Reformation or reform?

24 January 2023




Many have called for a Reformation within Islam. But what does this mean? Is it a meeker, milder and cuddlier brand of Islam – and will we get that through a Reformation? In Europe it led to a tremendous amount of bloodshed and upheaval – the 30 years war for example – and a long-standing tension between Catholics and Protestants. Some of the more literalist and fundamentalist Christian views stem from the reformed end of the spectrum.

This year marks 500 years since Martin Luther sparked off the Protestant Reformation by nailing his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg. There are at least four important concerns that lay behind this European history: i) the ‘protest’ against the abuse of power and authority of an institution; and related to that ii) a resentment of the hierarchy of the Church and the potential for abuse by that; iii) the desire to make scripture more accessible to the masses; and iv) an emphasis on the importance of the individual (in front of God).

Whether coincidence or cause, the Reformation was occurring alongside the emergence of modernity and while there are some connections with specific concerns of Muslims in majority countries and the diaspora, there are clearly significant differences between the dynamics of Europe 500 years ago and the Muslim experience today. The Reformation (as distinct from the idea of ‘reform’) is a European, Christian, Protestant experience and while it can speak to the Muslim experience, it will have severe limitations and cannot be simply ‘copied’. But the four concerns mentioned above (whatever their actual outcome) seem entirely laudable and would resonate with Muslims.

And some of them do relate to the need for change and reform, even today. Contrary to what some may assert, it could be argued that reform lies at the heart of Islam. That Islam itself was a reform movement that tried to rebalance what it saw as either the excessive legalism or monasticism of other ways of life, or social, economic and political injustice around Arabia. Muhammad (s) himself was thus a reformer, one who driven by an immense connection with those on the margins of society.

Islam has always had its own intellectual and spiritual tools for renewal and rejuvenation. Historically, during more confident times, reform was seen by Muslims as a constant process. Critical thinking, challenging the status quo and learning from others was a hallmark of Muslim civilization. Something that led to great discoveries and major scientific, mathematical and philosophical contributions. Islam borrowed heavily from the Greek philosophical tradition and many of the early kalam (theological) debates were a natural consequence of that. And yet that energy and vitality of thought appears to have become diminished in the Muslim world over the last few centuries.

In more recent times Muslim intellectuals that identified this deficit have been calling for a renewal of Islamic thought. Iqbal’s ‘Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam’ (1930) is just one example, but earlier demands by Afghani, Abduh, and others – in Shi’i, Sunni, Salafi / Sufi circles have urged on the call for a movement of renewal and reform. Far from seeing the idea of reform as something alien to Islam – as some Muslims may assert – the notions of reform (islah), renewal (tajdid), rebirth (ihya) are essential underpinnings of Islamic thought. Islam has relied heavily on intellectual tools such as ijtihad (creative thinking to deal with new challenges), aql (reasoning) and mantiq (logic) to build on a rational and ethical edifice. The science of maqasid (looking for the higher objectives and purpose) and an emphasis on ethics allow Muslim jurists to escape the trap of the literalist, who in following the text blindly can start to deify it (and thus entirely miss the point of it). The second caliph, Umar, when faced with a situation where he felt the literal application of an inheritance formula from the Qur’an would lead to injustice simply adapted it to what he thought was a more ethical and equitable arrangement.

If Islam is to retain any relevance to new generations; if it is to be for the here and now; if it is to meaningfully touch the lives of those on the margins of our society today, there is an urgency to energise the spirit of reform and to confidently reclaim its usage (of course with erudition and scholarship) whatever the critics may assert in the name of a misplaced notion of static tradition, or a nostalgic call back to the 7th century.

Dilwar Hussain