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Thursday, 30 April 2009
Islamic Reform: Holy Grail or Poisoned Chalice (Part II)

by Mary Jackson (May 2009)

concluded Part I of this article (February 2009) by admitting that Islamic reform seemed like a lost cause. To be sure, my piece focused on what will not work: a pretty face (male or female), a pleasant personality in the case of spiky-haired Irshad Manji, or a plausible one in the case of the British Government’s Great Hope Ed Husain. Their approach, and that of too many Islamic reformers, is to sweeten Islam for the modern, Western palate. Whether or not they intend to deceive hardly matters. Adding the world “lightly” in a translation of the Koranic verse (4:34) enjoining the beating of “disobedient” wives does nothing to soften the blow for millions of Muslim women whose husbands know the truth. “Slay the unbelievers wherever you find them” stubbornly refuses to turn into “Give peace a chance.” The Koran says what it says, and is believed to be the unchanging, infallible word of God. Mohammed did what he did, and is believed to be the perfect man. Try as he might, can a reformer make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear? In this second of three articles, I consider how such a task might be attempted. Attempted is the operative word – I offer no guarantee of success. more>>>

Posted on 04/30/2009 6:31 PM by NER
15 Jul 2010
Send an emailWilliam Emmerton

Mary Jackson's article covers the subject well, and raises some worthwhile questions. But she ends where she really ought to start: any religion whose followers believe that their main book was dictated by God cannot be "reformed". What do I mean? To "reform" means to reshape, to change and to refashion, in some way. Thus, after the reformation of the Catholic church, churches in some areas of Europe were "reformed" -- for example, they were no longer ruled by the Pope, or no longer attached to monasteries. In other words, something was different. There were theological elements to this reformation, so that what people were taught and believed was reformed, to a greater or lesser degree.

The reason that this was possible is that -- at least initially -- none of the reformers argued that scripture (the canonical books of the Bible, held universally in Christendom more or less since the time of Acts) was not the word of God, or that any of it should be abrogated. The reformation was to do more with churches than with what Christians should do, how they should live, their morals and so forth. In some cases, such as among English puritan sects, scriptural injunctions were reinforced more exactly than they had been -- no sport on the sabbath, for example.

Had Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the other reformers tried to create liberal sects or attempt to refute any teachings of scripture they would never have succeeded. The reformation was not about doing away with Christian law, obligations or the need to be devout and faithful -- it was, its supporters claimed -- about restoring faith, devotion and true religion (though each reformer had his own view of how that should be achieved -- eg: Calvin, in contrast to Luther.

In that sense, people like Sayed Qutub, Hassan al Banna and Abdul Wahab were "reformers" -- radicals seeking to restore lost truths and lost virtue. The "reformation" of Islam that many non-Muslims seem to be hoping for seems to be a kind of liberalisation, where parts of the Quran and some of the Hadith are ignored, forgotten or directly contradicted by religious teachers and leaders. Let us be logical here -- if Calvin had started taking the Bible apart, he would have been either beheaded or forgotten by history, because he claimed scripture (and some of the patristic writings) as his source and the validation of what he thought. Deny one part of the Bible, and you might as well start denying the lot of it. The result might be a kind of Unitarian faith, or a sort of Deism (God without miracles), but such beliefs do not really move mountains, and churches founded on them tend to die after a few generations. Similarly, look at the fate of the Anglican, Episcopalian and mainline Protestant churches during the last 100 years. The only churches that are really thriving are those that maintain Biblical inerrancy. This is not an argument for being a Biblical fundamentalist, but is stated merely to show the difficulty of deconstructing a religious source, taking out the parts one finds unpleasant, and repackaging it as a kinder, gentler religion.

Like our Christian reformers, Muslim reformers have claimed to restore the old religion (Toynbee calls such reformers "archaicists", I think), and have been reasonably successful. Some reformers have attempted to found sects of their own (the Bahai, Druze and the Ahmedi, for example), with moderate success, but often the same fate that befell Christian sect founders -- death, ignominy or simply indifference by the mass of society).

Any intellectually honest Muslim has to say that the Quran is true, and thus that what it says is true. He (or a movement made up of such people) might say that some verses need not be applied today, or that they could be interpreted in a variety of ways ("Slay the unbelievers..." could be interpreted as meaning "Pluck out thine eye" or something like that, at a stretch) but it would probably be the case that such verses would simply be ignored. What would have to happen for this to become accepted theological practice? First, Muslims would have to gain hegemony. This would result in tolerance for the dhimmis -- as was the case with the Ottomans; you do not need to persecute minorities when you have money, power, adulation and strength; you can afford to ignore them -- and a generally lax attitude among the Ulema. They would not have anybody to wage jihad against.

Second, Muslims would have to belong to the middle and upper classes. Common sense tells us that most middle and upper class people do not undertake 9/11 bombings, though of course there are a few exceptions. But by and large, they do not. And, with universal hegemony, they would not need to.

Third, any sense of shame, resentment, fear and envy would need to be eradicated on the part of Muslim societies, their leaders and religious teachers. This would come with hegemony and clear, decisive victory over the infidel. Without a sense of shame, and without feelings of resentment, the urge to violent jihad would be somewhat muted.

In other words, we would have what existed throughout most of the Middle East and parts of Asia and Africa from the end of the 7th century AD until about 1900 AD, with the difference that the multitudes would be better educated, better off and thus less barbaric than their ancestors. Prescriptions such as stoning would probably be forgotten about, and Jews and Christians would be allowed to exist provided that they did not threaten the social order.

How would such a society sustain itself? Through the never-ending inventiveness of its minorities, just as the Caliphate did. Periodically, there would be a few Savanarolas, who would seek to purify the peoples of their luxury and vices, but they could be put down fairly easily.

I have lived among the favoured people for the last 20 years, and do not see any other way their religion could be "reformed" or at least its more dangerous doctrines muted. As Mary Jackson says, scholarship may provide us with ideas, but they may turn out to have results that we do not want. And, more to the point, what would on what basis could a scholarly reformer possibly base his claims? How could such a reformer argue with 1500 years of accepted tradition and practices that have served the faithful fairly well? They know no other way, and there is no proof that anyone can provide, this side of the grave, that these traditions are not divinely sent.

Does anyone imagine that traveling around the rural Sudan or Algeria and saying that a couple of Semitic studies professors have spent several years in their libraries and now believe that the virgins are raisins is going to sound very convincing when for 1500 years, nobody thought of this? And, given that the faithful are raised to be literalists, and fairly logical about it, would they not say "If God wanted us to believe they are raisins, he would have told us so." Then they would stone, hang or shoot the travelling missionary and go back to their goats, vineyards and olive trees, content with their lot.

By now, it should be clear, my point is this: reform of the enlightening kind is most unlikely. The faith will probably go on much as it is. Tempering the jihadist impulse will only come with its success (in selected areas, as there are today, such as Qatar, or universally). There is but one alternative, friends, and nobody wants to admit what it is. The trouble with that alternative is that it will not play itself out during our lifetimes. Why? To do battle with an idea one has to have a replacement for it. The faith of which I write was a credible enough replacement -- to the people of the time -- for Byzantine, Nestorian, Coptic and other forms of Christianity, Zoroastrianism, Judaism and other religions. If it was not credible theologically, it was acceptable socially (let's be honest here) or made sense financially (human nature has not changed) or was a matter of life and death. What do we have that is a credible replacement for this particular faith -- credible not to us, but to the faithful concerned? 

17 May 2009
Send an emailMary Jackson

Chris, thank you for your feedback. In fact I am planning to address the issue of reordering the Koran and taking out the "bad" bits in Part III. This will not be until July, because the June edition of New English Review will be full, because of the upcoming symposium.

I haven't written the article yet, so any suggestions would be welcome. You can email me if you like, at [email protected]

17 May 2009

I'm looking forward to Mary Jackson's third installment on Islamic Reform.  With a few exceptions, she has hit the nail on the head so far. Missing are discussions of the "Quran only" Muslims who try (sometimes futilely) to disregard all information from the ahadith. Also, Ms. Jackson doesn't address the most basic of needed revisions to the Quran -- assembling the surahs in their natural, chronological order and eliminating duplicate texts as Bill Warner has done.

While there is a natural inclination among non-Muslim students of the Quran to just trash the entire document as a poorly conceived, incoherent rant, this would leave the 1.3 billion Muslims with no foundation of faith.  A "cold-turkey" approach for people whose every move every day is defined by Islamic doctrine would result in moral and social chaos.  

A more manageable reform (and one that would allay the concerns of most non-Muslims) would be to separate the political Medina Surahs from the more theological Meccan Surahs, leaving a faith of secular monotheism that would be compatible with 21st Century social and political norms.  Gone would be the calls for jihad, the militant Islamic superiority, and the draconian Shariah legal edicts.  Worth a try.