Sunday, September 27, 2015

Need for Reformation in Islam

By Zeeba T Hashmi
September 25, 2015
The most abhorrent line of thought in any religion is delinking belief in God from rationality. Intellectual curiosity and free thought present a social dimension that is a natural reaction to society’s ever growing dogma, rigidity and shrinking of space for alternate voices in the garb of social and legal dictums (like the blasphemy laws). With a rise in violence and faith based attacks, the expression of internal convictions easily victimises the person declaring his or her non-belief.
In Pakistan, there was a time when discourse on the complexities of religion and existence of God were not the prime topics to discuss in intellectual and scholarly circles because people back then did not feel the need as it was somewhat more progressive and liberal compared to today. It is only with the process of Islamisation and strict adherence to religious codes and attribution of punishments that a reactionary current has been triggered and people are now asking questions about the wisdom and philosophy behind Islam. Many people, however, often neglect the fact that, within religion, most of the wisdom in Islam is derived from a multiplicity of the interpretations people hold on to and have faith in. Religion is what makes it believable to the self.
Reformation in religion is a translation of reconciling the practical aspects of life with one’s spiritual needs, which is in conformity with the requirements of the present time. Sometimes, it becomes a necessity. However, people advocating reforms have been targeted and killed for entering this domain by fundamentalists, especially when it is considered that religion cannot be fluid and must be preserved in its true form. Despite many interpretations and the contextual understanding of Islam, the orthodox have a tendency to deny any such logic that refutes the fundamentalist version. The problem begins when reformists clash with the orthodox clergy, who do not tolerate the modern notions of society today. With urban complexities and social transformations there is a need for a reinterpretation of the religion that people can easily relate to. The static version of religion, in itself, is a cause for worry as it comes into conflict with the universal values that have evolved with time with raised awareness of issues related to the environment, human traits and cultural values.
Many attempts have been made to align and reinterpret Islam with the universal values of acceptance and humanism. Many scholars are of the view that early Islamic society was much more liberal and tolerant and that what we see today is very different and more constricted in comparison. However, the intimidation of Muslim scholars propagating liberal Islam is not new; a renowned Pakistani Muslim scholar was made to leave this country amidst life threats he had to face for his views. Some Muslim scholars around the world have been killed or charged with apostasy, a crime in some Muslim countries.
The concept of ijtehad, which is to come to independent reasoning where religious texts have not provided clear guidance, has died away, thus making any social progress stagnant in Islam. The Sunnis believe that most of Islamic jurisdiction has been complete and hence ijtihad to them is no longer needed. However, Shia traditions seem to give importance to ijtehad. In the beginning of the 10th century, the Sunni movement was strong enough to put the process of ijtehad in the backseat, thus giving rise to taqleed where guidance is derived from set precedents in Islamic jurisdictions. The problem thus created was the abject denial of society’s changing dynamics that need proper address by religion and appropriate jurisdictions that are relevant for society’s progress. The problem of stagnation of due process of evolving wisdom gives precedence to intolerance and rigidity, as we are witnessing in the Muslim world today.
Given the principle that there is no compulsion in religion, one needs to be convinced in their rational, complex understanding to reconcile with religion. Unless human capacity is taken into consideration to convey the message of religion, the message of religion remains ineffectual. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) understood his society well and preached to his people in a manner that inspired and motivated them to bring positive changes to their lives. We also see in history that where forced conversions have taken place, societies remained backward and less inclined to development. The version of Islam being dictated to us by the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) has indeed destroyed societies that cannot conscientiously come to terms with their cruelty, which almost all liberal scholars have denounced and condemned. The counter discourse to the rigid views of the fundamentalist version becomes important for the very survival of Islam. Unless that is provided, repulsion against religion will remain an issue for those who consider rigid interpretations of religion to be against their conscience to accept.
Reformation in Islam is an ongoing process, albeit the strong opposition to them. There have been quite unconventional examples set by some scholars. One such example is that of a Muslim lady imam who leads prayers in a mosque in New York.
The need for making compatibility with religion work in modern social dynamics is pressing. It is time to do away with stagnant conventions that rely on the principle of non-progress in religious thought as opposed to allowing fluidity and flexibility in religious domain. Religion can only prosper spiritually if it remains independent from the human quest for more discoveries. In fact, making Islam the principle for scientific research and social progress as preached by Imam Ghazali is perhaps the reason why there have been no great discoveries and inventions coming from the Muslim world since then.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at