Reformation of Islam: Past, Present and Future
Reformation of Islam: Past, Present and Future
First and foremost, a belated Happy Independence Day to all Americans. This day is one of the most important days in the history of human civilization: the day when a country that fuels diversity, plurality, opportunity and liberty gained its independence and allowed us to experience our existence on a whole new level.
I had the opportunity to spend this past weekend at the 48th Annual Convention for the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and it was absolutely a rewarding experience on many levels. The theme for this year’s convention was: Loving God, Loving Neighbor, Living in Harmony. Throughout the many parallel sessions I repeatedly heard messages of peace, harmony and co-existence, which I think is an imperative and necessary message for the Muslim community to hear over and over again.
One of the topics I have been interested in is reform, and I think Professor John Esposito of Georgetown University, a non-Muslim secular scholar of Islam, assertively expressed the need for reform to the ISNA audience, emphasizing the practical non-existence of reformed theology in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle East. Now there were many thoughts that went around in my head as I experienced ISNA this year. I have been to the ISNA convention many times in the past but this was my first attendance since my declaration, and so I would be experiencing it with a whole new framework of thoughts and perception. I remember prior to leaving Islam, as I changed my school of thought from orthodox Sunni Islam to a Rationalist-Mu’tazili ideology, which was just about two years prior to my declaration of having left Islam, I was told that this change was in of itself an act of apostasy, kufr and deviance by some of the more conservative Muslims. The two major issues I had with Sunni Islam was its inability to reform its theological perspective as time evolved especially pertaining to specific Shariah laws that would be unjust and even inhumane in contemporary times and also in many cases its inability to embrace Scientific knowledge and discoveries such as Evolution and Determinism, for example (if Muslims were to embrace Evolution or Determinism, this would have immense impact on Islam theologically). ISNA however, on many levels presents itself to be a brand of Islam that has been able to reform American Muslims to think differently. It has not reformed Islam necessarily, but it has reformed Muslims to accept co-existence and harmony and this is a huge step in the right direction. Besides seeing Jews, Christians, Roman Catholics, Shia Muslims (Imam Qazwini), Salafi Muslims (Yasir Qadhi, Yaser Birjas of Al-Maghrib Institute), Sufi Muslims (Shaykh Maghroui , Shaykh Ninowiy), and Moderate Liberals (Tariq Ramadan) speak at different sessions at the ISNA convention but in the Bazaar I came across a booth owned by Lahori Ahmadiyya Muslims (Ahmadis split into two groups, Lahori and Qadiani, Lahoris do not believe Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was a Prophet of Allah while Qadianis who are the majority believe he was) and I also remember when I went to the ISNA convention years ago I saw a larger than life Muslims For (George W.) Bush booth! As I reflect on this I cannot help but to be amazed that the most powerful Muslim organization in America (MSA – Muslim Students Association is directly a part of ISNA as well), is what is producing an atmosphere that would be unheard of in the Middle East. These types of speakers on the same platform not only discussing but actually living in harmony and co-existence is what the Muslim world needs to see and hear repeatedly. ISNA by the way is also the first Muslim organization in history to have a female Amir, namely Dr. Ingrid Mattson. I invited a Christian friend of mine to ISNA this year, Antonio (you can watch our YouTube video at the end of this article) who converted to Islam and left it after three years, and he too agreed with me that if the Middle East had something like an ISNA that we would begin to see a whole new type of Islam in the world. It’s actually possible too, given that figures such as Shaykh Hamza Yusuf and Imam Suhaib Webb, two prominent figures that lecture at ISNA speak fluent Arabic.
My thought is this: as an agnostic who wants peace and civility for our species, I hope and pray that Muslims are able to reform themselves and their religion. I’m not concerned about the truth of Muhammad (sa) or the Qur’an, or theological arguments for or against Islam. What I am concerned about is Muslims being able to reform their mentality and theology to the extent at which they are not trying to enforce their Aqeeda (beliefs) or Shariah (system of laws/rules) on others. When humanity is no longer intimidated by Islam (especially non-Muslims living in Muslim countries) and Muslims are actually living in peace, harmony and co-existence with the rest of us, that would be the ideal goal that I am hoping and praying for.
Now here is the reason why I do think this is possible: my generation (40 years and younger, I’m 27) has experienced plurality and diversity like never before. As a result of exposure to plurality and diversity from a young age, not only are we appreciative of differences but we even celebrate them. The baby-boomers however were brought up with a whole different mentality growing up and I submit to you that it is their mentality that is at the heart of conservativism today. I believe that when the babyboomers pass away in about another 20 or 30 years, when they relinquish their roles as world Leaders in Politics, Religion, Economics, Education, Government, Media and in society in general, and when my generation takes full control of human civilization that we will see a humanity that will be completely reformed and this includes Muslims and even Christians. More and more people are leaving religion from my generation, if not leaving religion they are adopting liberal religious perspectives, and the following generations will exceedingly head in that direction. If you can imagine what the next generations will be like you will realize that plurality, diversity, education, contemporary knowledge and the experience of it changes lives, changes societies, changes mentalities, changes methodologies. I guarantee you, nay I prophesize as God as my witness, that organized religion will be obsolete in the minds and perspectives of our future generations and eventually will be remembered as a part of history just as the mythologies of the Egyptians, Romans and Greeks are remembered today. However, both Islam and Christianity will go through a long period of liberal reform prior to ceasing to exist. The following generations will be liberal when it comes to religion, this I don’t have any doubt in. We see it in Pakistan today, we see it in Iran and we are increasingly seeing it in the Middle East, the youth are becoming more and more educated, more liberal, and more open-minded. In America, more and more Americans are recognizing themselves as being a part of no religion, in the UK there are more citizens claiming to be Atheist now than ever in history and perhaps more so than anywhere else in the world today. Not only are we going to see a Muslim reform, but we will see another Christian reform, and eventually, hundreds of years from now these ancient religions will cease to have any followers at all. My hope is that spirituality, universalism and eclecticism will replace religion.
Now I’ve sort of discussed the present reformation going on in the hearts of Muslims with such organizations as ISNA, I’ve discussed what I think the future holds for Muslim reform and Theological reform in general, and now I want to reflect on the past a little bit, talk about what has gone wrong and why these will not be issues for future reform.
I think if we are going to look at the past we must understand that the social constructs of past civilizations that inevitably have had psychological consequences, conditioning, indoctrination and brainwashing elements to them are not as much of an issue today, not only due to technology that reaches all people throughout this planet, but also due to discoveries in science and other academic disciplines and most importantly the increase of exposure to diversity and plurality in our species like never before. All of this heavily contributes to our ability to co-exist, harmonize and unite as humans in many different ways. It was much easier to get a hold of the minds of people centuries ago than it is today. The information age has allowed individuals access to knowledge like never before.
I also think that past reformation attempts at Islam were heavily focused on traditional theology and the implications of Islam no longer being Islam if we were to question the authority of seventh century interpretations. This is also why Islamic reformation could never be the same type of reformation we saw Christianity go through. In the 1500’s, with Christian reformers such as Martin Luther, John Calvin and Michael Servetus we saw Protestant Reformers who believed that the Hierarchical and Bureaucratic Roman Catholic Church had doctrinally led Christians astray from the Bible. Muslims who are without that hierarchy but do depend on a wide range of traditional scholars, agree that the Islam they practice is the same Islam that Muhammad (sa) and his companions practiced. There is no debating this for the vast majority of Muslims and hence you have practices from seventh century Arabia still going on today. There is a possibility that one might be able to argue that the Rationalist/Mu’tazili perspective of Islam that was responsible for the Golden Age of Islam when Islam preserved and translated Greek Philosophy, built on the Science and Mathematics of Hindus and paved the way for the European Renaissance, that the revival of that version of Islam might bring back a form of Islam more appropriate for todays civilization. Mind you these Mutakallimeen/Rationalist/Mu’tazilites were neither Sunni nor Shia and pretty much disappeared after the emotional protests of Imam Ahmed Ibn Hanbal, arguments against Philosophy from Shaykh Hamid al Ghazali and eventually the rise of the Ottoman Turks. The Mu’tazilites were a group of Muslims whose sources were the Qur’an (recited revelation) and the Aql (rationality) instead of Sunnah (tradition). I personally tried to argue this for a while and gave up on it realizing that this generation of Muslims guided by baby boomers who inherited their religion absolutely refused to be open to rejecting the Sunnah. So I leave it up to future Muslims to pursue reason over tradition, and who knows!
The point is that the Protestant Reformation was dealing with an entirely different scenario than what the Muslims are dealing with. Sunni Islam is not like Catholicism where there is a constant hierarchy that has controlled their theology. Rather Sunni Islam very convincingly depends on the earliest recorded interpretations of Islam (with the exception of the rationalist schools, ala Mu’tazili, Jahmi, that embraced Philosophy, Science and Ilm-al-Kalam – scholastic theological debate). Although Ilm-al-Kalam, scholastic theological debate and Ijtehad (independent reasoning) are now abandoned by the Sunni Muslims, there is still hope for the revival of them.
Recently we have seen individuals such as Irshad Manji, Reza Aslan, Asra Noumani (who I had the chance to converse with in person), Maajid Nawaz, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Aminah Wadud, Muslims for Progressive Values, Project Ijtehad, Free Muslims Coalition and others who have helped cultivate a small but existing place for reformation-oriented Muslims. All have dominantly failed to influence the majority of Muslims however due to politically challenging some traditional theological perspectives, such as homosexuality, women leading the Salah, secularism and overall being open to Western secular thought/influence.
On the other hand within the past several centuries we have seen thinkers such as Ghulam Ahmad Parvez, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiani, and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan who approached reformation entirely from a theological perspective (rather than political as the aforementioned have) but each were denied by the mainstream due to making massive theological claims such as the Ahadith only being a source of historical reference (Parvez) rather than an authority, such as claiming to be a Prophet of God and the second coming of Jesus (MGA) and for choosing reason over traditional interpretation (all three argued this).
Comparatively to G.A. Parvez, other Muslims who do not accept the authority of Ahadith, or reject Ahadith altogether have also made an attempt to understand Islam differently than the Traditionalists, but have been rejected due to the implications of rejecting the Ahadith would change Islam as we know it. Perhaps that is something that needs to be done though! I believe as knowledge comes to humanity it is imperative for us to evolve our perspectives and Muslims need to understand that their religion appeared in a seventh century social construct and that they can maybe still derive spiritual ideals without seventh century practices/interpretations from Qur’an and Sunnah.
It seems as if the Moderate-Sunni voices such as the one’s I’ve come across at ISNA and many masajid (mosques) throughout North America, that their voices are the ones needed to calm Sunni Muslims down and not only are they needed but from my experience they are the most successful as well. Even Moderate-Conservatives such as Yasir Qadhi can help calm some Salafis calm down. I know in Pakistan Javed Ghamidi is a figure who has massive influence on the youth there and has been working long and hard to denounce the numerous weekly bombings going on in Pakistan and the persecution of Ahmadis and Christians there as well. I think if he could start an equivalent to ISNA there in Pakistan, where numerous scholars get together and give academic presentations to audiences across the country than maybe we can see further social reform. These voices are doing what they are doing without changing the scriptures themselves, but interpreting the scriptures in such a way that acknowledges social change over time. Again, remember the process of reform is gradual and time consuming. I know many of my readers want Islam to just go away. It doesn’t happen that way. We will see gradual reform as the following generations usher out the previous generations (especially the babyboomers), and then eventually human civilization will renounce religion altogether, as I see it. But right now I think we can encourage our Muslims brothers in humanity who are doing the right things to make this planet a better place. I acknowledge the beautiful aspects of Islam, I acknowledge there are good people who profess to be Muslim, and those are the ones that need to step up, teach their children to be open-minded and pluralistic, and the evolution, revolution and reformation will naturally take its course.
The following is a video created by my Christian friend Antonio while we were at ISNA. He thinks I’m going to be Christian one day and allow me to emphasize that I have no intention on embracing any mythology, including Christianity, but I have nothing but respect for those that do derive spirituality and God-consciousness from their mythologies.
Short URL: http://www.archive2012.faithfreedom.org/?p=28475