To Reform or not to Reform – is it the question?

By Tehmur Sabir

A question being discussed in Muslim communities is whether a reformation is desirable or even possible. We encounter several different opinions on this question. For example, most Muslims that live according to the rules of traditional Muslim doctrine are convinced that there can never be reform because they see Islam as a complete and perfect way of life that is unalterable even though parts of the doctrine may be inapplicable in this day and age. There are others who may not be ardent practitioners of Islam yet are opposed to reform because they believe that any attempt to reform translates into acquiescing to the demands of the West. For them, this is a societal defeat for the Muslim civilization.

There are others still who consider the word reform to be problematic because for them it implies an emulation of Christian and Jewish reform movements. They are troubled by the thought of Muslims following a direction similar to the one followed by some Christians and Jews. This category of Muslims thinks that a Muslim reform movement will take away from the significance of Islam as the only pristine and unaltered religion that has not been tainted by human inclinations over time.

The question of whether reform can or cannot happen in Muslim society has already been answered through historical facts. A large number of Muslims who live in developed societies and have access to information resources have already changed the way they practice their religion. Most Muslims in this situation don’t pray five times a day, and don’t feel guilty about it. Most Muslim women do not wear the “hijab”. Most Muslims, if given a choice, do not abstain from riba (interest on loans). It is common for Muslim women to work outside the home as a choice. Muslim reform is not only inevitable, it has been occurring in a natural way for a long time. It is up to us to recognize this and acknowledge that most of the changes that have taken place are for the better..

The reform that has taken place in Muslim societies is forced by the influence of the much more powerful western culture. Muslims’ need for economic and educational betterment has forced them to adjust to norms of other societies. This change is reactive because Muslim scholars have consistently opposed the reforms introduced in their societies by outside forces. This includes social reforms ( such as discouraging polygamy, or child marriages), educational reforms ( study of modern subjects, women’s education) or legal reforms ( such as banning of sharia laws on punishment of theft or adultery). This has produced a great deal of discontent among Muslims because of the widespread feeling that changes that have occurred are not based on the sharia which Muslims generally hold in reverence. The modern fundamentalist movements such as the Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia , Jamaat Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt arose because of this widespread dissatisfaction.

Many Muslims who think of themselves as “progressive” identify with the changes that have already occurred, but believe that it is too risky too go any further. Their main emphasis is to differentiate themselves from orthodox Muslims who decry the changes that have taken place. The “progressive” Muslims rationalize the changes they have accepted by giving new meanings to the rules of the sharia. They would say, for example, that Muslim women should work outside the home because women have equal rights in Islam. However, most of the ‘progressive’ Muslims are unwilling to say that all aspects of sharia should be re-examined and rules that are keeping Muslims back should be discontinued.

The key idea that will help Muslims is that change is an inevitable part of life. Changes in Muslim societies are already taking place. These changes, however, were forced by outside circumstances. The reactive nature of the changes produces dissatisfaction because they represent a discontinuity from the Muslim past, and a sense of defeat . A much better alternative is to be pro-active, to reform interpretations of the Quran and the Hadith in ways that will help Muslims make strides in the modern world.

Islam is a global religion because the way Prophet Muhammad taught its principles made his contemporaries into enlightened and empowered people. They became more just in their dealings with others, valued learning, welcomed strangers, discarded superstitions, removed ethnic and racial barriers, gave greater rights to oppressed classes such as women and slaves, their worship was direct and charismatic, and as a result of this dynamism their influence spread all over the known world. Reform means recognizing that the universal empowering teachings of Islam can be expressed successfully according to the maxims of every age.

There are several advantages that will come from pro-active reform. Muslims can re-interpret teachings in the Quran and Hadith in ways that empower and enlighten themselves and others around them in the modern era.. If this type of reform is realized, Muslims will be able to uplift themselves without being alienated from their core values.

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