Whither progressive Islam?

Islam came at a time when the Arab nomadic tribal system was prevalent in Saudi Arabia, where people were judged on the basis of their lineage, colour, wealth, gender, etc. But Islam taught otherwise. It was the most progressive religion of its time and instituted a system where everyone was equal regardless of race, caste, colour, creed, gender, wealth, etc. Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) gave an enlightened message to the world 1,400 years ago; yet most of today’s Islamic scholars preach an unenlightened version of Islam to Muslims and to the world. Human rights, women’s rights, animal rights were all part and parcel of Islam in an era where such notions were unheard of among the Arabs: it asked people to treat even their slaves with respect and dignity apart from treating everyone that way, look after their livestock properly and give women their rights. The last sermon of the Prophet (PBUH) at Hajj in the 10th hijra advocated justice and equality for all. He condemned cheating and other such vices, while giving a humanitarian message to the Muslims.

In contrast, the Hajj sermon delivered by the Grand Mufti (Mufti-e-Azam) of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah Al Sheikh on December 29, 2006, gave a regressive message to the Muslim world. His sermon seemed to be full of anti-West rhetoric, dubbing the Western civilisation as the enemy of Islam. While claiming that “Allah wishes to drive us out of the darkness into resplendence of guidance,” the mufti’s message itself seemed to be shoving Muslims back into the dark ages by denouncing ideals of enlightenment and socialism. It made one wonder whether the mufti was actually aware of the concept of socialism, which seeks to abolish the class system and spread equality. Maybe the mufti’s (like many others’) judgement was marred by the myth that all socialists are atheists, and therefore anti-religion. It is a pity that Muslims let religious bias stand in the way of enlightenment. Islam is not against learning good things from other religions (or even learning about other religions for that matter).

A religion can only be progressive if it is based upon knowledge. Divine scriptures are not the only form of knowledge; one must also be equipped with worldly knowledge. Why else would the Prophet (PBUH) have set the non-Muslim prisoners of war (PoWs) free as a reward for educating 10 Muslims each? A learned Muslim would be able to think and speak rationally, furthering the cause of enlightened Islam. Allah has urged the Muslims to reinterpret their religion with the passage of time through ijtehad, which is an analytical approach based on the Quran and the teachings of the Sunnah for interpreting religious matters. The Quran repeatedly asks people to think and if Muslims were not allowed reinterpretation in modern times, we would still be stuck in a 1,400 year old tribal culture of Arabia.

Ironically, many Islamic clerics in today’s time are still frozen in that era. It is said that when the telephone was invented, one of the great jurists of Saudi Arabia decreed that the telephone should not be used by Muslims as “it is the voice of Satan”. Such an approach is the undoing of Islam in today’s world. Muslim scholars were the leaders in knowledge at the time when Europe was immersed in darkness. Today it is the exact opposite. According to a report published by the UN Development Programme, in the Arab world, the aggregate of translated books from the Al Ma’moon era to the present day numbers 10,000 – equivalent to what Spain translates in a single year! The report points out that “…while more knowledge-hungry countries are paying attention to translation from sources other than English and efforts in this regard are not restricted to recent or contemporary knowledge, a marked shortage of translations of basic books on philosophy, literature, sociology and the natural sciences is quite evident in the Arab world.” The day the quest for knowledge ended in the Muslim world, their decline began.

The Taliban subjugated women in the name of Shariah (Islamic law). Many scholars still take a literalist approach where women are concerned, without realising that laws are made by human beings and are subject to change if circumstances change. Old laws cannot meet the challenges of the 21st century. To say that women cannot drive as they were not allowed to do so in the Prophet’s (PBUH) time is ludicrous. How could a woman possibly drive 1,400 years ago when there were no cars?! Have the scholars forgotten that under Islam, women have always had the right to own property, receive an education and otherwise take part in community life? Islam was a revolutionary religion that changed Arab society as women – who were treated as mere chattel before the advent of Islam – became the pillars of the early Muslim society and were counted among its strongest supporters. Had it not been for the financial support of Hazrat Khadija, Islam could not have prospered as it did back then. Islam reversed the repressive and cruel practices committed against women such as female infanticide in pre-Islamic Arabia and ordained the general principles of equality, freedom, independence as rights of women.

Where has that progressive Islam gone? Why are all the ‘grand’ scholars of Islam against enlightenment, socialism and other liberatory theories? The main reason why the so-called Ulema of Islam are afraid of reformist Islam is because it can shatter the power paradigm that upholds their status, just as the Church was afraid to relinquish its power in the Dark Ages. The mufti called for the Muslims to unite against their common enemies, namely the West and other non-Muslims. This is where he is wrong. The ‘enemies’ of the Muslims are not the West or any other; the Muslims themselves are their own biggest enemies. When a Muslim such as Dr. Allama Iqbal tries to reform Islam according to the spirit of Islam, he is labelled a ‘kafir’ and an “enemy of Islam”. The West is not anti-Islam; the Muslim scholars themselves are anti-Islam by teaching against the real spirit of Islam.

It was also extremely disappointing to see that instead of allaying the myths about the so-called jihad (read terrorism) being carried out in today’s world in the name of Islam, Saudi Arabia’s Mufti-e-Azam applauded the mujahideen and further asked them to protect the rights of their brethren in Afghanistan, Iraq and other parts of the Muslim world. Why did he ask individuals to wage war against non-Muslims when jihad cannot be carried out by an individual and can only be carried out on the state’s orders? Why is the Grand Mufti leading common Muslims astray by being so ambiguous? His sermon would provide more ammunition to jihadist factions like al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, etc., to hire innocent Muslims to pursue their own vested interests.

This is not the message of Islam the Prophet (PBUH) conveyed through the Quran and Sunnah. The clerics keep talking about the “glorious days of Islam”, but do not delve into the real reason why the Muslims have lost their “glory”. The Muslims have not been led astray by the West, but by the dearth of knowledge. It is no wonder then that the Westerners call Islam a “barbaric, medieval religion”. If the status quo remains as it does today, Islam would continually be dubbed this and much worse. Only a knowledge-based society can move forward in any given period of time. It is time the Muslims stop living in the past and start living in the present.


Anonymous said…
Islam is indeed progressive, and is not presented or understood as such by many in today's world. However, Islam itself does not need 'reform' - which implies that Islam is somehow inadequate and needs to be changed - but it needs a better understanding of the divine texts.

Ijtihad is a process whereby rules are extracted from the texts. It is not a process where the rules are twisted to suit one's present circumstance. This is a common misperception, the understanding of which will take us one step closer to progress.

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