09/04/2006, 00.00
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Islam walking a tightrope between violence and reform

by Samir Khalil Samir, sj

The Islamic world is frontpage news. In places like Iran Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon a warlike Islam is facing off the West in increasingly harsh ways. In the West itself, Muslim communities grow in number as do conversions. But what might appear as a renaissance is in fact the sign of a profound crisis within the religion founded by the prophet Muhammad. Fr Samir Khalil Samir, a Jesuit and Islam scholar who teaches in Beirut, offers an across-the-board analysis of what ails contemporary Islam and the ways radical and progressive Muslims try to nurse it back to health. Here, exclusive for Asia news, is the first part of a series of article on the subject.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – The Islamic world is troubling to the Western observer:  it appears as a force, an extraordinary power, which is on the move that no one can stop.  This sensation – which frightens many Westerners – corresponds to what many Muslims call Sahwah, the Reawakening.  Actually though this power is suffering from a profound crisis which is perceived by all Muslims: the inability to adapt to the modern world, to assimilate modernity.

In fact, Islam is going through a very profound crisis.  It is a fact which is not only evident to outside observers.  There is by now no Muslim, thinker, Arab or Islamic newspaper that is not discussing this fact: Islam is facing a crisis.

There is a distinction to be made.   For radical Islamists – who are pursuing the project for a political Islam – the "blame" for the crisis falls on the West and its aggressiveness.  For some, this crisis dates back to the Crusades; for others, to recent colonization; for others, to the creation of the State of Israel; for others still, it goes only as far back as American aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In all cases, what is ailing Islam comes from outside itself, from the Other.

There is however another group, ever more numerous, which affirms that Islam's ailment is within itself.  This position is usually found among liberal personalities, intellectuals.  They too stop short of saying that the problem is right in the Koran: for them, the problem is in the interpretation made of the Koran, of Islam as a religious, political, social and cultural system.  Judging by comments that appear in the press in Islamic countries, we can say that positions of radical Islamism amount to a good 20%; liberal tendencies account for some 10 to 20%.

All agree however that the time has come for reform in Islam.


1. Islam's slumber

A recurring topic in such debates is that of "Islam's slumber".  Radicals attribute this "slumber" to four centuries of Ottoman domination, which would have curbed the religion's development.  Liberals instead affirm that this "slumber" began already in the 12th century and perhaps even earlier.  In any case, all agree that this slumber created a "closure of the opening to interpretation," the expression which literally translated from Arabic is "closure of the door of ijtihād."  In this context of reform, ijtihād is a key word.  This word shares the same root with jihād, holy war.  It expresses an effort which in jihād is oriented toward violence, to armed battle on the path of God.  Ijtihād is the moral and intellectual effort to reform; it is "interpretation".

Something that is continuously repeated in the Islamic world is that "the door has been closed to ijtihād"; little room has been left to interpretation, which has resulted in fossilization, stiffening.  It is a discussion that has been present in the Arab world since the mid 1800s.  For decades, there has been talk of "the closing of the door" to define the urgency of reform in Islam.  For many liberals of the time, including the great religious leaders such as Khair ad-Dīn Al-Tūnisi (1810-1899), from Tunisia, Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghāni (1838-1897) from Persia,  Abd al-Rahmān al-Kawākibi (1854-1902) from Syria, and, above all, Sheikh al-Azhar Muhammad 'Abdoh (1849-1905) from Egypt, reform was to be made absorbing elements of Western culture and achieving a harmonious unity between the Islamic world and the Western world.

The First World War and the fall of the Ottoman Empire then brought to the secularization of Turkey and the abolition of the Caliphate (1923-4), as well as the control of various Arab nations by the West, England and France.  All this marks the great religious-political fall of Islam which suddenly found itself divided into nations, with no caliph, no leaders, no guides.

2. Radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood

This situation of crisis gave rise to the Muslim Brotherhood which was seen as the authentic solution, in opposition to that of reformists who wanted to imitate the West.  Its founder, Hassan al-Banna (1906 – 1949), used a very simple argument: our great reformers wanted to reform Islam taking Europe as a model, and it was Europe itself which dismantled the Islamic world and deceived us.  He was supported in his reasoning by the Imam Muhammad 'Abduh's dearest disciple, Sheikh Rashid Rida, a naturalized Egyptian originally hailing from Tripoli-Syria (now Lebanon), who had pronounced a simple principle: Islam is the solution to all problems of society (al-Islām huwa al-hall); there is no need to resort to anything outside Islam.   It is enough to go back to the roots of Islam, namely to the Koran and the Tradition of the Prophet, taken literally.

In the effort to deal with the crisis, such a position does not strive to innovate, but to return to a "primitive" Islam, taking original Islam as a model.  When "original" Islam is spoken of, what is meant is the conquering Islam.  In fact, such a vision relies above all on the second phase of Mohammad's life, the Medina phase (622-632), when Islam organized itself politically; and then on the era of the first caliphs, known as "the well guided", who conquered the Middle East and the Mediterranean (632-660).  That period is seen as that of real Islam, capable of conquering the world.  The return to these origins, the reasoning goes, is what will allow Muslims to enlarge their worldwide conquests.

Since then, this tendency has become ever more radical, giving life to all those movements we call "Islamist" or "fundamentalist."

As can be seen, such an approach provides a direct solution to the crisis, skirting the need for an in-depth analysis of the reasons for the crisis.  If one asks: Why has Islam stayed behind (in science, in technology, in culture, in art, in the spread of ideas at the global level, in domination...)?  The answer is obvious: because it was attacked, thwarted, imprisoned...The Other is to blame for the crisis.

3. Liberals and the interpretation crisis

The liberal position, instead, attributes the main responsibility for crisis to the erroneous way in which Muslims have interpreted the Koran: that of having made it into a political handbook, of having projected onto the Koran the sociological and cultural conceptions typical of a certain period, the domination of male over female, the desire for violence, ignorance etc.  In the current period, liberals are speaking out against the ignorance of the people, the authoritarianism (the non-democracy) of their governments, and above all the poor training given to imams, which has, at this point, generated a popular Islam which is by the ignorant and for the ignorant.

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