Islam does not need reformation but Muslims definitely do

The title of this essay may sound like a non sequitur or confusing verbiage that aims to obfuscate. However, it captures the ‘truth’ or crux of the matter. Islam- as revealed religion and faith- does not need a reformation in the conventional meaning of the word associated as it is with the West’s Reformation where the primacy of reason faith cleaved religion from the secular and the temporal. However, Muslims surely need to reform. Islam is not a dogma nor is it an ideology; historically it is the assertion of the Sovereign as God and its moral economy lends it to the institutionalization of ethics in human affairs. Its eschatological, trans-historical and mystical dimension is beyond the pale of reason in the sense that it postulates a dimension to existence wherein earthly life is part of a wider and broader cosmic drama where death is not the end of existence.

The Holy Quran – being Divine Revelation itself- is the bedrock of Islam and it is revealed through the institution of Prophethood wherein Prophet Muhammad (SAW) is the Divine carrier of the message. God, Quran and the Prophet (SAW) form the central axis and matrix of Islam. The corollaries to this central matrix are Shariah( roughly translated as Islamic law), Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and madhabs (schools of Islamic Law). Shariah is a derivative concept or idea arrived painfully and carefully through a deductive rather than inductive method. Cumulatively, these form what may be called the Islamic system. In terms of faith and religion, Islam brooks no compromise for its followers: absolute sovereignty of God, the centrality of the Prophet and the Quran as the word of God are the sine qua non of a Muslims’ faith (Imaan). All these comprise the Divine essence of Islam.

 Islam does not need reformation but Muslims definitely do

Representative image. Reuters

However, the problem arises over the differing interpretations of those parts of the Islamic system. In some senses, this problematique is inevitable if a historical perspective is taken recourse to. The formative period of Islam was a period wherein Islam had a comparatively small following and the Prophet (SAW) was the final consensual authority. However, after the death of the Prophet (SAW) , a fragmentation of authority and power took place (one reason for the division of the Muslim world into its Sunni and Shi’ite components) and the concomitant to this was also the dynamic spread of Islam. Islam encountered diverse peoples, cultures and civilizations and instead of forging a straitjacket assimilated them under the broad rubric of Islam.

This was also a period when the Caliphal state got incubated and power struggles also took place. The Caliphal state entailed competition amongst various power centers of the expansive and expanding Islamic Imperium. These power struggles were quite secular in nature in the sense of being pure power struggles but Islam was used as a legitimizing principle for rule and governance.

This saw the introduction of the ulema as a class of people who held authority over Islam and Islamic law. While the balance of power between the rulers and the ulema was tenuous, it was usually the rulers who held sway. Many ulema paid the ultimate price for their Puritanism but some compromised. It is here that some precepts may have entered parts of the corpus of the Islamic system and later become almost law or even legitimate. There was overall consensus on these even though in terms of Islamic jurisprudence(fiqh), there were different schools that offered a framework for Muslims to follow. By and large, this framework was expected to be adhered to scrupulously. This is where parts of the Islamic system may have become doctrinaire. Islam as a faith and a moral system spread rapidly and widely despite the doctrinaire differences and power struggles. It accorded direction and a moral compass to millions of people across the world.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Islam is now associated with horrific acts of violence. Islam is no longer held to be the beacon of peace and its essence is held by its critics to be inherently violent. The ISIS, known for its spectacular violence, is cited as a clear cut instance of Islam’s alleged inherent violence and intolerance. Scholars and lay people exegetize on this phenomenon and adduce from Islam’s modern history and its current convulsions the inherent violence of Islam. This view, however is as wrong as it is specious. This assertion is not that of a grieved Muslim in denial about his faith but is premised again on history, empiricism and what the author would like to think constitutes reality.

Human history is a history of war, violence and pestilence. The nature of this history stems from the very nature of humans. Thomas Hobbes-the great political philosopher- famously postulated the need for the Leviathian to keep human greed, bestiality and fear in check. A compendium of emotions-fear, greed, pride among other things- human beings can be both noble or descend to depths of bestiality. What brings out either to the fore are structural conditions or context. This is an insight that I owe to Karen Armstrong’s book,’ Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence’. Religion, per se, cannot be implicated nor indicted in violence-historically or contemporarily, according to Armstrong. While there is correlation between violence and religion but correlation does not mean causation. The political economy of violence is as human as can be. Religion can either be a fig leaf for this or serve as a legitimator for violence.

This speaks eloquently to Islam and the critics of Islam. If Islam is , as the critics allege, inherently violent, then what accounts for the coexistence , peace and amity between different cultures within Islam. What is common between an African Muslim and an Albanian Muslim? Islam, of course. But they are not at war with each other. What accounts for general peace –within and without- of Muslims in India? The IS cannot be reflective of Islam and the Muslim world. While attention is focused on it because of its spectacular and egregious acts of violence, there is the whole of the rest of the Muslim world to consider too. Why do Malaysia, Dubai, Maldives, and other like such places slip off the radar of Muslims?

Moreover, it is often asserted that what Islam needs is a secular Reformation. The implied parallel here is the West’s Reformation. While the parallel does not hold in the strict sense, what is elided here is the scale and scope of secular violence. The two Great Wars- First and the Second World Wars- the Holocaust, the violence carried out in the name of secular modernity in the erstwhile Soviet Union, is conveniently forgotten. Secular Reformation and liberalism need not mean The End of History. The world is in evolution; so is its moral, philosophical and practical orientation. It is here that Muslim Reformism comes into play. What Muslims need is to integrate reason with faith to move co-eval with the direction and thrust of world history and not me mere outliers. There is a vigorous precedent for this in Islamic history.

This precedent goes by the name of Ijtihad , roughly translated as independent reasoning. A caveat is in order here. Ijtihad can be carried out by experts in the domain of jurisprudence, reasoning, logic and , the Quran. It is not a lay endeavor. Key here is initiation of Ijtihad. Once initiated, the corollaries that flow from the process conducted by experts can percolate to the masses. Muslims then can align themselves with the modern temper and be equal participants and even catalysts of peace, amity and progress. The pace of change in the contemporary world is staggering and unprecedented. It is imperative upon Muslims to take stock of this change and be part of it as Muslims. The alternative is regression and the usurpation of Islam by the IS or its clones. Islam is a dynamic religion and faith and peace –within and without- is its bedrock. It is about time that we Muslims prove it.

Updated Date: Jul 02, 2015 16:03:03 IST