Islam's Modernist Solution

"Islam's problem is less its being anti-modern than that its process of modernization has hardly begun. Muslims can modernize their religion, but that requires major changes: Out go waging jihad to impose Muslim rule, second-class citizenship for non-Muslims, and death sentences for blasphemy or apostasy. In come individual freedoms, civil rights, political participation, popular sovereignty, equality before the law, and representative elections." writes Daniel Pipes in A Democratic Islam?

But how? How can such a move be carried out in a theologically legitimate way? Is Koran not the literal word of God, and therefore static and eternal, and applicable for all time and places without modification?

Centuries of Koranic interpretations would have us believe so, but Daniel Pipes believes that a potential for re-interpretation is there. In fact, he believes that prototypes of such a model have already been present for quite some time. An example he is very fond of quoting is that of the Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammad Taha. Taha was aware of Islam's incompatibility with modern morality with its emphasis on universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy. The solution he came up with was to maintain a distinction between the Meccan verses and the Medinan verses of Koran. The Meccan verses deal with the metaphysical and mystical aspects of faith, while Medinan verses are much more political and legal in nature; it is the latter on which much of Sharia is based. Taha believes that Meccan verses reveal to us the ideal and true essence of Islam, while Medinan verses merely refer to the historical applicability of that essence to the society as it existed in Prophet's time and place. Therefore, it is only the general principles elaborated in the Meccan verses that are to be followed, while the rest have to be reconstructed according to the needs of the time. Through one master stroke of revisionist interpretation, Taha divorces Sharia from Islam.

Daniel Pipes explains it briefly in an article:
"Taha built his interpretation on the conventional division of the Koran into two. The initial verses came down when Muhammad was a powerless prophet living in Mecca, and tend to be cosmological. Later verses came down when Muhammad was the ruler of Medina, and include many specific rulings. These commands eventually served as the basis for the Shari'a, or Islamic law.

Taha argued that specific Koranic rulings applied only to Medina, not to other times and places. He hoped modern-day Muslims would set these aside and live by the general principles delivered at Mecca. Were Taha's ideas accepted, most of the Shari'a would disappear, including outdated provisions concerning warfare, theft, and women. Muslims could then more readily modernize."

However, unfortunately, as can be expected, Taha did not fare very well by espousing such radical views. He was executed in 1985 by President Jaafar al-Nimeiri of Sudan on the charge of apostasy.

The only way this, or a similar solution, can work is if Muslims are willing to do so. As Pipes astutely remarks "Islam can be whatever Muslims wish to make of it." The possibility of a modernist reform is there; templates and prototypes exist. The only question for Muslims is: Are you up for it?

[h/t: Umair Waheed Qazi]


Anonymous said…
Mr. Pipes has not really defined what he means by modernity. Secondly, his argument is assuming that modernity is a better solution to the other, which I suppose is antiquity, in the dualistic framework within his mind. This assumption is very dangerous one. Just one example: since antiquity it has been believed that washing hands constantly is very important. "Modernity" through evidence based research has only shown that antiquity was right in this regards. There are many other areas where concepts from antiquity have not held up to modernity but this whole conundrum only highlights that modernity is not the goal that must be sought by everyone. And to impose it on Muslims should create anarchy. And I can see it in the form of Taliban et al. In that sense, Pipes and pseudointellectuals ((Sam Harris for example and the ilk) like him are responsible for the chaos.