Can (and Should) Islam be Reformed?

Image source: Pixabay
Image source: Pixabay

The phenomenon of global jihad has plagued the world for many decades now and has consequently initiated a discussion about Islam: How Islamic are the Islamists? And more importantly, can there be a “moderate Islam” compatible with modern values? A quick observer might say no, but I would not concur.

The fact is that scriptures do hold value and meaning of their own, but they do not always speak for themselves. There are certain cases where the scripture seems to be very explicit, while on other occasions the text is not very clear in its meaning and relies on our own conscience, intellect and wisdom.

Therefore, the way one may interpret the text depends not only on the text itself but also on the person’s intellect, intentions, motivations, methodology and geopolitics.

Let’s look at the example of Islamism.
What is Islamism?

I regard Islamism to be a specific totalitarian exposition of Islam. Islam is a faith similar to other Abrahamic faiths. It addresses various spheres of life related to our personal and social lives. Politics, too, is an indispensable and inseparable part of our lives. Ineluctably, Islam also focuses on politics. Islamism, however does not simply emphasize the political dynamics of Islam, but it interprets the entirety of Islam through a political prism.

Therefore, what was actually a single component of Islam has become the most dominant aspect in Islamism. To understand Islamism, it is imperative to explore the religious thought of Syed Abul A’la Maududi, the most influential Islamist scholar of the 20th century. Marxism is referred to as the economic interpretation of history because in Karl Marx’s understanding of life, the economic factor dominates everything else.

Similarly, Maududi projected Islam in such a way that every aspect of it acquired a political hue. He was one of the first Islamic thinkers to develop a systematic political reading of Islam. Accordingly, one can term the religious ideology of Maududi as the political interpretation of Islam. Here is one illustration of how Maududi inordinately exaggerated the political aspect of Islam and came up with a new ideology.

He says:

Prayer, fasting, Hajj (pilgrimage) and zakat (charity), which God has made a duty for you and has appointed as pillars of Islam, all these things are not, as in the forms of worship in other religions, mere rituals and offerings and customs that you perform and God is happy with you. Rather, the fact of the matter is that they have been made into a duty to prepare you for a lofty purpose and to train you for an important task. This aim is to wipe out the rule of human beings and to establish the ruler-ship of the one God. To be ready to sacrifice one’s everything and make efforts for this purpose even at the cost of one’s life is called jihad. Prayer and fasting and Haj and zakat are all for preparing for this particular purpose.

Unlike Maududi, who considers political struggle to be the underlying meaning behind the Islamic pillars, most Muslims believe that it is only a way to achieve God’s leniency and salvation.

In this excerpt, one thing is cardinal, i.e. politics. Maududi, unlike the traditionalist scholars, has defined the Islamic pillars politically.

What compelled Maududi to interpret Islam in such a political way? Social and political circumstances: Maududi’s whole discourse was based on castigating Western secular ideologies. As a young Indian, he too was anguished to see his country being run by an external force. He saw the infiltration of Western secular thought in the Islamic world, and that had such a significant impact on him that he went on to propose a new understanding of Islam — an Islam that is political, totalitarian and that could confront and serve as a counter-narrative to Westernization.

In addition to being anti-Western, Maududi’s arguments were also motivated by Muslim and Hindu competition for power in British India. He sought an interpretation of Islam that would preclude the kind of cultural coexistence that Indian National Congress promised.

This is what I referred to earlier in the when I said that interpreting a text also depends on our own intentions, motivations and what we seek to derive from the text. An ordinary Muslim or scholar would not concur with Maududi’s views because at the first glance this is not what the scriptures suggest.

But, according to Maududi, politics is the underlying meaning behind all the fundamentals of Islam. He was not dishonest, but so obsessed by his intentions that he came up with this view.

If Islam could be so badly turned into a political and totalitarian system, why could it not be turned into something more moderate to coincide with democracy and freedom of expression?

Can Islam Be a Religion of Moderation?

I believe it can be done. Just as Maududi due to the socio-political circumstances proposed a new understanding of Islam that rejected westernization, it is also possible for the contemporary scholars to come up with an antipodal understanding of Islam that tends to accept and welcome Western ideas.

To clarify, I would like to emphasize on the issue of apostasy and its punishment in Islam. The view that apostates deserve the death penalty is upheld by a number of clerics. But the modernist Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has proposed a very different understanding of this issue: He believes that Islam does not assign death penalty for apostasy. Ghamidi asserts that when prophets are sent to any nation, they are obligated to deliver the message of God.

A time has come when the people of that nation have been presented the message of God in the most utmost and truest manner. He describes this process as the “fulfillment of truth.” Ghamidi believes that because the people of Arabia were presented with the message of Islam by the prophet himself and there were no doubts about its validity, therefore according to God’s verdict they were punished when they renounced Islam.

Ghamidi argues that since there are no prophets now, the same concept cannot be applied , and thus apostates do not deserve any punishment as per the Islamic law. (He believes the right to punish apostates was given only to the prophets, not to other individuals.)

Ghamidi, while interpreting Islam’s stance on apostasy, has contextualized the whole scenario unlike the traditionalists, who propose a literal understanding.

In the eighth century, a group called the Mutazilites advocated free will over fatalism and cited Quranic verses showing God’s displeasure at an inactive mind. According to one such verse, “The worst of creatures for Allah are the deaf and dumb, those who will not reason.” (8:22) The Arabic word used here for reason is “  يَعْقِلُونَ” which also means “to understand.”

If one opts for the latter translation, then the entire verse gives a different meaning than the Mutazilite understanding of the verse. Depending on what word is picked for the meaning of a translation, the meaning of the verse can be altered. Mutazilites also argued that the Quran was not co-eternal with God, but had been created.

This discussion shows us that scriptures sometimes can be very opaque and can be interpreted in numerous ways. This is precisely why there are so many sects and jurisprudence in Islam, each proposing a slightly different understanding of the doctrine despite the fact Islam is a Unitarian religion: One God, one book and one prophet.

As it was possible for the Islamists, driven by the cause of Islamic Revivalism, to propose a totalitarian understanding of Islam, it is also possible for progressive Muslims today, driven by their admiration for Western values, to propose a relatively liberal understanding of Islam. If our intentions are to reconcile Islam with modern values, then it is possible for us to interpret Islam this.

Ammar Anwer is a columnist who focuses on Islamic History, Islamism and Islamic Reform. He writes for the Huffington Post. His writings have also been published at various Counter-Islamist think tanks. 

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Can (and Should) Islam be Reformed?

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