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A Case For Islamic Renewal

[Originally published in FrontPage Magazine] My grandfather was a very devout, pious Muslim. When I was about at the age of 10, and at a summer holiday, he called me to his and my grand mom's house in order to give me some Islamic education. He taught me how to perform the regular Muslim prayers and some very basic knowledge about Arabic. I enjoyed this gracious summer school; besides all the warm family values, I was happy to learn about God, my Creator, and the religion He had revealed. One day, among the books of my grandfather, I came across a prayer book that had three quotes at its back cover. The first two quotes were from the Koran and they were about how and why God created us. I was deeply touched to read the very words of God and taken away by their message. But the third quote was very shocking. "If your children do not start praying at the age of 10," the quote said, "then beat them up." I was horrified. I knew that my grandfather — such a kind, compassionate man — would never ever beat me up, or even talk rudely to me. However to see that this is what "Islam" ordered to parents and grandparents was very disturbing. Yet, I noticed an important detail: This third quote was not from the Koran. So it was not God's word. It was a "hadith", a term I had never heard before. I asked my grandfather what I hadith was. "They are the words of our Prophet," he said. But I wasn't satisfied. "Are you sure," I asked, "that he really told these?" More than two decades have passed since then. And by time, I realized that my juvenile suspicion about the hadiths, the sayings and deeds attributed to Prophet Muhammad, was not inaccurate. Of course there were many beautiful hadiths, giving so noble moral truths. But there were many disturbing, bizarre, irrational ones too. The more I noticed them, the more I felt certain that a re-evaluation of traditional Islamic sources is necessary. This is in fact the view of some notable modernist Islamic scholars. Important figures like Sir Sayyed Ahmed Khan (d. 1898) and Pakistani scholar and reformer Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) have argued that the hadith collection that we have today needs a revolutionary re-examination. These collections were piled up by some Muslim scholars who lived at least two centuries after the death of the Prophet. To distinguish the true sayings of the Prophet from the many fake and distorted ones, these scholars developed a method of defining the degrees of reliability in the chains of transmitters. Yet their method had a major flaw. As also noted also by some Western scholars, "the content of the hadiths known as the matn (text) was rarely subject to critical examination" and, as a result, "even the best-attested hadiths . . . are anachronistic in content, contradict each other or are at variance with the spirit or letter of the Koran."[1] So, in short, hadiths are problematic. And you might wonder why this is so important. It is extremely important, because most authoritarian, puritan and medieval aspects of the Islamic tradition are basedon hadiths and other "secondary sources" of Islam — such as the ijma, i.e. the consensus of Islamic scholars — not the Koran. Let me give you just a few examples:
- According to the secondary sources, apostates from Islam must be killed. There is no basis for this in the Koran and in fact several verses which emphasize religious freedom, such as "let him who please believe, and let him who please disbelieve" (18:29) render such killings impossible. - Secondary sources ban all fine arts, especially painting and sculpture. There is no such commandment in the Koran, and instead, the statues that Prophet (King) Solomon had built for himself are praised. (34:13) - Secondary sources define a very strict dress code for women and this is generally applied to all women under Muslim rule. The Koran orders a dress code only for Muslim women and it is open to interpretation. No verse explicitly orders the headscarf — let alone the all-covering burka.[2] - Secondary sources favor the seclusion of women from men. There is no basis for such segregation in the Koran. Instead, Koran tells about civilized dialogues between prophets and women. (28:25, 27:44) - Secondary sources try to punish every sin and supposedly immoral behavior. There are, for example, punishments for drinking alcohol or refraining from prayer. These, again, have no basis in the Koran, whose penal code is focused mostly on crime, not sin or immorality. The stoning of adulterers, a brutal command of the secondary sources, is also totally unsubstantiated on a Koranic basis.
My contention is that the extremely puritanical teachings — such as that we can see in the barbaric reign of the Taliban or of the Wahhabi Saudi Arabia — emerged during the centuries-long process of the over-ruling of the Koran by secondary sources. (Wahhabis are in fact the product of a "reform," which made things even worse, and I will explain the reason down below.) Even the rise of anti-Semitism in Islamic tradition — although less fervent than that of the Medieval Christianity — is related to this process. Prof. Khaleel Mohammed, Assistant Professor at the Department of Religious Studies at San Diego State University notes, "[while] the Koran viewed Judaism as the chief monotheistic religion . . It was the Hadith, the revisionist interpretation of the Koran from the medieval period, that demonized the Jews and Judaism." The problem is so acute that some traditional Islamic scholars even argue that hadiths may abrogate the verses of the Koran. The solution seems to be abrogate much of the hadiths themselves and to build a new interpretation of the Koran. We should of course use many noble elements of the secondary sources, and borrow from the great intellectual and spiritual achievements of the traditional Islamic literature, but we should not be strictly tied to them. The Islamic Reformation Revisited Indeed I thought about these when I read the recent article by my dear friend Stephen Schwartz, titled The "Islamic Reformation" Revisited. I agree with most of his arguments. He wisely mentions the risks of drawing a simplistic analogy between Christianity's Protestant Reformation and the renewal that Islamic world needs today. That analogy is indeed uninspiring. First of all, the Protestant reformation has not been a very pleasant episode at all — with all the violence, chaos, and anti-Semitism it fostered. Secondly, the contemporary Islamic world is different from the time of Luther. We don't have a central authority such as the Catholic Church to reform; instead, we have a very atomized umma (global Islamic community) that desperately needs some centralization and canonization. That is why recently Paul Marshall argued for an "Islamic counter-reformation." Mr. Schwartz is also right in reminding that there has been several "Reformations" in the history of Islamdom, which claimed to return to the "original sources" of Islam, but produced quite intolerant, repressive and aggressive doctrines such as Wahhabism. However, with all due respect, I disagree on one point: A return to the "original sources", especially if that applies exclusively to the Koran, does not necessarily mean a Wahhabi-style fundamentalism. Islamic modernism, the struggle to build a new interpretation of Islam compatible with modern world, arose from the same sources but arrived at very different conclusions. One of the most notable theorists of this modernist school, Fazlur Rahman, tells why premodern revivalists such as the Wahhabis used ijtihad — the process of making a legal decision by independent interpretation — to foster zealotry while others used it open-mindedly:
If these early revivalists were unwilling or unable to do much by way of ijtihad, the more forward lands of the Muslim world — Turkey, Egypt, and the Indian subcontinent — gave birth (about the middle of the nineteenth century) to the phenomenon of Islamic modernism whose representatives wrote a brilliant new chapter in the history of Islamic thought. The essence of this new thought was the creation of positive links between the thought of the Koran and modern thought at certain key points, resulting in the integration of modern institutions with the moral-social orientation of the Koran . . . The great difference between the situation of the premodernist revivalists (or fundamentalists) and that of the modernists is that whereas the revivalists either did not find much that needed to be resolved by ijtihad, or were unwilling to exercise it, the modernists confronted entirely new situations which they were bold enough to attempt to resolve.[3]
In other words, social conditions had an important effect in shaping the utterly different "reforms" attempts. We should also note that, among the Wahhabis and their ilk, "the rejection of intellectualism," was a powerful sentiment and this tendency, "ultimately undermined [their] calls for ijtihad, so that even these reformers became muqallidun, indiscriminate imitators of precedent.[4] But the early modernists had a flaw, too. According to Fazlur Rahman, they lacked "a methodology for a systematic and comprehensive interpretation of the Koran and the [hadith]." [5] Today, I think, time has come to overcome this flaw with an extensive renewal in the Islam. This, as Mr. Schwartz again wisely points out, in fact has its roots in the Islamic tradition. The very word renewal, i.e. tajdid, is a part of the Islamic literature. For an extensive tajdid, there are two big steps to take. The first is to question the whole hadith tradition and abandon some of the allegedly sahih (trustable) hadiths which are against the overall spirit of the Koran and also common sense. What I have explained earlier in this article is about this. The second step, on the other hand, is about the Koran. We need a hermeneutical re-reading of the Scripture, "to discover the spirit or the objectives of the Koranic teaching rather than holding mechanically to its literal meaning."[6] Let's take a closer look at what this means. Re-Reading the Koran When I explained that the secondary sources of Islam are very harsh when compared with the Koran, some readers might have been suspicious. They might have thought about the "war verses," which seem to encourage violent action against non-Muslims. These verses have been a reason for deep concern among Westerners, since terrorist that act in the name of Islam quote those them to justify their bloodshed. But, in fact, the terrorists' interpretation of the Koran is defective. As I have explained before, they rely on the doctrine of abrogation, which gives them the false permission for neglecting many tolerant and peaceful verses of the Koran. A better interpretation of the Koran would be to reject abrogation and accept all verses as the parts of a single whole. Then we would realize that tolerant and peaceful verses ascribe to the normal state of affairs — such as that we have in the modern world — and war verses describe an abnormal situation in which Muslims were faced with the threat of annihilation by hostile enemies. Yet, still, there are points in the Koran which might seem unacceptable to a modern reader. These would include penalties such as lashes for adultery and libel or amputation of hands for theft. There are also verses that give women a second-class status in issues like inheritance and witnessing. The question is, do we need to seek the implementation of these verses to be good Muslims? I have been quoting extensively from Fazlur Rahman up to now, because he made a very refined analysis on this question and, at the end, concluded "no." Fazlur Rahman was a Pakistani born Islamic scholar who spent his later years in the University of California. He was a devout, practicing Muslim and tried to find a doctrinal solution to the clash between Islamic tradition and modernity. His major insight was the "historicity" of some parts of the Koran. This historicity idea means that some verses of the Koran are meant to be implemented literally only at the time they were revealed. How can one conclude that? Well, there are many self-evident cases. For example, the verses that include specific orders for the Prophet or the Prophet's wives, or tell Muslims how to speak to the Prophet, obviously have no practical field of implementation today. The verses which instruct Muslims how to treat their slaves can't be implemented since we don't have those customs and — thank God — slavery in the modern world. Those verses still teach us some important ethical principles, but there's no way we could effect their literal accomplishment. Similarly, Muslim armies can't build "cavalry" today, as the Koran proposed (8:60), rather we can accept this as a metaphor for military power. This logic constitutes an innovative line of reasoning. Based on that Fazlur Rahman has argued that the Koranic verses about the legal code should be interpreted in a "from verse to principle, from principle to new legislation" formula. Such an approach is needed, he said, because there are huge differences between the time of the Koran's revelation and the modern world. The penal code of the Koran was a perfect fit for the former. All Koranic punishments have one feature in common: death or implementation of instant physical pain. Why? One answer might be that in seventh century central Arabia this was the only possible way to punish a crime. There were no prisons, and when a thief or a killer was apprehended, one could either give him some instant punishment or let him go. But times have changed. We have correctional facilities today, and "theft" exhibits many different types and degrees that should be punished accordingly. What should we then do? According to Fazlur Rahman, what we have to infer from the Koran is that theft is a crime, and it should be punished, but the punishment can vary according to the degree of the crime and the contemporary social conditions. This approach has in fact some roots in Islamic tradition: It is well known fact that Caliph Umar, the third most respected figure in Islam after the Prophet and Abu Bakr, did not implement the Koranic ruling on land distribution in the conquered territories of Iraq and Syria. His reason was that, if conquered lands were distributed among the conquering soldiers, as the Koran suggests, those soldiers would devolve into peasants and local peasants would starve. By this judgment, he exemplified that changing social realities can change the way we implement the Koran. It behooves us Muslims to discuss this way of understanding the Koran. In Turkey, some modernist Islamic theologians, who publish the academic journal Islamiyat, are doing exactly that. In the footsteps of Fazlur Rahman, they are calling for a complete renewal of the shariah (Islamic law), including the Koranic rulings on the penal code, women's status and the doctrine of war. Theirs is a work that deserves attention and that we Muslims should ponder upon. The "Why" Question Much of what I have written indicates that there is both a need and a hope for an extensive Islamic renewal. However there is a final and in fact a most crucial question: What for? Why in the world should we Muslims seek that? To prevent fanatics from killing innocents in the name of Islam? To thwart their zeal to turn our religion into a threat to humanity and civilization? Of course, these are powerful answers that will appeal to every sane person in the world. But I have an additional answer, too — an exclusively theist one. I believe that an Islamic renewal is desperately needed to give Islam back its original and ultimate aim: leading human beings to their Creator, God. The medieval traditions or the radical interpretations in current Islam are obstacles to this sacred aim. For the religious, they are distractions of the mind from God, since hearts and minds need freedom, joy and love to praise Him, not bigotry, repression and hatred. For the non-religious, they are an obstacle to God and reason to embrace a totally profane, materialistic life. Many modernized Turks, my fellow countrymen, are just in that oblivion: Displeased with what they tend to see as a medieval, intolerant and backward religious practice, they choose to live as practical atheists — as if that was a tenable creed to hold. The truth is that atheism — both in theory and practice — is an utter falsehood and a life without God is nonsensical. To give life its meaning back, at least for the 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, whether they be practicing or nominal, we have to give Islam its meaning back, too. Then the ultimate message of Islam, so beautifully given in the verse below, will echo in many hearts and minds:
Mankind! Remember God' blessing to you. Is there any creator other than God providing for you from heaven and earth? There is no god but Him. So how have you been perverted? (35:3)
NOTES [1] Malise Ruthven, Islam in the World, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000. p. 132 [2] Verse 24:31, which is taken to be the basis for headscarf, in fact orders Muslim women to cover their bosoms, not their head or hair. [3] Fazlur Rahman, "Roots of Islamic neo-Fundamentalism", in Change and the Muslim World, (edited by David C. Cuthell, Philip H. Stoddard, Margaret W. Sullivan), Syracuse University Press, New York, 1981. p. 27 [4] Tamara Sonn, Interpreting Islam: Bandali Jawzi's Islamic Intellectual History, Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, p. 32. [5] Fazlur Rahman, "Roots of Islamic neo-Fundamentalism", in Change and the Muslim World, (edited by David C. Cuthell, Philip H. Stoddard, Margaret W. Sullivan), Syracuse University Press, New York, 1981. p. 31 [6] Ibid. p. 29
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