The Predicament Of Muslim Reformers

Western imported ideas did indeed bring great wealth to the Muslim world, but it was accumulated by upper-class minorities, who built cocoons of modern enclaves far away from the daily grind of the common people, whose fears were already exploited by superstitious mullahs and extremists.

| Updated: 14 October, 2022 1:53 pm IST
(TNI File Photo By Sumit Kumar)

In Bernard Lewis’ 1990 essay ‘The Roots of Muslim Rage’, he describes how Muslims in the Arab world, North Africa and Turkey were first fascinated by Western civilisation as geopolitics exposed them to it.

“At first, the Muslim response to Western civilisation was one of admiration and emulation – immense respect for the achievements of the West, and a desire to imitate and adopt them. This desire arose from a keen and growing awareness of the weakness, poverty and backwardness of the Islamic world as compared with the advancing West.

“The disparity first became apparent on the battlefield but soon spread to other areas of human activity. Muslim writers observed and described the wealth and power of the West, its science and technology, its manufactures, and its forms of government.

“For a time, the secret of Western success was seen to lie in two achievements: economic advancement, especially industry; and political institutions, especially freedom. Several generations of reformers and modernisers tried to adapt these and introduce them to their own countries, in the hope that they would thereby be able to achieve equality with the West and perhaps restore their lost superiority.”

But then he goes on to elaborate, Islam, like other religions, has also known periods of “moods” of hatred and violence. He attributes these “moods”, changing from admiration and emulation to hostility and rejection of Western ideas, in part to a feeling of humiliation. The humiliation was a growing awareness in the Muslim world and the new millennium generation of having been overtaken, overborne and overwhelmed by the partial believers of the West, whom they regarded as inferiors.

To the heirs of an old, proud, and long-dominating civilisation, it was an unacceptable reality that culminated in a rage. The two World Wars were seen as suicidal and brought untold destruction to their own and other people. So, the Western ideas and those which Muslim reformers and modernisers tried to bring into their own societies, flavoured locally, were seen as corruptible and discredited. Of course, most of the discrediting was done by the ever-waiting-to-rise ulema, or Muslim Brotherhood or Taliban or Caliphate-dreaming belligerents.

To paraphrase Bernard Lewis, Western imported ideas or the introduction of Western commercial, financial, and industrial methods did indeed bring great wealth to the Muslim world, but it was accumulated and shared in those upper-class minorities who were Westernised, who built cocoons of modern enclaves far away from the daily grind of the common people, whose fears were already exploited by superstitious mullahs and extremists.

It didn’t take much to convince the masses that these reformers were agents and collaborators (the ever-present label of Sarkari Musalmaan) of those Western ideals and people representing their way of life. For vast numbers of Middle Easterners, Western-style economic methods brought poverty and Western-style political institutions brought tyranny, many times by puppet regimes installed by the West’s imperialistic and military-industrial complex. Western-style warfare also brought defeat.

So, with leaders like Osama bin Laden of al-Qaeda stepping in and telling them that the old Islamic ways were the best and that their salvation was in overthrowing/undermining pagan innovations of reformers, the West-collaborating mukhbirs were taken in and believed by the disgruntled Muslim world.

This is ironic too, in the sense that if we look at those Muslim reformers, they preferred working within the ambit of Islam with a few exceptions, never giving up on the dream of domination, lost glory, or a utopia where Muslims would live under the “God-ordained” Sharia laws based on the ulema-compiled Hadiths, centuries later by male clergy with influence among the Abbasids determined to hold onto power.

Pick up any site or list mentioning Muslim reformers and we come up with Jamal Al-Din Al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, Shaykh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, Muhammad Iqbal, Ayatollah Khomeini – a hair-raising list for a subcontinental citizen who saw his civilizational state of Bharat getting partitioned alongside the bloodiest mass migration in history.

Every single one of the above-mentioned is problematic, for their approach may seem towards reforming or modernising Islam; they certainly were speaking, and writing about things that were new to the ears of the Musalmaan, but the overall objective was always the goal of a Darul Islam converting the Darul Harb.

The recently deceased Muslim Brotherhood Spiritual Leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, defended his support of suicide bombings and called the Holocaust divine punishment. There have been reams written about how the anti-Semitic Qaradawi made Islamic jurisprudence accessible to contemporary Muslim lives, how the Islamist always spoke the truth and how the late cleric’s legacy matters (emphasising his teachings were “vilified”). But for those living in terror of the Muslim Brotherhood, privy to their machinations of Western politics, demonisation of Hindus, and defence of attacks against Jews, it doesn’t make sense to include him in the list of reformers.

Ayatollah Khomeini is another highly controversial figure, whose notorious “green book” justifies paedophilia and whose regime since 1979 has wreaked havoc on the once proud Persians, as can be seen in the brave revolution that has been ignited across Iran by women protesting the compulsory hijab and demanding the regime fall towards a more democratic, liberal Iran, not a West-hating Islamic one.

Khomeini’s thirty-year-old fatwa against Salman Rushdie did not lose steam after his death; the writer stabbed at a New York City event by a Muslim man who was not even born when the Satanic Verses was published is proof of that. Khomeini certainly did bat for the “Necessity of an Islamic Government” and anyone opposing that would be a visitor to the infamous Evin Prison where guards assaulted women so that they would not die as virgins.

Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi is what we Indians attribute the “idea of Pakistan” long before it was even constructed by the British, giving in to the demands of the Muslim League, taking direct inspiration from him for their Two-Nation Theory (that Hindus and Muslims cannot live together, being of two ‘nations’).

Sir Muhammad Iqbal, with his knighthood, masked the divisive theory in poetry and waxed eloquent in “mushairas” poetry sessions across the borders of India and Pakistan, especially amidst the Indian Left-Liberals of Muslim heritage and useful idiots of Hindu heritage.

Towering over them is Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, who was vilified by the Islamic fundamentalists for Westernising the Musalmaan in his time. Turns out, though attempting to reform the Muslim populace by pushing them towards a scientific, modern English education, he didn’t have much love lost for the indigenous Hindu population – victims of a Muslim conquest since the 13th century.

There have been genuine modernisers or reformers of Islam – Dr Amina Wadud, American Muslim theologian, Fatima Mernissi from Morocco, Nawal el Sadawi from Egypt, Hamid Dalwai, founder of the Indian Secular Society from Maharashtra, India, Fazlur Rahman Malik, born in the Hazara district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, British India, now Pakistan. Putting them in the same courses as the others, however, raises concerns among those calling for reform in Muslim laws, Muslim attitudes, behavior, and beliefs.

It begs the question: does Muslim reform or modernisation of Islam mean simply going back to the basics or fundamentals of Islam or revisionism of the holy texts, traditions and sayings that comprise the philosophy, theology and belief system of Muslims? As Dr Anand Ranganathan, Associate Professor, Department of Molecular Medicine at JNU, in his Swarajya article, asks, “Why spare the fundamentals but snare the fundamentalists”, meaning going back to those fundamentals means acknowledging the separatist, exclusionist and tribal identity politics of political Islam and hence no space for manoeuvring for reform.



Arshia Malik is a Delhi-based writer, blogger and social commentator
Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author’s own

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