Asghar Ali Engineer
(Islam and Modern Age, September 2006)
Many people talk about progressive Islam. Is progressive Islam possible? Many are sceptical. But some maintain Islam need not be preceded with any attribute like 'progressive'. Islam itself contains the attribute i.e. it is inherently possible. Why such contradictory positions? It is not surprising as Shari'ah-based rigid Islam and the Qur'an-based Islam make all the difference.
Again the question arises why this contradiction between the Shari'ah-based and Qur'an-based Islams? We will throw light on this in this paper. The Shari'ah-based Islam tends to be inflexible and non-responsive to modern conditions. Thus the practiced Islam is far more rigid and inflexible than the Qur'anic Islam which is based more on values than on customs and traditions.
No religion comes into existence in a vaccum. It bears the stamp of the society the religion is borne into expect otherwise is to fly in the face of reality. Islam was also borne in a given society which had its own customs and traditions, its own economy and its own geography and history. The Qur'an, undoubtedly a divine revelation, every verse of which carries divine stamp, also cannot be totally a historical, though it transcends bounds of history in moral and spiritual matters.
Thus Islam took concrete shape in given historical conditions and Shari'ah laws imbibed Arab customs and traditions. These customs and traditions are known as 'adat in the Shari'ah terminology. What is unfortunate, these 'adat too became integral part of Shari'ah along with the Qur'anic injunctions. Apart from this the Islamic jurists were also confronted with many problems when Islam spread to other parts of the world. And the Shari'ah law being the only state law of the time, it had to resolve these problems by resorting to qiyas (analogical reasoning). Thus qiyas also became part of Shari'ah methodology in view of these new problems.
As it was bound to happen the doctors of Islamic law differed from each other on many formulations of juristic issues and thus many schools of law came into existence of which four survived in the Islamic state. It is extremely interesting to study the evolution of these laws in the then given societies and early debates among Islamic jurists. It is a very fertile area for research in evolution of Shari'ah laws.
Over period of time these laws evolved by early jurists became 'divine' and doctors of law in subsequent period refused to re-visit these laws. It was forgotten that ethos of early medieval society, along with Arab 'adat have gone into genesis of these laws. The whole Shari'ah became divine and hence immutable. Though learned Islamic theologians know this but they also let people think that the Shari'ah is wholly divine in order to perpetuate their hegemony. Also, no present-day jurist wants to be outcaste in an orthodox society.
Those modernists, who wish to re-visit these Shari'ah laws get isolated in an overwhelmingly orthodox Muslim society. This causes great deal of frustration among modernists who at times despair and even become rebels. This frustration is, to say the least, quite counterproductive. One needs tremendous patience and understanding. Without changing the societies, one cannot bring about much needed changes in the Shari'ah law, especially because it carries the stamp of divinity.
One also has to understand that the power of the 'Ulama depends on hegemony of the Shari'ah law. If changes are brought in, these 'Ulama who have been born and brought up in an orthodox milieu, have not developed modern skills and are unaware of modern developments, fear any change as it will deprive them of their skills and powers and hence oppose any change in the name of 'divine law'.
Those who wish to reform and change, must understand this and first work hard to bring about changes in the society before changing the 'Ulama. As long as the attitude and understanding of the people does not change, it will be near impossible to bring change among the 'Ulama. Of late identity problems are assuming more complex dimensions and it is becoming even more challenging to usher in social change.
In the globalised world new challenges have emerged and religion and religious identity have assumed much greater importance. The west now considers Islam as a principal enemy and a source of terrorism. It also considers Islam as backward and unsuitable for modernisation and progress. The US foreign policy and pro-Israel attitude creates strong resentment among Muslims and they tend to cling more and more to orthodox Islam. Even educated Muslims give more importance to clinging to received Islam. Also popularity of western pop culture creates own powerful reaction.
It is not possible to ignore these challenges. It makes the task of reformers ever more difficult. The process of change started since 19th century in the Islamic world when it came into contact with colonial rule. But orthodox Islam has proved quite tenacious. Greater the confrontation between the west and Islamic world, more difficult to bring about change.
Any project for reform and change is seen as western conspiracy or westernisation of Islam. Also, thanks to the powerful interests of USA in retaining kings, sheikhs and military dictators in Islamic world, democracy is conspicuous by its absence in the world of Islam. Ironically the western scholars blame Islamic teachings for absence of democracy in Muslim countries.
Due to absence of democracy it becomes even more difficult to bring about social change in Muslim societies. One finds collaboration between dictatorial regimes and orthodox 'Ulama. Thus these 'Ulama support these dictatorial regimes and in turn they look after the interests of orthodoxy. The modern intellectuals thus find it difficult to create social support for progress and change.
Another strange dilemma the Islamic world is today faced with is the fast pace of external modernisation (i.e. modernisation of infra-structure, use of computers, television, electronic communication and other modern amenities) and stiff resistance of inner change. At best it creates more mental confusion and at worst rejection of modern science and reinforcement of orthodoxy. It is not easy to resolve this dilemma. Those intellectuals who successfully and creatively try to resolve this dilemma are far and few in between.
It is also interesting to note that the oil rich Middle Eastern countries are keen consumers of electronic and industrial goods, but have no willingness to usher in industrial revolution in their own countries. Thus at base the societies remain essentially feudal and this is the reason why the Islam developed during medieval ages still appeals to them. As the social base remains stagnant education system also does not change. In many Arab countries, for example, education still remains quite narrow sectarian and orthodox. Thus with such unresponsive education system one cannot hope to create modern thinking.
Several intellectuals and critics of education system in the Arab countries have pointed out that the syllabi create intolerance not only towards other religions but towards other Muslims sects also. If education system is so narrow how can it prepare young minds for responding creatively to new ideas and social change. Nothing less than thorough overhauling of education system is needed. This realisation is dawning on the authorities after some of these countries were struck with terrorist violence. But looking to delicate balance of forces in their country quick change is not possible.
These are some of the challenges being faced by the Muslim countries and Muslim communities in various countries. Even comparatively more developed countries like Malaysia still carry dead weight of the past and Malay identity asserts itself in the form of Muslim identity. The Malays until yesterday were quite backward compared to Chinese and Indians and thus Malay identity got politicised for assertion and Malay identity carried its own dead weight and hence domination of conservative 'Ulama in religious affairs. One cannot neglect these social and political factors if one wants to understand domination of conservative forces in the Islamic world.
The example of Turkey and Algeria are quite interesting. Both countries had modernising dictatorships. But one should remember that imposing modernisation without any change in social base, often proves counterproductive. Kamal Ataturk forced people to accept westernisation. People accepted westernisation out of compulsion rather than any inner change and Islamic Party reappeared after some time. Still military holds ultimate power and does not allow assertion of religious identity. Thus at heart Turkey continues to be religious.
Algeria had adopted socialism during Ben Bella's time. Of course military overthrew him and seized power. It rejected socialism but imposed secularism. The people of Algeria by and large, continued to be quite religious and when elections were allowed in 1990 the Islamic forces won. The military did not allow them to assume power and violence burst out which still continues.
Iran also went through the same experience during the Shah's regime before it was overthrown by the Islamic revolutionaries. The Shah also imposed westernisation and modernisation from above. He abolished veil and made wearing of miniskirts and western dress compulsory. Same thing was attempted by King Amanullah of Afghanistan during thirties. He too paid the price and had to abdicate his thrown.
This makes it abundantly clear that modernisation cannot be imposed from above. The Western societies underwent evolution for more than two centuries before secular forces could entrench themselves. In those societies modernisation developed along with industrialisation and thorough changes at the base. Modernisation grew from below rather than being imposed from above.
It is interesting to note that western societies were faced with very different kind of challenge. Society was changing due to industrialisation and rapid progress in science and technology while the Church was trying to impose orthodoxy from above. Thus sharp contradictions developed between the Church and social forces of change. Since the very base was getting transformed Church couldn't win. Victory was destined to be for modernism.
In Islamic world the process is just the opposite. Social base is entirely stagnant and few intellectuals mostly educated in western countries desire change from above. Even a profound scholar of Islam like Mohammad Abduh of Egypt, deeply influenced by western society, could not usher in change. He was outmanoeuvred by the conservative 'Ulama. Conservative Islam is destined to be on the margins of Muslim countries. Countries like Syria and Morocco, where modernisation seems to be maintaining upper hand, has been kept going by dictatorships. The core is very much conservative in these countries. Conservative core can reassert itself if lid is off.
We would now like to deal with core teachings of Qur'an and the social movement in the pre-Islamic Arab society to which Qur'an was responding and the reasons why it succeeded. The Qur'an was responding to social change taking place in the Meccan society and it was the kuffar (unbelievers in the Qur'anic language) who were resisting change. Change was needed at two levels: at the moral and spiritual level and social and political. While change at moral and spiritual level found greater resistance, at social and political level there was lesser challenge.
Morally and spiritually Meccan society was not only stagnant but also degenerating. Inter-tribal corporations which were formed for carrying on international trade, brought windfall profits and consequent concentration of wealth. This concentration of wealth in the hands of a few resulted in neglecting even tribal morality. On the other hand, idol worship got associated with and symbol of spiritual stagnation and promotion of superstition. All sorts of superstitions were prevalent in the Meccan Arab society when Mohammad, the Prophet of Islam, was born.
The Meccan Arabs, most dominant, wealthy and of high tribal status, were quite proud of their newly acquired wealth and thought this wealth was eternal and their ultimate power (see Qur'an, chapter 104). Thus they became amoral in their attitude and as it often happens with neo rich conspicuous consumption became their only religion thus bringing spiritual degeneration among them. Some tribal customs and traditions were becoming positive obstacles in the process of change like sexual amorality, maltreatment of women and burying girl child alive apart from several others.
There was no tradition of acquiring knowledge and reading and writing was practically unknown. Ignorance and superstitions were thus order of the day. Taking pride in ones ancestry was highly prised. This was the only asset for them. They never strived for any higher truth or spiritual values. One can say there was total spiritual vacuum. The only religion of the book around them was Christianity but the Arabs were reluctant to accept it as it was basically associated with Roman imperialism, which they hated. The Arabs were fiercely independent and would not barter their independence with anything.
No society can exist in total moral and spiritual vacuum. Though few of its people were wealthy but mass of the people were poor and neglected. It was causing social tensions in the Meccan society. Tensions were assuming explosive proportions as we learn from pre-Islamic history of Mecca. Also some Qur'anic verses of Meccan origin like chapter 104 and chapter 107 indicate.
Thus it is interesting that the Qur'an responds to these problems and social tensions in Meccan society and lays great emphasis on knowledge ('ilm), social and economic justice through redistribution of wealth to the weaker sections of society and moral and spiritual uplift. These were exactly the main problems of the Meccan society before Islam. Thus Islam emerged as a revolutionary movement and also moral and spiritual force.
Its emphasis on knowledge, on justice and moral and spiritual dimension of human life makes it inherently progressive. Thus one need not add 'progressive' to word Islam. Knowledge itself is liberating and combined with separate emphasis on justice makes it relevant much beyond its time of emergence. Islam of course responded to human social, moral and spiritual needs on different levels: immediate as well as transcendental.
Islam of the Qur'an has strong sympathy for weaker sections of society. The verse 28:5 is clear proof of this strong sympathy with the weaker sections of society. Women also belong to this section and hence Qur'an is the first revealed book that accords equal rights to women. The progressive scholars have often referred to the verse 2:228 which clearly stipulates equality of rights.
Not only this Qur'an concretely spells out her rights in marriage, divorce, inheritance and property she has been accorded equal dignity (see 17:70). Giving equal rights to women was, beyond any doubt, a unique contribution of Islam. To be 'progressive' this gender equality plays an important role. No one can claim to be progressive without accepting gender equality.
However, what is tragic is that these progressive dimensions of Islam were lost soon after social customs and traditions of Arab and non-Arab societies to which Islam spread. Pre-Islamic traditions proved to be more tenacious than one would think. Embracing Islam, or any religion, does not mean one completely gets emancipated from pre-conversion social and cultural values and ethos. Specially, the attitude towards women did not change. This attitude even got reflected, as pointed out before, in the attempts of the Islamic jurists to interpret the Qur'an and hadith.
The Shari'ah-based Islam thus incorporates such attitudes of the jurists who were product of their own society. Triple divorce is the best example of this attitude. This was essentially a pre-Islamic practice which the Prophet (PBUH) had condemned in no uncertain terms and Qur'an did not approve of it either. The verse 2:229, on being carefully read, makes it very clear. Yet, unfortunately, jurists used this very verse to hold validity of triple divorce in one sitting.
Of course there have been exceptions to the rule. Jurists and scholars like Ibn Taymiyyah refuted with convincing arguments the validity of triple divorce. This form of divorce, goes against the very spirit of the Qur'an and robs women of their dignity. How can men be allowed to throw a woman out by pronouncing three words even years of marital ties when the Qur'an requires arbitration before divorce (4:35).
Some of the Shari'ah laws deprive women of their human dignity and they again become a mere chattle as she was before emergence of Islam. Thus it is necessary to go back to Qur'an-based Islam as the Shari'ah -based Islam has severe limitations. While the Shari'ah-based Islam carries the stamp of medieval period, Qur'an-based Islam remains universal. It is universal Islam that is relevant to our age and ages beyond our own whereas the Shari'ah-based Islam remains confined to the time period when it was formulated.
It is great tragedy that Muslims have reified Shari'ah instead of values it is based on. One has to understand philosophy of law. No law, however exalted philosophy it is based on, can become permanent. Only the values on which these laws are based can be treated as permanent. Unfortunately Muslims, even jurists, are unable to make this important distinction. They treat Shari'ah as divine instead of principles, it is based on. Principles have been given by the Qur'an and hence are divine.
Shari'ah laws have been made by human beings and hence, at best, they are honest human approach to understand divine intentions in given circumstances. If circumstances change, understanding can also change and hence this change of understanding will be reflected in changed laws. This, in no way, will affect, divine principles and values.
Today scholars and intellectuals living in 21st century face new challenges, particularly, in respect of gender parity. Old Shari'ah laws cannot meet these new challenges successfully. It is, therefore, necessary to make necessary changes in these laws. It will implement Qur'anic values more effectively than the old laws. The resistance from orthodox 'Ulama is more out of fear for their power rather than sanctity of the Shari'ah. Sanctity of Qur'an is more important than sanctity of the Shari'ah, at best, is an instrument and Qur'an fundamental. To uphold Qur'an and Qur'anic principles is more important than upholding Shari'ah laws and practices.