Should Islam Modernize Itself?

Print Friendly


Dr  Khalid Zaheer[*]


(Misinterpretation of the Quran, largely but not exclusively by Muslims, has generated beliefs that have no relevance to the religion. The Quran is specific only on a few laws and allows the development of the legal and political system in accordance with the times. Unfortunately man-made laws by Muslim theologians or fiqh are confused with Quranic injunctions i.e., shariah. Only the neo-traditional approach which bases itself on the actual teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah can resolve the dilemma in which the contemporary Islamic world finds itself. Editor).

I) Introduction:

One often encounters people, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, who have reservations on the relevance of Islamic teachings to modern times. Some of them quietly, and at times even openly, desire that Islam as a religion should disappear so that the civilized world can divest itself of tensions. Others, who do not subscribe to this extreme view, nevertheless fervently hope that some of its teachings should be modified to present a more modern and, as a consequence, acceptable version of the religion.

While some of the extreme statements against Islam are undeniably bereft of reason and, therefore, preposterous, I concede that the more mellowed calls towards revisiting certain aspects of the message of Islam are not without merit. However, in truth, the solution lies not in the renewal of the message of Islam but in the rediscovery of it.  The difference between the two approaches is not merely of semantics; it is real. The point that should be borne in mind is that an attempt at renewing the message of Islam is very different from rediscovering it. While the call for renewing it presumes that the original, classical Islam has outlived its utility, the call for rediscovering it rests its case on the assumption that its teachings, at least some of those that are being targeted for criticism in the contemporary era, have been misrepresented by a few Muslims in a manner that they understandably invite the criticism of others. The latter view contends that an unbiased revisit to the real Islam would help in bringing out a very different understanding of the religion from what is perceived now. It would be an Islam that is fresh despite being ancient, convincing despite being original, and appealing despite being authentic.

II) How Should the Message of Islam Be Interpreted?

In order to understand the true message of Islam, we need to ensure that the Qur’anic text is interpreted properly.[1] The Arabic text of the Qur’an has to be given meanings by the reader to find out what God Almighty, its Author, has stated. It is the correct interpretation of the book of God that would bring forth the true understanding of the message of Islam. In order for us to be able to do that, we should know what different possibilities of interpretation are available and which one of those possibilities is worthy of being pursued for achieving the purpose of that understanding. Quite often, the decision regarding the method of interpretation would decide conclusively the kind of meanings that are likely to emerge from it.

Although numerous ways have been adopted to interpret the Qur’anic text over the last fourteen centuries, it could be said, in retrospect, that they can be broadly divided into three categories: the traditionalist approach, the modernist approach, and the neo-traditionalist approach. The traditionalist approach to interpreting the Qur’an is, strictly speaking, not just one narrow way of understanding its text. However, the Muslim traditionalists of the contemporary times have adopted a stance that views the enormous body of diverse literature on interpretation made available in the first twelve centuries of Muslim history, or at least the more popular part of it, as one category of approach to interpretation. The contemporary traditionalists have come to believe that a valid interpretation of Qur’anic text can only be the one that has already been done by at least some of the earlier scholars. No new interpretation is acceptable if it is not corroborated by an interpretation of previous times. In other words, according to the traditionalists, if an interpretation is to be taken seriously, it must first prove that it also occurred to someone else in the past, or else it is not worthy of even being seriously considered as valid.

This obsession with the need to confirm the validity of an opinion from what the earlier Muslim scholars said leads traditionalists to invoke ijma‘ to support their view. Ijma‘ is claimed to be the consensus of Muslim scholars on a certain religious opinion. Although it is impossible to prove ijma‘ on even a single religious view, traditionalist Muslims scholars, because of their peculiar mindset, have used this expression as an effective tool for proving their point whenever they have felt the need to demonstrate the correctness (or conversely, the incorrectness) of an opinion, especially when proving it through more direct arguments seemed difficult.

The modernist approach insists that an acceptable interpretation of the Qur’anic text must be relevant to the contemporary times. Thus, according to them, if an understanding of a Qur’anic text makes sense in the context of the modern academic research in the physical and social sciences, it would be considered valid. In case the intellectual of the contemporary times is not at ease with a certain interpretation because of the peculiar way of thinking he has become accustomed to, the interpretation in question would not be considered serious enough to be valid.

The neo-traditionalist approach,[2] on the other hand, considers the Qur’anic text as the ultimate criterion for deciding whether an interpretation is valid or not. Although it deems it desirable to consider whether a certain interpretation is supported by the earlier scholars, such support is not regarded to be crucial for accepting the validity of it. Likewise, although it deems it to be a useful consideration that an interpretation should make sense to the modern man, that consideration too is not decisive. The only indispensable principle for an interpretation to be valid is that it should be strictly loyal to the Qur’anic text. To a neo-traditionalist, it would not make any difference whether no one has come up with a particular interpretation of the Qur’an before it is presented so long as it is supported by valid arguments showing its compatibility and conformity with the Qur’anic text. It also makes no difference whether or not the interpretation appeals to the modern mind, if the rendition brings to light the Qur’anic text in a way that the reader is convinced that God’s word has not been tampered with and that the end result of the exercise is indeed the true meaning of God’s words.[3]

In sum, if you are a traditionalist Muslim (scholar or otherwise) your greatest concern while deriving opinion from a given Qur’anic text would be to know what earlier Muslim scholars have said. Having seen a few names of well known scholars of the past on the side of an opinion, you will be satisfied that the interpretation has a right to claim that it is giving reliable meanings to the message of God. On the contrary, if you are a modernist, you will need to first know what the currently popular intellectual understanding on the issue at hand is. In case the religious opinion under discussion concurs with it, it would be sanctioned as valid. However, if you are a neo-traditionalist, your interest in knowing the traditionalist and modernist views on the subject of enquiry would be secondary. Your real interest would be in ensuring that the meanings you are deriving are genuinely emerging from the words of the text, whatever the consequential outcome of the exercise.

What is going to follow is a presentation of the case of Islam from the neo-traditionalist point of view.

III) What are the Objections of the Westerners?

The Western scholars have serious concerns against Islamic teachings, especially in the following areas: punishments of criminals; treatment of women and minorities; permission granted to keep slaves; non-democratic system of governance; and permission allowed to the believer to engage in Jihad.

Since the popular Western way of thinking believes that every human being has some inherent rights which are quite independent of the duties that he owes to others, all forms of punishment that cause bodily harm to him or cause death are unacceptable. Thus Islamic punishments like capital punishment, public flogging, or amputation of hands are not acceptable to believers in Western philosophy.

The Western understanding demands that all human beings should be treated equally irrespective of their colour, gender, religion, and nationality. Islamic teachings, on the other hand, do not allow women to divorce their husbands directly the way husbands are allowed to divorce them. Similarly, husbands have been given the charge to be the custodians of their homes while their wives are their subordinates. In the Islamic law of inheritance women generally get half the share of men. Furthermore, women are, generally speaking, expected to follow a dress code that is more demanding than what men are expected to follow. All these Islamic stipulations are seen by the Westerners as discriminatory and, therefore, unacceptable.

Likewise, there is a concern amongst the critics that minorities do not enjoy equal rights in Islam. It is felt that non-Muslims cannot preach their religion freely and, at times, their religious symbols are in serious threat of being demolished; they cannot assume, at least in some Muslim countries, the status of the head of state of an Islamic nation; and if any Muslim converts to their religion, such a person should be beheaded.

There is also a considerable widespread concern that Islamic teachings permit its adherents to acquire and keep slaves and slave girls. The Islamic political system is also conceived as being undemocratic. Furthermore, it is alleged that Islamic teachings urge its followers to engage in war (Jihad) against non-Muslims to convert them and to force the implementation of Islamic law in their lands.

IV) The Response of the Neo-Traditional Approach to the Objections:

i) A Few Clarifications:

a)     Divine Revelation and Human Intellect: The Neo-traditionalist understanding of the Quranic text is that there is no conflict between human intellect and Divine Revelation the way it has been expressed in the Qur’an. However, there can be occasions when human intellect could be at a loss to understand the contents of Divine Revelation. One of the reasons such a possibility can arise is that, at times, Divine Revelation guides human intellect because of the latter’s inherent inability to come to concrete answers on certain complex issues on its own. The other possibility could be when human intellect may have degenerated because of persistent exposure to unfavourable environment and/or deliberate indulgence in known vices.

The Qur’an is emphatic in its claim that a normal human nature would find itself in agreement with Divine Revelation. It states that the teachings of the religion of God are based on “the nature Allah has framed man in. There is no altering (the principles of  Allah’s creation. That is the right religion, but most men do not know.” (Qur’an; 30:30)

b)    The Islamic law (Shari‘ah) is not very elaborate. It confines itself to describing only a few important rules for regulating the individual and collective lives of Muslims. The Shari‘ah mentions rules regarding worship and moral considerations in the social, economic, and political life of humans. There is, therefore, considerable scope for cooperation between Islamic teachings and secular understanding of the rules affecting human beings.

c)     While forming academic opinions about Islamic teachings, one should confine one’s attention to the Qur’an and Sunnah (the religious practices given by the Prophet). There can, at times, be considerable difference between what Islamic teachings say and what Muslims do. There could occasionally even be differences   between true Islamic teachings and what many Muslim scholars say or write.[4]

ii) Human Rights in Islam:

a) Human Rights in Shari‘ah: There are two categories of rights discussed in the Shari‘ah: Rights of Allah and Rights of fellow human beings. Since these rights have been mentioned in the form of basic principles and have been applied in the immediate environment, they need to be explored intelligently with a view to applying them to changing circumstances.

b) Scope of Cooperation with Secular Understanding of Human Rights: Any new development in the area of human rights that is consistent with the teachings of Islam should be welcomed as a new step towards actualization of the spirit of Islamic teachings. For instance, prisoners of war used to become slaves at the time of the revelation of the Qur’an. Islam stopped it. Now, since the Geneva Convention rules are consistent with the spirit of Islam, they should be deemed to be Islamically desirable and Muslims should promote them as a part of the extension of the spirit of the Islamic teachings.

c) Mention of Human Rights: Islamic teachings mention rights of parents,[5] children,[6] relatives,[7] poor,[8] slaves,[9] spouses,[10] minorities,[11] prisoners[12] etc. Islamic teachings also emphasize freedom of thought and expression.[13]

iii) Areas of Common Concerns

Some of the concerns of the Western intellectuals on Islamic teachings are based on either the un-Islamic attitude of some Muslims or incorrect interpretation of Islamic tenets.

a)     For instance, according to Islamic teachings, minorities enjoy equal rights of worship,[14] employment, doing business, and practicing their religion the way they understand it. However, all these rights are allowed to them within limits of the law of the land, which is expected not to be discriminatory against non-Muslims.

There could be problems in some Islamic societies in allowing open preaching of another religion to Muslims. Resistance to open preaching is not quite as much an issue of Islamic teachings as it is the sensibilities of the Muslim population of a certain region. It is, of course, always advisable for the non-Muslim preachers to be more careful of the possible reaction of the local population while they introduce and preach their religions. Activities of Christian missionaries have been going on in Muslim countries for centuries, and in most cases, without any official censure from the state. The process of conversion of Muslims to Christianity, whatever the scale, has been a regular feature in the past, despite the perception (no where mentioned in the Quran) that Islamic teachings propose death sentence for apostates.[15]

The requirement in some Muslim countries like Pakistan that the head of the state cannot be a non-Muslim is again a Muslim law which is not directly based on any Islamic injunction. The truth is that in a country with Muslim majority population it is very unlikely that a non-Muslim can ever be democratically elected as the head of the state. In the two-and-a-half centuries of American democracy all presidents have been white, Christian, men. Why should Muslim countries be expected to do any better?

b)    The correct interpretation of Islamic teachings on the institution of slavery is another area of understanding but unfortunately there is unnecessary concern amongst some human rights activists. The truth is that Islam arranged for the elimination of slavery in its teachings in such a conclusive manner that if Muslims were to follow Qur’anic injunctions properly, they could neither acquire new slaves nor keep the already enslaved ones if the latter were unwilling to continue with that arrangement with their masters. Thus the abolition of slavery became applicable fourteen centuries ago in Islam.

The only reason why a misunderstanding has been created in the minds of some people about this clear position of the Qur’an is that in order to get rid of the menace of slavery which was widely practiced in the Arabian society, the Qur’an dealt with the issue gradually in order to prevent the situation from going out of hand. Had there been one clear injunction for the elimination of slavery, as some people believe it should have been, the injunction would have caused considerable harm to slaves and slave girls in the absence of any viable alternative arrangements of living for them.

Thus what we find in the Qur’an is a series of instructions that were unambiguously designed to raise the status of slaves on the one hand and pave the way for their permanent manumission on the other. In a series of directives on the issue, the Qur’an requires believers i) to free slaves to please God both as voluntary act of piety as well as a measure of expiating crimes,[16] ii) to get slaves and slave girls married in order to raise their status in the society,[17] iii) to allow them complete freedom whenever they show willingness and ability to do so on writing a contract of promise to compensate the master,[18] and iv)  not to make prisoners of war slaves but to free them with or without compensation.[19] While this reform movement was being carried out during a period of more than two decades, there were verses revealed that acknowledged slavery as a given reality of the society. Commentators who only refer to Qur’anic verses of the interim period where slavery is mentioned as an existing reality, conclude that it is legitimate in Islam. However, if the Qur’anic logic and proper sequence of its verses is followed, the misunderstanding is removed.

c)     A widespread misgiving about Islam is that its teachings are at variance with democratic governance. This perception is partly based on the prevalence of   dynastic rule and absolute monarchies in Islamic history and also partly because of the existence in the contemporary era of dictatorial regimes in many of the more than fifty Muslim countries. Although other regions of the world, notably Europe and the West,  were able to evolve from monarchic rule to liberal democracy, this was not the experience of the Islamic world where the few emerging democracies are still fragile.

The reality is that the Qur’an requires Muslims to espouse basically the following three principles in their political system: i) it should be consistent with the teachings of Islam; ii) the masses should be obedient to the political authority of the rulers,[20] and iii) the political system should function on the basis of mutual consultation among the participants.[21] What emerges from the understanding of the three principles is the outlines of a political system wherein the Qur’an and Sunnah would be the supreme law and the masses would be loyal to the system which would be consultative in nature. The details of the process have been left to the consultative abilities of Muslims to carve out in accordance with the needs of the time. In other words, the Qur’an proposes the outlines of an Islamic democracy which has one limitation: it cannot violate the Islamic Shari‘ah. How exactly is that condition going to be met is again left for the Muslims to decide in accordance with the principle of mutual consultation. Thus the primary religious text of Muslims unequivocally enjoins believers to establish the democratic set up that best suits their needs.

d)    Perhaps the one aspect of Islamic teachings that has caused the biggest misunderstanding about the religion among non-Muslims and also many Muslims is the concept of Jihad. It is erroneously believed that Muslims have been given religious sanction by their God to settle scores with their rivals through war provided some religious excuse could be presented to justify their actions. This perception has become deeply entrenched partly because of the Islamically illegitimate aggression perpetrated by those claiming to be practicing Muslims against their rivals, including even their co-religionists, and partly because of the propaganda broadside by segments of the non-Muslim media who project such aggression as inherent to the Islamic worldview.

A careful reading of the entire Qur’an and not just a few verses isolated from the context reveals the following:

i)                   There were divine punishments inflicted by God on the people who deliberately rejected His message delivered to them through His messenger Muhammad. These punishments took the form of military operations to counter aggression,[22] while in the case of earlier messengers like Nuh (Noah), Lut (Lot), Hud, Saleh, Sho‘aib, and Musa (Moses),  the punishments were ordained by God mostly through natural calamities.[23]

ii)                The basic Islamic approach governing fighting against other individuals is mentioned in the law that stipulates that aggressors and whosoever creates chaos and mischief on earth should either be fought against or banished.[24]

iii)              Anyone who kills even one person without sufficient justification namely, in legal retribution for another killing or for the offence stipulated in point ii – then such an individual is considered to have committed a crime equivalent to slaying all mankind.[25] Conversely, anyone who saves the life of even a single individual has acted rightly and this is the equivalent of saving all humankind.[26]

iv)              Muslims cannot engage in a war with another nation except under the command of a ruler who should openly declare a war for a justifiable cause i.e., to counter or to pre-empt aggression. (See points v and vi below)

v)                Even if there is a justifiable cause to fight the enemy, Muslim rulers should not, generally speaking, engage in military adventurism. This and condition iv together rule out the possibility of guerrilla warfare in the name of Islam.

vi)              The only two circumstances allowing fighting even under the command of Muslim ruler (apart from defence against aggression) include the elimination of religious persecution and compelling a warring party which had reneged on a peace treaty to end hostilities. (Qur’an; 49:9)

One of the implications of the above-mentioned rules of Islamically valid jihad is that whoever engages in military aggression against others in violation of the conditions iv and vi, he/they is/are guilty of the crimes mentioned in point ii and iii.

iv) Areas of Differences:

There are at least two areas of Islamic law which are targeted by the Western critics in general and human rights activists in particular and their understanding on these issues is not completely faulty, if not entirely correct. The two areas are Islam’s proposed punishments for certain criminals and some of its injunctions affecting women. Since, in the opinion of this writer, there is a clear conflict between the ideals of human right activists and Islamic teachings on these issues, it needs to be clarified what those areas of conflict are, what are the reasons for the conflicts, and what could be done to come to a compromise given these differences.

The Qur’an requires the Muslim system of justice to kill the person who is guilty of creating mischief on earth,[27] to kill a murderer,[28] to publicly flog an adulterer and fornicator with hundred lashes,[29] to flog a false accuser of chaste individuals with eighty stripes,[30] and to amputate a hand of a thief.[31] All these punishments are viewed by human rights activists as contravening the basic human rights of the criminals.

Likewise, the Qur’an declares husbands in charge of their wives,[32] it expects good wives to be obedient to their husbands,[33] it allows husbands to take remedial actions if the wife has become rebellious,[34] it gives women the right to divorce only indirectly,[35] it expects women to be more particular about their dress while in the company of men than it expects from men,[36] and the inheritance share of a man is twice as much as a woman’s.[37] All these rules are considered as discriminatory against women by the human right activists.

v) Reasons for Differences:

The reason for the divergence between Islamic and modern secular thought is the manner in which they address practical issues and this, in turn, is a reflection of their respective worldviews. A worldview is like a seed. When a plant sprouts from it, it has to carry the basic ingredients of it.

a) The Ideological Backgrounds

i) Islam views this worldly life as the creation of an All-Knowing, All-Wise God, Who created it for a definite purpose, which was to allow His two intelligent creatures, one of which are humans, the independent opportunity to live a morally responsible life. The human existence of this worldly life is temporary and only meant to be a trial. This period of trial will give way to a period of accountability followed by eternal rewards and punishments. Man is guided in this life of trial by two sources: i) his God-given nature and intellect, which if properly used, shows him the way of  a true moral life, and ii) Divine Revelation which God communicated to humans through His prophets. The last in the series of these formal revelations was sent to Muhammad during the period 610 to 632 AD. The fully preserved form of that revelation is the Qur’an and the Sunnah, (the Prophet’s religious practices). Divine revelation is meant to guide human intellect, which despite its tremendous God-given capabilities, has its limitations. Human intellect is expected by God to realize its full potential in the light of the guidance provided to it by the moral law within and the formal divine message in the form of the Qur’an and the fully preserved religious example of the Prophet, Sunnah.

ii) The secular worldview, which predominates Western intellectual thought despite the presence, side by side, of the Christian understanding, considers the question of the Creator and the purpose of creation as by and large irrelevant. Whoever created it, if at all any one did, does not really matter; the existence of life with its tremendous potential is before us and that is all that counts. This world probably came into existence through an initial big bang that was followed by a long process of evolution that is continuing and would probably continue for ever. There has been a physical evolution that has continued for billions of years since the big bang happened. That process culminated in the emergence of man (homo sapiens) from less refined forms of life. Ever since man emerged in the scheme of things through the blind interplay of many accidental events, there has been a steady progress made by him in his quality of life, his level of intelligence, and general awareness of his surroundings. Probably this process has nearly reached its climax in the form that can be seen in the western world today. There are some landmarks still likely to be achieved in this evolutionary march towards intellectual and material excellence. Extinction of death and the resultant eternity of life would probably be the climax of this process.

As mentioned above, according to the emerging unanimity of the secular creed, side by side with the physical evolution, there is a continuing flow of intellectual and moral evolution in human beings. Man started his philosophical journey with primitive ideas about the reality of this world. He took refuge in the idea of many gods and some superstitious ways of pleasing them. At some stage in this journey, according to this reasoning, some highly gifted individuals presented themselves as men from God. They presented their spiritual and moral teachings as originating from God. Their efforts did manage to bring about an intellectually and morally better world. However, as it was, the journey had to inevitably proceed further. In the last five centuries, particularly the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, an extremely hard fought encounter took place between religious forces and the soldiers of enlightenment. The outcome of this encounter has resulted in the intellectual supremacy of the new worldview which is secular – religion-less and God-less – in nature. Man has emerged victorious in the process and it has been intellectually established now that despite its definite contribution at some intermediary stage to the process of social evolution of humans, religion is now a remnant of the past, now worthy of a respectable place only in a museum of the intellectual and spiritual struggle of mankind.

Human rights law is one of the proud outcomes of the commendable effort of human intellect and conscience against the stubborn resistance of religious dogma that has now outlived its utility. It is but natural that all societies of the world should adopt these laws. There are still improvements needed in it, but by and large, it is close to the ideal human law in its present form, that ensures happiness to almost every one. The United Nations, in its capacity as a world body of nations, should ensure its swift implementation around the globe. Whatever resistance is being encountered is like the final gasps of the dying body of religion.

b) The Effect of Ideologies:

i)                   In the context of Islamic ideology, since this worldly life is a trial and man is expected to lead a morally correct life, which includes worshipping God, an ideal Islamic society is designed to provide a conducive environment to the people to achieve their goal of life properly. Thus if the offence of a criminal is proved beyond doubt in a society where there were no compelling reasons for the crime to be committed under normal circumstances, he should be given commensurate and exemplary punishment to deter the rest of the population from coming close to repeating it. As for the criminal, whether he loses his life or receives physical chastisement, the punishment would provide him with the all important opportunity to first repent and, as a result, enhance his chances of success in the hereafter, which is the real, eternal life. Some discomfort in a temporary life is a small price for the eternal happiness of the hereafter.

The secular western ideology, on the contrary, would abhor the idea of physical pain inflicted on an individual, given the understanding that this life is the only chance of human existence. It would appear against human dignity and, therefore, abhorrent even to imagine a person being publicly flogged, deprived of a hand, or, much worse, killed under any pretext. As for the possibility of checking the tendency of committing crimes in future, there are better, more ‘humane’ ways of achieving that end. Such people can be taught, trained, and psychologically cured. Even in the worst case of the crime of murder, there is no point in losing another precious life, just because one was lost earlier.

Likewise, in the context of man-woman relationship it is a strong concern in Islam that the institution of the family is strengthened, the possibilities of extra-marital sex are minimized, and the tendency of unnecessary attraction towards the opposite sex that often affects an individual’s spiritual progress is discouraged. All these concerns necessitated that the parameters of wife-husband relationship, inheritance law, and other rules be so designed that instead of pitching as rivals unto each other in the open market where the more vulnerable often gets exploited, man and woman should be encouraged to become mutually supportive partners in a system where every one plays a role in line with his or her moral, spiritual, intellectual, and creative abilities and potential.

The philosophers of human rights on the contrary believe that in the evolutionary process of intellectual and moral progress, man has been a dominant member of a patriarchal society where women were often reduced to the status of second-rate citizens, if not non-humans and beasts. Ideologies like Islam have made salutary contributions in raising women from the abysmal position of beasts to a somewhat more dignified one. However, since it was to be only one station towards the ultimate goal of complete equality of both sexes in all respects, the bridging role of Islam between the dark ages and the era of enlightenment has been completed and therefore Islam has outlived its utility in this field of human affairs as well. A woman now has, or ought to have, rights equal to men in all possible areas of human aspirations, except for so far as the biological restrictions that have been imposed by nature on her. Like in all other areas of moral and social development, here too human beings have reached a climax. It may take some while before the flower of this blessing reaches its full bloom, but any call for retreat is anachronistic and should, therefore, be unceremoniously discarded.

V) How Can the Secular Approach Be Countered?

The only way the secular threat to religion can be countered is through an open-minded enquiry into what the divine revelation has to say on all issues that have been subjected to criticism by the Western thought. As has been mentioned earlier, it is only the neo-traditional approach that can do justice with the kind of enquiry that is needed to ferret out the true meanings and spirit of the divine text. It is only after such meanings are brought forth that the encounter with the secular worldview could be effectively responded.

a) Why Has This Approach Been Lost?

One can ask this question: If the outlines of this message of Islam given in the above presentation are correct, why then is it not popularly appreciated by the people? The answer is that it is primarily Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) that has been mistakenly confused with Islamic Shari‘ah that has caused such a situation to happen.

Islamic Shari‘ah given by the messenger of God is not very detailed: it only outlines a few basic aspects of law.[38] When the needs of the society were addressed by the later scholars in areas that were not covered directly by the Shari‘ah, there emerged a vast literature of Islamic rulings that were contained in a body of knowledge called fiqh. Because of the religious nature of these rulings, Islamic fiqh – the human rulings of what needs to be done – was mistaken by a vast majority of Muslims for Islamic Shari‘ah, the God-given religious law.

Despite its several merits, since the literature of fiqh was not God-given, it contained many mistakes as well. However, since the nature of the rulings was religious, those who understood and followed it were emotionally attached to it in a way that they considered it the very equivalent of God-revealed religion. Any calls for reforming the mistakes were spurned by the rebuke of the tongue, the pen, or the bullet. Thus the error-prone human interpretation of the message of God is known to the vast majority of humans as the very message of God.

This tendency has been strengthened and perpetuated by the inclination amongst Muslims to do taqlid (i.e. blindly follow earlier and present-day scholars). The understanding that has emerged is that a common man has, given his limitations in understanding religion, no business to question or interfere in matters of religion’s interpretation. He is a mere consumer of religious verdicts. Any possibility of him getting involved in the process of opinion formation is out of the question. What has accentuated the problem is the fact that even the instructors and graduating students of madrassahs (the scholar-producing religious seminaries) strictly follow the principle of taqlid. The tendency has reached a situation wherein the religious schools are formally labelled with the school of thought they represent and the students appear for their annual examination conducted by the board of their espoused religious view. [39]

These taqlid-based religious institutions are not only churning out hundreds and thousands of so-called religious leaders every year, but the number of these institutions is also multiplying annually. So long as the job of deciding what is Islamic and what is not is to be discharged by the religious scholars of the traditional madrassahs, the possibility of any reformation in the thought process of religiously inclined people is remote.

b) How can the problem be addressed?

The challenge of Western criticism to Islamic teachings can only be met through proper dissemination of the true message of Islam. That in turn can only happen if we create institutions that produce scholars with the correct knowledge of the message of Islam and the right attitude towards disseminating it. Quality institutions are desperately required that not only produce scholars who know Islam as proficiently as do graduates in other disciplines from secular academic centres but are also properly equipped with the understanding of all significant, contemporary disciplines, the knowledge of which is essential for a religious scholar in the contemporary era. Scholars thus produced can fill the conspicuous void which at the moment has generated serious challenges that threateningly loom over the Muslim ummah (community). In the absence of any better alternatives, the ummah, for the present, is left with no choice but to look towards the traditional scholars for religious guidance. The latter, owing to their one-sided, sectarian-based training in the traditional madrassahs are incapable of responding to the challenges of the modern times.

VI) Conclusion:

This paper had set forth for itself the task to address this question: Given the strong criticism raised by secular Western scholars on many aspects of the teachings of Islam, should the religion modernize itself? An attempt has been made in this study to show that if Islamic teachings are properly understood and presented, Islam will have no need to modernize itself because it is progressive; instead it is the modern age that will need to transform itself according to the correct Islamic teachings if it was to adopt a sensible approach towards life. The paper has emphasized that the only correct approach towards understanding Islam is the one that stresses the significance of understanding the true meanings of the Qur’anic text. That methodology has been defined as the neo-classical approach in this essay. In the event that institutions imparting Islamic and modern education on the lines of the neo-classical approach are created, the ideological challenge to Islam is likely to be met effectively. In the absence of such institutions, that challenge cannot be properly addressed.

[*] Dr Khalid Zaheer is an  Associate Professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

[1] The reader should not be lead to believe that it is being claimed that the Qur’an is the only original source of knowledge in Islam. Indeed the sunnah – the religious practices of the prophets of God which were reconfirmed by the last of the prophets, Muhammad, alaihissalaam – is an equally authentic source of knowledge. However, their description is not directly relevant to the scope of this article because most of the significant criticisms that have been raised against the Islamic teachings are the ones that have to do with the interpretation of the Qur’anic text.

[2] There could be other names assigned to this approach, like the Qur’an-based approach, the rationalist approach, or the textual approach. I have preferred to call it neo-traditionalist because it captures the true spirit of what this approach stands for: It is traditional in its true spirit and yet is new because the outcome of a genuinely textual (traditional) approach gives a picture of Islam which is, as we shall see, by and large, acceptable to the modern mind.

[3] An additional feature of the neo-traditionalist approach that is very likely to occur more frequently is the keenness on the part of the interpreter to continue to review his views in order to be more compatible with the text. That feature would also figure in the approach of the modernist, although not for his concern to interpret the text to enable it to be more consistent with the text but with the modern context and the latest scientific understandings. The traditionalist is the most likely to be insistent that once an interpretation from the elders has been accepted, it should not be altered. There are cases amongst the traditionalists too of changing opinions, but such changes have taken the form of movement from one earlier opinion to another.

[4] See the description of the rationale for the neo-traditionalist approach in ‘A’ above.

[5] “And your Lord has ordained that none shall be worshipped except Him and that (you shall behave) exceedingly well with your parents.” (Qur’an; 17:23)

[6] “Indeed there could be your religious enemies amongst your wives and children. However, if you ignore (their excesses), remain cordial, and forgive them (then your God would appreciate that) as God too is Forgiving and Merciful.” (Qur’an; 64:14)

[7] “And give your relatives, the poor, and the wayfarers their due share, and spend not (their share in your wealth) excessively.” (Qur’an; 17: 26)

[8] See above.

[9] “And those amongst your slaves who are desirous of (entering into) a written contract (of freedom) then write it down for them if you find goodness in them. Also, give them from God’s wealth which He has given you (to enable them to honour their commitment of the contract). (Qur’an; 24:33).

[10] “Live with them (i.e. your wives) befittingly. For even if at times you don’t like them (for some reason, try to put up with them) for, (you never know) at times you may dislike something and God may have kept for you in it abundant goodness.” (Qur’an; 4:19) “And good (wives) are those who adjust (with their husbands) and guard (their honour) in their absence the way God has guarded.” (Qur’an; 4:34)

[11] “As for those polytheists who have formalized agreements with you and have not spared any efforts (in fulfilling their covenants), nor have they assisted anyone in aggression against you, then fulfill your covenant with them for its duration. Indeed God loves those who are mindful (of their promises)” (Qur’an; 9:3)

[12] (God’s beloved humans are those who)… feed the poor, the orphans, and the prisoners out of His love.” (76:8)

[13] “We have shown him (i.e. the man) the right path (intuitively, and then set him free to see) if he becomes grateful or ungrateful.” (Qur’an; 76:3)

[14] Qur’an; 22:40

[15] Qur’an; 2:217

[16] Qur’an; 58:3

[17] Qur’an; 24:32

[18] Qur’an; 24:33

[19] Qur’an; 47:4

[20] Qur’an; 4:59

[21] Qur’an; 42:38

[22] Qur’an; 9:14

[23] Qur’an; 54:9-45

[24] Qur’an; 5:33

[25] Qur’an; 5:32

[26] ibid.

[27] Qur’an; 5:33

[28] Qur’an; 2:178

[29] Qur’an; 24:2

[30] Qur’an; 24:4

[31] Qur’an; 5:38

[32] Qur’an; 4:34

[33] ibid.

[34] ibid.

[35] Qur’an; 2:237

[36] Qur’an; 24:30-31

[37] Qur’an; 4:11-12

[38] See IV) i) b.

[39] There are four boards in Pakistan, representing four different schools of thought: the Deobandis, the Barelvis, the Ahle Hadith, and the Shi‘as.