Is Islam Itself in Need of Reform?

University of North Texas student body president Adam Alattry recently lamented, “growing up in a Muslim household in the United States, the only Islam I knew was one who preached love, compassion, charity, acceptance and empathy. After Sept. 11, 2001, perceptions of me and my religion were forever changed.”

With the advent of the self-proclaimed Islamic state, scrutiny is again high. Yet even after the recent tragedy in Paris, President Obama and Democratic presidential candidates still refuse to use the term “Islam” even with qualifiers such as “radical.”

Major religions and their followers all have some history of doctrine and actions that are barbaric by today’s standards. Beyond the question of perverting faith, a problem that will always exist, there is disagreement as to how much of Islam can easily be construed as not just religious but political, colonial or even potentially hostile in nature?

Author Reza Aslan, known for his confrontation of CNN anchors for what he deemed “facile” arguments about Islam, argues “every religion in the world depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam — your Judaism —your Christianity — your Hinduism — your Buddhism is going to be violent.”

Clearly that is accurate; however, many of Aslan’s claims of unjust criticism have been debunked.

While ultimately we judge people primarily by how they behave, the conversation should include holy texts and whether or not they provide a theological basis for advocating harm.

While ultimately we judge people primarily by how they behave, the conversation should include holy texts and whether or not they provide a theological basis for advocating harm.
Craig Berlin, IVN Independent Author
The Old Testament endorses slavery and grossly disproportionate punishments by modern standards, yet no Jew employs them.

Christians were heavily involved in institutional discrimination up until the 20th century, but there is nothing in the New Testament advocating it and clearly no one credible has supported such behavior in decades.

In 2004, Irshad Manji wrote The Trouble with Islam: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith to both widespread acclaim and criticism. While Aslan believes actions today are the responsibility of individuals rather than Islam, Manji challenges the idea that there is a single, pure Islam that, if properly followed by everyone, would only be responsible for good and never evil.

In the book, Manji argues that the “trouble” with Islam is not simply the tyrants who have hijacked it, but the average Muslims who have allowed this to happen and retreated into self-pity and victimhood.

Atheism and agnosticism expert, Austin Cline, notes in his review that Manji identifies a number of problems within Islam, including “rampant antisemitism which treats Israel as a source of all evil and Arab nations a source of all good…and…Saudi Arabia, with its insistence on funding and promoting an extremist view of Islam.”

As to what the Quran and Hadith actually say and what precedents the prophet Muhammad set, there is certainly legitimate debate. For example, there is disagreement as to whether earlier or more recent verses are to be followed when there seems to be a conflict.

The BBC points out, in regard to how war is to be waged:

“Islam allows war in self-defence (Qur’an 22:39), to defend Islam (rather than to spread it), to protect those who have been removed from their homes by force because they are Muslims (Qur’an 22:40), and to protect the innocent who are being oppressed (Qur’an 4:75).  But some Muslim thinkers in the past, and some more radical Muslim thinkers today, take a different view. They say that other verses in the Qur’an, the so-called ‘sword verses’, have “abrogated” (revoked or anulled) the verses that permit warfare only in defence. They used these ‘sword verses’ to justify war against unbelievers as a tool of spreading Islam (Qur’an 9:5, 9:29).  Others take this further and regard non-Muslims, and Muslims who don’t conform rigorously to the Islamic code, as non-believers and thus as “enemies of God” against whom it is legitimate to use violence.

And so we have the conundrum present with all religious texts: “subject to interpretation.”

Patheos notes clarity is especially challenging in Islam. Muslims believe the precepts of the Quran to be situational, with verses revealed to address specific issues at specific times. Yet, this can lead to inconsistencies.

Because “amateur interpretation by a non-Muslims reading English has no relevance to what Muslims actually believe” and verses in the Quran are specific and require context, the only legitimate spokespersons are contemporary Muslims themselves.

As another example, it is also popular to quote from the Quran 5:32 (in various translations):  “if anyone kills a person it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and if anyone saved a life, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind.”

A beautiful sentiment —but the complete verse states:

“Because of that We ordained for the Children of Israel: that whoever kills a person-unless it is for murder or corruption on earth-it is as if he killed the whole of mankind; and whoever saves it, it is as if he saved the whole of mankind. Our messengers came to them with clarifications, but even after that, many of them continue to commit excesses in the land.”

Followed by 5:33, which adds:

“The punishment for those who fight Allah and His Messenger, and strive to spread corruption on earth, is that they be killed, or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. That is to disgrace them in this life; and in the Hereafter they will have a terrible punishment.”

Not exactly the same, is it?

Muhammad seemed to believe in a political and military strategy that is not found in Torah or New Testament teachings. Despite a modest following early in his prophecy, he was able to amass an army of 10,000 men by the time he marched to Mecca and took the city.

Many other conquests followed after his death.

William Montgomery Watt, Emeritus Professor in Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Edinburgh explains in the Cambridge History of Islam that for Muhammad, religion was not a private and individual matter, but “the total response of his personality to the total situation in which he found himself.”

“He was responding [not only]… to the religious and intellectual aspects of the situation but also to the economic, social, and political pressures to which contemporary Mecca was subject,” Edinburgh writes.

And the actions of Muhammad have understandably been considered an endorsement. He reportedly married his last wife, Aisha, at the age of 6 or 7 and consummated the marriage around age 9 or 10.

When the Shah of Iran was deposed in 1979, one of the first things Ayatollah Khomeini did was to lower the age of marriage from 18 to 9. Likewise, Muhammad’s method for spreading the faith differed from Jesus.

it is not poverty and ignorance that spearheads religious extremism, but rather educated instigators who have a desire for geopolitical order and change.
However, Khaleel Mohammed, professor of Religion at San Diego State University told me that both the Torah and the Quran grant permission for war only after there is no other way out, and once full war is declared, demand appropriate protocols.

He acknowledged, “after the death of Muhammad, many Muslim leaders deliberately skewed interpretations of the Quran to foment war…and at the zenith of military power, they chose to decontextualize verses and to conquer lands.”

Manji poses the timely question, “What’s our excuse for reading the Koran literally when it’s so contradictory and ambiguous?” She also notes an “Arab monopoly” on Islam that leads to a number of cultural issues that only allow the Quran to be read in Arabic.

A select few maintain a stranglehold on Quranic interpretation, reminiscent of Galileo’s issues with the Catholic Church exacerbated by his writing in Latin rather than the vernacular.

As Georgetown’s Haroon Ullah points out, it is not poverty and ignorance that spearheads religious extremism, but rather educated instigators who have a desire for geopolitical order and change.

In a dialogue with Aslan and writer and neuroscientist Sam Harris, the L.A. Times’ Jonathan Kirsch asked if it is not a historical precedent of all followers of a religion other than the radical fringe to encourage and exalt those tenets they find uplifting and righteous while putting aside others seen as archaic or dangerous.

Harris replied that there are no books more heinous than those in the Hebrew Bible where “it is spelled out, ad nauseum, when you should kill people for theological reasons,” but a rejection of fundamentalism lags in the Muslim world.

Kirsch referred to a previous radio panel with Harris and writer Andrew Sullivan, noting that the only thing they could all agree on was that Judaism and Christianity had already undergone a reformation while Islam hasn’t.

Indeed, violent orthodoxies such as Wahhabism and Salafi jihadism are relatively recent developments.

Muhammed Sayed and Sarah Haider, co-founders of Ex-Muslims of North America, point out:

“Bigotry against Muslims is a real and pressing problem, but one can criticize the Islamic ideology without treating Muslims as themselves problematic or incapable of reform. There are true Muslim reformists who are willing to call a spade a spade while working for the true betterment of their peoples — but their voices are drowned out by the noise of apologists who are all-too-often aided by the Western left. Those who accept distortions in order to hold on to a comforting dream-world where Islamic fundamentalism is merely an aberration are harming reform by encouraging apologists.”

Today, there are winds of change as Muslims see how Western governments work and realize they are not Christian theocracies.

Patheos points out that “modern Muslims do not agree on whether Islam should be considered an ideology, just as they do not agree on what constitutes an Islamic government or even whether there should be Islamic governments.”

Will McCants, an expert on Islamic relations with the Brookings Institution also writes:

“[U]ltimately, it’s for Muslims to decide whether the Islamic State is being faithful to scripture. For the nonbelievers, it’s enough to recognize that Islamic scripture is contradictory when it comes to violence and to rejoice that most Muslims makes sense of these contradictions in a very different way than ISIS.”

Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes in her bestselling book, Heretic, that “Islam is not a religion of peace,” and that some key teachings of Islam, not least of which is a duty to wage holy war, are incompatible with the values of a free society.

She believes, however, that a reformation aimed at reconciling with modernity has begun. She calls upon the Western world to drop the bogus argument that those who criticize the doctrine are Islamophobes, because it is the Muslim reformers who need our backing.

Reformers who remain Muslim don’t go as far as Ali, but essentially make the same point. Shahid Hamid, Senior Fellow at Brookings, adds that it should not be anyone’s goal “to make Islam look good, or to argue that Islam ‘is a religion of peace,’ when the reality is more complicated.”

“We have to be faithful to our findings and conclusions, even if – or perhaps particularly when – they make us most uncomfortable,” he says.

Harris correctly asserts that there is danger in any firm adherence to doctrine and we must guard against “belief that is intrinsically divisive because it is immune to criticism….and only in religion do we have a veneer of sanctity.”

Each of us must provide the moral guarantor of faith by having a human conversation that encompasses religious texts and provides important historical perspective of moral behavior.

That is the scrutiny that all religions should bear as we struggle to find a balancing act between more contemporary understanding of our existence supported by science and history, contrasted with those things many believe to be eternal truths.

Photo Credit: Jasminko Ibrakovic / shutterstock.com