Thursday, 18 November 2010

How To Reform Islam

At National Review, former Muslim Ibn Warraq discusses an interesting document that provides very scant, but certainly not unfounded, hope that somewhere, Muslims genuinely are undertaking efforts to catch up with the Western world when it comes to secularised democratic reform.

“The Casablanca Call for Democracy and Human Rights” was published just last month by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, and urges governments and activists across the Middle East to continue working toward democratic reforms. It is the result of a conference organized by the Arab Human Rights Movement. It calls for separation of powers and endorses the principle of the sovereignty of the people - a truly democratic demand, since, in an Islamic state, sovereignty belongs to God and His Law. As well as outlining many basic human rights reforms, it also importantly reaffirms the “interconnectedness of political reform with the renewal of religious thought, which requires support for, and expansion of, the practice of ijtihad [that is, independent reasoning] in a climate of complete freedom of thought, under democratic systems of government.”

It is believed by most Muslims, at least within Sunni Islam, that the “gates of ijtihad” are closed. Ijtihad is the process of re-evaluating the Qur'an and instating a point of Islamic law based upon this evaluation. Only a select few Muslims are considered qualified to perform ijtihad, and since the death of Ahmad ibn Hanbal – founder of the Hanbali school of jurisprudence – in the ninth century, no one has been recognised as a mujtahid of the first class. This means that critical examination of the Qur'an, and alteration of laws which may now be considered out-dated, is discouraged in the Muslim world, and so theological progression within the faith has stagnated. The classic manual of Islamic law Reliance of the Traveller states: “When the four necessary integrals of consensus exist, the ruling agreed upon is an authoritative part of Sacred Law that is obligatory to obey and not lawful to disobey. Nor can mujtahids of a succeeding era make the thing an object of new ijtihad, because the ruling on it, verified by scholarly consensus, is an absolute legal ruling which does not admit of being contravened or annulled.”

So the Casablanca Call's suggestion to reopen the gates of ijtihad, if it was actually heeded by the majority of the Muslim world, would represent the first step towards the kind of grass-roots reform that Islam so desperately needs.

But we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that this document signifies that the Islamic world is on the brink of its own Enlightenment. For "as the authors of the Casablanca Call themselves confess, there has been scant progress in many areas of political and civil life" when it comes to human rights, and much of the action the Call suggests would constitute plain heresy to the orthodox.

Finally, Warraq asks the pertinent question:

One wonders if there will ever be real progress without someone, somewhere, beginning the necessary critique of Islam and its scriptures. As Jonathan Israel showed in his two monumental studies of the European Enlightenment — the process that radically changed European and American society forever, the process that gave us the egalitarian and democratic core values and ideals of the modern world — it began with one man, and one book: Baruch Spinoza and his Tractatus Theologico-Politicus, first published in Amsterdam in 1670. That was the beginning of Biblical criticism and the modern world; but where is the Koranic criticism that alone can unshackle people’s minds?

Where indeed?

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