Thursday, April 20, 2006

You Say You Want a Reformation

People in the West talk about the need for an "Islamic Reformation." By which they mean, perhaps, something that will have the same effect as what happened in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries, when a monolothic theopolitical power cracked and what emerged, over time, was a Christianity that overall was less oppressive, less domineering, less dogmatic than what had come before.

Something like that -- the picture is oversimplified (and never mind that barrels of blood were spilled in the process). Or maybe they really just want someone to stand up and be Mecca's version of Martin Luther and say, "enough of this foolishness."

It's a hopeful vision. It's optimistic, and I've learned to be optimistic about the world -- like Churchill, because "it does not seem to be much use being anything else." So I like this idea, too. But I'm not so optimistic that I think it will happen.

For one: We want there to be an Islamic Reformation. There's no particular evidence that Muslims, in sufficient number and in the right places (i.e., not living in America or Canada) want there to be an Islamic Reformation.

Reformations don't happen because rival civilizations want them. If the Ottoman sultan in 1519 had said to the Pope, "Just this and this and this needs to be changed in Christianity so we can get along better," you can bet Rome would have responded with a papal "Bull!" In fact, if the Sultan had been advocating for exactly the same things Martin Luther spoke up for, you can bet Luther never would have got past the Wittenberg church door.

For another: There already was an Islamic Reformation. It happened while we were sleeping. The result is Wahhabi dominance, and Islamic Brotherhood, and Bin Laden. This is the Islamic Reformation. We're fighting it now.

When religions "reform" -- note the "re-" prefix -- they swim back toward their sources. And in every case, they carry the baggage of the present with them. Every attempt to reform Christianity during the 16th and 17th centuries sought the wellsprings. It turned away from the Catholic Church not because it was wrong to mix political power with religious authority, but because that's not how it was in the Gospels.

So they set out in search of the Christianity of Paul. But they always dragged their own time and place with them -- how could they not? If the command was, "be separated from the world," the shape of your separation would be determined by the shape of the world you lived in. Thus the same motivation, and the same Gospel, in different times and places led one group of people to be Quakers and another to be Pentecostals.

Or Amish. Look at an adult Amishman: he has a beard, but no mustache. Why is that? Because in 18th century Germany it was fashionable for young men to wear mustaches but no beards. So to get back to the Gospel and be not of this world, the Amish enshrined the exact opposite style. And they still wear it.

When Christianity reforms -- when it goes back to its roots -- it tries to foreswear the world. When Islam goes back to its roots, it tries to conquer the world.

And it takes modern conflicts and technologies with it.

* * *

The Christian Reformation (I prefer the term "Protestant Revolt") was as much about political control as it was about religion. Once Luther opened the door, kings and queens usurped the power of the church in their domains and changed it just enough to suit their purposes without undermining the people's faiths. England is a good example.

Islam has seen this, too, in the strong-arm rule of the men, mostly of military backgrounds, who have led Muslim-majority nations in modern times. The "secularism" of men like Saddam or Musharraf, or nations like Tunisia or Egypt, has been noted, but not so often noted is that it never really dethroned the faith from the hearts of their people, nor did it replace Quranic authority over civil matters.

Instead, secular rulers have tended to fudge their way to non-Islamic legal codes and constitutions by using legitimate, but perverted, aspects of Shari'a. Takhsis al-qada, for instance, the right of the ruler to control the jurisdiction of courts; or Takhayyur, the selection of any opinion within a school of Islamic jurisprudence, not necessarily the dominant one, or Syasa shari'ya, the discretion of a ruler to implement beneficial regulations if they are not contrary to Shari'a.

The "secular strong-man" solution, then, is temporary and insufficient. It is neither valid within the Islamic legal tradition, nor capable of displacing it.

Another path to reformation you sometimes hear promoted is "re-opening the gates of ijtihad." This is a favorite among Westernized and liberal Muslims like Irshad Manji, who says:

I also propose the revival of a tradition to correct what's gone wrong with Islam. Independent thinking and creative reasoning, known as ijtihad, was something Islam always prided itself on. My foundation, Project Ijtihad, aims to revive this way of thinking and I'm helping young Muslims to set up centres in various countries, including India and the United Arab Emirates.

Boy, I would love to think that will work.

Ijtihad (independent juristic reasoning) was the way Arabic scholars applied and interpreted the Quran and the collected sayings of the Prophet. But around the 10th century of our age, stricter theologians like Al-Ghazali came to see this process as "leading to errors of over-confidence in judgement." So they closed the gates of ijtihad, and they've stayed closed. What replaced it was taqlid, unquestioning imitation of established jurists and schools.

But what would you get if you could reopen them? Certainly some aspects of Shari'a could be changed. But key components of Shari'a that bring fundamentalist Islam into conflict with the non-Islamic world, such as the status of non-Muslims, the status of women, the acceptance of slavery and the relationship of the Islamic state with non-Muslim states of the modern world, are literally rooted in the Quran itself, or the Sunnah. Ijtihad can't change them. It only applies to place where there is no clear Quranic injunction.

Another possibility lies in the work of Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, which is worth a full consideration and a post of its own. But even his disciples admit there's not much hope they will gain traction in the Islamic world. His ideas, though rooted in Islam, are "considered to be seditious in Sunni theology," and Taha himself ended up as so many would-be Islamic reformers do: executed by a strict orthodox Islamist regime.