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Change or Perish

Muslim attitude towards change is one of skepticism, ridicule and resistance. Maqbool Ahmed Siraj calls for introspection


Change is constant in life. Those who resist, refuse, and reject change, are changed by the times they live in. Those who initiate change, become the leaders of the change. They dictate the course of change. Others who fall in line, are forced to adopt changes at other’s terms and remain followers, often helpless followers.

Looked at from this angle, Muslims clearly fall into the second category. They are almost always skeptical of change, initially. Then they mock at them. Next, they oppose it tooth and nail and finally become followers of the change, pusillanimously. Every wave of change has encountered opposition from Muslims in the last three centuries. It is basically a trait expected of a people who consider themselves ‘superior’ to others and feel threatened by changes. They perceive in change a threat to their religion, belief system and existence.  They see in it a conspiracy to distract them from their doctrine. It also stems from the perception that their past is perfect, golden, ideal, heroic and righteous inasmuch as they need not look at others for any guidance, they need not pick up clues of success from other communities. They feel comfortable dwelling in the past which, to them, is always ‘glorious’ even to the extent of being sacred. Talk of change therefore is a sacrilege.

All fundamentalists have this tendency of glorifying their past and considering themselves the most superior among the human race. The Jews believed themselves to be ‘Chosen People of God’ and progressed only when they jettisoned this attitude. The Hindu right glorifies Ram Rajya just as some Muslim fundamentalists glorify the caliphate. The Hindus progressed after they embraced changes. Once one takes the past for being perfect, it spawns the attitude of rejecting the changes. Why depend on others? Why look at the researches being done in the West? Did not we lead the civilization for full 600 years? Who are these people to dictate us the lessons in democracy, pluralism, scientific temper, freedom of expression and human rights? And why should we research on laws when everything we have inherited is so very well laid out, so beautifully explained and so remarkably well tested? This perception obviates the needs for self-criticism, amendment, introspection and makes those pressing for changes, suspects at best and heretics at worst in the eyes of the status quoists.


No wonder then why Muslims reject change and go hammer and tongs against those clamouring for it. Founts of Islamic thought run dry today. We only outstoop each other in producing more and more regressive interpretation of the religious edicts. We had those beautiful sources of guidance, the Quran (Allah’s words), Hadith (Prophet’s sayings), Sunnah (Prophet’s actions) and the Fiqh (jurisprudence). We fixed them in literalism and lost their essence. The Quran was taken more as a book of law and Halaal and Haraam rather than guidance. Shariat was rendered into an unchangeable code of law while the fact is that the entire corpus of Hadith and Fiqh began to take shape only after the first 200 years after the demise of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. We stopped questioning as to how Muslim fashioned their lives during those crucial two centuries when Islam brought under its sway nearly a third of the civilized world.

Stagnation of Thought Process

We see complete stagnation in Islamic thought today despite the superabundance of Islamic scholars, seminaries, madrassas, research institutes and movements. Fact is that these individuals and bodies have developed a vested interest in maintaining a status quo and seem ever keen to excommunicate the other at the incipient hint of digressing an inch from the traditional interpretation. The religious movements that arose all across the Muslim world and the madrassas have played the most devastating role in this stagnation. Every single of them has taken the Muslims backward, completely oblivious of the fact that the Quran exhorted them to think, contemplate, reason out and ponder.  There are no exceptions among them. Be it Jamaat e Islami in the subcontinent or Ikhwanul Muslimoon in the Middle East, they politicized Islam in the most regressive style without taking the changed global context. Tablighi Jamaat over-ritualised the community and became a sawab accumulation industry. The Salafists aligned themselves inextricably with the interests of the decadent Saudi monarchy and have become purveyors of the most antiquated ideology.  Even as the Muslim world has descended into depths of despair, the few enlightened intellectuals who could access the Western scholarship, shifted out to the Western universities and institutes. They found themselves unsafe at the hands of the powers that be and the Islamists in their countries of origin. Despotic regimes could not take their criticism. The Islamists, accustomed to their fossilized ideologies, had no stomach for their revisionist thoughts.

Modern Thinkers operate from the West

Most of the eminent and modern Islamic thinkers such as Ziauddin Sardar, Tariq Ramadan, Nimat Hafez Barzangi, Aminah Wadud, Abdullahi Nayeem, Abdullah Saeed, Ahmed M. Souaiaia, Fatehullah Gulen, Khaled Aboul Fadl, Jeffery Lang, Syed Hossain Nasr, Prof. Fazlur Rahman, Murad Hoffman lived and operated out of the Western capitals. Much of their works were produced in English, French or German. They could win laurels from the Western audiences but failed to penetrate among the users of the native oriental languages. Even those Islamic activists who took up asylum in the West, have remained unaware of their writings. The Islamists among the Sub-continental diaspora still carry forward the obscurantist agenda of their mentors from the East and have learnt little from the Western liberalism.

The madrassas of the subcontinent have played even more major role in keeping the ummah backward. Some of them are real dens of darkness, unleashing a barrage of absurd fatwas capable of embarrassing even an individual trained in ordinary rationality. The one at Deoband subserves the political vested interest of the progeny of a single family. Another at Lucknow has had the reputation of impressing a few Arabs with its felicity in Arabic and uses this leverage with Arabs to impose itself on hapless Indian Muslims. All that happens in the name of research in these seminaries is to produce extremely antiquated interpretation of Islam. The Quran is taught cursorily for the sake of Hifz (memorization) and Tajweed (intonation). No real interpretation can happen because the researchers are so very unaware of the socio-economic and political context of the society they live in.

Non-Quranic sources of Islamic guidance like Hadith, Sunnah and Fiqh have meanwhile been elevated to the level of complete sanctity and are beyond reproach. Even the mere suggestion of weeding out inauthentic Hadith or investigating the rationality of the content, may be sufficient to initiate proceedings for excommunication of individuals. One dare not revisit the context and interpretation of Hadith, monumental volumes of which form the corpus of Islamic literature today. As for Fiqh, we fail to understand that what the great divines and legal luminaries of the past deduced a millennium ago, held good for their own time, society and circumstances. We need not take them literally for application in 21st century and for communities inhabiting spaces like Chicago, Tokyo and Geneva. They have served their purpose in their own time. What is more important is to know how those great divines deduced the guidance from the text, not what they deduced.

Scrutiny Does not Mean Disrespect

Respecting the great divines and their colossal effort in compiling the ancient wisdom need not lead us to the trap of accepting every single sentence from them, wise or unwise, rational or irrational. Was it not in the case of Hazrath Ayesha’s (may Allah be pleased with her) age of marriage that we questioned those sources in the recent past? During the last two decades ample evidence has been found that she was 19 or more when she got married to the Prophet Muhammad. If indeed this was the case, all those Hadith that quote her age of nikah at six and consummation at nine, are rendered invalid, regardless of their being part of Sihah e Sitta, the six most authentic compilations of Hadith (i.e., Sahih Muslim, Sahih Bukhari, Ibne Maja, Abu Daud, Nisai and Tirmizi). Similarly, we need to probe as to how the finality of the triple talaq in one sitting came to be legitimized even though the Quran spoke of talaq as a seven-stage process, not an event. Obviously, the divines were acting as per the exigencies of their times, without sticking to the literalism. Why should this process of creative interpretation of the Sharia stop at them? We need to question as to why it cannot proceed further. Do we lack intellectual resources? Should not the exigencies of 21st century push us for reexamination and reforms? Even further, how and who made the husband’s consent mandatory for khulaa to take effect for a woman locked in nettlesome marriages. If indeed, husband’s consent is mandatory, what happens to a woman’s right to seek dissolution of an inharmonious marriage? If the so called Sharia courts keep issuing such opinion, how should one look at the issue of gender equality in Islam. Such questions cannot be pushed under the carpet. An ostrich like attitude wouldn’t help matters. The world has advanced much farther than the 7th century and question of gender parity, minority rights, human rights, freedom of expression, pluralism, all need to be addressed. Canvas of research has to be immensely large to embrace hundreds of issues that have remained unaddressed for centuries.

No Laws can be Static

It is time all this literature is revisited and reexamined thoroughly. No laws could be fixed in time and space. Laws remain mutable because the societies we live in, are dynamic. If the society could be static, the laws would be stagnant too. But look at the misfortune of the community that rationality skips it even in simple matters such as fixing lunar calendar and pre-determination of dates of Islamic festivals. Look how a ruckus was kicked up at Benazeer Bhutto taking up the leadership of Pakistan or an Amina Wadud leading a mixed gender prayer in New York. Gender bias in these matters had no rational backing nor any sufficiently Islamic objection. Nor did Islam oppose such role for women. Yet the shariat was invoked without any justification. Tunisian scholar Fatima Mernissi cut the controversy to its bone, finding out that the Hadith with regard to women’s leadership of an Islamic state was apocryphal and emerged only 30 years after the demise of the Holy Prophet. As for Amina Wadud’s leading the prayer, it is now fairly established that the Prophet himself appointed Hazrath Umme Waraqah as the imam of a congregation outside Madinah and she led the mixed gender congregation for close to seventeen years. (This account is available in Sunan of Abu Dawood and Musnad of Ahmad bin Hanbal and quoted by Dr. Muhammad Hamidullah, Ref. The Emergence of Islam, Bahawalpur Lecture on the Development of Islamic Worldview, Intellectual Tradition and Polity, Adam Publishers & Distributors, New Delhi. Its Urdu translation is Khutbaat e Bahawalpur, published by Islamic Book Foundation, New Delhi.)

In the final analysis can be said that we need to rise above petty prejudices that colour our existence. The era and the society we live in today, is complex and diverse in all meanings of the term. Simplistic solutions would not work. Much thinking and contemplation would be required to overcome the huge technological and lag that separates Muslims from the West. The challenges are monumental and resources—intellectual, financial and human—are meagre.

(Published in Islamic Voice, English monthly, Bangalore in August 2014 issue.)


Mr. Maqbool Ahmed Siraj,