IN COMMON with all faiths, all complexions of Islam call for reform or ‘renewal’. However, contemporary Islam wrestles with disagreement on what form such a renewal is to take. This disagreement is compounded with a strong instinct to distrust any new thinking (as may be implied in the term ‘renewal’) as destructive to what is opaquely conceived as a perfect and divinely delineated model. The grassroots fear among many Muslims is that a reformed Islam must in some way no longer be true Islam. For this reason the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘heresy’ rub shoulders closely in the word bid‘a (the dictionary explains the Arabic word with both terms). This ambiguity underpins the reason for the three terms commonly used to denote ‘reform’: islāh (‘repair’, ‘restoration’), tajdīd (‘renewal’) and ihyā’ (‘revivification’). None of them suggest a major re-configuration or an assimilation of the new, and so the adaptive reach of these terms must always remain circumscribed.
But the dynamic of the modern age and the sheer pace of the changes it provokes calls for a new approach to reform that cannot be answered by ever stronger calls to asāla, and its implications of ‘authenticity’ or ‘purity of pedigree’ – as expressed in a lengthening list of negative stipulations of what a Muslim cannot do or cannot think. The question for contemporary Muslims is: who decides what constitutes the ‘genuine’ from the extraneous, or where do the frontiers lie that separate off the ‘untouchable’ elements of Islam? For some it is the Text of the Qur’ān, for others the Text and the Hadīth, for still others, the Text, the Hadīth and the Sharī‘a. Islamic reform is balanced between the interaction between scholars of the text and scholars of the context.
Progressive Muslim thinkers recognise the instinct to preserve as having become too dominant, inhibiting the energy to adapt and keep pace with the changes that are being forced upon them. This instinct dismisses the concept of a Muslim mind that has changed in step with a changed environment, and instead posits the Quixotic response of promoting old solutions to new problems, which are less and less capable of being related to them by ever more elaborate exercises in analogy. For those who are less beguiled by the argument for absolute literalism in the understanding of the Text, might not contemporary orthodoxy actually be betraying the essence of the Qur’ānic message?
This is the approach taken by the authors to this theme, who are mounting a challenge to the centre of gravity of authority in contemporary Islam, and are placing a question-mark against the methodologies of an overly ring-fenced, exclusively juridical approach to Islamic reform. Their challenge is ultimately to widen the discourse of Islam, re-activate creativity at its deeper (and not least theological) levels, to reject the polarities of assimilation or isolation, and instead push for participation, so that the Muslim world can once again contribute to the advancement of knowledge, culture, social harmony and the dignity of Man.
Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari
Attempts to diagnose the factors contributing to paralysis and obstacles to Arab reform date back more than two centuries. They began at the end of the 18th century on the heels of the cultural clash with a triumphant West that overran the region with its developed weaponry and modern technologies, with its sciences, expertise and advanced systems.