Islam, Muslims, and Reform
By Dr. Nazir Khaja
Chairman, Islamic Information Service
Thursday, April 24, 2008
The Turkish Government has recently launched a reform initiative,
which is raising many eyebrows. With the view of modernization of
Islam it has embarked upon the task of publishing a document that
represents a revolutionary reinterpretation of the religion.
A team of theologians from Ankara University has been assigned the
task of revising Hadith, the second most important foundational basis
of Islam. The Hadiths are a compendium of Prophet Muhammad's
directives and sayings, which the Muslims hold to be authoritative in
guiding them in their conduct in all matters. Its authority is next to
the Qur'an, which is God's revealed word to the Prophet, yet it also
serves as the principal guide in interpreting the Qur'an itself; it
also constitutes the basis of Islamic law or Sharia.
The prevailing attitudes among Muslims regarding the Qur'an and the
Sunnah have stood in the way of Reform, which is badly needed in
Islam. Many Muslims claim that all injunctions and precepts found in
the Qur'an are absolute and applicable to this day. Although the
Qur'an has a universal, timeless character, and its text must open to
a modern interpretation of Islam that is beyond the strict,
traditional literal interpretation of the Qur'an and the spiritual
heritage of the religion, there is a great deal of hesitation among
Many reform-minded scholars have suggested that the Qur'an be
understood in the historical context of the seventh century, since it
dates from this period. And today it must be read anew word by word
for the twenty-first century – a project which the' traditionalists'
among Islamic theologians categorically reject.
A pre-eminent scholar of the 20th Century Prof. Fazlur Rahman
understood the Koran as a collection of specific examples or general
rules, behind which a 'true meaning' must be sought. He and others
have argued that Islam, like all other faiths, must be understood in
its two dimensions: Qur'anic and historical.
Qur'anic Islam is the one that represents a total Islamic worldview
based on the genuine and authentic interpretation of the Qur'an. The
historical Islam is the outcome largely from its interaction with the
blood and flesh of history; this is not always necessarily compatible
with the Prophet's true mission as 'a grace towards all mankind' just
as historical Christianity can be believed to be entirely representing
the message of Jesus.
In the countries in which Islam predominates there is widespread
institutional failure and democratic deficit. This has contributed to
a chronic tendency toward theocratic despotism and there is only
fragile institutional structure that can hardly impose some discipline
on the chaos and confusion. The Muslim societies therefore remain in
turmoil despite being in the grip of authoritarianism. Consequently in
the Muslim World today there is a festering revolt against the decay
and humiliation of their societies. This has turned the face of Muslim
masses towards the idea of 'returning to the roots of Islam' - the
notion that the 'Salafis' and other purists or 'fundamentalists'
exploit making the situation worse. This has further strengthened the
hands of a self-selected or state-sponsored bunch of Sheikhs or Ulemas
the right to enunciate for the masses what God means in the Qur'an or
other Islamic texts. And it is these largely 'traditionalist' scholars
with 'literalist' orientation who claim to have the right to say on so
many things what the community thinks. The rest of the Muslim
community remains marginalized and lacks the nerve to challenge them.
Muslims now must come to terms with the many questions that are being
raised daily about them and Islam. They must realize that answers to
these will have to be discovered in the light of Islam's contemporary
experiences and not by seeking refuge in its past historical
experience. What is needed now in the thirteenth hour are different
ways of understanding and responding to the many dimensional crises.
The process of adaptation which the earlier Muslims used and which
largely came to an end later, with the 'closing of the door of
Ijtihad' (the 'struggle,' the Islamic word for the use of independent
reasoning to arrive at modern solutions) must now be pursued
The Turkish initiative is certainly bold and timely. The Turkish
argument is that different groups and conservative cultures use the
religion for social and political control; that successive generations
of them have embellished their interest, and buttressed their point of
view and practices by attributing it to the Prophetic Hadith hijacking
Islamic tradition. What is needed is to get rid of these accretions
and cultural baggage, returning Islam to its original values and those
of the Prophet.
It is important to note in the common understanding or impression
regarding Islam that it is largely coterminous with The Middle East if
not Arabia. This unique legacy of the religion seems to make it for
ever indebted to Arab culture not only because of this localization
but more critically on account of the language of the area — Arabic
which is the vessel of the Divine Message to Prophet Muhammad, the
Qur'an. This hegemony of language has a significant bearing on the
political and social aspects of the entire Muslim world the majority
of which - almost 80 percent - is non-Arab and does not speak and
understand Arabic. This is crucial to the understanding of leadership
model among Muslims; even among those living in the West whose claim
to leadership can only be legitimate if they speak Arabic or at least
in their public speaking are able to spout the Qur'anic verses and The
Prophet's traditions in Arabic.
The history of Islam, with Islam's spread away from Arabia the place
of it's` birth is clearly a witness to this phenomenon of cultural and
religious synthesis. In its 'fringe areas,' or periphery such as the
Turkish Ottoman Empire, Africa, or Southeast Asia, Islam was always
remarkably open to synergy in developing new systems and cultures from
itself and discovered traditions. This actually was the reason for its
widespread appeal to diverse cultures. At the same time, the Islamic
center of Arabia was always extremely resistant to these new forms at
Muslims must not be skeptical or fearful of the Turkish project or the
word 'Reform'. They must remain convinced that The Qur'anic Islam is
certainly able to supply that alternative on the condition that
Muslims are ready to get out of the 'prison of history', which they
themselves have created and engineered. All they must do is to
re-engage with it in the spirit of free inquiry which the Qur'an
The Muslims have their work cut out; they must now create a space of
inquiry into philosophical, political, and spiritual meaning or
relevance, of their Faith drawing symbols both from their religious
and the ideological past. If framed properly, this will help them move
from the past into the future. Understanding and separating the
cultural problems, affecting in the final analysis the ideological
orientation, is a necessary step forward for reform. The Turks
certainly deserve all the encouragement and support for having taken
the step in this direction.
Moderator - I am pleased to read this and would like to call attention to our most conservative among us not to pay attention to the games of the words - it is revising Hadiths, it is looking hadiths, how they are applicable to us, living a life in 2008. God's word has to as current as he himself, herself or itself is.
Our sensitivities enhance as we live in the societies with more sensitivity. Back where I am from in India, while I was growing up, people did not care about some one who is handicapped and recklessly called names, the very same people do become sensitive to such calls living in the United States.
Prophet Muhammad lived and practiced his faith in Pluralistic societies, meaning where more than three faiths co-existed, and his saying would reflect that. However, when the Hadiths were compiled, all the four Imams spent an awesome amount of time sorting through the authenticity of them and perhaps did not factor in the kind of society that was practice and the kind of society they (the compilers) practiced the same faith. Spain and India lived the same model as of the Prophet, most Muslim majority nations are in a different world. We are back again to the kind of society Prophet Muhammad lived - initiated one of the first documents of co-existence, in that light, the work under taken by Dr. Nazir Khaja is commendable.
I would even suggest to have Jews, Christians, Hindus and others on the review committee, the outcome would be most universal. Indeed, that is our model at World Muslim Congress –