Nudging an Iceberg – the Reform of Islam

Posted By July 5, 2005 No Comments

The Jihadist War (for what else should we call this overlapping series of encounters and crises?) stems from one single factor – the inability of the Islamic world to cope with the modern world. If this conflict is to end, Muslims themselves will have to end it by coming to terms with the world as it is, not as they think it should be. To reach this point, it may be necessary for Muslims to redefine their religion… can they do it?

In the last decade, a growing number of Muslims seem to be attempting to push for a reform in their religion. Can they overcome the inertia of such a massive faith, can they nudge an iceberg into a safer direction?

When Ibn Warriq wrote the introduction to his book Why I am not a Muslim ( Prometheus Books, Amherst, New York, 1995) he made a critical distinction between three ‘Islams’. The first was the religion as espoused by Mohammed; the second was the religion as it formed after Mohammed’s death; and the third was Islamic civilization itself – the sum total of the arts, science, commerce and other human achievements accomplished by people living in Islamic societies. Ibn Warriq wrote that the third ‘Islam’ occurred despite, not because of, the religion itself.

One point that Warriq stressed was that all of Islam was adversely affected by what a Western-Liberal teacher of Post-Colonial theory might describe as “Arab cultural imperialism.” Most Muslims are not Arabs, yet the strong Arab content of Islam restrains them. Moreover, the actual question here might not be whether Islam holds back those parts of the world where it has a strong grip, but is it Islam’s Arabic culture that is responsible?

Modernity does not equal technology alone: The willingness of Jihadis to embrace biological weaponry, computerized credit card fraud and the internet bear witness to this. Rather, the problem lies with a seeming inability within the Islamic world to pick up on the rule of law, political plurality, the emancipation of women and those other traits that have brought prosperity and peace to so many nations. The main barrier to this appears to be, from most accounts, the nature of the ancient Arab culture that lies at the heart of the Islamic faith, exacerbated by the more negative traits inherent in that religion.

The Arab World remains culturally and economically backward despite the oil wealth pumped out for decades. You don’t have to take our word for it – the 23 Arab economists and intellectuals who authored The United Nations Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report for both 2002 and 2003 were quite frank in spelling out the problems of the Arab Muslim world. Part of the problem goes right back to the foundation of that world.

Arguably there are four universal religions: Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Universality implies that the faith has gone beyond its founding culture and been adopted by other peoples – usually because of the strength of its institutions and the attraction of its message. Hinduism once was a universal religion that spread beyond India to Indonesia and Southeast Asia, but it was later supplanted by Buddhism and Islam in these regions.

All four of the universal religions gathered a diversity of followers far beyond the culture and geographical proximity of the founders of the faith – but Buddhism and Judaism were also expelled at varying times from their homelands while Christianity quickly migrated away from the Jewish culture that gave birth to it. This leap away from the founding society did not happen with Islam, and may help explain the continued dominance of Arab culture within the faith (even within non-Arab lands) and the less archaic vision of the other universal religions.

The other problem concerns the manner in which the religion spread out from its founding culture. Buddhism and Christianity were carried out into the wider world by missionaries and most conversions were peaceful. Judaism had converts among the Romans and in the Russian Steppes but the main instruments of its spread were persecution and exile. The spread of Islam was accomplished almost entirely through conquest – pagans were offered the choice between conversion, slavery or death while subjugated Christians and Jews got the choice between conversion or second class status (diminished legal status and a higher tax burden) as Dhimmis.

Because Islam never had the advantage of being free from the influences of its founding Arab culture, many Arab practices and cultural quirks from the 7th Century were firmly shackled to the new faith, often by Mohammed himself.

Mohammed’s revelations reflect this Arab focus, and the systemization of his works done by his followers after his death. There is a strong temptation for this outsider, having read the Quran, to see it through the eyes of the unknown professor who dismissed a student’s essay this way: “Good and original, but that which is good is not original and that which is original is not good.” Mohammed certainly had strong exposure to both Christianity and Judaism and seems to have heavily borrowed from them. However, he became an aggressive warlord after the peace and love parts of the divine message didn’t go over that well with many of his fellow residents of Mecca. This leaves two Mohammeds to study: The charitable preacher of egalitarian ideals, and the sword wielding instigator of rapine and massacre.

In the other universal religions, the collection of the scriptures took place well after the deaths of the principal founder. Mohammed’s followers were relatively quick off the mark, waiting only a few years to begin putting things in order. One could argue they did a sloppy job of it.

Faith is the first duty of Muslims, and they must accept the Quran as being unquestionably true. The problem was that Mohammed composed the Quran but didn’t assemble it. This process only began after his death when Abu Bekr (the first Caliph) ordered Mohammed’s leading amanuensis, Zaid Ibn Thabit, to get to work before more of the people who had memorized Mohammed’s pronouncements died. Those Sura that were stored (on palm leaves, clay tablets, etc.) were not kept in any sort of logical or chronological order. Because it was assumed that these were divinely inspired and therefore entirely correct, Muslims are told to assume that errors in the assembly of the book are impossible.

Non-Arabic speakers – and it needs to be noted the majority of Muslims do not speak either contemporary or classical Arabic – are told that the Quran contains marvelous poetry (which my English translation attempts to master), Arabic being a very oral language, and is very capable of producing strong flowery images. It does not lend itself so well as Latin and Hebrew do to formal argument and legal dissection.

To compound matters, the 114 Suras were arranged in order of length, not in the order of their composition. Moreover, because the words in the Quran are supposed to be divinely inspired, they may not be altered or even translated when used for a religious purpose – and Classical Arabic is not modern Arabic. Even today, most Muslims who memorize stretches of the Quran do not understand exactly what it is they are expected to memorize. Imagine school classes for children who are expected to correctly memorize passages of Beowulf in the Anglo-Saxon of the 7th Century AD, and you might begin to grasp the problem.

For a couple of centuries after Mohammed’s death, various sayings and anecdotes concerning him were also collected to supplement the Quran. These form the Hadith, which are further rounded out by resort to the customs (the Sunna) which Mohammed probably would have observed, given his cultural background. These three elements constitute the Arab basis of Islamic law and belief – and it would seem hard to believe there is no connection between this Arab basis for Islam and the difficulty Arab Islam is having with non-technological modernity.

Despite – or more probably because of – the fragile foundations of Islam, this faith has been markedly hostile to internal doctrinal debate or to the reception of new interpretations of its sacred scripture.

Islam does have sects and schools of thought within those sects, much like any other universal religion. But it is striking that the dividing point between the Sunnis and the Shi’ias concerns the rightfulness of claims to the Caliphate among the heirs and descendents of Mohammed rather than fundamental doctrinal differences in the religion itself. Even so, the Sunnis alone have given rise to four major schools of interpretation: The Shafi, Malaki, Hanafi and Hanbali schools – the last of which led to the puritanical Wahhabis (who are in the forefront of the anti-Western Jihad). These schools largely differ on the conduct of religious rites and on political philosophy, but never question the fundamental problems at the heart of their faith.

When the Arabs exploded out the Arabian peninsula into lands that had been savaged by war and epidemic, they quickly conquered huge swaths of territory and exploited its wealth. This soon provided a vast relatively stable political environment that let the surviving scholarship of the Byzantine-Greeks and the rich literature of the Persians flower again… for a few centuries. This period came to an end as Islam fragmented and the Crusaders launched the counter-offensive into lands that had been largely Christian when the Arabs conquered them. This was also the era when the majority of the population in Islamic areas converted, and the legal commentary built on the Hadith and Quran cemented into its current form.

It is worth noting that there were very few attempts to propose a new examination of the roots of Islam during this enlightened era of science and thought in the Muslim world. While there were many scholars (encouraged by the Umayyad and Abbasid Princes who realized how backwards the Arabs were) who eagerly picked up on Greek rationalism and theist traditions, many of them were dhimmis and unlikely to become too critical of Islam. However, by the 11th Century, some Muslim students of Greek, ancient Persian and Sanskrit writings did emerge.

One early critic of Islam was Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn al-Biruni, a Shi’ia with pronounced agnostic tendencies who lambasted the Arab conquerors of Persia and Egypt for the destruction and vandalism they committed. There were many other Muslim critics who used Greek rationalism and challenged their own faith in the decades that followed al-Biruni. These reached their culmination in Abu al-Walid Muhammad ibn Rashid (1126-98) – who became known to admiring Europeans as Averroes. However, by his time, the ‘counter-reformation’ begun by Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was well underway and various ordered the destruction of Averroes’ works even before his death. Arab Islam has been stuck in a stifling orthodoxy since… but things might be changing now.

The ancient Arab culture that shaped Islam has often been criticized by non-Arab Muslims. For example, there is a long history of Persian sneering at the superstitions and obscure practices within the faith imposed on them in the 7th Century. As Arab Islam’s inability to adapt to the modern world has provoked crises, this chorus can be heard again.

The Jihadist War and the expansion of Wahabbist doctrines seems to have triggered a reaction in other Muslims – few of whom are actually Arabs. The Canadian journalist Irshad Manji was raised here, and her parents were originally from East Africa (hence somewhat exposed to British education before being transplanted in the 1970s). Manji embraced Western freedom of thought and inquiry to address the cracks and flaws in her faith – which she refuses to give up as it is a part of her identity. Her critique The Trouble with Islam (Random House, Toronto, 2003) is well worth reading.

A Somali-born Dutch MP took things even further. Hirsi Ali has openly declared that she can no longer believe in Islam – thus committing the crime of apostasy and making her vulnerable to ‘execution’ by any Jihadist under Sharia Law. Her outrage is fueled by the unhappy portion of women in Islam. Less drastic, but seemingly equally angry with their fellow Muslims are a host of other Western residents: These include the likes of Kamal Nawash (of the Free Muslim Coalition) who dares his fellows to oppose what he calls ‘political Islam’; an eager Bangladeshi web-poster named Fatemollah who is widely followed for his critiques of Fundamentalism, or Nonie Darwish of Arabs for Israel. Two outraged Pakistani women, Mukhtar Mai and Dr. Shazia Kalid are both rape victims who are leading furious campaigns against their treatment in an Islamic society. Bashir Goth, another Somali, is campaigning to get his fellow Muslims to recognize the reality of who has come to help Muslims stricken by catastrophes such as the 2004 Tsunami (Christians mostly) while deploring the violent acts of the Jihadis.

While a few Muslims are now publicly rejecting their faith, others are arguing for the right to re-interpret text – a revolutionary act. Professor Amina Wadud (a black American woman and Islamic scholar) has insisted that Muslims should feel free to re-interpret the Quran (to say nothing of the other writings) and even to refuse to acknowledge some parts of it. However, since the essence of Islam is to acknowledge that Mohammed is the final messenger from God, no Muslim can allow himself to acknowledge that there might be mistakes in the Quran. The calls for an ability to freely reinterpret Islamic scripture went nowhere in the 12th Century AD, and will probably go nowhere for now.

Moreover, most of the campaigners for reform in Arab Islam are non-Arab outsiders: Bangladeshis, Iranians, Malays, Somalis and Pakistanis. Many are also Westernized Muslims and/or women.

Yet there are signs of grudging and slow change inside the Arab World itself. Yemen has recently announced plans to dismantle 4,000 religious schools and replace the current instructors there state-licensed teachers in a bid to reduce Fundamentalist influences. Kuwait is slowly opening 15% of the seats in its new Parliament to women. Egypt’s newspapers and schools are seeing debates between reformers and fundamentalists as well – loud acrimonious debates with much mud-slinging and screaming from the defenders of the Faith.

There are other hopeful signs. On October 24, 2004, two Arabic websites (Middle East Transparent and Elaph) posted a petition from Arab liberals to United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan and the Security Council. Written primarily by the Tunisian intellectual Lafif Lakhdar, the petition calls for an international treaty banning the use of religion to incite violence – singling out Islamic clerics in particular. The Saudi newspaper Arab News reported that, within a week of the petition’s posting, over 2,500 Muslim intellectuals from twenty-three countries had signed the petition. The major impediment to reform in Islam has been the religious sanction that can be claimed by those who attack would-be reformers… a campaign to limit this might have the same effect that Glasnost did on the KGB in the old USSR.

In the end the question remains: Can Arab Islam reform itself? If it cannot, then can Muslims (particularly in the West) keep or learn that Western ability to compartmentalize their faith – holding both their secular beliefs and the tenets of their religious creed simultaneously? Or will the spread of Arabism within Islam financed by petro-dollars short-circuit the hopes of the reformers? In short, can Arab-influenced Muslims keep that part of their religion which gives them their identity, while learning how to live with the rest of the modern world? Nudging an iceberg toward change is an apt analogy. Non-Muslims can only hope the reformers succeed.