Is Islamic Reform Possible
OP - July 03, 2017, 12:24 PM
This is the text of the talk I gave yesterday at Conway Hall.
Is Islamic reform possible?
The question “Is Islamic reform possible?” pre-supposes that reform is necessary. For the purpose of this talk I will assume it is since that would be a whole other debate. However many Muslims would say it is not.
Even many liberal and progressive Muslims insist Islam is perfect and it is only Muslims themselves that need to be reformed. It is Muslims who are misguided and hold erroneous interpretations - the Qur’an is the perfect word of God. It can never be wrong.
They argue extremists like al-Qaeda and ISIS are not “true” Muslims and are only using Islam for their own power & political ends. They dismiss countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran or Afghanistan as not following Islam correctly & they go to great lengths to come up with all sorts of apologetics to distance Islam from real-life practices of Muslim countries and groups around the world.
Yet it has to be asked if Islam is perfect and has absolutely nothing to do with the actions of extremists like ISIS or regimes like Saudi Arabia - then why is it that these Muslims have so grossly misunderstood their religion? When one points out actions such as execution of apostates and gays they tell us this is completely against Islam and Islam is very clear about it. Then why don’t these groups and regimes realise they are going completely against Islam. Don’t they realise the terrible mistake they are making when it is all so clear and obvious? The truth is that it is not as clear and obvious as they claim.
If it is true that they have completely misunderstood Islam - what does that say about Islam & the Qur’an - the clear book kitabun mubeen - the final and complete revelation to man? If the message has been so badly misunderstood by so many Muslims what does that say about the message?
My view is that the Qur’an is not perfect and I believe it’s time we Muslims admitted that the Quran and Sunna can indeed lend itself to very harsh and violent - yet perfectly valid interpretations. The solution is not to try and twist the texts to come up with a counter-interpretation but to simply accept the fact that the Quran is not perfect. It is not infallible. It can be wrong.
Muslim reformers, such as there have been throughout Islamic History have never challenged this idea that the Qur’an is perfect. In fact the usual word for reformer in the context of Islam does not actually mean reform - the word used is mujaddid which means “renewer”. Reform in the Islamic context means calls to return to “true, pure and unadulterated” Islam of the Qur'an & Sunna. Their “reforms” have been about halting change rather than bringing about change. Many puritanical groups have arisen throughout Islamic History such as the al-Muwahideen, almurabiteen, and the Khawarij - all with the same aim of bringing Islam back to its pure unadulterated roots. As such the Wahhabis and Salafis of today can be seen in this tradition of tajdeed - renewing Islam and ridding it of corruptions and innovations. Most if not all Muslim reformers have been restricted within this paradigm.
Even Liberal and Progressive Muslims of today who seek to bring about a more peaceful and inclusive form of Islam never claim they are reforming Islam. Instead they claim they are bringing Islam back to it’s true message. They accept the same starting point of a perfect divine Qur’an and so instead of simply rejecting problematic verses they are forced into absurd linguistic gymnastics in order to claim that God’s perfect word never actually said what it appears to have said - and what 1400 years of scholarship believed it said. Liberal & progressive arguments depend on tenuous nuanced readings of the Qur’an and forcing new meanings out of ancient words. They scrape the barrel of the ancient texts to find something that will support a more progressive view.
But by playing this game within the rules of a perfect divine Qur’an they only hand victory to the traditionalists and fundamentalists because it is the traditionalists who have by far the greater evidence to support their views. Any theological workarounds a liberal can come up with can be easily countered by traditionalists with a vast array of Qur’an and hadith at their disposal.
Now I’m not saying the traditionalist and fundamentalists represent the true Islam, because in my view there is no such thing as “True Islam”. Islam is not and never has been a single homogenous entity. Of course many Muslims argue that there is a True Islam, but that is because they believe the Qur’an is perfect and is the carefully planned work of an Omniscient and Omnipotent God. They are compelled to defend it's integrity and consistency against all reason.
Ironically many far-right anti-Muslim bigots also insist there is only one “True Islam” and they say it is the Islam of ISIS and the extremists. They want to convince everyone - including Muslims themselves - that moderate forms of Islam are wrong and that real Islam is the terrorists' version. Muslims who deny this are practicing Taqiyya or are ignorant. They do this because they want to justify their hatred & violence towards Muslims.
But those of us who take the view that the Qur’an is the rather less carefully planned work of a human mind, should not make the mistake of expecting a perfectly consistent and non-contradictory message over 23 years from a 7th century human being reacting to events as they happened. There are certainly interpretations that can be argued to be closer to what Muhammad brought in 7th century Arabia. But one cannot claim they all constitute a single consistent view. When liberal and progressive Muslims accuse the Salafis of being selective in how they interpret Islam, choosing to overlook the more peaceful and tolerant verses, they are right. But what they forget to mention is that they are just as selective when they choose to overlook the more harsh and rigid verses.
What Muhammad did and said varied at different points over the 23 years of his prophethood. His message changed shape and direction as events did and with the need to please and attract differing tribes and individuals. From the early days in Mecca to the position of power he found himself in Madina. The Qur’an contains contradictions, ambiguity and vagueness leaving the door open to a multitude of interpretations.
Some argue that the principle of abrogation means that the more peaceful and conciliatory verses are no-longer valid. This is a favourite argument of the far-right anti-Muslim bigots who again want to insist that more liberal versions of Islam are wrong and “true Islam” is the violent forms. However the doctrine of abrogation is largely a creation of later scholars who were compelled to reconcile the contradictions in the Qur'an - which of course cannot exist since it is the perfect word of God. They took their cue from 2 similar but rather ambiguous verses in the Qur’an. For example verse 106 of al-Baqara says:
“Any revelation We cause to be abrogated or forgotten, We replace with something better or similar.”
They used this to argue that any verses that contradicted each other could be explained by the later one abrogating the earlier one which usually meant Medinan verses abrogating Meccan ones. However they didn’t agree on which verses abrogate which since there is not always agreement on when verses were revealed or even the reasons they were revealed (asbabunuzul). Some scholars even went as far to argue that a verse that was revealed in Mecca was then revealed again in Medina in order to make it fit their view.
Many modern Muslims reject the whole idea of abrogation which of course gives them a little more scope to argue that early peaceful and conciliatory verses are in fact more valid than later violent ones since the violent ones are tied to the specific context of Muhammad’s struggle with the Meccan while the earlier ones are of a universal and general in nature. This was the argument of the Sudanese scholar Mahmoud Taha and his student Abdullahi Al-Naeem.
Mahmoud TaHa was executed for apostasy in Sudan which shows how dangerous and difficult it is for liberal & Progressive Muslims to challenge the status quo.
Even when they are listened to they cannot decisively defeat the fundamentalists using scriptural arguments as long as they concede the Qur’an perfect. Because the harsh literalist interpretations of the fundamentalists will always have the greater weight of classical scholarship on their side. Their hands will never be free to simply pick and choose using reason, since God’s divine words trumps flawed human reason every time.
The belief that the Qur’an is the perfect word of God shuts down all argument and sidelines human reason & conscience. There can be no stronger motivation than "God said it". One can’t argue with God. Few Muslims have the courage to challenge the idea that the Qur’an is God’s word. Those that do are immediately labelled apostates and they are either executed or forced to leave Islam thereby silencing all dissent from within Islam.
However contrary to popular belief all the Arabs at the time of Muhammad did not swoon at the words of the Qur’an believing it to be of divine origin. The Qur’an itself testifies that many Arabs rejected the Qur’an’s claim to being the word of God. Muhammad was accused of being a soothsayer and a poet. He was accused of recounting nothing but myths and fairytales and it took a long and violent struggle to win over Arabia - not an intellectual one.
Even after Islam there were Muslims who rejected the Qur’an’s claim to be inimitable. For example Al-Jaʿd ibn Dirham, tutor to the Umayyad Caliph Marwan, said "The Qur'an's eloquence is not a miracle and people can do the like of it and better." The Mu'tazilite scholar Abu Musa said "People are able to produce the like of the Qurʾān as regards eloquence, and composition and rhetorical beauty." The Sunni scholar Abu al-Qushairy said: "We do not claim that everything in the Qurʾān is in the highest rank of eloquence." Ibn al-Rawandi a Mu'tazilite scholar - who was accused of being a Zindiq (heretic) - said "Indeed the Qurʾān is not the speech of a wise god. In it are contradictions and mistakes and passages that are in the realms of the absurd."
During the Islamic Golden Age this movement of dissent grew and was labelled al-Zanadiqa (The Heretics) by its opponents. But it nevertheless boasted some great scholars & poets in its ranks including the Muslim physician al-Razi, the poets Omar al-Khayyam & Abu Ala’ al Ma’arri (whose statue was destroyed by ISIS fighters when they took his home town of Ma’arrat al-Nu’maan near Aleppo in Syria). All these scholars and poets openly questioned the view that the Qur’an was of divine origin and it’s ironic that for a period at least during the Islamic Golden Age such bold expression was tolerated to a greater extent than it is today.
Al-Razi was particularly scathing about the Qur’an saying:
“You claim that the evidentiary miracle is present and available, namely, the Koran. You say: 'Whoever denies it, let him produce a similar one.' Indeed, we shall produce a thousand similar, from the works of rhetoricians, eloquent speakers and valiant poets, which are more appropriately phrased and state the issues more succinctly. They convey the meaning better and their rhymed prose is in better meter. … By God what you say astonishes us! You are talking about a work which recounts ancient myths, and which at the same time is full of contradictions and does not contain any useful information or explanation. Then you say: 'Produce something like it'‽”
However with the rise of Europe during the Renaissance came the decline & stagnation in the Islamic world and what little free-thought had existed during the Islamic Golden Age came to an end. The doors of ijtihad were closed and scholars no longer braved new frontiers. Instead they concentrated on preserving and imitating the past.
Today however there are signs that there is a new awakening of free-thought despite the rise & alarming spread of Islamic neoconservatism - in fact it may be in part a reaction to such regressive movements that are in such stark contrast to reason and reality in the 21st century and are a never ending source of cognitive dissonance for many rational and educated Muslims.
For example the modern Iranian scholar Abdul Karim Soroush writes:
“According to the traditional account, the Prophet was only an instrument; he merely conveyed a message passed to him by Jibril. In my view, however, the Prophet played a pivotal role in the production of the Koran… Like a poet, the Prophet feels that he is captured by an external force. But in fact the Prophet himself is the creator and the producer. The question whether the inspiration comes from outside or from inside is really not relevant, because at the level of revelation there is no difference between outside and inside. The inspiration comes from the Self of the Prophet.”
In Iraq the scholar Ahmad Al-Qabbanji states quite openly in his lectures that the Qur’an is not perfect nor flawless and has compared it to human texts which he highlights passages that are superior to passages of the Qur’an. (For this who speak Arabic you can find plenty of his lectures on Youtube.)
The Moroccan scholar Saeed Nasheed published a book in Arabic last year titled: Modernity & the Qur’an - in it he says:
“The Qur’an is not the speech of God, just as the loaf of bread is not the work of the farmer. God produced the raw material, which was inspiration, just as the farmer produces the raw material, which is wheat. But it is the baker who turns the wheat or flour into bread according to his own unique way, artistic expertise and creative ability. Thus it is the Prophet who was responsible for interpreting the inspiration and turning it into actual phrases and words according to his own unique view.”
My own view is perhaps even more radical. I am both Agnostic & Muslim. I don’t know if God exists or not - though I do believe in “something” - something I cannot define nor quantify but I call it God. I enjoy many aspects of the Islamic traditions that I have been brought up in and practiced for over 50 years of my life. However when I went through a period of doubts and became convinced that the Qur'an was not the perfect word of God but very much the product of a human being from the 7th century - I left Islam for a while. I thought I had no choice. I had always been led to believe that if you don’t believe in the divinity and perfection of the Qur’an you can’t be a Muslim. But I never felt entirely comfortable identifying as an Ex-Muslim and still found myself attending prayers and Islamic events with my family and friends.
All the things that I had loved and drew comfort from during my 50 years as a practicing Muslm were still there. I still enjoyed prayer and connecting with that something beyond this material existence I call God and I was surprised to find that having doubts as to whether there was anyone actually listening didn’t take away the comfort, hope and relief I gained from sharing my thoughts and feelings. I still enjoyed the verses and hadith I had always loved and treasured. Seeing the Qur'an as fallible didn't change all that. So why should I be forced to leave Islam? Particularly when Islam so badly needs voices of dissent and change from within. And when Muslims - including loved ones - are being bullied and oppressed by religious authorities who rely on our silent compliance.
So yes I am a Muslim who believes the Qur'an is not the word of God. Plain and simple. Like all human books it contains good and bad. It is inextricably tied to its context and environment. I openly and unashamedly pick and choose the good parts and reject the bad parts based on my conscience, human reason and our 21st century context.
I see no reason to abide by the definition of the very fundamentalist authorities I oppose and who are the cause of our problems and I propose a new definition for a Muslim. One who is freely able to place reason above revelation. Who does not have to apologise for picking and choosing - for “cherry picking” as our detractors like to scoff at. Selecting the good and leaving the bad according to human reason is the eminently rational and reasonable thing to do. It is the “All or Nothing” approach that is irrational and leads to the suppression of one’s humanity.
Why should being honest & admitting what is patently obvious mean you can’t be a Muslim? Why should we have to keep on defending (or dishonestly wriggle out of) passages that are simply wrong. Let’s reject them and move on. It really is as simple as that.
Though of course the journey getting to that point is not simple. Embracing doubt while retaining faith is not an easy process but it is possible and enlightening. Doubt can accommodate faith, but crucially it eliminates extremism. Fanaticism cannot occupy the same space as doubt and reason. As Voltaire said: “Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a absurd one.”
Perhaps the irony is that most Muslims already pick and choose - the only difference is that I’m simply proposing they do this openly and unashamedly without the ridiculously tenuous and disingenuous apologetics that are ultimately self-defeating.
I will give you an example from verse 34 of Surat al Nisa which in microcosm reflects the dilemma Muslims face and how belief in a perfect Qur’an prevents us from reform. The verse says:
“As for those women from whom you fear rebellion (first) admonish them (next), refuse to share their beds, (and last) hit them.” (4:34)
This has been the cause of endless problems & cognitive dissonance for rational and liberal Muslims in this day and age where humanity has evolved beyond such a barbaric mentality and where the relationships and roles of men and women have changed drastically from 7th century Arabia.
However the insistence on a perfect divine Qur’an has meant that Muslims must earthier defend wife beating against their very conscience and rational mind - or they are forced to invent dishonest and ridiculous apologetics to try to make the verse mean something completely different. Apologetics which fool none but a tiny minority of Muslims who have retreated to an ivory tower of the absurd - a make-believe land where up means down and left means right and anything can be as you wish it to be.
Muslims are as yet unable to simply say “The Qur’an wrong.” - They can’t say this because of the insistence that the Qur’an is perfect and infallible.
Reform can only come once we get over this hurdle of an infallible Qur’an. It is not infallible. It is not perfect and it is not the word of God. That doesn’t mean it is all bad. There are many beautiful and mystical verses such as ayatuNur, Ayatul Kursi, verses about giving charity, helping others, seeking comfort and strength from prayer, helping the poor, good behaviour and character, honesty, personal responsibility, kindness, humbleness and so on…
But there are also verses about eternal torture in Hell, chopping hands off thieves, flogging fornicators, and keeping slaves. As for Hadith I won’t even go there as they have already begun to be seriously doubted and jettisoned by many Muslims, due some of cruel, barbaric as well as absurd and comical nature of their content.
It’s time we Muslims realise that recognising the human origins of the Qur’an does not mean we have to lose comfort and solace Islam gives us. It means we will have the dual benefit of eradicating extremism while preserving that which is worthwhile.
To those who say that is impossible to combine faith with doubt & skepticism I would say firstly I myself have reached that point. Secondly why should such a pragmatic realism be harder than the massive efforts most believers put into struggling with cognitive dissonance?
And as someone who was born & brought up in the UK I am surrounded by plenty of examples of secular Christians, Jews, Hindus and others who pray in church or temple, christen their children, have religious weddings, attend festivals & services. Who draw comfort and identity from their faith - yet can still embrace doubt and maintain a healthy skepticism. Muslims are not a different species. They are human beings like everyone else and have the same capacities and possibilities as everyone else and I consider it racist to think otherwise.
As for those who say we are better off without religion - perhaps that right - but regardless of what one thinks about religion the fact is it has and continues to provide a great many people with meaning, comfort and motivation in a world that is often confusing, cruel and full of conflict. The fact that all these religions are man-made does not negate their effectiveness as a vehicle to ease the anxiety of life & to reach out to the unknown.
Recognising the Qur'an's human nature does not have to mean the end of Islam, but it will mean the end of unreasonable defence of tenets that belong to an earlier stage of human evolution. It will mean freeing human reason and conscience and allow Islam to evolve as humans evolve. It will mean the end of religion poking its nose into every facet of our lives by self-appointed moral busybodies. It will free us to make our own decisions and life choices and leave judgment to God not man. Religion is between you and God. Believe as you wish but do not impose it on others.
Muslims must take the bold & essential step of challenging the belief that Qur’an is infallible. It is an essential step, because once you stop protecting ideas on the basis that “God said it”, you create a level playing field where good ideas can battle it out with bad ideas on an equal footing - without some being protected on the false basis that “God said it.” It allows reason to be the deciding factor for whether something is accepted or rejected, rather than: “Because it’s written!” No more searching for tenuous interpretations or changing the meaning of words into something else, just so we can avoid the problematic and uncomfortable meanings.
As long as we refuse to appreciate that the Qur’an is human-authored, we will be forced to continue playing the game within the traditional paradigm that the fundamentalists are best at. We will disarm ourselves of the only weapon that can defeat them – reason. Only when we recognise that the Qur’an and Sunna are fallible can we free Islam from the prison of dogma we placed it in.
Islam is far more than the Qur’an and Sunna. Like any major religion, it is the amassed wisdom, practice, cultures and beliefs of millions of believers in different parts of the world over many centuries. Religion at its most fundamental a way of seeking comfort, solace, strength and meaning in a harsh world where man finds himself alone and vulnerable - an aid to help us get by - a way to reach out to the heavens. But it must never be allowed to replace reason and humanity.
It is the fundamentalists who are destroying Islam by stripping it of the very things that has made religion relevant to human beings. They want to reduce Islam to a blind following of ancient texts and strip away any semblance of progress, human reason and humanity. They want to take us back 1,400 years to a harsh and barbaric context and place that has no place in the 21st century.
Accepting that the Qur’an is fallible will not destroy Islam. It will destroy the fundamentalists. For the rest of us it will free us and free our reason so we can take what is useful and reject what is not.