The debate within British Islam
There is something happening within the UK, a debate of deep urgency. In the west, in a post9-11 climate, European and American Muslims have been thinking deeply about their faith. There has been a new generation of Muslim activists and intellectuals across the “theological spectrum.”
However, Muslims are not just passively acting in their countries within the mainstream; intellectual life, public debate and discussion are growing and budding within Muslim communities. In the US, the popular Muslim scholar, dubbed by The Guardian as the most influential Muslim scholar in the west, Sheikh Hamza Yusuf, has opened his own seminary of Islamic studies, the Zaytuna Institute, which is now branching out into Zaytuna College. It is talked about as a liberal Islamic arts institution with a fusion of rigorous Islamic scholarship and modern intellectual tools.
On Tuesday 19th October, in an event titled the ‘’Road to Reform – Facing the Challenges of Modernity,’’ two leading Muslim intellectuals, arguably on the opposite side of the theological spectrum, came together to discuss the nature, validity, purpose and even the need for Islamic reform.
Within the UK, there is a drive towards a form of neo-orthodoxy, a repackaging of the classical and traditional discourse of Islam, which finds its best supporters in figures such as Sheikh Haitham al Haddad (one of the participants in the debate). It’s an unashamed defence of traditional Islamic orthodoxy, in total opposition to European /American liberalism. The neo-orthodox project is tinged with reactionary tendencies, which is intolerant of critique.
But there are others who wish to go beyond simple repackaging and focus on the foundations of intellectual inquiry within Islam itself. This may involve questioning the foundations of fiqh, Quranic interpretation and theology, as laid out by classical authors, such as the four Imams. This expression of a reformist Islam finds its advocates who lean towards neutrality; I clearly favour Tariq Ramadan’s vision of a new conception of Islamic law and philosophy in terms of its interpretation, elaborating on a new philosophy of pluralism . The neo-orthodox are conservative. They are well educated, go to top universities, are well read in Western philosophy, but still harbour deep suspicions and fears of anything remotely critical of Islamic traditions.
Moreover, the neo-orthodox give “intellectual credibility’’ to shockingly regressive opinions and ideas. By quoting selectively from the post-modernist and communitarian (read anti-liberal) philosophers, they undermine European liberalism, but do not extend the logic of this critique to their own theology of traditionalism. The neo-orthodox reasoning is peculiar and dishonest and uses post modernism and cultural relativism (pretty much any philosophy critical of universal truth does so) to undermine European liberalism. But don’t you dare use it to undermine traditional Islamic thought!
The neo-orthodox scholars cleverly use historical analysis to show that ‘’liberalism is a European product,’’ but never apply this same rigorous use of historical analysis to add context to Islamic traditions. Indeed, there is a critical take on European history, but then a whitewashing of Muslim history, presenting it as a utopia. Curious, is it not? In this article, the author reaches a sensible conclusion:
Firstly it is a logical fallacy to take something specific and make it general.
But then why does the author commit this fallacy when dealing with the Islamic traditions, reaching the extraordinary conclusion of:
The classical position allows the Qur’an to speak for itself without reference to pre-existing assumptions;
The classical position is unbiased and represents the true meaning of the Qur’an
Hang on. Aren’t the works of classical scholars specific to their time and place? Are not the interpretations they drew from religious scripture influenced by their social and political circumstances? Were not the scholars of the past influenced by the prevalent social and political mores of their day?
This level of inconsistency in the work of the neo-orthodox is extraordinary and mind boggling.
Let’s take the issue of ijtihad.
Al Haddad presents the classical if not orthodox presentation of ijtihad:
Ijtihad is only possible when the difference on an issue is more evident, in that the opinions are voiced and argued by a considerable number of scholars. This means that scholars of later generations can research and prefer an existing opinion not invent a new one. Failure to adhere to this may lead to chaos and again implies that the truth was completely missing to the earlier generations. This of course causes no difficulty for a new matter that was not existent in the past; scholars will perform ijtihad and either agree on a ruling or differ leading to valid interpretations and positions.
Once again, the neo-orthodox are hesitant in re-evaluating or giving a critique of the Islamic tradition since for the neo-orthodox giving a critique of any authorative Muslim scholar of the past is tantamount to undermining the central truth of Islam.
Now the problem with this position is clear: assigning mere human beings infallibility just because of the antiquated value of their views is dangerous, since we prevent any form of moral, intellectual or social progress from taking place.
We are trapped in an historical bubble, glorifying the past at the expense of the future. What the neo-orthodox do in the process is to put past scholars of Islam on a pedestal (in an ahistorical bubble insulated from critique) and indeed, somehow come to the peculiar conclusion that human reason and human nature somehow devolves rather than evolve through the passage of time. Hence, we must refer back always to the traditional figures of Islam.
Alternatively, Ramadan’s conception of ijtihad lends itself to a more rigorous examination of the historical traditions of Islam (though Ramadan too suffers from his own problems particular to his new reformist scheme of Quranic interpretation):
Central to our debate is the concept of ijtihâd, which means the critical reading of the key Muslim textual sources - the Qur’an and the Prophetic traditions, known as the Sunna. Through ijtihâd we ought to be able to sustain a historically grounded approach to these sources while at the same time employing human creativity to respond to the particular problems of our age
For Ramadan, the critique of earlier Muslim scholars, philosophers and jurists is a valid and more importantly a religiously healthy activity. Ijtihad is not simply a response to unprecedented problems and events which are absent in the traditional Islamic corpus. Ijtihad becomes a guiding philosophy, and indeed an approach within itself rather than simply a dry legalistic tool in the case of al Haddad.
The issue of pluralism in religious interpretation is a crucial issue which needs to be thought deeply by both Ramadan and al Haddad in terms of how does it affect the singular universal narrative of Islam?
There is another problem between any debate between the reformists and neo-orthodox. That is the nature of critique. For the neo-orthodox, any critique aimed at the Muslim tradition just has to be ‘’Eurocentric’’, the result of a ‘’colonized mind’’. Al Haddad himself employs this tactic of smearing his opponents with these dreaded labels (which are a death blow for silencing liberal and reformist Muslims who question clerical authority):
Any person who is trying to change Islam from a western point of view, or he is living in the west or is changing Islam to fit into the western lifestyle [...] don’t believe that he is trying to find solutions for Muslims’ problems. Don’t believe that he is trying to follow certain opinions carried out by certain scholars or by certain school of thoughts. No. He is colonised or he is defeated or he is an hypocrite person.
Hence, the neo-orthodox insulate their authority over the Islamic tradition by playing the old card of cultural politics. They accuse Muslim reformists of being culturally (and when things get ugly religiously) inauthentic since any one dares point out the glaring issues of human rights and freedom of religion in the corpus of traditional Islam has to be “westernised’’.
But in contrast, the reformists like Ramadan argue that it is because of our religious faith that we must question past authorities and tradition. For Ramadan and others questioning tradition can be productive As Ebrahim Moosa argues:
Critique of tradition is not to debunk tradition, but it is rather an introspection of what for one is a continuous questioning of one’s being” (Voices of Islam: Voices of Change).
And, from the same source, fundamentally we need to:
Engage with tradition critically to constantly interrogate tradition and strive to ask productive questions.
The neo-orthodox do not ask these questions but reformists like Ramadan do.
What is promising at least is that in the West there is a free public space for the reformists to stake out their position which unfortunately is much difficult to do in traditional Muslim societies where reformists are persecuted, socially intimidated, castrated or worse.
The neo-orthodoxy though conservative in their nature and thinking is at least open to the prospect of dialogue (for the intent of converting the ‘’Other’’ not understanding, which can be dogmatic and problematic). It does fill me with a certain sense of optimism for the future of British Islam that we can at least sit down at the table of dialogue without the threat of violence and intimidation. In one way the debate between Ramadan and al Haddad is a great sign of the maturity of British Islam to be able to have this sort of deep and penetrating discussion.
But make no mistake, it would be a crying shame if British Islam abandoned or ignored the sophisticated, pluralistic reformist project of Ramadan for the conservative, traditionalist project of al Haddad. It would be a truly awesome waste.