On the dilemma of religious reform in Islam

Translated by: Hania Mourtada

[Original text in Arabic]

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The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has precipitated a new wave of calls for religious reform in Islam. The proliferation of contradictory religious fatwas, and the rising number of Muslim “televangelists” on satellite channels, according to these calls, have made Islam incomprehensible. Muslims are thus divided into rival teams that accuse each other of infidelity and consider the spilling of each other’s blood permissible.

And indeed, while the ‘Islamic State’ was gaining new ground, imposing its dark shadow on millions of people, practicing ethnic cleansing and committing the worst kinds of crimes in the name of true faith, official Islamic organizations maintained a dishonorable silence for a number of reasons, both political and doctrinal. This further pushed reformists to increase their demands on official institutional Islam to declare a definitive stance vis-a-vis this terrifying organization, and against all forms of religious radicalism. 

A closer look at the question of religious reform in Islam will, however, confront us with two fundamental points:    

The first is that for several movements that came about since the 18th century, religious reform in Islam has already occurred. The Wahhabi, Senussi, Khatmya, and Mahdi movements have all claimed that they had come to fix religion after it had reached a dangerous level of decline and became a tool for charlatans to enflame public opinion and mobilize the masses. Examining these reformist movements in their historical contexts would however reveal that they emerged in societies which were experiencing various crises centered around the relationship between authority and society, and thus between two divergent understandings of the dominant ideology- which is Islamic piety, naturally.

The second important point is that reform tends to embody the demands and interests of social groups that are self-aware and thus aware of their crises and predicaments. A case in point is religious reform in the church and the appearance of Protestantism which many consider the ideology that gave birth to the European bourgeoisie at the beginning of the renaissance era and around the onset of capital amassments (notwithstanding the criticism mounted against this thesis, especially by Marxists).

Therefore, it is important to distinguish between two types of reform movements in Islam: the first was led by tribal leaders and local notables who stirred up in Islam the clan mentality in order to achieve political ends. In other words, they reverted to the ideological mobilization aspect of religion typical of past centuries. As for the second type of reform, it was an attempt to “rationalize” or “modernize” religion in order to keep up with the times. Of course we cannot compare  the Wahhabi and Senussi movements with the efforts led by Muhammad Abdo and Jamal al-Deen al-Afghani without taking into account the significant differences in the respective environments that gave rise to those two type of movements and varying degrees of awareness of the desired reform.

Nevertheless, it remains true that those “reforms” which have relied on group dynamics- regardless of whether we can evaluate them as good or bad, consider them “real” reforms or “reactionary” one – ultimately reflected the political and social reality of the communities that have embraced them. And, if we are to digress, it would be apt to remember the Almohad Caliphate which, as a kind of religious reform, adopted the radical Zahiri doctrine for the purpose of bringing uniformity to the tribal alliance which battled the Murabitun in Morocco. The same can be said of the conflict which broke out between Abed al-‘Aziz Al-Sood and the puritanical ‘brotherhood’ movement in the 1920s when the imperatives of the emerging Saudi state collided with the literal application of Wahhabism.

Now, if we look into the contemporary “sociological” realities of the Arab societies: their composition, their divisions, the dominant forces and ideas in them, their sources of income and their relationships with each other and the outside world, we may not in fact find any solid ground for all these calls for religious reform. In other words, we may not find an “audience” that is receptive to the new ideas. Combatting a dominant reality will of course always be a struggle, but which party will carry the banner of the struggle here? And what are its financial resources? And what are its intellectual references? And which focal political, social and cultural points does it rally around?

In other words: which are the factions that will move the wheel of reform in Islam? And in which direction? Keeping in mind that the moderate attempts by Muhammad Abdo (1905) did not achieve the success hoped for despite the fact that they occurred in a cultural and political atmosphere that was far less charged than what we are experiencing today.

Our assumption is that these two questions, and other questions which fall under a historical approach to emphasizes the relationship between religion and society, override in importance theoretical debates regarding women’s position in society, for instance, or research into the compatibility of this or that fatwa with the reality of the era in which Muslims live.

There is another aspect of the reform question that requires thinking once we move from the vague slogan of “reform” to practical matters that should actually be “reformed”. Oftentimes, calls for reform are directed at an unspecified Islam. When looking at the Protestant Reformation, we find that it was directed at a homogenous system of beliefs and religious practices represented by the Catholic church. That was also the case for the Enlightenment Jewish reformation, the Hascala movement, and other reformation movements. In Islam, what is exactly the confessional system that should be targeted by reform? 

The need to provide an accurate answer to this question is often overlooked, although it is generally understood by this proposition that the target of reform is the entirety of the four Sunni schools- with more focus on the Salafi-Habali doctrine with its Wahhabi teachings since this is the ideology that has been fervently embraced by the most vocal armed Jihadi groups- those who have dominated the media narrative in the past few decades.

There is a kind of inverted approach in this call. The doctrine that has come to dominate would not be possible if it wasn’t for the great promotional efforts expended by various parties, Gulf official ones and even western ones, and which reached unprecedented levels since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979) and have continued since. These promotional efforts should not be exonerated. But for the promoted ideas to take root, the targeted audience should first be receptive to those ideas and the land should be fertile to receive those seeds. There are dozens of studies that deal with the reasons of these campaigns’ success and the disasters they have led to. We won’t repeat them here except to note their broad outline: the projects of the state, modernity, development and society in Arab and Islamic nations have all experienced general failure.

This climate further complicates the concept of reform because it transforms it from a problem that is at the heart of Islam and its jurisprudential structure to a problem between Islamic sects. It is common for some to argue that the Hanbali-Wahhabi doctrine contributes to the dissemination of violence because it relies on Prophetic sayings that are rejected in other Islamic schools and because it adheres to civil verses and paragraphs as opposed to Meccan ones. There are even some who feel a new doctrine must be formulated along the lines of what Hasan Hanafi did in his statements about the Islamic left.

On the Shiite side, it appears that Ahmad al-Qabanji, in his quest to deny the validity of the tales which sanctify the prophet’s descendants and which attribute divine powers to the awaited Mahdi (Muhammad Ben al-Hasan al-‘Askari), is the most radical in his attempts at “reform”. 

For instance, in his book Refining Shiite tales and in his general refutation of the narratives and tales that figure in Shiite books which include anything from Qafi to Qulayni to Bahar al-Anwar to Majlisi, he virtually eviscerates the entirety of the Shiite doctrine and relegates it to a new Sunni doctrine that is closer, in reality, to the Hanafi doctrine. And this is something that Shiite clerics obviously reject; they objected less vehemently to Ahmad’s book which deals with the evolution of political Shiite thought and in which the author criticizes some of the founding tenets of the Shiite doctrine and rejects the principle of the state of al-Faqih, calling instead for the nation to be its own state.

It should be said, at this juncture, that judging the seriousness of these attempts at reform should be subject to the examination of the social context in which they were undertaken rather than their academic-methodical soundness. The crisis is not confined to the Hanbali doctrine but encompasses, first of all, everything that has to do with social Islam and, secondly, Islam and what it generates in terms of history, doctrine, the interpretation of sacred texts, the authorities’ output and its entanglements with authority.

On the other hand, I want to draw attention here to the abundance of fatwas issued by the “new religious scholars” some of which are at odds with human instinct and common sense before being at odds with the principles of Islamic jurisprudence which was laid out over a period of hundreds of years. We can explain this abundance by linking it to the political dynamics in which Jihadists have been engaged for years and their need to manage the multiple aspects of the conflicts they’re waging.

It may be the paradox of this era that while Sunni Islam supposedly closed the door on Ijtihad hundreds of years ago following the victories of the Ash’ari school, today we have this strange stream of jihadi fatwas which deal with the day to day and family life of Muslims. Here, the problematic concerning the content of this flood of fatwas comes into sharp relief as well as the question of how to classify and categorize them according to school of thought or doctrine. It would be easy to simply dismiss all that flows from the mouths of Mufti fighters, and their secret and outspoken supporters, and to look at it as pointless chatter lacking any doctrinal or religiously sound basis. However, the sheer volume of fatwas, opinions and judgments that are advanced as authentic and legitimate will most certainly leave their mark on the meaning of Ijtihad and the role of actors that are beholden to those textual analyses.

While the “advocates of malls and commercial complexes” such as Amr Khaled and his imitators who appear on television and address the social factions that have benefited from oil rents and labor in the gulf and have embraced consumerism, have retreated of late, new kinds of preachers have emerged. The new preachers are those who advocate mowing heads and displaying them in public parks; those kinds of preachers address the poorer and less educated classes of the suburbs and the countryside, of the Sinai desert and Hadramout and the deserts of al-Sham and Iraq which have in common not just social and political marginalization but also the kind of poverty that breaks people.

So how can we get out of this dilemma? What’s shocking is that the Sunni religious establishment (which some still insist does not exist), and which is represented by Al-Azhar and the committees of the most prominent religious clerics in Arab and Islamic states, is maintaining an odious silence in response to the actions and activity of Jihadi militants.

Like most phenomena in which intellectual, cultural, social and political aspects overlap, this silence can be interpreted on several levels…

 The political explanation: since this religious establishment is beholden to state apparatuses, it sees the need for an actor to temper internal and external changes that could destroy the status quo. Jihadists are hindering the democratic-liberal turn of the Arab revolutions- a case in point is Syria- and they are emptying those revolutions of their meaning like they did in Egypt, Libya and Yemen. At the same time, they are a crucial tool in preventing Iran from gaining influence and in thwarting its strategy as was the case in Iraq.

The intellectual-doctrinal interpretation (so to speak) boils down to the catastrophic inertia that has plagued the Sunni school for hundreds of years and has turned it into a phenomenon of repetition and rumination that is devoid of any revolutionary approach capable of accommodating suggestions which include rethinking religious history, the interpretation of sacred texts and the stance vis-a-vis science and philosophy, especially since Jihadi Sheikhs claim their fatwas are authentic and belong to a solid doctrinal tradition. It is no wonder, then, that the religious establishment is always turning a blind eye to scandals committed in the name of Islam (such as the farces of television preachers) or else implicitly adopting what is no less farcical and trivial like the promotion of what is known as “scientific miracle in the Quran” instead of expressing a modern and progressive opinion vis-a-vis the successive scientific revolutions. This state of things has reached a point where what is committed in the name of religion is being ignored in order to stay clear of controversies from which traditional Fiqh would not emerge unscathed and to avoid examining problems which the religious establishment would rather distance itself from.

Taking a hypocritical and shifty stance vis-a-vis contemporary challenges, under the pretext of not compromising Sunnis and the Quran, has led to an incurable disease that whose parasites are growing in Islam, however we look.

It is apparent that calls for reform often originate outside the religious establishment which is committed to remain silent about the massacres and shameful practices that are all carried out according to fatwas deemed legitimate. But what is even more clear is that the exploitation of this silence, which came at the request of political authorities and enjoys popular support even today, stands at best as the expected position vis-a-vis what this Jihadi insane violent wave will yield.

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Hussam Itani

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