Thursday, January 12, 2006

Can Islam Reform?

I won't be settling this issue today, nor will anybody else, for smart people are saying very different things.

In the January-February 2006 issue of Democratiya, Kanan Makiya, author of such books as Republic of Fear and Cruelty and Silence, expresses hope:

Islam's relation to politics -- it's [sic: its] insistence that it legislates for day to day life -- can cause problems when you try to separate it from politics (quite different from Christianity where you can start to put religion and politics into two separate boxes). However we negotiate this reformation-transition, we know it is going to be different. But that it can take place is a proposition I completely believe. It hasn't taken place this far simply because the individuals, the subjective factor able to make it take place, have not yet emerged strongly enough from within Islam.

It's not the same thing for a person like me to write from a secular point of view about these issues, and for a cleric, breaking with his own traditions, to write about these issues.

Why, then, the hope?

In Iraq today there are such clerics. Think of Sayyid Ayyad, a remarkable man in his mid-forties. who has arrived at a series of conclusions utterly from within the Shiite tradition of Islam, which accept the separation of church and state. He's on the lists, he's up for elections, he's on TV, and he's a real firebrand. He is a new kind of force speaking a new kind of language, shocking traditional Muslim audiences. He has a very high opinion, for instance, of the American constitution and the Bill of Rights.

That sounds good. Is it working?
Many more people like him need to engage in the debate, as well as people like myself. I and others like me can't break through that wall by themselves; we need help from inside the fortress of Islam. Missing, at the moment, are the clerics who will fight from within and make their argument not in the way I make my argument (from western texts, general texts of human rights or from someone like Hannah Arendt), but from within the religion itself. This is, after all, how the reformation came about. It was largely by very religious, pious men constructing arguments for human rights from within their own tradition. That this can be done in Islam I have not the slightest shadow of a doubt. The nature of scriptural texts is that they are infinitely malleable.
I don't buy the "infinitely malleable" argument about texts, and I would have thought that the fact of their being scriptural texts, especially scriptural texts within a prophetic tradition that claims to have God's specifically dictated words, makes them rather less than malleable. On the other hand, the profound significance of scripture for the practical lives of millions of individuals does mean that pressure is constantly applied to the sacred texts to ensure that they remain relevant, which does give a role to interpretation:
It is what you chose to put forward that counts. In fact, it is really quite remarkable how the growing Salafi, or Jihadi, trend of Islam rests on a tiny body of text. It represents a very small minority position within Islam. It has succeeded largely through the strength, vigour and energy of its own militancy, which it has used to capture a whole section of the tradition. That's never happened before. There is, in principle, a huge body of texts and many traditions with which to create an alternative version of Islam. I haven't a shadow of a doubt that it can be done. It just needs the men and women from within to do it.
Whether this is true or not, I think that in the modern world, small, radical groups can easily do a lot of damage based on their particular interpretation of religious texts, but positive reform of an entire religion can take a very long time. The reformation that Makiya refers to is the Protestant Reformation, which was a bloody affair and took a couple of hundred years to sort out.

But what does Spengler have to say about democratic reform in Islam? In "When even the pope has to whisper," Asia Times Online (January 10, 2006), he agrees with Ratzinger . . . uh, Benedict . . . and tells us that the pope says nope to hope:
Pope Benedict XVI has let it be known that he does not believe Islam can reform. This we learn from the transcript of a January 5 US radio interview with one of Benedict's students and friends, Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, the provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida . . . . Fessio described a private seminar on the subject of Islam last year at Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence:

["]The main presentation by . . . Father [Christian] Troll . . . was very interesting. He based it on a Pakistani Muslim scholar [named] Rashan, who was at the University of Chicago for many years, and Rashan's position was Islam can enter into dialogue with modernity, but only if it radically reinterprets the Koran, and takes the specific legislation of the Koran, like cutting off your hand if you're a thief, or being able to have four wives, or whatever, and takes the principles behind those specific pieces of legislation for the 7th century of Arabia, and now applies them, and modifies them, for a new society [in] which women are now respected for their full dignity, where democracy's important, religious freedom's important, and so on. And if Islam does that, then it will be able to enter into real dialogue and live together with other religions and other kinds of cultures.["]
As the Spartans replied to Philip of Macedon: "If." The pope, likewise, was skeptical:
["]And immediately the holy father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said, well, there's a fundamental problem with that because, he said, in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it's an eternal word. It's not Mohammed's word. It's there for eternity the way it is. There's no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism's completely different, that God has worked through his creatures . . . . And so it is not just the word of God, it's the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He's used his human creatures, and inspired them to speak his word to the world, and therefore by establishing a church in which he gives authority to his followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there's an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new

The interviewer then asked Fessio, "And so the pope is a pessimist about that changing, because it would require a radical reinterpretation of what the Koran is?" Fessio replied, "Yeah, which is it's impossible, because it's against the very nature of the Koran, as it's understood by Muslims."
I suppose that if anyone ought to know about the difficulty of reinterpreting scripture, the pope should, and this particular pope -- as Spengler points out -- happens to know quite a lot since his "comments regarding the nature of Muslim revelation are deliberate and informed, for his primary focus as a theologian has been the subject of revelation."

Who's right? Kanan Makiya or Pope Benedict XVI? Only the future will reveal.


At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it will be very difficult for Islam to reform. It is a religion of works that has always unified political power and religion. Also, it believes in the sword as key to spreading Islam. Those who might try to separate the Mosque and the State will most likely end up dead.

The Christian West started with a separation of Church and State and at least nominally believed in protecting the individual. These are not Islamic traditions. - Alan

At 1:50 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Alan, thanks for the comment. I think that you have pointed to the basic problems that Islamic reformers would face.

Jeffery Hodges


Post a Comment

<< Home