It could be argued that one of the tasks of Al-Azhar (built in Egypt in 972 AD), or Zaytuna (the Great Mosque built in Tunisia in 698 AD), or the authority of Najaf (established in 1038 AD in Iraq), or indeed of other Islamic institutions, is for its imams, shaykhs and curricula to shoulder the bulk of the burden in renewing Islamic discourse. 


BUT IS IT LOGICAL to reduce the entire issue to these Islamic centres, and can they actually perform this act? Is it in their interest to embark upon this and, conversely, do we need to renew Islamic discourse, or are we actually in need of a doctrinal reform?  I will highlight somee of this pressing concern that flares up again just as soon as it abates.

Islam at present stands at a crossroads. Illustrating this is the fact that the Salafists call for a return to what the Salaf(predecessors) and the Followers practiced.[i] Al-Azhar, for example, issues timid calls to apply some make-up to the worn-out heritage without actually touching upon its foundations, given that these constitute one pillar of the fixed constants of the faith. Enlightened shaykhs might criticize some of this heritage for its inappropriateness with to present conditions, but innovative thinkers hope to dispense with this past heritage. These are some of the points of tension, and there are others too. 

The picture is somewhat gloomy.  Things are remaining as they are, and the same old process of chanting, indoctrination and rote-memory of this heritage persists and remains practiced by the shaykhs of the Islamic institutions. It means that the application of reason and logic is denied the recipient, whether he be a student, a follower or a worshiper.  It is, in one way or another, similar to the kuttāb schools, with a few additions made in order to fit them to the current cultural standards.

Do we need to renew Islamic discourse, or are we actually in need of a doctrinal reform?

Examples of these are the irrational and illogical tales of Muḥammad’s Isrā’ and Mi‘rāj[ii]  to Bayt al-Maqdis, and his riding of the flying Burāq. The description of this Burāq is found in the two Ṣaḥīḥ collections of hadith. Al-Bukhārī and Muslim relate that that the Prophet said:

I was brought by Burāq, which is an animal white and long, larger than a donkey but smaller than a mule, whose single step would extend to as far as the eye could see. I mounted it and came to Bayt al-Maqdis, then tethered it to the ring used by the prophets.[iii] 

Anas then relates:

Al-Buraq was brought to the Prophet on the Night of Isrā’, saddled and reined, but he shied from him. So Jibrā’īl said to him: “Is it from Muhammad that you do this? By your Lord! There is no one more honourable to your Lord than him.” He said: “Then he started sweating profusely.”[iv]

Fourteen centuries on, with the accumulation of idols, stories, narratives, tales and hadiths, some shaykhs have reached the point of considering opposition to this heritage as a form of contempt of religion, even with the knowledge that this heritage is infested with many ideas of takfīr, exclusion, rejection of the other, and the choice given to the dhimmī between being killed or paying the jizya tax.[v] This generated a so-called culture of killing and the abolition of any principle of citizenship. One of the bloody hadith that taught violence is the following:

I have been commanded to fight against people till they testify that there is no god but Allah, that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah, and they establish prayer, and pay zakāh and if they do it, their blood and property are guaranteed protection on my behalf except when justified by law, and their affairs rest with Allah. [vi]

The same old process of chanting, indoctrination and rote-memory of this heritage persists 

One needs to have ideas suitable to modern systems and methods in the curricula of the old Islamic institutions, ideas that embrace the rational sciences and logic, in order to make a scholarly analysis of anything related from the Islamic heritage. This is to enable the mind to understand any text, and at the same time cancel out the process of passive repetition in the student or recipient. 

I think that the principle of Cartesian skepticism is to be applied to all of the Islamic heritage, so as to filter it out. Descartes was the first to introduce doubt within an integrated methodology, and he presented his theory of knowledge through doubt as a first step.  Cartesian skepticism is distinguished from the agnostic philosophical skepticism practiced by the Cynics and Sophists, and what is meant by the ‘methodology’ in Cartesian skepticism is that knowledge is the goal of doubting, not doubting for the sake of doubt. 

With regard to terrorist organizations, most religious institutions have taken a hazy stance towards those-such as al-Qaeda and ISIS. This situation is the worst, negative attitude that these institutions could possibly take towards organizations that kill, slaughter, wage war on and crucify Muslim Sunnis and Shiites, Christians and Yazidis. These things should have been one of the tasks of these institutions to resolve, but they merely contented themselves with meagre statements that did not have the required objectivity. This is evidence of how these institutions are distancing themselves from any serious steps towards renewal or religious reform.

Shaykhs have reached the point of considering opposition to this heritage as a form of contempt of religion

To conclude: Firstly, there has been no actual renewal of the Islamic discourse presented in the Islamic intellectual arena by religious institutions, because the men and shaykhs of religion did not believe in it, and have ever maintained their perception of a full return to the heritage, and to avoid cutting with its narratives. Even if there is a ‘renewal’, it is merely a case of painting over any rust in the hadiths and texts, while the original remains the same.

Secondly, I believe that the process of renewing the Islamic discourse is a futile exercise, because the shaykhs are not serious about it carrying it out. Nor is it in their interest to do so because it would diminish their standing and what they gain from it. What we need is doctrinal reform of the religion itself. The Prophet of Islam himself talked of this; it is stated in the Kitāb al-Malāḥim by Abū Dāwūd that the Prophet said: 

Allah will raise for this community at the end of every hundred years the one who will renovate its religion for it.[vii]

This hadith is one of the famous authentic hadiths, narrated by the companion Abū Hurayra. This is what we need to ‘renew the religion of the Nation’, and it needs men who believe in development, reform and modernity. This reform must delete or block access to every text and hadith that cancels out the ‘Other’ and declares them ‘infidel’, as well as all the Qur’ānic verses refer to killing, blood and the sword, or the concepts of the dhimma and jizya. Everything, that is, that refers to hatred, exclusion and violence, so that the Islamic faith may coexist with other beliefs, and at the same time keep pace with today’s civilized society.

[i] See Glossary: ‘Salaf’ and Tābi‘ī’. 

[ii] See Glossary for these terms.

[iii] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 162a.

[iv] Jāmi‘ al-Tirmidhī 3131.

[v] For all these terms, see Glossary.

[vi] Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim, 22.

[vii] Sunan Abī Dāwūd, 4291.