One year after the 7/7 attacks in London, a challenge to the traditionalist, literal reading of the Koran is gathering strength. A younger generation of Muslims is seeking a less insular and more western faithby Ehsan Masood / July 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
Click here to read Prospect’s interview with leading Islamic reformer Tariq Ramadan
It is a scene I won’t forget in a hurry: Jean-Marie Lehn, French winner of the Nobel prize in chemistry, defending his atheism at a packed public conference at the new Alexandria Library in Egypt. In much of the Muslim world, talking about atheism in public is dangerous.
But the Alexandria Library is run by Ismail Serageldin, a Muslim intellectual who has a bold and ambitious project for Egypt. This is to create a place for dissent in public life. He wants to encourage people to grow thicker skins, help them appreciate that if Muslim societies want to return to the forefront of global intellectual life, they need to be comfortable with public dispute. The library is one place where open debate can take place—although this is partly because it is protected by having as its chair Suzanne Mubarak, wife of President Hosni Mubarak.
Serageldin is not alone. In my travels across the Muslim world, I am finding that what he (and others) are trying to do in Egypt is also happening elsewhere. It is happening in places where you would expect it, such as multicultural Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as places where you wouldn’t, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is happening at the level of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (a mini-UN of 57 countries with mainly Muslim populations), which has embarked on a ten-year reform plan to try to turn Muslim states into beacons of human rights and free speech. It is also happening on our doorstep, among Muslim minorities in the west.
In Britain and the US, we have seen the emergence of a number of Islamic “rationalists” who are building a case for Muslim societies to change from within, and for Muslim minorities in western countries to change how they think of themselves in relation to wider society. They include the British-Pakistani writer and thinker Ziauddin Sardar, the philosophers Tariq Ramadan (Swiss-Egyptian) and AbdolKarim Soroush (Iranian). From the US, change is being advocated by the evangelist Hamza Yusuf Hanson, who regards himself as more traditionalist than reformer.
Each has a different vision and a different way of working. But they all want Muslim societies—and minorities—that are vibrant, just, humane, at peace with themselves and with modernity. They also agree that elements of the practice of Islam can be of benefit to the modern west: the importance of family networks; a strong framework for morals; social responsibility. It is significant that each of these scholar-activists is either based in a western country, or has spent substantial time in western research establishments. They did not emerge from within the Islamic world, but the influence of at least two of them now extends deep into it. Sardar is influential in Indonesia, Malaysia and South Africa; and Soroush’s ideas are so popular in Iran that he is banned from appearing in the media. Ramadan, meanwhile, is listened to by the British government and Hanson has in the past advised President Bush.
So what needs to change? One area on which all are agreed is the need to break with the traditional literal interpretation of the Koran. The majority of Muslims are taught to believe that the Koran is the uncreated word of God as delivered to Muhammad—that human agency did not interfere with the process from revelation to transcription. Islam is also regarded by most believers as fixed and unchanging—unlike Christianity, whose example of change in the centuries since the death of Jesus Christ is one reason why Islam is seen by some Muslims as the last true faith. Indeed, in most schools, Islam’s “easternness” and resistance to western modernisation is seen as one of its enduring strengths.
The world’s 1.5bn Muslims come in many types. The following fourfold categorisation is therefore a rough guide—to Muslims in Britain, as well as in Muslim countries. There are Muslims born into the faith, but who do not practise it beyond family events and cultural festivals; more pious Muslims born into the faith and who are serious about Islamic commandments such as regular daily prayers, fasting and giving to charity; Muslims born into Islam who observe the commandments and also believe that it is incumbent on them to spread the message to humankind, like evangelists of other faiths; and Muslim converts to Islam of all shades and stripes.
Within this diversity of practice—as well as the different Shia and Sunni schools—there is much that unites Muslims. All Muslims believe in God, in Muhammad as the seal of a long line of prophets that includes Abraham and Jesus. The Koran is regarded as the final revelation, designed by God to supersede the Old and New Testaments. Like Christians and Jews, Muslims also believe in angels and other extraterrestrial beings. They believe in accountability for actions, in a day of judgement; in heaven and in hell.
More pious ones also believe in following the rules of behaviour, both private and public, as laid down in the two primary sources of Shari’a—the Koran, and the records of the Prophet’s life and teachings known as the Hadith. Traditional Muslims shy away from asking critical questions and tend to have an emotional identification with the Prophet himself and the perfection that his life is supposed to represent.
Resistance to modernisation is not in itself a problem. Across the world there are many communities that do not want to modernise. Those that do would like the process to take place incrementally and on their terms—not directed by western countries.
But there is a particular problem with Islam that has made the modernisation project more urgent—especially since 9/11 and 7/7. Muslim terrorists regard acts of terror as an Islamic duty. Extremists often quote the Koran to support such acts. And because the Koran is rarely (if at all) taught to be understood in its historical context, it is hard for the mass of Muslims to challenge the misuse of these citations.
Take verse 3:151, often used by terrorists. This says: “We will put terror into the hearts of the unbelievers. They serve other gods for whom no sanction has been revealed. Hell shall be their home.” According to historians, this is a verse in which God is addressing the Prophet on the eve of a crucial battle during Islam’s first decade. This is the battle of Uhad, when the leadership of Mecca decided that this new religion needed to be crushed. The Meccan army was large, the Muslim force small. The Prophet feared defeat. The Koran reassures him and promises that the enemy will not prevail. In other words, this was a specific injunction designed to address a specific situation in early Islamic history. “We will put terror into their hearts” does not apply to your non-Muslim next-door neighbour. But the majority of Muslims reading this verse are unlikely to know the context in which it was recorded.
In countries where the legal system is based on a literal reading of Koranic injunctions, traditional Islam—like other religions based on a divine revelation— can lead to the abuse of human rights.
Shari’a is the totality of laws based on Islam. Where the Koran and the Hadith are silent, secondary sources—including early Islamic legal scholars—can be consulted. Another secondary source is reasoning by analogy. This is permitted in situations where there is no precedent, such as when guns were first used in war, or, more recently, when in-vitro fertilisation became available. Shari’a was the main means of lawmaking in Muslim countries until the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1924, but even today it remains a fixture in civil, family and criminal law in many Muslim states, particularly Iran, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Somalia.
There is, however, precious little consensus on what Shari’a means, and how it should be applied today. Some countries (such as India and Morocco), are bringing Shari’a into line with liberal norms. They have abandoned Shari’a-based family laws that discriminate against women. These include the right of men to divorce their wives without going to court, or to inherit twice as much as women. But elsewhere the movement is in the other direction. In Nigeria, the Muslim-majority north has reintroduced Shari’a-based penalties, such as stoning.
For islam’s rationalists, literalism in Shari’a is just another manifestation of the way that, in homes, mosques and madrassas the world over, the Koran today is taught with little reference to the context of its revelation; nor to the fact that it was often a response to the circumstances that the first community of Muslims faced. If, say the literalists, the Koran says that men must inherit twice as much as women (because under Shari’a, men are protectors of women), then this must still apply—regardless of the existence of a new consensus which says women are entitled to the same rights as men. The lack of importance placed on context is reflected in the fact that very few translations of the Koran bother to provide any historical background.
All reformers agree that the Koran needs to be seen as a broad set of guidelines on how to organise a just society, and not a detailed manual of dos and don’ts. There is also broad agreement that if isolated verses are lifted out of context, the Koran can be used to justify almost any action. But consensus does not survive if you then ask: what do we do next? Which verses apply as general principles, and which should be read in their historical context? Who decides how to interpret the Koran? Can it be left to individuals? Or should it be religious scholars? And who should decide who counts as a scholar? Do the scholars need to be accountable? Should their interpretations apply nationally or internationally?
For Sardar and Soroush, the answers are clear. First, Shari’a laws that deny universal human rights are no longer tenable (in any form) as a source of law and, secondly, how the Koran is to be interpreted has to be a matter of individual conscience, rather than some kind of official scholarly consensus. Their reasoning is that individuals are answerable for their own deeds. Drawing on their experience of working in Iran and Saudi Arabia, Sardar and Soroush are convinced that governments which legislate on the basis of ancient and unreformed laws can create gross human rights abuses, as happens particularly in Saudi Arabia. For them, the Koran does not represent the end of knowledge; how it is interpreted will change according to space and time, particularly in the light of new knowledge, and the discovery of better and more effective ways of achieving a just society. This means that Muslims need to be open to new ideas, and that critical thinking and scepticism must be part of an Islamic toolkit. Sardar’s best work on this is his book The Future of Muslim Civilization (Mansell, 1987). Soroush’s most influential work is Reason, Freedom and Democracy in Islam (OUP, 2000).
That Sardar and Soroush should take a history-of ideas-approach to the Koran is not surprising, given that both come from a natural science tradition. Sardar trained in physics at London’s City University before becoming a science writer for Nature and New Scientist. Soroush took a doctorate in analytical chemistry at the University of London in the 1970s, before going on to study the history and philosophy of science and then introducing the subject to Iran’s universities shortly after the 1979 revolution. He worked as an adviser to Ayatollah Khomeini before being forced into exile.
Tariq Ramadan is the grandson of Hassan al Banna, founder of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and thus Islamic aristocracy of a kind. He has lived almost all his life in Europe, and although his influence is greatest here, it is likely to penetrate the wider Muslim world in the years ahead. He has a website—www.tariqramadan.com—rarely turns down offers to appear in the media, and is an attractive and charismatic public speaker (in Arabic, English, French and German). A US decision to deny him entry to teach for a year as a professor of religion at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, in 2004—he was deemed a security risk—made him a hero to Muslim audiences. This led to his decision to relocate to Britain, where he has taken up a post at St Antony’s, Oxford. He is now an established figure on the British Islamic scene, and frequently appears at venues such as the City Circle, a network of Muslim professionals based in London. He is also popular with the authorities in Britain, who like his message to western Muslims to be creative, self-confident, and to think big (as other minority communities have done). In France, by contrast, there is no love lost between Ramadan and many of the country’s politicians and intellectuals. Ramadan believes that the French state has failed its migrants. The political classes for their part remain unconvinced of his reformism and have also accused him of antisemitism following an essay he wrote in 2003 on the relationship between France’s Jewish intellectuals and their support for the war in Iraq.
A popular Ramadan theme in his public lectures is that the west and Islam should stop seeing each other as monolithic. Indeed, he argues that thanks to the rule of law, western liberal democracies are more Islamic than many Muslim societies, and that Muslims in the west must regard themselves as being of the west—that they should demand their rights as citizens, not as Muslims. So although he agrees that Muslims have the right to faith-based schools, he questions whether it is wise to exercise the right. Ramadan’s call for Muslim civic engagement (as opposed to just minority protection) is beginning to influence affiliates of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and, in the future, could overturn the organisation’s founding raison d’être, which is the promotion of a separate Islamic identity. Many of the MCB’s affiliates come from the same reformist wing of Islamic thought as Ramadan. Among them is the organisation’s new leader, Abdul Bari, a soft-spoken educationalist with a physics doctorate. Ramadan says that Europe’s many Muslim councils need to move away from community representation and into the trickier arena of challenging a conservative, literalist reading of the key texts.
As the following interview shows, Ramadan believes that when a literal reading of the Koran conflicts with the modern consensus on human rights and good governance, the former should give way. But in political strategy, he is more cautious and gradualist than Sardar and Soroush. He wants to keep within established conventions of Islamic lawmaking—a consensus among experts is the preferred option on issues where there is a difference of opinion. And apart from his call for a moratorium on extreme punishments, Ramadan is not opposed in principle to Shari’a and is in favour of a faith-based approach to lawmaking, though one that takes reason into account more so than in the past.
The US-born preacher Hamza Yusuf Hanson is, like Ramadan, an Islamic celebrity across the English-speaking world and beyond, and, also like Ramadan, has been signed up to take part in a roadshow of Muslim scholars travelling Britain lecturing to young people. The roadshow was developed by Q-News magazine and the Federation of Student Islamic Societies in the UK and Ireland, and is backed by the government.
A man of the oral tradition, Hanson rarely commits to the printed word and prefers instead to communicate via lectures that are then sold as CDs and DVDs. He dislikes the term “reform,” believing that a desire to reform Christianity is what gave the world secularism, materialism, a collapse in respect for authority and loose morals. This analogy is often used against the Islamic rationalists who, according to their traditionalist accusers, simply want the practice of Islam to adapt to modern or to western ways. Hanson concedes that the Koran needs to be understood in context, but he will not go as far as the others in questioning Koranic prescriptions, or saying they do not apply in the modern age. His technique is to rationalise the Koran, rather than to question it.
For example, in a public lecture on Shari’a he gave in the US some years ago, Hanson was asked why it was that, according to the Koran, two women were needed to witness a commercial contract but only one man. He replied that the fact that a woman was mentioned at all had to be seen as significant progress for that time. Seventh-century Arabia was, after all, a time when women were given away as gifts. Islam gave them many rights, including, now, the right to witness a contract. Two women witnesses may have been required because women at the time had little business experience. Hanson did not, however, say whether in Islamic law today, two women would be needed to witness a financial contract if one man could not be found.
Of the big four, it is Hanson’s style of explanation—to rationalise, but without asking fundamental questions—that comes closest to the mainstream of today’s Sunni Islamic scholars. It reflects the dominant style of education and training throughout the Muslim world. Unlike Ramadan, Sardar and Soroush, Hanson has spent a lot of time studying with classical scholars of the Sunni tradition in different Muslim countries. In this tradition, which dates back to Islam’s earliest days, being a good student or a teacher is more about respecting your teacher than asking difficult questions.
In Britain, it is Hanson and Ramadan who command the biggest audiences. In London, these audiences tend to be mostly students and younger professionals, a reflection perhaps of the fact that one in every two Muslims now goes on to some form of higher education. One of the aims of the Islamic roadshow is to attract more of the other half: those who leave school with few qualifications. Hanson and Ramadan’s more prescriptive style of speaking is particularly appealing to those Muslims (perhaps the majority) who are used to authority figures telling them how they should live. The British government and its Muslim partners seem to have understood this.
In seeking to change long-held views about how the Koran is to be interpreted, it is easy to see why Ramadan and Hanson are likely to make deeper inroads (at least in Britain). Those trying to bring about change stand a better chance if they start from a position that is quite close to what people already believe. This at least seems to characterise the gradualist strategy being adopted by Ramadan.
Click here to read Prospect’s interview with leading Islamic reformer Tariq Ramadan