May 29, 2010

Reflections on "Rethinking Islamic Reform"

Attending such a large-scale conference in Oxford immediately puts one at an intellectual mode, especially in Oxford University’s prestigious Sheldonian Theatre. The Conference, organized by the Islamic Society (ISOC) of Oxford University, welcomed the audience with great speeches, including two by its current and former presidents, they instilled a sense of nostalgia from the Golden Era of Islam. I was particularly intrigued by an extraordinary mentioning that the black graduation attire, the formal dress code of Oxford University, is in fact rooted in the Islamic tradition, it imitates the jobba, and the square-shaped graduation hat symbolises the Qur’an, placed upon the heads of students whom as graduates are now worthy of such an act. It is perhaps also interesting to mention here, from a great Muslim Heritage work, that the word Bachelor degree comes from the Arabic word "بحق الرواية" that is granted to graduates. An astounding reminder of the richness and greatness of our Islamic tradition.
It was heart-warming to see a 'full house' in the beautiful huge hall all eagerly awaiting its inception; the conference was set to address: "What type of reform is needed, and how should this reform come into effect?" The two guest speakers were Sheikh Hamza Yusuf Hanson and Professor Tarik Ramadan, although different in their approaches, both tackled the subject from somewhat different angles yet on unified stance which calls for ‘reform,’ or rather ‘renovation’ or ‘transformation,’ as better terms selected by the speakers as we shall see next.
Sheikh Hamza Yusuf started by describing the context of a timely and much-needed topic 'Islamic Reform', "in a post-industrialisation, post-modernism, post-western liberalism world that does not comprehend how physical activities of human behaviour have metaphysical impacts". He called for contextualisation and internationalism when attempting to comprehend the Qur'an and also to perceive it as a 'living' text. "Sharia gets corrupted by being misunderstood," he states, and therefore shows the importance to rectify, a better word than the Christian-term reform which implies restructuring when Islam does not need that. To rectify and to renovate "تجديد" is a constant need, he explains. He focused on how such an approach to rectify is in fact rooted in the Islamic tradition, if one is to look deeply into the literature, for example, ibn Taymiyyah has allowed a female to lead a prayer when she is the most qualified for it. In addition, he gave an example of jurisprudence and how it is not 'absolute', in fact, and also that very few are the verses in the Qur'an that shows an absolute meaning, there are many open spaces and flexibility in Islam. These are all people's effort to understand the rulings of God, most of the time these efforts are constrained by time and place, he added.
Elaborating on the entrenchment of reform in the Islamic tradition, Yusuf gave the example of Wahhabism as an attempt of reform, the statement "a reformed Islam is not Islam" could be true and also untrue depending on the situation, he stated that Islam by itself is a reform movement to the Abrahamic tradition. He emphasized though that people go through soul-searching and pursue reform but do not necessarily reach it, he gave an example of reformist, Irshad Munji, a lesbian Muslim, however, it is important to have a Sheikh and a teacher, he noted, without which one may be bound to go astray. He explains that there is a loss of authority today, many Muslims beseech fatwas from 'Google Sheikhs'! They do not have intellectual tools and often times go wrong. "Governments never do that out of their gracious well" said Hamza Yusuf, discouraging scholars to associate themselves with governments. He concluded with a recent example of reform at the Mardin Conference, which has revealed findings by Sheikh Abdullah bin Bayyah for the first time attributing the killings of non-believers to a misprint in textual sources that read "يعامل" as "يقاتل". It has been covered in the press and discussed in programmes. A misprint that costs hundreds of lives.
Professor Tarik Ramadan approached the topic from a somewhat different perspective in that he touched upon its philosophical and ontological underpinnings, and called for transformational reform through institutional structures. He started by explaining the difference between jurisprudence (فقه) and the origins of jurisprudence (أصول الفقه), where the former changes with time, space and context, and the latter enables reform keeping the intention intact and faithful to its very essence; His new book, Radical Reform, questions the methodology by which we derive our rulings of Islamic law and jurisprudence.
Ramadan continues to emphasize the need for reform, not of Islam but of our understanding of Islam and therefore reforming the Muslim minds. He makes it clear that by simply sticking to rigid text we can only achieve adaptive reform when what we need is transformative reform without touching the essence of the religion. There is what is changeable and what is not (ثوابت ومتغيرات), he invites Muslims to rethink the understanding (تجديد الفهم) of the text whilst keeping a faithful intention, not only in the heart but also the mind, actions and society as a whole. He explains that one must understand oneself and reform it (إصلاح النفس) to come to a sound mind to then reform, or rather revive, the society (إحياء وتجديد وإصلاح). There is no other way to be faithful towards humanity.
On the importance of spiritual learning and Sufism, Ramadan explains the meaning of Islamic law (الشريعة) and the framework as a way towards the source. He focuses on the heart-mind-society triangle, and how that is being faithful to the essence of Islamic law. He elaborates that Jihad is in fact the struggle and the strife to resist in order to reform, to resist what is inside to reform (تطبيق الشريعة في قلبك), then be able to deal with the outside world. Knowing the people and how they think and live, he explains, is an essential requirement for an Islamic ruler (مفتي), because it is important to consider the psychological side of a ruling (فتوة).
No body is happy with the state of the world today, Ramadan states, he calls upon Muslims to reform it towards more justice and dignity to humankind. There is a need (حاجة) and there is a necessity (ضرورة); Islam offers flexibility to adapt, and Muslims could contribute in reform via two tools (1) Knowing the principles and objectives of God and (2) Knowing oneself (ظلمنا أنفسنا). Radical reform has been entrenched in the history of Islam, examples include, Al-Jawzi, Al-Ghazali, Al-Shatri, and the school of thought about sought objectives (مدرسة المقاصد).
In a world with authority for the textual scholars (علماء النصوص), as opposed to contextual scholars (علماء الواقع), any attempts of reform are merely adaptation, for example, the economic crisis - embedded in a global system of non-Sharia compliance, cannot be reformed with a small window for Sharia compliance, he explains, this is but one step to reform though should not be considered an 'end' by itself or a reform. Alternatively, there is a need for a transformation of the entire system; Accordingly, there is a need to reduce the gap between science and text (العلماء والخبراء). He adds, a vision for the future must be coupled with applied ethics where both the text and the environment are brought together, and a shift in the 'centre of gravity' from the authority on text to that on context. For a contribution in reform, he explains, Muslims must take part in civic engagement and should not remain isolated in ghettos.
The floor was open for Q&A with more emphasis on the role of citizens and the methodology of participating via votes and rights in the shaping of governance. In addressing the question which this conference was set for, "What type of reform is needed, and how should this reform come into effect?," both guests brought important insights and provided intellectual challenges especially to the realm of mainstream textual authority, this is especially true in countries that pose a threat to Islam, as was mentioned by Sheikh Hamza Yusuf in the beginning of his speech, these are: Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen.
I walked away with many jewels and buoyant hopes for a world with better engagement on the part of Muslims. However, I was left puzzled as to how to define my role and identify means by which I could, as a Muslim citizen in a Muslims-majority country, participate in shaping and making reform, when there is absolutely no participating mechanism established, especially not for women.