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The Islamic Reformation Required
Krim [ PM ]
September 02, 2005 01:41PM
[islam21.net]


The Islamic Reformation Required**
By Jamal al Banna*

The opinions of writers and intellectuals have differed over how Islamic society should be reformed. Some have argued that priority should be given to political reform, since this needs to be implsemented to enable religious reformation to be fully effective. Others, believing in the importance of the materialistic aspect, have argued that the concept of reformation is inextricably linked to economic reform, for changes in religious interpretation or the political structure cannot have any true value while most of the population are deprived and poverty-stricken, living from day to day and struggling to fulfil their basic needs. Citizens in these circumstances cannot give their attention to the fundamental problems that indirectly affect their social conditions. Being fully occupied with the continual search for the means to pay for the essentials of existence, they do not have the time for peaceful contemplation or the consideration of human rights and political issues. For the poor, these things are in the realm of luxury, far out of their reach.
However, those who advocate that change should begin with the economy and the political structure are themselves open to criticism. In reality, reformation cannot be divided into political, religious or economic categories, for they are apparently different aspects of a single integrated reform movement, each aspect being affected in turn by the others. Nevertheless, it is believed that Islamic reformation should take the lead for the reasons discussed below.
Islamic reformation means the transformation of two essential aspects that are mutually connected to understanding how religion affects individuals, communities and society as a whole. The first aspect is the “rational mind”, which helps individuals to distinguish between right and wrong, between true guidance and deception, and thus enables the ideals to be put into practice. If the rational mind is excluded, many people are led to accept fanciful myths as if they were the true representation. It becomes the norm to adhere firmly to these illusions, in the belief that they are providing religious guidance. Thus, the followers of this way of thinking bring upon themselves, their families and their societies a life sentence of ignorance and misconception.
The jurisprudents closed the gate of ijtihad in the eleventh century AC. As a result, Muslims are required to worship, perform rituals and practice jurisprudence (which apparently covers all aspects of life) without knowing the reasons for these principles or even questioning them. It has been said that this state of affairs meant that the members of Muhammad’s Ummah had given their reason (or rationality) a “long vacation”. People should thank God that they still walk on two legs and not on four. Almighty God says: “They are as cattle, nay, they are in worse error; these are the heedless ones” (7:179). If people do not yet walk on four legs, like so many creatures, then this is because there are dozens or even hundreds of individuals who still think rationally and who ask fundamental and significant questions. Rational people do not ask the mufti trivial or irrelevant questions or perform istikharah to solve what they perceive to be a major problem. Solutions to trivial problems are clear even to a non-Muslim child. Nevertheless, when Muslims are encouraged to use their faculty of reason – for there is much research to be carried out, which was not the case in the past – most of them stubbornly refuse to do so. They are determined to follow in the footsteps of the Salaf, whose status, in their view, is unattainable by anyone else.
The lethargy and distortion of the rational mind are the main reasons for the degeneration of Muslim society. No nation can make any genuine progress if it has excluded rationality and critical thinking, especially in an age when the critical mind plays a crucial role.
The second aspect of religious misunderstanding is the crime committed against the individual conscience, which is another faculty distinguishing the human being from other creatures. Many religions have offered an enlightened view of the conscience when differentiating between right and wrong, or the obligatory and the optional. It is one of the most important pillars of human society, where people are dealing with one another on the bases of honesty, trustworthiness, loyalty, etc.
The conscience, which is the acme of all religions, is dangerously distorted when it is transferred from the sphere of humanistic activities to religious rituals. Traditional Muslims believe that their conscience is at ease, provided that they perform certain rituals, such as praying five times per day and at the exact time, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and avoiding any activity classified as haram, for example, the consumption of pork and intoxicants. Otherwise, in their view, there are no restrictions on telling lies, indulging in deceit, hypocrisy and unethical practices, and generally manipulating other people to further their own personal interests.
Accordingly, the basis of ethical relationships is destroyed, leading to the loss of human dignity, whereby ruthless opportunism is accepted as part of life. The conscience of this type of person remains unmoved by oppression and injustice, for it is depleted by the practice of religious rituals.
In this sense, the fundamental aspects – the rational mind and the conscience – are destroyed. Thus, political reformation cannot hope to achieve true reconstruction. The problem is essentially that of misconception in the minds and souls of many Muslims, something that the government can do very little to change. It means that one is free to hoard one’s wealth or spend it irresponsibly, largely ignoring other, impoverished, members of society. Instead of being aware of the needs of others, one’s conscience is too preoccupied with ritual worship and the routine practices of one’s religion.
If we look back at history, we find that the reformation, which enabled European society to develop and modernize, was, in fact, a religious movement that invited people to think freely and liberate the captive conscience. It was because of this religious movement that society welcomed political reform or at least was inspired to consider it.
Readers and intellectuals need to be reminded that religious reformation goes far deeper than is usually assumed. It is not a reformation of certain rituals or the renewal of uşūl al fiqh (the principles of jurisprudence). Rather, it is the reformation of the human being and that of humankind in general, whose mind has been paralysed and whose conscience has been distorted. Therefore, before a reformation of any kind, the question of the moralization of the human self needs to be addressed.
In addition, no political reformation can succeed unless it is supported by an effective populace, which distinguishes between the moral dichotomies of right and wrong, meanwhile employing its conscience as a guard against opportunism, weakness or manipulation. It can motivate individuals and groups to stand up for political reform by putting forward sound ideas that encourage its implementation.
***
There are also three other aspects of Islamic culture which indicate a preference for religious over political and economic reformation. First, any policy that is guided by religious principles receives respect and appreciation, even to the extent of sacredness. Therefore, the followers of that religion, who are made fully aware of good and evil, feel impelled to abide by its religious values. These values were very well known before religion came to play a role in human society. Even when religion did appear, it was not the only institution dealing with morality. Great philosophers – from both East and West – referred to the importance of moral principles. However, when guidance comes from God or His prophets on their implementation, it attains a special status and far greater importance, surpassing any concepts and philosophical statements contributed by Kant, Hegel, Descartes, or even the ancient philosophers, Socrates and Plato.
Although this view might disturb some people, yet it is the truth, for the prophets have been the philosophers of the public. Indeed, they have clarified and simplified for humankind the moral principles sought by philosophers. It is clear that religion is for everyone, not only for the minority élite. Hence, the argument that “religions ought to be clear, simple, direct, avoiding ambiguity and containing a high degree of certainty” is tautological. On the other hand, it can be difficult for many people to understand the arguments, assumptions and debates of philosophers. If the public has simply followed the basic teachings of religions and adhered to the Sunnah of the prophets, then philosophers have only themselves to blame for not expressing their deep and sophisticated ideas in a manner more accessible to lay people. In this sense, religious reformation attracts wide public support from enthusiastic minds that are ready and willing to adopt its new ideals.
However, this situation should not prevent Muslims from researching the views of philosophers, although they are still adhering to Islam by using it as evidence for the authenticity of religion. In some cases, research can also act as an explanation of and justification for particular aspects of religion.
>From this point of view, if the aim is to resist dictatorship and tyrannical leadership, then the Islamic terms, such as oppression, injustice and Pharaonic behaviour, are the most appropriate to describe the social context of the twenty-first century. It will be found that many Muslims are far more willing to adopt the model of the Islamic ideals of justice and fairness than foreign imports, such as the citation of the French Revolution or Voltaire’s insistence on freedom. European models have very little relevance for Arab/Muslim society.
In this sense, neither the words of philosophers nor the Western politicians’ views of democracy are favoured. The Qur’anic approach is clear when it mentions instances of injustice, oppression and tyrannical government, which is why it is preferred to non-Islamic methods of dealing with these problems. In following a Western approach, one would be opting for adversity instead of ease, the strange instead of the familiar, and the incomprehensible instead of the comprehensible.
This is a criticism of those who reject the concept of shūrā (consultation) in favour of democracy. They also reject the concept of bay‘ah (swearing allegiance to God), welcoming instead the electoral system, although shūrā and bay‘ah are far more acceptable to ordinary Muslim citizens than democracy and elections. Nevertheless, shūrā and bay‘ah should be reviewed so that they correspond to the needs of present-day society and are in accordance with certain aspects of democratic concepts. In this way, the support from the majority of Muslims who acknowledge shūrā and bay‘ah will not be lost.
Second, the quest for religious reformation does not directly oppose the government. Although the implementation of religious reformation leads to political and economic reformation, yet this is achieved only indirectly and without affecting those people who have a particular interest in the status quo. In addition, since religious reformation is objective, then it is likely that there are members of the government or the élite who also believe in religious ideals. Therefore, religious reformation is opposed not to the individuals themselves, but the system that they advocate. There are the examples of two famous infidels who converted to Islam at around the same time. Khalid ibn Walid was the leader of the Pagan army at the Battle of Uhud, which was lost by the Muslims. ‘Amru ibn al ‘Ās followed the Muslims when they emigrated to Habasha, where he tried to persuade al Najashah to reject their plea for asylum. When Makkah surrendered, the Prophet declared that he forgave his enemies, who had oppressed him and fought against Islam. Both Khalid ibn Walid and ‘Amru ibn al ‘Ās accepted Islam and joined the Muslim army. The attitude of the Prophet is, of course, alien to the leaders of European revolutions and the movements of constitutional reform, since they do not acknowledge systems other than their own, nor the idea of conversion and redemption by God. Be they capitalists or communists, when they attain power, their rule is characterized by violence, terrorism and the complete destruction of any opposing groups.
Third, and finally, religious reformation is aimed at both the individual and society, though priority is given to the individual. This is a rational approach. Although it is acknowledged that the political and economic aspects of reformation have a strong influence, it remains a fact that the personality of the individual is the seed from which sprouts the structure of society. Therefore, as far as the individual can be reformed, so also can the structure of society. When the political and economic situation is deteriorating, the reformation of the individual is not an easy task. Despite that, it can be very successful, since it uses what religion has to offer as an influential and powerful platform. Indeed, difficult circumstances might provide a good reason for people to consider the objectives of reformation and persuade them to accept change. In addition, when the insistence on religious reformation coincides with the call for individual as well as social reformation, then change will follow the right path. Even if religious reformation is aimed only at the individual, nevertheless, it will create a fruitful and worthwhile project, which might indirectly effect the desired political and economic reformation.
It should not be forgotten that religions achieved the most important revolutions in human history and that they were the bases of illustrious civilizations before their ideals fell into the hands of corrupt individuals. Religions, however, have remained influential and well grounded, even after corruption has found its way to their core. No matter how much they are criticized, they continue to represent strong values and morals, upheld in principle by the majority of the populace, for they address humankind as a whole. These ideals are not found in many other reformation systems and philosophies, nor even in human creativity or any secular system.


*Jamal al Banna is a thinker and researcher based in Cairo, Egypt.
**This article is based on a paper presented at the conference on “Islam and Reform: Workshop”, held at the Ibn Khaldun Institution for Developmental Studies, Cairo on 5–6 October 2004.



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