Reform: struggle between dogma and reason, a struggle between paranoia and reality.


Renewal and reform are important dimensions of the Islamic world’s history. Within this historical experience, we can see a lengthy tradition of reform, which takes the form of a special focus on the purification and revival of the fundamentals of the Islamic faith. Despite this reality, the discussion of Islamic reform has under gone a process of over politicization limiting the discourse to two polarizing positions.

Clearly identifiable camps have been drawn playing upon the Muslim/Orient and non-Muslim/Western divide. Because of this divide, we witness a peculiar reaction to current calls for reform. Neither its hostility nor its resistance defines its peculiarity. Since this would be expected by definition, reform is to challenge the status quo; otherwise reform would be redundant. What is problematic of this current aversion to reform is that it is rooted in suspicion and fear of an external threat. With this view, reform is perceived as nothing more than Western interference attempting to covertly ‘de-Islamise’ Muslims. Regarding those Muslims who advocate reform, they are perceived as pawns located within an ‘Islamophobe’ camp doing their bidding. Indeed, reform can be spelled out in different ways, not all calls for reform are equal. Some have ulterior motives, and some simply lack internal rigour. However, to claim that all calls for reform are of this sort would simply be the product of a paranoid mind overburdened with conspiracy theories.

Islamists and alike are plagued with paranoia asthey see the world in polar opposites, the source of this being the Manichaean worldview that is characteristic of the extremist mind-set. All thinking that does not originate directly in a straight line from ‘Islam’ is seen as ideological opposition. More importantly Islam is synonymous with Occidentalism, a hatred of the West. Whatever the West is, Islam is defined by its opposite. For example, Democracy and Liberalism, with its historical experience emanating from the West, are by default seen as diametrically opposed views and antithetical to Islam. The discussion of reform has unfortunately been placed within this narrow spectrum, thus calls for reform of Islam are seen as Western hegemonies inability to tolerate Islam. But are extremists, Islamists and puritans not privy to Islamic history, are they not aware of it being punctuated with efforts of reform and renewal? Could it be sheer ignorance of the Islamic history that sees reform as mere Western interference and a form of neo-colonisation? Perhaps, but I think there is something more profound at play here. They are aware of those facts, however extremism blinds the person and conceal the objective facts, making him see the world through enchanted eyes.

In my view, this enchantment is responsible for most of the resistance to reform and taints discussions surrounding it. Some take issue with the word ‘Reform’ itself and that it has negative connotations drawing upon the western experience of the Reformation in as much as itwas riddled with bloody sectarian conflicts and therefore argue that to speak of an Islamic reformation would be catastrophic. However, I find this a peculiar objection. The Reformation cannot be solely defined by the conflicts that were born out of it. Indeed, the Reformation was a culmination of many events and circumstances that shaped the theological debate. In spite of this, when we speak of Reformation in terms of Islam it is obvious that what is meant here is to initiate a critical overview of its theology and practices, not to indulge in power games and sectarian conflict. If we study the reasons for the Reformation and its contributors like Martin Luther, war mongering was not on the top of the list. Theological issues, such as the status of women, indulgences and eradicating an intermediary between Man and God were important factors in eradicating the abuse of religion. Why on earth some commentators reduce the Reformation to its wars in this debate is puzzling. There are also quasi-theological objections to reform that are banded about which caricature reform as an egregious display of unfaithfulness to the religion and to God, tantamount to Kufur, a major sin that puts one outside the fold of Islam. One common reason for this is that reform is seen necessarily as an endeavour to “change the religion” in other words, to deface or to deform it. Detractors, especially Islamists, often assume this within discussions on reform. This view is supported by the idea that Islam as a religion is ‘complete’ which implies it does not need to be amended nor modified. In support of this view the following Quranic verse is invoked, Q. 5:3 “This day I have perfected your religion for you and completed My favour unto you, and have chosen for you Islam as your religion”, which was interpreted to mean that religion has been completed and that the Quran enclosed all that Muslims need in order to live by the commands of their religion. The line of thinking here is that if Islam is complete and that God has stipulated dictates for us to live by until the end of time, then calls for reform simply have no place within the religion.
However, overlooking the relationship between the text and its human realities contorts the intended meaning of a verse. A more detailed look into the verse, an enquiry into the actual occasion the verse was revealed (asbab al-nuzul) provides a different meaning to the verse. The verse was revealed at a time when the Prophet Mohammed and his Companions were in Mecca on pilgrimage, this is the defining feature of the verse. The revealing of the ritual practices of the pilgrimage meant the religion had become completed and reached its perfection. The second is that reform is regarded as an attempt to challenge God’s knowledge and ontological position. Questioning the Sharia’s ethical viability (or what is understood to be the Sharia) is tantamount to questioning God’s judgment. Human beings, so the argument goes, do not have the capability to ascertain their duties by reason alone; instead they are directed to revelation in order to ascertain right and wrong. Moreover, right and wrong is nothing more than obedience to divine laws. Often the mantra is invoked, “Who knows better, you or God?” This rhetoric can be traced back to the Syed Qutb, one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the last century; he utters those very same words when discussing the ‘Islamic system’. With a cursory glance we can observe clear comparisons between contemporary Islamists and Qutb’s writings. For Qutb, the image of a transcendent and omnipotent God was what made the Islamic system unique from all other social organisations. In Qutb’s view any system of belief and practice grounded in human imperfection, namely reason is by definition faulty and deficient and most importantly is opposed to divine judgment. Qutb regarded reason (‘aqil ) and revelation (wahi) not equal counterparts,rational argumentation was not the main means of disseminating truth and faith should be in its place. In the mind of Qutb there is this constant clash between reason and God’s judgment, diametrically at odds with one another. For Qutb reason was based on speculation and “assumption” but Islam was based on “actuality”.

What is clear is that Qutb’s writings consisted of an aggressive front to reason – in particular philosophy. Qutb attempted to refute the efforts of medieval Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Rusd, Ibn Sina and al Farabi, regarding them as imitators of Greek thinkers. In Qutb’s view, philosophy was as a great danger to faith; it denigrated the status of the Quran and was a gateway for dangerous elements to enter the Islamic faith, namely Western culture.

This association with decay of the Islamic faith with reason and Western culture being at fault is quintessential of current Islamist thinking. Islamist writings are full of cries to purge the Islamic faith of ‘Western ideas’, philosophy and the ‘excessive’ reliance on reason. Is reform necessarily a front to God’s knowledge and his divine position? I regard the objection to as a textbook category mistake. Muslim reformers are not questioning the omnipotence of God nor God’s Omniscience, but question how we interpret the manifestations of these divine attributes in the world with regards to the Shari’a. To scrutinise the ethical viability of some edicts is not to say that we “know better than God”, it is to say we “know better of God”. To clarify, from what we know of God as the source of goodness, justice and wisdom, God would not command such things. Thus we can see that the entire objection is misplaced. As a consequence, discussions should begin based upon this premise and then and only then there can be genuine discussions on reform. Discussions on reform should not begin with the view that reform is attacking the nature of God and labelling the other as a blasphemer. Moreover, to regard reform as a way to contravene God’s nature overlooks the great degree of human agency in interpreting scripture. Not to mention, the chasm that Qutb and alike invent between reason and revelation itself, ironically, a philosophy without bases.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that this anti-rationalism does not begin with Qutb and far extends beyond Islamist thinkers. This doctrinal fundamentalism of taking a stance against reason is reminiscent of the positions held by the eleventh century Asharite theologians, who were visceral opponents of the rationally inclined Mu’Tazilites and Marturidi theologians. The Ashariite modus operandi was to subordinate reason to revelation. In opposition to the more rationally inclined theologians, they rejected that God’s commands conform to rationally comprehensible criteria. Again, emphasising on God’s omnipotence, God could do whatever he wanted and could have well chosen to do the opposite. By definition whatever God wills is good and human beings acting justly is nothing more than obedience. Thus, human beings cannot know good and bad on their own without scripture.

This Divine command theory over time became the first principle of Islamic law in most Sunni schools. Today the lay Muslims will not know the inner subtleties of theological debates between the Anti-rationalist schools and rationalist schools. Unfortunately, inadvertently through their Islamic education they would have adopted anti rationalist sentiments and given that the majority Sunni schools are based upon Ash’ari theology, this seems very likely. This Divine command theory is the key factor as to how it is an immense challenge for some Muslim Scholars to reject abhorrent edicts like stoning. They are morally blinded even in the face of barbarism. Such abhorrent views can be perfectly absorbed within the Islamic framework, in particular the Shari’a, since there is no external criteria to eliminate unethical interpretations nor justifying barbarism with the appeal to spurious Hadiths.

Dostoevsky writes in The Brothers Karamazov that, using Ivan Karamazov , that if God does not exist, then everything is permitted. I argue it is possible if one adopts a particular faith that we have discussed (God included within the equation) that will end with a similar consequence. Perhaps not everything, but certainly things that we see as overtly abhorrent can be permitted within faith. The aversion to reason, in my opinion, is the single most important factor in discussions on reform and extremism. The re-establish of the primacy of reason within the Islamic faith is essential in any effort to reform how we understand the faith.

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Tuesday 11th October 2016

Comments: 2

2 thoughts on “Reform: struggle between dogma and reason, a struggle between paranoia and reality.”

  1. I think it was Christopher Hitchens who I first heard pose the obvious concept that *with* God as the supporter of people’s actions, anything is possible. Some may have said that before, over time.

    But that aside, as well as all nuances and complexities, as a citizen of the UK who never thought I’d see a rise of puritanical, fanatical religion, I now see it, and want rid of it.

    In my youth there was nothing about “Islam” or even “Muslims” and that was in NW London – a very Asian area (probably more Hindu demographic though, but even then, no differentiation between Hindus and Muslims). There was no care, no worry. But of course things happened. All I really want is to get back to those days of no worry.

    Putting all terrorism aside, I find it astonishing that you (yourself, Adam) can sit in a group of other Muslims (a mixture of born into and converts) and ask why should the killing of apostates still be a “thing”. No answer from them, but just complexities in words that are ridiculous that seemingly are a defence of the faith by whatever means, never mind that the subject is about KILLING people. I’m astonished of what impression they want to make, and where they might even consider suspicion of Islam comes from in our society. It comes directly from them.

    I find it astonishing that the media have fallen for many characters over time who they consider “representatives”, and this still goes on.

    I don’t want a country where a man (Louis Smith) has a drunken lark, and receives death threats. I don’t like it when two mainstream television programs (trite, but mainstream), “Loose Women” on ITV and “Victoria Derbyshire” on the BBC, focused on his supposed “Mockery of Islam” rather than the death threats. How exactly did that happen? I might have thought the latter was much more important than the former. Have they instigated a backdoor blasphemy law that we are all unaware of?

    Yesterday Shakeel Begg lost a libel challenge with the BBC and was judged to be extreme in his outpourings. What will happen? Will he keep his position at Lewisham Islamic Centre? Will the MCB do something or say something? Will the usual suspects pop up and denounce the judgement?

    Never mind writing a book or drawing cartoons or making a historical TV documentary, the fear of the “next offence taken” whatever it is, hangs over us, and it is always accompanied by either death or death threats.

    I don’t want to hear organisations, after the Charlie Hebdo killings, use the “BUT”, as in “Of course there should not have been violence, however what you need to understand is that we love Mohammed more than we love our own families”. I honestly do not know what that is supposed to convey. Do they expect me to be in admiration? No. Is it a veiled threat? Quite possibly. What they should be saying is “We will do everything we can to make sure this never happens again”. But I doubt I will hear that from certain organisations, because I think they want that fervency to remain, because it’s important. After all, it made most of the Western media afraid to show the cartoons in 2004/5 and 2015.

    I can only appreciate anyone trying to reform something that quite obviously doesn’t fit with contemporary society. If that hadn’t happened in Europe with Christianity, with my disbelief, I might be jailed or even worse, today. So yes, something needs to happen on that level. But I honestly cannot see how anyone can change the mind of the current Choudary’s and Begg’s of this world, and certainly not Saudi nutty clerics, etc, etc. They need to be rejected by the youth at the very least, or we face enormous problems. That may well be done with criticism and reason of historical religious texts or behaviour, but on another level it’s simply attitude.

    In this example, the film Life of Brian, and the TV program Father Ted, needs to be borne in mind when Christianity, including Catholicism is still there.

    What if a comedian dared to make a joke of:

    “This Muslim thing of having to pray five times a day. If they have an apple each time they pray, does that stop the NHS badgering them to get their “five a day?””

    Probably not funny, but is it having a go at Muslims, Islamic practices or very annoying doctors? But what might it bring? Death threats? Of course it should not, but at the moment, it probably will. That is a simple difference which is outside of any reform of religion, but reform of behaviour and attitude. I know Muslims who would either laugh or groan at that joke, but unfortunately I’m aware of those who would take it as absolute insult and go to extremes, either in word or actions. How is that behaviour tackled?

  2. Now that we have read your criticism of the so-called “Islamists” aversion to reform even though I have no idea which Islamists you are particularly referring to.

    You portrayed Sayid Qutb as someone bereft of any reason which sounds quite astonishing at best. Someone who has written a 6 volume of Quranic commentary- a masterpiece in its own. Please read his books contextually then you will understand the literary genius of Sayid Qutb.

    You do attest to the fact that reform has been always normal in the Islamic history and the rise of reformers in ever century was a normative feature of the Islamic literature.

    Please Brother Adam, write another article of the type of reform you envision clearly spelt out with no ambiguities whatsoever so that we understand exactly the type of reformation you are saying the Islamists are averse to. Should we have only one framework of reformation for all countries in the world like one size fits all approach or we have variations of? Which areas need reform according to pure Islam which allows human interpretation of different schools of thought.

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