Crosspost: Abdullah Al-Andalusi
The desire for the reformation of Islam tends to typically come as a demand made upon the Muslim world by external actors or influences.
Having been invited to speak in many debates and lectures about the question of whether there should be a reformation of Islam, I’ve observed that it is not a question that I or most Muslims raise, but one that is thrust upon us by others.
Generally, Muslims are well aware that there is no problem with Islam. Muslims understand that Islam defines human purpose in the cosmos, and offers a complete and consistent way of life that is designed to lead to human happiness and justice in this life and the hereafter. For Muslims, the author of the Quran, being also the author of mankind, knows humans better than anyone, and understands how humans should be organised and guided – therefore Islamic laws and solutions are perfectly balanced for implementation by mankind.
The desire for the reformation of Islam then, tends to typically come as a demand made upon the Muslim world by external actors or influences – typically by Westerners and those influenced by Western civilisation, i.e. “secular reformists”. Their demand for reform is based upon the false assumption that religion must be separate from state, and that Islam is comparable to Christianity’s problems with politics. However, there are a number of other fallacies and assumptions they make that quickly come undone under simple scrutiny.
Non-liberal government does not cause technological backwardness
Christianity never caused the Dark Ages, nor did it bring about backwardness. This may come as a surprise to anyone unfamiliar with the relevant history, but the Dark Ages occurred because of the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476AD and being overrun by Germanic barbarian migrations entering the empire. Meanwhile, the devoutly Christian Eastern Roman Empire (the Byzantines), experienced no fall, and no Dark Ages, and ancient Greek Philosophy and Roman technological know-how continued to be taught in numerous academies and schools throughout the Eastern Roman Empire.
In fact, if anything, the Catholic Church created the modern West, since after encountering the Islamic civilisation through either trade or war, they began translating Arabic and Greek intellectual works and setting up universities, triggering the European renaissance in the 1100s. The Roman Catholic Church was a patron of science and education, causing European science and technology to progress for 600 years under non-secular Christian governments. Modern secular liberal governments did not arise until around the 1780s.
Europe’s famous “Scientific revolution” started around the 1500s and is said to have reached its completion by the 1700s all under non-secular Christian governments. By the time secular liberalism first arose in state systems, Europe had already invented the steam engine 80 years before.
The industrial revolution in 1760-1840 began while most of Europe still was not secular liberal. Even the few Liberal regimes existing at the time had not yet adopted most of the laws we associate today with Liberal government.
Europe never progressed technologically or economically due to Secularism, but rather due to the beginning of curiosity, thought and inquiry that was kick-started by encounters with the Islamic civilisation’s level of advancement. The creation of secular liberalism (called “The Enlightenment”) was actually an unintended by-product of the Renaissance, and not the cause of it.
Modern Chinese political philosophers have already remarked that secular liberal democracy is not a prerequisite for technological, economic and scientific development, nor good government, and the meteoric rise of China demonstrates that there are other ways to progress and to achieve prosperity. Indeed, democracy is an older system than Islam, yet is considered “modern”. Islamic laws therefore are not obsolete, but rather they only require re-implementation, with the wisdom and mercy that the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) demonstrated should accompany them.
The Muslim world is already the product of previous colonial reform attempts
It is argued that the Muslim world is in its current predicament because Islam has not been reformed, but this is ignorant of the fact that the Muslim world has already been “reformed”. Through colonialism, the European powers aimed to reform Islam, and removed Islam from political life in Muslim lands and altered or abolished the teaching of classical Islamic education in law and government, replacing it with a secular and pragmatic understanding for the people, leaving Muslims today illiterate in Islamic political laws. However, the process of changing the masses would take a long time so, in the meanwhile, the colonial occupiers selected and educated a new secular elite from the indigenous peoples to take power after “independence” – and guard the new status quo.
The public activities of Islamic scholarship and its institutions in almost every Muslim country are tightly controlled by their governments. The reality today is that secular elites hold Islam hostage, censoring Islamic education to apolitical aspects of Islam and commissioning bogus legal rulings from client scholars to exhort people to be politically passive, while simultaneously using these same scholars to give Islamic rulings ‘justifying’ allowing the government to perpetrate suppression, torture and arbitrary killing of their enemies (especially against peaceful political Islamic groups – which the West quietly condones).
Militant violence is not caused by Islam
Secular reformists like to claim that terrorist violence is caused by Islam, or an interpretation of it (e.g. Salafism), and not political factors. However, their claims have been disproven by numerous Western academic studies, and even classical secular philosophers, like John Locke, refuted the connection between religion and anti-state violence.
The reality reformists attempt to obscure is that terrorism doesn’t emerge from traditional education of Islam. Most political Islamic education is censored in secular Muslim countries, and a tightly controlled “spiritual-only” education is allowed. Each state teaches its own controlled version, from state-controlled Sufism in Uzbekistan, to Saudi-controlled “Salafism”. Each version is designed to keep the people passive and focusing only on theological disputes or spiritual self-development.
However, the control by secular elites over Islamic education does not always keep the people politically or militarily passive.
The continual extreme oppression and subjugation of peaceful political dissent by these secular elites eventually led to armed revolutionary movements, and in response, a brutal suppression by the elites. This caused some to unfortunately react to the extremism of the secular elites in a reciprocal manner, copying the horrific tactics of the elites they were fighting and, in some cases, attacking other groups suspected of also being used by the West against the Muslim world – tragically including non-Muslim minorities.
The Islamic belief of universal Muslim solidarity and sympathy to the plight of the global Muslim community led to further groups arising from around the Muslim world in response to constant military invasions or occupations of Muslim countries by the West.
Unfortunately, this again saw some using strategies that copy the horrific historical tactics of Western armies used against enemy populations, like “strategic bombing,” where in WWII civilians were first targeted by US/UK as part of a “defensive strategy” to demoralise an aggressive enemy and get them to stop their warring. It then becomes curious how Islam being “reformed” to secular liberalism would stop this, when mainstream Secular Liberal philosophers justify these tactics for the defence of liberalism, and many groups used terrorism in their fight for the liberal ruling system of secular democracy.
In fact, the main argument of terror groups for their tactics is not an interpretation or Islamic text, nor the denial of the Islamic prohibition against targeting civilians. These groups argue that the prohibition is “not set in stone” and that “in today’s world” they can copy modern Western tactics to fight the West.
The problem here is not a classical understanding of Islam (which would prohibit these actions), but that these groups arose from post-colonial Muslim populations who were deeply affected by Western thinking, clearly causing militant groups to arise afflicted with the same Western-imitating logic as the populations they arose from.
Although secular Muslim rulers have been known to use Islam to bolster their support when they feel threatened, this tactic caused strange things to start to happen. Secular elites that were deposed by the West, due to being no longer useful to the West, began cynically transforming themselves into the very Islamic groups they used to violently suppress, but keeping the same tactics they once used against their populations – one such example is the so-called Islamic State (IS).
In modern times, the 20th Century was dominated by terror attacks by secular groups. In Lebanon, during the 1970s, the Christian militia known as “The Phalange” (Phalanx) – in alliance with Israel – massacred thousands of civilians in Palestinian refugee camps and committed numerous war crimes against Muslim populations in Lebanon. Communist Kurdish groups have waged a decades-long terror and insurgency campaign against Turkey, killing thousands. Recently, Communist Kurdish groups detonated deadly car bombs and suicide bombs in crowded civilians areas in Turkey (which noticeably did not receive as much attention in Western media as “Islamist” terror attacks).
Therefore, it is not ideology that causes terror violence, but rather political and social circumstances connected to oppression and invasion which historically have arisen under the same conditions, whether in South America, Africa or Europe itself.
However, secular reformists like to cynically take advantage of IS’s propaganda and public facade of “Islam” to strengthen their case for “Islamic reform,” leading to a shockingly strange and unholy agreement between reformists, Islamophobes and IS for its (bogus) claim to be Islamic. Such reformists have even been known to describe IS as a “blessing in disguise,” with others making similar comments, ironically making reformists some of the biggest apologists for IS.
As demonstrated above, Islamic law does not sanction the actions of extreme groups, despite the invocation of Islamic history and warfare by these groups. These groups use Islamic text merely to seek support for themselves in a region where religion carries weight. These groups arose from a region where everyone does the same, even secular dictators like President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, who uses religion to justify his authority and commission “religious” justifications to perpetrate the killing of dissidents, despite the fact that all these actions actually contradict the details and conditions contained in those texts.
The logic of terror groups and secular dictators in the Muslim world are no different to far-right American terror groups who misquote the passages of the American constitution and declaration of independence discussing use of force to justify violent revolution against the current American government (which they believe has overstepped its limits) and violence against immigrants and minorities (including Muslims).
Of course, American law courts (like most American laypeople) reject these spurious citations as false and ignorant “legal” arguments. However, in the Muslim world, in the absence of the once widely established Islamic court systems under a Caliphate, post-colonial Muslim populations have a difficult time debunking bogus Islamic legal arguments in the political aspects of a law they simply have not been educated in.
What is the solution to this – less Islamic education on a holistic Islam, or more of it?
Wahhabism is not the ‘root of all evil’
Some Western secular reformists claim that the main root of most of the problems in the Muslim world is “Wahhabism” or “puritanical Islam”. They then point to the 1744-1818 Wahhabi-Saudi uprising against the Ottoman Caliphate and the sectarian violence that ensued.
However, what they forget to mention, is that like the decline of the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Caliphate’s military and intellectual decline in the 18th-19th centuries saw the rise of armed insurrections and civil unrest throughout its lands. Some were led by religious reformist movements who saw the Ottoman state as corrupt due to what must be spiritual defects, others fought for the new ideology of nationalism, and others for power. Sectarian violence affected all citizens, not just “Wahhabis”.
The Ottoman Caliphate saw a religious uprising from a Sufi movement that was far more sectarian and more deadly than the “Wahhabis” – the Mahdist movement of the Sufi Samaniyya order in Sudan, led by Mohammed Ahmad. Ahmad claimed he was the awaited “Mahdi” and believed the Ottoman Caliphate to be corrupt collaborators with “infidels”. Ahmad declared all Turks to be disbelievers, and ordered that they should be killed. His movement was also noted for attacking the followers and shrines of rival Sufi groups who rejected him, like the Khatmiyyah, forcing many to flee for their life. Like the Wahhabis, the Mahdists were condemned by the Islamic scholars of their region, and found support mainly from tribal fighters living in the outer frontier areas of the Muslim world. Unlike the Sufi Mahdists, the Wahhabis never declared Ottoman Turks to be disbelievers.
However, most armed uprisings that arose afterward continued to be mostly from Sufi-led insurgencies responding to colonial occupation of Muslim lands in the 19th to early 20th century.
Even non-Muslim communities in the Middle East fell into sectarianism amongst themselves. For example, the Christian and Druze communities of the Levant fell into fighting each other in 1860 leading to the deaths of over 60,000 people (many of them civilians).
Some Western secularists point to sectarian intolerance and violence as evidence of the effect of fundamentalist religion. However, the problems that effect different parts of the Muslim world are not due to Islam or an interpretation of Islam – but rather the declined thinking of the people and un-Islamic cultural practices that arose either after the intellectual decline of Islamic civilisation and/or after colonialism. Consequently, we see the same deteriorating social and intellectual phenomena amongst not just Muslims, but secularists and non-Muslims in the Muslim world, and many other countries outside.
In Jordan, it was reported that a Christian father killed his daughter because she had allegedly converted to Islam. In 2007, a Yazidi father gathered members of the local Yazidi community to stone to death his daughter for wanting to marry a Muslim man. Outside the Muslim world, in the UK, an Indian Sikh father tried to kill his daughter for having a Jewish boyfriend. Another Indian Sikh father in the UK was alleged to have killed his daughter for being “Westernised” and for not following “Sikhism or Indian traditions”.
In the Secular majority non-Muslim India, there is an acknowledged, out of control rape crisis brought about by the clash of Secular and traditional values. This is mirrored in Egypt by reports of sexual harassment and rape reported in the 2013 pro-secular protests in Tahrir square (notably, none were reported in the “Islamist” counter-protests in Rabia al Adhwiyyah square). Furthermore, the secular Egyptian regime under Sisi has been documented to use rape as a weapon against female protestors.
Were these problems caused by Wahhabist interpretations of Islam? Will reforming Islam affect the secular Kurds, secular Egyptians, secular Indians and Yazidis in those examples? The answer is no. It is therefore clear that the problem that afflicts the Muslim world does not only afflict the Muslim world, and is related to sociological factors that affect both Muslims, secular Muslims and non-Muslims in the region – not an interpretation of Islam. Even the British colonialists noticed that Egyptian Christians were no different to Egyptian Muslims, and were just as sectarian, maybe more so.
Secular reformists exploit sectarian divides in the Muslim world and use the label “Wahhabism” to divide and conquer Muslim resistance to reformation. Wahhabism was a movement, not a school of thought. If you examine the aspects of Islam that the reformists call “Wahhabism” – e.g. hudud (penal) laws in the Quran and traditions of the Prophet (pbuh), the prohibition of interest etc – you will find that they are generally shared by all the classical scholars of Islam, and not just of the four Sunni schools of thought, but also the three Shia schools, the Dhahiri (apparentist) school of Ibn Hazm, and the Mutazilite school. The differences between the schools are only in the details of these Islamic laws, not the fundamental concepts themselves.
The use of the word “Wahhabi” or “puritan” (a word taken from European history) therefore, is merely a cover by reformists to attack all of classical Islamic thought – Sunni, Sufi and Shia alike.
The way forward is a restoration of Islam
As demonstrated above, the arguments of secular reformists lack accuracy on the reality of the Muslim world, and its solutions. Their demand for reformation, therefore, is not to initiate something original, but merely to call to complete the re-indoctrination process of the Muslim world that was begun 150 years ago by the predecessors of the secular reformists – the European colonialists.
Muslims that lived after the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), from their birth to their death, attempted to continuously change themselves toward the state of perfect obedience of their creator described in the Quran – both in their hearts, minds and actions. This is called “islah,” and means to reform the individual to be better than they were before, or in an improved position.
But if the Muslim world is not living up to the values and objectives that Islam prescribes, Muslims generally understand that this is the result of the failure of the Muslim community itself, not of Islam. When such cases occur, Islam calls for “tajdeed,” which means revival in the sense of the restoration of something. In this case, it is the restoration of Islam in the community, bringing it back to the mental and behavioural state it was in, before it declined.
Ironically, the claim that countries whose policies are influenced by Islam become backward is refuted by examples in the Muslim world today. Amazingly, the “Islamic Republic” of Iran – although only a hybrid regime with some Islamic policies – is just one of only nine countries in the world that has a fully independent space programme which independently builds and launches its own satellites into orbit. Likewise, the late “Islamist” leader of the “Islamic Republic” of Pakistan, General Zia ul Haq, initiated work on Pakistan’s first independently built space satellite, Badr 1, as well as developing nuclear power reactors and weapons to match India’s developments.
Arguably, the more Islam influences a government’s policies, the more likely it is to invest in an independent capacity for science and technology, even though those governments currently implement only a few Islamic policies. These examples raise an interesting question: if Muslims established a fully Islamic political system, how much more progress could be possible?
The above examples clearly show the Islamic world has great potential, but to fully achieve this it must strive to return to a full intellectual awakening, re-opening of inquiry, creative thought and ingenuity – like it had achieved in its past. This cannot be achieved by an Islamic Reformation, which simply continues to ape the West and continues to turn Muslims into blind imitators, with no original thought or authenticity based upon the Islamic worldview.
What the Muslim world needs is an Islamic restoration (tajdeed), re-establishing the enlightened, plural and just Caliphate that Islam prescribes. That would be a patron of industry, research and defend the citizens of the Muslim world, both Muslim and non-Muslim, from oppression and incursions. It is only then that the Muslim world can progress beyond militancy, secular dictators, invasions and oppression, and become an example of justice and Islam for all mankind – for Islam came to try to change the wrongs of the world, not be changed by them.
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