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The battle of ideas within Islam


The battle of ideas within IslamTen years after Samuel Huntington charged Muslim societies as having "bloody borders", some may now see his comments as prescient. Indiscriminate slaughter on the streets of London, Madrid and Baghdad, violent protests against the drawings of the Prophet earlier this year, and the backlash surrounding Pope Benedict's recent comments have led some people to ask whether Islam is a religion of hate.

Are Muslims more prone to violence? Indeed, are Muslims too sensitive about their religion? There certainly are those within the "Western world", particularly in the United States, who feel a stifled political environment and economic stagnation contribute to the broadening of the call to jihad, particularly in the Middle East. Conversely, the "War on Terror" is seen by many as equating to a "War against Islam".

The 9/11 attacks invigorated the debate about what role, if any, Islam should play in Muslim nations; secondly, whether Islamic rule is the antithesis of democracy; and thirdly, what is the role of the West's own Muslim minorities. The growing chorus demanding "western" Muslims publicly and forcibly denounce the perpetrators of violence is bordering on hysteria.

What is more vital, however, and often ignored is that there is also a battle of ideas within Islam at present, rarely heard by the West. This revolves around what it means to be Muslim in the 21st century, and the conduct of East-West relations. It is a debate that has been going on since the 19th century. Framing the debate are ideas about colonialism, the decline of the Islamic world, and the need for modernity.

It is also a debate seeking to re-define Islam and its relevance to the modern world. The question “Whose Islam?” is a very difficult one to demarcate—do we mean "official" Islam, as sanctioned and enforced by Saudi Arabia or Egypt, where the government controls al-Azhar? Or are we talking about it as one of personal faith?

One of the challenges facing thinkers and intellectuals alike is the lack of any central authority in Islam. There is no Pope-like figure. Similarly, almost anyone can issue a religious edict (fatwa) without having undertaken any theological training. The raft of fatwas issued by bin Laden calling upon Muslims to fight "the crusaders", despite his own lack of theological training is a pertinent example.

The battle of ideas within IslamIn response to this phenomenon, the Muslim world's top scholars have agreed that fatwas should only be issued by clerics with religious authority. Dubbed the "Amman Message", the group featuring ten top Muslim clergymen—including Egypt's Grand Imam Sheik al-Azhar Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi and Iraq's Grand Ayat Allah Ali al-Sistani—ruled that fatwas must only be in the hands of qualified clerics recognised by Islam's eight schools of thought.

In an effort to promote a more tolerant Islam, the Moroccan government appointed 50 female preachers to curb the influence of radicals, especially in poorer communities, many of whom benefit from the activities of (radical and moderate) Islamic charities.

This follows the decision by Turkey's Religious Affairs Directorate, which controls the Islamic institutions in the country, to appoint 450 women as preachers to combat extremism. The Directorate caused a stir in June when it announced its plans to "filter" the hadith (sayings of the prophet) for misogynist statements and delete them from the collection, arguing that many are not relevant in the contemporary world, and ignore the socio-political environment at the time.

Demands for ijtihad, or re-interpretation, by the outspoken leader of Sudan's Popular Congress Party, Hassan Turabi, made headlines in April this year. The politician and thinker took a swipe at many accepted practices in Islam, claiming they have been distorted, and were cultural, not religious, norms. Turabi said that women can lead prayer and it is not the sole domain of men, giving the example of one of the Prophet's wives, and claimed wearing of the hijab is in fact alien to Islam.

The battle of ideas within IslamThere are many other reformists throughout the Muslim World trying to effect change. While they do not represent a single or coherent bloc with a unified set of ideas, scholars such as Abdul Karim Soroush in Iran, Moroccan feminist Fatima Mernissi, Hassan Hanafi, and Nasr Abu Zayd do represent a more progressive face.

Despite these voices, many remain unheard. The problem of integrating the burgeoning Muslim population in Europe is only now starting to be addressed. The inertia that has held back the discussion until now has reinforced the sense of other, and heightened fear that Islam is the target in the "War on Terror", thus negating any moderate message.

The challenge of reformists is very complicated in many Muslim countries. Islam is used as a political ideology to provide elites with political legitimacy in Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The ultra-conservatives and traditionalists maintain a close alliance with autocratic governments.

Nominated by the government to present the official Islam, they are faithful servants to those in power. In return, these ulama (scholars of Islamic law and jurisprudence) are given the role of censors of society, the guarantors of tradition, and are thus able to block any and all social change.

For some, the debate isn't so much about reforming Islam as it is Islamism and the challenge of modernity. What needs to occur is a movement beyond an intellectual experiment in modernising to a grassroots, popular movement. The obvious need for moderates to reclaim the central tenets of Islam is often cited by some Muslims as one of the few positive results of the events in the last few years. There is still a long way to go, but progress is being made.



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Existing comments

The problem within Islam is the various schools of thoughs where they insists to justify all sorts of absurd beliefs and laws based on hearsay which are clear contradition to Qur'anic laws.

Sharia laws are taken from Old and New Testaments and the Religious scholars are not even ready to chance these laws. Fatwas are political.

QuranBible | 14 November 2006  

I hope this comment is not irrelevant to Julian's article but I can't agree with his view of the Pope as a central figure for Catholics. When I read articles by George Weigel in the United States it surprises me what he gets away with. And he had a close relationship with John Paul II. And after all he did write a biography of the Pope. Wiegel is a strong supporter of the neo-cons in the United States especially with regard to a free market ideology.
More than that, there appears to be an influential group in the United States which also takes a free market stand.
One if the few pieces I have read where a Pope has strongly opposed the free market is in Ecclesiastica America. In this case one American Catholic insists that it is not the case that JP is critical of the free market.
In conclusion, let me go one step further. There are quite a few Business Schools in the United States which foster a free market economics.
Sorry, two steps further: make a list of those Catholics in the United Stated who supported a pre-emptive strike against Iraq?
Maybe Julian was refering a central figure for moral isses? I am mainly referring to social issues.
As far as Islam is concerned I certainly agree with Julian that there is no centre..when you read what Muslims says about land reform, for example, I had to ask myself would the real Muslim stand up.

Ken Thomas | 14 November 2006  

It's good to know that there is a moderate wing in Islam - one wonders sometimes. It's sad that we do not hear more in the media from the moderates in Islam, but then I guess moderates don't make news.

piers johansen | 15 November 2006  

Islam is still today a religion that too readily allow violence and mayhem from its' followers. Where is Jesus' idea to turn the other cheek in this religion?

Alice S | 15 November 2006  

The fact that clowns like Huntington (and Wolfowitz) are taken seriously in the US suggest that it's not just within Islam that itjihad as needed.

david arthur | 25 December 2006  

There are many Secular Muslims in Egypt, and many other Islamic countries, we must all fight against the HIJACKING of Islam by violent wahabi salafi idealogies.

please read:

MODERNPHARAOH | 18 January 2009  

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