The Impossibility of Reforming Islam
My agnostic, ex-Muslim friend Mohamed and I came to the end of our rope as we both engaged Muslims in debates, dialogues, whatever you call it, and it seemed to lead nowhere. Mohamed suggested that we needed to cease pointing out to Muslims all about the faults of Islam and seek a different approach. The "new" approach he suggested was to reform Islam. At first, I thought he was joking, thinking, which Muslim in his right mind would still give me his attention if I took the whole of his religion apart into pieces and then put it back together for him and say, “Here it is! Your religion, that is! It needed some fixing and we repaired it all for you!” And yet this is exactly what modern Muslims themselves are attempting to do!
With the escalating news of Islamic terrorism rampant all over the news media, Arab intelligentsia have expressed anxiety as well disenchantment with Islam as is in its current Orthodox form. A reformed Muslim feels the weight of embarrassment laid on him by the Islam of the Quran and so demands that Islam be re-imaged into modernity. A command of Mohammad to “kill the infidels” is rendered as “kill them” insofar as they attack you; “beat your wife” is also going to be rendered as “beat her on her buttocks with a feather”, and so on. They are desperate to save Islam from the quagmire it has eventually declined into in the 21st century.
Such Islam, as is, does present problems for humans who want to be in keeping with the civilized world in which all human beings are ontologically equal. Being a human being is qualification enough to be a citizen, not necessarily what their personal beliefs, color or creed are. Arab intellectuals nowadays are faced with a dilemma: they acknowledge Islam as an integral religious component of the Muslim identity, and yet this very component is the bane of the Muslim individual, as if one is talking about cells that are self-destructive of themselves over a certain period of time. As a result, “modernist” Muslims are astonishingly willing to incorporate all the progress and ideals of Western civilization into their Islam. Book markets and Arab TV have Mohamed Arkoun, Mohamed Abed Al-Jabiri, Fatima Marnissi, Mohamed Shahrour and a few others who are proponents of الإسلام الحداثي “modernist Islam” which they hope will take them past the impasse created by الإسلام التقليدي i.e. “traditional Islam”.
Traditional Islam appeals for the majority of Muslims, the common everyday people, while “modernist Islam” is so sophisticated that it appeals to the select few of Arab intelligentsia in the academic world. It is their fine brains which have creatively given birth to it. Reformed Islam holds a rag in hand in order to do some patch up work for traditional Islam. Yet, traditional Islam, founded as it is on the original sources of the Quran and the traditions of Mohammad, is insulted that somebody would dare to approach it with such a “rag” of reform. If the Quran explicitly says to beat the wife in the case of her disobedience (nushūz), Dr Shahrour would say that this beating is just symbolic and it means something totally different. My Isamili friends who believe in the sinlessness of prophets would not accept the fact that Moses, indeed, killed the Egyptian, but “killing” here has its own esoteric interpretation تفسير باطني . If Mohamed Arkoun is such a modernist of a Muslim thinker, why did his Islamic zeal heat up when he heard of Salman Rushdie’s blasphemous novel “Satanic Verses”, so much so that he asked that the blasphemer Rushdie be killed? No doubt, Islamic history seems to record, as long as he is loyal to Islam, those Islamic sentiments will come up in time and the spirit of Islam will kick in and take over the Muslim’s emotions, showing itself full scale. Soon, Islamic modernism would be supplanted by the passionate spirit of Jihad and the vengeance of an angry Allah. This modernism of Islam won’t last for too long, and sooner or later we are faced with the actual intolerant heart of the Islamic religion.
Islam is obviously bound by the rigidity of the doctrine of tanzīl, i.e. mechanically dictated Quranic revelation descending verbatim from Allah. The instrumentality of man might have a place for considerations of reform, but even in the revelation of the Quran itself man is utterly passive and resigned to what had been written from the beginning in the Preserved Tablet اللوح المحفوظ. Human agency is not acknowledged, and so man is seen as passively involved in the process of Quranic revelation. To a Muslim, there is no way he would ever think of his Quran along the lines of “the Sabbath was made for man”. It is the other way around; man is a slave of Allah and, therefore, a slave to the rigid text of the Quran.
A Muslim wants to be “modern” and at the same time his religion tells him that a woman is half a man in inheritance, court witnessing, etc. His religion also tells him throughout the Quran to cut of the hand of a person who steals, administer a hundred lashes with a whip mercilessly to both the single woman and the single man who have sexual intercourse, and stone them to death if they are married. Should a Muslim obey his Quran or should he be a “modernist” and try to be a progressive? In Arabic media, over the Internet, TV, books, and so on a Muslim is pleased to introduce himself as “مسلم حداثي” Muslim hadāthī, i.e. modern progressive Muslim. Let us give it a try and confront his alleged modernism with the Islamic Law i.e. Shari'ah. How long will this modernism last? How can he reform the Quran code of Islamic law without going against his own religion? Will reformed Islam, even along economic, social and ethical lines be actually Islam any longer? If Reformed Islam would put all institutions on equal footing, then it is not Islam any longer but secularism as we know it in America and Europe where the main principle is separation of Church and State.
The Islamic law of apostasy is abrogated socially in Egypt, but when they are confronted with an actual case of conversion from Islam to Christianity, Baha’ism or whatever religion other than Islam, then the fervor of Islamic zeal boils up in their blood and they begin to demand that the apostate, murtad, be killed. They can't stand the idea of somebody choosing something else over Islam. The Islamic Law, shari’ah, is fundamentally based on the authoritative text of the Quran and confirmed by the Traditions of Mohammad. Islam is not some mystical form of New-Age spirituality, another type of spirituality existing in our world, but it is originally a political, state religion. The Quran intended for Islam to be nothing less than an ideology. Muhammad's military tactics in Medina finally culminated in Allah's victory نصر الله والفتح and he conquered Mecca and the people of Arabia had no choice but to “submit” to Muhammad, the conqueror of Mecca.
What about the treatment of non-Muslims under the Islamic Law? If a Muslim truly obeys the plain text of the Quran to go ahead and fight against the Jews and Christians till they pay tax tribute (Repentance 9:29) or see that Jews will always be the worst in enmity to Muslims, who is to blame here? According to the Islamic Law, “An infidel who has to pay his poll-tax, jizya, should be treated by the tax collector with disdain; the collector remaining seated and the infidel standing before him, the head bent and the body bowed. The infidel should personally place the money in the balance, while the collector holds him by the beard and strikes him on both cheeks.”1
I once said to a Saudi Salafi that I was bothered that Ibn Taymiyya said that the blasphemer cursing the Prophet should be killed. Because I abandoned Islam and have my views on it, I, too am a blasphemer whose blood should be shed. This is now a Salafi Muslim that I found to be cheerful, genial-spirited and I was happy to get calls occasionally from him in Qassim, Saudi Arabia where he is currently teaching as a professor of Islamic theology. With such innocence he passively yielded to his Prophet, replying to me, “But such a person goes straight to Paradise after he is killed because he gets purged!” This is Islam, the religion of death, at its best: take people’s lives, deprive them of the God-given life, shed their blood under the pretext of purging them of sin, and after all that say, “oh, but they are going to Paradise!”
Modernism is genuine if it is seeking human dignity as its primary goal, when we fully realize that the Sabbath was made for man, not vice versa. As a Muslim, I was willing to swallow a lot of what Mohammad did, such as his too many wives and concubines, etc. But when I read that verse of Jizya in surat Repentance 29 that commands Muslims to humiliate Christians in whatever way possible for not submitting to Islam, I said to myself, “This cannot be a prophet from God; this is not seeking the wellbeing of humankind. A true God who made all people would never allow a human being to violate the dignity of another person in the name of God. When it comes to the violation of human dignity in the name of the Creator I can’t help but say, "No way! This religion can't be sent by God in order to save humanity".” In Christianity, the aim of God is man himself/ herself, as the goal of man remains always God هدف الله هو الإنسان كما أن الله هو هدف الإنسان. God is seeking man and has made everything for man, and for his/ her sake He takes the initiative of love. Man reciprocates that and realizes that his true Paradise is to make God the goal of his/ her life as well.
It stands to reason that when a Muslim adopts the three principles of the French Revolution, currently the motto of France, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, i.e. "Liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood)", he is plainly indicting the teaching of his own Prophet as well as the heritage of Islam over fourteen gloomy centuries. In essence, he is announcing the bankruptcy of Islam to which he is still holding dearly and claiming it as his identity. Under Islam which we meet in the character of Mohammed as well as the oppressive text of the Quran, there is no such thing as liberty or equality, much less brotherhood when humans are classified into Muslims and infidels/ kuffārكـُفار . Liberty means respect for the individual as an individual and that he/ she is entitled to full human dignity in his or her autonomous sovereignty regardless of what they do in their personal lives. Fraternity, based on the Quran, is only extended to fellow-Muslims while non-Muslim are given contempt, thus pressuring them to give in to the alleged “guidance” of Islam. The Muslim is thus caught forever in the past by Islam while his thoughts, education and heart long for the progression of the modern world. How can he drag the policies of the sixth century into the light of today?
1 Nawawi; E C Howard; Lodewijk Willem Christiaan van den Berg, Minhaj et talibin : a manual of Muhammadan law ; according to the school of Shafi (Lahore : Law Pub. Co., 1977, 1914), 467.