A. G. NOORANI*
(This essay is concerned with the intellectual ferment in the Muslim world which is of more enduring significance than what attracts greater attention; the phenomenon called “political Islam”. – Author)
“Verily never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves” – Quran (13:11).
Muslims’ thinking on their faith has gone way beyond the apologetics of the late 19th and early 20th century; a phase when they quoted praise of Islam by, say, Shaw or Wells with relish. Syed Ameer Ali’s work The Spirit of Islam, while a classic of its kind, was an apologia. while Maulvi Chiragh Ali’s work A Critical Exposition of the Popular Jihad addressed the refutations to Western writers and Muslim bigots alike. He went on to plead for a reformation in Muslim thinking and practices which was far ahead of its time. We do not hear such voices in South Asia in 2012; not in India at any rate. Intellectual stagnation in the Islamic world long preceded the onslaught of European imperialism and the impact of European thought, culture, and, indeed, Western achievements on it. The intrusion provoked two opposite trends of thought – revivalism, of which modern fundamentalism is a by-product, and a rational approach to the faith. The Wahabis represented the first, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and his colleague Chiragh Ali, the second. Both were preceded by the towering figure of Shah Wali Allah al-Dehlawi (1703 – 1762). A biographer pointed out that “reason and rationalism find a prominent place in his thoughts” (Allah Ditta Muztar; Shah Wali Allah: A Saint Scholar of Muslim Instra; National Commission on Historical and Cultural Research, Islamabad; 1979; p. 87). This approach was rooted
in Islamic thought; the Mutazilites for example.
This, admittedly inadequate, essay is concerned with the intellectual ferment in the Muslim world which is of more enduring significance than what attracts greater attention; the phenomenon called “political Islam”. It is far from being a representative survey, let alone a definitive one. It is illustrative of the issues that are being addressed. The West is not alive to them nor is South Asia. In Tunisia, which led the Arab Spring, the Ennahda has formed a coalition government. Though it has promised to respect human rights and gender equality, its victory sent alarm bells ringing – “the fundamentalists have entered the gates”-, all this because of its leader’s background. In 1987 Rachid al-Ghannoushi defiantly faced the State Security Court during President Habib Baurguiba’s regime and was sentenced to life imprisonment. After the coup in 1988 he was granted amnesty and went into exile. The Islamic Tendency Movement Hizb al Nahd (Ennahda to the West) meanwhile had won 13 percent votes nationally and 30-40 in the rural areas in the 1987 elections. Al- Ghannoushi had read Iqbal’s Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam and was able to face Western interlocutors confidently. Others who influenced him were Maududi and Sayyid Qutb. He differed with both, “The problem is that societies have evolved, while the Islamists have not.” He held “Islam, which enjoins the recourse to Shura (consultation) . . . finds in democracy the appropriate instruments (elections, parliamentary system, separation of powers, etc.) to implement the Shura.” Consensus (ijma) provides the basis for participatory government or democracy in Islam. Ghannoushi believed that democracy in the Muslim world, as in the West, can take many forms. He himself favored a multiparty system of government. “For Ghannoushi the rule of law, freedom, and human rights are essential components of civilization. Believing that they often exist in the West today more than in the Muslim world, he maintained that it is preferable to live in a secular state where there is freedom than in a country where the Shariah is the official law but where freedom does not exist. Similarly, when discussing whether a Muslim can live in a non-Muslim state such as in Europe or America, he argued that any secular democratic state where religious freedom exists in a dar al-Islam (Islamic territory or abode) rather than a dar al-harb (abode of a war).”
He maintained that “(i) by democracy is meant the liberal model of government prevailing in the West, a system under which the people freely choose their representatives and leaders, and in which there is an alternation of power, as well as all freedoms and human rights for the public, then the Muslims will find nothing in their religion to oppose democracy, and it is not in their interest to do so anyway.” He said in an interview to John L. Esposito and John O. Voll (Makers of Contemporary Islam; Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 114).
The authors add “Though a Muslim democracy is based on equality and freedom, its Islamic character does set limits and influences its institutions. Citizenship in the modern state, according to Ghannoushi, should be one in which all, Muslims and non-Muslims, are equal, possessing a common nationality. These rights, Ghannoushi believes, are guaranteed by Islam (the Quran, Sunnah, and Islamic jurisprudence). Although he believed that all are equal regardless of race, creed, ethnic origin, with equal rights and freedoms, he nevertheless continued, as in the traditional Islamic notion of non-Muslims as “protected” people, to postulate two categories of citizenship. Muslims enjoy unqualified citizenship (muwatanah khasah). While the latter enjoy full citizenship, the majority of citizens may choose to have their faith influence public life, and thus the state may prohibit non-Muslims from holding senior positions in government.” (ibid. p.115). It is this strand of thought which has incurred criticism.
His paper on “The Participation of Islamists in a Non-Islamic Government” presents another strand. (John L. Donohue and John L. Esposito. (Eds) Islamic Transition : Muslim Perspectives; Oxford University Press, Second Edition 2007). Muslims can participate in such governments. “What is most important is that a Muslim must remain positive and actively engaged in the effort to implement the revealed laws of Allah, whether partially or in their totality, depending on circumstances and resources. The essence of Allah’s laws, for which all divine messages were sent, is the establishment of justice for mankind.
‘We sent aforetime our messengers with clear signs and sent down with them the Book and the Balance (of right and wrong), that men may stand forth in justice. (57:25)’.
It should however be emphasized that the problem facing the concept of power-sharing does not lie in the difficulty of convincing the Islamists to accept democracy, pluralism and power-sharing. The current general trend in Islamic circles is to adopt power-sharing – even in a secular style government – as a means for achieving mutual goals such as national solidarity, respect for human rights, civil liberties, cultural, social and economic development, and the deterrence of external threats.
“The real problem lies in convincing the ‘other,’ that is the ruling regimes, of the principle of “the people’s sovereignty” and of the right of Islamists – just like other political groups – to form political parties, engage in political activities and compete for power or share in power through democratic means.” (p. 278).
Small wonder that he was criticized by none more trenchantly than by a fellow Tunisian Mohamed Charfi in his brilliant work Islam and Liberty:The Historical Misunderstanding, Zed Books, London; 2005). He alleged, perhaps unfairly, that Ghannoushi disguises a preference for totalitarianism “beneath a veneer of democracy” (p. 19). He alleged that Ghannoushi’s Al-Maarifa “in its final years reduced the role of women to house keeping” (p. 31).
Charfi was a student leader, Professor in Law, human rights activist and Minister for Education. His book is a mini classic; bold and erudite. It is one of the most incisive analyses of the historical misunderstanding of Islam by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Professor of Law in Tunis, he helped to float Perspectives, a progressive democratic Opposition group, and was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment. He served as a reformist Minister for Education but resigned in protest against the excesses of security forces against opposition to the reforms he had introduced. In Tunisia, scholars like Bayram in the 19th century have blazed the trail for reform. The erudition and rigorous analysis packed into his slim volume is amazing. Written in French, it was translated into English by Patrick Camiller. The work draws heavily on writings in French by Arab and European scholars, which are not cited in English books. One hopes it is translated into Urdu and distributed widely in India and Pakistan. The author’s analyses are based on the Quran.
The problem is faced boldly at the very outset. “Islam is no less capable of evolution than Christianity or Judaism. But whereas, over the past few centuries, Europeans have undergone profound technological, economic, cultural and political changes, often amid considerable suffering and with major ebbs and flows, the Muslim peoples have fallen greatly behind in all spheres. This is not a fate to which they are doomed for ever; it is possible for them to close the gap.” (p.4)
He writes “Year after year the gulf has been widening between an idealized ancestral system, which is held sacred and disseminated through school, and a new system that is ever more widely regarded as an Alien import, contrary to Islam. This is a grave discrepancy that tears people apart and brings them to the verge of schizophrenia for they do not wish to sacrifice either Islam or modernity. They are as attached to the Islamic religion as they are to the structure of the modern state, which they insist should be genuinely democratic and representative” (pp. 5-6).
The political Islamist wants an imagined historical Islam to prevail over modernity. The modernist seldom rises to the intellectual challenge of understanding Islam as well as modernity. “There is no credible counter-discourse”, especially among Muslims of the subcontinent. Most of them think in stereotypes. For the lay Muslim, the disconnect between the faith he learns at home and the rationalism and knowledge he acquires at school and in college is painful. He wants to be a good Muslim; yet finds the Islam preached from the pulpit strange, almost irrelevant. It need not be. Forty years ago the writer heard an inspiring sermon one Friday at the Islamic Centre in Washington, D.C.; less so, was the one he heard next Friday at a London mosque. The sermon at a mosque near the High Court in Mumbai was pathetic.
If in Muslims countries the authoritarian state stifles free debate, the same job is undertaken in countries where Muslims are a minority by the bigoted, ignorant mullah in complicity with Muslim politicians. Without free thought and open discourse, even if Muslims prosper economically, Muslim society stagnates intellectually and morally. What have Indian mullahs to offer to young Muslims except the warning that Islam and modernity are incompatible? Muslims are driven by what they feel is an elemental contradiction. “They have a kind of guilty conscience that they are both Muslim and modern; this prevents them from clarifying their discourse, defending their policies and adopting a more conistent standpoint. It is the duty of Muslim intellectuals to perform this necessary, if arduous task. In this, they have failed. (p. 12).
Mohamed Charfi is committed to the faith of Islam, erudite, intellectually honest and courageous. Colonial rule is condemnable but the Third World tends to forget that it had made itself colonisable by its internal feuds and backwardness. Refusal to learn foreign languages, science and technology ensured backwardness. European Renaissance owed a lot to Arabs who had translated and enriched Greek philosophy and science which were lost. Arabic numerals were introduced in Europe in the 10th century by Sylvester II, the first French Pope and an “admirer of Arab-Islamic civilization”.
Charfi rightly remarks that this “dismissal of everything produced by the human mind outside the sphere of Islam, and even of any elements within it later than the age of the Prophet and the four wise Caliphs, leads to a rejection of democracy and democratic attitudes”.(p. 32).
Charfi holds that “there is nothing inevitable about fundamentalism, that what is involved is not a matter of religion but a problem of culture and education. In fact, we must distinguish between Muslim and Islamists”. The fundamentalist presumes to direct Muslims “to do right and forbear from doing evil”. Under this slogan he usurps extra-statal power but he has no genuine interest in the faith; for, the Quran clearly says : “Each man shall reap the fruits of his own deeds; no soul shall bear another’s burden. In the end to your Lord shall you return, and He will resolve your disputes for you” (6:158).
If the Chapter on Islam and Law is highly relevant to India, applicable to Pakistan is the one on Islam and the state. Together they constitute the core of the works; irrefutable in documentation and devastating in refutation of dogma.
Consider apostasy. “Lacking any basis in the Quran for their rule on apostasy, the ulema linked it to a hadith (saying) supposedly spoken by the Prophet : ‘He who changes religion, kill him!’ However, the hadith in question belongs to the dubious category (reported by a single person), and the doubt becomes stronger when we know that the companion who reported it, Ibn Abbas, was only thirteen years old in the Prophet’s lifetime, most notably that of the Kindi. When the Prophet learned of the latter, he blamed it on their four kings (Gamad, Mihwas, Misrah and Abdaa) – a legitimate enough reaction on his part. However, there was never any question of war or punishment against them. Only after the Prophet’s death was a war waged against the Kindi as a whole in order to end their defection and to force them back to Islam.”
There are three legacies from the past which Muslims must discard
– the ossified sharia which conflicts with the Quran; the notion of the “Islamic state” which the Quran does not support and which never existed in history; and jihad, which is a perversion of the concept as propounded in the Quran.
Any reform in the Islamic world must grapple honestly with four related tasks: (1) Interpretation of some Quranic verses in the light of the times, as against others which are of enduring relevance for all time. (2) Weeding out hadith (compilation of the Prophet’s sayings) of dubious credibility. (3) Rejection of the authority of the ulema (clerics). (4) A sound appreciation of Islam in history, especially the role of the first four Caliphs, as distinct from Islam in the Quran.
It was only a century after the Prophet’s death that the task of compiling the hadith was undertaken. There is not the slightest doubt about the integrity and authenticity of the Quran. One cannot say that of the hadith. The Prophet (PBUH) died at Medina on June 8, 632. Al- Bukhari, a man of piety and compiler of the most respected of the hadith, was bon in the ninth century (194 of the Hejira; he died in 256). He was methodical. Having collected 600,000 hadith, he retained only 7,257 omitting 4,000 repetitions.
“Thus less than two centuries after the Prophet’s death there were already 596,725 false hadith.” Al-Bukhari told off a king who wanted him to read some excerpts in private. “Go,” he told the emissary, ‘tell your master that I hold knowledge in high esteem, and I refuse to drag it into the antechambers of sultans.’ Islamic history would have been different if others had his integrity.
Charfi rightly says that “the Quran is the only source that escapes all these criticisms of unreliability”. Out of a total of 6,236 verses, revealed over 22 years – 12 in Mecca, the rest in Medina – between 200-500 are estimated to be law-like rules.
Mutazilites were the ulema whose school of thought became important in the mid-eighth century (Christian Era) and who ascribed a key role to reason in their research – as opposed to those who constantly invoked the hadith in their creation of new laws. The Mutazilites explained the Quran itself by constantly referring to reason. They made reason the very criterion of religious law. In this way, they were able to develop extremely bold legal constructs. They were hunted down as infidels as early as 846 (CE). Their writings were thoroughly destroyed. It is only in the last century or less, since the rediscovery of ancient manuscripts, that we have had directed access to their writings. “With the crushing of the Mutazilities, the spirit of imitation carried the day over the spirit of reflection.” The gates of ijtihad (reasoning), itself a source of Islamic law, were closed.
Muslim thinkers like Charfi are making valiant efforts to reopen those gates by reading the Quran as it should be read. The infallible Word of Allah, it has been read and misread over the centuries by the fallible and, in the cases of many, by the bigoted and, even motivated mind of man. “Ibn Khaldun identified no fewer than eight categories of hadith, ranging from the most reliable to the most doubtful. Ibn Hanbal, one of the most conformist authors, kept fifty thousand hadiths on his list, while Abu Hanifa, the founder of an equally classical but more liberal school, retained no more than seventeen. For many centuries now, all the Sunni ulema have considered reliable the hadiths reported in the Sahihan (the two genuine treatisers) due to the Sheikhan (the two great masters), Bukhari and Muslim. In these works of reference we find, among the hadiths endorsed by these reputedly most reliable sources, a number of statements that cannot reasonably be attributed to the Prophet. Abdelmajid Charfi has listed a number of what he calls
‘problem hadiths’. One example is the hadith about the setting of the sun reported by the Sheikhan: Every evening the sun goes away to prostrate itself before the throne [of God]; it asks for permission … it does not receive permission and is told to return … such is the meaning of the verse which says: “And the sun too, which continues its course to a fixed point.”
“If hadiths of this kind are thought reliable, what possible credence can we give to others, especially those that are contradictory? Compilations of laws, where even reliable and precise texts can often give rise to divergent theories and practical conclusions, what are we to make of texts that are fragmentary and uncertain? Thus, although the hadiths as a whole are useful as a tool for the understanding of religion as spirituality, metaphysics and the promise of an afterlife, or as an indication of the general guidelines for individual morality and behaviour in society, they cannot serve as a source of law. Jurists need reliable and precise texts in order to construct their theories and to deduce practical rules that are capable of being applied. The Quran is the only source that escapes all these criticisms of unreliability.” (pp. 70-71).
It is a measure of Iqbal’s greatness that Charfi cites him on gender equality. Charfi is emphatically of the view that Islam and modernity are not incompatible; nor are Islam and democracy. But modernity cannot be ushered in by dictators like Bourguiba or Mustafa Kamal, hence the recent reactions in Tunisia and Turkey. “Authoritarianism practiced in the name of modernity makes modernity itself appear suspect or even loathsome; the Muslim countries will be able to advance only through democratic debate in which all tendencies, including the Islamists, can freely participate. At the same time, however, many political leaders share with ordinary citizens a diffuse feeling that Islam and modernity are incompatible. Driven by what they feel is an elemental contradiction, they have a kind of guilty conscience that they are both Muslim and modern; this prevents them from clarifying their discourse, defending their policies and adopting a more consistent standpoint. Eager to remain in power at any price, they opt for demagogy in their speech and attitudes – a course that leads them to combat fundamentalism with fundamentalism, and gives rise to a confused, indefensible and sterile form of politics.” (p. 12)
Many a concept of old needs re-definition; Umma is one. “Although, in the Prophet’s time, the word umma could denote solidarity of the oppressed against their oppressors, the idolatrous Quraysh, and although, at a certain moment in history, it became charged with the sense of a struggle for liberty, the concept has today become an anachronism. The Muslim religion, which formally recognizes neither a clergy nor a Church, should have been and ought to become the religion that encourages the ending of individual alienation and the full affirmation of individual liberty and sovereignty in the choice of beliefs, ideas and behaviour. Instead, because of its history, it has been the religion in which the individual dissolves into the community, loses all autonomy and endures the most oppressive enslavement to society and the state. The legitimation of force by the ulema has prevented the emergence of a theory of democracy and human rights. The Muslim peoples have only ever dreamed of a ‘just despot’, the type of authority which, in the words of Slim Laghmani, ‘inhabits our dreams and nurtures our hopes’.
“Whereas most nation-states have freed themselves from their history by submitting it to criticism, we have sacralized our history by ignoring a part of reality. As Ali Mezghani put it, ‘in Arab-Islamic civilization, there is a gulf separating the imagination from reality’. The result is that we forbid ourselves to have the slightest critical spirit in relation to history. It is time that we fundamentally changed our attitude, by emancipating the state from Islam and Islam from the state.” (p. 126). This is true of the entire Muslim world.
Mohamed Arkoun, an Algerian born in 1928, received his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris and joined the faculty there as professor of Islamic Thought. W. Montgomery Watt hailed him as “one of the most articulate … liberal Muslims”. He embarked on an intellectual crusade arguing for pluralism in Islam and for acceptance of multiple interpretations of the sacred works. He described his route to ijtihad.
“My own ambition as a Muslim intellectual is not the result of my academic training; rather, it is rooted in my existential experience. I entered high school in Oran and then the University in Algiers. It was the colonial time in Algeria, and like all Algerians, I was continually shocked by the sharp, hard confrontation between the conquering French culture and language and my own Algerian culture. (I speak Berber and Arabic). When I heard lectures on Islam at the University of Algiers I was, like others, deeply disappointed by the intellectual poverty of the presentation, especially when burning issues were raised in Algerian society between 1950 and 1954. The national movement for liberation was countering the colonial claim to represent modern civilization by emphasizing the Arab-Muslim personality of Algeria. As a result of this brutal confrontation I resolved (1) to understand the Arab-Muslim personality claimed by the nationalist movement, and (2) to determine the extent to which the modern civilization, represented by the colonial power, should be considered a universal civilization.
“These are the roots of my psychological concerns. As a scholar and a teacher at the Sorbonne since 1961, I have never stopped this ijtihad [Islamic interpretation], my intellectual effort to find adequate answers to my two initial questions. At the same time, this explains my method and my epistemology. For me, as a historian of Islamic thought, there is one cultural space stretching from the Indian to the Atlantic Ocean. This space is, of course, extremely rich in its languages and ethno- cultural variety. It also has been influenced by two axial traditions of thinking: the ancient Middle Eastern culture, which has a special place for Greek thought, and the monotheism taught by the Prophets. I learned to discover Islam in this wide, rich, intricate space.” (Charles Kurzman (Ed.) Liberal Islam : A Source-book; Oxford University Press; 1999; p.206).
Arkoun held “Revelation as collected in the sacred writings contains starting points, strong roots, and carrier concepts for the emergence of the person as a subject equipped with rights and as an agent responsible for the observance of obligations toward God and peers in the political community.” He holds “The discourse of transcendence and of absoluteness opens an infinite space for the promotion of the individual beyond the constraints of fathers and brothers, clans and tribes, riches and tributes; the individual becomes an autonomous and free person, enjoying a liberty guaranteed by obedience and love lived within the alliance.” (Rethinking Islam; Common Questions; Uncommon Answers; Westview Press; 1944 pp. 55 and 57; quoted in Jon Armajani; Dynamic Islam : Liberal Muslim Perspectives in a Transnational Age; University Press of America; 2004; p. 135).
In his book Islam:To Perform or to Subvert? (Viva Books, new Delhi; 2009; written in 2004), Arkoun analyses the dilemmas of the intellectual in the Muslim world many of whom emigrated “to Western Democratic Countries” but retained links to their own country where conservation held sway.
Dr. Jocelyne Cesari, who teaches Islam in America and Global Islam at Harvard, describes Tariq Ramadan as “the most popular preacher among European Muslims. As the son of Said Remadan and the grandson of Hassan El-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brothers, he enjoys a special cacher among European Muslim youth. The author of numerous publications, he has been the main intellectual figure of the European Muslim world since 1990, particularly among Maghrebi communities. His position as professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland further confirms his status as a model for young Muslims in search of their spirituality … Tariq Ramadan, for his part, is one of the most listened-to and respected figures in the French-speaking Muslim world. … His popularity is largely due to his understanding of how to address the hopes and needs of French Muslim youth.”
Time magazine once listed Ramadan as among the world’s top 100 thinkers. Yet, though he was appointed Henry R. Luce professor of Religions, Conflict and peace building at the University of Notre Dame, the U.S. Government revoked his visa, without explanation. In an interview to New Perspectives Quarterly (Winter 2005) he advised Muslims who face similar injustices not to become defensive or isolate themselves. They must speak out even at the risk of being misunderstood. “Western Muslims must be explicit if they want to be understood both by their own society and by their fellow Muslims – a tricky situation. To tell the truth, to be an American Muslim critical of American policy in the Middle East, you are treated as if you are not truly loyal to your country. People say you are more Muslim than American. My view is that a true citizen speaks his mind constructively in a free society. At the same time, Western Muslims must spread the message that ‘we live in democracy, we respect the state of law, we respect open political dialogue and we want this for all Muslims’. We are not betraying our Muslim principles by embracing an open society. We embrace secularism because it enables us all to live together. It is the condition of religious freedom – ours and others’ … The very moment you understand that being a Muslim and being American or European are not mutually exclusive, you enrich your society” (emphasis added, throughout).
Ramdan’ denounced terrorism as well as Islamophobia. He noted that “Muslims should complement the mainstream institutions in other ways with spiritual aspects of their own culture”.
He described his own quest : “Beginning with the Qur’an and the Sunna [traditions of the Prophet] and the methodologies set down by the ulama [clergy] throughout the history of the Islamic sciences. I have tried to immerse myself again in reading these sources in the light of our new Western context; even though the methodology I have adopted is classical. I have not hesitated sometimes to question certain definitions and categorisations and to suggest others… My conviction in elaborating on this work is that the movement toward reform, which was once intrinsic to the juridical compass of Islam, can take place effectively only from within, in and through a rigorous faithfulness to the sources and the norms of reading them.”
The scholar’s approach, aim and credentials are quoted in extenso because any Muslim who charts the course does invite misunderstanding. He accepts no compromise on the principle that “there is one Islam”, nor with the faith: “The absolute oneness of the Creator, the impossibility of their being a representative of Him, and the truth of His word revealed in the Quran.”
It is a man of this conviction who asks Muslims to hearken to the sources and read them intelligently. The Quran is the word of God. “But the great majority of the verses in the Quran and traditions of the Prophet are not of both a strict and compelling nature. The Quran is authenticated in itself (qati al-thubul, of indisputable origin) but most of the verses containing legal judgments (ayall-ah-ham) are open to analysis, commentary and interpretation (zanni al-dalala), and this is also the case with the ahadith, most of which leave some scope for speculation as such concerning their authenticity (thubut) as concerning their meaning (dalala). This means that the fuqaha (jurists) had, and still have, an important and essential function in the formulation of laws that may be called Islamic.”
The erudite author explains : “Keeping in mind both the distinction between the usu (the fundamental elements of the religion) and the furu (the secondary elements), the three levels maslaha – that is, al-daruriyyat (the indispensable), al-hajiyyat (the necessary, the complementary), and al-tahsiniyyat (the additional enhancing, the perfecting) as well as the areas in which ijtihad (reason) may be applied, Muslims, both ulama and group leaders, should provide Western Muslims with appropriate teachings and regulations that will make it possible for them to protect and to actualise their Muslim identity; not as Arabs, Pakistanis, or Indians but as Westerners.”
Ramadan tackles topics such as marriage, divorce, and inheritance in the Western context. He propounds three principles: “First, Islamic sources allow Muslims to live in the West. Second, they are under the authority of an agreement whose terms must be respected as long as they do not force Muslims to act against their conscience. Third, if a clear conflict of terms of reference occurs, which is very rare, a specific study should be carried out by Muslims jurists to determine, by formulating a legal opinion (fatwa), the types of adaptation that may be possible and that might provide the Muslim with a satisfying solution, both as a practising believer and as a resident and/or citizen.”
In his presidential address to All India Muslim League on December 29, 1930, Iqbal urged Indian Muslims “to rid” Islam “of the stamp that
Arabian imperialism was forced to give it; to mobilise its laws, its education, its culture, and to bring them into closer contract with its (Islam’s) own original spirit and with the spirit of modern times.”
In 2007 came Ramadan’s biography of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH):The Messenger : The Meaning of the Life of Muhammad; Allen Lane). It is a straight forward biography enriched with apt comment. A more recent work Radical Reform is, as the sub-title indicates, a study of Islamic Ethics and Liberation (Oxford University Press;
2009). He writes: “The revealed text does not impede human reason, on the contrary, it opens manifold, diverse horizons for the exercise of an autonomous active rationality. Several levels of discourse can be perceived throughout the text, referring either to the natural order or to the specificities of human societies, but always calling on human intelligence to observe and understand.” (pp 91-92)
Ramadan holds that “All reformist schools (whether tajdidiyyah or islahiyyah) agreed that Muslim legal scholars (fuqaha) must think through and reconsider fiqh in light of the new challenges of their time. There were indeed, as already stated, immutable teachings (essentially in the two fields of ‘aqidah and ‘ibadat, as well as the explicit injunctions linked to muamalat), but it remained imperative to advise a type of law and jurisprudence that would, take into account the increasing complexity of sciences, techniques, and societies, in social, cultural, economic, and political affairs. Ijtihad was considered, as Muhammad Iqbal put it, the natural instrument, offered by the Islamic legal tradition, to achieve such renovation and renewal. Centuries of legal elaboration is evidence that many scholars were able to face the challenge of time with exemplary courage and determination, while at times, other scholars preferred protection, self-enclosure, and imitation (taqlid), either because they sincerely feared that Islam’s teachings could be corrupted, or because they were unable to provide their contemporaries with both original and faithful answers.
“The late nineteenth century, with European colonization and the slow, deep-seated decay of the Ottoman Empire, led some scholars to consider a renaissance (nahda) and to try to devise the means for it, particularly in the field of fiqh…. For more than a hundred years,the world of Islamic law and jurisprudence has been in constant turmoil, nurtured by innumerable works and debates, cut across by sharp, ceaselessly renewed tensions, and sometimes strife between schools that led to rejection and mutual exclusion. It is no exaggeration to say that the Muslim world – including, of course, all the Western Muslim communities – has been driven by deep-seated questioning that relates both to a real crisis and to the approach of a turning point. That crisis, to which I shall return in the course of this study, is multidimensional and ranges from an authority crisis (who speaks for whom and who is, indeed, a legitimate speaker?) to an adequacy crisis (are the answers of contemporary Islamic law suited to the complex challenges of modern times?). These tensions are constantly expressed in multiple ways, both in Muslim-majority societies and in the American, European, Australian, Asian, or African communities. Any observer of the Muslim world today cannot help but notice a state of crisis and restlessness accompanied by new, sharp, and most interesting transversal debates.” (pp. 28-29).
Ali Shariati (1933 – 1977) was the son of a prominent religious teacher. He earned a doctorate at the Sorbonne and became an activist in the Iranian movement. His lectures at the University of Mashhad drew large crowds. He was arrested by the Shah’s police and released after an international campaign. Ali Shariati died in London in mysterious circumstances. His lectures and writings were essays on liberation theology and related to conscious acceptance of martyrdom in the struggle.
Abdol Karim Soroush educated in Iran and England is cast in an altogether different mould. He argues that religion is divine but religious interpretation is human and fallible. In the mid-1990s he received death threats for his stand. In an essay on The Evolution and Devolution of Religious Knowledge, Soroush pointed out “The secular view is blind to the supernatural, but here we look at human interpretation as revelation descended anew, from the heaven of the text to the earth of interpretation through the angel of the reason of the age, after being revealed to the Prophet once in the past. In other words we look at revelation in the mirror of interpretation, much as a devout scientist looks at creation in the mirror of nature. Of progress we are not certain, but evolution is certainly guaranteed.
“Now there is a sharp difference between faith and knowledge. Faith is always personal and private, and firmer or less firm, but knowledge cannot be but collective, public, and fallible. A higher order look at the historical process of the evolution of knowledge shows us that despite the firm belief of individual believers in their own interpretation of revelation, the caravan of knowledge, informed by all kinds of complexities and contradictions, is breaking its way ahead, feeding on the controversies, competitions, and co-operations of its members, irrespective of their individual desires and faiths.” (Kurzman; p. 251).
The election of Mohammad Khatami as Iran’s President fortified the intellectual’s position. The President famously advocated a Dialogue Among Civilizations and Cultures. Soroush was a critic of both the Iranian Left and the Marxists. Valla Vakili sums up. “Soroush maintains that a religious society embraces religion in large part because it accords with the society’s general sense of justice. Today this sense includes respect for human rights. If a government defends human rights, it also defends religion, as a just understanding of religion incorporates human rights: “observance of human rights … not only guarantees a government’s democratic, but also its religious nature.”
A government based on the will of the people does not derive its legitimacy from an Islamic ideology. It retains legitimacy so long as it rules in accordance with the desires of its citizens. “A religious democratic government loses legitimacy when its actions not only oppose public will but violate the public’s sense of religion. In a religious society, a commonly held understanding of religion provides an outer limit on acceptable public actions. This understanding must be allowed to grow over time, in order for it to reflect society’s changing needs and beliefs. Unlike an ideological government, a democratic government is rooted in this public understanding and hence does not block the growth of religious understanding and knowledge. A democratic government, as opposed to one reduced to fiqh, does not follow a strict implementation of religious laws. Instead, religious laws, as they appear in the core religious texts, are interpreted and expanded upon, using the tools of religious and nonreligious branches of knowledge. These laws must accord with society’s general, yet changing, understanding of religion.” (Esposito and Voll; p. 161).
Reason, Freedom & Democracy in Islam is a collection of Essential Writings of Abdoll Karim Soroush, translated and edited with his approval by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (Oxford University Press; 2000). Here again he expressed high regard for “Allameh Mohammad
Iqbal Lahori” in several pages.
Two passages from the book reflect the core of his thinking. “It is up to God to reveal a religion, but up to us to understand and realize it. It is at this point that religious knowledge is born, entirely human and subject to all the dictates of human knowledge. Those who search for the constant and the variant in religion should know that the very distinction between the two and the determination of their embodiments belong to the domain of “religious knowledge” and, as such, they follow a particular interpretation of religion. The determination of the constant and the variant is not obtained prior to the understanding of religion but after it. Thus, everywhere we are confronted with religious knowledge that concerns and observes religion but is not religion.” (pp. 31-2).
He added “Those who shun freedom as the enemy of truth and as a possible breeding ground for wrong ideas do not realize that freedom is itself a truth (haq). It is as though these people do not consider freedom as a blessing, as a truth or virtue. They act as if it is so much hot air, an illusion or a myth, failing to recognize that the realization of freedom leads to the strengthening of the truth and the weakening of the falsehood. The world is the marketplace for the exchange of ideas. We give and take, and we trust that the ascendance of the nobler truths is worth the sacrifice of an occasional minor truth: ‘As the barrel of wine shall last, let the occasional chalice break.’ ” (p. 91)
This plea for a reasoned approach to revolution was made in a little noticed book A Faith for All Seasons : Islam and the Challenge of the Modern World (Ivan R. Dee, Chicago; 1990). Its author, Shabbir Akhtar was born in Pakistan. He settled in Bradford after graduating in philosophy at Cambridge and earning a doctorate in comparative religion. “Modern Muslims are, as a group of people, embarrassingly unreflective : it were as though Allah had done all the thinking for his devotees … After developing a great national philosophical tradition, then adherents of Islam have lapsed into an intellectual lethargy that has already lasted half a millennium … Owing to an absence of skeptical and liberal influences, itself traceable to the lack of an extant philosophical tradition, few Muslims have even recognised the threats of secularity and ideological pluralism that our current circumstance brings in its train.”
His counsel to Muslims is not to turn their backs on Islam, but to discover for themselves, that Islam is, indeed, “a faith for all seasons”. He poses stiff questions demandingly “Is it indeed wise for Muslims to pretend that Islam can be practised in total disregard of the current reservations about the truth of transcendent theism? Would it not be better for Muslims to seek a creative engagement with these doubts and hesitations? Given that Muslims have already faced modernity on the plane of western science and technology, should they not also, if only for the sake of consistency, face it on the level of religious conviction?
“Conservative confidence in the Islamic tradition is no longer fully intact. Traditional Islam is in sorry decline; many in the educated classes are repelled by it. By refusing to address the problems that plague the modern mind, by displaying its total inability to harness and assimilate modernity, Islam is gradually losing control, as did the Christian Church some time ago, over the daily life of secularised believers. And it is unwise to take it for granted, incidentally, that this decline in influence is merely the inevitable darkness before the equally inevitable dawn of another truly Islamic age – as men return wholeheartedly to religion after seeing the error of their secular ways. To think thus, unfortunately, is merely to indulge in one of the many familiar fantasies of the apologetic imagination. …”
“It seems to me mistaken loyalty to Islam, to think that its interests are best served by isolating it hermetically from the current of contemporary secular opinion. I have already made this point and will make it often, for it is important enough to bear repetition. Sooner or later Islam must, like its monotheistic rivals, face the tribunal of secular reason and patiently endure ‘trial by modernity’. To the extent that Muslim thought remains entrenched within the fortress of dogma, secure in its provincialism, the critic is justified in his suspicion that Muslims secretly fear that Islam is incapable of surviving the ordinary rigours of rationalism – incapable of surviving ‘trial by secular modernity’. Are Islam and its scripture, then, capable of patiently tolerating disciplined investigation? It is high time for us Muslims to raise our heads above the dogmatic parapet.” (pp. 16-17).
If we may pause here, the nuances differ but all the thinkers are committed Muslims who are also devoted to the use of reason in understanding the faith. “To say, however, that God’s (alleged) revelation should be assessed by use of the normal methods of scrutiny is not to deny the ultimacy – or primacy (whichever sounds better) – of God’s views. It is merely a comment on how to seek to determine what God’s views actually are, and the recommendation is that we should use the only apparatus we possess, namely, the methods of reason.” (p. 27).
In a striking passage Shabbir Akhtar suggests “The root of genuine religion is neither hatred of the world nor love of the eternal; it is in fact an awareness of the insufficiency of human nature to fulfil the obligations it somehow internally engenders – aims that, it is thought, are properly achieved only by commitment to ideals of religious value. Islam, as a God-centred faith, frequently and fiercely condemns as sinfully presumptuous any unduly optimistic assessment of purely human potential (Q : 90:5-7; 96:6-7; 75:1-6; 75:36-40). It will come as no surprise, therefore, that it may well be impossible to remove from the genuinely religious consciousness a tendency to degrade – or better, downgrade – the values of secular existence.” (p. 141).
This brings us to a figure of heroic proportions, alike for his erudition, courage and humility. It is Fazlur Rehman. The Diaries of Field Marshal Mohammed Ayub Khan 1966 – 1972 (Oxford University Press, Karachi; 2007) record deep regret at his inability to protect him from the ulema’s wrath, “Dr Fazlur Rahman, director of the Islamic Research Institute, came under countrywide adverse criticism fanned by the ignorant and politically motivated mullahs. The allegations, which were totally false, were made against some remarks made in his book, Islam, which he wrote some years ago and which was later published by the Oxford University Press. This book is very much a scholarly work written for a European audience and an attempt to remove some false impressions about Islam. When the criticism gained momentum he held two press conferences refuting all the allegations. These clarifications would have satisfied any honest critic, but the mullah, who regards any original and objective thinking on Islam as his deadly enemy, was not going to be pacified. This sort of argument is just the grist he wants for his mill.
“Meanwhile, the administrators at the centre and the provinces got cold feet. Some of them persuaded the doctor to resign. He must have also got frightened. After all, it is not easy to stand up to criticism based on ignorance and prejudice. So I had to accept his resignation with great reluctance in the belief that he will be freer to attack the citadel of ignorance and fanaticism from outside the governmental sphere. Meanwhile, it is quite clear that any form of research on Islam which inevitably leads to new interpretations has no chance of acceptance in this priest ridden and ignorant society. These people will not allow Islam to become a vehicle of progress. What will be the future of such an Islam in the age of reason and science is not difficult to predict. Dr. Rahman moved to Chicago University and won international fame for his scholarship.” In a sense, he taught us how to read the Quran.
Fazlur Rahman was one of the most erudite scholars of the Quran in the last century. The son of a graduate of the Deoband seminary, his reflections remained within the Quranic parameters (vide S. Parvez Manzoor’s review of his work Islam and Modernity in Inquiry, December 1984). Appointed Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Chicago in 1968, he remained there till his death in 1988. His “double movement” theory is brilliant. “If we look at the Quran, it does not in fact give many general principles : for the most part it gives solutions to and rulings upon specific and concrete historical issues; but, as I have said, it provides, either explicitly or implicitly, the rationales behind these solutions and rulings, from which one can deduce general principles. In building any genuine and viable Islamic set of laws and institutions, there has to be a twofold movement: First one must move from the concrete case treatment of the Quran – taking the necessary and relevant social conditions of that time into account – to the general principles upon which the entire teaching converges. Second, from this general level there must be a movement back to specific legislation, taking into account the necessary and relevant social conditions now obtaining” (Islam and Modernity; page 20).
He complains that no serious effort is made to read the Quranic verses in the order in which they were revealed. That would show the context. If the Quran must be read in context, the hadith can do with close scrutiny and the ulema must be properly sized up. Maudoodi has been called “erudite”. Fazlur Rahman holds that “he was by no means an accurate or a profound scholar”.
According to Rahman, even the “legal or quasi-legal part of the Qur’an itself clearly displays a situational character. Quite situational, for example are the Qur’anic pronunciations on war and peace between the Muslims and their opponents – pronouncements which do express a certain general character about the ideal behaviour of the community vis-à-vis an enemy in a grim struggle but which are so situational that they can be regarded only as quasi-legal and not strictly and specifically legal.” (Islamic Methodology in History, Karachi, 1965; p. 10).
Among English speaking persons there is a renewed interest in understanding the Quran. English translations still continue to be written and published, each with its own distinctive approach. They reflect a deep yearning to learn anew. M.A.S. Abdel Haleem, born in Egypt, is a product of both Al-Azhar and Cambridge Universities. He is the editor of the Journal of Quranic Studies. His translation, with the parallel Arabic text was first published in 2004 and, next, in a revised translation in
2010, with Introduction and Notes by Prof. Abdel Haleem (The Qur’an; Oxford University press). In the Introduction he singles out the verses commonly misinterpreted in the West and by the fundamentalists alike. Tariq Khalidi, born in Jerusalem in 1938 was educated at the
Universities of Oxford and Chicago. The Quran : A New Translation was published in the Penguin Classics series in 2008. The sub-title explains his objective. Predictably Laleh Bakhtiar’s Translation, which she herself published in 2009, provoked controversy (The Sublime Quran; Translated by Laleh Bakhtiar; distributed by Kazi Publications;
3023 West Belmont Avenue; Chicago; Ill. 60618).
She could not believe that the verse (4 : 34) sanctioned wife-beating. Years of effort brought her to the Arabic – English Lexicon by Edward William Lane, a 3,064 – page volume from the 19th century. The word “daraba” had six definitions. One of them was “to go away”. She exclaimed “I said to myself ‘Oh, God that is what the Prophet (PBUH) meant”. Her translation has a general index. She denies that hers is a “feminist translation”. It is a translation by “a person who practices spiritual integrity”, a person “schooled in Sufism”. Her Introduction is a moving account of her quest for the Quranic Truth.
Ziauddin Sardar’s book (Reading the Quran : The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam; Hurst & Co., London; 2011) is, as one might expect, a work of learning; strikingly original and refreshingly constructive in its approach. Born in the Punjab in Pakistan, the family moved to London when he was nine. He learnt the Holy Book first on his mother’s lap, as we all do and came to feel “a deep love for the text”. The result is this outstanding contribution to Quranic studies. It is a vast range of themes that he covers to name a few – War and Peace, Hajj, Apostasy and migration, marriage and divorce, prayer abrogation and change, ethics and morality, the veil, freedom of expression, art, music and imagination, the sharia; power and politics reason and knowledge; and “Majesty of God and freedom of Religion” and “Arguing with God.” It is a devout, erudite and thoughtful Muslim who provides guidance on these themes in a book that compels admiration and study.
A remarkable group of Muslim women have expended labour and thought on Islam and women. The writings of Fatima Mernissi, Professor of Sociology at the University of Rabat, Morocco created a stir. Her book Women and Islam : An Historical and Theological Enquiry (Blackwill Publishers, 1991 and Kali for Women New Delhi
1993) mounts a comprehensive challenge to conventional wisdom; on the Hadith particularly.
The Prophet (PBUH) died on 8 June 632 (CE). Al-Bukhari, the foremost of the collectors of the hadith was born in July 810 and died in August 870. His Sahih, has been regarded as the most authentic over the centuries. “This Hadith is the sledgehammer argument used by those who want to exclude women from politics. One also finds it in the work of other authorities known for their scholarly rigor, such as Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, the author of the Musnad and founder of the Hanbali Madhhab, one of the four great schools of jurisprudence of the Sunni Muslim world. This Hadith is so important that it is practically impossible to discuss the question of women’s political rights without referring to it, debating it, and taking a position on it. … It is omnipresent and all- embracing.” (p.14)
Mernissi adds “Al-Bukhari ‘retained as authentic only 7,257 Hadith, if the repetitions, which number 4,000, are eliminated.’ The great lesson to be drawn from al-Bukhari’s experience in coming to grip with the flight of time and failing memory is that one must be true to one’s method and honor it, by continuing to mistrust all those who regulate their affairs with the help of Hadith. If at the time of al-Bukhari – that is, less than two centuries after the death of the Prophet – there were already
596,725 false Hadith in circulation (600,000 minus 7,275 plus 4000), it is easy to imagine how many there are today”. He was a man of deep piety who scorned the ruling sultan. Mernissi praises him highly, but scrutinises his work carefully. “According to al-Bukhari, it is supposed to have been Abu Bakra who heard the Prophet say: ‘Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity.’ Since this Hadith is included in the Sahih – those thousands of authentic Hadith accepted by the meticulous al-Bukhari – it is a priori considered true and therefore unassailable without proof to the contrary. Since we are here in scientific terrain, so nothing bans me, as a Muslim woman, from making a double investigation – historical and methodological – of this Hadith and its author, and especially of the conditions in which it was first put to use. Who uttered this Hadith, where, when, why, and to whom?
“Abu Bakra was a Companion who had known the Prophet during his lifetime and who spent enough time in his company to be able to report the Hadith that he is supposed to have spoken. According to him, the Prophet pronounced this Hadith when he learned that the Persians had named a woman to rule them: “When Kisra died, the Prophet, intrigued by the news, asked : ‘And who has replaced him in command?’ The answer was: ‘They have entrusted power to his daughter. It was at that moment, according to Abu Bakra, that the Prophet is supposed to have made the observation about women….
“On what occasion did Abu Bakra recall these words of the Prophet, and why did he feel the need to recount them? Abu Bakra must have had a fabulous memory, because he recalled them a quarter of a century after the death of the Prophet, at the time that the caliph ‘Ali retook Basra after having defeated ‘A’isha at the Battle of the Camel. …
“So why was he led to dig into his memory and make the prodigious effort of recalling the words that the Prophet was supposed to have uttered 25 years before? The first detail to be noted – and it is far from being negligible – is that Abu Bakra recalled his Hadith after the Battle of the Camel. …
“Although, many of the Companions and inhabitants of Basra chose neutrality in the conflict, only Abu Bakra justified it by the fact that one of the parties was a woman. …
“Abu Bakra also remembered other Hadith just as providential at critical moments. After the assassination of ‘Ali, Mu’awiya the Umayyad could only legitimately claim the caliphate if Hasan, the son of ‘Ali and thus his successor, declared in writing that he renounced his rights. And this he did under pressure and bargaining that were more or less acknowledged. It was at this moment that Abu Bakra recalled a Hadith that could not have been more pertinent, under political circumstances that had unforeseen repercussions. He is supposed to have heard the Prophet say that “Hassan [the son of ‘Ali] will be the man of reconciliation. Hasan would have been a very small baby when the Prophet, his grandfather (through his daughter Fatima), would have said that! Abu Bakra had a truly astonishing memory for politically opportune Hadith which curiously – and most effectively – fitted into the stream of history.”
He was convicted and flogged for false testimony by the Caliph Umar Ibn al-Khattab. “To close this investigation, let us take a brief look at the attitude of the fuqaha of the first centuries toward that misogynistic Hadith that is presented to us today as sacred, unassailable truth. Even though it was collected as sahih (authentic) by al-Bukhari and others, that Hadith was hotly contested and debated by many. The fuqaha did not agree on the weight to give theHadith on women and politics. Assuredly there were some who used it as an argument for excluding women from decision making, but there were others who found that argument unfounded and unconvincing. Al-Tabari was one of those religious authorities who took a position against it, not finding it a sufficient basis for depriving women of their power of decision making or for justifying their exclusion from politics.
“After having tried to set straight the historical record – the line of transmitters and witnesses who gave their account of a troubled historical epoch – I can only advise redoubled vigilance when, taking the sacred as an argument, someone hurls at the believer as basic truth a political axiom so terrible and with such grave historical consequences as the one we have been investigating. Nevertheless, we will see that this “misogynistic” Hadith, although it is exemplary, is not a unique case.” (pp. 44-6).
What the founder of the Aligarh movement wrote of the hadith over a century ago will shock Muslims in the subcontinent today: “It is the most sacred of all Islamic lore, yet Caliphs Abu Bakr and Umar had forbidden people to narrate a hadith. The latter even whipped offenders and imprisoned Ibu Masud, Abu Darda and Abu Masud Ansari for narrating traditions. In fact Abu Bakr burned all those traditions, which he had collected. Evidently the collection of traditions started in earnest only after the death of Caliph Umar (644) whom Caliph Uthaman succeeded. (Quoted in Hafeez Malik; The Religious Liberalism of Sir Sayyid Ahmad khan; The Muslim World; Volume LIV, No. 3, 1964,n page 163).
Hafeez Malik, a distinguished Pakistani scholar, records: “The founding of four schools of jurisprudence started the decline of ijtihad.” People began to follow them blindly – they do so to this day. Many ulema fabricated false hadith. He sets out 38 of them, which Syed Ahmad Khan listed in 1871. Some are still in vogue.
Mernissi mentions another instance “One can read among al- Bukhari’s “authentic” Hadith the following one: “Three things bring bad luck : house, woman, and horse. Al-Bukhari did not include other versions of this Hadith, although the rule was to give one or more contradictory versions in order to show readers conflicting points of view, and thus to permit them to be sufficiently well informed to decide for themselves about practices that were the subject of dispute.
“However, there is no trace in al-Bukhari of ‘A’isha’s refutation of this Hadith. They told ‘A’isha that Abu Hurayra was asserting that the messenger of God said: “Three things brings bad luck: house, woman, and horse.” ‘A’isha responded: “Abu Hurayra learned his lessons very badly. He came into our house when the Prophet was in the middle of a sentence. He only heard the end of it. What the Prophet said was:
‘May Allah refute the Jews; they say three things bring bad luck: house, woman, and horse.’
“Not only did al-Bukhari not include this correction, but he treated the Hadith as if there was no question about it. He cited it three times, each time with a different transmission chain. This procedure generally strengthens a Hadith and gives the impression of consensus concerning it. No mention was made of the dispute between ‘A’isha and Abu Hurayra on this subject. Worse yet, al-Bukhari followed this misogynistic Hadith with another along the same lines which reflected the same vision of femaleness as a pole of destruction and ill luck: “The Prophet said: ‘I do not leave after me any cause of trouble more fatal to man than women.” He cites another dubious source for a worse calumny on women.
“What conclusion must one draw from this? That even the authentic
Hadith must be vigilantly examined with a magnifying glass? That is our right, Malik Ibn Anas tells us. Al-Bukhari, like all the fuqaha, began his work of collecting by asking for Allah’s help and acknowledging that only He is infallible. It is our tradition to question everything and everybody, especially the fuqaha and imams. It is more necessary than ever, for us to disinter our true tradition from the centuries of oblivion that have managed to obscure it. We must also guard against falling into generalizations and saying that all the imams were and are misogynistic. That is not true today and was not true yesterday. The example of this is Imam Zarkashi, who, luckily for us, recorded in writing all of ‘A’isha’s objections. … ‘A’isha disputed many of Abu Hurayra’s Hadith and declared to whoever wanted to hear it: ‘He is not a good listener, and when he is asked a question, he gives wrong answers.’” (ibid pp. 75-78).
On the veil, Mernissi is as thorough in her critique. “Islam as a coherent system of values that governs all the behaviours of a person and a society, and Muhammad’s egalitarian project, are in fact based on a detail that many of his Companions, led by ‘Umar, considered to be secondary: the emergence of woman’s free will as something that the organization of society had to take into account. For ‘Umar the solution was simple: Umar strongly wished that the hijab be instituted for women. He repeated to the Prophet: ‘Messenger of God, you receive all kinds of people at your house, moral as well as evil. Why do you not order the hijab for the Mothers of the Believers?” Despite all the criticism of him, the Prophet persisted in not consenting to the hijab, not being of the same frame of mind as ‘Umar. ‘Umar was brave, just, honest, unselfish, pious, but he did not share with Muhammad a belief in such virtues as gentleness and non-violence as both practice and theory – key elements of the new message, the new religion.
“Despite his love for the Prophet and his God, whom he served in a spirit of devotion admired by all, he was unable to visualize the Prophet’s dream. A fighter, like most men of action he did not reflect long on the impact of every act nor on the reactions that might be produced in an enemy. We find many examples in which, when the Prophet is consulting his entourage before making a decision, it is ‘Umar who speaks up first and gives such ridiculous and strategically dangerous advice that the Prophet merely turns to the other Companions to ask them to continue to think about the situation from all points of view. For example, during the Battle of Hunayn ‘Umar advised killing the prisoners, while the Prophet, more far-seeing, intended to use them as a weapon of persuasion to force the enemy to convert to Islam.
“The Islam of Muhammad banished the idea of supervision, of a police system of control. This explains the absence of clergy in Islam and the encouraging of all Muslims to get involved in understanding the written word. Individual responsibility came into play to balance the weight of aristocratic control.
“In the struggle between Muhammad’s dream of a society in which women could move freely around the city (because the social control would be the Muslim faith that disciplines desire), and the customs of the Hypocrites who only thought of a woman as an object of envy and violence, it was this latter vision that would carry the day. The veil represents the triumph of the Hypocrites. Slaves would continue to be harassed and attacked in the streets. The female Muslim population would henceforth be divided by hijab into two categories: free women, against whom violence is forbidden, and women slaves, toward whom ta’arrud is permitted. In the logic of the hijab, the law of tribal violence replaces the intellect of the believer, which the Muslim God affirms is indispensable for distinguishing good from evil. Islam asserts itself as the religion of the ayat, which is customarily translated as verses, but literally means signs, in the semiotic usage of the word. The Quran is a group of signs to be decoded by al-‘aql, the intellect, an intellect that makes the individual responsible and in fact master of himself/herself. In order for God to exist as the locus of power, the law, and social control, it was necessary for the social institution that had previously fulfilled these functions – namely, tribal power – to disappear. The hijab reintroduced the idea that the street was under the control of the sufaha, those who did not restrain their desires and who needed a tribal chieftain to keep them under control.
“Umar’s solution, imposing the hijab/curtain that hides women instead of changing attitudes and forcing ‘those in whose heart is a disease’ to act differently, was going to overshadow Islam’s dimension as a civilization, as a body of thought on the individual and his/her role in society. This body of thought made dar al-Islam (the land of Islam) at the outset a pioneering experiment in terms of individual freedom and democracy. The hijab fell over Medina and cut short that brief burst of freedom. Paradoxically, 15 centuries later it was colonial power that would force the Muslim states to reopen the question of the rights of the individual and of women. All debates on democracy get tied up in the woman question and that piece of cloth that opponents of human rights today claim to be the very essence of Muslim identity.” (pp. 184– 188).
Mernissi’s book Islam and Democracy : Fear of the Modern World (Addison – Wesley Publishing Company, 1992) covers the discussion further. Two other figures deserve mention – Amina Wadud and Leila Ahmed. An African-American, Amina Wadud Muhsin converted to Islam in 1972, got a Ph.D. in Islamic Sciences and Arabic and wrote her seminal work Quran and Women in 1992. She leads the prayers now.
Amina Wadud writes “A hermeneutical model is concerned with three aspects of the text, in order to support its conclusions: (1) the context in which the text was written (in the case of the Qur’an, in which it was revealed); (2) the grammatical composition of the text (how it says what it says); and (3) the whole text, its Weltanschauung or world-view. Often, differences of opinion can be traced to variations in emphasis between these three aspects.
“I argue against some conventional interpretations, especially about certain words used in the Qur’an to discuss and fulfill universal guidance. I render some discussions, heretofore considered as gendered, into neutral terms. Other discussions, heretofore considered as universal, I render specific on the basis of their limitations and on the expression in terms specific to seventh-century Arabia. Some historical information with regard to occasions of revelation and the general period of revelation was considered here. Thus, I attempt to use the method of Qur’anic interpretation proposed by Fazlur Rehman [Pakistan – United States, 1919 – 1988. He suggests that all Qur’anic passages, revealed as they were in a specific time in history and within certain general and particular circumstances, were given expression relative to those circumstances. However, the message is not limited to that time or those circumstances historically. A reader must understand the implications of the Qur’anic expressions during the time in which they were expressed in order to determine their proper meaning. That meaning gives the intention of the rulings or principles in the particular verse.” (Kurzman; p. 129).
Leila Ahmed was born in Cairo, received a doctorate at Cambridge and became a Professor at Harvard. In 1992 came her work Women and Gender in Islam : Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (Yale University Press). Jon Armajani sums up her thought thus “For Ahmed, two of the central messages of the Quran relate to justice and egalitarianism. She believes that these two ideals are inextricably tied to the meanings of the revelations which were transmitted to Muhammad; they were the ideals which are supposed to set the standard for the Muslim community.
“Ahmed maintains that Surah 33:35 forthrightly proclaims the equality of men and women under God; by balancing virtues and ethical rewards as well as concomitant rewards, in one sex with precisely identical virtues and qualities in the other, the passage makes, a clear statement about the absolute identity of the human moral condition and the common and identical spiritual and moral obligations placed on all individuals regardless of sex. Yet, according to Ahmed, as Islam spread and became institutionalized after the time of the Prophet, many of the dimensions of this egalitarian ethic were either forgotten or intentionally ignored by those participating in the patriarchal structures of ‘establishment Islam’. Ahmed maintains that historically there have been at least two distinct voices within Islam and two competing understandings of gender, one expressed in the pragmatic regulations for society and the other in the articulation of an ethical vision. Ahmed maintains that while the voice of Islam which relates to the pragmatic regulations of society has been
‘extensively elaborated into a body of political and legal thought, which constitutes the technical understanding of Islam,’ the second voice which proclaims Islam’s egalitarian ethical vision ‘has left little trace on the political and legal heritage of Islam.’ (Jon Armajani; Dynamic Islam: Liberal Muslim Perspectives in a Transnational Age; University
Press of America, 2004; pp. 41 – 42).
Two other figures deserve mention. Farid Esack, an internationally known South African Muslim scholar and activist who suffered imprisonment for his convictions develops the theme of an Islamic liberation theology. He served as a Commissioner for Gender Equality with Nelson Mandela’s government. It should prompt South Asia’s Muslims to throw off the parasitical Muslim leadership that has fed on their problems and grievances since Independence and assertively take to secular politics as Indians while asserting their rights as Muslims, no less.
I make no apology for quoting this moving passage from Esack’s book in extenso: “The introduction of tricameralism in 1984 and the ensuring nationwide revolt seemed to be the cue for Muslims to make their final break with apartheid and to identify with the oppressed. The UDF (United Democratic Front) with its appeal for all people to unite against the tricameral system, attracted Muslim leaders such as Imam Hassan Solomon, Sheikh Adbul Gamiet Gabier and Ebrahim Rasool and myself. The ZUDF created the conditions required for various sectors of the society to enter the struggle while retaining their own identities because it acted as a political front. Rasool explained the relationship between political organisation and religious awareness in the following manner: ‘The UDF taught us that it takes a lot of grassroots organisations to create the conditions whereby Muslims will take their rightful place in the struggle. It does not simply take an appeal from the Quran to create revolutionaries among Muslims. That [involvement] is the product of social conditions, theological reflection and organisation. His statement is significant, for it encapsulates the basis of the emerging South African Islamic theology and qur’anic hermeneutic of liberation. The Qur’an, in order to be socially meaningful, is in need of moments within history. One such moment was now being forged within a context of oppression and struggle for liberation, a struggle shared by others outside the house of Islam.”
What he adds is relevant to all pluralist societies, including ours:
“A theology of liberation, for me, is one that works towards freeing religion from social, political and religious structures and ideas based on uncritical obedience and the freedom of all people from all forms of injustice and exploitation including those of race, gender, class and religion. Liberation theology tries to achieve its objectives through a process that is participatory and liberatory. By this I mean that it is formulated by, and in solidarity with, those whose socio-political liberation it seeks and whose personal liberation becomes real through their participation in this process. Furthermore, an Islamic liberation theology derives its inspiration from the Qur’an and the struggles of all the Prophets. It does so by engaging the Qur’an and the examples of the Prophets in a process of shared and ongoing theological reflection for ever-increasing liberative praxis.” (Vide his book The Quran : A User’s Guide; One World, Oxford 2005 and Quran, Liberation & Pluralism. An Islamic Perspective of Inter-religious Solidarity against Oppression; One-World Oxford, 2006. The Turkish Scholar Mustafa Akyol’s book not only explains the ferment in Turkey, but also why Islamic Thought stagnated (Islam without Extremes : A Muslim Case for Liberty; W.W. Norton & Co.; 2011). It is a fine work on history and theology. He recalls the legacies of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Iqbal.
South Asia, where they were born, however seems to have turned its back on them. They contributed to the ferment in the Islamic world elsewhere. The land of their birth continues to stagnate intellectually.