Muslims must seize the moment and push for reforms, just like Iqbal urged a century ago

New Delhi,Zafar Anjum(Scroll): Nearly a hundred year ago, the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal had given a call for reform in Islam. Today’s Muslims have to decide whether they want to move on with time or remain caught in a time warp.

Muslims must seize the moment and push for reforms

While the majority of people in the world, both Muslims and non-Muslims, strongly condemned the chilling attack on the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists in Paris, some also made a demand for reforms in Islam. Immediately after the incident, the French President Francois Hollande absolved Islam from anything to do with the ghastly incident but Marine Le Pen, the head of the French right-wing party, the National Front, thought otherwise. She demanded in an interview that Muslims will have to prove if Islam is compatible with the values of the West, that if Muslims could live peacefully within the secular societies in Europe.

There is a rising tide of this kind of questioning ‒ doubting Islam’s ability to co-exist within modern societies. The beheadings of Western nationals by the Islamic State group, the suicide bombings and shockingly murderous attacks on Western targets by Al Qaeda cadres make the case for Islam being violent ever more believable for non-Muslims.

Some might totally reject this demand for reform in Islam as an empty rhetoric ‒ plain Islamophobia couched in the form of a hollow argument, pitting Islam against the secular West, opening a new verbal front on the Christian West’s thousand-year old struggle with Islam.

Their argument would be that those who ask for reforms in Islam very conveniently forget that Islamic terrorism is also a result of the West’s colonial past ‒ this ogre has come to visit its old master, after having lived in destabilized societies under puppet regimes and undemocratic dispensations, with black masks and machine guns.

A mutation in the heart of Islam?

A critical moment

This is a critical moment in Islam’s contact with the West. Even if one discards Salman Rushdie’s diagnosis that “there is a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam”, and even if the West is simply paying a lip service to the urgency for the need for reforms in Islam for its own safety, the 1.6 billion moderate Muslims must seize upon this moment to push for reforms in their societies.

A good start will be to look back at the prescient genius of poet, politician and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal, who nearly a century ago had painstakingly advocated for the need to reinterpret the laws of Islam, and to liberate it from the moribund interpretation of 7th century Islam.

Iqbal, a barrister trained in the Western legal system, considered Islam a dynamic religion. Iqbal, better known as the spiritual father of the Pakistan, was part of the modernism movement espoused by the Muslim intellectuals in the 18th and 19th centuries who argued that Islam was compatible with science, and reason and progress ‒ a response developed to the challenge of European modernity. He, along with Shah Waliullah (1703-1762), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan (1817-1898), was one of the pioneers of this movement. Educated in India, England and Germany, Iqbal embodied the best of the East and the West. He described his vision of Islam in a series of lectures collected as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

Science and religion

In their time, Sir Syed and before him, Shah Waliullah, had argued that while science and rational thinking were very much compatible with the Quranic worldview and that the gates of Ijtihad (independent judgment and interpretation) were not eternally sealed, thus denying any possibility of re-interpretation of the Quran, Iqbal went one step further. He sought to combine the strands of Western and Islamic thought.

“During the last five hundred years, religious thought in Islam has been practically stationary,” he says in The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. “There was a time when European thought received inspiration from the world of Islam. The most remarkable phenomenon of modern history, however, is the enormous rapidity with which the world of Islam is spiritually moving towards the West. There is nothing wrong in this movement, for European culture, on its intellectual side, is only a further development of some of the most important phases of the culture of Islam.”

Iqbal held the belief that it is Islam’s dynamism that makes it a potent force, a dynamism which was now lost thanks to the narrow-minded ulemas who have ossified Islam with their obscurantist worldview. They had sowed, Iqbal made the charge, nothing but “corruption, perseverance and disruption in the name of God”.

Unlike the conservative mullahs, Iqbal did not hold the Shariah to be sacrosanct. Using ijtihad judiciously, he gave a call to revise the Shariah in the light of Quran and Sunnah.

Iqbal argued that one of the main reasons for the decline of Muslims in the last few centuries was their inability or unwillingness to subject their legal system to scrutiny. This could be achieved through ijtihad, which could help reconstructing Islamic law to needs and requirements of our times.

Challenge for each generation

Besides the obligation of ibaadat, all worldly matters were subject to change. On this, he said: “The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to reinterpret the foundational legal principles in the light of their own experience and altered conditions of modern life is, in my opinion, perfectly justified.” He argued that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.

“It seems as if the intellect of man is outgrowing its own most fundamental categories ‒ time, space and causality,” Iqbal noted. “With the advance of scientific thought even our concept of intelligibility is undergoing a change. The theory of Einstein has brought a new vision of the universe and suggests new ways of looking at the problems common to both religion and philosophy. No wonder then that the younger generation of Islam in Asia and Africa demand a fresh orientation of their faith.”

Iqbal had given this call for reform in Islam nearly 85 years ago. Today’s Muslims have to decide whether they want to move on with time or remain caught in a time warp, with very deadly consequences for the community. And yes, if the West wants to extend a serious hand of support in this effort, it better change its hegemonic attitude towards the Muslim lands. The hypocrisy of talking of reforms under the shadow of Western drones will not be lost on Muslims, especially those who have embraced a violent and virulent form of Islam.

Editor’s Note: Zafar Anjum, a Singapore-based writer and journalist, is the author of Iqbal: The Life of a Poet, Philosopher and Politician (Random House India, 2014).