Does Islam Need Reform?
Ziauddin Sardar is a London-based scholar and writer. Born in Pakistan, Sardar has written for Nature, the New Scientist and the New Statesman. His books include: What Do Muslims Believe?, Desperately Seeking Paradise, and Reading the Quran. He is the chair of The Muslim Institute Trust.
AV: Your Institute is opening its doors for meaningful dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims, and between Muslims belonging to different torrents of faith. Could you describe your plans and goals in detail? Is there a goal or sets of goals, or are you more interested in the process, in an ongoing dialogue and reforms?
ZS: The primary goal of the Muslim Institute is to promote thought and creativity and provide a platform where all questions relating to Islam, Muslims, the West, however controversial or contested, can be openly debated and discussed without fear or accusations. There are numerous issues, relating to say gender, minorities, sexual orientation, as well as issues of dogma and belief that we think Muslims should address. Our ultimate goal is reform; but we need to being somewhere and that place is an open, honest and on-going dialogue that appreciates different positions within Islam and shapes a common ground on some of these issues. We try to do this both through our conferences and seminars, which have been devoted to such issues as ‘the Idea of Islam’, ‘Men in Islam’ and the notion of community, as well as through our quarterly journal Critical Muslim. We believe that radical and rapid change can often be counter-productive and that reform has to be gradual and systematic and grounded in textual analysis to be meaningful. So we see our work as a long-term, multi-generational effort.
AV: Muslim people, in fact entire Muslim nations and cultures suffered tremendously from Western imperialism. Is open and free dialogue between the Western culture and Islam still possible or the damage had been too great, the trust broken? And how could one even begin to talk when almost all Muslim nations are living in submission, under what could be easily described as Western neo-colonialism?
ZS: Trust between Islam and the West has indeed been broken; and has to be re-built.
The rising tide of Islamophobia and notions such as the Clash of Civilizations do not help. But despite the hurdles, we have to work to create mutual trust and respect.
We need to realize that colonialism did much more than simply damage Muslim nations and cultures. It played a major part in the suppression and eventual disappearance of knowledge and learning, thought and creativity, from Muslim cultures. Colonial encounter began by appropriating the knowledge and learning of Islam, which became the basis of the ‘European Renaissance’ and ‘the Enlightenment’ and ended by eradicating this knowledge and learning from both from Muslim societies and from history itself. It did that both by physical elimination – destroying and closing down institutions of learning, banning certain types of indigenous knowledge, killing off local thinkers and scholars – and by rewriting History as the history of western civilization into which all minor histories of other civilization are subsumed.
As a consequence, Muslim cultures were delinked from their own history with many serious consequences. For example, the colonial suppression of Islamic science led to the displacement of scientific culture from Muslim society. It did this by introducing new systems of administration, law, education and economy all of which were designed to impart dependence, compliance and subservience to the colonial powers. The decline of Islamic science and learning is one aspect of the general economic and political decay and deterioration of Muslim societies. Islam has thus been transformed from a dynamic culture and a holistic way of life to mere rhetoric. Islamic education has became a cul de sac, a one way ticket to marginality. It also led to the conceptual reduction of Muslim civilization. By which I mean concepts that shaped and gave direction to Muslim societies became divorced from the actual daily lives of Muslims – leading to the kind of intellectual impasse that we find in Muslim societies today. Western neo-colonialism perpetuates that system.
But colonialism also damaged the imperial powers. It dehumanised the west: notions of supremacy and exclusive rationality, and ideas that attribute modernity solely to the west are, in my opinion, symptoms of dehumanisation. A worldview that assumes it is the yardstick for measuring all other cultures, and insists that all other cultures must be judged by its norms and values, and must conform to its dictates lacks humanity by definition. Such a perspective on humanity cannot conceive that there can be other, different, ways of being human. I believe that there are numerous ways of being human; and western way of being human is only one amongst many. Because the western civilisation is the dominant civilization we automatically assume that this dominant way is the only way and the right way to be human. By suppressing other ways of being human, the West does not allow other, different ideas, notions, concepts, to come to the fore. Imperialism has given the West a fractured perception of its own superiority and a truncated notion of what it means to be human.
So the trust building exercise that we are undertaking has two components. First, it aims to recover lost tradition of intellectual thought and inquiry in Muslim cultures, and provide Muslims with confidence to engage with the modern world of the twenty-first century. Second, it aims to humanize the West by showing that western culture is only one culture amongst many on this planet. The history of the world is not the history of the West: the histories of other cultures are not just tributaries that flow into the Universal History of western civilization. Rather, all cultures, including Islam and the West, are human cultures with equal strengths and weaknesses. We need to come together on the basis of mutual equality and move forward jointly on the basis of trust to build a more equitable and just world.
So we, the Muslim intellectuals, find ourselves somewhere between Western and Islamic cultures struggling to create new ideas from a synthesis of the two worldviews and trying to transcend the limitations of both. Our position is not a counter argument but an illustration that new ideas, as well as new forms of criticism, emerge from different perspectives on humanity. Our goal is to move forward from current impasse and bankruptcy of many western and Islamic notions to recognize, appreciated and explore other ways of knowing, being and doing and different ways of being human.
AV: For years, decades, even centuries, the European and later North American imperialism had been forging cooperation with radical fractions of Islam. Entire progressive governments and countries had been destroyed by such ‘unholy alliance”, from Iran and Egypt to Afghanistan and Indonesia. Could you talk about the mechanism of such alliances and how could progressive, even mainstream Islam prevent forging them in the future?
ZS: I would argue that western imperialism has not so much forge alliance with radical factions as created them. The ‘war on terror’ and invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the drone bombing of Pakistan, have all increased radicalization amongst young Muslims. The very idea that freedom and democracy can be imposed is a gift to radical preachers. Imposing a pro-American regime in Baghdad does not amount to giving the Iraqis freedom either. This is exactly the kind of imposition that insists that one size fits all irrespective of condition and circumstance that the Muslim world hates. Muslims want to seek ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’, as the American Declaration of Independence terms its central values, on their own terms – as we see in the ‘Arab Spring’. They want the right to define and determine the content and form of these values according to their own history and culture, and finds that western powers are often a practical obstacle to attain them in their own terms in their own countries.
In part, Islamic fundamentalism is essentially an outcome of these impositions. It is the last resource of the powerless. In part, it is a product of fossilized traditional system that has a rather backward-looking and romantic notion of Islam. Perverted notions of Islam are used by the radical to legitimize their actions and provide a sense of misplaced pride.
But in the end it is a vacuous enterprise: all slogans and no policies. Its days are numbered.
I think mainstream Islam has realized the dangers of fundamentalism; and is standing up to the radical forces. The situation in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya illustrate both the dangers of radical Islam and the fact that there is serious resistance on the ground. Mainstream Muslims are raising their voices and are determined to be heard.
AV: It is extremely sensitive question, but could Islam be ‘reformed’ and if yes, then should it be reformed? You promote critical thought in Islam, but there is entire, mostly conservative or so-called ‘fundamentalist” school of thought which claims that Islam should not be reformed or criticized at all simply because it is ‘perfect’ as it is. According to you: is it perfect? Should Islam be reformed and if ‘yes’, how should it be done?
ZS: Yes, indeed. I think Islam needs reform: a serious dose of self-criticism and critical thought, which is what we are trying to do in our quarterly Critical Muslim. For example, the Sharia, or Islamic law, needs to be totally formulated. It is too deeply entrenched in medieval times and the Bedouin culture of ninth and tenth century Middle East. The relationship between Islam and the state needs to be rethought. Where state and religion have come together, for example in Saudi Arabia and Iran, authoritarianism and despotisms has reigned supreme. We need a new mechanism that separates religious authority from political power. Islam also needs to be democratize by which I mean that individual Muslims must have the right to exercise their conscience, interpret the Sacred texts of Islam themselves, and that the power of the religious authorities, the Mullahs and the ulama (religious scholars) must be curtailed. Islam, like most cultures, has a problem with the Other – women, minorities, homosexuals – which needs to be addressed. So there are numerous issues within Islam that need urgent thought and reform.
Of course, there is an ultra conservative and radical section of Muslims who are against reform; for them, as you said, Islam is perfect and needs no change. But these Muslims, who have been comfortably relying, or rather falling back, on age-old interpretations for centuries are out of sync with time; this is why they feel so painful in the contemporary world, so uncomfortable with modernity. They will be always with us; indeed, they are a part of the diversity of Islam. But the vast majority of Muslims realize that serious rethinking within Islam is long overdue, and reform has now become essential. It is all about discovering what it means to be a Muslim in the twenty-first century and understanding the contemporary meaning and significance of Islam.
Andre Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker and investigative journalist. He covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His book on Western imperialism in the South Pacific – Oceania – is published by Lulu. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalist model is called “Indonesia – The Archipelago of Fear” (Pluto). After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his website.