Monday, 20 June 2011

Rethinking Islam

Rethinking Islam

By Ziauddin Sardar

of Postcolonial Studies, London

Serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue. Muslims have been
comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations
for much too long. This is why we feel so painful in the contemporary
world, so uncomfortable with modernity. Scholars and thinkers have
been suggesting for well over a century that we need to make a serious
attempt at Ijtihad, at reasoned struggle and rethinking, to reform
Islam. At the beginning of the last century, Jamaluddin Afghani
and Mohammad Abduh led the call for a new Ijtihad; and along the
way many notable intellectuals, academics and sages have added to
this plea - not least Mohammad Iqbal, Malik bin Nabbi and Abdul
Qadir Audah. Yet, ijtihad is one thing Muslim societies have singularly
failed to undertake. Why?

The why has now acquired an added urgency. Just look around the
Muslim world and see how far we have travelled away from the ideals
and spirit of Islam. Far from being a liberating force, a kinetic
social, cultural and intellectual dynamics for equality, justice
and humane values, Islam seems to have acquired a pathological strain.
Indeed, it seems to me that we have internalised all those historic
and contemporary western representations of Islam and Muslims that
have been demonising us for centuries. We now actually wear the
garb, I have to confess, of the very demons that the West has been
projecting on our collective personality.

But to blame the West, or a notion of instrumental modernity that
is all but alien to us, would be a lazy option. True, the West,
and particularly America, has a great deal to answer for. And Muslims
are quick to point a finger at the injustices committed by American
and European foreign policies and hegemonic tendencies. However,
that is only a part, and in my opinion not an insurmountable part,
of the malaise. Hegemony is not always imposed; sometimes, it is
invited. The internal situation within Islam is an open invitation.

We have failed to respond to the summons to Ijtihad for some very
profound reasons. Prime amongst these is the fact that the context
of our sacred texts – the Qur’an and the examples of
the Prophet Muhammad, our absolute frame of reference – has
been frozen in history. One can only have an interpretative relationship
with a text – even more so if the text is perceived to be
eternal. But if the interpretative context of the text is never
our context, not our own time, then its interpretation can hardly
have any real meaning or significance for us as we are now. Historic
interpretations constantly drag us back to history, to frozen and
ossified context of long ago; worse, to perceived and romanticised
contexts that have not even existed in history. This is why while
Muslims have a strong emotional attachment to Islam, Islam per se,
as a worldview and system of ethics, has little or no direct relevance
to their daily lives apart from the obvious concerns of rituals
and worship. Ijtihad and fresh thinking have not been possible because
there is no context within which they can actually take place.

The freezing of interpretation, the closure of ‘the gates
of ijtihad’, has had a devastating effect on Muslim thought
and action. In particular, it has produced what I can only describe
as three metaphysical catastrophes: the elevation of the Shari`ah
to the level of the Divine, with the consequent removal of agency
from the believers, and the equation of Islam with the State. Let
me elaborate.

Most Muslims consider the Shari`ah, commonly translated as ‘Islamic
law’, to be divine. Yet, there is nothing divine about the
Shari`ah. The only thing that can legitimately be described as divine
in Islam is the Qur’an. The Shari`ah is a human construction;
an attempt to understand the divine will in a particular context.
This is why the bulk of the Shari`ah actually consists of fiqh or
jurisprudence, which is nothing more than legal opinion of classical
jurists. The very term fiqh was not in vogue before the Abbasid
period when it was actually formulated and codified. But when fiqh
assumed its systematic legal form, it incorporated three vital aspects
of Muslim society of the Abbasid period. At that juncture, Muslim
history was in its expansionist phase, and fiqh incorporated the
logic of Muslim imperialism of that time. The fiqh rulings on apostasy,
for example, derive not from the Qur'an but from this logic. Moreover,
the world was simple and could easily be divided into black and
white: hence, the division of the world into Daral Islam and Daral
Harb. Furthermore, as the framers of law were not by this stage
managers of society, the law became merely theory which could not
be modified - the framers of the law were unable to see where the
faults lay and what aspect of the law needed fresh thinking and
reformulation. Thus fiqh, as we know it today, evolved on the basis
of a division between those who were governing and set themselves
apart from society and those who were framing the law; the epistemological
assumptions of a ‘golden’ phase of Muslim history also
came into play. When we describe the Shari`ah as divine, we actually
provide divine sanctions for the rulings of by-gone fiqh.

What this means in reality is that when Muslim countries apply
or impose the Shari`ah – the demands of Muslims from Indonesia
to Nigeria - the contradictions that were inherent in the formulation
and evolution of fiqh come to the fore. That is why wherever the
Shari`ah is imposed – that is, fiqhi legislation is applied,
out of context from the time when it was formulated and out of step
with ours - Muslim societies acquire a medieval feel. We can see
that in Saudi Arabia, the Sudan and the Taliban Afghanistan. When
narrow adherence to fiqh, to the dictates of this or that school
of thought, whether it has any relevance to real world or not, becomes
the norm, ossification sets in. The Shari`ah will solve all our
problems becomes the common sentiment; and it becomes necessary
for a group with vested interest in this notion of the Shari`ah
to preserve its territory, the source of its power and prestige,
at all costs. An outmoded body of law is thus equated with the Shari`ah,
and criticism is shunned and outlawed by appealing to its divine

The elevation of the Shari`ah to the divine level also means the
believers themselves have no agency: since The Law is a priori given
people themselves have nothing to do expect to follow it. Believers
thus become passive receivers rather than active seekers of truth.
In reality, the Shari`ah is nothing more than a set of principles,
a framework of values, that provide Muslim societies with guidance.
But these sets of principles and values are not a static given but
are dynamically derived within changing contexts. As such, the Shari`ah
is a problem-solving methodology rather than law. It requires the
believers to exert themselves and constantly reinterpret the Qur’an
and look at the life of the Prophet Muhammad with ever changing
fresh eyes. Indeed, the Qur’an has to be reinterpreted from
epoch to epoch – which means the Shari`ah, and by extension
Islam itself, has to be reformulated with changing contexts. The
only thing that remains constant in Islam is the text of the Qur’an
itself – its concepts providing the anchor for ever changing

Islam is not so much a religion but an integrative worldview: that
is to say, it integrates all aspects of reality by providing a moral
perspective on every aspect of human endeavour. Islam does not provide
ready-made answers to all human problems; it provides a moral and
just perspective within which Muslims must endeavour to find answers
to all human problems. But if everything is a priori given, in the
shape of a divine Shari`ah, then Islam is reduced to a totalistic
ideology. Indeed, this is exactly what the Islamic movements –
in particularly Jamaat-e-Islami (both Pakistani and Indian varieties)
and the Muslim Brotherhood – have reduced Islam to. Which
brings me to the third metaphysical catastrophe. Place this ideology
within a nation state, with divinely attributed Shari`ah at its
centre, and you have an ‘Islamic state’. All contemporary
‘Islamic states’, from Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan
to aspiring Pakistan, are based on this ridiculous assumption. But
once Islam, as an ideology, becomes a programme of action of a vested
group, it looses its humanity and becomes a battlefield where morality,
reason and justice are readily sacrificed at the alter of emotions.
Moreover, the step from a totalistic ideology to a totalitarian
order where every human-situation is open to state-arbitration is
a small one. The transformation of Islam into a state-based political
ideology not only deprives it of its all moral and ethical content,
it also debunks most of Muslim history as un-Islamic. Invariably,
when Islamists rediscover a ‘golden’ past, they do so
only in order to disdain the present and mock the future. All we
are left with is messianic chaos, as we saw so vividly in the Taliban
regime, where all politics as the domain of action is paralysed
and meaningless pieties become the foundational truth of the state.

The totalitarian vision of Islam as a State thus transforms Muslim
politics into a metaphysics: in such an enterprise, every action
can be justified as ‘Islamic’ by the dictates of political
expediency as we witnessed in revolutionary Iran.

The three metaphysical catastrophes are accentuated by an overall
process of reduction that has become the norm in Muslim societies.
The reductive process itself is also not new; but now it has reached
such an absurd state that the very ideas that are supposed to take
Muslims societies towards humane values now actually take them in
the opposite direction. From the subtle beauty of a perennial challenge
to construct justice through mercy and compassion, we get mechanistic
formulae fixated with the extremes repeated by people convinced
they have no duty to think for themselves because all questions
have been answered for them by the classical `ulamas, far better
men long dead. And because everything carries the brand name of
Islam, to question it, or argue against it, is tantamount to voting
for sin.

The process of reduction started with the very notion of `alim
(scholar) itself. Just who is an `alim; what makes him an authority?
In early Islam, an `alim was anyone who acquired `ilm, or knowledge,
which was itself described in a broad sense. We can see that in
the early classifications of knowledge by such scholars as al-Kindi,
al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali and Ibn Khuldun. Indeed, both the
definition of knowledge and its classification was a major intellectual
activity in classical Islam. So all learned men, scientists as well
as philosophers, scholars as well as theologians, constituted the
`ulama. But after the ‘gates of ijtihad’ were closed
during the Abbasid era, ilm was increasingly reduced to religious
knowledge and the `ulama came to constitute only religious scholars.

Similarly, the idea of ijma, the central notion of communal life
in Islam, has been reduced to the consensus of a select few. Ijma
literally means consensus of the people. The concept dates back
to the practice of Prophet Muhammad himself as leader of the original
polity of Muslims. When the Prophet Muhammad wanted to reach a decision,
he would call the whole Muslim community – then, admittedly
not very large – to the mosque. A discussion would ensue;
arguments for and against would be presented. Finally, the entire
gathering would reach a consensus. Thus, a democratic spirit was
central to communal and political life in early Islam. But over
time the clerics and religious scholars have removed the people
from the equation – and reduced ijma to ‘the consensus
of the religious scholars’. Not surprisingly, authoritarianism,
theocracy and despotism reigns supreme in the Muslim world. The
political domain finds its model in what has become the accepted
practice and metier of the authoritatively ‘religious’
adepts, those who claim the monopoly of exposition of Islam. Obscurantist
Mullahs, in the guise of the `ulama, dominate Muslim societies and
circumscribe them with fanaticism and absurdly reductive logic.

Numerous other concepts have gone through similar process of reduction.
The concept of Ummah, the global spiritual community of Muslims,
has been reduced to the ideals of a nation state: ‘my country
right or wrong’ has been transpose to read ‘my Ummah
right or wrong’. So even despots like Saddam Hussein are now
defended on the basis of ‘Ummah consciousness’ and ‘unity
of the Ummah’. Jihad has now been reduced to the single meaning
of ‘Holy War’. This translation is perverse not only
because the concept’s spiritual, intellectual and social components
have been stripped away, but it has been reduced to war by any means,
including terrorism. So anyone can now declare jihad on anyone,
without any ethical or moral rhyme or reason. Nothing could be more
perverted, or pathologically more distant from the initial meaning
of jihad. It’s other connotations, including personal struggle,
intellectual endeavour, and social construction have all but evaporated.
Istislah, normally rendered as ‘public interest’ and
a major source of Islamic law, has all but disappeared from Muslim
consciousness. And Ijtihad, as I have suggested, has now been reduced
to little more than a pious desire.

But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant
compared to the reductive way the Qur’an and the sayings and
examples of the Prophet Muhammad are brandied about. What the late
Muslim scholar, Fazlur Rahman called the ‘atomistic’
treatment of the Qur’an is now the norm: almost anything and
everything is justified by quoting individual bits of verses out
of context. After the September 11 event, for example, a number
of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their
actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror
into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom
no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3:
149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not
be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an. In this particular
verse, the Qur’an is addressing Prophet Muhammad himself.
It was revealed during the battle of Uhud, when the small and ill
equipped army of the Prophet, faced a much larger and well-equipped
enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an
reassures him and promises the enemy will be terrified with the
Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is
not a general instruction to all Muslims; but a commentary on what
was happening at that time. Similarly hadiths are quoted to justify
the most extremes of behaviour. And the Prophet’s own appearance,
his beard and cloths, have been turned into a fetish: so now it
is not just obligatory for a ‘good Muslim’ to have a
beard, but its length and shape must also conform to dictates! The
Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols – the spirit
of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions,
his humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated
have all been subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

The accumulative effect of the metaphysical catastrophes and endless
reduction has transformed the cherished tenants of Islam into instruments
of militant expediency and moral bankruptcy. For over two decades,
in books like The Future of Muslim Civilisation (1979) and Islamic
Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come (1985), I have been arguing
that Muslim civilisation is now so fragmented and shattered that
we have to rebuild it, ‘brick by brick’. It is now obvious
that Islam itself has to be rethought, idea by idea. We need to
begin with the simple fact that Muslims have no monopoly on truth,
on what is right, on what is good, on justice, nor the intellectual
and moral reflexes that promote these necessities. Like the rest
of humanity, we have to struggle to achieve them using our own sacred
notions and concepts as tools for understanding and reshaping contemporary

The way to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires
confronting the metaphysical catastrophes and moving away from reduction
to synthesis. Primarily, this requires Muslims, as individuals and
communities, to reclaim agency: to insist on their right and duty,
as believers and knowledgeable people, to interpret and reinterpret
the basic sources of Islam: to question what now goes under the
general rubric of Shari`ah, to declare that much of fiqh is now
dangerously obsolete, to stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam
confined by a geographically bound state. We cannot, if we really
value our faith, leave its exposition in the hands of under educated
elites, religious scholars whose lack of comprehension of the contemporary
world is usually matched only by their disdain and contempt for
all its ideas and cultural products. Islam has been permitted to
languish as the professional domain of people more familiar with
the world of the eleventh century than the twenty-first century
we now inhabit. And we cannot allow this class to bury the noble
idea of Ijtihad into frozen and distant history.

Ordinary Muslims around the world who have concerns, questions
and considerable moral dilemmas about the current state of affairs
of Islam must reclaim the basic concepts of Islam and reframe them
in a broader context. Ijma must mean consensus of all citizens leading
to participatory and accountable governance. Jihad must be understood
in its complete spiritual meaning as the struggle for peace and
justice as a lived reality for all people everywhere. And the notion
of the Ummah must be refined so it becomes something more than a
mere reductive abstraction. As Anwar Ibrahim has argued, the Ummah
is not ‘merely the community of all those who profess to be
Muslims’; rather, it is a ‘moral conception of how Muslims
should become a community in relation to each other, other communities
and the natural world’. Which means Ummah incorporates not
just the Muslims, but justice seeking and oppressed people everywhere.
In a sense, the movement towards synthesis is an advance towards
the primary meaning and message of Islam – as a moral and
ethical way of looking and shaping the world, as a domain of peaceful
civic culture, a participatory endeavour, and a holistic mode of
knowing, being and doing.


Ziauddin Sardar: A cultural critic, Muslim scholar, author of many
books, and editor of Futures: The Journal of Planning, Policy, and
Futures Studies. His newest book is Ziauddin Sardar's A-Z of Postmodern
Life (Visions Publications, Feb 2002). He is based in London.



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