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Debating Islamic Reform

Our first glimpses of the boiling summer ahead came at a perfect time one recent evening in a crowded classroom at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). We were attending a public debate entitled ‘Islam and Reformation – Which is The Way Forward’ organised by the Muslim Debate Initiative. Instead of the plush Khalili Lecture Theatre, a mix up on the part of SOAS meant that instead we’d be stuffed like sardines into a very packed classroom.

One good thing though, the two speakers themselves were very gracious chaps. One could discern the Islamic adab from both of them and the very fact that we were actually debating Islam was of no small significance.

Our two speakers were well-known to the crowd. Representing the traditionalist, conservative voice was Abdullah Al-Andalusi. He is a Portuguese long time revert to Islam and works extensively in the Muslim community. He speaks on Islamic revivalism but also shows a great depth in various Western Academic traditions. Certainly a formidable opponent to the secular liberal voice represented by Mustafa Akyol who came all the way from Turkey to attend this debate. Mustafa is a very well known writer in Turkey but also in the States where he has an impressive list of speaking credentials. He had just published a book too, Islam Without Extremes, in which he argues the case for freedom and liberty, two things anathematic to Sharia as we know it. He certainly has his work cut out for him.

Mustafa spoke first and immediately corrected a misconception about the notion of Islamic Reform. Reform as he said was a term borrowed from Christianity. For Islam rather, it was tajdeed or renewal.

He then recounted an episode from his own childhood where he encountered these two approaches to Islam. There was this book he studied about prayers which had a Qur’anic verse enjoining us to be grateful to God for our creation (I can’t seem to find the reference for it) but on the back, there was a saying - ostensibly from the Prophet himself – which instructs parents to beat their children if they did not pray by the age of 10. Mustafa found this a glaring contradiction.

Mustafa passionately argued that Islam should not be based on such compulsion and that faith requires freedom for it to grow and be nurtured appropriately. In order for that to happen, draconian laws such as the infamous apostasy law must be completely repealed. He conceded that perhaps in the period which witnessed the emergence of Islam (which he considers as the basis for its relativism), the law was necessary but we are long past that formative period. I find it difficult to agree with this. I do not believe that draconian laws are necessary in any given context and that the Qur’an offers permanent values, one of which is unconditional freedom of religion.

Mustafa points us to the higher intent of Sharia, the maqasid. When the higher intents are articulated and then met by the ahkam or positive law, we would thereby preserve both the spirit as well as the letter of the law. According to the scholar Mustafa chose, Ash-Shatibi, the intent of the Sharia is to preserve life, religion, property, lineage and knowledge.

Next came Abdullah Al-Andalusi, a most eloquent speaker yet with an overt humility. Abdullah disagrees with Mustafa about the modernisation of Sharia. Rather, he seeks to understand and apply Sharia according to its original socio-cultural milieu. He believes that the institution of the caliphate, lost from the Muslims for almost a century, must be restored with its original structure. The rule of law (specifically Sharia law) will become supreme and even the caliph (head of state) himself will be subject to it. It will be, in effect, having God himself in charge of the nation.

This may be a tad too optimistic. Abdullah himself agrees that the positive laws aren’t divine although he contends that Sharia itself represents God’s legislations. What this means is that the spirit of the laws are uncorrupted and thus divine while positive laws themselves are not. Of course, this may be difficult to prove. After all, however we choose to discern the spirit of the law, merely speaking about it makes it subjective. Abdullah also did not mention the vast differences in the legal products of Sharia itself among various schools of law - differences which can mean loss of limbs or lives.

I did find Abdullah’s critiques of Western Liberalism to be very accurate. He depicted a situation where the denizen of the west is bombarded with various media images and peer pressure to conform to the dominant lifestyle. He labelled this ‘social compulsion’ although I think ‘social pressure’ is more accurate. At least in the West we are free to reject these pressures if we want. Laws in the West also does not encroach upon the sphere of faith and religious practice. We would be very surprised to see in some countries there are proposals to legislate attendance for Friday prayers!

All in all, it was difficult for me not to take sides in this particular debate. Apart from Abdullah’s critiques of western systems which were very incisive, it was difficult for me to see how Sharia as we know it can be a solution for humanity. To me, most of Sharia doesn’t even agree with the spirit of the Qur’an which does not segment people according to belief. The Qur’an instead gives unconditional freedom for people to choose whatever aspects of Islam they wish to apply in their lives. What we need perhaps is a re-engineered, more personalised version of Sharia. Perhaps Sharia experts can offer ethical or moral solutions rather than force upon us the Islamic state. 

Farouk A. Peru is a Phd Candidate in Islam and Postmodernism and teaches Islamic Studies at King's College, London.