Since 9/11, "Islamic reform" has become an all-purpose phrase: equally a western impulse to protect itself from Muslim violence and a humanist notion aimed at assisting voiceless Muslims. It has also been espoused by Wolfowitz and Blair in service of their neo-colonial ambitions. Yet, the politics of Islamic reform are part of a much larger debate about power: one that goes to the heart of Islam, and connects back to western foreign policy.
Who has the power to define what the Qur'an says, and what sources besides the Qur'an are to be relied upon in interpreting the book? Theologically, this is the most contentious issue in Islam. I call it "The Question".
When Muhammad was alive, the answer to The Question was easy. With his death confusion ensued. To bolster their claims for primacy, competing factions developed cohesive narratives linking themselves to different parts of Muhammad's practice. Thus, the battle over how to define Muhammad's practice became a proxy to the one over the Qur'an.
After about 300 years - roughly the same time it had taken from the death of Christ to the Council of Nicea - clear majority and minority trends as to how to answer The Question had emerged. This clarity was due to vigorous intellectual debate as well as a good deal of intellectual repression, imprisonment, war, and political favouritism.
The dominant approach or "Sharia" (Sharia means "way" or "beaten path") to emerge was Sunni. It affirmed one particular legal method called usul. It separated the religious scholars from the political leadership so as not to upset the favorable status quo. It adhered to 'Ashari theology which said that without revelation from God, human reason is incapable of distinguishing good from bad. It approved of Sufism. Finally, it codified Muhammad's practice in books of hadith, stating that other ways of apprehending the practice were illegitimate.
Supporters credit the dominance of this "way" to its intellectual flexibility, arguing that it provides a competent way of reconciling Islam with change. Cynics say that it won out due to its historical (and current) willingness to coddle corrupt political leaders. This dominant way is called "traditionalism" and is alive and well today. It is the closest thing Sunni Islam has to an orthodoxy.
Islamic reform occurs when a Muslim dissents from this traditional orthodoxy, and provides an alternative which he or she believes more accurately captures the spirit of Islam. Some dissenters argue that their view was part of the orthodoxy all along - just overlooked - while others agitate for the orthodoxy to open up and assimilate views from the outside.
There are various reasons for Muslim critiques of traditionalism. Some critics are dissatisfied with traditionalism for being liberal, citing its connection to Sufism and its receptivity to local customs. Others accuse it of conservatism: primarily its views towards women, minorities, and freedom of conscience. Others agitate against its political quietism, arguing that it does not speak out against terrorists or tyrants enough. Many critics have a problem with traditional conceptions of religious hierarchy, believing that Islam should be democratic and not install de facto priests in the guise of scholars. Others complain about traditionalist monopoly on methodology, arguing that there are other methods of deriving a "way" or "Sharia" than the usul method invented in the 9th century. Finally, some simply believe that traditionalism is anachronistic, should be deconstructed and replaced by radically individualistic ijtihad.
Most of these critiques are in conflict, not just against traditionalism, but against one another as well. However, in terms of history, all critiques against traditionalism stems from Ibn Taymiya, a largely self-taught scholar in the 13th century, who challenged the traditionalists of his time. His views are worth examining.
For starters, Ibn Taymiya rejected the traditionalist view (still extant) on the "triple divorce" - which allowed a Muslim man to divorce a woman in one sitting by thrice-repeating "I divorce you." He further rejected the traditionalist opinion which maintained (and still does) that the testimony of two women was equal to that of one man, instead arguing that the Quran mandated equality in testimony. Finally, really stepping on traditionalist power, he concluded that ignoring the "consensus" of jurists was neither an act of disbelief nor a grave sin, as so many traditionalists insisted.
One would imagine that today Ibn Taymiya be lauded for his freethinking and celebrated as a feminist. This has to do with the fact that his intellectual independence also led him to contradict traditionalists on the issue of rebellion against Muslim leaders, which opened the door to jihadist ideas (when a Muslim believes that he does not need the state to authorize taking life).
In the 13th century Mongols ravaged the Muslim world. Part of their success had to do with the fact that upon entering Muslim lands they would pretend to convert to Islam and appoint themselves rulers of the Muslim population. This was a great tactic on their part. While traditionalist scholars had always supported a belligerent foreign policy towards the non-Muslim world (known as "dar ul-harb" - the abode of war), when it came to relationships with Muslim rulers in the "dar ul-Islam - the abode of Islam, they were extreme quietists, preferring to live under tyranny than engage in rebellion. Their position was based on a "consensus" - still in effect even today - which forbids rebelling against the temporal Muslim leaders for any reason.
Ibn Taymiya rejected this consensus. He said that the Mongol leaders, even if they professed to be Muslims, were hypocrites because they were oppressive and unjust, and arms could be taken up against them. He helped to campaign against such leaders and led attacks on them..
This article is part of a series by Ali Eteraz on Islamic reform: