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Islam Today



Asghar Ali Engineer

        The world is on the verge of twenty-first century and different belief systems are  being critically examined by the experts in the field. There is no system of thought or belief which now is not open to examination. Of course faith remains important but not closed. Opennes is more acceptable in our times. Reason and faith, like in nineteenth century, should not be treated as opposite poles. Though reason is not ultimate, as rationalists would like us believe, but it should not be shunned either. Reason and faith both play important role in human life. It is also not the question as to which is more important reason or faith. Perhaps both are equally important. Modernism of course privileged reason but in the post-modern phase it can no more be as privileged as it was during earlier period.  Religion and religious beliefs generally belong to the faith category.   They are supposed to be sacred and beyond any critical or rational examination If it is so do entire religous beliefs and practices are beyond any critical evaluation? Where do religious beliefs and practices come from? 
        This is the crux of the matter and has to be answered satisfactorily. Of course for common believers all beliefs and practices associated with religion are sacred and immutable and beyond any critical examination or not subject to chnage. But is it really so? This question needs to be answered if we want to enter 21st century with proper mental equipment. There is another aspect which needs to be kept in mind. The economic and educational status of masses of people in the third world countries  and which is where Islamic countries are located by and large, would remain unchanged. They will remain poor and illiterate. Thus while there will be intellectual pull for change, there will be pressure from masses of people to maintain status quo. But who brings about change? It is intellectual elite who who are equipped to think critically and rationally. 
        However, it does not mean that basics of religion are to be changed. For revealed religions like Islam these basics or fundamentals are most important and immutable. But it should also be borne in mind that no religion can escape sociological influences. Even the revealed fundamentals filter through given social  structures. The Muslim theologians themselves were quite conscious of this fact. Thus they made provision for what they called `adat i.e. the traditions and customs of a given society. The shari`ah formulations of the early Islamic period were thus influenced by the Arab `adat. Now do we treat the Arab `adat also as immutable part of  Islam? If so what about the `adat of other places. Or can we privilege the Arab `adat since the Qur'an was revealed in that part of the world and the first Islamic thinkers were born there? I think it will be difficult to maintain this position. And it was for this reason that the `ulama in places like Indonesia allowed for the local ethos. But after all it remains the question of permissibility. Even then the Arab `adat did remain in the privileged position and became integral part of Shari`ah. 
        Here also the question arises whether to treat entire revealed text as obligatory for all times to come and not admitting of any change? Does the revealed text make any concession to the local conditions. The careful study of the Holy Qura'n shows that it does. There are pronouncements in the Qur'an which make concessions to local conditions and pronouncements which transcend the given conditions. They could be mutually contradictory also. But this contradictoriness does not detract from revealed nature of the text. For example slavery was made permissible by the Qur'an in view of the given situation. However, it contradicts the Qur'anic position on human dignity (17:70).  For any revealed text to be admissible it must make concessions to the prevailing conditions even when trying to transcend the situation. Slavery could not have been ignored altogether even though the ultimate vision of the Qur'an is human dignity. But it is also important to note that while making concession to the local conditions it was kept in view that there should be definite improvement  in the status of what is given even though the ultimate vision could not be applied then and there. Thus it would have been in keeping with the ultimate Qur'anic vision if all slaves had been liberated right away. However, since this was not possible the next best alternative was to improve the status of slaves through humane treatment. And of course the ultimate vision to prevail ones suitable conditions arise. Thus it is on the eve of twenty first century that the Qur'an's ultimate vision of human dignity could be implemented. Now the slavery is an institution of the by gone era. 
          It should be noted that the Shari`ah since it was formulated during the early history of Islam and under the influences of the Arab `adat and often the Qur'anic pronouncements made under the local conditions, it has elements which may not be very helpful in today's conditions when we are about to enter twenty first century. We have to transcend the given situation in Arabia at the time of the formulation of the Shari`ah law. And it is not only the Arab `adat which mattered. Besides `adat other factors like qiyas (analogy) and ijma` (consensus) which too went into shari`ah formulations and thus these formulations could not have escaped the sociological filter. After all the consensus among the theologians (`ulama) depended on their social outlook. Thus it was synthesis of theological and sociological which finally gave shape to the Shari`ah formulations. It is for this reason that an eminent Islamic thinker like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad made distinction between Din ( the essence of religion) and shari`ah (the laws governing socio-religious behaviour). The Maulana maintained, and rightly so, that while Din is one (his well-known doctrine of wahdat-e-din) the shari`ah differs from time to time and society to society. Here the Maulana takes into account what is given social situation and what is transcendental. Shari`ah can change from place to place and time to time is a significant statement. Muhammad Mujib, another noted Indian scholar also maintained that Shari`ah is a human approach to divine intentions. Divine intentions can never be finally known. It is human endeavour to know it and hence honest mutual differences between theologians themselves. In interpreting the Divine intention also one has to take into account the dialectics of the given and transcendent. The Shari`ah laws as we have inherited reflects the given more than the transcendent. 
        The classical jurists also had made provision of what they called ijtihad (i.e. creative thinking). Since the social needs will vary from time to time and place to place there must be some provision for creative thinking and re-interpreting the divine provisions. Ijtehad also takes into account the dialectics of the given and transcendent. Islam was revealed in Arabia and certain socio-legal provisions in the Qur'an could not have ignored the needs of the Arab society. Thus one who re-thinks issues in Islam on the eve of 21st century he/she cannot freeze Islam into the seventh century Arabia and cannot merely mechanically imitate the classical jurists. The Muslim jurists  will have to take into account the social ethos prevailing in our own times and particularly on the eve of new millennium. A future vision must influence our current theological thinking. Whatever is human contribution in formulating the shari`ah laws should not be treated as sacred, much less immutable. We had raised the querry earlier as to what is sacred and immutable in religion and what is secular and subject to change. Some theologians argue that it can be divided into two categories i.e. `ibadat and mu`amalat (i.e. matters pertaining to prayers, fasting, pilgrimage, zakat and matters pertaining thereto. One can also add to these the matters pertaining to Din i.e. belief in Allah, angels, his prophets and the Day of Judgement. These must be treated belonging to the category of sacred and hence immutable. Of course there can be differences of opinion in this divine sphere too as to the nature of God, that of angels and the Day of Judgement. And these differences have persisted among most eminent theologians right from the beginning.  But nevetheless it is the sphere of divine and that of faith. Reason, if at all, must tread very cautiously in this sphere. Much will depend on the revealed pronouncements and inner experiences. 
        However, it is quite different as far as the sphere of mu`amalat is concerned. It basically deals with the secular matters like dealings with the people which will include matters like marriage, divorce, financial transactions and so on. All that takes place between human beings in worldly matters belongs to this sphere of mu`amalat. However, it does not mean that the mu`amalat will not be governed by divine injunctions at all. That would mean anarchy. The Shari`ah governs the sphere of mu`amalat also. But here in this sphere divine injunctions will take the form of value pronouncements. For example the most fundamental value pronouncement is justice. All human relationships must be governed by this value, whether it is financial realtionship or whether it is matter of distribution of social and economic resources or whether it is a matter of secual relationship between man and woman. 
        The shari`ah frames rules for marriage, divorce, inheritance, financial transactions etc. In the light of Qur'anic value pronouncements. Some of these rules governing marriage and divorce, financial transactions etc. Have been stated by the Qur'an also. But as in other matters theologians and jurists have differed in understanding these Qur'anic pronouncements and subsequently, based on these differing understandings and interpretations, different schools of shari`ah known as madhahib came into existence. The subsequent generations  then began to follow these madhahib mrechanically and rigidly. The Qur'anic fundamental value, as pointed out before, is justice and these rules pertaining particularly to marriage and divorce or inheritance or financial transactions are based on this value. 
        But again the concept of justice is relative and not absolute. What appears to be just to the people may not appear so other people. Also, what is just for one generation may not be so for subsequent generations. Also what is just or unjust will also depend on the politics of sexual relationship i.e. man woman relationship. Even during the Prophet's time the nature of men women relationship differed between Mecca and Medina. The Meccan society was much more patriarchal than the Medinese one. While the Meccan society thought nothing wrong with the practice of wife-beating the Medinese society thought this practice to be unnatural, if not shocking. Some scholars have even proposed that in some distant pat the Medinese society was matriarchal and elements of matriarchy survived until the Prophet's time. Whether it is true or not the politics of man-woman relationship was qualitatively better in Medina than in Mecca. Tabari and others elaborately discuss these aspects in their Qura'nic commentaries on the verse 4:34. This is an extremely interesting verse from the point of view of the dialectics of the given and transcendent which we are discussing. This verse is of course quite controversial and elaborately discussed by various commentators on the Qur'an. It also shows how the concept of justice differes from place to place. Some theologians have interpreted this verse as a permission to beat ones wife and make her obedient through coercive means, if necessary. But this verse represents what was prevailing in the society  rather than the Qur'an's transcendent vision which is reflected in the verse 33:35. These two verse also shows that the gender struggle very much existed in that society also and the divine pronouncements also had to take this struggle into account. The politics of men-women relationship could not be ignored and deeply influenced the Islamic jurists of the time. 
        Islam's image has been sullied by few fundamentalists who are hardly aware of the progressive nature of the Qur'anic injunctions. The Qur'an gives fundamental values which were applied to the then society by the early jurists. The fundamentalists rather than going by the value pronouncements of the Qur'an, go by their applications in the early Islamic society. Thus Islam gets frozen in the 7-8the century when the classical jurists flowered. These fundamentalists do not appreciate the fact that the value pronouncements of the Qur'an (rigorous justice, equality of all irrespective of colour, race and ethnicity, equality of sexes, just distribution of economic resources etc.) are amongst the most modern and it is these pronouncements which are fundamental and not what the classical jurists attempted in their own society. 
        These fundamentalists believe in applying the Islamic shari`ah quite mechanically and unthinkingly. For them more than the Qur'an its classical interpreters were sacred. Those who want to understand the Qur'anic teachings in its true spirit and want to apply them in modern conditions are heretics and these heretics, if need be, must be punished with death.  Various fatwas which were issued by the jurists in their own social and political conditions are considered to be more binding than the clear pronouncements of the Qur'an. As for following the fatwas by eminent Muslim jurists ;they were certainly influenced by the fact that Muslims wielded political power. Moreover when these fatwas were issued there was no democracy. It was monarchy and many Ulama (with honourable exceptions, of course) were connected with the monarch or his establishment. They often issued fatwas to suit the convenience of the monarch or the nobles in the court. Imam Ghazzali, a great Islamic thinker and man of great integrity, required Muslims not to even look at the face of the monarch as they were tyrants and their conduct was totally un-Islamic. And even if the force of circumstances required them to meet the monarch they should turn their face away from the monarch. But there were hardly few ulama of the Ghazzali's character and integrity. Most of them loved the comforts of life and were prepared to say what the monarch wanted them to. Iman Taymiyyah, another Islamic thinker of great integrity was repeatedly jailed for frankly expressing his opinions. He was against triple diovrece in one sitting and issued fatwa to this effect and he had to suffer for his frankness. The fundamentalists do not take all these factors into account and refuse to rethink issues in our own times. 
        Because of these fundamentalists in the world of Islam, the image of Islam has been sullied as most backward kind of religion. In actual fact it is quite otherwise. Because of what Taliban are doing in Afghanistan the world thinks that Islam disempowers women. In fact the Qur'anic pronouncements are quite otherwise. For example the Qur'an no where deprives women of their right to earn their own livelihood, let alone confine them to their homes. The right of women to earn has been recognised in the Qur'anic verse 4:32. This verse says that "For men is the benefit of what they earn. And for women is the benefit of what they earn."  If women could not earn where was the question of its benefit accruing to them. Also, the conservative Islamic thinkers maintain that women's real duty is to mind their children, serve their husbands and manage their homes (tadbir al-manzil). And on this ground mainly they do not allow women to go our of their houses and work. But it is nowhere stated in the Qur'an. It is the inference drawn by the conservative jurists. Also these jurists maintain that she is intellectually weaker than men and cannot be entrusted with any job of great responsibility. Again, there is no such statement in the Qur'an and it is conservative `ulama's opinion. Today women work outside their houses and have outdone men in most of the areas. Earlier women were not permitted to go out of their houses and so they could get no opportunity to excell men. Now they can. They whole theory of women's intellectual inferiority has been exposed. Many `ulama still hold that women cannot become head of the state based on one controversial hadith. Even if that hadith is authentic (which it most probably not), one must take into account the socio-political context of the Holy Prophet's time. And what is most important is that the hadith contradicts the Qur'an which describes the story of the Queen Sheba quite approvingly. In fact she overrules all her male advisors and makes pact of peace with the Kind Soloman. 
        Similarly the Qur'an pronounces the concept of sexual equality in the verse 2:228 in these words, "And women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner". Also in 33:35 women and men are equated in every respect. Then why such provisions in Islamic Shari`ah which appear to be contrary to the concept of gender justice. 
        It is true the early Islamic society could not stomach sexual equality and the jurists invented hadith which could sanction sex-discriminatory laws to fulfill their requirement. It is high time these shari`ah provisions are re-thought and original Qur'anic spirit of gender justice is re-invented. We cannot retain the opinions of those jurists any more who were convinced of female gender being weak and intellectually inferior. Today many women feel liberated from the oppressive structure of medieval laws but they have lon way to go. The gender politics is still very much biased in favour of men. Women have to struggle against great odds, particularly in the Islamic countries. Because they are thought to be weak they are not permitted to go out alone unaccompanied by a male relative within the prohibited degree of marriage. In Kuwait they are not allowed to vote. This reflects not female weakness or intellectual inferiority but weakness and backwardness of Saudi and Kuwaiti  societies. 
       Many modern interpreters of Qur'an are emphasising that women are in no way inferior to men. In the Arab world also Islamic thinkers like Allama Yusuf Qardawi and others are emphasising this Qur'anic spirit of sexual equality and justice. Also the kind of hijab (veil) prevalent in some Arab countries in which women cover themselves from top to toe including their face does not exist in the Qur'an. It is more customary than Qur'anic. Such a hijab probably began from the time of Umayyads. All that the Qur'an requires is dignified dress which does not display woman's sexual charms attracting male attention. In fact some `ulama maintain while explaining the meaning of the verse 24:31 that women are permitted to keep their faces and hands open. Tabari has also discussed this at length. However, those `ulama who require women to cover herself up from head to toe permit slave-girls to be inpected from head to toe except her private parts. How can Islam which permits dignity of all human beings permit such a thing. Does it not show that the `ulama were deeply influenced in their thinking by the practices of their time? This question also is more culture-sensitive than categorical in nature. Some cultures may permit greater exposure of woman's body than other cultures. Moreover cultural norms are more important than theological ones though this may never be stated. Cultural norms of ones own place and time do get reflected in ones thinking. Thus the earlier theologians and jurists did show cultural sensitivity in their formulations. But the theologians belonging to latter generations lost this sensitivity in their zeal to imitate their predecessors who wielded immense degree of influence. 
        There is another important factor - socio-political in nature - which is also responsible for freezing Islam into earlier centuries. The Qur'an had laid emphasis on reason, thinking and reflection and uses words like `aql, tadabbur and tafakkur which means reason, rational management of things and deep reflection. No where the Qur'an demands blind imitation. The M`utazila were rationalists of Islam and they laid great stress on reason. They flourished in the earlier part of the Abbasid period but with the decay of the Abbasid power their influence also waned and then they were wiped out. It is great tragedy that the M`utazila got identified with political establishment and disappeared with waning power of the Abbasids. The M`utazila thinkers greatly influenced Indian Muslim thinkers like Sir Syed Ahmad Khan  It is time that M`utazila influence is revived in the Islamic world on the eve of 21st Century. The rationalism often thrives among the educated elite and particularly during the hey day of the community they are part of. It is also important to note that most of the M`utazilites were from Persia and other regions of Central Asia which had old intellectual tradition.  All the major philosophers and scientists also came from these regions. Rationalism, science and philosophy flourished mostly during the Abbasid state which Toynbee, a noted historian, describes as universal state of Islam. 
        The Qur'an also laid emphasis on democratic consultation in state affairs but soon monarchy which was against the spirit of Islam was established in the Muslim world when Yazid, the first Umayyad monarch was installed. It led to development of authoritarian culture. This authoritarian culture was also reflected in many juristic formulations which are thought to be immutable. I call it feudalisation of Islam which killed its democratic spirit and spirit of justice which is so fundamental to Islam. Authoritariansim not only flourished under monarchy but found justification in the Juristic principles of the time. Be it Umayyad rule or Abbasid , the two gigantic empires built by Musdlims the Caliphs ( the term Caliph was misnomer as the caliph was in reality a monarch, a hereditary office) enjoyed absolute power and he never shared it with other Muslims in real Qur'anic spirit. And when the Abbasid power declined the caliphs became nominal heads and the military generals referred to as sultans ruled the roast. In any way authoritariansim prevailed. In most of the Islamic countries this feudal Islam persists and comes in the way of re-thinking and ijtihad. Rational thinking and fresh approach requires democratic oppenness and culture of freedom. Unfortunately even on the eve of twenty-first century, hardly any Muslim country can boast of culture of freedom. It is even denounced as license to deviate from `true Islam' by official muftis (jurists and legists). 
        Today many new issues are arising which need urgent attention of jurists with modern vision. There is question of transplantation of organs, of surrogate mothers, of test tube babies, of euthnasia, of cloning etc. which need Islamic anwers for many consciontious Muslims. The traditional jurists denounce all this mechanically. Apart from questions of technology these issues involve questions of ethics and morality. But one can find Islamic answers to these issues only in countries where culture of freedom prevails.When cloning was being discussed when Dolly, a cloned sheep was created the Saudi jurists issued very harsh fatwa against it dubbing it as not only as immoral but also as interference in the domain of Allah who is the only creator. I am not advocating cloning here but only drawing attention to how conservative jurists think. They did not take questions of ethics or morality into account but denounced it as interferance in Allah's domain. Every new technology was more or less denounced by Islamic jurists and then accepted. Technology has almost mastered cloning but moral and ethical question remain unanswered. It is the duty of Islamic jurists to provide these answers in a rational way. 
        Thus what is needed is to de-feudalise Islam and restore its progressive spirit. The world of Islam which is entering the post-modern world is in fact caught in the contradictory situation. On one hand it is modernising at a fast pace; on the other, it is struggling to keep its feudal identity, resisting change. The dilemma is that it admits change in economic and technological fields, it struggles to retain its primordial  character  in the theological field. The Islamic world has not been able to successfully resolve this dilemma. It requires creative and critical thinking in theological field too. Firstly, the theologians are ill-equipped to do so and secondly such a theological milieu does not exist in Islamic countries. But my experience with the Islamic countries shows that it is a matter of time. The change is inevitable and the process is on. Its pace is rather slow. But there is no way to accelerate it as the people cannot absorb the rapid change in religious matters. Even in the Western Christianity, only few churches have accepted female priests. When the Anglican Church permitted ordination of female priests some Anglican bishops preferred to convert to Catholic Christianity rather than accept it. It is even more difficult in case of Muslim world. But change is on the agenda in Islamic world too. 

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Last updated: February 22, 2000.