Is­lam’s path to moder­nity

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

This clash be­tween the UN’s sec­u­lar hu­man-rights stan­dards and Mus­lim religious doc­trine mir­rors the broader con­flict be­tween Is­lam and moder­nity – a con­flict that has left some cit­i­zens of Mus­lim coun­tries, in­clud­ing women and non-Mus­lims, highly vul­ner­a­ble. For­tu­nately, an emerg­ing school of Mus­lim thought ad­dresses the ques­tion in a new way, em­pha­siz­ing that the Qu­ran, like any religious text, must be in­ter­preted – and that those in­ter­pre­ta­tions can change over time.

In fact, the Qu­ran does de­fend prin­ci­ples like lib­erty, im­par­tial­ity, and right­eous­ness, which in­di­cates a fun­da­men­tal re­spect for jus­tice and hu­man dig­nity. The prob­lem, as em­pha­sised by the Ira­nian the­olo­gian Mohsen Kadivar, is that many parts of sharia law are linked to pre­mod­ern so­cial struc­tures, which deny women or nonMus­lims the same pro­tec­tions as Mus­lim men re­ceive.

It does not help that, as Ge­orge Ma­son Univer­sity’s Abu­laziz Sached­ina points out, men have been the ones to in­ter­pret Is­lam’s holy texts. This, rather than those texts’ true con­tent, is the root cause of le­gal dis­crim­i­na­tion against women in Mus­lim coun­tries.

The the­olo­gian Ay­a­tol­lah Mo­ham­mad Taqi Fazel Mey­bodi points out that Is­lamic law re­gard­ing pun­ish­ment – which in­cludes bru­tal prac­tices like ston­ing and am­pu­ta­tion – orig­i­nates from the Old Tes­ta­ment. Is­lam did not in­vent th­ese pun­ish­ments; they were sim­ply the pre­vail­ing prac­tices of the time.

As so­ci­eties progress and evolve, so must the rules and stan­dards that gov­ern them. As the Ira­nian the­olo­gian Mo­ham­mad Mo­j­ta­hed Shabestari of the Univer­sity of Tehran em­pha­sises, many of the ideas as­so­ci­ated with jus­tice and hu­man rights, as we un­der­stand them to­day, were com­pletely “un-thought” in the pre-mod­ern era. But Mus­lims can­not sim­ply dis­re­gard such ideas on the grounds that hu­mans had not de­vel­oped them at the time the Qu­ran was writ­ten.

With the aban­don­ment of out­dated no­tions of tiered jus­tice and the recog­ni­tion of the lib­erty and dig­nity of all in­di­vid­u­als, Shabestari be­lieves that it will be­come pos­si­ble to re­alise the Qu­ran’s mes­sage that there should be no com­pul­sion in re­li­gion. Peo­ple’s religious de­ci­sions should be driven by their sense of faith, rather than their de­sire to re­tain their civil rights.

Ac­cord­ing to the philoso­pher Ab­dolka­rim Soroush, this dis­tinc­tion be­tween religious be­liefs and civil rights should be ob­vi­ous. But in­ter­pre­ta­tions of Is­lamic law have tra­di­tion­ally been so fo­cused on ques­tions about mankind’s var­i­ous du­ties that they have failed to recog­nise it. For Soroush, how­ever, the de­nial of hu­man rights based on “a per­son’s be­liefs or ab­sence of be­lief” is un­de­ni­ably a “crime.”

The school of Mus­lim thought pro­moted by th­ese schol­ars, who come from both Sunni and Shia back­grounds, of­fers a way for­ward for Is­lam. Its ad­her­ents know that key Is­lamic con­cepts, be­liefs, norms, and val­ues can be har­monised with mod­ern so­cial struc­tures and un­der­stand­ings of jus­tice and hu­man rights. By rec­om­mend­ing ways to do so, they are reaf­firm­ing the dura­bil­ity of the core Is­lamic tra­di­tion. To use the lan­guage of the Ger­man philoso­pher Jur­gen Haber­mas, they are cre­at­ing “sav­ing trans­la­tions,” whereby a lan­guage, con­cep­tual ap­pa­ra­tus, and so­cial sys­tem is up­dated to re­flect progress in hu­man rea­son.

Such sav­ing trans­la­tions in Is­lam have been emerg­ing for a con­sid­er­able pe­riod of time. In­deed, the late Ira­nian writer and philoso­pher Ay­a­tol­lah Hus­sein-Ali Mon­taz­eri fell out with Supreme Leader Ay­a­tol­lah Ruhol­lah Khome­ini, af­ter be­ing des­ig­nated his suc­ces­sor, over poli­cies that he be­lieved in­fringed on peo­ple’s fun­da­men­tal rights and free­doms. In de­fend­ing free­dom of speech, Mon­taz­eri re­ferred to a Qu­ranic verse stat­ing that God taught hu­mans how to ex­press them­selves. “How can God, on the one hand, teach hu­mans the abil­ity of ex­pres­sion and, on the other hand, limit it?”, he asked. The ob­vi­ous con­clu­sion, he de­clared, was that “no one should be con­demned for heresy, li­bel, or in­sult just for ex­press­ing his or her opin­ion.”

Mon­taz­eri, like to­day’s in­no­va­tive Mus­lim thinkers, chose to re­main open to al­ter­nate in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Qu­ran, rather than be­com­ing trapped by ac­cepted tra­di­tion. The sav­ing trans­la­tions that th­ese fig­ures have of­fered demon­strate that mod­ern global norms like the UDHR are not only com­pat­i­ble with Is­lam; they are deeply em­bed­ded within it. Rein­ter­pret­ing – or even aban­don­ing – an­ti­quated rules rooted in out­dated so­cial struc­tures does not amount to sub­vert­ing the word of God. On the con­trary, it proves the true depth of Is­lam’s sa­cred texts.

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