Islam and reform

Published : Jun 02, 2006 00:00 IST

Drawing attention to a saying of the Prophet, a Muslim woman in Mumbai on International Women's Day. - PAUL NORONHA

Drawing attention to a saying of the Prophet, a Muslim woman in Mumbai on International Women's Day. - PAUL NORONHA

On the debate that pits critics of Islam against those who seek change from within the faith.

IN a now-famous interview to Al Jazeera Television, Dr. Wafa Sultan, an Arab-American psychiatrist, took on the Muslim world by proclaiming that "only the Muslims defend their beliefs by burning down churches, killing people and destroying embassies". Her unabashed articulation of the backwardness, barbarity and corruption prevalent in the Muslim world made headlines all over the world. In the weeks after her outburst, Sultan's rise to fame followed the predictable series of appropriation and threats that ensues every time someone from the Muslim world openly rebels against the strictures placed on criticising Islam.

Within days there were reports of her going into hiding as a torrent of fatwas were issued against her. One group calling itself the Al Munasireen al Rasullah issued a death threat against her. Also rushing into the milieu were conservative and right-wing groups with admittedly Islamophobic agendas which welcomed her with open arms in the centuries-old union forged between those who fight a common enemy.

Wafa Sultan describes herself as a reformer whose task is to lift Muslims in order to enable them to acknowledge the debilitating weight of intellectual stagnation and patriarchy and to rise above their obstinate and self-destructive aversion to change. She is not alone in embracing the thorny mantle of reforming the ailing Ummah. In recent years, self-proclaimed reformists of diverse stripes and colours have appeared on the political landscape of the Muslim world. Like Ayan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born former member of the Dutch Parliament whose controversial film about abuse of Muslim girls in the Netherlands led to the death of film-maker Theo Van Gogh, Sultan has chosen the incendiary and hence perilous route of reform after renunciation.

In her initial interview, Wafa Sultan stated that she is a "secular human being who does not believe in the supernatural". In later conversations she has reiterated that she does not consider herself a Muslim. Also, like Ayan Hirsi Ali, Wafa Sultan does not shy away from pushing ideas that come with the weighty baggage of being easily appropriated by those whose interests lie not in reforming Islam but in promoting a fundamentalism of their own.

In her Al Jazeera interview, Wafa Sultan characterised the clash between Islam and the Western world as one between "a clash between civilisation and backwardness, between the civilised and the primitive, between barbarity and rationality". In almost identical language, Ayan Hirsi Ali, who herself fled an abusive marriage before seeking asylum in the Netherlands, has also condemned Muslims for being backward, uncivilised and steeped in medieval and archaic traditions that promote the subjugation of women.

While the substantive truth of the critiques espoused by both Wafa Sultan and Ayan Hirsi Ali can be denounced or embraced based on one's politics, a more crucial question centres not on the veracity of their arguments but rather on their viability as instigators of change within Islam. Admittedly, an inquiry so focussed is cynical in its prioritisation of evaluating the packaging over the product.

However, as many political theorists have noted over centuries, the bridge between realising the need for reform and effectuating reform is one punctuated with the constant peril of obliteration. In this particular case, the threat of elimination is based on the reality that unless any recipe for reform is able to win a constituency in the hearts of those that must change, it is likely to die an unceremonious death on the shelves of Western bookstores.

In a radio interview to Israeli National Radio, Wafa Sultan spoke to those whom she sees as this very constituency - the women of the Islamic world. In a poignant and heart-felt plea she begged them to recognise that it was they who were the true leaders of the Islamic world and who possessed the power to effectuate reform. Undeniably, she too recognises the necessity of agents who must bring about the reform she is advocating. The disjoint between her recognition and her rhetoric becomes more obvious when one notes her choice of forum and rhetoric. Can those in the Muslim world transcend the damning reality that the interview was given to Israeli National Radio and still heed her call to reform?

Similarly, can Muslims watching Al Jazeera accept the truth of her argument regarding the pressing need for reform within the faith despite her own avowed renunciation of Islam? In essence, to what extent do both Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan delegitimise their own project by using an uncompromising rhetoric that makes it only too easy for Muslims to discard their entire argument? At its core, then, the argument can be reduced to the oft-occurring means justifying the end that faces every question of campaign for change.

Must those such as Wafa Sultan and Ayan Hirsi Ali soften their rhetoric to score political points and cajole their target constituencies into accepting the pressing need for reform? Is it possible that those vilified as backward and barbaric will swallow the bitter pills of such an unflinchingly harsh diagnosis and still be inspired to change?

On the other side of the "reform" spectrum, a drastically different course towards instigating change is being charted by "internal" reformers, those that seek to reform Islam by grounding their arguments within Islamic tradition itself. In an effort focussed precisely towards mobilising Muslims for change, Tariq Ramadan, author of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam, issued an "International call for moratorium on corporal punishment, stoning and the death penalty in the Islamic world". To the Western reader, there seems little to distinguish the rhetoric used by Ramadan other than the obvious fact that the latter's call is grounded in sophisticated academic argument that would be expected from a seasoned scholar. From the Muslim perspective, however, each argument formulated by Ramadan is an exercise in situating the argument for change solidly within Islamic doctrine. While denouncing the barbarity of the Hudud punishments of stoning and stoning to death, Ramadan laments not their inherent barbarity but the fact that there is no theological consensus within Islam on when such punishments may be justly applied. In an effort to ground his argument in doctrinal legitimacy he draws from precedent in which Omar Ibn Khattab, the third Caliph of Islam, suspended the cutting of hands as a punishment for theft during famine. The argument used by Omar, and now by Ramadan, is that the conditions for the just application of the punishment simply do not exist. He adds also that the majority of Ulema say "these penalties are on the whole Islamic but that the conditions under which they should be implemented are nearly impossible to re-establish". Ramadan, therefore, navigates the tumultuous seas of advocating change by harnessing his ship to the edifice of faith. His argument is based not on a personal/political experience of suffering at the hands of archaic laws and customs but pivoted on using historical examples from within Islam to effectuate change.

While the Ramadan strategy manages to evade the minefields of delegitimisation that seem to plague those taking the paths chosen by Wafa Sultan and Ayan Hirsi Ali, it is not without its own scourge. The gargantuan problem confronted by a reinterpretation of tradition within Islamic doctrine, such as the one suggested by Ramadan here, is the seemingly impossible task of subverting the entrenched traditions that have existed for centuries while at the same time remaining within the praxis of faith. Ramadan's effort to enact a moratorium on Hudud punishments is an excellent example of just this quandary. Soon after he issued his statement advocating the end to Hudud punishments, a statement was issued by a research group of Ulema at the renowned Al-Azhar University in Cairo. The statement denounced Ramadan's call for a moratorium as a "denial of the central tenets of Islam". The Ulema further took issue with Ramadan's use of the legal precedent of Umar Ibn Khattab's suspension of the punishment for theft. That precedent, they stated, was "limited to use during wartime and is therefore clearly inapplicable for the contemporary context".

Ramadan's strategy thus falls prey to the tremendous burden of destabilising tradition without being compromised and co-opted itself. Ramadan is not alone in traversing the tightrope of both proposing reform and maintaining his legitimacy as a Muslim. In a recent essay for Boston Review, another such internal reformer, Khaled Abou El Fadl (author of the book The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from Extremists) reviewed a recent compilation of Osama bin Laden's speeches. The review essay, cleverly themed around the comparison of bin Laden to the Christian Crusaders, achieves the marvellous rhetorical feat of situating the terror of the Muslim present against the demons of the Christian past. Abou El Fadl denounces Wahabi Islam but not without reminding everyone that such extremism is not unique to Islam. The result is an essay that creates successfully an analytical distance between Islam and the most dangerous Muslim. Westerners reading the article are likely to be impressed at the unequivocal condemnation of bin Laden by an educated Muslim scholar. Muslims reading the article can evade the question of how exactly their avowedly peaceful faith can also be the ideological force behind such evil extremism. An impressive illustration of the "moderate" Muslim perspective, El-Fadl's meticulously composed essay flirts with the danger of making arguments so well reasoned and self-evident that they fail to instigate any response at all. In appeasing all, he exhorts none and in suggesting the omnipresence of fundamentalism in all historical epochs, he creates a convenient place for denial and self-deception within Islam.

If reform is truly the goal, then has El-Fadl wandered too far into the realm of apologia thus neutralising the possibility of change? Must the arguments made by Ramadan and Abou-El Fadl be discarded for not going far enough in their condemnation of certain practices? Is it indeed possible to distinguish between the "internal reformer" that seeks to change the faith from within and the apologist that manipulates the terminology of reformist ideas to maintain effectively the status quo? At the same time, should the Machiavellian analysis of political success be allowed to stymie the much-needed critique being advanced by Wafa Sultan and Ayan Hirsi Ali?

In the milieu of this torrent of questions, it is easy to gloss over an oft-ignored dimension of the debate over reform, one that questions not the legitimacy of the reformers but rather the historical assumption that Muslim reformation belongs in the future rather than the present. It is entirely possible that arguments for reform in the Muslim world have been erected on the baseless presumption that Muslim reformation will follow a transforming path similar to the Protestant Reformation. Like Reformed Christianity, the Reformed Islam that will emerge will engender individual notions of faith and eschew the collective and archaic. This dangerous assumption situates the debate over reforming Islam in a context that is singularly Western and possibly irrelevant to the Muslim masses. Furthermore, like a deceptive shroud it ignores the transforming powers already unleashed on the Muslim world; reinterpretations of faith that speak not to Western audiences but rather to the throngs of Muslims in the streets from Cairo to Karachi and Teheran to Mogadishu. If the scales weighing reformation's present and future use the nomenclature of mass appeal, then this transformation of Islam, one that espouses the abandonment of confused post-colonial cultures for the perceived authenticity of a pan-Islamic unity, is surely winning. Built on the political thought of Hassan Al-Banna, Maulana Maudoodi and Ali Shariati, it has already transformed Islam into a resistance ideology that is seductive equally to audiences as diverse as Afghan refugees to British-born Pakistani immigrants. Strengthened by the political reality of the suffering of Palestinians, Iraqis and soon the Iranians, it has transformed Muslim identity into something inherently anti-Western. Under the auspices of this reformation, symbols such as headscarves have become emblems of silent resistance against Western hegemony and opposition to Western values has been rationalised religiously and given both political and divine meaning. Recognising the glaring reality of this existing Muslim reformation requires abandoning the comforting rationalisation that only extremists are attracted to the orthodoxy and resistance identity of this new Islam. Finally, it necessitates a fundamental redefinition of the debate that pits external critics against those that seek change from within. The inquiry should centre not on the search for the true reformer, the Muslim Luther, but in defining the collective that can counter the Muslim Reformation already under way.

Rafia Zakaria is a graduate student in Political Science at Indiana University.

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