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CAN ISLAM BE A FORCE FOR GOOD IN THE MODERN WORLD?


(Fuller text of a speech given at the Athenaeum, Liverpool, June 11th 2014)

To many people the answer is a simple “No”. After all, we are constantly being reminded of Islam in so many negative ways. Put aside for a moment any fears about violence and terrorism, because the fact is that the vast majority of Muslims sympathise with and share such concerns. Put aside for a moment the constant media linking of Islam the faith, and the behaviour of people who happen to be Muslim. The likes of the Daily Mail, for example, will happily remind its readership of the religion of certain sex offenders, happily ignoring the religion, colour, and race of most of the convicted sex offenders who occupy Her Majesty’s prisons. Sadly Muslims have become accustomed to such negative stereotyping but recent events have plumbed new depths. Now we find that even halal food is discussed in negative terms. It is no surprise to many Muslims that their rights are regarded as less important than those of animals but it is nevertheless galling to note that Jewish knives seem to be regarded as somehow more animal-friendly than Muslim ones. Hijab/niqab debates occur almost weekly, and the recent “Trojan hoax” saga has just applied the icing on a very bitter cake. So Muslims can rest assured that it is only their beliefs, behaviour, appearance, food and education which are viewed negatively.

Those who maintain that Islam cannot be a force for good, however, do not form a homogeneous group. At one end of the spectrum there are those whose views are no more than racism, impure and simple. They witness what they perceive as the demise of a once great nation and attribute it all to foreign influence, perhaps reminding us in some gloriously irrational instances of the Monty Python sketch “what did the Romans ever do for us?” And often, in identifying Islam as the most detrimental alien influence, they are simply continuing a thread of western tradition which has always viewed Islam as the illegitimate “other” standing in stark opposition to the forces of righteousness exemplified by Christianity (although Judaeo-Christian is currently the term in vogue, as if this has always been a happy marriage). Fortunately this group does not appear to form the majority, although worryingly their numbers may be on the rise.

Moving away from that end of the spectrum there is perhaps a more sizeable and significant group consisting of those who are understandably wary of extremism and its consequences. These are natural concerns for anyone, but perhaps particularly for those whose fears can be readily stoked and fanned in an increasingly precarious world; those who experience a disempowering uncertainty whichever way they turn. The undermining of the nuclear family, the disintegration of neighbourhoods, limited job opportunities and the increasing need to be willing to move away from one’s locality, are posing challenges to their way of life, and a seemingly strident world faith that is depicted as uprooting the very values with which they are familiar, is deemed a challenge too far.

This group’s concerns need to be addressed, not least because they are often shared by others towards the more liberal end of the spectrum who have some sympathy with Muslims but take the view that the type of Islam currently being practised by many of them leaves much to be desired, and can on occasion be detrimental. Such views have a validity that cannot be ignored, particularly when an increasing number of Muslims themselves are beginning to recognise that in certain manifestations the practice of Islam does not appear to constitute a force for good. Not when it relies solely on outdated and literal interpretations of the Quran. Not when it purports to follow a “shariah” that is arguably not fit for purpose in modern societies with barbaric punishments from a bygone era. Not when it betrays a confusion between religious principle and imported cultural custom, often leading to a shameful disregard for women and their rights. And not when it defines the only worthwhile knowledge as being just religious knowledge.

Yet such an approach to the faith is not endorsed by the Quran. The holy book of the Muslims is of fundamental importance as it is intended not only for their benefit but is described as a blessing for mankind. It contains the guidance required to live a faithful life in accordance with the will of the Almighty. It is regarded by Muslims as being safeguarded by the Almighty in keeping with His promise in the Quran to guarantee that it remains uncorrupted for eternity. The problems, however, arise when Muslims mistakenly treat the interpretations of the Quran as being eternal. The interpretations of the verses of the book have taken place at different times in history in different social and political circumstances and no matter how eminent the interpreting scholar may have been, his work was always going to be a human, and therefore necessarily limited, effort. This fact has been lost on many Muslims who are all too ready to look back to interpretations that were made for societies with different needs to our own. They are paradoxically eager to emphasise that there is much of scientific import in the Quran, yet fail to appreciate that logically they can only come to that conclusion by looking at the Quran through the lens of modern knowledge.


They also fail to appreciate the significance of the Quran being revealed in Arabic. This is a complex yet beautiful language in which words have multiple meanings. Each generation therefore has the opportunity to constantly revisit interpretations to ensure that they still remain applicable for their societies whilst remaining faithful to the “Divine objectives” of the message. So, to take one notorious example, we are all familiar with the “shariah” punishment for theft according to 5:38 in the Quran, namely cutting off the thieves’ hands. This appears barbaric in this day and age and Muslims struggle to justify it if they insist on a literal interpretation based solely on one particular translation of the word yad meaning “hand”. Yet the Quran itself reminds us of how it conveys its message through the use of metaphors, so is it feasible that there is a figurative meaning for yad which better fits the subject at hand and is in accordance with other verses of the Quran?

It should be noted that in this particular verse it is the plural “hands” which is used and the relevant Arabic plural is aydee. When we consider how this word is used in other verses of the Quran we find that in 5:64 and 38:45 for example, it is understood figuratively to mean power, resources or wealth.  Now Lord knows there was plenty of smiting going on in medieval times and cutting off the hands of thieves would not have caused undue concern, but nowadays is it not at the very least possible, that in a modern developed society a more appropriate translation of 5:38 may be to “cut off” the thief’s resources or wealth. In other words the thief should be punished for dishonestly acquiring the property of others, by being deprived of his own property. And in 21st century Britain, for example, could this not include the hardly radical sanction of imposing a fine? This would fulfil the Divine objective of seeking to prevent theft, it would be a punishment commensurate with the crime and it would be entirely consistent with the needs of modern society. Also it might make more sense when considered in conjunction with the following verse, namely 5:39 which leaves open God’s forgiveness for the thief who sees the error of his ways and sincerely repents, a forgiveness which may count for less if he has a hand missing!

This leads us to a discussion of the shariah itself, one of many much misunderstood concepts in Islam. It is regularly portrayed as a fixed body of rules which the Muslim has to unquestioningly follow; a system which incorporates corporal and capital punishments from centuries ago and, so the argument proceeds, can have no place in modern developed societies. The actual word “shariah” is literally translated as the “way” or “path”, and it is  this meaning that is, in fact, used in the Quran. It therefore denotes a means rather than an end in itself, useful to recall when considering the word in its customary usage as a body of law. It should be noted at this point that according to Islam our purpose in life is to purify our hearts in order to achieve nearness to God. Shariah as a legal system, therefore, is a construct which should ideally assist us towards this end.

In its strictly legal context, however, some clarity is provided by the scholar Khaled Abou El Fadl who says, “What is customarily referred to as Islamic law is actually separated into two distinct categories: Sharia and fiqh. Sharia is the eternal, immutable, and unchanging law, or Way of truth and justice, as it exists in the mind of God. In essence, Sharia is the ideal law as it ought to be in the Divine realm, and as such it is by definition unknown to human beings on this earth. Thus human beings must strive and struggle to realize Sharia law to the best of their abilities. In contrast, fiqh is the human law-it is the human attempt to reach and fulfill the eternal law as it exists in God's mind. Fiqh, unlike Sharia, is not eternal, immutable, or unchanging. By definition, fiqh is human and therefore, subject to error, alterable, and contingent”. When “fiqh” is confused for “shariah” we can begin to see how limited human efforts are elevated to a status which they do not merit, and which can cause difficulties when applied to societies for which they are not suited.

Such difficulties are not inevitable, however, and there is no reason to think that the Islamic legal system cannot be a force for good as long as the approach taken in order to arrive at the relevant jurisprudence is one which takes into account the Divine objectives, is alive to the possibility of alternative interpretations of the Quran, is fully aware of the needs of its society and is up to speed with the latest developments within that society. Clearly in many so-called Islamic countries, there is much work yet to be done.

Another area in which many take the view that Islam cannot be a force for good, is in its treatment of women. This subject is explored at greater length elsewhere (on this site) but for present purposes one particular example will be used to suggest that although many Muslims’ treatment of women leaves much to be desired, this ought not to be attributed to the religion which God revealed to them. Verse 2-241 in the Quran states “For divorced women, maintenance shall be provided on a reasonable scale. This is a duty on the righteous”. When one considers the social circumstances prevailing at the time of this revelation, its import is truly staggering. In 7th century Arabia when female babies were victims of infanticide, when women were bought and sold as chattels, here was a new revelation stipulating that not only did they have a right to divorce, but furthermore they had a right to reasonable maintenance following on from it. To appreciate the significance of this fully we need only bring to mind exactly when it was that “reasonable maintenance” became a feature of legal systems in the modern developed world.

It is suggested that the following Divine objective can be gleaned from this verse, (and, in fact, other Quranic verses on the topic of women), namely that God was indicating that the treatment of women in that society had been proceeding along a wholly erroneous track, but in order to move it to where it should be required a revelation which was momentous in its effect, making a duty out of something which had been hitherto unheard of. That is what this verse has sought to do. The sad fact is that it is not God who thereafter constructs the relevant jurisprudence, but flawed (usually male) human beings who, through various means and with varying intentions, do their utmost to deprive women of the rights accorded to them by their faith. If one is clear about the Divine intention or objective, is fully aware of the needs of society and familiar with the developments in that society, then there is no reason at all why a body of law cannot be developed which is Islamic but because of this, rather than despite it, is progressive in its outlook towards women, and can properly be regarded as a force for good.

Divorce is permitted in Islam but rather than the three summary declarations which some Muslim cultures have now developed, we find that if one looks at all the verses on the topic in the Quran, what one discovers is, in fact, an ordered and just approach to an issue which can understandably be clouded by intransigence and emotion. We find that the very foundation of marriage is described as being in order to put “love and mercy in your hearts”. It is accepted, however, that on occasion marriages can experience problems. What is suggested, therefore, is a process beginning with patience, for it may be that there is something good in what we initially perceive as bad. At this very first stage we can ask ourselves to what extent patience is a feature of modern day marriages. Thereafter a course is described to attempt to arrest the decline of a marriage and it includes admonishing, refusing to share a bed, separating, appointing arbiters from each of the two sides, and finally divorcing but even then in stages, thereby allowing scope for a reconciliation. We have here the foundations of a just approach to divorce which sadly is neglected by too many Muslims themselves, who, rather than build their jurisprudence along Quranic lines, have all too readily built it upon patriarchy and prevailing cultural norms.

So what is it that Islam needs? A reformation perhaps? The very term “reformation” is somewhat problematic itself as it conjures up images of a specific historical event which took place in different social and political circumstances. Also it implies that it is a one-off occurrence which will solve any problems, when quite clearly the message of the Quran is that it is constant effort that is required. This means a constant effort to interpret scripture, a constant effort to analyse our society and its requirements, and a constant effort to remain informed as to the latest developments in knowledge and thinking so that any “shariah” or path that is implemented is for the common good and in keeping with the society to which it applies. It is stated clearly in the Quran that God does not change the condition of a people unless they change what is in their own hearts. This is a resounding  declaration of the principle of free will and personal responsibility. The onus is on Muslims, therefore, to initiate the positive change which their communities require and which in turn requires an infrastructure of support involving education, political stability and a degree of material prosperity. And it should not mean a return to some mythical era of perfection, but rather a vigilant and informed, albeit courageous, step into the future.

Many in the modern world seem to have had enough of soulless materialist consumerism and are crying out for some spiritual sustenance. Many perceive an absence of an ethical imperative in our politics, our financial systems and increasingly in our communities but struggle to find any obvious solution. Many feel the need for values in an increasingly valueless environment but cannot see any cohesive system that provides them. Yet contrast this current position with that over a hundred years ago when the Egyptian Islamic scholar Muhammad Abduh visited England. Upon his return to Egypt he remarked that “There I saw Islam but no Muslims; here I see Muslims but no Islam”. He had witnessed a respect for the rule of law, life, property and beliefs, a tolerance of difference and an integrity in people’s conduct which he saw missing in his own country, and yet which he regarded as “Islamic” values (take note Mr Gove).  It is my heartfelt view that a return to that essence of the faith with a dynamic, forward looking, thoughtful Islam can fill the spiritual and ethical void, and prove to be a force for good in modern society.

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