Muslim reformists threaten the faith
November 17, 2004
Islam can adapt to the modern world without heeding calls for fundamental change, writes Amir Butler.
In the past three years, an assembly line of self-styled reformists, both Muslim and non-Muslim, has paraded through the media competing to offer their sage advice on how to solve the challenges facing Muslims.
Although figures such as Tariq Ali, Irshad Manji or Ibn Warraq may differ in the details, these unsolicited sages all argue the Muslim world must somehow reconcile its beliefs with “modernity”; a delicate euphemism for the adoption of the secular nostrums of the West and the forging of a “new Islam” more malleable to the progressive sensitivities of Western elites.
However, the problem with such proscriptions is that they naively assume a universal set of values and constructs which can be applied to any cultural or religious setting in order to usher in some vacuous notion of modernity. It is naive because secularism, the linchpin of their “modern polity”, evolved in response to a uniquely European problem: the excesses of the Christian church in medieval Europe and the view that the Church was a barrier to social, scientific and cultural progress.
While the Islamic world may be undergoing its own dark ages now, history shows that its experience under religious rule has been the antithesis of European experience: the periods of theocratic Muslim rule, such as in Cordoba or Baghdad, were also periods of social, technological and scientific advancement and achievement.
Many foundations of modern society owe themselves to Islamic contributions, such as the invention of algebra, the establishment of the hospital, lighted cities, and the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman texts. It is ironic that the Muslim world contributed significantly to the development of the culture that would in a few short centuries come to colonise it, in part because of the Muslim world’s abandonment of its faith.
Like many reformists, Irshad Manji has claimed that Muslims must “revive Islam’s tradition of independent reasoning”. In other words, Muslims must abandon their supposed orthodoxy and adapt their religion to suit the demands of the modern secular state.
However, this is not a revival of Islam’s tradition of learning but a perversion of it. The great Islamic civilisations of the past made religion the guiding principle of the society: independent reasoning meant the application of religion to the world around them, not the modification and manipulation of religion to suit the ebbs and flows of the popular culture. In the proposed vacuum of scriptural authority, each Muslim will act according to his whims and desires: a guaranteed recipe for more extremism and more instability.
Which is more logical: to import a philosophy that is incongruous to Islam and Muslim culture, or to build on our past successes, adapting it to modern times, but within a well-understood framework of scholarly opinion and reasoning?
The social stagnation, political violence and overall instability that characterise contemporary Islamic societies owe more to ignorance or a misguided interpretation of religion than to Islam itself. The question is how do we resolve this problem: throw the baby out with the bathwater, or restore social and political structures that history has shown to be successful? The root cause of their problems is not simply a failure to reconcile Islam with homosexuality or reproductive rights, nor are they adhering too closely to Islamic teachings. Rather, a dispassionate analysis dictates that Muslims need to practise and understand more of their faith; not march a spiritual death march to secular humanism and moral relativism.
For some Western non-Muslims, the message of Islam’s “reformists” holds attraction on a number of levels: it reinforces the cultural hubris that Western values are the panacea for every ill; it offers a simplistic answer to a very complex problem; and it represents a message delivered by people who are palatable to the secular West, even if they hold little credibility in the Islamic circles they claim to influence.
Irshad Manji is a textbook example of such a phenomenon: as a lesbian activist she espouses a lifestyle that Muslims, like many Christians and Jews, disagree with, holds no formal qualification in Islam yet purports to lecture Muslims on how they can “reform” while only ever addressing non-Muslim audiences.
There is no doubt that the Islamic world faces challenges, but a unique civilisation with a unique history and cultural context requires a unique solution. For Muslims who view the periods of theocratic rule as their “golden years”, the further abandonment of religion as the guiding principle of state and citizen are not seen as the solution, but the very essence of our problem.
Amir Butler is executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee.