Islamic Modernism: An illusion or reality?

23rd September 2019

“Our women are now seen as serving no useful purpose to mankind other than having children; they are considered simply as serving for pleasure, like musical instruments or jewels. But they constitute half and perhaps more than half of our species…..Women are not inferior to men in their intellectual and physical capacities. In the ancient times women shared in all men’s activities, including even war…..The reason why women among us are thus deprived is the perception that they are totally ignorant and know nothing of right and duty, benefit and harm. Many evil consequences result from this position of women…..” i

Ever since the September 11 attack on the twin towers in 2001, and the subsequent Islamist terrorist incidents that followed, Islam has become the subject of debate. People in the west wonder if Islam can ever be harmonious with the Western norms of liberty, equality and secular democracy. Many argue that Islam should undergo the same process of reformation as Christianity back in the 16th century. Others argue that Islam can never be reformed.

I believe it is wrong to expect Islam to follow the trajectory of Christianity because despite possessing some similarities, the two faiths also differ greatly. Firstly, the Reformation posed a challenge to the religious and political legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church, and to the Papal authority. In Islam, there is no church and therefore no notion of the papacy or priestly intermediation between the believer and the maker.

One, therefore, should not expect a similar kind of reformation in Islam.

Secondly, unlike the Old and New Testament which are a collection of books extending over a long period of time, The Quran, is a single book promulgated at one time by one man, Mohammad, and deemed by Muslims as the actual word of God.

Then, thirdly, there is also a difference in the very structure of the two religions. For instance, Christ instructed his followers in Matthew (22:21):

“Render therefore unto Caesar the things that which are Caesar’s and unto God the things which are God’s”.

This marked the distinction between the religious and political authority or, in other words, between church and state. For many centuries until the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the 4th century, Christianity remained a persecuted religion. During this course of the struggle, Christians formulated a distinctive institution: the church, possessing its own unique laws and its own hierarchy. Throughout Christian history, Church and state continued to co-exist side by side as different institutions. There were times in Christendom when priests exercised temporal power or when the kings claimed divine right over the church. But these were aberrations from the Christian norms.

In contrast, in Judaism and Islam, God is Caesar and a similar distinction between religious and state affairs does not exist. Therefore, both these faiths lack the presence of a native secularism. Then there is another sense in which Islam differs from both of its precursors. Moses died before he could enter the promised land, and Jesus was crucified. Even though Jesus’ death and his resurrection are considered an intrinsic and inextricable part of Christian doctrine, one can from a secular perspective say that both Moses and Jesus did not live long enough to see their quest becoming a reality. The memories of these two faiths are deeply impacted by the significance of these events. Mohammad, on the contrary, became victorious and triumphant in his very lifetime. During his life, Islamic society became not just a religious community but also a political one. He governed over place and people, collected taxes, dispensed justice, commanded troops, waged wars, and signed treaties. Unlike Christians who had to wait until the arrival of Constantine to exercise some temporal influence, Mohammad was his own Constantine. This is what the Islamist ideologues often say, that politics is essential to Islam and Mohammad was not simply a spiritual mentor but also a political figure. Though, what should be noted here is that Islamists quite inordinately exaggerate the political dynamics of Islam. The difference between the traditionalist understanding of Islam and the Islamist understanding is that the first perceives Mohammad as a messenger of God sent to correct the morally and religiously corrupted souls and guide them towards prosperity. Most Muslims and almost all sects of Islam classify Mohammad first and foremost as a spiritual figure, but they also never disregard the political underpinnings of the religion. They believe it is highly fruitful to establish a state governed by Islamic laws but they keep this attempt to very minimal while focusing more on the soteriological tenets of the faith. Islamists, on the other hand, being influenced by other totalitarian ideologies of the twentieth century, depict Mohammad as first a political figure, since monotheistic traditions were already present prior to his arrival, albeit, in distorted forms. They believe Mohammad came to establish God’s kingdom. In this sense, Islamists differ fundamentally from most Muslims.

So, the question which then arises is, despite such inherent obstructions, can Islam still be reformed?

Many of my secularist counterparts believe that Islam cannot be reformed and that the Quran does not provide any room for any possible alteration since it claims to be the literal word of God valid until the very end of times. It is true that the Quran claims to be the literal word of God, and the co-eternity of the Quran is regarded as a vital part of Islamic doctrine. But, despite this claim, it still relies on people for its interpretations, and people can interpret it differently depending on their requirements.

From the nineteenth century on, and even prior to that, Islam has not been the same in many ways. One may argue that since the nineteenth-century it has only gotten worse despite the attempts of some courageous individuals to modernize it. Who were they and why did they not succeed in their quest, is the main emphasis of this article.

The quotation cited at the very beginning of the article is not an utterance of a contemporary Muslim reformist or secularist, but of a nineteenth-century Ottoman writer and patriot, Namik Kemal, published in a newspaper Tasvir-I Efkar in 1867.

Kemal was one of the leaders of the Young Ottomans, a secret group formed by Turkish intellectuals who felt discontented with the reforms brought by the Ottoman Empire under the “Tanzimat” program. Tanzimat (Reorganization) were a series of reforms enacted in the Ottoman empire between 1839 and 1876. These reforms were deeply influenced by European ideas and developments and sought to alter the nature of the empire from an outdated system based on religious principles to that of a modern state.

It promised, among many other things:

· Equality of all the citizens regardless of race and religion. That meant, that Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities were to be deemed as equal citizens of the empire.

· The decriminalization of homosexuality (1858)

· Abolition of slavery and the slave trade (1847).

For nationalists like Kemal, these reforms were promulgated simply to please the foreign powers, particularly the French and the British. There is truth to this since the western powers, being clearly victorious over the Muslim empires after centuries of confrontation, did pressurize them to introduce new reforms. The British, for instance, sought to persuade the Ottomans to abolish the traffic in Black slaves from Africa. ii Western powers also demanded that the Ottomans treat the Christian citizens of their empire with more dignity and grant them more rights. In this case, the Christians were the intended beneficiaries, and Jews, the accidental.

Kemal, however, envisaged something very different for Istanbul, an autonomous, elected body- a real parliament. Being an ardent Muslim who translated the Quran into Turkish, Kemal sought to justify his quest for constitutionalism from an Islamic point of view. In this regard, he referred to the 159th verse of the third chapter of the Quran, where Mohammad was urged by God to make consul with his followers while making a decision. Kemal quoted this verse to demonstrate the congruity between Islam and the principles of consultation. Many Muslim scholars had decried the institution of parliament as an “innovation” and perversion of faith, but Kemal remarked that it was no more an illegal innovation than steamships, and “should the Ottoman Empire then not buy steamships, and let the Greeks capture Crete with their little lemon boats?”. iii

Kemal found nothing in the Sharia against a republican government. Given the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, he felt that a constitutional monarchy would be best suited and suggested the British constitutional monarchy as a model, by which he was remarkably impressed. He opposed the Western intervention on one hand, but he also gloried in the achievements of the West. The Turkish nationalism as it developed in the following years remained deeply indebted to Kemal and his likes. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey, was also influenced by Namik Kemal’s ideas.

Like Turkey, Egypt also produced reformists of Kemal’s stature, ever since the arrival of Napoleon and his troops in the country in 1798. One of them was Qasim Amin, a young Egyptian lawyer who studied in Paris and seems to have been influenced by the developments he witnessed there. He wrote a book in Arabic, entitled “The liberation of Woman”, in which he argued for more women rights in Muslim societies. In particular, he proposed to interdict the veil and to reinterpret the Quranic provisions that had usually been understood as authorizing polygamy and concubinage. He believed that only by freeing women could Muslim society be free since a free society is the one where all members of society are free. He was chided by the traditional circles for his iconoclastic views but the book continued to be read by many and was also translated into Turkish. iv

But the reforms in Egypt were largely spearheaded by Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849-1095), a trained cleric versed in classical Islam. He was an acolyte of Sayyid Jamal al-Din Afghani, another important Islamic figure of the nineteenth century, but unlike his mentor did not loathe the Western imperialists. He was allowed re-entry into Egypt by the then British de facto ruler of the country, Lord Cromer. This resulted in the beginning of a cordial relationship between the two. Albeit, Abduh criticized the British occupiers, he nevertheless maintained a healthy relationship with them. Indeed, Cromer proved instrumental in mainstreaming Abduh’s modernist views and providing them more public limelight.

He delivered a series of lectures that were later on compiled and published as a book called “The Theology of Unity”. In this manifesto of Modernist Islam, Abduh argued in favor of opting for a middle path between the Mu’tazili school which stressed deeply upon the use of reason and the schools that rejected all debate and reason such as the Zahiri (Literalists). He famously asserted that “man was not created to be led by a bridle”.

With time, he became the most heard clerical voice, not only in Egypt but also in Iran and Turkey, where his work inspired Taqiazadeh and Gokalp, two scholars leading the movement for reform in their respective countries. Abduh’s and his followers also attempted to re-open the doors of Ijtihad- independent reasoning- which had been slammed shut in the sixteenth century by Ottoman jurists.

Abduh as a mufti (an Islamic scholar authorized to issue a religious decree) not only denounced traditionalist Islamic practices, such as Taqlid (imitating an established Islamic authority), he also revived the old and forgotten Mutazilite idea that the Quran was not co-eternal, which implied that it could be interpreted differently in different times and could also contain errors introduced by humans. He spoke out against the already decaying institution of polygamy and also debated against the notion of predestination. He also adopted evolution into his corpus of natural law. v

But Abduh’s best-known interventions in the lives of Muslims were his fatwas-opinions issued by a cleric that carry adequate legitimacy to overturn existing Islamic interpretations and propose alternative ones. For instance, in 1901, he authorized property insurance, hitherto forbidden on grounds that it was a kind of gambling. He also allowed Muslims to eat meat slaughtered by Christians and others, which does not comply with the Islamic guideline of slitting the animal’s throat. He was perhaps the greatest conciliator between Islam and liberalism.

Reading this, one may quite naturally be tempted to ask, how come the Muslim world in general lags so far behind in terms of incorporating modern ideas, if there have been modernists and reformists in the Muslim societies since at least the nineteenth century?

The answer to this question is that just as there have been modernists who have tried to harmonize Islam with liberal ideas, there have been individuals who have sought to achieve the very opposite. And for the larger part of Islamic history, up until know, the modernists have mostly lost, and their opponents have largely won. Now, this leads us to another inquiry, which is, why have the reformists lost?

For many centuries after its inception, Islam remained the world’s greatest civilization. Muslims were the main torch-bearers of literature, arts, science, governance, and military. Being a Muslim implied being an adherent of a victorious faith.

But after the sixteenth-century things started to reverse. Europe, which had previously relied heavily upon Muslims’ scientific achievements, started to thrive on her own. Muslim armies were defeated first on the lands, then on the seas, and subsequently in remaining fields of life. Europe, which most Muslims regarded as barbaric and as the land of the infidels, was now carving out the new civilization.

The European advancements in various fields were not only confined to Europe alone but had far-reaching influence. Such influence was also felt in the Muslim territories. Ottomans had started to introduce changes in their military and administrative systems since the treaty of Karlowitz singed in 1699, in the conclusion of the Great Turkish War, which the Ottomans lost. It marked the end of the Ottoman control in much of Central Europe.

This decline of the Muslim world vis-a-vis the rise of Christian Europe cultivated two types of responses in the Muslim society. One response was of admitting one’s defeat and displaying susceptibility towards European ideas. The adherents of this class were the reformists. Often the reformists like the ones aforementioned tried to rationalize their attempts from within an Islamic perspective, by reinterpreting the Islamic injunctions in a way that they reconcile with modern developments while others, like Ataturk, opted for more secularist stances. Only because they showed openness to and acceptance of foreign ideas, does not mean they admired the foreign powers, as evidenced by the excessive nationalist fabric of Kemal’s work. They, however, acknowledged that changing needs and changing times require changes in rules as well.

The other response, too, admitted defeat but also displayed utter disdain and hate towards European principles. The partisans of this league did not believe that the Muslim world declined because it failed to address the requirements of time, they believed it deteriorated because it had simply stopped adhering to the correct teachings of Islam, or perverted its true doctrine. They prescribed going back to the true instructions of Islam. Out of this school, emerged the Wahhabi movement of Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia) and Puritanical movements elsewhere in the Islamic world. The Islamists, responsible for most of the religiously inspired terrorism in the present world, also emerged out of this very thinking.

Bernard Lewis, a celebrated historian on Islam and the Middle East, quite aptly described the two phenomena. He believed that the earlier group posed the question, “What did we do wrong”, while the latter asked “Who did this to us?”.

While the first campaigned for finding flaws within oneself, the second favored looking for scapegoats. Sometimes, the scapegoats were the Jews, sometimes Christians, and sometimes- in fact, most of the times- they were the people within Muslim societies; the reformists condemned by the radicals as traitors and deemed as deserving more severe punishment for leaving their roots and adopting foreign principles.

This can be easily seen in the opening sentence of a passage in the widely circulated booklet by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Sadat of Egypt:

“Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy”. vi

Here the near enemy implies native secularizers (even if some of them were not truly secular), like Ataturk of Turkey, Nasser of Egypt, Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi), Hafez al-Assad of Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, and also Islamic modernist thinkers who try to bridge secularism and Islam.

Another major impediment in the emergence of a modernized Islam is the lack of institutional authority in Islam. Many Muslim reformists advocate liberal views, but they speak only for themselves and carry no institutional power. And whereas reformists need to rely upon contextual analysis of the text in lieu of taking the text literally, the extremists simply have to cite clear verses from the Quran to demonstrate their views and prevail-over the reformists. This is perhaps one of the negatives of the ceasing of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman ruler was not simply a governor of a specific state; he was also widely recognized as the Caliph, the head of all Sunni Islam. The Caliphate remained a potent symbol of Muslim unity and even identity. Many Muslims viewed the Caliph as the religious and political head of the Muslim community. This was perhaps the only institution in Islam, though mostly political in nature, that could have accelerated the quest for a modern Islam, and the above-mentioned policies of the late Ottoman period do testify to this. Its fall gave others, notably the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to claim the same authority for themselves. It is also worth knowing that when the Ottomans decided to abolish slavery, the most vocal religious opposition to it came from the scholars of Hijaz who declared:-

“With such proposals the Turks have become infidels. Their blood is forfeit and it is lawful to make their children slaves”. vii

Sadly, the reformists did not win the battle in the last century and the fundamentalists have had a much bigger impact. Even though most Muslims do not follow either the hardcore teachings of Wahhabi doctrine or the Jihadist literature of Islamists, the two still have exerted more influence on the global scene due to their greater mobility and more coherent ideology. The two have been more successful in gravitating the Muslim youth towards themselves. The reason for that is that we quite naturally look towards scapegoats and very often chose to escape reality and our own inherent flaws.

There are many Muslims scholars today who advocate secularism despite Islam’s apparent non-secular structure. They cite passages from within the Islamic scriptures to justify their position, for instance the famous saying of Mohammad transmitted in Sahih Muslim, one of the most important canonical sources of Hadith in Sunni Islam, where the Prophet told his followers”You know best about your worldly matters”, in a case where people sought his advice on a matter relating to agriculture.

So might the pendulum swing the opposite way in our times? A growing number of people around the world are developing a very genuine and rational fear of Islam, which also contributes to the development of grudges against Muslims. Many Muslims find themselves defending the picture of their religion and dissociating their faith from the horrors of Isis and Al-Qaeda. It might be the time for the reformists to finally gain the upper hand in convincing Muslims that the only to save their faith, and even themselves, is by adapting to modernity and by synchronizing their ideas with that of the contemporary civilized world. It is not going to be easy, and It will definitely be met with hostility from within the orthodox Muslim community. But that is what the task of theology has always been that within the restraints laid down by the sacred text, to nevertheless formulate a viable style of living.

Bibliography:

i English Translation in B.Lewis, A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History(NewYork: 2000), p.192.

ii B.Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (UK:2002), p.97-98.

iii Davison, Reform in the Ottoman Empire,p.224.

iv Kasim Amin, Liberation of Woman (Cairo:1899). The book was rendered into English by Samiha Sidhom Peterson in Cairo in 2000.

v Christopher De Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern struggle between Faith and Reason (London: 2017), p.284.

vi Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York and London: 1986), Chapter I.

vii Cevdet, Tezakir, p.111.