The art of reformation without Reformation?

Remember, remember the fifth of November, the gunpowder treason and plot…” It’s that time of year again, when the night sky is set alight by Chinese fireworks if you’re lucky enough to have a park nearby, or perhaps it’s the intermittent fizz and pop in the back garden as dad rushes around in the dark, and the rest of the family look on pretending to be impressed. But the story of bonfire night and Guy Fawkes, is a reminder of deep schisms and controversies of European history, partly connected to the Reformation.

Many have called for a Reformation within Islam. But what does this mean? The European Reformation had a particular history, so is this a Eurocentric imposition? What do we expect out of a Reformation? Is it a meeker, milder and cuddlier brand of Islam – and will we get that through a Reformation? In Europe it led to a tremendous amount of bloodshed and upheaval – the 30 years war for example – and a long-standing tension between Catholics and Protestants. Some of the more literalist and fundamentalist Christian views stem from the reformed end of the spectrum – the parallel among Muslims would be Wahhabism.

Having said this, even if there are some political motives behind the calls for reform, muddled in there somewhere are also genuine concerns – coming to terms with changes in the modern world just cannot be ignored. So how can we keep the baby while we throw out the bathwater? And ensure that change occurs on our own terms, and not by imposition from outside?

Reform is possible without ‘a Reformation’. Reform (islah) and renewal (tajdid) are essential underpinnings of Islamic thought that are meant to be constant forces of change (taghyir). Islam also has intellectual tools such as ijtihad (creative thinking to deal with new challenges). It is a well-known legal maxim in the Shariah that a fatwa can change with time and place. This is starkly demonstrated by the story of Imam Shafi‘i travelling from Iraq to Egypt and re-writing much of his teachings in the light of the new situation. Yet because that spirit of ijtihad has been suppressed in the name of ‘tradition’, many scholars will use books that are centuries old to pluck out fatwas for today. Something has really gone wrong! In a post-Caliphate world that has experienced globalisation, urbanisation and international conventions and treaties, fatwas from even a decade ago can seem widely off the mark.

There is also selective application of ijtihad. A paper presented to a council of scholars some years ago on calculation of prayer times contained detailed scientific data on light levels, the different degrees of latitude and longitude and the effects these would have on the visibility of the sun. Alas, when the discussion turned to the banning of religious symbols in France, which was topical at the time, there were no papers on French history, secularism or identity. Instead the vacuum was mainly filled by polemical discussion. Similarly, if we look at the realm of Economics, the amount of ijtihadi energy that has been poured into the subject, from even conservative scholars, is remarkable. This has allowed Muslims in the modern day to take out insurance, mortgages, deal in the stock market, and even change the way zakat is administered. Yet raise the issue of gender equality, or why there is no categorical prohibition of domestic violence, and the issue becomes ‘complicated’.

On issues of equality, liberty and human rights, politically radical trends rooted in authoritarian ideas that negate democratic change are unlikely to come up with the goods. Likewise, it is difficult to see the solutions coming from most traditionalist movements, with their insistence upon limiting practice within the boundaries of madhabs (schools of thought), emphasis on taqlid (imitation and following) over ijtihad and reliance upon tradition over engaging with the modern. There are sophisticated discourses here, but the balance doesn’t seem right. Tradition is important, because people that have no sense of history cannot appreciate the future. But a pre-occupation with what has passed at the cost of neglect of the current, let alone the future, is not healthy. I like the analogy of driving a car – the rear view and wing mirrors tell you what you have left behind, and should be checked before a manoeuvre, but the windscreen, which is far bigger, is the main focus, looking ahead.

Ijtihad is thus essential and use of this intellectual tool needs to be consistently enhanced. Furthermore, our approach to religious texts is crucial. Muslims believe the Qur’an to be eternally relevant. And if a finite text is to have infinite relevance, its meaning has to be constantly unfolded, read and reread, in ways that are meaningful and relevant – which also necessitates a keen understanding of the context. Thus, what it means to be a Muslim needs to be subtly redefined for every age; it is not necessarily the case that history is the receptacle of authenticity – authenticity is about following the spirit of Islam and this will have different expressions in changing contexts. To paraphrase Bruce Lee’s famous quip about his style being ‘the art of fighting without fighting’, what we need is a reformation without Reformation.

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