Reform In Islam: Precedent In History; Almost-Insurmountable Obstructions In Present

Reform In Islam: Precedent In History; Almost-Insurmountable Obstructions In Present

by Arshia Malik - Wednesday, March 1, 2023 06:35 PM IST
Reform In Islam: Precedent In History; Almost-Insurmountable Obstructions In PresentA mosque.
  • The goal is to find a coherent understanding of Islamic beliefs and practices that are faithful to the tradition, while also responsive to the challenges of contemporary society.

In his January 2015 article, Tufail Ahmad stated that Muslim societies are undergoing industrial-scale Islamisation.

This is engendered by Islamic clerics speaking in mosques, madrassas and jalsas, the religious congregations which are held every week in every region of the country. 

The ideas inculcated by Islamic clerics offer a fertile ground for ISIS-like groups. 

The statement suggests that there is a trend towards increasing levels of Islamic religiosity in Muslim societies, driven in part by the messages and teachings of Islamic clerics.

These clerics are seen as playing a key role in shaping public opinion and influencing the beliefs and behaviours of individuals within their communities.

Through sermons in mosques, teachings in madrassas, and speeches at religious congregations, clerics promote a particular interpretation of Islam that can be highly influential. 

The implication is that there is a need to address the root causes of this trend towards Islamic radicalisation, including the role of religious leaders in promoting extremist ideas and beliefs.

This may involve promoting more moderate interpretations of Islam, investing in education and social programmes, and working with religious leaders to counter extremist messaging and promote more inclusive and tolerant values.

I am often questioned whether reform is possible in Islam and whether it is a pragmatic approach to ask entire generations to reject regressive practices, attitudes and behaviour that stem from Islamic theology that have been conditioned into them by their parents; which religious leaders, community elders, peers, and the media often drill into their subconscious from childhood? 

Examples from history do suggest this is possible: such as the German people rejecting Nazism entirely and making it a crime to deny the Holocaust.

Japanese millennials rejecting their grandparents' and parents' anti-Chinese and anti-American beliefs, Italian people critical of fascism and its most prominent leaders Mussolini and Hitler, despite far-right groups and leaders rising.

Westerners, be they Europeans or North Americans do not subscribe to the notion of colonisation of indigenous populations now and the inhuman methods to eradicate their identity.

India too has a great example in Indian youth who have rejected the caste system and the beliefs of their parents about untouchability under the reform attempts of Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister, Dr B R Ambedkar (Father of the Constitution) himself from Dalit origins and Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation and brought about social and political change. 

As is the case with any problem, acknowledging and accepting the problem is the first step towards eradicating harmful beliefs and practices.

These examples across the world offer hope that current and future generations can also reject harmful beliefs and move towards a more inclusive and tolerant society. 

The challenge is to convince Muslim youth across the world today that at least some of the beliefs they have inherited from their parents and clerics are not compatible with the tenets of modern civilisation, especially those that conflict with gender equality and undermine peace with other religious groups and are contradictory. 

As with any complex belief system, there are potential contradictions within Islam, which can arise from differences in interpretation, cultural context, and historical circumstances.

However, it's important to note that Muslims and Islamic scholars have been actively exploring and reconciling such contradictions throughout the centuries and continue to do so today.

Some common examples of potential contradictions within Islam include: the tolerance versus intolerance contradiction. 

On the one hand, Islam emphasises the importance of compassion, respect, and inclusivity towards all people regardless of their faith or background.

On the other hand, there are instances in Islamic history where violence and intolerance were justified in the name of defending the faith or punishing perceived wrongdoing. 

Also, Islamic theology teaches that god has complete control over the universe, and that everything that happens is ultimately part of his plan.

At the same time, however, humans are also endowed with free will, and are responsible for their own actions.

Then there is the eternal battle within Islam between reason and faith since its inception and rise.

Islamic tradition places a high value on intellectual inquiry and encourages Muslims to seek knowledge and understanding of the world.

However, there are also certain aspects of Islamic belief that are considered matters of faith and cannot be fully explained or understood through reason alone and any deviation, doubt or dissent, is treated as heresy or blasphemy and the person pronounced as an apostate, punishable by death. 

The Arab Spring, the plight of Afghan women under the Taliban twice and the uprising of Iranian women and men against mandatory veiling into a revolution for democracy and liberal values has exposed the contradiction of gender equality versus traditional gender roles. 

While Islam emphasises the fundamental equality of all human beings, there are also certain gender-specific roles and responsibilities prescribed for men and women in Islamic law and tradition, which some argue can create contradictions with modern concepts of gender equality.

The two reform movements which arose in the aftermath of the 1857 struggle for independence against the British will also have to stand up to scrutiny and own their failure to modernise and bring in change, especially for women. 

There were two responses from within the Muslim community.

One was led by Muhammad Qasim Nanautwi, who believed in the revival of Islam, and established the Darul Uloom Deoband seminary, which today promotes Islamism and undermines Muslim women. 

The other response, led by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, believed in adopting European Enlightenment ideas and inculcating a scientific temperament among Muslims, and established the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College, now known as the Aligarh Muslim University.

However, the leaders and students at the university have abandoned Sir Syed's educational mission for Islamic reform, and focussed mainly on organising entertainment events like poetry recitations.

The growth of burqa culture on the university campus in recent years is also a worrying sign.

The patriarchal interpretations of Islamic scriptures and the inadequate reform movements of yesteryear cannot answer the millennial Muslim women questioning the misogynistic texts, laws, interpretations, and attitudes arising out of them.

No amount of mental gymnastics or obfuscation or obscurantism is going to silence the "digitally empowered Scheherazades" (reference to the female character in 1001 and One Nights, who using her intelligence keeps the Sultan engaged with cliff-hanging stories every night to escape execution in the morning).

The mullahs must answer the queries about Sharia laws which marginalise them and are unjust to them. 

The above cited apparent contradictions need to be resolved because ultimately, the goal is to find a holistic and coherent understanding of Islamic beliefs and practices that is faithful to the tradition, while also responsive to the needs and challenges of contemporary society.

Arshia Malik is a columnist and commentator on social issues with particular emphasis on Islam in the Indian subcontinent.
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