Lafif Lakhdar

“Religious rationalisation has contributed to the rationalisation of all social behaviour”  - Max Weber

Facing Islam today – that is, facing the Muslim decision-makers – are two choices: to tread water or to reform. Over the years treading water has led to constant war with itself, and war with the world, war with science and war with modernity.

A reform of Islam, on the other hand, seeks to reconcile Islam with itself and with the world in which it lives; with a science that every minute turns out new discoveries, presenting the traditional Islamic consciousness at times with some disconcerting questions; with modernity, in the form of political institutions, and with humane, universal sciences and values, within whose portals intellectuals everywhere may feel secure.

It seeks a reconciliation of Islam with itself –  to put a stop to takfīr, whether this be the takfīr of intellectuals or other Islamic denominations such as Sufism, the Druze, the Alawites, the Ahmadis, the Baha’is and the Shi‘a, and call a halt to the enduring Sunni-Shi‘a war that now threatens to transform itself into a nuclear arms race between Iran and its Sunni neighbours, portending the perils of a nuclear conflict. Such a war can be halted by an acceptance of the division between the domains of faith and politics.

An Islam yet to be reconciled with itself

It seeks a reconciliation of Islam with the world – so that it re-defines its relation to it at the deeper level and ends the conception of a world divided up into an Abode of Islam destined for expansion and an Abode of War destined for ‘Jihad unto the End of Time’, as al-Bukhari’s Hadīth has it, and which adolescents in many countries memorise in their Islamic education classes.

It seeks a reconciliation of Islam with science – requiring us to forget about scientific miracles in the Qur’ān and accept the final separation between the Qur’ān on the one hand and the scientific method and cultural and literary creativity on the other. The insistence by many contemporary religious scholars on cleaving to the legend of the scientific miraculousness of the Qur’ān has led them, as it did their Catholic priestly forbears during the time of the Inquisition, into a state of delirium – some of it bloodstained. For instance, following the cloning of Dolly the Sheep a number of religious clerics descended into delirium in one of two ways – some, like the Tunisian professor  and historian Muhammad al-Talbi, affirmed that cloning was mentioned in the Qur’ān and so there is nothing wrong in cloning animals and humans!

Others, such as the then head of the Saudi scholars al-‘Uthaymīn, took the opposite view: that this was an existential challenge to the scientific miraculousness of the Qur’ān, and he therefore issued a fatwā stipulating the hadd penalty of warring against God – the amputation ‘of hands and feet on alternate sides’ [Qur’ān, V,33 et alibi] of those involved in cloning Dolly, adding during this attack of delirium that “it is also said that they should be killed!” Similarly, Egyptian medical professors advise their students to learn biological facts on the origin of life “just to test your faith, for it is completely erroneous and refuted by the facts on creation provided by the Qur’ān.”

Our faith today constitutes a part of the problem; it is incumbent upon us to reform it

Finally, it seeks a reconciliation of Islam with modernity – and the institutions of political modernity: Parliament, the General Assembly of the United Nations, comparative religious studies as taught by all the world’s universities (with the exception of most of the universities in the Islamic world, other than Tunisia where religious psychology has started to be taught this year at the University of Zaytunia), the World Declaration of the Rights of Man and its annexes, such as the International Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the International Convention on Preventing Discrimination against Women, which all states have signed up to unreservedly (with the exception of Islamic states which have voiced reservations on some of its provisions such as the equality of inheritance, other than Morocco and Tunisia which last year removed their reservations concerning these).

In short, a reform of Islam will turn it into a modern religion that banishes violence from its religious law, whether this be the violence of corporal punishment or the violence of fighting and jihad.

Hegel (1770-1831) hesitated as to how he should classify Islam in the spectrum of ancient and modern religions. The reason for his hesitation was that he found in spiritual, non-violent, Meccan Islam a reason to classify it as a modern religion. But he also found in legalistic, jihadist, Madinan Islam a reason to categorize it as an ancient religion. However, due to his limited knowledge of the violent legal category of al-walā’ wal-barā’ (‘Loyalty and Repudiation’), and being carried away by his philosophical assumption that those who come later in time must be more modern than those who come earlier, he shed his hesitation and said: “Let us classify it as a modern religion like Christianity.”

Now, two centuries after Hegel, let us indeed make it a modern religion. That is, a spiritual religion that leaves worldly affairs to those who specialise in it, so that it may concern itself exclusively with moral values. For did not God’s Prophet say: “I have been sent to perfect good morals”? Not, that is, to perfect good politics and economy and science? Why is it that Islam has remained un-reformed after two whole centuries of trying?

Al-Tahtawi: Failed reformer

The reason is that those who did attempt to reform Islam, from al-Tahtawi to Abduh, failed to formulate a true reform project that could alter Islam’s infrastructure, and steer it towards an adaptation to the modern world. Similarly, decision-makers were impotent to incorporate into the educational system the very little that the reformers actually proposed in the cause of reforming attitudes, and certainly not the attitudes of the rising generations.  Indeed, at the end of his life Abduh encapsulated his reform project in all of three fatwās: the permissibility of bank interest; the permission (under conditions of necessity) to eat meat not butchered by Muslims, and the permission to wear hats, and by extension, European clothing (which the fiqh of al-walā’ wal-barā’ had outlawed on the grounds that it constituted “imitation of the infidel”).

At the time al-Azhar’s viewed these fatwās as ‘damnable heresy’, so it consulted its shaykhs for half a day to decide on whether saying prayers over the corpse of the Mufti of Egypt was permissible or not! Muhammad Abduh in his Al-Manar commentary was more courageous and made some pioneering strides forward: he criticised polygamy and its ‘corrupting influence,’ as he termed it, to the point that he got close to outlawing it. He gave the Muslim the right to liberty of opinion in his commentary on the verse: Then whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve [Qur’ān, XVIII,29], stating that “anyone who wishes to enter may enter, and anyone who wishes to leave may leave” and interpreted the Qur’ānic term shūrā as the equivalent to today’s modern parliamentary democracy. At the time these fatwās constituted a breach in the palace walls of traditional Islam.

Abduh: 'Damnable heretic'

But nothing indicates the failure of attempts at reform more than the fact that these questions settled by Abduh are still presenting challenges to Muslims. Specifically in Egypt, where the chief Mufti still forbids bank interest on the grounds that usury is prohibited and where the Egyptian law courts continue to prosecute intellectuals on charges of apostasy. Did not the judiciary charge Dr. Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd with this? And beyond Egypt, did al-Turabi in Sudan not have the Sufi Mahmud Muhammad Taha hanged on this charge? Why is this happening? It is because these reforms, limited as they are, were not absorbed into educational syllabuses. These instead continued to teach the traditional fiqh of the Middle Ages, a fiqh that was no longer valid for our modern era, and incapable of answering to the need for progress toward a modernity that relentlessly knocks at the door.

The revolution of July 1952 attempted to correct the failure to teach the benefits of reform. In 1959 Muhammad Sa‘īd al-‘Aryān was entrusted with this aborted task. He authored Islamic education books for primary school classes and oversaw the publication of preparatory and secondary school textbooks. This Islamic education instilled in adolescents the perfection of the Sharī‘a , the necessity of applying the hadd punishments for theft, the prohibition of interest, the permissibility of the custodianship of the man over the woman, and the doctrine that the Qur’an (as opposed to the view of the Mu‘tazila school) ‘is not created,’ along with the ‘fact’ that Abduh was a Mu‘tazili! Similarly, in matters of politics it instilled in them the necessity of the shūrā, Islamic unity, the Islamic state, ‘defensive jihad’ and the Verse of the Sword: And slay them wherever ye find them [Qur’ān, II,191]. Is it any wonder that the slogans under which the Egyptian Islamic Groups fought should be inspired by these lessons?

"Keep to their houses"

The textbooks recommended that girls should be taught, but also recommended that they “keep to their houses” [from Qur’ān XXXIII,33]! As for the ‘People of the Book’, that is, the millions of non-Muslim Egyptians, they do not deserve anything more than to be ‘tolerated’! It was the absence of logical coherence in the ‘Nahda’ project that set Sa’id al-Aryan to broaden his output. He took from Rashīd Ridā the cue to abolish offensive jihad, that is, the launching of attacks on the world for the purpose of drawing it under the aegis of Islam. But he did not adopt Abduh’s three fatwās, and even less the innovations contained in his Al-Manar commentary, particularly the banning of polygamy which is one of the causes of the population explosion bomb which hinders growth in Egypt today and upsets the housing-environment balance.

The failure to prepare a coherent project for religious reform, and the failure to teach how some of its achievements might be applied, left a frightful void that traditional, political Islam is filling today, in the form of an unprecedented religious mania: from breastfeeding an adult to the declaration of jihad against tourists and rulers in Muslim countries, or against America and Europe and India and China and Russia! It is high time now to set things in order. I call for readers, media workers, intellectuals, and educators especially, to enter into a free and fruitful debate on this matter. Reforming Islam holds the key to reintroducing the rationality that is lacking in our lives and above all in the educational decision-making process.

Our faith today constitutes a part of the problem, and it is incumbent upon us to reform it, in the school of religious rationalism, so that we turn it into a part of the solution. This contest is at the same time a necessary one and a winnable one.