[Reader-list] Rethinking Islam

S. Jabbar sonia.jabbar at gmail.com
Sat Apr 26 14:41:39 IST 2008

I¹ve been reading some of the works of philosophers like Al Farabi, Ibn
Arabi and Ibn Rushd and the Mutazila movement of the 8th c. and have been
amazed by two things: 1. The focus on reason in Islam and 2. Universal

I wonder if there are Islamic scholars who can guide me through centuries of
debate.  I¹d like to know when and why reason was trashed in favour of
faith‹ I know something of the debates of the Asharites but how did their
views come to eclipse the Muslim philosophers who took their cue from the
Greek philosophers. And then why did the idea of an Islamic brotherhood
eclipse the idea of universal brotherhood?  I imagine it had to do with the
politics of the Caliphates, but can someone direct me to some resources

Pasted below is an old but interesting essay by Ziauddin Sardar.  I found
his book Desperately seeking Paradise quite wonderful.

Thanks & regards

Rethinking Islam
By Professor Ziauddin Sardar

Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been
comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for
much too long.

This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable
with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have been suggesting for well over a
century that we need to make a serious attempt at Ijtihad, at reasoned
struggle and rethinking, to reform Islam. At the beginning of the last
century, Jamaluddin Afghani and Mohammad Abduh led the call for a new
Ijtihad; and along the way many notable intellectuals, academics and sages
have added to this plea - not least Mohammad Iqbal, Malik bin Nabbi and
Abdul Qadir Audah. Yet, ijtihad is one thing Muslim societies have
singularly failed to undertake. Why?

The why has now acquired an added urgency. Just look around the Muslim world
and see how far we have travelled away from the ideals and spirit of Islam.
Far from being a liberating force, a kinetic social, cultural and
intellectual dynamics for equality, justice and humane values, Islam seems
to have acquired a pathological strain. Indeed, it seems to me that we have
internalised all those historic and contemporary western representations of
Islam and Muslims that have been demonising us for centuries. We now
actually wear the garb, I have to confess, of the very demons that the West
has been projecting on our collective personality.

But to blame the West, or a notion of instrumental modernity that is all but
alien to us, would be a lazy option. True, the West, and particularly
America, has a great deal to answer for. And Muslims are quick to point a
finger at the injustices committed by American and European foreign policies
and hegemonic tendencies. However, that is only a part, and in my opinion
not an insurmountable part, of the malaise. Hegemony is not always imposed;
sometimes, it is invited. The internal situation within Islam is an open

We have failed to respond to the summons to Ijtihad for some very profound
reasons. Prime amongst these is the fact that the context of our sacred
texts ­ the Qur¹an and the examples of the Prophet Muhammad, our absolute
frame of reference ­ has been frozen in history. One can only have an
interpretative relationship with a text ­ even more so if the text is
perceived to be eternal. But if the interpretative context of the text is
never our context, not our own time, then its interpretation can hardly have
any real meaning or significance for us as we are now. Historic
interpretations constantly drag us back to history, to frozen and ossified
context of long ago; worse, to perceived and romanticised contexts that have
not even existed in history. This is why while Muslims have a strong
emotional attachment to Islam, Islam per se, as a worldview and system of
ethics, has little or no direct relevance to their daily lives apart from
the obvious concerns of rituals and worship. Ijtihad and fresh thinking have
not been possible because there is no context within which they can actually
take place.

The freezing of interpretation, the closure of Œthe gates of ijtihad¹, has
had a devastating effect on Muslim thought and action. In particular, it has
produced what I can only describe as three metaphysical catastrophes: the
elevation of the Shari`ah to the level of the Divine, with the consequent
removal of agency from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the
State. Let me elaborate.

Most Muslims consider the Shari`ah, commonly translated as ŒIslamic law¹, to
be divine. Yet, there is nothing divine about the Shari`ah. The only thing
that can legitimately be described as divine in Islam is the Qur¹an. The
Shari`ah is a human construction; an attempt to understand the divine will
in a particular context. This is why the bulk of the Shari`ah actually
consists of fiqh or jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion
of classical jurists. The very term fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid
period when it was actually formulated and codified. But when fiqh assumed
its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects of Muslim
society of the Abbasid period. At that juncture, Muslim history was in its
expansionist phase, and fiqh incorporated the logic of Muslim imperialism of
that time. The fiqh rulings on apostasy, for example, derive not from the
Qur'an but from this logic. Moreover, the world was simple and could easily
be divided into black and white: hence, the division of the world into Daral
Islam and Daral Harb. Furthermore, as the framers of law were not by this
stage managers of society, the law became merely theory which could not be
modified - the framers of the law were unable to see where the faults lay
and what aspect of the law needed fresh thinking and reformulation. Thus
fiqh, as we know it today, evolved on the basis of a division between those
who were governing and set themselves apart from society and those who were
framing the law; the epistemological assumptions of a Œgolden¹ phase of
Muslim history also came into play. When we describe the Shari`ah as divine,
we actually provide divine sanctions for the rulings of by-gone fiqh.

What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply or impose the
Shari`ah ­ the demands of Muslims from Indonesia to Nigeria - the
contradictions that were inherent in the formulation and evolution of fiqh
come to the fore. That is why wherever the Shari`ah is imposed ­ that is,
fiqhi legislation is applied, out of context from the time when it was
formulated and out of step with ours - Muslim societies acquire a medieval
feel. We can see that in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and the Taliban of
Afghanistan. When narrow adherence to fiqh, to the dictates of this or that
school of thought, whether it has any relevance to real world or not,
becomes the norm, ossification sets in. The Shari`ah will solve all our
problems becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary for a group
with vested interest in this notion of the Shari`ah to preserve its
territory, the source of its power and prestige, at all costs. An outmoded
body of law is thus equated with the Shari`ah, and criticism is shunned and
outlawed by appealing to its divine nature.

The elevation of the Shari`ah to the divine level also means the believers
themselves have no agency: since The Law is a priori given people themselves
have nothing to do expect to follow it. Believers thus become passive
receivers rather than active seekers of truth. In reality, the Shari`ah is
nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values, that provide
Muslim societies with guidance. But these sets of principles and values are
not a static given but are dynamically derived within changing contexts. As
such, the Shari`ah is a problem-solving methodology rather than law. It
requires the believers to exert themselves and constantly reinterpret the
Qur¹an and look at the life of the Prophet Muhammad with ever changing fresh
eyes. Indeed, the Qur¹an has to be reinterpreted from epoch to epoch ­ which
means the Shari`ah, and by extension Islam itself, has to be reformulated
with changing contexts. The only thing that remains constant in Islam is the
text of the Qur¹an itself ­ its concepts providing the anchor for ever
changing interpretations.

Islam is not so much a religion but an integrative worldview: that is to
say, it integrates all aspects of reality by providing a moral perspective
on every aspect of human endeavour. Islam does not provide ready-made
answers to all human problems; it provides a moral and just perspective
within which Muslims must endeavour to find answers to all human problems.
But if everything is a priori given, in the shape of a divine Shari`ah, then
Islam is reduced to a totalistic ideology. Indeed, this is exactly what the
Islamic movements ­ in particularly Jamaat-e-Islami (both Pakistani and
Indian varieties) and the Muslim Brotherhood ­ have reduced Islam to. Which
brings me to the third metaphysical catastrophe. Place this ideology within
a nation state, with divinely attributed Shari`ah at its centre, and you
have an ŒIslamic state¹. All contemporary ŒIslamic states¹, from Iran, Saudi
Arabia, the Sudan to aspiring Pakistan, are based on this ridiculous
assumption. But once Islam, as an ideology, becomes a programme of action of
a vested group, it looses its humanity and becomes a battlefield where
morality, reason and justice are readily sacrificed at the alter of
emotions. Moreover, the step from a totalistic ideology to a totalitarian
order where every human-situation is open to state-arbitration is a small
one. The transformation of Islam into a state-based political ideology not
only deprives it of its all moral and ethical content, it also debunks most
of Muslim history as un-Islamic. Invariably, when Islamists rediscover a
Œgolden¹ past, they do so only in order to disdain the present and mock the
future. All we are left with is messianic chaos, as we saw so vividly in the
Taliban regime, where all politics as the domain of action is paralysed and
meaningless pieties become the foundational truth of the state.

The totalitarian vision of Islam as a State thus transforms Muslim politics
into a metaphysics: in such an enterprise, every action can be justified as
ŒIslamic¹ by the dictates of political expediency as we witnessed in
revolutionary Iran.

The three metaphysical catastrophes are accentuated by an overall process of
reduction that has become the norm in Muslim societies. The reductive
process itself is also not new; but now it has reached such an absurd state
that the very ideas that are supposed to take Muslims societies towards
humane values now actually take them in the opposite direction. From the
subtle beauty of a perennial challenge to construct justice through mercy
and compassion, we get mechanistic formulae fixated with the extremes
repeated by people convinced they have no duty to think for themselves
because all questions have been answered for them by the classical `ulamas,
far better men long dead. And because everything carries the brand name of
Islam, to question it, or argue against it, is tantamount to voting for sin.

The process of reduction started with the very notion of `alim (scholar)
itself. Just who is an `alim; what makes him an authority? In early Islam,
an `alim was anyone who acquired `ilm, or knowledge, which was itself
described in a broad sense. We can see that in the early classifications of
knowledge by such scholars as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and
Ibn Khuldun. Indeed, both the definition of knowledge and its classification
was a major intellectual activity in classical Islam. So all learned men,
scientists as well as philosophers, scholars as well as theologians,
constituted the `ulama. But after the Œgates of ijtihad¹ were closed during
the Abbasid era, ilm was increasingly reduced to religious knowledge and the
`ulama came to constitute only religious scholars.

Similarly, the idea of ijma, the central notion of communal life in Islam,
has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma literally means
consensus of the people. The concept dates back to the practice of Prophet
Muhammad himself as leader of the original polity of Muslims. When the
Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision, he would call the whole Muslim
community ­ then, admittedly not very large ­ to the mosque. A discussion
would ensue; arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the
entire gathering would reach a consensus. Thus, a democratic spirit was
central to communal and political life in early Islam. But over time the
clerics and religious scholars have removed the people from the equation ­
and reduced ijma to Œthe consensus of the religious scholars¹. Not
surprisingly, authoritarianism, theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in
the Muslim world. The political domain finds its model in what has become
the accepted practice and metier of the authoritatively Œreligious¹ adepts,
those who claim the monopoly of exposition of Islam. Obscurantist Mullahs,
in the guise of the `ulama, dominate Muslim societies and circumscribe them
with fanaticism and absurdly reductive logic.

Numerous other concepts have gone through similar process of reduction. The
concept of Ummah, the global spiritual community of Muslims, has been
reduced to the ideals of a nation state: Œmy country right or wrong¹ has
been transpose to read Œmy Ummah right or wrong¹. So even despots like
Saddam Hussein are now defended on the basis of ŒUmmah consciousness¹ and
Œunity of the Ummah¹. Jihad has now been reduced to the single meaning of
ŒHoly War¹. This translation is perverse not only because the concept¹s
spiritual, intellectual and social components have been stripped away, but
it has been reduced to war by any means, including terrorism. So anyone can
now declare jihad on anyone, without any ethical or moral rhyme or reason.
Nothing could be more perverted, or pathologically more distant from the
initial meaning of jihad. It¹s other connotations, including personal
struggle, intellectual endeavour, and social construction have all but
evaporated. Istislah, normally rendered as Œpublic interest¹ and a major
source of Islamic law, has all but disappeared from Muslim consciousness.
And Ijtihad, as I have suggested, has now been reduced to little more than a
pious desire.

But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant
compared to the reductive way the Qur¹an and the sayings and examples of the
Prophet Muhammad are brandied about. What the late Muslim scholar, Fazlur
Rahman called the Œatomistic¹ treatment of the Qur¹an is now the norm:
almost anything and everything is justified by quoting individual bits of
verses out of context. After the September 11 event, for example, a number
of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions
by quoting the following verse: ŒWe will put terror into the hearts of the
unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed.
Hell shall be their home¹ (3: 149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to
this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur¹an. In this
particular verse, the Qur¹an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself. It was
revealed during the battle of Uhud, when the small and ill equipped army of
the Prophet, faced a much larger and well-equipped enemy. He was concerned
about the outcome of the battle. The Qur¹an reassures him and promises the
enemy will be terrified with the Prophet¹s unprofessional army. Seen in its
context, it is not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on
what was happening at that time. Similarly hadiths are quoted to justify the
most extremes of behaviour. And the Prophet¹s own appearance, his beard and
cloths, have been turned into a fetish: so now it is not just obligatory for
a Œgood Muslim¹ to have a beard, but its length and shape must also conform
to dictates! The Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols ­ the spirit
of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions, his
humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated have all been
subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

The accumulative effect of the metaphysical catastrophes and endless
reduction has transformed the cherished tenants of Islam into instruments of
militant expediency and moral bankruptcy. For over two decades, in books
like The Future of Muslim Civilisation (1979) and Islamic Futures: The Shape
of Ideas to Come (1985), I have been arguing that Muslim civilisation is now
so fragmented and shattered that we have to rebuild it, Œbrick by brick¹. It
is now obvious that Islam itself has to be rethought, idea by idea. We need
to begin with the simple fact that Muslims have no monopoly on truth, on
what is right, on what is good, on justice, nor the intellectual and moral
reflexes that promote these necessities. Like the rest of humanity, we have
to struggle to achieve them using our own sacred notions and concepts as
tools for understanding and reshaping contemporary reality.

The way to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires confronting
the metaphysical catastrophes and moving away from reduction to synthesis.
Primarily, this requires Muslims, as individuals and communities, to reclaim
agency: to insist on their right and duty, as believers and knowledgeable
people, to interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam: to question
what now goes under the general rubric of Shari`ah, to declare that much of
fiqh is now dangerously obsolete, to stand up to the absurd notion of an
Islam confined by a geographically bound state. We cannot, if we really
value our faith, leave its exposition in the hands of under educated elites,
religious scholars whose lack of comprehension of the contemporary world is
usually matched only by their disdain and contempt for all its ideas and
cultural products. Islam has been permitted to languish as the professional
domain of people more familiar with the world of the eleventh century than
the twenty-first century we now inhabit. And we cannot allow this class to
bury the noble idea of Ijtihad into frozen and distant history.

Ordinary Muslims around the world who have concerns, questions and
considerable moral dilemmas about the current state of affairs of Islam must
reclaim the basic concepts of Islam and reframe them in a broader context.
Ijma must mean consensus of all citizens leading to participatory and
accountable governance. Jihad must be understood in its complete spiritual
meaning as the struggle for peace and justice as a lived reality for all
people everywhere. And the notion of the Ummah must be refined so it becomes
something more than a mere reductive abstraction. As Anwar Ibrahim has
argued, the Ummah is not Œmerely the community of all those who profess to
be Muslims¹; rather, it is a Œmoral conception of how Muslims should become
a community in relation to each other, other communities and the natural
world¹. Which means Ummah incorporates not just the Muslims, but justice
seeking and oppressed people everywhere. In a sense, the movement towards
synthesis is an advance towards the primary meaning and message of Islam ­
as a moral and ethical way of looking and shaping the world, as a domain of
peaceful civic culture, a participatory endeavour, and a holistic mode of
knowing, being and doing.


June 2002

Ziauddin Sardar: A cultural critic, Muslim scholar, author of many books,
and editor of Futures: The Journal of Planning, Policy, and Futures Studies.
His newest book is Ziauddin Sardar's A-Z of Postmodern Life (Visions
Publications, Feb 2002). He is based in London.

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