With every terror attack, clamour for reform in Islam goes up as a crisis is alleged in the religion. The same happened after the beheadings in France in response to Prophet Muhammad’s cartoons. People say that since Islam has remained unreformed, its anachronistic understanding has been at the root of much of the bad publicity that its more zealous followers have been inviting to it.
Verses from the Quran are quoted to both arraign and absolve Islam. Defences are mounted arguing whether these are to be understood literally or metaphorically, and to be seen in their contextual terms or transcendental claims. Since much of the contestations centre around the meanings of the canonical literature, the Quran and the Hadith, it is hoped that if these were given a contemporaneous interpretation, Islam would become more compatible with the modern world, and it would cease to yield justifications for regressive practices and violent actions.
This optimism tends to forget that religions don’t change much, and that the words of scriptures can’t be erased and overwritten. Neither the verses can be changed, nor their conventional understanding. As for the interpretation, there is a limit to the point it can be stretched into yielding allegorical or contextual meanings. In any case, believers don’t have any problem with either the text or its age-old meaning. They try to mould their world in accordance with the precepts of the religion. To them, stretching the meaning to measure up to the present world may amount to a subversive reversal of order.
Calls for Reformation in Islam are fashionable, but miss a crucial point.
Islam needs ‘relocation’
The reform, if any, has to be in one’s attitude towards the religion, and not in how Islam is interpreted, understood and practiced. The shift in focus from the transcendent to mundane, divine to human, and religious to secular has to be the basis of reform. If people continue to depend on religion for inspiration and justification for their actions, and they don’t graduate to the higher morality of secularism and modernity, no matter how they reinterpret their religion, they would continue to regress. In any case, when it comes to religion, the orthodox position, being of classical vintage, commands better legitimacy.
Therefore, rather than reformation of Islam, its relocation and reformulation may be a better ideal. Like other religions in the modern age, Islam too should be relocated to where religions belong — the private sphere. The longer any religion remains part of the public sphere, higher the chances of its politicisation and radicalisation.
Religion, after all, is a way of worship. To say that one’s religion is a way of life is a statement with little meaning. A way of life is the culture, of which, religion is a constituent. However, little would change if the selfish motive of personal salvation continued to disregard the public welfare. Therefore, Islam has to be reformulated as a people friendly and welfare oriented religion that inspires its followers to do good to people here and now, rather than securing paradise for them after death. Such a secularisation would make people humane rather than dogmatic, and compassionate rather than fanatic.
It’s alright to say that the trajectory of European history can’t be the universal template for other societies, but if we were to learn from it, successive stages from renaissance’s humanism to religious reformation to enlightenment to the rise of liberal, secular and democratic world, would have many lessons for us. One of these could be that even the reformed religion was not good enough for the imperatives of the modern world, and it had to be sequestered to the private space in order to let reason have an unfettered movement which, in turn, would enable the rise of higher secular morality.
The Muslims were impelled into both reform and revival by the same impetus — the shock caused by the loss of political ascendancy. Both the trends had the same purpose — restoration of the lost glory. This could be one reason why reform gave way to revivalism so easily, and almost all the late 19th century reform movements from Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s in India to Muhammad Abduh’s and Rashid Rida’s in Egypt petered out, making way for the militant Islamism.
The unquestioned equation of religion with law, its origins
Unlike Christianity, Islam didn’t have to suffer prolonged persecution. It progressed from acquiring a chieftainship to a State to an empire with lightning rapidity, which turned it into a statist ideology. The religion-cum-ideology was further elaborated into the legal structure of the empire. This led to the unquestioned equation of religion with shariat, and of shariat with law. Therefore, any reform in Islam had to come through the legal route. Accordingly, a long forgotten tool called Ijtihad was brought into re-circulation. This terminology (coming from the same route as jihad) connotes intellectual exertion for deriving a religious ruling in such cases as the Quran and the Hadith are silent about. In contemporary Islamic discourses, Ijtihad is looked up as a noble ideal, but, for obvious reasons, there has been no substantial effort towards its realisation. Most of the Muslim States — from Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Turkey in Asia to Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia in Africa — having adopted the modern legal system, pious platitudes notwithstanding, are not going back to the archaic shariah laws. And those which do — the likes of ISIS or Taliban — have no use for Ijtihad.
No wonder that the modern and scientific reinterpretation of Islam has not moved an inch beyond where Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-98) left it. Even though it may be possible, it’s going to be a fruitless exercise and, therefore, undesirable for both the modern and the orthodox Muslims.
The poet Allama Iqbal’s biggest contribution, if his leads were followed, could be the prominence he gave to the word ‘Reconstruction’ in the title of his collection of essays published in 1930, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. This word underscored the dilapidation of religious thought in Islam. A lesser man couldn’t get away with such candour. But the orthodoxy was so mesmerised by Iqbal’s stature and erudition that the import of this proposition was lost on their not too acute perception. Be that as it may, nearly a century later, despite his iconic status, his proposed ‘reconstruction’ remains a pipe dream. The reason is same as in the case of Sir Syed. It will be a pointless exercise. The zeitgeist demands not the reformation but the relocation and reformulation; in fact, a veritable transcendence of religion.
Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer. Views are personal.