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Islam: Reforming a Recalcitrant Religion (Part II)

What sort of reforms should Islam undertake?

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Takeaways


  • Among Muslim communities in Europe or in countries where Muslims formed a large minority, Muslims were subjected to the law of the land.
  • The ideology of the terrorists was assessed alongside Islamic orthodoxy to see if the two were intertwined. What were the roots of terror and radicalization?
  • Perhaps the Islamic Revolution in Iran introduced the rule of a church-like hierarchy, but this was the result of an epochal and revolutionary event, and an inversion of the idea of a Protestant-type reformation.

Islam does not have a church with a fossilized hierarchy at whose apex rests a supreme religious authority.

Reforming such a church has no meaning in the Islamic context.

Perhaps the Islamic Revolution in Iran introduced the rule of a church-like hierarchy, but this was the result of an epochal and revolutionary event, and an inversion of the idea of a Protestant-type reformation.

A religious hierarchy was imposed on the state when none had existed before, scarcely a reformation in the European sense. At the same time, the majority of Muslims were not living in countries governed under Sharia law, with the exception of a few self-consciously Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia and, lately, Iran.

It was difficult, therefore, to posit the reformation of Islam specifically in terms of reforming the Sharia, if its provisions were no longer applicable outside the framework of family law or personal law.

The abandonment of Sharia law had been effected, by and large, during the colonial and immediately post-colonial era. So the effect of Islam — either on the formal structures of government or on its laws — has been minimal in most of the Islamic world.

Among Muslim communities in Europe or in countries where Muslims formed a large minority, Muslims were subjected to the law of the land. In India, the large Muslim population had recourse to Sharia rulings only in matters of personal or family law.

The putative calls to reform Islam could not apply to Muslim states or to their legal systems, except in matters of personal law. Reforming Islamic personal law certainly did have implications for gender rights, but this was a special, limiting case. Islam was therefore not an obstacle for the reformation of state structures or for the introduction of new political doctrines.

The “conflict” between Islam and democracy could not arise in the context of Muslim countries whose entire political legacy was based on an authoritarianism which only used Islam to justify its rule.

Outside of the few “Islamic” states and traditional monarchies such as Morocco, Islam was not used to justify the legitimacy of the ruling groups, except through a formal and meaningless lip-service to Islam as the religion of the state in the constitutions of a number of Muslim countries.

In addition, the number of Muslims living in actual or self-proclaimed democracies reached more than a third of the entire world's population of Muslims. The issue was not therefore, reforming an Islam already in power but reforming an Islam which could come to power — a crucial difference.

The Islam that could come to power was a worrisome eventuality. The proposals for reforming Islam took on a precautionary, even preemptive character, especially when they emanated from those keen to avert a repetition of the Iranian Revolution, the spread of radical Wahhabism or the jihadi culture of al-Qaeda and its offshoots.

The ideology of the terrorists was assessed alongside Islamic orthodoxy to see if the two were intertwined. What were the roots of terror and radicalization? The last time when Islam, as a religion and as a civilization, was subjected to such intense scrutiny was in the 19th and early 20th centuries, when European imperialists were encountering widespread resistance.

The rise of totalitarian states and the Cold War relegated Islam to being a minor concern, except where its political influence coincided with the national liberation movements of the period.

However, as the dismantling of the colonial empires was a firm policy position of the United States, it was unlikely that Islam, as an enabling ideology in the anti-colonial movement, would incur the wrath of the United States.

In fact, the usefulness of Islam as a counterweight to communism was also a feature in the Cold War, although the CIA seems not to have financed Islamic movements directly or supported Islamic causes through front organizations such as the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Nevertheless, Islam became a firm ally of the West during the final years of the Cold War, when Afghan mujahidin movements, stiffened with Arab and central Asian volunteers, helped to bring the Soviet empire to an end.

But the period that followed the collapse of the Soviet bloc put paid to this indifference, and the old prejudices and concerns rose up, being backed even by allies from within the Muslim world itself.

Editors Note: This feature is an excerpt from "The Crisis of Islamic Civilization" by Ali Allawi. © Ali A. Allawi 2009. Reprinted with permission of Yale University Press.

Read Part I here.

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