Reformation of Islam”: a supplementary exposition. Do We Really Need it?
The phrase “supplementary” is chosen with intent for certain reasons. Nothing novel about the topic, rather what I am for is to explore it through a strict individual perspective. If the piece of writing strikes somewhat superficial, I must confess it is intended since there is an abundance of literature available on all platforms in this instance. I am not driven by emotions while composing this though you may notice sentiments in excess on edges. My request would be to ignore sentiments to focus on the contents so that I can have it got analyzed to discern whether I make sense or not.
I have debated with many in the past over this very subject of “reforming Islam”. Most of the time, the majority on the other end were Ex-Muslims who always claimed they are trying to have a balanced stance on the affair. Though I could never discern what is balanced or extreme about the subject, I read “balanced” in broadness can have scores of undertones if it is used in a multicultural context. Whatever it is, I did always wrap up discussions asking the same as I titled. “Do we really need it”?
We know none of us outside the domain of Islam is in any position to proffer an account of reformed Islam to Muslims for the very reason; not any on the other side will be buying our story. There is a limit dictated, that is bounding our efforts to just helping the progressives among Muslims by implying indicators, or to say in loose terms: giving them hints, clues on how such an endeavour can be undertaken. While our role in this particular task is very much limited; what makes us overly enthusiastic on reforming a creed that in its core constantly remain impervious to alterations?
Or else, we can redirect the questions to “did Islam endure all over the years without ever losing its pureness”? “Weren’t there reformations that changed its literal looks”? In answer we can only be affirmative in both instances. This might strike as ironical but in reality, the puzzle is solved upon realizing the fact we still experience literal Islam and its deadly discharges even in this times. When the question of ‘natural selection’ pops up, we have to submit reformation (or better term can be “transformation”) has taken place. Islam has gone through transformation due to the invariable natural laws, but phenomenally, original is also with us. We are in no position but to either suffer it or dissect it via all available means. Unfortunately both results in the same predicament.
Enduring the literal Islam will not even spare most of the adherents let alone outsiders. But what about reformation? Is there a chance? Do we really need to strive for reformation of a faith in trial at this instant? Above all, a creed that is notorious for its inherent fanaticism? Should it not be fair to contend with it the merit it deserves? Perhaps Islam is not the one and only in the “we against them” adage. All so-called divine establishments can have this hallmark in them, but some are more subtle than the others. While other monotheistic creeds are more restrained in this regard, Islam never seems to have bothered to such leniency. This uniqueness of Islam leaves yet the most optimists behind with a bleak outlook towards future, because of the manifestation of this toxic catchphrase’s consequences watched by.
In theory, whatever lingering is subject to transformation with the evolving time. Islam is in no way exceptional to this rule. It would be interesting to know the real Islam with its entire indispensable constituents survived surprisingly for quite a short of time in history due to the peculiarity of its composition. If needed to explain, Islam the tribal prescript in camouflage of religion cannot be detached from its Arabian Desert milieu. It is a set of guidelines patently tricky to practice in its chaste demeanour for anyone outside the sphere of its birthplace. Muhammad, Islam’s Prophet triumphed to a considerable extent to contrive a “way of living” that he named submission (Islam in Arabic) but factually it was merely befitting the backdrop where it originated. Islam is a concoction of its context. Essentially a tribal prescript that should necessarily had restrained within its outskirts.
Irony is about to set off…,
The product remained pure as long as it had been locked up in the environs of its making. But its originator was not the kind of character to suffice with rather meagre an achievement. The call for armed Jihad to stretch beyond the sphere of then Arabia in the north came up subsequently. For the purpose, Muhammad had to convince his devotees of God’s enthusiasm on such endeavours with statements like “the only acceptable religion to Allah (Al-Ilah the God) is Islam” (Qur’an 3:19). Moreover, Allah wrapped it up all by announcing humanity is on receipt of final guidance from him, (Qur’an 5:3) thus arbitrarily closing all the doors of any further divine intervention. No more Prophets for humanity again, so the whole until the end of Times have to be abiding by what the seal of prophets (as Muhammad often portrays himself) perfected as the one and only true guidance. Therefore, the creed of “submission”, “Islam” has to be lingered incessantly without ever losing its purity.
However, the natural course of transformation process began rather instantly in the case of Islam, when the holy warriors dared cross the limit after the death of their Prophet. Alterations been instigated when the group encountered with scores of divergent cultures upon their expeditions. Some drastic changes occurred at the time of new faith’s second Caliph Omar’s governance. He dared added and subtracted from the existing set of guidelines. (Prohibition of Mut’a-temporary marriage, flogging for alcohol consumption, were his amendments). Reformations sparked outrage among the faithful that resulted in rejection of new alterations by a considerable majority of Muslims. Omar had no option but to stand up for. Caliph saved himself by attributing his reformations to the Prophet of Islam. He was effectively reclining to the basics, the precise obstacle we encounter in this times whenever the proposal of reformation of Islam coming into the prospect. Reclining to basics seldom means reformation.
Nevertheless, we understand the reformation of Islam firing up as early as its second Caliph’s reign though the much-heralded reformation remains discreet due to its featured “retreat to the basics”. Regardless of it, more reformations were due and took place during the Abbasid era. Abbasids compromised with a Persian tradition that is pretty alien to Islam. After the conquest of Persia, Muslims in regular had to interact with a foreign culture resulting into the trend of “give and take”. While Islam only allowed two festivals namely Eid-al-Fitr and Eid-al-Adh’ha, Abbasid dynasty showed suppleness by incorporating or at least taking part in Persian New Year festivals namely “Nawrus and Fadaq”. Islam was going through somewhat restrained reformation in its earliest times; thus effectively losing its purity.
Something of significance here; while all these rather silly (what we should in essence call reformations) were carrying on with the consensus of majority of Muslims then, there were some remarkable exceptions always surviving. And this exceptional group consisted majority of great scholars of Islam dedicated their lives being watchful to censure any sort of reconciliation affecting the purity of the faith its Prophet founded. Accordingly, from a historical perspective we can rightly assume Islam went through reformation and restitution simultaneously throughout ages. Sad, but it is what we witness in our times too. There are literalists and progressives among us. Literalists always calling to move backwards to the basics of Islam, while progressives desperately trying to give the creed a modern twist.
Disturbing; we must admit, recognizing the fact it is always those literalists emerging victorious whenever there confrontations crop up. Largely due to an authoritarian God of Qur’an closing the doors of any restructuring. Moreover, a candid construal of Quran always secures literalists not progressives. Literal analysis of Islam’s holy book and progressiveness never go hand in hand for the very reason, it is virtually impossible to extract the necessary components serving permissiveness from a book that already won considerably to get labelled as the only lingering religious text with blood blotted in each of its pages.
The only exception to this is Sufism, which in its core has nothing to do with what the man of God had brought up. Yet history witnesses to the miracle of this mystical aberration’s integration to the mainstream Islam amidst of all dissents and disputes of literalists. The triumph of Sufism was phenomenal but essential too if we value the role it had in salvaging Islam at least once in its eventful historical past. The creed was on the verge of collapse once due to the intense materialistic gist it gained through. Here, Sufism won considerably to add the lacking component “spirituality” to the creed’s heart. The change or better call it reformation was appealing to the overwhelming majority of Muslims who for some reasons did not care of the enclosure of pure Islamic elements in the newly emerged redeemer. All then most of the devotees needed were; diverse metaphorical interpretations of their holy book that guaranteed the soul the faith lacked most. Weary of the monotonous literal interpretations of Qur’an, they absorbed Sufi interpretations attentively, because they were the lost soul of the creed as Sufis demonstrated. The confirmations paid and literalists had to backtrack largely.
Here, I am not for frothing Sufism for simply being benign or innocuous. The kernel of Sufism is to reunite man with God by means of vigorous self analysis in addition to practicing what God asked for. Oftentimes it went beyond the Sharia system of Islam for devotees to engage in routines self harming rituals. Some went farthest to recognize “the self” as God themselves. Mansoor Hallaj and his legendary “Ana al Haq” (I am the truth) for instance. Such a state of sycophancy has oft been identified way distant to the article of faith. Sufis were, or tried to be harmonious with Islamic jurisprudence most of the times though they were keen to reject the external Jihad and its constituents.
However, sailing apart from the established constitutions frightened Sufi masters to the extent for them to identify such practices are blasphemous. They were worried of their figurative reinterpretations deviating to intractable directions. Hallaj’s horrendous fate ensued accordingly because; Sufi masters were often seated next to rulers because of their mastery in self-control achieved through intense self analysis. Sheikh Juneid Al-Baghdadi was such a figure contemporaneous to Hallaj or he was the spiritual guide of Hallaj. While Sheikh accommodated an outcast Hallaj wholeheartedly, it was with a cautionary notice to the student to keep on the conviction but not to exclaim it in public. An otherwise helpless Sheikh could not have had it in other ways. When asked for his view on Hallaj and his claims, Juneid was adamant in stating “Hallaj is a topic beyond his comprehension, accordingly the disputed person and conviction should be left to linger”.
Mansoor Hallaj and Sheikh Juneid Al-Baghdadi remained epitomizing two distinct facets of Sufism. Former was the embodiment of eccentric self sacrifice; while Juneid al- Baghdadi always kept in line with the established norms. Hallaj is supposed to have predicted, his Sufi master should have to shed the frills of Sufism to give verdict against him and his “I am the ultimate truth” inference. The prediction happened to be real when Sheikh Juneid dragged into giving a fatal Fatwa on “An al Haq” claim and the claimant. While doing so, Juneid had shed his Sufi garments to morph into an authoritative Islamic Sheikh.
The moral of the story of Hallaj; any deviation from the established basics of Islam had always been dealt with the maximum. We must view Sufism through this prism though the movement won considerably to reinterpret Jihad and Jihadi elements of Islam. However, some Sufis’ tendency towards the basics of the creed at some point is bewildering to reconsider whether the spiritual movement had made any deep impact in the reconstruction of Islam. We can only remain stranded in front of the irony, Sufism a reformatory enterprise in Islam also ending up in literal and figurative redefinitions. It is the enigma inside the riddle of reformation of Islam.
However Sufism was dominantly existent among Muslims until Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahab came up in the eighteenth century and called for reformations on then existed Islam. As a literalist, what Abdul Wahab could find was not pure and uncorrupted Islam in existence. He observed the impurities in it mostly inflicted by Sufi doctrines. With the backing of ruling elites, he reclaimed the pure Islam and a lot of blood was shed on the course. Abdul Wahab won considerably and Sufism had to retreat. Unfortunate it was when we understand, it is the influence of Sufism (if not the lone) that turns majority of Muslims tolerant and compassionate even after being trapped in an awfully violent article of faith. Sufism did not fail entirely, but remained alive apart from the majority of Muslim elites, the same lot that threatens us with all the mayhem.
And in Islamic Turkey, there was Mustapha Kamal Pasha, the Ata Turk (1881-1938). He is not a figure to disregard for anyone discussing the reformation of Islam. Not for any gimmick, rather Ata Turk went on to revolutionize Islam by means of cleansing all the rotten ingredients that he found should be flushed out. He is the only successful reformer in the history of Islam to dictate religion should never be allowed in the proximity of administrative affairs of nation. Rather he ordered, religion should be reserved in one’s personal affairs. He alienated Islam from the tenets of government to replace it with modern secular principles. He implemented the power he had very effectively that even rang alarms in the distant Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, Ata Turk had extreme limitations that held him back from stretching beyond the geographical frontier of Turkey. It was a phenomenal success when we understand; the caliphate he dethroned could never be re-established. With such a profound impact, the leader embarked history but we understand after his disappearance from the scene, revivalism gradually struggling to regain the primitive momentum.
Mustapha Kamal Pasha himself is a subject vast enough to compose a lengthy article or even a book, so let us come back from it. I mentioned him because any attempt to dissect a topic as “reformation of Islam” cannot suspend his contributions that transformed a theocratic state into full fledged modern nation. Still unfortunate, we in these periods of times have to witness his achievements gradually been redirected backwards t0 seventh century basics. What in Turkey we see right now is, dreadful, hypocritical of a leadership and subjects often calling for Islam again. Islam essentially necessitates a dictatorship and watchdogs to remain in the reformed state. What is more tragic than it?
The context has been set and it is time to analyze the technical obstacles of reforming Islam. Why and for what good reasons one should be cynical in getting Islam reformed? What about Christianity, a religion older than Islam? Did it not progress from its extremely violent past to acclimatize to the contemporary way of living? What makes us petulant in the case of Islam or is it already late for Islam to be reformed from its violent basics? The questions seeking answers should be dealt rationally without deflecting into the frenzy of emotions.
Thus far, we knew the trending noise about “reformation of Islam” is nothing new. Islam that hangs about is a product that is coming through the inescapable evolutionary course plus many in the past and still appending to its reformation. Then why noise again for something that is ongoing? The only answer can be, though whatever changes occurred to Islam by means of natural selection or individualistic intervention correspondingly, we know nothing paid even remotely to cleanse the fanatic creed off its tainted basics. Islam is still with us with its teeth intact, but we are in ridiculous delusions of getting those teeth extracted.
It is not the lack of endeavours for reformation, but Islam’s unparalleled obstinacy to anything making extra to or from it other than what is already prescribed, that makes Islam instantly there; always all set to get interpreted by any means. However, with one prerequisite like whether have or not, the only version should prevail is the very literal facet of the set of guidance. Again, why this phenomenon and why 1400 years of history that failed in the course?
To answer, there are vicious impediments of technicality for any reformer to concede defeat in the case of Islam. The primary obstacle being Qur’an, the scripture of the creed. For Muslims, it is the compendium of messages their God tendered to his Prophet. Letter by letter, they attribute divinity to it since God has forewarned; it is the ultimate guidance for humanity to get hold of. God will no more intervene in humanly affairs since he had pronounced the final verdict in the form of compendium of a quantity of edicts. Reasonably, the devotees will, and have to try to preserve such essential informative piece of work intact without ever losing its purity. It is no surprise for believers in Islam to get panicked upon the report of something illicit is going on with the same that is supposed to be preserved in its literal purity to the end of times. Consequently, a reformation compromising with even a letter of Quran is not going to bear fruit. The first choice disappears. No reformation is likely if it is meant by subtracting anything from Quran.
Then what does it mean reformation? We hope for no trivia, when the phrase reformation is pronounced. Islam should revolutionize to adapt to the modernity. It is a radical renovation we expect, but a seventh century piece of rather obsolete document is not going to serve the function immensely. But what if what we consider obsolete is the divine guidance of the other party? Especially when they are not being considerate to the slightest on any alteration of it? This means the real quandary but it should be surmounted. We may forget about altering of Qur’an because it is not the way things work on the other side. But the violent verses within the text should be dealt with for the reformation to work up. If it is not possible to subtract those viciously violent, bloodstained verses from the scripture, attributing something like allegorical or metaphorical can be considered. But we know it hardly pays since the allegorical reinterpretation of Quran is a tried out scheme in Islam by Sufi mystics with reasonable success once. Yet even this success has been tainted while there emerged sects and sub-sects among Sufis, some morphing into archetypes of semi- allegorical literalists. Islam is in no need of another metaphorical reinterpretation of Qur’an since there remains some beforehand. Still the killing goes on means no reinterpretation of Qur’an will bring peace that we long for.
What remains then is the option of attributing the violent verses to the context which is patently a self- deceptive practice. If God has convened his concluding messages thus a compendium has been made out of it, there is no rationale in fastening God’s ultimate messages to a certain backdrop of history. God is not going to intervene in human affairs any more so his messages should linger to the end of times. This exceptional feature is what makes Qur’an the ultimate testament of God. Otherwise, it can be precisely labelled as the “History of Islam” yet history does not have to stand up to the evolving time but Qur’an has to.
One more chance, this time with the doctrine of abrogation. God himself has affirmed of its application in his book (Qur’an 2: 106, 16:101). However, this is not as easy as it seems since God did not specify which is which, making it tricky to discern the “abrogating and abrogated” from the book. Task seems to have left for authorities to work on but quite regrettably, the outcome is nowhere near pacifying a peace seeker. In actuality, the doctrine of abrogation adds more to the pains of optimists. Peaceful verses happened to be abrogated by more violent, venomous verses. Qur’an began to leak more and thicker. Blood it is;
Options tire out and we are left with nothing at last. The choice of reinterpretation has become obsolete for any reformer to put money in it. Largely for the reason it scarcely paid to end the carnage. Other but self-deceptive tactic of tying to the context effectively spoils Qur’an’s integrity as God’s ultimate message, lingering its relevance to the end of times. Qur’an can either be a historical text or a scripture with interminable relevance. Either with context or with the evolving time, but not with both at the same instance.
Doctrine of abrogation too of no aid, as it bloodily leaked out instead. Nothing in it for a reformer to hinge on. Eventually, we now understand why any attempt of reformation fails and should fail the grounds. It is the profound political make up of a creed, or better say, what Prophet Muhammad invented was not any religion in its pure sense. All that he did was reconstructing then existed tribal norms to put up a banner. Or a barrier that will effectively safeguard his personal requirements and hinder adversaries. He assembled the devotees under the banner of a monotheistic creed to fulfil his political ambitions. God the one and only one had to be a crucial component in this foul play and Prophet used his God more cunningly than any other could have.
It was always God, promising gardens and rivers for loyal servants. “Drop blood, for your share of heavenly virgins”. Thus, spake God; then swords and flesh met to pour more and more blood. What God needed most, vast an empire to establish himself on top of it. Plus the paraphernalia that match up to nothing on earth and above. Obedience and servitude of the human. Then troubles of megalomania and that bizarre bliss… God was in need of but…
“Do we really need it”?
[Author is an ex-Muslim resident of subcontinent. Can be reached at [email protected] or visit the main forum of FFI]