Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Reinterpreting Islam


Tariq RamadanIs Islamic law compatible with secular law? Can Muslims remain true to the precepts of their faith under non-Muslim rule? These seem to be recurring questions. The recent controversy following the public announcement of the Archbishop of Canterbury regarding the possibility of incorporating aspects of Islamic law in the British legal system has brought them up again.

The Archbishop argued that 'a constructive accommodation with some aspects of Muslim law' may be possible. This is a well-meaning and accommodating position. It is also a brave one, as the backlash against the Archbishop illustrated. But there is an inherent problem with this position: it takes a literalist reading of Islam.

The literalist reading is widely assumed to be correct, by people on both sides of the argument. This reading presents Islamic law as fixed and static. In the best case scenario, as presented by the Archbishop, some aspects may be palatable and reconcilable with United Kingdom or Australian laws, while others are not. In the worst case scenario, all aspects of Islamic law are antiquated and unpalatable to secular democratic societies.

This is a very simplistic depiction of Islam, and ignores its profound internal dynamics.

Some Muslim intellectuals, notably Tariq Ramadan in United Kingdom, have rejected the literalist approach. Instead Ramadan points to the essence of Islam. If Islam is a living religion, as Muslims believe it to be, then its laws and dictums need to evolve and keep up with the contemporary issues that face Muslims. If Islam is a religion for all times, it needs to have a real and organic relevance to all times. It needs to be evolutionary and adaptive.

This line of reasoning has led reformist-minded Islamic thinkers to emphasise the spirit, as opposed to the letter, of Islam. Notions of unity between the Creator and the created and justice, for example, are timeless and guiding principles which can be codified differently at different times. In other words, the essence remains true for all times, but not its codification in Islamic law.

As a result, Ramadan, who recently visited Australia, has challenged the conventional wisdom that British law is un-Islamic. Why would British, Australian or EU laws be un-Islamic if they are governed by the same notions of justice that reign supreme in Islam?

Suggesting that secular democratic laws may be called 'Islamic' is, of course, not easy to digest when conventional wisdom has treated them as inherently contradictory. Least of all for the many Muslims who subscribe to the literalist reading and are sceptical of any 'reform' as a form of intellectual capitulation to Western hegemony.

This is a serious challenge. But it can be met. And the best way to meet it is to keep going back to the essence of Islam and what it once stood for. Muslims are proud of what Islam achieved in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century because it brought a more just system to the region. The essence of that experience, and what Islam stood for, is important today.

Work has already begun. The Turkish religious authorities announced recently a major project to re-interpret existing records of the Prophet Muhammad's sayings and deeds (known as Hadith), to discern what they mean in the contemporary setting. This is promising, as Muslims are taking responsibility for trying to grasp what Islam means in the 21st Century.

Tariq Ramadan writes at ABC News online

Shahram AkbarzadehAssociate Professor Shahram Akbarzadeh researches the politics of Central Asia and the Middle East, political Islam, and US relations with the Muslim world. He is Deputy Director of the National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies, University of Melbourne.



submit a comment

Existing comments

How many millions of Muslim women will suffer while men decide what they can do about reinterpreting the Qur'an and the hadith ... while women get NO VOTE AS PER USUAL.

Mimi | 01 April 2008  

An excellent and thought provoking articles (as with all your daily comments and articles). The interesting issue for me is whether Catholicism in its upper ranks of authority will ever encourage an open discussion with our similar issues on the interpretation of church law.

Frank Hornby | 01 April 2008  

True, Mimi - but they have to start somewhere. If Muslim men of good will and honest hearts take a fresh look at the texts on which they base their lives, surely Muslim women can only profit. Perhaps they can move a little towards the equality and respect we enjoy in, say, the Catholic Church!

Joan Seymour | 01 April 2008  

Would that the Catholic Church would take the line that "if [Christianity] is a religion for all times ... It needs to be evolutionary and adaptive."

Anne Hubbard | 02 April 2008  

An excellent contribution to the discussion, about Islam, about religion and civil law, about conscience and law. I will certainly use this article in teaching Yrs 10-12. Professor Akbarzadeh should be promoted as a spokesman for inter-religious matters. Is he going to Rudd's 20/20 Conference?

Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala, NSW | 02 April 2008  

Can I be permitted to make a comment on the comments from Frank Hornby and Anne Hubbard. The exact issue that Professor Akbarzadeh makes about Islam being dynamic and relevant is precisely what the Catholic Church operates by. The problem as outlined by Frank and Anne is that some Catholics would not be able to 'move' from an entrenched position of literality of interpretation to accept that the Church does operate from such a dynamic and some of its adherants may need to 'move along' in their acceptance of Church teaching.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew, Bombala, NSW | 02 April 2008  

I note that laws in "Christian" nations are based upon "Christian principles", laws in "Islamic" nations are based upon "Islamic principles", laws in "Buddhist" nations are based upon "Buddhist principles", and so on. I also note that these laws change (evolve? progress?) from time to time.
As we evolve towards godliness, will all our laws converge?

David Arthur | 03 April 2008  

I found the article pictured in this article and from the comments that followed it, it seems there are serious questions to be answered about Tariq's real agenda, and conflicting statements (particularly the French ones), such that I am not sure he can be used a reformist model.

I would like to see an article on the Affinity Intercultural Foundation, as it is an Australian model I can relate to.

trevor | 05 April 2008  

Could I please comment on the comments of Fr Mick MacAndrew (hi Mick) where he states that the Catholic Church presently operates on the principle of the evolution and change in praxis and attitudes on modern problems. The present Pope certainly has evolving attitudes in, say, the practice of liturgy, or in relations with other religions. Or should that be "devolving"?

Pat Mahony | 10 April 2008  

Religion is now a ball and chain around the ankle of humanity. It no longer explains anything important, except perhaps to mentally handicapped or lazy people unable or unwilling to come to terms with the complexities of natural selection and a universe that really doesn't care. To revert to the most oppressive and primitive supernatural-based law would be anti-human and degrading. Has Europe forgotten its own history of religious bloodshed, ignorance and intolerance? Why hasn't the Archbishop been relieved of his position?

Jay Renaud | 18 November 2009