam. In 1929, when the British government in India passed an act, Child Marriage Restraint Act, also known as Sharda Act, fixing a certain age for marriage for boys and girls. Muslim organizations of that time, such as Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, viewed this act as anti-Islamic and an assault on Shariah. They argued that in Islam marriage is a religious issue, therefore, interference in it would be regarded as interference in Islam itself. In protest of the act, these Ulama organized child marriages across the subcontinent and appealed to their followers to do so. They reacted this way because they were confused between the essentials of Islam and social norms. Many Muslims would not support such protests, as they did almost a century ago because our perception regarding the issue had changed over the years. Fazlur Rahman distinguishes between the prescriptive verses and Sunnah and the descriptive verses and the Sunnah. Many practices that are mentioned in the Quran and described in the Sunnah, he argues, are prescriptive and many of them are descriptive. The prescriptive category defines the principles, and ideals of the Quran whose values are universal. But the descriptive category refers to those practices and injunctions that were the norms of the time. As time changes, these practices would change as well. Thus, the age of marriage, Fazlur Rahman would say, belongs to the descriptive category, meaning it is decided by the norms of society. In previous times, child marriage was allowed, but today, due to the change in society, this norm has also been changed. If a society or a state decides to limit the minimum age for marriage, it does not go against the injunctions of the Quran. This was just one example to demonstrate the efficacy of the methodology of Fazlur Rahman. It is important that we critically explore it further. The Islamic jurists and theologians also need to seriously engage with socioeconomic and political theories of modern times, so that they could be able to understand the world they live in. This holistic approach to studying Islam and society will help them derive complex solutions for the reform of the Muslim society. ---- Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses. URL: https://newageislam.com/ijtihad-rethinking-islam/islam-reform-social-change/d/127679 New Age Islam, Islam Online, Islamic Website, African Muslim News, Arab World News, South Asia News, Indian Muslim News, World Muslim News, Women in Islam, Islamic Feminism, Arab Women, Women In Arab, Islamophobia in America, Muslim Women in West, Islam Women and Feminism

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