Religion calls for relocation, no need for reform

Reform, if there is any, must be in one’s attitude towards religion, not in how Islam is interpreted, understood and practiced. The shift in focus from the transcendent to the mundane, from the divine to the human and from the religious to the secular must be the basis of reform. If people continue to depend on religion for inspiration and justification.

The heinous caricature of the Prophet Muhammad led to a series of horrific terrorist attacks that resulted in beheadings in France. However, the clamor for the reform of Islam has mounted as a crisis as alleged in the religion.

French President Emmanuel Macron attributed the horrific violence to what he called the “Crisis of Islam,” a characterization borrowed from the title of a book published in 2003 in the wake of 9/11, The Crisis of Islam. Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, by the dean of Western scholarship on Islam, Bernard Lewis.

According to many, since Islam was unreformed, its anachronistic understanding has been the source of much of the bad publicity that its most zealous followers have brought to it.

The word “crisis” has sparked debate as a cross-section of Muslims including leaders such as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But surprisingly, a similar word, “danger” – as in the formulation, “Islam in danger” – has been a familiar device of politico-religious demagogy that casts Islam as besieged by a host of enemies who have conspired to destroy “true religion.”

Verses from the Koran are quoted both to accuse and absolve Islam. Defenses are mounted as to whether these are to be understood literally or metaphorically, and are to be seen in their contextual terms or their transcendental claims. Since much of the dispute revolves around the meanings of canonical literature, the Quran and the Hadiths, it is hoped that if these were given a contemporary interpretation, Islam would become more compatible with the modern world, and it would cease to provide justifications for regressive practices and violent actions.

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Religions don’t change much, and this optimism tends to forget that the words of scripture cannot be erased and overwritten. Neither the verses can be changed, nor their conventional understanding. There is a limit to the point where it can be stretched to give allegorical or contextual meanings, as to interpretation. In any case, believers have no problem either with the text or with its secular meaning. Their world is tempted to mold in accordance with the precepts of religion. For them, stretching meaning to the height of today’s world can amount to a subversive reversal of the order.

Calls for reform in Islam are fashionable but miss a crucial point.

Islam needs a “relocation”

Reform, if there is any, must be in one’s attitude towards religion, not in how Islam is interpreted, understood and practiced. The shift in focus from the transcendent to the mundane, from the divine to the human and from the religious to the secular must be the basis of reform. If people continue to depend on religion for inspiration and justification for their actions, and they do not attain the higher morality of secularism and modernity, no matter how they reinterpret their religion, they will continue to regress. In any case, when it comes to religion, the orthodox position, being of classic vintage, commands a better legitimacy.

Therefore, rather than the reformation of Islam, its relocation and reformulation may be a better ideal. Like other religions in the modern era, Islam should also be relocated to where religions belong – the private sphere. The longer a religion remains in the public sphere, the more likely it is to become politicized and radicalized.

The “danger” theory has great psychological value in that it identifies the enemy in external factors while completely ignoring internal flaws, thus avoiding the need for introspection and self-correction; while the “crisis” indicates an internal decadence, which calls for a course correction. The mere thought that something is wrong with his religion provokes a reaction of indignation. The nuance that although there is nothing wrong with a religion per se, it is wrong that many things which are not part of it pass themselves off as such, is omitted. Nuance, in any case, is rarely the hallmark of religious discourse.

Unlike Christianity, Islam did not have to suffer from prolonged persecution. It went from acquiring a chiefdom to a state to an empire with lightning speed, which made it a state ideology. Religion and ideology were then worked out into the legal structure of the empire. This has led to the unquestioned equating of religion with sharia, and sharia with law. Therefore, any reform of Islam had to go through legal channels.

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Imperialist geopolitics has not only been the axis of Muslims’ attitude towards the West, but also an alibi to deny the need for introspection and correction in their own thought and practice. Accordingly, Islamic terrorism is seen as a logical corollary to a long series of wrongs that Muslims have suffered at the hands of the West. The list includes Crusades, Colonialism, Oil Policy, Cold War, Afghanistan War and Support for Israel etc. War and the Roots of Terror. Such a rationalization of terror, while partly explanatory, misses the woods for the trees. Focusing on Western machinations in Muslim countries rather than the driving force behind acts of terror, he absolves the role of ideology in shaping a religious attitude for which violence is a rational response to conflict. It also ignores the fact that imperialist forces might weaponize an ideology, as in Afghanistan, because it already existed. They didn’t create him, they hired him. If an ideology is to be praised, its claims to truth must be dubious.

Religion, after all, is a form of worship. To say that one’s religion is a way of life makes little sense. A way of life is culture, of which religion is a constituent. However, little would change if the selfish motive of personal salvation continued to ignore public welfare. Therefore, Islam needs to be reformulated as a friendly, welfare-oriented religion that inspires its followers to benefit people here and now, rather than providing them with paradise after death. Such secularization would make people human rather than dogmatic, and compassionate rather than bigoted, Hoda says.

The question, however, is whether committing acts of terror in the name of Islam and naming terrorist groups the name of the Prophet Muhammad is blasphemy or not? How come names like Lashkar-e Taiba and Jaish-e Muhammad don’t arouse the ire of Muslims? Isn’t it because of ideological conditioning that no harm is seen if the name of the Prophet and his teachings are used to sow violence? Is it even surprising that on the flag of an important Muslim country, a sword underlies the Islamic profession of faith? Therein lies the crisis of Islam and the danger that faces it. Unless Muslims liberate Islam from politics, no redemption is possible, for “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, if we are underlings “.

(Author – Najmul Hoda is an IPS officer from Tamil Nadu and opinions are personal)

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Last updated September 15, 2021 at 1:45 PM IST

Valerie E. Frazier