Muslim and Reforms

Nazir Khaja,MD, Board memebr of MCA

(This is to acknowledge the publication of this article in Pakistan links also.For the details on the move to ban Burqa in France, one may like to read www.newmca.com go to News)

President Nicolas Sarkozy recently told French lawmakers in a major policy speech that the burka is not welcome in secular France. Condemning the head-to-toe covering used by some Muslim women, he said, “We cannot accept to have in our countrywomen who are prisoners behind netting, cut off from all social life, and deprived of identity. That is not the idea that the French republic has of woman’s dignity. The burka is not a sign of religion, it is a sign of subservience”, and, “It will not be welcome on the territory of the French republic.”

President Obama in his Cairo speech mentioned that the US government had gone to court to defend the right of Muslim women to wear the hijab, “and to punish those who would deny it”.

A German judge recently gave a man the right to beat his wife because the husband maintained that it was out of his religious law that he is allowed to practice domestic abuse on his wife.

Women’s rights, rights of the minorities, Islam and democracy and many such issues are under constant discussion and criticism in the West, which has become home to many Muslims through migration.

Leaving aside the political dimension of the problems related to Muslims and Islam that politicians in the Western countries exploit or showcase to gain approval from certain constituencies there are many such social issues and practices which the Muslims must clarify for themselves in order to reduce tension and confusion in their midst.

These range from historical differences among Muslims like the Governance — the model of Islamic State and its nature, the Shia-Sunni split, the differing opinions regarding religious rituals, matters of individual piety, and politics.

For instance, the niqab or burqa is generally understood as a covering over a woman’s face, whereas the hijab is often understood as a covering over a woman’s hair. Muslims around the world disagree about whether the niqab/burqa or hijab are religious requirements or cultural.

The existing global unrest, part of which relates to the turmoil in Muslim societies and the extreme acts of a minority of Muslims, are on the minds of many. This has generated a rising tide of Islamophobia.

It is becoming clear that the concern regarding Islam’s perceived threat to others requires not only political re-structuring but also, more interestingly, ideological retooling to make it consistent with democracy and contemporary international norms of statehood. It should be noted that the critical difference between now and in the past is, in all previous attempts at reform within Islam Western nations had no reason to become involved. This has changed. Since the Muslims have not been able to define what Islam is and how it works and interacts with the global community, others are demanding and defining this for them. If Islam now is not part of the solution, then it will surely be part of the problem.

It is customary among Muslims to give the entire blame for the lack of progress of their societies to others. It is time now that Muslims acknowledge that part of the responsibility of this is due to their own actions and also inaction. Despite the fact that many issues, ideological, social and political are a source of confusion not just for others but also for the Muslims themselves, efforts to build a consensus among Muslims through the deliberations (Ijtehad) of contemporary Muslim scholars to give clarity and directions to the Muslims seem lacking. It seems therefore timely and important to open up some of the important issues in the sphere of confusion and criticism regarding Islam and Muslims for wider discussion and reflection.

There are more than a billion Muslims in the world today. The span of Muslim societies covers a huge area from Indonesia to Morocco, harboring many cultures and diverse historical experiences. This is important not only in understanding Islam and Muslims but also for Islam’s own self-understanding. Though Islam is the common identity of this multitude yet its understanding and practices are heavily influenced by the factors cited above. Only twenty percent of the one billion Muslims are Arab, yet the Arab influence is dominant on account of the Qur’an being in Arabic and Prophet Muhammad having been born in Arabia. Notwithstanding all of the above background in more recent history the oil wealth of the Arab nations has reasserted its dominance on ways Islam is thought of and practiced.

These foundational facts did not come in the way of the rapid spread of Islam in its early history from its beginning in the seventh century. Islam’s message was simple and served the needs of all those who needed liberty and justice. Islam’s emphasis on the worship of one God was the unifying bond providing a level playing field and uplifting those who were marginalized because of disadvantages of being born in a cast, tribe or race. In its spread and interaction with neighboring cultures which were far more robust and advanced than that of the original Arab nomadic culture, Islam’s simplicity and malleability were able to easily reshape them and also itself. Its borders remained open and people joined and adapted at their own pace. There was no central authority other than the Qur’an and the legacy of Prophet Muhammad, his model of conduct and behavior; these provided a framework for conducting all matters related to the life of the society and an individual.

Islam’s territorial expansion and acquisition necessitated a political framework and system, God entered politics. The notion that sovereignty only belongs to God became the ground rule of the political system. The common notion of there being no separation between “Church and State” in Islam became the cornerstone of Islamic polity. From this evolved a system of government in the Sunni Islam, that of majority of the Muslims, the Caliphate; the Caliph was the head of state in whom authority was vested as God’s representative. The Shia Islam retains the belief that that privilege belonged to the descendents of Prophet Muhammad and was usurped in the early history of Islam immediately following the death of the Prophet and follows the guidance of an Imam. President Obama in his Cairo speech referred to the Shia–Sunni divide which continues to ignite violence in many parts of the Muslim world where even places of worship of each group are targeted.

Presently within Islam, like other religions, there are forms of religious dogma that do not defend human rights and that inhibit economic development. And there are movements claiming roots in Islam that are anti-intellectual and sectarian. These groups hate pluralism and engender enclaves of self-righteous piety that worship a vengeful and punishing God, not the most forgiving and the beneficent one of the Qur’an.

One of the primary problems with Islamic reformation issues is the clerical leadership and the imams. Most Muslim families would be dismayed if their son or daughter wanted to study to become a Cleric or Imam, in the 21st century. Most of the Islamic texts on law, penal codes, civil codes, etc., are based on medieval laws. Hence the corporal punishment, the severing of hands for theft, the stoning of women for violation of marital laws, that still remains a part of Sharia.

This is the elephant in the room that has attracted scant attention of Muslim scholars. These religious laws have not been reformed or advanced to bring them up in accordance with standards of human rights, justice, and God’s forgiveness which are so much a part of the Qur’an`s message. Most Muslims believe that in its present understanding and application, Sharia needs urgent rethinking and re-framing .Yet there is reticence on the part of the Ulama and others in openly acknowledging this fact and to start working on it with others, bringing about real and necessary change. The Taliban`s imposition of Sharia rule in the Frontier province of Pakistan and the brutal repression mired in ossified rules in the name of Sharia is a timely reminder of why this must be a priority.

In many instances the message from the pulpit in the mosques is political or stressing of personal piestic notions rather than of transformation and uplift of masses through education and spirit of free inquiry. A cult of blind following and subservience without questioning the “handed down” wisdom has become the fate of the mosque attendees. Illiteracy of the Muslim masses is a significant factor in allowing this to happen. It should be recognized that the majority of Islamic scholars have little or no training in science or in areas such as bioethics or environmental affairs. There is a serious disconnect on how an Islamic ethics could apply to modern innovations.

In a similar manner the schools or madrassahs are committing young minds to rote learning of the Qur’an and ritual learning. Instead of offering a balanced curriculum informing them to become productive and useful members of society the emphasis is to prepare them “to attain the reward in the hereafter “.The impact of all of this is development from an early age of an extremely narrow world view which is binary or “black and white, “us vs. them”; in other words, to defining ourselves against others - by what we are not. This is what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences”, the directing of negative feelings towards those most like us, and the minute attention to the small areas of differentiation. The “Jihadist ” indoctrination to lead young children towards acts of violence and suicide bombing is a war on Islamic ideals.

The universal values that we as Muslims share with others and hold in trust for mankind, must be redeemed if Islam is to go back to being a civilizational force rather than remain a set of piestic rituals mainly concerned with the “Hereafter”. The much needed change will not occur through dogmatic assertion, or coercive impositions. Through cooperation and not constant conflict between narrow interests ending in chaos and immobility, can we hope to make any progress. There is no instant solution, but there is a responsibility that rests with us all, particularly with religious leaders, to envision a different and more promising future.

The call for reform within Islam has been repeatedly made through the last three centuries. Sadly so far it seems to have remained unheeded. It is time that a systematic reworking of the past to justify, explain and absorb the present-day realities is undertaken.

The great achievement would be to re-introduce the discussion of human rights within the moral framework of the Sharia connecting it to the principles of democracy and consistent with international norms.

It is incumbent now on all of us that we identify, involve, take ownership and respond to the mounting challenges that we face.

We Muslims today are in a position to hear this call in a way that our previous generations were not because we have now acquired a general understanding of the world that is significantly different from our ancestors and our responsibility is to link this knowledge and understanding with the true teachings of the Qur’an and Islam. nazir.khaja@gmail.com.

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