Lafif Lakhdar

How will religious reform – by means of teaching and studying Islam via comparative religious phenomenology, philosophy and the Rights of Man – make of the Muslim an individual open to the ‘Other’?

By promoting the study of religions in the school and the university.

In Europe a recent poll showed that 52 per cent of Frenchmen believe that “they find fundamental truths in many religions,” and that only six per cent believe that “they find truth only in one religion”– and these are fanatics.

Compare this to what is happening in the lands of Islam. I would wager that at least nine out of ten Sunnis and Shīʽites believe that their religion is the true religion while the other constitutes ‘manifest error’. We will never shed this religious narcissism – which persists in six per cent of Frenchmen – for the kind of religious tolerance that is distributed among 52 per cent of Frenchmen until we widely promote the teaching of comparative religion, philosophy and the Rights of Man in schools and universities, as well as in that other university that has no walls to it, by which I mean the media.

The University of al-Zeitouna: a modern religious training

Religious reform is the guarantor of our transformation from religious stagnation to religious development, and of our teaching Muslims at home openness to all cultures and respect for the Other. It will teach Muslims abroad how to acclimatise through cultural cross-fertilisation, that is, mixing together and accommodating several cultures in one and the same head. It might also serve to free them from the adolescent discourse of victimhood (“We are innocent victims of this town of which the people are oppressors”[1]) and from the culture of “Make seventy excuses for thy brother.”[2] It might also serve to teach them not to abandon the faculty of judgement or thinking for themselves without the need for a fatwa, and may bring Arabs and Muslims, among whom illiteracy, ignorance and poor education are rampant, into the community of knowledge that advanced nations have already entered. In this community Israel occupies second place after the United States of America, while the entire Arab and Islamic world remains light years away.

Religion is not some pan-historical, magical formula

Thus religious reform can draw the current narcissistic Muslim out from his religious delirium towards religious rationality, towards reality and humility. Religious reform may free him from a Manichaean vision, from the dualism of ‘good here, bad there’, from ‘we are victims, they are butchers’ and the whole series of techniques designed to bring down upon others our hatreds and obsessions. For it is this sort of behaviour that has turned us into haters of mankind, and in turn made us hated by them. This is the primary wellspring of Islamophobia, and it may be that reform will move us on from the simplistic, even caricatured, vision of ‘me and them’ towards the concept of bifurcation, or Edgar Morin’s ‘complexity,’[3] something which is not too far removed from the ‘intermediate position’[4] of the Muʽtazila, whereby good and evil cohabit under one roof. This bifurcation is akin to the God Janus, who possessed two faces pointing in different directions.

By means of religious reform, and perhaps by this alone, we may by the means of a religious rational school fashion a Muslim that is a believer and at the same time modern, something which is a rarity at the present time. Al-Maʽarrī’s diagnosis of the reality of his age may almost be applied to the reality of our own time:

Two nations in the world I find:

One with a brain, yet void of faith,

Another believing, but lacking a mind.[5]

By means of a school of religious rationality we may go beyond this present state, just as other contemporary religions have passed beyond it, to arrive at a Muslim with both faith and a brain, and a situation where our colleges of religious studies turn out researchers with a capacity for critical thought that enables them to distinguish between truth and opinion. For scientific truth is subject to the burden of proof and is therefore something that is held in common, while opinion has no need of the burden of proof and remains something private to each believer.

Techniques designed to bring down upon others our hatreds and obsessions

Such colleges will not allow them to sacrifice objective truth for the sake of their personal convictions or opinions, but instead their students will be able to distinguish between history and myth, between reality and wishful thinking, between rationality and irrationality. Indeed they will study irrationality by means of rationality so as to break open its private domain and shed light on its darkened corners. We are in need of such researchers if we wish to discover who we are and how Islam came about historically, what are its actual sources, and what are the obstacles that have prevented Islam – and still prevent it – from entering into modernity. Thus they will irrigate religious thought with a new analytical sap, with a new analytical vivacity that it has rarely known in its contemporary history, at a time when religious thought over the rest of the world has already drunk its fill of it. This is the great gamble – if the Arab Islamic world loses this, it is itself lost.

Religious reform is the collective golden cure from underlying repressions, from the invisible chains that shackle the Muslim mind and which psychologically enslave it and bind it with 1,001 ropes to a worship of the ancestors, so that it still lives in the 21st-century much as it lived in the seventh century: struggling now, as then, to restore the Caliphate ‘from Muslim Spain to the borders of China,’ to quote the words of the leader of the Islamic Army in Iraq to the two French journalists they had kidnapped.

The key to Islamic reform, in your view, is transferring from irrational religious media and education to rational religious media and education, carried out by means of the study of religious phenomenology, philosophy and the Rights of Man. How can this aim be achieved by reforming Islam in France and Europe?

French / European Islam is in a fortunate position. It does not need to transfer from a prevailing irrationality to a wished-for rationality, as is the case in most of the Arab Islamic states. All that is required of it is that it reconciles itself with positive laws and constitutions, with the educational systems and cross-cultural, rational values that operate in the European Union. All it needs to do is acknowledge secularism, democracy and the Rights of Man.

We will never shed religious narcissism until we teach comparative religion, philosophy and the Rights of Man

This way, European Islam is able to cut itself off from the religious stagnation prevailing in most of the countries of Islam’s birth. I am always pleased whenever I read Muhammad al-Mūsawī, the Moroccan head of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, saying: “French Islam is neither Moroccan Islam nor Saudi Islam”. It indicates a thorough understanding of the contemporary religious equation: every religion is the product of the conditions of time and space in which it appeared.

Religion is not some pan-historical, magical formula as the traditional fuqahā’ of politicised Islam fancy it to be. European Islam has to draw a lesson from the way in which the Jewish minority integrated itself into the French nation. It agreed to dispense with Jewish law in return for Napoleon’s integration of Jews into the secular French state formulated in 1807; it should take a lesson also from Muslim Turkey and its Islamic government which, through the mouthpiece of President Erdoğan, has announced its acceptance of joining the European Union on condition of dispensing with Islamic Sharīʻa and adopting all the values shared by the European Union. Words were matched with deeds when Turkey adjusted its constitution in 2006 to rid itself of the embers of Sharīʻa, such as the penalty for adultery, capital punishment and the prohibition of a Muslim from changing his or her faith. This now differs in no wise from any secular European constitution.

How can this be achieved?

Basically by providing imams with a modern religious training that draws its inspiration from the programs of the Higher Council for Religious Affairs attached to the University of al-Zeitouna, and from European laws and constitutions and human rights documents such as the International Convention on the Prevention of Discrimination against Women, which can be drawn upon for providing themes for Friday prayers and mosque sermons – and the International Convention for the Protection of Minorities, which must become the legal framework by which European Muslims are called to subject themselves to the European Court and, where appropriate, to the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights, instead of resorting to nihilistic riots and bonfires.

European Muslims are required to shed their moribund habits

In fact there are at times huge gaps in the education of imams. On the day of the passing away of the King of Belgium in the 1990s the imam of Paris said in his Friday prayer: “Today that's one more down!” (meaning one of the infidel). And this was despite the fact that the imam leading the Friday prayer in the Paris Mosque was usually moderate in his sermons, although had lately come to focus his sermons on the interpretation of the warlike verse:

And the Jews say: Ezra is the son of Allah, and the Christians say: The Messiah is the son of Allah. That is their saying with their mouths. They imitate the saying of those who disbelieved of old. Allah (Himself) fighteth against them. How perverse are they! [Qur’ān IX,30]

This does nothing to help religious dialogue in France, which is courageously and capably pursued by the director of the Paris Mosque Dr. Dalil Boubakeur. In the Qur’ān, as Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī states, there are verses which are redundant and others which are outstanding. It befits the imams to use the outstanding verses, no less than 75 of which recommend tolerance and respect for all faiths, paganism included, such as “There is no compulsion in religion” and

Lo! Those who believe (in that which is revealed unto thee, Muhammad), and those who are Jews, and Christians, and Sabians - whoever believeth in Allah and the Last Day and doeth right - surely their reward is with their Lord, and there shall no fear come upon them neither shall they grieve. [Qur’ān II,62]

The behaviour of the director of the Paris Mosque Dr. Dalil Boubakeur and the mufti of Marseilles Soheib Bencheikh set a good example in this regard to the imams of France and Europe, and even of the Islamic world, in the way they fashion a peaceful Islam that has adapted its traditions to contemporary reality and, in the case of Europe, with the reality of European societies.

Europeans see Islam as a threat; what is to be done to change this view?

Allah changeth not the condition of a folk until they first change that which is in their hearts.[6] European Muslims are required to shed their moribund and lethal habits such as female genital mutilation, the slaughtering of animals at home, wearing the hijab, the niqab and the burka and polygamy – which in my view is one of the most serious causes of trouble for European Muslims. For instance, in France there are 30,000 polygamous families which have spawned 600,000 children, that is an average of 14.5 children to each family, most of whom fail at school and account for the tally of 27 per cent of all inmates in French prisons, that is, four times their demographic weight in France.

Religious reform may free him from a Manichaean vision, from the dualism of ‘good here, bad there’

One of the tasks of the imams is to increase awareness among believers of the dangers of using polygamy and a high birth rate to qualify for family allowances, by so doing turning their loved ones into a commodity intended merely as a means for gain.

European governments should not turn a blind eye to polygamy. No Tunisian in Tunisia – which outlawed polygamy in 1956 – is allowed to practice polygamy, while he is allowed to do this in France and Europe, countries which throughout their history have never known polygamy. Polygamy was instituted by Judaism and Islam took it from them. But polygamy does not exist now either among the Jews of Israel or of the Diaspora. European governments should also fight against every manifestation of racism against Muslims and adopt the American system of positive discrimination in favour of the children of immigrants. The three institutions set up for the Muslims in France – the Paris Mosque, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman and the Moroccan Federation of Muslims in France – must co-operate among themselves to raise the awareness of French Muslims of their obligations as French citizens or as guests of the country, and at the same time defend them against abuses.

Dr. Dalil Boubakeur and Soheib Bencheikh: good examples to the imams of Europe and even of the Islamic world

Muslims in Europe are living in a society and a civilisation of knowledge – that is, a civilisation of the computer. Islam, which is re-establishing itself, cannot afford to be in a condition of conflict or contradiction with this civilisation but must live with it in a state of harmony. It is therefore incumbent upon the élites of European Islam to reinvent their Islam as something European, on the basis of shared values and collective European standards.

The reform of European Islam means that it should become, in the end, a different form of Islam from what it has been hitherto, one that differs in its rituals and practices and in the nature of its relationship with others, one that is no longer a resident of ‘the Abode of War’ but instead has become a citizen sharing the rights of citizenship in a land that has also become its own land. This is the spirit of European Islam which has become re-established – that is, reformed.

Could you summarize in a few words for the readers the broad lines of religious reform?

To readers and decision-makers I would say this: at the beginning of the 20th century the choice was one between reform and revolution. Now, at the onset of the 21st century, the choice has become reform or bloody chaos on the lines, for instance, of Somalia. Western Europe chose reform, and thereby closed off the route to revolution. Will the Arab, Islamic world choose reform to close off the route to chaos?

European Islam can cut itself off from the religious stagnation in the countries of Islam’s birth

Chaos today means that the world and every country in it becomes ungovernable. So choose religious reform as an entry point to a universal political, economic, scientific, linguistic and educational reform. Religious reform today is a way to begin closing off the path to an insane attack on history; to a transformation of education and media institutions into pulpits for takfīr and fatwas that are times laughable and other times enough to make one weep; to a transformation of hospitals into abattoirs for the amputation of hands; to a transformation of public squares into places where sufferers of emotional disorders compete with each other to stone lovers to death and strangle freethinkers; to a transformation of capital cities in the Muslim world into so many Teherans where ‘Republican Guards’ go out hunting university students like rabbits. The entry point to reform will take the following forms:

1)      The rapid transferral from an irrational religious media into a rational religious media, from irrational religious schools that smother us in fanatics, each of whom a potential martyr who is either a killer or a corpse, to religious, worldly rational schools charged with:

- putting a stop to a literal reading of the Text

- teaching Islam in the context of comparative religion

- extracting us from a stagnant vision of Islam by means of dismantling the fictional or even caricatured narratives of its foundational texts and its symbols

- training an élite that is capable of evaluating its heritage and in particular rethinking its future, rational programme.

2)      Imitating the amendments made to the constitution by the ruling Turkish Justice and Development Party in 2006, these being the annulment of the capital penalty, the penalty for adultery and the acknowledgement of a Muslim’s right to change his faith in accordance with Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The ideal Muslim woman: between two occasions of leaving her home

3)      Embarking on an initiative to issue personal status laws inspired by the Tunisian Personal Status Code which launched a Tunisian Islamic Reform Workshop that has been functioning for 54 years, just as Morocco, under the rule of a reformist king who bears the title of ‘Commander of the Faithful’  has worked to put an end to the marginalisation of womankind from the public space (that is from the street, the school, and from places of work) at the hands of the fuqahā’ of religious stagnation, who have promoted their ideal of a Muslim woman as one who leaves her house on only two occasions: the first to leave her home and enter the home of her spouse, and the second to leave the home of her spouse to enter her grave. This is despite the fact that the wives of the Prophet used to go out even while he was alive and continued to do so after he died. ‘Ā’isha even departed the home to fight at the Battle of the Camel where 15,000 were left dead on the field, and so inflamed her army with fervour that ‘Alī was moved to say: “Fell the camel [in which ‘Ā’isha was riding] else the Arabs will be annihilated today.” The verse And stay in your houses [Qur’ān XXXIII,33] was simply not applied to the mothers of believers either during the lifetime of the Prophet or after his death. So by what logic should this be required to be applied to women today?

These necessary measures are capable of inaugurating a course of religious reform that will extract Islam from the regretful trajectory it entered upon during its centuries of decadence, and instead set it on a trajectory of peace – a path of reform, interfaith dialogue and Islamic reconciliation with modernity – that is, with the world it is living in.

Read Part 1 of this article


[1] The author’s reference is to the Qur’ānic verse:  Our Lord! Bring us forth from out this town of which the people are oppressors! Oh, give us from thy presence some protecting friend! Oh, give us from Thy presence some defender! [Qur’ān IV,75] (Ed.)

[2] The reference here is to the saying attributed to Jaʽfar ibn Muhammad: If you hear anything about one of your brothers erring, then make seventy excuses for them. If you are correct, then that is fine; otherwise say: “Perhaps he has an excuse that I am as yet unaware of.” (Ed.)

[3] The French philosopher Edgar Morin (1921-) postulates the need for a new paradigm of ‘complexity’ capable of informing all theories, whatever the field of application of the phenomena in question. He observes that contemporary advances in our knowledge of organisation call for a radical reformation in our organisation of knowledge, high dynamic feedback loop between terms or concepts that remain both complimentary and antagonistic. (Ed.)

[4] That is, Muslims who commit grave sins and die without repentance may not be considered believers, but nor may they be considered non-believers, but occupy an ‘intermediate position’ between the two. The reason being that those who have failed through their actions to qualify as full believer, have not necessarily relinquished belief in God. (Ed.)

[5] The author’s reference is to the famous verse by Al-Maʽarri (973-1057 AD).

[6] The author is quoting from the sūrat al-Raʽd [Qur’ān XIII,11]. (Ed.)