Every society goes through the pangs of reform and change. But, the leaders of society representing the status quo strongly resist any movement for reform and change since it deprives them of leadership. Any establishment has its own leaders who benefit by status quo and would do everything to resist change either in the name of religion or in the name of age-old tradition. Those who advocate change are denounced as heretics, unbelievers and innovators and violators of religious sanctity. The real issues involved are sought to be drowned in the sea of such accusations. Real issues are never discussed or even touched.
The question arises why reform movement becomes necessary? There can be various reasons. However, before we discuss these reasons we would throw some light on religion and religious teachings. A religion itself has been a reform movement at one time. One can hardly think of any religion, which did not come with the mission of reforming a society in which it was borne. According to the Qur'an also din has been one and din is nothing but the core teachings of religion. The great religious thinker of 18th century Shah Waliyullah also believed, on the basis of the Qur'an in the theory of wahdat-e-din. He throws light on this in his book Hujjatullahil Balighah. The Qur'an very clearly says this in number of its verses.
All the prophets from Adam to Muhammad (PBUH) were sent by Allah and came with the same message. The core teachings of all these messages were the same. However, each society had its own peculiarities, which were reflected in the traditions of those religions. The shari'ah laws, therefore, differed. But after sometime the core teachings of the religion also got corrupted and there arose need for another seer, prophet and reformer. And when the prophet began to preach the leaders of the status quo opposed him with great ferocity even killed him.
The Qur'an has put it very aptly when it says, "And when it is said to them, believe in that which Allah has revealed, they say: we believe in that which was revealed to us. And they deny what is besides that, while it is the Truth verifying that which they have. Say: Why then did you kill Allah's prophets before (this) if you were believers." (2:91)
It is important to note that a religious or faith tradition consists of two main components: 1) Core teachings as revealed to or preached by its founder; 2) various social beliefs and traditions which, over a period of time, become integral part of religion and corrupt the original teachings of that religion. No religion could escape this fate. Certain social traditions have great force and become integral part of people's lives and it is very difficult, if not impossible, to remove them from their lives. Many traditions which, benefit status quoits leaders are legitimised in the name of religion even if they are contrary to the core teachings of that religion. Thus, over a period of time, it becomes very difficult to remove chaff from the grain.
It is the main task of a reformer to recognise the core teachings of a religion and the accretions of various social traditions, which lead to distortion of core teachings of religion. Of course, the people find it extremely difficult to distinguish between the core teachings and the social accretions. For them both are inseparable. Not only that, these social accretions become much more important than the core teachings of religion. And over a period of time these social accretions even replace the core teachings. It is then that Allah decides to send His messenger or create a reformer from amongst the people. As per the Qur'anic teachings Muhammad (PBUH) being the last prophet we can now expect reformers only.
Also, there can be reformers in different societies depending on the social and religious needs of that society or country. A prophet comes with universal message and preaches core teachings of religion. But a reformer has less universal and more specific role. A reformer belongs to a particular society or a country and his reforms are specific to that country, society or community. This is the basic difference between a prophet and a reformer. A reformer must be identified with his own society or a country. For example, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was a great reformer among North Indian Muslims. He may not be as much relevant say to an Egyptian society. Muhammad Abduh, on the other hand, was a great Egyptian reformer. His reform movement may inspire Egyptian people more than the Indian or Pakistani Muslims. This is, however, not to deny certain universal elements also, in their reform movements which may apply across the social or national borders.
Another need for reforms is on account of continuous social change. Society is never stagnant. Changes in small measures may not warrant change but continuous change in the society brings about what we can call paradigm change or paradigm shift. When paradigm shift takes place reform becomes desirable or even inevitable. In earlier Islamic society there did exist the concept of what is called mujaddid (renewer) and it was believed that mujaddid is needed every thousand years and hence in India too we have mujaddid alf-i-thani (i.e. renewer of the second millennium). Since the pace of change was very slow during the medieval period, the paradigm shift would take place after a long period of time and hence it was thought a mujaddid is needed every thousand years, not earlier.
The first major paradigm shift took place in nineteenth century, which is the colonial period for the countries of Asia and Africa. Almost all Asian and African countries became colonies of one or the other western or European country. It was not mere political change, which mattered. But more so it is changes in economic and scientific and technological fields, which mattered. These changes were so breath taking that a major paradigm shift took place and reform movements became inevitable. It is for this reason that we witness so many reform movements in Islamic world. It became highly necessary to grapple with these changes.
These changes were so fundamental that they overthrew the old social set up and various social traditions and old educational system seemed to be totally irrelevant. Reform movements became necessary not only among Muslims but among all colonial societies. Thus we find this upheaval in the Hindu society too, in India. All tribal societies were also caught in this vortex of change.
Despite these fundamental changes in our society it was far from easy to advocate change and reform. The leaders of traditional religious and social set up wanted to cling to it to protect their own traditional leadership. Any change in the old set up would endanger their own leadership. These reformers quoted profusely from their respective scriptures to legitimise change but no one took notice of that. It is a universal rule that established leadership controlling the establishment is always more effective than the reformist leadership.
Another problem is that the traditional intellectuals feel threatened with new emerging intellectuals advocating reforms and it is these traditional intellectuals who control the masses of people. These traditional intellectuals, in order to save their position, declare the reformer as 'heretic' and 'innovator' in the age-old tradition. Half the energy of the reformer is thus wasted in defending himself rather than working for change and reform. Most of the reformers thus were persecuted in differing degrees by the traditional intellectuals. Thus be it Jamaluddin Afghani, Muhammad Abduh of Egypt or Sir Syed from India, all had to face, along with other reformers, persecution from traditional leadership.
The traditional intellectuals oppose reform not only because their position is threatened. They oppose it also because their world-view is based on old teachings. Since they remain ignorant by and large of the scientific changes or technological changes taking place around them. At best they look upon these changes with suspicion and at worst they reject them completely. Some of them denounce these changes as 'satanic' as they challenge the traditional teachings. They think these changes are totally against teachings of religion. Thus even pocket watches when they were introduced in nineteenth century were denounced by some 'Ulama and they gave fatwas that they cannot be used for determining the timings of obligatory prayers.
Sir Syed justified his reforms by quoting from the holy Qur'an that "Allah changes not the condition of a people until they change their own condition." (13:11). Thus change is the law of nature and people have to take notice of these changes and accordingly change themselves. Every thing can change except the fundamental values and core teachings of religion which the Qur''n calls din. Sir Syed was at pains to emphasise this fact and persuade Muslims of his time in India to change themselves and accept social reforms for improving their condition and to improve their compatibility in the changing world.
Let alone accepting social reforms the social stagnation was so strongly rooted that they were not prepared even to accept new education. New education was denounced as against religion. Religion, it is needless to say, was rooted in a particular social set up and all the social traditions and the then prevailing world view (though nothing to do with the core teachings of the Qur'an) was thought to be the integral part of religious faith. Thus even to challenge even Ptolemy's astronomy was to challenge religious teachings and to invite wrath of traditional society and its leaders.
The nineteenth century reformers had tremendous task in their hands. They faced all kinds of odds but stood firmly by their convictions and worked with great patience. A reformer needs certain sterling qualities without which no reformer could ever succeed. We would like to throw light on this as it is as relevant today as it ever was. The nineteenth century reform movements have still not lost their relevance in view of the revivalist movements cropping up in various Asian and African countries.
A reformist leader has to have almost inexhaustible fund of patience. One who is short on this can never succeed. Also, it is important to note success of reform movement cannot always be gauged in terms of numbers who follow the reformer. A reform movement generally does not appeal to the masses. Normally it has greater appeal to the intellectuals who have capacity to critically examine things. Masses just follow. A reformer since has to work against well-entrenched beliefs he needs to argue persuasively and hence need for great deal of patience.
As a reformer has to argue against established beliefs he/she must have thorough knowledge of these beliefs on one hand, and, of what he wants to establish against those beliefs. No reformer can ever succeed in persuading his/her people without thorough knowledge of the scripture of his religion. Many reformers, it has been observed, undertake reform movement on the basis of modern social and natural sciences. Some of them do not have even smattering of their own religion.
Thorough knowledge, as pointed out above, of their own religion and particularly of their own scripture, is highly necessary along with the knowledge of modern social and natural sciences. Be it Rammohan Roy among Hindus or Sir Syed among Muslims, they had thorough knowledge of their respective scriptures. Rammohan Roy quoted Vedas to prove there is no mention of Sati in them, Sir Syed had thorough knowledge of the Holy Qur'an to advocate reform among Muslims. Very few people know that Sir Syed Ahmad Khan had sound knowledge of the Qur'an and various commentaries written on it. He himself wrote a learned commentary, which could not be completed thanks mainly to great opposition from orthodox 'Ulama.
One can imagine that when reformers with such thorough knowledge of their own religious tradition had to face such stiff opposition what of those who lack any or half baked knowledge of their religious tradition. Sir Syed faced stiff opposition from orthodox 'Ulama because he was first among the Muslims in India to advocate the cause of natural sciences which were being rejected. Sir Syed came out with an ingenious approach for reconciliation of religion and natural sciences. He said the Qur'an is a revealed word of God and nature is work of God so how can there be contradiction between the word of God and work of God.
Thus Qur'an cannot contradict the discoveries of modern science. Sir Syed could say this with great confidence since he had thorough knowledge of his own religious tradition. Also, mere knowledge of ones tradition is not enough. One must have firm conviction in ones own religion. One can work for genuine reforms only if one is firmly grounded in ones own religious tradition. One is naturally not expected to reform ones religion out of existence. Thus a reformer is never against ones own religion as often propagated by vested interests.
Also, it is highly necessary that the character of the reformer be above board in every respect. He must practice what he preaches to have greater impact. As Mahatma Gandhi very aptly put it "we must become the change we want to see". Those reformers who lack this sterling quality will not be able to create the desired impact. One must have strong convictions in ones own reforms and only such a person can withstand all the travails of fierce opposition that one faces.
It is also important to note that to bring about some reforms and changes does not mean to establish a new sect, much less new religion. It is often argued that a reformer and his followers are free to follow their own religion. There is a basic difference between a reformer and one who preaches new religion. A new religion is always based on new scripture one may or may not follow it. But a reformer does not claim to bring new scripture. He only tries to either remove impurities of later traditions or gives fresh interpretations to the scripture in view of the changed circumstances.
It is often seen that there are several interpretations of one scripture in one given period. So there is bound to be new interpretations in the changed circumstances. This is precisely what reformers like Muhammad 'Abduh, Rashid Rida, Sir Syed and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad did. They wrote fresh commentaries on the Qur'an in their own changed circumstances. Though no one can doubt the integrity and sincerity of religious beliefs of these learned scholars of Islam today, they faced fierce opposition from the `Ulama of their times.
A reformer does not follow the given traditions of his time. He relies more on reason than on tradition. An orthodox 'alim relies more on tradition and rejects reason, if it contradicts tradition. The reformer, on the other hand, rejects tradition if it contradicts reason. In other words a reformer stands by reason whereas an orthodox prefers to follow tradition uncritically.
A reformer thus believes in critically evaluating a tradition and sees whether it is opposed to the spirit of the Qur'an or not. The Qur'an, it is well known, stresses reason and argues against those who merely follow their ancestors blindly. He will never accept something just because people have been believing in it. Reason is for him very valuable asset. Faith (Iman) and reason are, for him, complimentary rather than contradictory. Iman is not a mere blind faith that traditional people make it out to be. Iman is dynamic faith, which is based on inner conviction and a sound conviction is not possible without sound reasoning. One who follows blindly can have some mental comfort of sort but cannot have strong inner conviction.
Those who think that Iman is a stagnant pool of some dogmas misunderstand the very nature of iman. Iman, not only does not come in the way of critically examining things, it encourages such critical examination. It is a tired mind, which takes refuge in stagnant dogmas evolved hundreds of years ago. It has been pointed out above that a paradigm change necessitates change of intellectual formulations. Society has undergone tremendous changes since nineteenth century also when first impact of western sciences was felt in the colonial world. There has once again been a paradigm shift.
Knowledge has been taking breath-taking strides. If we want to strengthen our Iman revealed knowledge must be seen from fresh angle. A scripture's greatness lies in the fact that it yields new meanings in new circumstances. We should not reduce our religion to a stagnant pool of dogmas. We see that kind of understanding of Islam in Afghanistan. Taliban have frozen Islam into medieval ages. They have no value for modern scientific knowledge. They have secluded Islam from all such developments. For them scientific knowledge is in total contradiction to 'Islamic knowledge'.
There are sociological reasons for Taliban kind of Islam. We do not wish to go into those aspects here in this paper. Suffice it may to say that the fast changes which are taking place and the consumerist onslaught from the west have created two contradictory trends in the modern world: One, some people have abandoned higher values of life and its transcendent aspects and life hereafter and engrossed themselves in pleasures of this world and two, some others find solace in old traditions in reaction to such pleasure-seeking trend. Both are equally harmful or problematic.
There is yet another variety, which is even more harmful. There are some people who enjoy pleasures of this world by exploiting religious and spiritual needs of people, amass wealth and seek this worldly pleasures. They create blind faith among their people so that they can exploit it for their own ends. There is, therefore, great need to expose and oppose such exploiters in the name of religion.
Religion is something sacred and should never be allowed to be exploited by unscrupulous elements. A reform movement becomes a must in such circumstances. A true faith, it must be remembered, can never be a blind faith. It is contradiction in terms. A true faith is based on such firm conviction and it does not firstly contradict reason and secondly does not become a plaything in the hands of unscrupulous exploiters. While there is strong need to fight against onslaught of consumerism and unchecked pleasure seeking there is also equally strong need for fight against such exploiters in the garb of religion. It is these exploiters who deliberately promote uncritical and blind faith so that they can exploit unsuspecting followers. There are also those among such followers who know the truth but keep silent either out of fear or because they also benefit from such unscrupulous exploitation.
A person who knows religion in depth and has strong and genuine conviction in it would never approve of either trends. He would struggle for change and healthy reform whatever the price. For him higher meaning of life is more important than mere unscrupulous pleasure seeking.