Can Islam Be Reformed?

02/11/2015 07:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2015

The many problems that Muslim masses and Islamic countries have been grappling with, coupled with the terrorism perpetrated by radical Sunni Muslims, have given rise to the idea that Islam as a religion cannot be reformed, and that Islam's basic tenet is problematic. Islamophobia is so prevalent that even Patricia Crone, a Professor at Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Michael Cook, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, end their book, Hagarism, the Making of the Islamic World, with the following:

"There are no Parallels in Islam to the emotive potentialities which make it possible to find in Marxism a secularization of messianic Judaism and in Freudianism a secularization of Protestant Christianity; The only obverse to the gravitas of the Muslims is the giggling of their womenfolk. But the compensation is very real, and has meaning for the everyday lives of ordinary men. The public order of Islamic society collapsed long ago; but the take-over of family life by slave-girls was by no means as far-reaching as the takeover of public life by mamluks. The sanctity which had fled the public domain thus found security in its private refuge: the Muslim mosque points across the desert to Mecca, but the Muslim house contains its qibla [the point toward which Muslims say their prayers] within itself. It is perhaps the last residue of the Islamic conquests that the Muslims can at least be at home in their own homes." [pp. 147-148].

Elsewhere, I have argued that their claim about Islam and secularism is completely baseless. In addition, reducing Islam to giggling of women is unjustified, both ethically and scientifically.

The claim about Islam not being reformable is also false for the following reasons:

First, there is no a-priori reason to prove that Islam cannot be reformed. The only way one might attempt to prove this is by claiming that Islam's essence cannot be reformed. But, that would be false, because no religion or ideology has an essence, at least the way it was defined by Aristotle.

Second, there is also no a-posteriori reason to believe that Islam cannot be reformed, because history shows that religions have changed and been reformed throughout time. We must also keep in mind that human beings are the architects of the social world, and make everything in it, from money and family, to race, nations, and beauty. From a social science view point, then, all religions are social constructions, which have evolved and reformed in accord with social developments.

Those who believe that Islam cannot be reformed presumably point to Islamic jurisprudence and teachings as the necessary or sufficient condition for the religion and being a Muslim, claiming that without believing in their original forms - if they are reformed and changed - Islam as a religion cannot exist. Based on some of the most important teachings by the Holy Quran, I argue that the claim is false.

Even if we assume that, (a) all the philosophers believe that natural terms, such as mountain, rock, and ocean possess an essence; (b) identifying the essence is one of a-posteriori affairs, and (c) when it comes to socially-constructed concepts, one must accept a minimal essentialism, then we must also accept that all the characteristics of a phenomenon (including concepts) are accidental and undergo radical changes.

How can anyone claim that Islam's jurisprudence and social rulings, 99 percent of which were developed before Islam and, with some changes, were only ratified by Prophet Muhammad, constitute the essence of Islam? Even according to minimal essentialism, the only special characteristic of a phenomenon is that it has a self-identity. When Muhammad was chosen by God to be His Prophet, he first lived in Mecca and nothing of the Islamic jurisprudence existed during that period. It was only after the Prophet moved to Medina that the existing rulings were gradually ratified by him, so that people's lives could be put in order according to the traditions of that era's thinkers and wise men.

The entire language, including the essential and accidental concepts, is human's invention. Developing such concepts is, of course, constrained by rational and metaphysical limitations. But, such notable thinkers as the American philosophers Nelson Goodman and Richard Rorty, British philosopher of religion Don Cupitt, and others consider the social world a product of language, and social scientists analyze the making and developments of all social organs, including religion.

The Abrahamic Religions

Prophet Muhammad always emphasized that Islam is the continuation of Judaism and Christianity. Consider the following three verses from the Quran:

"The One Who has sent down the [Holy] Book to you [O, Messenger] based on the truth, confirming what came before it; and He has sent down the Taurat [the Old Testament] and the Injil [the Bible] aforetime, a Guidance for the people" [al-Imran: 3].

"And following those Messengers We sent Issa [Christ], son of Maryam [virgin Mary], confirmer of the Taurat that had come before him; and we gave him the Injil in which were Guidance and Light and confirming of the Taurat that had come before it, and it was a guidance and admonition for the pious" [al-Maidah: 46].

"[O, Muslims!] Say: 'We believe in Allah and that which has been sent down to us and that which has been sent down to Ibrahim [Abraham], Ismail [Ishmael], Ishaq [Issac], Ya'qub [Jacob], and twelve grandsons of Ya'qub and that which has been sent to Mussa [Moses] and to Issa, and that which has been given o the Messengers, from their Creator and Nurturer; and we [due to our belief in their prophecy] consider no separation between any of them, and we submit ourselves to Allah" [al-Baqarah: 136].

Ninety nine percent of Islam's jurisprudence and social rulings either belong to Judaism, or had been developed before Islam in the Arabian Peninsula and with some changed were confirmed and ratified by Prophet Muhammad. Consider the following three examples:

Capital retribution for murder was in the Old Testament, which God in Surah al-Maideh [verse 45] states explicitly that He ordered the Israelites to follow. With some changes - advising people to forgive the murderer - this entered Islamic teachings as well.

In the Old Testament the punishment for apostasy is very harsh. This was also accepted by Islam, except that the Quran sets no punishment for it in this world, and only promises it after death.

Stoning as punishment for many sins has its roots in the Old Testament. But, Prophet Muhammad and the Quran did not make it part of Islam. Islamic clerics have borrowed stoning from the Old Testament, but only for adultery committed by married men and women, although it does not exist in the Quran, which states,

"And if your wife is guilty of adultery, take the evidence of four witnesses against her from among yourselves; and if they bear witness [to the fact], confine her to stay at home, till death takes her away of Allah makes some other way for her [by some other decree]. And the two bachelors [man and woman] among you, who have committed adultery, chastise them both; if they repent and amend, then leave them alone. Verily, Allah is the Merciful Repentance-Acceptor" [al-Nissaa: 15 & 16].

In fact, this was a temporary punishment, but the Quran promised an easier way for addressing such sins. The only verse that came after the above two states,

"The adulteress and the adulterer should be flogged each with one hundred lashes: Do not be tender-hearted in executing Allah's Words of Decrees, if you believe in Allah and the Day of Judgment; and a group of the believers should witness the scene of their punishment' [an-Nur: 2].

Thus, the previous punishment - life-time house arrest - is abrogated in favor of another punishment. This is confirmed by the following, immediately after the above:

"The adulterer should not marry but the adulteress or an idolater; and an adulteress should not marry but adulterer on an idolater only; and it is forbidden to the believers except this' [an-Nur: 3].

If the punishment for an adulteress were stoning, the Quran would not state how she could marry again.

The Quran's firmest ruling

Punishment for usury was originally in the Old Testament that was ratified by Islam. The New Testament states that,

"If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not treat it like a business deal; charge no interest" [Exodus 22:25].

"Do not take interest or any profit from them, but fear your God, so that they may continue to live among you. You must not lend them money at interest or sell them food at a profit" [Leviticus 25: 36-37].

The Old Testament states that some Jews did not follow this order, and were reprimanded severely. They had even enslaved Jewish children and had sold them, and took interest for the loans that they had provided. So, their prophet told them,

"So I continued, "What you are doing is not right. Shouldn't you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! 11 Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them--one percent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil" [Nehemia 5: 9-11]

The Quran emphasizes that,

First, this was part of Judaism.

Second, even though God had forbidden taking usury, some Jews were still doing it [al-Nissaa: 161].

Thus, prohibiting usury is one of the ratified rulings of Islam that was originally in Judaism, about which there are eight verses in the Quran. In particular,

"O, you who believe! Fear from the disobedience of Allah's Command and give up what remains [due to you] from usury, if you are believers. If you do not give up, then you have involved yourself in a war against Allah and His Messenger; but if you repent, you shall have your capital; neither you deal unjustly [with others] and nor will you be dealt with unjustly" [al-Baqarah: 278 & 279].

There is no ruling or teaching in the Quran with such fiery esteem and firmness. Taking usury was declared waging war against God and the Prophet. Even religious scholars set death as the punishment for taking usury. Yet, despite this, the issue of the punishment has been resolved by Muslims. How? One simple way of looking at it is through a Marxist analysis. In his book, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Carl Marx stated, "At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms - with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure."

In other words, if an ethical or a legal order comes into conflict with the collective lives of human beings, it will either be abolished naturally (such as slavery and racism), or will adjust itself with the social developments (such as the developments in women's rights that have been influenced by the feminist movement). Thus, the growth of human's knowledge also changes the legal orders.

Islamic scholars in Iran used "religiously-legal cunning" to solve this problem and open the way for taking usury and interest on loans. During the Qajar Dynasty (1785-1925) the government took loans from Russia and Britain with interest, and then used it within Iran and received higher interests for it. All the banks in Islamic countries, including Iran, pay interest to account holders, and also receive interests for the loans that they provide. The interest that the Iranian banks pay is often much higher those in the West.

The Quran's view of wicked acts

Consider the most ethical order of the Quran, which says that the true followers of the Prophet are those that are "kind and compassionate to each other" [al-Fath: 29]. Thus, one must avoid being suspicious about others and ask about their private lives. The Quran considers them wicked:

"O, you who believe! Avoid much suspicion since in some cases suspicion is a sin; and do not be inquisitive about other people's life and do not backbite about one another; is there any one of you who would like to eat from the flesh of his dead brother? You would surely hate it, so fear from the disobedience of Allah's Commands; verily, Allah is the Merciful Repentance-Acceptor [you can repent if you have done any of these wrong deeds" [al-Hujurat: 12].

This important ethical order belongs to the pre-nation/state era; that is, the era of Ummah [Muslim masses] and community. After Islamic nations were formed, and national boundaries were set, Muslim nations began competing with one another. The Ottoman Empire and the Safavid Empire in Iran fought with each other for years and killed a large number of Muslims. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed during the eight year war between Iran and Iraq.

Moreover, with the formation of national governments and political parties and groups backbiting by Muslims against other Muslims became a political, and perhaps even moral, necessity, because it is done even in the most advanced democracies. Recall that Senator John McCain's threatened during the Presidential campaign of 2008 that he will release a video of President Obama having lunch with a "terrorist." Likewise, Muslims do not follow the Quran's order regarding suspicion and backbiting. The supposedly Islamic states have formed intelligence agencies that pry on the most private aspects of their citizens' lives, just as the United States government does under the guise of protecting national security.

Such examples demonstrate that social development and the modernization process have also made fundamental changes and ethical and religious orders.

Muslim Poets and the Quran

The poetic style of the Quran prompted some of the non-believers to view Prophet Muhammad as poet. But, the Quran separated his prophecy from poems,

"We have not taught the Messenger writing poetry, nor it is meant for him: This is but a reminder and an expository material of the Divine Text" [Ya.Sin: 69].

With one exception, the general ruling of the Quran against poets and poetry continued:

"And as for the [disbelieving] poets, the erring are their followers. Have you not seen that how they wander in every valley of thought? And they say what they do not do. Save those poets who believe and do good deeds and celebrate Allah's attribute frequently; and defend themselves after being oppressed, and the oppressors, shall surely know to what returning place they will return" [ash-Shu'araa: 224-227].

The exceptions cannot be so numerous that neutralizes the original rule. With some exceptions, the Quran rejects poetry. And, the exceptions are for the people who not only are believers, but also "do good deeds and celebrate" God.

Yet, poetry developed rapidly in the Islamic world, and Muslim poets transformed the Quran's exceptions to a general rule. Much of their poetry is widely read and recited, and is devoid of the characteristics that the Quran mentions, namely, deep faith, doing good deeds, and celebrating God's attributes. Thus, Muslims have changed the negative view of the Quran about poetry to a positive, hence demonstrating another facet of reform in Islam. In fact, very few Muslims consider poems and poetry against the Quran.

New reform

Throughout history Islam has changed with social developments, and will continue doing so. Violence by radical Islamic terrorists, on the one hand, and Islamophobia advocated by some in Western think tanks and media (see, for example, here and here), on the other hand, have forced Muslim scholars to declare that Islam is not a religion of violence. The deeds of the terrorists and the "Islamophobia industry" will accelerate the development of an Islamic anti-violence movement, will demonstrate that Islam can be reformed, and will make the Quran's voice as a voice of blessing louder and clearer.

The Quran is not neutral. It is a text with multiple voices. The conservative traditionalists, the fundamentalists/Salafists, and the modernists have raised different voices of the Quran and presented different Islam. Not all of them are justified. Each of them must prove that it has hermeneutic legitimacy, if it is to be accepted by Muslim masses.

This article was translated by Ali N. Babaei.