A revision of Salman Rushdie’s vision –
We need ijtihadis, not jihadis
Salman Rushdie recently called for an ‘Islamic Reformation’. Being a secular-mined Muslim, I agree with his assertion that Islam requires a reform movement – something I have felt is necessary for many years. However, I feel his argument overlooks several important factors. Firstly, the idea of a reformation is nothing new – in fact, the history of modern Islam has been replete with reformers, particularly from the late 19th to mid-20th century.
Foremost among these were perhaps Muhammad Abdu and Gamal el-Din al-Afghani (in Egypt) and Muhammad Iqbal (in Pakistan), among many others. In addition, Islam was not always the static and stagnant entity that certain fundamentalists, one should actually call them puritans, seek to perpetuate today. Muhammad Abdu, for instance, advocated the marrying of modern western sciences with traditional Islamic ones. At a time when western women also dwelled nearer the margins of society, he co-authored a book with Qassim Amin (the godfather of Egyptian feminism, so to speak) entitled The emancipation of women.
In addition, Islam has a rich and ancient history of ijtihad (a word derived from jihad, which means intellectual and spiritual struggle, and here denotes an evolution of core ideas and concepts to fit emerging circumstances). So, in a way, Islam needs a revival of ijtihad which was an important tool during its golden era of scientific progress in medieval times – i.e. Europe’s dark ages. Ijtihad was based on the “acceptance of the concept that all ideas, even sacred ones, must adapt to altered realities” which Rushdie expounds for his Islamic Reformation.
Although my life has been marked by a constant drift away from organised religion, I find Rushdie’s view of contemporary Islam is too simplistic and one-sided. He talks about the urgent need for Muslims to view Islam as part of history not outside it. I find it is only the radical ‘Islamofascists’ he refers to who view Islam as an unchanging, lush oasis set in the midst of the harsh deserts of time, and who wish to recreate this ancient paradise, guided by the misconception that, by emulating the way people ate or entered the bathroom, they could somehow regain the splendour and might of the golden age.
Moreover, even conservative and traditionalist Muslims see the historical context of their religion. The degree to which they do so depends on how traditional or reformist they are in their outlook.
Rushdie also overlooks that Islam does more than just reflect “the socioeconomics of the seventh century”. If you were to transport an Arab from seventh century Arabia to the modern Muslim world, he would hardly recognise it. In addition, many tenets Muslims take for granted today were formalised in later centuries following ijtihad, shura (consultation) and ijma’a (consensus). The key difference is that the rate of change and evolution Islam encountered in modern times has slowed considerably compared to those heady early centuries.
“The insistence that the Koranic text is the infallible, uncreated word of God renders analytical, scholarly discourse all but impossible... If, however, the Koran were seen as a historical document, then it would be legitimate to reinterpret it to suit the new conditions of successive new ages,” Rushdie claims.
Being of a secular disposition, I have no trouble viewing the Quran as a historical document. However, Rushdie’s assertion displays a massive inability to understand one of the basic tenets of faith or religion: scripture is sacred. One of the basic requirements of being a Muslim believer, and the Quran constantly challenges the reader to do so, is to believe that the holy book is the word of God. This is nothing exceptional, particularly in monotheistic faiths: you cannot be a Christian without believing in Jesus' divinity; you cannot be a Jew without believing in the sacredness of the Ten Commandments and the Torah.
However, while viewing the Quran as the ‘infallible’ word of God, Muslim reformers regard it as wide open to interpretation (to them, it is both historic and sacred), i.e. that Muslims are welcome to challenge common interpretation and propose new ones, as happened during the days of ijtihad and is still going on in some quarters of the Muslim world today, especially among feminists.
In addition, much of what is accepted as ‘Islamic’ today is based on sunna, traditions that are based on the behaviour of the Prophet. To reformers, these are not essential facets of Islam since even Muhammad called on his followers not to take him as an ‘infallible’ example since he, too, was human – especially in his love of women. In fact, the Quran itself constantly calls on the reader to think over what it says and challenge it. So, it is unfortunate that most modern madrasas don’t promote such freethinking.
I would personally like to see a move towards secularism in the Muslim world. However, the window for that happening – which began to open in the 19th century and had its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s – became quite firmly shut in the 1970s and 1980s. This was partly due to the discrediting of modern Western ideals – such as western model of democracy – in the minds of many Muslims due to their cynical manipulation to advance the geopolitical and economic interests of the West, which gave ‘fiery clerics’, as the media loves to call them, the upper hand.
The West’s propping up of corrupt dictators and its contribution to certain protracted conflicts, as well as its unassailable military and technological supremacy, have pushed some Muslims away from their one-time desire to emulate the West. In addition, ‘fundis’ were seen by local dictators and Western powers alike as a convenient tool for ‘counterbalancing’ secular nationalist and progressive forces – a tactic that has backfired dramatically.
But, at the end of the day, Muslims bear the brunt of responsibility for the relative stagnation in which they live – blaming classical imperialism and its neo varieties will only take us so far. Muslims need to turn their attentions to getting their own house in order.
Whether or not they want to follow the western model of development should only be for Muslims to decide. But they urgently need to decide on the path to dynamism that they wish to pursue. In their bid to find a third way, I hope that Muslims the world over – diverse as they are – will be swayed by ijtihad and not the violent jihad advocated by bin Laden and his ilk. Ultimately, ijtihadis are much better for us all than jihadis.
ã2005 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.