Needed: an Islamic Reformation

(This column, calling on moderate Muslims to seize the political ground from fundamentalists and jihadists, was published in  DNA edition dated November 12, 2008; barely a fortnight later, the Mumbai terror attacks unfolded…)

Venky Vembu

Politics abhors a vacuum, and the space for moderation in politics – at every level and across the world – has been pretty vacuous for a long while now. To see that space occupied, therefore, even for a fleeting moment and by the unlikeliest of agencies, gives sufficient cause for cheer.  That latest symptom of socio-political sobriety comes in the form of the endorsement last week by the Jamiat-Ulama-i-Hind of the fatwa issued by the Darul Uloom Deoband school earlier this year declaring terrorism as “unIslamic”, and its call for a redefinition of the Islamic concept of ‘jihad’ (or ‘holy war in the way of Allah’).

Centrist Islamic scholars have argued, and with particular vehemence since 9/11, that the concept of ‘jihad’ doesn’t imply a Quranic licence to plough aeroplanes into skyscrapers on ‘infidel’ territory or set off cowardly bombs in cities across India; it is, on the other hand, only an intellectual ‘call to arms’, a prescription for political action to bring about social change. That message has been twisted out of context and hijacked in recent times by fundamentalists, while the majority of Muslims were benumbed into silence by the swirl of events over which they had no control. Therefore, to see these sober ideas taken on board and endorsed by an agency like the Jamiat is an acknowledgement of the happy mainstreaming of sanity in Muslim political discourse and the unwillingness of the silent majority to stay silent any longer.  

It’s too early, of course, to christen these initiatives as the beginning of a Reformation of Islam. Yet, taken with other– and rather more bold – efforts at reframing the discourse around the world, they signal that the time for such a reformist movement has never been more propitious.

Earlier this year, for instance, Islamic scholars and religious authorities in Turkey began a theological initiative to revise the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammad – and, for that reason, considered the second most sacred text in Islam after the Quran. The Turkish scholars will review and reinterpret the Hadith through the prism of modernity and reassess their validity and authenticity, since many of the sayings attributed to the Prophet are believed to have been codified long after he died. The effort is to weed out those Hadith sayings that humiliate or are considered offensive to women. And Allah knows there’s a fair bit of that! “Your prayers are invalid if a donkey, a black dog or a woman passes in front of you,” says one.  “The best of women,” goes another, “are those that are like sheep.”

Another fortuitous set of geopolitical circumstances has rendered this a particularly propitious moment for moderate Muslims – in India and around the world – to reclaim the Voice of Islam. After eight years of a polarising presidency in the US, the election of a man whose middle name is Hussein, and who has promised to show the world a “kinder, gentler America”, has undeniably taken the sting off the hateful rhetoric about the ‘clash of civilizations’ and rendered it a little more difficult to sustain the Islamophobia of recent years. Even if some of this is unrealistically over-the-top optimism born of messianic expectations of the new leader, there is a perceptible global yearning for moderation in political discourse, to the point where even extremist Hamas leaders – and, to a lesser extent, the Iranian President – have indicated a readiness to talk peace.

It’s important for other political forces to acknowledge these efforts at reclaiming the centre, and also the “fierce urgency of now” (to invoke a line from Barack Obama’s own campaign). Today’s aspiration for peace is but a mood of the moment, which can be soured by a few random terrorist attacks. The challenge for moderate Muslims is to seize this moment and fill the political vacuum before that mood dissipates quietly into the night.

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About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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One Response to Needed: an Islamic Reformation

  1. Hariharan says:

    The opium of religion is indeed hazardous to social health~!

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