Reflections on Muslim Reform
November 19, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.
There are many calls for a “reform” of Islam. Some from within our global community, many from elsewhere. Often, the calls are for Muslims to experience a reform akin to the reform of Christianity from 500 years ago. We do not find as many calls by non-Christians for reforms of Christianity, non-Jews for reforms of Judaism, non-Hindus for reforms of Hinduism, or non-Buddhists for reforms of Buddhism. Within each of those communities, however, there are liberal and conservative voices providing internal critiques of their communities.
The most common matters across all the traditions tend to be the matters imposed upon them by the world itself; each of the different communities seeks to navigate their ways through these challenges. Thus we find much discourse on the issues of authority, gender, modernity, violence, and public space. There are other factors that influence reform in each of these traditions, usually related to manifestations of power, through governance, education, technology, and media. Whether through scholarship, activity, or imagination, every community wrestles with these issues more than they might realize.
Consider our community. We will have people who may identify themselves as “conservative,” yet rely on a timetable or smartphone app for prayer times, rather than look at the sky or shadows. They may dress in thobes -- as though that is more pious -- even though they are not Arab, dress in modern western undergarments and those thobes are often made in factories in China. They read and cite the primary sources (usually the Qur’an and Hadith) without training in reading those sources. They choose strict interpretations of Islamic law, risking making things Haram that are not Haram.
Consider the other end of the spectrum. There are those who may self-identify as “liberal,” yet their opinions come not from our primary sources. Rather their interpretations of the primary sources are informed from modern Western usually Marxist categorizations of power, privilege, the dispossessed. Those at the far end of the spectrum speak of an Islam that is informed by poststructuralist thinkers, which, to the outsider look like calls for anarchy.
Where would you position me? There are many who see my emphasis on students making their daily prayers as a sign that I am conservative. Then, there are many who read or misread my statements about the humanity of members of the LGBTQ communities as a sign that I am liberal. There are many who see the history of my teachers, and past involvement in the Khilafah movement, and think that I am not just conservative, but potentially fascist. There are many who see my actions in exposing the gross misconduct of popular scholars and preachers, as signs that I am focused on elevating myself while destroying all that is sacred.
The answer: I do not know where I would position myself. We are each complex people. Meaning, my opinions are complex for matters that are complex. Most matters are complex.
Where would you position yourself? Or, where would you position your parents? For many students in our community, their approaches to Islam -- or, in some cases, their departures from Islam -- are rebellions against their perceived tyranny from their parents. Meaning, for many students, everything that they dislike about Islam, is actually everything they dislike about their parents.
There is another point to consider. Different self-styled Muslim reformers seek different ends.
There are those Muslim reformers, often positioned among the Islamophobes, who seek an Islam where everything is removed and all that remains is a small list of good morals. These people tend to side with Western Imperialists in their opinions on everything, as though it is the pinnacle or end of history. Some who have a bit of knowledge of our traditions argue through legal somersaults that America is the modern embodiment of Islam.
There are those who seek to make Islam relevant to their times and places. The assumption here is that Islam -- because it is 1400 years old -- is obsolete, and the world has progressed. Our era is different from the era of the Prophet, may peace be upon him. In fact, as soon as the Prophet left our world, the environment was different. And, today’s economy has fundamental differences from the economy at the time of the Prophet. Those people who are assuming that the world has “progressed,” however, might be embracing Hegel’s philosophy of history more than they realize.
There are those who seek to make Islam have better public relations. There is less concern on matters of salvation and more concern on the impression our community members give. The goal here is to embrace everything that gives a good impression and to oppose everything that gives a bad impression. Such people will praise activists who appear in magazines, but will condemn the prickly work of justice. They will conduct fundraising drives to help victims of various tragedies, not for purposes of service, but for public relations.
There are those who seek material power, through which to make Islam or Muslims dominate other populations and ideologies. I am not speaking here of ISIS. Rather, I’m speaking of Muslim politicians in many Muslim-majority and non-Muslim majority countries.
Common among all of the above, however, is that the above are lay people. In our history, almost all Islamic reform has come through scholarship. Consider the terminology itself. “Jihad” means “struggle,” and “Ijtihad,” which comes from the same root, means “intense struggle.” Yet, in our traditions, “jihad” was used for “fighting,” and “ijtihad” was used for “scholarship.” In Sunni traditions, many consider the Turkish/Kurdish scholar Bediuzzaman Said Nursi (d. 1960) to be one of the major revivalists of recent times. In Shia traditions, many consider the Iraqi scholar Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (d. 1980) to be one of the major revivalists of recent times.
Note that the ideas of reform (islah) are inseparable from the ideas of revival (tajdid). Meaning, throughout our history, it seems that the most common goal of Muslim reformist thinkers was *not* to figure out how to articulate Islam in such a way that it was relevant to the lives of people of their era, in a way that still maintained the integrity of the belief system. That goal was secondary. Further, though it closer to the real goal, the actual goal was also *not* to figure out how to facilitate the *full* practice of Islam in new settings.
Rather, the most common goal of the Muslim reformist thinkers, whether we speak of al-Ghazali, or Shah Waliyullah, or the Usulis, was to facilitate the submission to God in new settings. If that goal is not central, then I would ask if it is “Islamic reform.” Thus, the vehicle through which these scholars sought to facilitate submission to God in new eras and places was through developing an understanding of a full practice of Islam, which required an understanding of the needs and relevancies of the new eras. Thus, reform of Islam was synonymous with the revival of Islam.
Or, reform of Islamic thought was synonymous with the revival of Iman among the populations. Iman is something more than faith. It is that internal trust and security in Allah, in navigating life in this world and the next, through the model, being the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him.
To be continued at some point…
And Allah knows best.