Essay: “Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform, The Way Forward” – Conference at Oxford University –11th – 13th June 2010
Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
Dhaka, Tuesday, 7th September 2010
“That is because God was not to change any blessing He bestowed upon a people, unless they change what is in themselves.” (Ko’ran 8:53)
1. Introducing ‘Reformists Muslims’:
During my recent trip to the UK I was invited as an observer to the ‘Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reforms’ Conference at Oxford University. Held between 11th to the 13th of June 2010 - the experience was uplifting and educative and I take pride in sharing my thoughts here.
Before I go on to the nuts and bolts – ‘Reformist Muslims’ as popularly addressed are Monotheist who seek a mandate to reclaim Islam from within, in its ‘God only’ interpretation of the Ko’ran, in its dismissal of divisive Hadith based dogmas and rejection and rendering illegitimate misogynist, spurious Sharia ‘laws’ that have from times immemorial sought to wreck havoc on the Islamic psyche, the root cause of modern xenophobia termed Islamophobia. Yet none of these deeply probing exercises failed to address what is primarily the most important and distressful aspect of Islam in these changed times – the innate identity crisis affecting most of its adherents – i.e. Muslims globally.
To begin, while numbers were limited in individuals and organisations represented in the Conference and a dearth of presence or publicity in the mainstream media, it is nonetheless the only ‘Islamist movement’ today in my estimation, worthy of our respect – more directly, it demands for good reasons that they be heard. What overrode quantity made up in the quality of members comprising of Scholars, Academics, Theologians, Thinkers, Scientist, Mathematicians, Economist, Human Rights Activists, Politicians, and Musicians even stand-up Comedians from all over the world.
To reach consensus and invoke no-holds barred debates primarily focused on the Ko’ran, together with the lofty ideals and spirit of Ijtihad (enquiry, debate, logic, arguments and reason among others) the Conference was open for members of all faiths, no-faith, agnostics, atheists, Humanist and a large presence of reverted (converted) Muslims from Europe and North America. More or less every shades of opinions were permitted their say with remarkable acceptance and tolerance. Exceptions there were a few – which I shall get to later in this piece.
2. Front line soldiers in the War against Demons of Reason:
Some if not all answers were found in the three-day long deliberations, but what struck me as particularly awe inspiring is to meet and befriend little heard of ‘front line soldiers’ – be they scholars, historians or simply generalist like the Raheel Raza the female Imam from Canada who led the Friday prayer to a mixed congregation. These are a new generation of Islamic thinkers and activists who have not rejected their faith per se, yet under considerable peril choose to reject stereotypes and mindsets of their forefathers, together with the legacy of a damning status quo. This again not out of any obligation but by choice and conviction, which brings with it fair share of retribution and inevitable hardship.
In this unrelenting and asymmetrical war against demons of reason who only preach violent and fractious ideals of Bin-Laden-esque Jihad to ignorant and microscopic number of Muslims – which in turn leads on to woes for the estimated billion adherent of the faith globally, the task in hand is certainly overwhelming and fraught with risk. Many of the Reformist have at one time or the other served long jail sentences in their native lands, have being brutally tortured, exiled, attempts made on their lives – and some still have death threats hanging over their heads.
Initially sitting bewildered on unknown sides of the territories tricky fence, I focused and wondered with much apprehension as to the constant damage inflicted on the mind and senses of these exceedingly brilliant human beings, indeed to the entire notion of civility. To think of it - it takes a lot of courage to consider it ‘justified to fight injustice’ – real or perceived is really a separate matter, and a lot more here is at stake when one stands up opposing their own Muslim brethrens and kin, are branded and discriminated as ‘renegades to their faith’, yet admirable is their upfront and unabashed courage to tell everyone with no uncertainty – that what we have learnt and believed lifelong was all dangerously wrong – is un-Islamic and anti-Ko’ranic - is certainly positions bordering on ‘heroic to a fault’.
Yet their faith in the Ko’ran and God only remains undiminished and unwavering – which are the fundamental attributes as to what has given them limited legitimacy and importantly credibility. No longer is the Islamic world willing to be cowed down by fatwas of the fanatics, nor will it ever go unchallenged that as a religion it only hawks hate and violence as also - no longer is the beard or habit wearing Islamic Mullah or the Hijab wearing female counterparts, be considered the only ‘identity’ of Muslims globally. We were also reminded that efforts must be made to come out of the little understood but widely used and abused Western labels such as ‘moderate Islam’ or ‘secularism’, which contradicts the essence of the religion and makes it susceptible to exploitations. Aspects of freedom of speech, which is inscribed in the Ko’ranic text, are to be further propounded – and that in extension does not mean blind acceptance of Western diktats of the same.
To sum up my initial reactions – the question doing an over time on my non-theological mind was; is anybody in the Muslim world really ready to undertake such a huge paradigm shift – and risk isolation? The answer to that I found was - yes, because unknown to us the isolationist mode has by now been rendered obsolete in the quiet acceptance and resistance that characterize these bold women and men, who seek to make a difference and are resolute in their reaffirmation – the foundation of their faith in God only and the Ko’ran.
3. ‘Us versus them’ – When the enemy is within and the enemy is us:
On the flips side ‘Demons’ (for lack of a ‘prettier’ word!) within the faith have historically had a way with words – aspects of ‘evilisation’ begin as their natural attribute, for essentially these are twisted, warped and convoluted words, half-truth and lies which spoken and repeated over and over again attains the semblance of truth. Goebbel’s legacy just isn’t in the name of a man – he was Holocaust personified and his nightmarish apparition survives till date, the guise he wore then was the Swastika – it is not just the same today, more sinister and acrimonious, it has acquired the status of a chameleon that can spring up to catch us unaware just about anywhere without our knowing. Symbolism aside - neither the mere display of Crescent and Star – is to be perceived ‘Islamic’ under any token or yardstick of judgement – not any more.
I was reminded of the blatant apostasy perpetrated by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hossain in hurriedly scribbling verses from the Ko’ran on to the national flag as a ‘deterrent’ for Muslims soldiers from other nations joining the coalition ahead of the US led invasion. Sadly that move did not ensure his survival, nor does an identical verse emblazoned on the Saudi Arabian flag today in anyway helps the so-called ‘Kingdom’ free itself from American boots under which it has voluntarily gone under and have remained willing captives for decades.
Evidently it is for no other reason, but to re-emphasise and perpetuate the myopic, arrogant and exploitative Saudi version of Wahabi and Shariati Islam which served feudal interest as the ‘real and only thing’ – that derails all possibilities of a great revival of the religion that is now condemned and subject to mockery of the worst kind. I wondered how for the actions, insensitivity and ineptitude of an infinitely microscopic minority that constitutes the Arab Muslims in the past and present, (and possibly the foreseeable future) the majority adherents of the faith globally have to suffer and face persecution? For all the wealth of the Arab world, their intellectual poverty and no efforts at taking in reins of their own destiny, is the one singular reason that Muslims stand divided. Horrifying also is a realization is all monotheist Prophets were born in that geographical location of the globe – yet peace has eluded it for centuries.
The Reformist in a round about way – re-established that God simply cannot intercede/intervene in the affairs of man – and merely parroting verses/text from the holy book alone will not help lift Muslims out of the plight they are in today. With the doors of Ijtihad shut down for centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammed following internecine strife within the Wahabi sect in Arabia – the Islamic culture ruefully passed on later as the appropriate mantle for other Muslim/Islamic countries to replicate is ultimately the bane of the state Islam is, in present times. Tragically the zero-centric Bedouin Islam of the deserts thanks to ignorance of Muslims worldwide is now considered ‘mainstream’ in almost all countries and cultures, which has resulted in a situation whereby the religion appears more in tune to pre-Islamic Aiyyam-e-Zahliya period of infamy.
Questioning or arguments based on the Ko’ran have been succinctly outlawed, with Hadith and Sunna interpretations literally making it appears as if the infallible Ko’ran is incomplete, and the comparison/association of the Prophet Muhammad’s name a standard and ritualistic practice which inherently is deification, prohibited under all norms and standards of Islam is conveniently overlooked. Making it worse, these degenerative outdated ideas cannot be challenged on the pain of death – even though during the times of the Prophet, no one was executed for alleged apostasy or heresy. To re-emphasise, in reality what has happened for over 1500 years is the Arab notion of monarchist driven beneficiary and patronizing culture of the desert was then as even today lapped in blindly by the majority as ‘Islamic’ – which frustrates and defeats Islam’s egalitarian plurality, of ‘assimilation’ and acculturation – the cornerstone of its great appeal and outreach globally. The attempts to throttle voices from within the faith continue and people such as the Reformist Muslims are labeled ‘heretics and apostates’.
Post the Prophet Muhammad’s times, Islam’s painful survival in the reality that is today is best viewed in the great stride it has made in imbibing and enriching cultures it has come across – not by conflicts, coercion, and not always by threats or by the language of the sword. Understanding and adapting resolutely to cultures and it many shock and awe are the fundamental aspect that makes Islam unique. To even contemplate that a religion which enlightened millions and spread worldwide to be embraced by billions, given all its positive aspects – is today condemned to the back seat of progress is really a rude and hard shock to swallow.
While Muslims have for long have been plagued with a persecution mentality and have pointed fingers at others faiths for the sorry state they are in – the Reformist intent is to remind every one, that while doing so three fingers are pointed right back at us. The corrections therefore must come from within – not without. There can hardly be an appetite to shift blames and scuttle facts if Islam were to restore a semblance of its lost pride. The crucial factor now is to nurse it back to health.
Indeed what can help in the process is the constant effort at delving into the exoteric and esoteric meaning of the verses/text – together with its hidden depths is what in essence makes the Ko’ran and its adherents the Muslims a potent force. If Ko’ran is a book that will survive until eternity, it simply cannot be interpreted as was in the times of the Prophet/s, rather there are lot of qualitative verses/text which when juxtaposed to current times should not detract Muslims in finding solutions and putting them on course – to what can be zeroed in as ‘reality-check’.
It is only in mans adaptability to the nuances of the verses deserting and abandoning brain washed century old prejudices, fallacies, forgeries, hearsays, superstitions and shifting polarisations aimed at addressing or serving selfish expediencies, exploitative political and business interest of the past, of those that embraced the faith at the time of the Prophet some 1500 years ago and have been at it since – have to be deconstructed and in some cases forcefully demolished if Islam is to regain sanity from the morass that it has been pitted into.
Many of the spurious Hadith and man made Sunna traditions meant only to set Islam in medieval lights have caused irrecoverable damage and have to be trashed with solid, justifiable arguments, with historical studies based not on emotions or sentiments, but on logical, scientific parameters and strata of judgement – was the one overriding message that emanated out of the conference.
4. The Millstones and Milestones:
Above being the fundamental areas and course and scope of debates in the Conference, the proceeding however commenced on a very sour note.
Bottom lime - it was poorly organized – and unforgivable is the time wasted – a delay of 3 plus hours on the first day itself, with nobody having an inkling as to who was in charge, and when does the frustratingly slow ball gets rolling. When it finally did, simple and reasonable queries about the day’s plans by distinguished participants were answered with rudeness bordering on hostility by some organizers: voices were raised, tempers flared, patience wore thin. To imagine that women and men who prescribe to a faith – where discipline, peace and timings for Salat (prayers) are scrupulously adhered to – the Conference as such lacked the ‘religious’ or even the ‘missionary zeal’ that was so much desired.
The following day things were just the same – way too many speakers and topics, lot of ad-hocism with some over-shooting their time limits – and by evening there was always a rush-rush effort to make up for lost time, an exercise that caused considerable stress to everybody. Despite having the finest Halls and Auditoriums in Oxford University, poor internal lighting despite repeated reminders never improved, and had participants leaving the hall to relieve pressure from their precious eyes.
The sincere efforts by participants to move forward – all too often got bogged down with details and trivia’s about interpretation of the verses, with some insisting that the Hadith in totality simply cannot be trashed, as that would raise worrying specters of some ‘authentic’ ones, not based on hearsay or fallacies, but those that facilitates and serves Reformists agenda as the essence of the Ko’ran where ‘God only’ interpretations are available risk being scuttled as well. The issue remained unresolved.
Overall the Conference did not make much headway for evidently resource materials on topics to be covered as such were not made available in advance, even to the keynote speakers. What resulted was unnecessary too and fro on vital subjects, when in reality most of the issues have been resolved, addressed and dealt with in the many books that were available and on sale in the venue.
In fact as a layman, I learnt more about the Reformist Agenda by subsequently reading several books, namely a compilation of brilliant essays and articles by contemporary thinkers of Islam in the book “Critical Thinkers for Islamic Reform” as also “The Natural Republic – Reclaiming Islam from Within” by the Monotheist Group. Other than that Edip Yuksel’s “Peace Makers Guide to War Mongers” is a serious eye-opener, and my priceless pick “Quran – A Reformist Translation” by Edip Yuksel, Layth Saleh al-Shaiban and Martha-Schulte-Nafeh.
What I found of distressfully disappointing is the real paucity among the Reformist of speakers or activists from South Asia that forms the bulk of the Muslim demography. The deepest impressions conveyed not only to me, but almost everybody in the Conference were speakers such as Asghar Ali Engineer, the sole representative from India annd Hasan Mahmud – originally from Bangladesh, but now a Canadian citizen. Their articulation and expressions were focused on specifics and even during open sessions, they conducted themselves with patience, clarity and dignity. Both were obviously speaking from a position of strength, with their homework’s carefully done, given that in their own countries fanatics have hounded them and their composure perfectly indicated, they had a well-crafted and long-term strategy under their belts on how to fight and stave off demons. Perhaps they were also aware that now is not a time to unleash their weapons!
Hasan Mahmud from Canada
The star performer in the Conference was Edip Yuksel, a Turkish scholar now living in the US, whose initiation to Islam was as an
The other important participant was Arnold Yasin Mol from the Netherlands, who reverted to Islam from Catholicism and studied Arabic, which gives him a thorough understanding of the Ko’ranic text and jurisprudence and therefore a definite edge. Yet I could not help notice his over exuberance during the course of the three-day deliberations and even as Moderator, he took more time than the speakers themselves, a sore point that was repeatedly pointed out to him, without much headway. While Arnold has political ambitions with the Dutch Muslim Party (and I will not be surprised if he becomes the Prime Minister of Netherlands!), unfortunately his domineering ‘my way or the highway’ demeanor will not help the Reformist in the long run. Long winding statements do not only bore an audience, it also creates confusions and the prudent and articulate Arnold, should take a crash-course and learn to reinvent the fine art of creating space for others – which in turn – reinterprets itself as respect for fellow beings – a specific lesson from the Ko’ran.
Understandably the debates and discussions therefore revolved around the old Arab myopic version of Islam and in doing so, the organizers I felt did itself a disservice – ‘the way forward’ as such never happened. What it did was to rewind and go back to times in history when the Arab dominated version of Islam was at its height. Harping back on the past – when Islamic history was mired with confusions, controversies and inconsistencies, made even worse by the spurious Hadith and Sunna traditions, I was wont to believe that much would be lost in the days ahead – if we do not relate Islam and Ko’ran to ‘now’. I hope in all sincerity that I was not wrong.
Much as various interpretations of Islam were drawn in – it was saddening to note that there appeared to be no interest to discuss the various textual interpretations of the Ko’ran by the Sufi’s (Ilm- e-Tusawwuf) and never for once did the name of a towering Islamic personality such as Jalal – al- Din Rumi (1207-1273) ever come up? The ignorance of the Sufi’s contribution to Islam, especially its robust presence in the cultures spreading from Persian civilizations to South Asian countries straddling India, Pakistan and up to Bangladesh – and its known projection of a tolerant strain of Islam, revealed a lack of sophistication and awareness of philosophies, cultures and the Marefati traditions as such.
Resultantly, what I felt all through was the lackadaisical and animated debates which wore down everyone, was totally unnecessary as the Sufi’s in South Asia had already and most befittingly confronted and answered those ‘deep and probing’ questions troubling the Islamic world, and that too centuries ago! The discussions/debates on the sphere of Islam was not ‘global’ at all but rather ‘localized’ to the Middle East, Europe and North America (from where the majority of participants had come from), which for all practical purpose appeared to me no more than defending and or debating the Arab ‘supremacist’ genre – that has absolutely no relevance to global Islam. This is an area that the Reformist must have a serious re-think and look at with deep commitment – and an education in that respect is certainly overdue.
With the varied degree of Islamophobia we witness globally, the challenge now rest on how the Reformist agenda is to be viewed in countries that matter most – namely in Europe and North America. From what I could gather, the Reformist ideals while certainly in conformity with changing realities stands a fair chance of meeting overall moral acceptance of Muslims worldwide – yet on a generalized perspective what they have on offer is nothing more than adding decibels to the noise of – ‘the real version of Islam’ – which has a ready a discernible audience specially among those thriving to grasp the intricacies of the faith – and those that are reverting to the religion in droves. The troubling question really is - can the consistency of the movement be retained?
Other that the many websites (a list of Reformist websites is added in the footnote) it appears as of now that the movement is restricted only to the Internet and the various forums run and managed by the group where passionate, provocative and sometimes one-upmanship points of views which negate consensus appears to be in vogue. Much of the gains of the Conference were lost to my chagrin in the bickering in forum emails immediately thereafter. As there is hardly any noticeable real-world presence of the Reformists either in the mainstream media or in its relationship with Government/s, a great worry lurks: whether the three day exercise was a Western intelligence ploy at understanding and studying liberal and progressive Muslim minds and gathering valuable data to frustrate future aspirations? A closed group such as the Reformists with no intent to go public beyond limited spheres to advocate its known position is also vulnerable to close monitoring. The danger really is whether the fanatics are doing the same and profiling individuals without their knowledge.
While a huge spectacle and media tamasha was made out of the female Imam from Canada leading a mixed congregation for the first time in the UK, regrettably there were no pre or post media briefings, kits available nor any efforts expended to ensure that the media stayed on and projected the outcomes of the daily deliberations in the Conference. In fact if I am not wrong, Arnold Yasin Mol’s wife did the only video coverage of all three days with a hand held semi professional camera! Mainstream newspapers had nothing to write about and in parts, I suspect the Reformist possibly did not want it.
That being the case, much more is desired out of the Reformist – as else it may in time be looked at by posterity as efforts by some sincere Muslim’s to come up with a de-fanged, intellectual (not philosophical), non-political pacifist version of Islam which would certainly be music to Western ears – for as long as the last stain is heard!
© Maqsoodul Haque – Mac
Uttara, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Tuesday, 7th September 2010