The great social reformer and educationist Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) had lucidly argued in favour of re-reading the divine word to establish a harmony in the divine and the worldly, if there appears to be a contest between the two.
According to him, "The Quran is the word of God, and everything that we see in the world is the work of God." He said it is impossible to imagine any contradiction between divine word and divine work: "If we perceive any contradiction, then it means that we have failed to understand the word of God. In such cases, we need to review our own understanding of the word of God and strive for a meaning that will establish total harmony between the two." So while the word of God would include guidelines on how to lead your life, their practicality and implementation is to be decided by the context and the needs of the time.
The brutality of two recent events - the Peshawar school killings and the Paris attack - and the fact that perpetrators of both barbarities claimed to be the upholders of Islamic beliefs have led to questions being asked; at the top of the list are "Does Islam need reform, and can it be reformed?"
The answer to both questions is "Yes."
After every atrocious act of killing in the name of Islam, the average Muslim feels pressured - or voluntarily finds it important - to condemn the terrorists. They all point out that they don't belong to the same faith as the killers. But over time, with every passing attack, this response, albeit true, is becoming less and less convincing to the world that today sees Islam as a problem.
The problem with Islam is that it has remained stuck in a time warp. While other religions had their reform movements and change-bearers early in the day, Islam has remained a 7th-century faith. Most other institutionalized religions struck their divine-worldly balance so that their followers don't see one versus the other, but as complementary. So that belief remains personal, not the prism through which to see the world. But Islam is yet to find that equilibrium where its followers don't have to choose or struggle to reconcile the two.
Do we blame an average Muslim for that? Or is there an inherent 'tribalism' in the religion itself which is at continuous friction with its surroundings? All religious texts are as good or as bad as their interpretations. And unfortunately, it's the most violent and abusive followers who are heard the most.
Gandhi's or Vivekananda's Gita is as different from Godse's or Bhagwat's as Maulana Azad or Maulana Wahiduddin Khan's Quran is from Baghdadi's or Bin Laden's. So while it's convenient to blame the text, it's not going to take either followers or opponents anywhere. The text was written in a time, in a context. When the context changes, our reading and interpretation of it must also change.
Coming back to the problem of reforms in Islam: the religion that started as a revolution and revolt against many prevalent "ills" of its time has to be dynamic to last in its true essence. What we have today in the name of the faith is based on a very twisted and orthodox reading of it. While the couple of initial centuries saw the Islamic world making great strides in scientific and modern innovations, 13th-century onwards, the intellectual environment got muddied and entrenched in orthodoxy. Education, scientific inquiry and innovation became bad words.
Justice Amir Ameer Ali in his classic 'The Spirit of Islam' quotes an Arab editor who says: "The Arabs might have been a nation of Galileos, Keplers and Newtons. By their denunciations of science and philosophy, by their exhortations that besides theology and law no other knowledge was worth acquiring, they did more to stop the progress of the Muslim world than most other Muslim scholiasts. And up to this day their example is held forth as a reason for ignorance and stagnation."
The condition of almost all the Muslim world today is a factual testimony to this assessment. Muslim countries, though some of the most rich in the world, languish at the bottom of all human rights, gender justice, democratic, and innovations indices.
The need is to rescue Islam, and in turn Muslims, from this Arab mindset. The need is to rescue the text and the religious philosophy from the orthodoxy and propagate ideas and interpretations that are in sync with modernity and scientific inquiry. While it may be true that Sunni Islam doesn't have a clergy as visible as, say, a Pope, the unholy nexus of the 'ulemas' (clerics) and state has ensured that the most patriarchal, undemocratic and medieval conclusions are drawn from the reading of the Quran. The 'ulemas' and the rulers sought justifications for the medieval acts in religion and more often than not twisted and moulded the divine word to suit their agendas.
Islam and Islamic learning need to be democratised. As Maulana Azad said: "Our history is replete with the doings of ulemas who have brought humiliation and disgrace to Islam in every age".
The house of Sauds that exports, apart from oil, medievalism and tribalism in the name of Islam cannot be expected to bring about any change or reform. Their Western friends must also introspect why they turn a blind eye to Saudi well-oiled obscurantism. Saudi Arabia has done more harm to the Islamic understanding and flourish than any other force. It's time to reject the Saudi version of Islam. Revivalism, devoid of reawakening, is no good.
Salman Rushdie says that there is a "deadly mutation in the heart of Islam". I would put it differently. There is an obscurantist stagnation at the 'centre' of Islam (read Arab world) which has choked the flow of lifeblood to its heart.
The President of Egypt recently gave a call for "Islamic Reforms" at Al Azhar University in Cairo. He was widely hailed by some as the new Ataturk and even a Muslim Martin Luther. But I think the statist approach to reform is not the answer. The call for reform must come from below, from men and women who have a stake in an Islamic reawakening.
An Islamic Renaissance, guided by the masses, not the mullah, is long overdue.
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