Rethinking Islam (Part 3 of 3)

(From Ziauddin Sardar’s Islam, Postmodernism and Other Futures.)

But the violence performed to sacred Muslim concepts is insignificant compared to the reductive way the Qur’an and the sayings and examples of the Prophet Muhammad are bandied about. What the late Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman called the ‘atomistic’ treatment of the Qur’an is now the norm: almost anything and everything is justified by quoting individual bits of verses out of context. After the September 11 event, for example, a number of Taliban supporters, including a few in Britain, justified their actions by quoting the following verse: ‘We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home’ (3:149). Yet, the apparent meaning attributed to this verse could not be further from the true spirit of the Qur’an. In this particular verse, the Qur’an is addressing the Prophet Muhammad himself. It was revealed during the battle of Uhad, when the small and ill-equipped army of the Prophet faced a much larger and better-equipped enemy. He was concerned about the outcome of the battle. The Qur’an reassures him and promises that the enemy will be terrified by the Prophet’s unprofessional army. Seen in its context, it is not a general instruction to all

Muslims; it is a commentary on what was happening at that time.

Similarly hadith are quoted to justify the most extreme behaviours.

And the Prophet’s own appearance, his beard and clothes, have been turned into a fetish: so now it is not just obligatory for a ‘good Muslim’ to have a beard, but its length and shape must also conform to dictates! The Prophet has been reduced to signs and symbols – the spirit of his behaviour, the moral and ethical dimensions of his actions, his humility and compassion, the general principles he advocated, have all been subsumed by the logic of absurd reduction.

The accumulative effect of the metaphysical catastrophes and endless reduction has transformed the cherished tenets of Islam into instruments of militant expediency and moral bankruptcy. For over two decades, I have been arguing that Muslim civilisation is now so fragmented and shattered that we have to rebuild it, ‘brick by brick’.

It is now obvious that Islam itself has to be rethought, idea by idea. We need to begin with the simple fact that Muslims have no monopoly on truth, on what is right, on what is good, on justice, nor on the intellectual and moral reflexes that promote these necessities.

Like the rest of humanity, we have to struggle to achieve them using our own sacred notions and concepts as tools for understanding and reshaping contemporary reality.

The way to a fresh, contemporary appreciation of Islam requires confronting the metaphysical catastrophes and moving away from reduction to synthesis. Primarily, this requires Muslims, as individuals and communities, to reclaim agency: to insist on their right and duty, as believers and knowledgeable people, to interpret and reinterpret the basic sources of Islam: to question what now goes under the general rubric of Shari’ah, to declare that much of fiqh is now dangerously obsolete, to stand up to the absurd notion of an Islam confined by a geographically bound state. We cannot, if we really value our faith, leave its exposition in the hands of undereducated elites, religious scholars whose lack of comprehension of the contemporary world is usually matched only by their disdain and contempt for all its ideas and cultural products. Islam has been permitted to languish as the professional domain of people more familiar with the world of the eleventh century than that of the twenty-first century we now inhabit. And we cannot allow this class to bury the noble idea of ijtihad in frozen and distant history.

Ordinary Muslims around the world who have concerns, questions and considerable moral dilemmas about the current state of affairs of Islam must reclaim the basic concepts of Islam and reframe them in a broader context. Ijma must mean consensus of all citizens leading to participatory and accountable governance. Jihad must be understood in its complete spiritual meaning as the struggle for peace and justice as a lived reality for all people everywhere. And the notion of the ummah must be refined so it becomes something more than a mere reductive abstraction. As Anwar Ibrahim has argued, the ummah is not ‘merely the community of all those who profess to be Muslims’; rather, it is a ‘moral conception of how Muslims should become a community in relation to each other, other communities and the natural world’. Which means ummah incorporates not just the Muslims, but justice-seeking and oppressed people everywhere. In a sense, the movement towards synthesis is an advance towards the primary meaning and message of Islam – as a moral and ethical way of looking at and shaping the world, as a domain of peaceful civic culture, a participatory endeavour, and a holistic mode of knowing, being and doing.

If the events of 11 September unleash the best intentions, the essential values of Islam, the phoenix will truly have arisen from the ashes of the twin towers.



Filed under Books, History, Islam, Islamism, Religion

3 responses to “Rethinking Islam (Part 3 of 3)

  1. hayyer48

    “…moving from reduction to synthesis……..Primarily, this requires Muslims, as individuals and communities, to regain agency.”
    It may be a consummation devoutly to be wished for-but is it possible in the face of entrenched ulemadom everywhere to come out and start preaching this brave new world in places where it is most needed? Even in India the reformers do say similar things in interviews and books, but can they lead a movement to carry the public with them?

  2. Mohummud Idrees

    Resurgence will come about when people like Ziauddin Sardar get together to advocate and work for a universal change in attitude, ethos and the education of political elite. Quran must be read more widely and the new Muslims from advanced countries must be the harbinger of change for it is easier for them to emulate the real spirit of Islam.

  3. Antinatter

    ZS’s opinion seems to be that parts of the Quran are heavily context-dependent. If so, let him extract and publish the context-independent parts separately to guide Muslim mores. In any case, such context-dependence would go against the beliefs of hundreds of millions of Muslims worldwide.

    But even the defense of context-dependence cannot explain away verses such as 2.221 which instructs Muslims not to marry “unbelievers” in the most contemptuous terms. There are many verses of a sort objectionable to non-Muslims for which the Quran does not provide any exculpatory context.