Sorting Out Our Bookshelves

03/09/2015 09:05 am ET | Updated Mar 13, 2015

As Muslims, our initial and understandable response to the atrocities committed in the name of our religion is disbelief, outrage and a natural instinct to distance ourselves from their perpetrators. "These barbaric acts", "this 'Jihadi John'" -- the notorious executioner of ISIS hostages, recently identified as Londoner Mohammed Emwazi -- "have nothing to do with Islam," we exclaim. While understandable, this attitude is dubious intellectually and altogether irresponsible. Would anyone agree with the notion that the crusades had "nothing to do" with Christianity? In truth, far too many among us appear to feel more indignant about ultimately meaningless caricatures published in a newspaper than about the abominable caricature that is being made of our religion by the likes of ISIS and Boko Haram. And while social and economic issues, or mistreatment by law enforcement agencies, may play a part in the radicalization of our youths, as it seems they might have in the case of Mr. Emwazi, they fall way short from explaining it altogether.

Fortunately, an increasing number of Muslims are saying "Medina, Cairo, we have a problem" and calling for reform. But just what is meant by that term? A renovation of Islamic thought and a fresh push for the re-interpretation (ijtihâd) of sacred texts are, of course, absolutely necessary. Until they are seriously undertaken, Muslims will remain hostage to literal, obsolete readings of our sacred texts.

Freedom, equal rights for all citizens, rule of law, universal suffrage, accountability and separation of power (State and religion) are our principles as Muslims of the twenty-first century. With those principles in mind, let us recall the words of the world-renowned Pakistani scholar Muhammad Khalid Masud: "Muslim jurists in the past were quite aware of the constant need to reconcile contradictions between social and legal norms. They continuously adjusted laws to bring them in line with the customs and norms of the people. The normative basis of the institutions and concepts such as family, property, rights, responsibility, criminality, civil obedience, social order, religiosity, international relations, war, peace, and citizenship have changed significantly over the last two centuries." And then get down to work.

But interpretation alone will not be enough.

We need to take a long, hard and honest look at the texts that are part of the core curriculum of our faith's most prestigious learning centers.

The above-mentioned claim that violent acts of terror have "nothing to do with Islam" needs to be contrasted with the reverence that some of our most distinguished and respected scholars show for such books as Min Haj el Talibin by the renowned jurist consul Araf el dine el Nawawi, which recommends stoning adulterers or Es sarim el maslul ala chatim el rasul by Ibn Taymiyya, or Taqi al-Din al-Subki's Es seyf el maslul ala men sabba al rasul, which can both be translated roughly as "The sword is drawn against that one who speaks ill of the Prophet." The very precise prescriptions they contain regarding how to punish blasphemy, apostasy or adultery is the basis not just for ISIS' and Boko Haram's claim that their brand of Islam is nothing more than very rigorous, but for that of many mainstream conservative Muslim states.

To be sure, many peoples have been persecuted, enslaved or killed in the name of Christ over the centuries. Bartholomé de las Casas, in his A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, chronicled the atrocities committed against the indigenous population by the Spanish in the first decades of colonization of the West Indies, only to argue that the natives were human and therefore should not be killed or enslaved... contrary to Africans. QED. Yet since then, slowly but surely, religious reform and the values of enlightenment have enabled Christians to emancipate themselves from such practices.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the French "intellectual" Joseph de Gobineau's essay on the inequality of human races was considered "science" by many a conservative in Europe. It has since made its way to the "history" or "anthropology" shelves of libraries. It is time significant portions of classic Islamic curricula follow the same path.

More generally, isn't it time we Muslims, who rightly like to think of our Prophet as an avant-gardist, reclaim our role as modernizers of cultural and social norms?

We need to look at the way some in our communities, such as the British advocacy organization CAGE, which dealt extensively with Mr. Emwazi, are essentially encouraging our youths to think of themselves as victims, telling them that it's because of police brutality, the Jews, the U.S., Israel, poverty, or even good old "society" that he morphed into "Jihadi John."

Instead of focusing on our religion's original, universal ideals of mercy, freedom and justice, many of us have become fond of self-victimization and conspiracy theories while immersing ourselves in arguments about the right means (and garb) to achieve those ideals. Our decadence stems precisely from this confusion among so many of us between the ends and the means of Islam, from our collective failure to maintain the initial convergence between our faith and morality, the very basis of a healthy conscience: spirituality. Religion without such moral ethos is meaningless. And without meaning, it surely becomes pointless.

Isn't it time, more broadly, that we began a frank discussion about where religion ends and where culture begins? Of course, the two are intertwined, but if a Moroccan Muslim is not inferior to one from Saudi, nor superior to one from Belgium, is it not safe to assume that religion is what they have in common in their understanding and practice of Islam, while culture (clothing, relation to their respective King, etc.) constitutes the rest? Much of the conservatism associated with Islam nowadays can actually be dated to pre-Islamic Bedouin customs that our Prophet, a true innovator, fought to overthrow.

Many of the clichés and conspiracy theories popular among our youths come straight from the twisted, anti-Western worldview of many governments in the Arab world. Ours is a day and age in which three out of four Muslims are non Arab; one in which only two of the twenty-two nations of the Arab League can claim to be functioning democracies; one in which four times as many books are translated into Greek (circa 10m speakers) than into Arabic (circa 350m speakers). Shouldn't we acknowledge that the historical arabocentrism of our religion has become a liability and that non-Arab Muslims are no less legitimate and respectable than Arab ones? Those among us who would have the world believe that phallocratic "customs" such as the male guardian system, forbidding women from driving, or the imposition of the niqab are ontologically "Islamic" need to be told first and foremost by other Muslims: they simply aren't so.

Dr. Adnan Ibrahim, Professor of Philosophy at Vienna University, Imam at the al Shurah Mosque. Felix Marquardt, co-founder of the Global Forum for Islamic Reform. Mohamed Bajrafil, Doctor in Linguistics, Imam at the Mosque of Ivry-sur-Seine.