The way toward Radical Reform

Tariq RAMADAN

This article was published in Newstateman, UK, 6th April 2006.

For decades reform has been on the agenda in the Muslim world. Everywhere things are changing and Muslims are struggling to respond to new challenges. Fierce debates have arisen between those who want reform and those who argue that it will mean either a betrayal of the principles of Islam or a dangerous westernization. Though we face deep and alarming crises of religion, of science, of politics and of economics, as well as a crisis of identity, the differences between us over what we should do seem intractable.

Central to our debate is the concept of ijtihad, which means the critical reading of the key Muslim textual sources – the Quran and the Prophetic traditions, known as the Sunna. Through ijtihad we ought to be able to sustain a historically grounded approach to these sources while at the same time employing human creativity to respond to the particular problems of our age.

Yet so grave is our crisis that there is now a breakdown in Muslim thought in fields as essential as education, science, democratisation and respect for fundamental human rights. Why are we unable to move forward? And how can we extricate ourselves from this downward spiral?

Part of the problem is that Muslim scholars agree neither on the definitions nor on the interpretation of a number of concepts that are central to Islamic terminology. Take sharia. Literalists and traditionalists view sharia as a body of law that forms a closed, timeless universe opposed to any evolution or any reading that takes history into account.

Many reformists, conversely, define sharia as the “the path of fidelity to the principles of Islam”. They believe that the fields of creed and religious observance are distinct from those of social affairs: in the former the prescriptions of the Quran and hadith are immutable; in the latter, they should work in tandem with human rationality.

The reformist trend is present in virtually all Muslim communities, yet the results of reform in the past century have been unsatisfactory. This reflects a deficiency in the reformist approach itself. For decades we have studied the writings of reforming scholars who re-examined the texts and offered new interpretations, but this approach has proved too reactive. By its nature, work that is oriented exclusively toward the texts struggles to keep pace with emerging situations.

Our scholars lack the necessary deep understanding of the complex issues of the modern world with which their judgements must deal.

Though they speak about economy, natural and social science, they have in fact little to offer in any of these fields. When they pronounce on current matters their rulings often contradict one another, and we are unable to decide which of them is best qualified. To make matters worse, they jealously guard their authority in religious prescription (fatwa). When, for example, specialists in the so-called “profane” sciences try to assist in formulating contemporary Muslim jurisprudence, their efforts are often resented as dangerous intrusions. Though they may have relevant expertise, unless they are specialists in Islamic law they find their opinions dismissed. This is where the need for radical reform is greatest.

Our task is to shift the centre of gravity back to the fundamentals of Islamic jurisprudence. For the texts are not the only normative references in Islamic law. The universe – the “book of the world”, to use the expression of the great scholar al Ghazali – represents a source equal to the texts. Instead of being pushed to the margin, scholars and specialists in applied sciences and social sciences must become important contributors to contemporary Islamic ethics.

Their mastery of contemporary knowledge positions them eminently to guide the religious scholars deliberations, and to produce a transformative, ethically-driven reform rather than the necessity-driven adaptations of today.

Textual interpretation specialists, though their competence is beyond dispute, do not have exclusive ownership of ijtihad. They must be joined at the table by women and men versed in other fields who can help find new directions for reform that are both faithful to Islamic principles and fully engaged with the issues of the day.

We desperately need spaces for ijtihad that reconcile ordinary Muslims with their references by restoring their right to speak, their competences and their authority. The tasks at hand are immense: promoting a critical spirit and educational reform; developing a Islamic ethics of science; proposing alternatives in global economics; transforming the status of women in Muslim communities; creating civic societies and managing violence.

To achieve the radical reform we need and hope for, we must shift the centre of gravity away from the religious scholars and back to the centre of the Islamic universe. All must participate and each individuals conscience must awaken. Alongside our scholars of the texts, in other words, we need scholars of the contexts.

The role of the West and its intellectuals is important: in their questions, their constructive criticisms, their ability to listen to the multiplicity of Muslim voices (and not only those that please them) they can become partners in our revolution. In this dynamic, all parties will discover shared values. Though we may not all walk together on the same path, we can and must commit together to making this world better, together. We do not want modernization without soul or values; we want ethical reform. We want to transform the world in the name of the justice and human dignity that, sadly, are often forgotten in the current inhumane global (dis)order.

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