Islamic perspective
Dawoodi Bohras - Islamic perspective

Change and reform in the Muslim world

The world is on the verge of the twenty-first century and different belief systems are being critically examined by experts in various fields. Religion and religious beliefs are no exception.

However, this does not mean that the basics of religion itself are to be changed. For revealed religions like Islam, these fundamentals are immutable. But it should also be borne in mind that no religion can escape sociological influences.

Even the revealed fundamentals filter through given social structures. The Muslim theologians themselves were conscious of this fact. They made provisions for what they called 'adat', i.e., the traditions and customs of a given society. The Shari'ah formulations of the early Islamic period were thus influenced by the Arab adat.

Besides adat, other factors like 'qiyas' (analogy) and 'ijma' (consensus) too went into shari'ah formulations and could not have escaped the sociological filter. After all, the consensus among the theologians (ulama) depended on their social outlook. It was, therefore, synthesis of the theological and the sociological which finally gave shape to the Shari'ah formulations.

It is for this reason that an eminent Islamic thinker like Maulana Abul Kalam Azad made a distinction between Din (the essence of religion) and shari'ah (the laws governing socio-religious behaviour). The Maulana maintained, and rightly so, that while Din is one (his well-known doctrine of Wahdat-e-din), the shari'ah differs from time to time and society to society.

Classical jurists

The classical jurists also had made provision for what they called 'ijtihad' (i.e. creative thinking). Since the social needs were bound to vary from time to time and place to place, there ought to be some provision for creative thinking and re-interpreting divine provisions. Islam was revealed in Arabia and certain socio-legal provisions in the Quar'an catered specifically to the needs of the Arab society of the time. Thus, one who re-thinks issues in Islam on the eve of the 21st century cannot afford to mechanically imitate the classical jurists.

Islam's image has been sullied by a few fundamentalists who are not aware of the progressive nature of the Qur'an's injunctions. The Qur'an laid down fundamental values which were applied to the then society by the early jurists. The fundamentalists, rather than going by the value pronouncements of the Qur'an, go by their applications in the early Islamic society. Thus Islam gets frozen in the 7-8th century when the classical jurists flowered.

These fundamentalists do not appreciate the fact that the value pronouncements of the Qur'an -- rigorous justice, equality of all irrespective of colour, race and ethnicity, equality of sexes, just distribution of economic resources -- are amongst the most modern and it is these pronouncements which are fundamental to Islam, not what the classical jurists attempted in their own society.

These fundamentalists are responsible for the image of Islam as a backward-looking religion. The facts point to the contrary. Because of the actions of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the impression is created that Islam disempowers women. In fact, the Qur'an nowhere deprives women of their right to earn their own livelihood(Qur'anic verse 4:32), let alone confine them to their homes. This verse says that "For men is the benefit of what they earn, and for women is the benefit of what they earn."

Similarly, the Qur'an pronounces the concept of sexual equality in verse 2:228: "And women have rights similar to those against them in a just manner". In verse 33:35, women and men are equated in every respect. It is a wonder that there exist in Islamic Shari'ah provisions which appear to be contrary to the concept of gender justice enshrined in the Qur'an.

Rational management

It is true that the early Islamic society could not stomach sexual equality. Therefore, the jurists invented the hadith which could sanction sex-discriminatory laws to fulfill their requirements. It is time to rethink these shari'ah provisions and reinvent the original Qur'anic spirit of gender justice. Many modern interpreters of the Qur'an have been emphasising this approach.

In the Arab world, Islamic thinkers like Allama Yusuf Qardawi and others have stressed the Qur'anic spirit of justice. Also, the practice of 'hijab' prevalent in some Arab countries in which women cover themselves from top to toe including their face does not exist in the Qur'an. It is a customary practice rather than a Qur'anic one. All that the Qur'an requires is a dignified dress which does not explicitly display a woman's sexual charms in order to attract male attention. This question is more culture-sensitive than categorical in nature. Moreover, cultural norms are more important than theological ones. The earlier theologians and jurists did show cultural sensitivity in their formulations. But the theologians belonging to latter generations lost this sensitivity in their zeal to imitate their predecessors.

There is another important factor -- socio-political in nature -- which is responsible for freezing Islam in the past. The Qur'an had laid emphasis on reason, thinking and reflection and uses words like 'aql', 'tadabbur' and 'tafakkur' which imply reason, rational management of things and deep reflection. Nowhere does the Qur'an demand blind imitation.

The Qur'an also lays emphasis on democratic consultation in state affairs, a fact overtaken by the historical event of monarchy -- which was against the spirit of Islam -- being established in the Muslim world when Yazid, the first Umayyad monarch was installed. It led to the development of an authoritarian culture. This authoritarian culture was also reflected in many juristic formulations which were taken to be immutable. This writer calls this the feudalisation of Islam, something which killed its spirit of democracy and justice. In most Islamic countries, this feudal Islam persists and comes in the way of rethinking and ijtihad.

Progressive spirit

The need of the hour is to de-feudalise Islam and restore its progressive spirit. The world of Islam, which is entering the post-modern world, is caught within a contradiction. On one hand, it is modernising at a fast pace; on the other, it is struggling to keep its feudal identity, resisting change. The dilemma is that it admits to change in economic and technological fields while it struggles to retain its primordial character in the theological realm.

The Islamic world has not been able to successfully resolve this paradox. It requires a creative and critical approach to theology. Firstly, the theologians are ill-equipped to do so. Secondly, such a theological milieu does not exist in Islamic countries. However, it is only a matter of time, with change being inevitable and the process having already begun. Its pace at present is slow, but there is no way to accelerate it since people cannot often absorb rapid change in religious matters. It is even more difficult in case of the Muslim world. Change, however, is surely on the agenda in the Islamic world.