New Internationalist

Islam: Resistance and reform

Issue 345

Immediately after 11 September, I was caught in a pincer movement by my neighbours, writes Ziauddin Sardar. My English neighbour, a highly educated man addicted to news, fired a series of angry questions at me. Why are Muslims so violent? How can Islam justify the killing of innocent people? Why are Muslims still living in the Middle Ages?

GLOSSARY

Illustration: Mohamed Bushara
Illustration: Mohamed Bushara

fiqh: Islamic jurisprudence

ijma: literally means consensus of the people

ijtihad: literally ‘reasoned struggle’

istislah: normally rendered as ‘public interest’

jihad: now reduced to the single meaning of ‘Holy War’, losing the concept’s spiritual, intellectual and social components

shari’ah: commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’

taqlid: the following of predecessors

ummah: the global spiritual community of Muslims

wahhabism: Puritan, literal interpretation of Muslim holy texts

Before I could reply, my Muslim neighbour, a devout woman of Pakistani origin, jumped in. ‘The very word Islam means peace,’ she said. ‘The majority of Muslims are peace-loving people who live in the modern world. This is the work of a few fanatics who want to turn the clock back to medieval times.’ After a pause, she sighed: ‘I just don’t know where these people come from.’ Both the questions and the answers have a long lineage. The events of 11 September notwithstanding, Islam has always been seen in the West as violent, barbaric and anti-democratic. These stereotypes were formulated during the Crusades and have persisted ever since. As Orientalism, a mode of thinking about and representing Islam and the Muslim World, they have become an integral part of Western art, literature and scholarship. Think of all those ‘Arab terrorists’ in a string of films such as True Lies, Executive Action, The Siege or even the 1960s classic, Khartoum.

For Muslims, nothing could be further from the truth. Islam is all about seeking peace for its own sake. Indeed, peace is considered in Islam as an essential precondition for ‘submission’ — the second literal meaning of the word Islam — to the ‘will of God’. Only through the creation of peaceful circumstances can the life of faith be implemented in all aspects of human existence.

What the fateful events of 11 September reveal, more than anything else, is the discord between the true nature of Islam, as religion, culture, tradition and civilization, and its contemporary manifestation. Far from being a liberating force, a quest for equity, justice and humane values, it seems to have become an obscurantist, unethical enterprise. Indeed, it appears as though Muslims have internalized all those historic and contemporary Western representations of Islam that have been used to demonize them for centuries. Or, as my neighbour confessed in colloquial Urdu and in a moment of self-realization: ‘We now actually wear the garb of the very demons that the West has been projecting on our collective personality.’

How has this come about?

Modernist panaceas

To some extent, the predicament of Muslim societies reflects my own experience after 11 September. Just as I was caught in a pincer movement by a modernist news addict and a traditional Muslim woman, Muslim societies too are trapped between forces of modernity and globalization on one hand, and an emergent traditionalism that often takes a militant form, on the other. In the late 1940s and 1950s, when most Muslim countries obtained their independence, modernization — or more specifically development along Western patterns — was seen as a panacea for all social and economic ills. Indeed, most Muslim countries whole-heartedly embarked on a rapid course of modernization. But the strategies adopted were, on the whole, out of step with the traditional societies they were attempting to change. Thus a rift developed between those who backed modernization and accompanying Westernization and those who were concerned about preserving the traditional culture, lifestyle and outlook of Muslim societies. In most cases, the traditionalists saw modernization and the associated policies of ‘development’ as an onslaught on their history, lifestyle and world-view. The modernists saw Westernization as the primary means of survival for Muslim countries. Now, with modernity losing ground both in the West and the non-West, globalization is being projected as the new theory of salvation. And, once again, traditionalists are reacting against globalization just as vehemently, if not more so, as they did against modernity.

The modernist leaders who took over from the departing colonial powers maintained their hold on Muslim societies with excessive use of force and by ruthlessly persecuting the traditional leadership and abusing and ridiculing traditional thought and everything associated with it. The economic and development policies they pursued often ended in spectacular failure and concentrated national wealth in the hands of the few. Globalization has further marginalized traditional cultures, creating a siege mentality in historic communities. These factors have contributed to the emergence throughout the Muslim world of a new form of militant traditionalism.

Thus the Muslim world finds itself caught in an intense struggle between the combined forces of an aggressively secular modernity and globalization pitted against an equally aggressive traditionalism. This struggle is quite evident in countries like Indonesia, Algeria and Bangladesh where internal battles between modernists and traditionalists have raged for well over two decades.

To this complex, we must add another dimension. Both traditionalists and modernists now share the belief that the fate of their societies is actually determined by decisions taken elsewhere. This is why so much energy in the Muslim world is now spent in criticizing the actions and consequences of the centres of power: the nexus of Western government, economy, industry and popular culture where globalization is manufactured and exported to its recipients in the Muslim World. The widespread feeling of dispossession and total powerlessness in Muslim societies is a product of this. Hence the sense of rage that now envelops both modernists and traditionalists alike.

But this is only half the truth — the part that my neighbour and most Muslims would accept quite readily. The most significant answers to the contemporary plight of the Muslim people are buried deep within the history, social practice and intellectual and political inertia of Muslims themselves. Muslims, on the whole, are very reluctant to look at themselves or to examine the process through which they have transformed Islam into a suffocating and oppressive ideology.

Piers Benatar / Panos
Puritanical Wahhabism is once again in fashion among militant Muslims. Piers Benatar / Panos

Reasoned struggle

This is not a new realization. For well over a century, Muslim scholars and thinkers have been arguing that Islam is in need of urgent reform. Or to use the technical terms, Muslims need to undertake ijtihad, literally ‘reasoned struggle’, to rethink and reformulate Islam. It was the Iranian reformist Jamaluddin Afghani, who with the then Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, first argued for ijtihad at the end of the 19th century. Since then, numerous other reformists have repeated this call. But the call for ijtihad has fallen on deaf ears. Muslim societies have failed to respond to the summons to ijtihad for a number of reasons. As the term itself suggests, ijtihad requires effort and serious thought; it is always tempting to take the easy option and fall back on historic interpretations and the opinions of bygone jurists. Also, Muslims tend to see classical authors in rather romantic terms: as perfect individuals, incapable of making a wrong judgement. Classical scholars themselves are also guilty of perpetuating this. They have venerated taqlid, or the blind following of predecessors, to such an extent that it has now become a sacred principle.

It was during the Abbasid period, the so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’ extending from the 8th to the 13th century, that the classical scholars decided to ‘close the gates of ijtihad’. They were concerned with multiple interpretations of Islam that proliferated during that period. In particular, they wanted to stop the abuse of ijtihad by people who were not theologically or legally qualified. Moreover, they argued that most of the problems of the Muslim society were already solved. Every emerging problem could be solved simply by imitation or by analogical reasoning.

The freezing of interpretation, the closure of ‘the gates of ijtihad’, has had a devastating effect on Muslim thought and action. Consider, for example, its effect on the shari’ah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic law’. Most Muslims consider the shari’ah to be divine and think that it is based on the teachings of the Qur’an. In fact, shari’ah as understood today was socially constructed during the Abbasid period. The bulk of the shari’ah actually consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than the legal opinion of classical jurists. The very term ‘fiqh’ did not exist before the Abbasid period; it was invented, formulated and codified during the ‘Golden Age’.

The world was simple and could easily be divided into black and white. So Islamic jurisprudence constructed the world as two divisions: Daral Islam (‘the abode of peace’) and Daral Harb (‘the abode of war’). It saw everything outside the world of Islam in hostile terms. Moreover, it incorporated the prejudices — against women and minorities, for example — and preoccupations of the age of Muslim imperialism.

Medieval feel

What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the shari’ah the contradictions that were inherent in the formulation and evolution of fiqh come to the fore. That is why wherever the shari’ah is imposed — out of context from the time when it was formulated and out of step with ours — Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel. We see that in Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Sudan and Afghanistan under the Taliban. When narrow adherence to old jurisprudence becomes the norm, ossification sets in. ‘The shari’ah will solve all our problems’ becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary for a group with vested interest in this notion of the shari’ah to preserve its territory, the source of its power and prestige, at all costs. An outmoded body of law is thus equated with the shari’ah and criticism is shunned and outlawed by appealing to its divine nature. The banning of ijtihad has also had serious implications for individual Muslims. If all the relevant interpretations have already been undertaken, people themselves have nothing to do except follow blindly. Individual Muslims thus have no agency themselves; they become simply passive receivers of ancient interpretations and opinions rather than active seekers of truth. And when submissive acceptance of classical opinion is combined with a single, literalist interpretation of the Qur’an, we get a truly potent brew.

The literalist interpretation of the Qur’an becomes popular when Islam is in crisis

The literalist interpretation of the Qur’an becomes popular when Islam is in crisis and Muslims perceive themselves to be under siege. Its strongest advocate was the 13th-century scholar Ibn Taymiyya who belonged to a long and heroic tradition of intellectual zealots. He was exclusively concerned with the survival of the Muslim community at a time when Muslim civilization, recovering from the onslaught of the Crusades, was under siege from the Mongols. Pluralistic interpretations of Islam, accompanied by endless discussion, he argued, were dividing and weakening Muslims. Muslims had to return to a purist Islam. Nothing could be read metaphorically or symbolically. Everything had to be based on a single, literalist interpretation of the Qur’an.

Ibn Taymiyya’s ideas were taken up by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahab, the 18th-century founder of the revivalist movement named after him. Reacting to advancing colonization of Muslim societies, Abd al-Wahhab advocated ‘the return to Qur’an and Sunnah’ (the practice of the Prophet) in a literal sense. Once again, a puritan literal interpretation was seen as a solution to the political problems of Islam. Eventually Wahhabism became the creed of Saudi Arabia.

Today, Wahhabism is once again in fashion amongst militant Muslims. It spread like a wildfire in the late 1980s after the abject failure of the Revolution in Iran, the naked squandering of oil revenues, and the hopes of a ‘cultural revival’ in the Muslim world all but evaporated. The answer to poverty, corruption, despotism and rampant globalization is seen in terms of a retreat to a more and more romanticized notion of Islam.

However, modernist Wahhabism has added an extra dimension to its monolithic literalist interpretation. It now insists that its single interpretation of Islam can only be manifested in terms of an ‘Islamic state’. Thus, Islam is reduced to a pure, one-dimensional, political ideology.

But once Islam, as an ideology, becomes a programme of action of a vested group it loses its humanity and becomes a battlefield where morality, reason and justice are readily sacrificed at the altar of political expediency as we witnessed in revolutionary Iran, the activities of Islamic movements in Algeria, Egypt and Pakistan, and in the actions of al-Qaida supporters.

Now anyone can declare jihad on anyone without any moral rhyme or reason

The move from multiple interpretations of Islam towards a single monolithic vision is, of course, a form of reduction. Literalist interpretation also reduced holistic Islamic concepts with multiple meanings into entities with fixed single connotations. Consider how the idea of ijma, the central notion of communal life in Islam, has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma literally means consensus of the people. The concept dates back to the practice of Prophet Muhammad himself as leader of the original polity of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision, he would call the whole Muslim community — then admittedly not very large — to the mosque. A discussion would ensue; arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the entire gathering would reach a consensus. Thus, a democratic spirit was central to communal and political life in early Islam. But over time the clerics and religious scholars have removed the people from the equation — and reduced ijma to ‘the consensus of the religious scholars’. Not surprisingly, authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in the Muslim world.

The abuse of jihad

Numerous other concepts have gone through similar processes of reduction. The concept of ummah, the global spiritual community of Muslims, has been reduced to the ideals of a nation-state: ‘my country right or wrong’ has been transposed to read ‘my ummah right or wrong’. So even despots like Saddam Hussein are now defended on the basis of ‘ummah consciousness’ and ‘unity of the ummah’. Jihad has now been reduced to the single meaning of ‘Holy War’. This translation is perverse not only because the concept’s spiritual, intellectual and social components have been stripped away, but it has been reduced to war by any means, including terrorism.

So anyone can now declare jihad on anyone, without any ethical or moral rhyme or reason. Nothing could be more perverted, or pathologically more distant from the initial meaning of jihad. Its other connotations, including personal struggle, intellectual endeavour and social construction have evaporated.

Istislah, normally rendered as ‘public interest’ and a major source of Islamic law, has all but disappeared from Muslim consciousness.

But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant compared to the reductive way the Qur’an and the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad are bandied about. Almost anything and everything is justified by quoting individual bits of verses out of context. After the 11 September event, for example, a number of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3: 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an.

In this particular verse the Qur’an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. It is revealed during the battle of Uhad when the small and ill-equipped army of the Prophet is facing a much larger and better-equipped enemy. The Prophet is concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an reassures him by promising that the enemy will be terrified by the Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims, but a commentary on what was happening at a particular moment in time.

The sayings of Prophet Muhammad are quoted to justify the most extreme behaviour. Even the Prophet’s own appearance, his beard and cloths, have been turned into a fetish: so now it is not just obligatory for a ‘good Muslim’ to have a beard, but its length and shape must also conform to certain dictates! The Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols — the spirit of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions, his humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated, have all been subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

The way ahead

What can Muslims do to get beyond the current impasse? Muslims have to realize that Islam does not provide ready-made answers to all their problems. Rather, it provides an ethical and moral perspective within which Muslims must endeavour to find answers to all human problems. The way forward to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires moving away from reduction to synthesis, and from single literalist interpretation to a pluralistic understanding of Islam.

Muslims have to realize that Islam does not provide ready-made answers to all their problems

Primarily, as individuals and communities, Muslims need to reclaim agency. To insist on their right and duty, as believers and knowledgeable people. To interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam. To question what now goes under the general rubric of shari’ah and to declare that much of Islamic jurisprudence is now dangerously obsolete. To stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam confined by a geographically bound state. The ‘gates of ijtihad’ have to be thrown wide open so that the basic concepts of Islam can be framed in a broader context. Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for much too long. This is why they feel so full of pain in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable and out of sync with the spirit of our time. If the events of 11 September unleash the best intentions — the essential values of Islam — then the phoenix will have risen from the ashes of the twin towers.

Writer, journalist and broadcaster Ziauddin Sardar is author of many books, including Introducing Islam and The Future of Muslim Civilization. His latest, The A to Z of Postmodern Life is just published by Vision.

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