On the Renewal of Religious Discourse

Dr. Radwan Al-Sayyed

A Lebanese Intellectual and Academic

Renewal or Reformation

I do not know a writer on the pubic or Islamic affairs, Arab or non-Arab, over five decades and more, but he called for religious renewal, and religious or Islamic reformation. Since Martin Luther, Protestants have called their movement “religious reformation.” Muslim conservatives have often opted to speak about religious renewal not renewal of religion, and have avoided imitating Protestants in calling their call as “reformation!”

During the past 10 years we have been involved, either consciously or unconsciously, in many processes of renewal or even reformation, and stopping is no longer possible or acceptable. I will attempt to explain how and why this happened, and what are the possible or expected future prospects?

In a study I presented in 2017 in the conference of “Forum for Promoting Peace” in Abu Dhabi and which I have presented several times later, entitled “Integrity of Religion and Peace of World: Towards a New Narrative in Islam,” I reviewed in the beginning seven projects submitted on religious renewal or institutional reformation. These projects are: the Ottoman project to codify the fiqhi (Jurisprudential) heritage (of the Hanafi School); Imam Muhammad Abduh’s project for religious and intellectual reformation, linguistic renewal, education reformation at Al-Azhar, the preservation of endowments against appropriation, and the reformation of Shariʿah courts; Muhammad Iqbal’s project to renew religious thinking in Islam; Abd Al-Razaq Al-Sanhouri’s project for “reformation and the adaptation of the jurisprudential heritage to civil laws;” projects of radical critique of religious heritage as a way of reformation; the projects to consider Maqasid Al-Shariʿah “Higher Objectives of Shariʿah” as an approach to suit the modern time; and finally, the ideas and projects to combat extremism in religion.

Endeavours and Efforts of this Adaptation

Religion has two pillars: the Qur’an and Sunnah, and the community that receive and adopt them. Since the first theoretical establishment in Al-Resalah of Imam Al-Shafiʿi (d. 204 A.H.), where he identified the four principles of inference and legislation: Qur’an, Sunnah, Ijmaʿ (Consensus) and Qiyas (analogical deduction), it became clear that the nation adopting this religion has the power to intervene through interpretation, individual reasoning (Qiyas), and collective reasoning (Ijmaʿ) to interact with the text, influence it and get influenced by it and adapt to the affairs of life and living. This was evident to the Companions of the Prophet, as Imam Ali said, “Qur’an does not speak for itself. Instead, it is human beings who give effect to it according to their limited personal judgments and opinions (in the historical context).” The Qur’an and the major collections of the Sunnah have been read millions of times over ages either for memorization and comprehension, for further understanding, for renewal of explanation and interpretation, or for all the three things. The intent has always been to adapt to variables. Imam Al-Ghazali says, “The texts are finite in number and cannot deal with all the infinite variety of events” Qur’anic Exegetes differed regarding the meaning/meanings of Allah’s saying, “Say [Prophet], ‘If the whole ocean were ink for writing the words of my Lord, it would run dry before those words were exhausted’- even if We were to add another ocean to it.” What is the meaning of “words” here? Does it mean the variety of the meanings of one word? Or does it mean: the variety of personal reasoning in understanding it? Whatever the case is, there have been personal reasoning on the partial issues that would arise in the changing daily life, which the Maliki Jurists called later “Al-Nawazil” (newly-arising issues).  With the increase of variables and the universality of their nature, there arose a need for a new interpretation of the Qur’an lest there would be separation between the revealed text and the private and public life of Muslims.

The above mentioned seven attempts or projects for religious renewal or religious reformation in the last 100 years are of this kind. Many have felt that there is lack of adaption to the developments of the current world, due to spread of Taqlid (following old views) and the negative impact of the lack of adaptation to the changing circumstances on the life of Muslims in their relation with the world. Let us remember that Imam Muhammad Abduh not only worked on projects to reform education at Al-Azhar, to create new methods in Arabic, to preserve endowments and to reform Shariʿah courts; but also he began lessons on Exegesis of the Qur’an until his death in 1905. Let us also remember that in his book published in 1867, Khayr Al-Deen Al-Tunusi, called the Western progress “the torrent that can only be faced with adaptation and self-qualification.” let us also remember that in 1857, Sheikh Rifaʿah Al-Tahtawi republished Ibn Khaldun’s Al-Muqaddimah after it had been published in France, and in 1877 he requested to translate “Guizot’s book Histoire de la Civilisation en France, which Muhammad Abduh in his youth used to study with his colleagues and students. The idea of civilization and its laws of establishment and decline have dominated people’s minds for 50 years and more. Thus, Muslims or their intellectuals, whether they are traditionalists or modernists, realized early, though in different degrees, the issue of (Fawt) inability to adapt Islamic jurisprudence to modern social needs  as “Abd Allah Al-Urwi” calls it. According to the degree of awareness, responses differed, whether through the call for the dire need to open the door of Ijtihad, or by calling for institutional reform, and first and foremost by calling for reflection on the conditions and norms of urbanization and civilization, motivated by the need to bring Muslims out of the state of decline!

The aforementioned reformation projects have failed, in part or in total, or have reached paths and results not intended by their founders or early advocates. The Codification that meant to use the Fiqhi heritage in drafting (civil) laws that would help in adaptation with the modern regulations, as well as in the legalization of new conditions in national states, was only beneficial in personal Status laws and their codes. As for other areas, it quickly became just discussions and books written on the codification of the Shariʿah and its application on the ground that is not applied. This has led the partisans and callers of Hakimiyyah to call for the necessity of establishing an Islamic State which can alone apply the Shariʿah because the existing states are not compliant with the Shariʿah, and that the civil laws are complete delusion, westernization and deviation from the path of Allah.

It is not useful to trace the consequences of other renewal and reformation projects, not because they have failed to achieve their objectives; but for three other reasons. First: These projects had an impact on identifying the possibilities inherent in the text, and the possibilities understood from the real world, such as the issue of human rights, which benefited from the Universal Declaration (1948). Second: the comprehensive Fiqhi renewal, based on the idea that the call for Ijtihad was shared by all projects. While the issue of human rights has benefited intellectuals and jurists in theorization, development and struggle, many professional Jurists have participated to the Fiqhi renewal, and few among them thought about religious reformation. The third thing to present here for its importance in the following discussion is that traditional religious institutions that have took part in the great Fiqhi renewal over a hundred years have not stood by the theological and intellectual renewal despite that some of their well-known figures were among the pioneers, such as: Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, Sheikh Mahmoud Shaltot, and Sheikh Al-Taher Ibn Ashour. This is either because modernists seemed to be radical (such as the ideologues of denying the heritage), or out of fear of threatening the religious identity in light of the serious westernization, or because of modernists’ campaigns against religious institutions.

Defections and their Consequences

Again, regardless of anything else, there have been explosions in Islam since the 1970s, and these explosions in the name of religion have been targeted respectively: national states, religious institutions, and the world order. In these three areas, the new Islamists have achieved impressive blows over more than three decades. However, the biggest effective events: were: the overthrow of Iran’s national state in 1979, killing President Al-Sadat in 1981, the invasion of the USA in 2001, and the establishment of ISIS in 2014. The movements of the new Islam were considered to be a schism in religion among Sunnis and Shiites, because they deviated from the fundamentals and axioms of the two sects established a thousand years ago in texts and traditions, all under the pretext of renewing the Imamate or the Islamic State and by applying Shariʿah, which is no longer an approach to free, prosperous and peaceful life, but a complex group of contradictory doctrines and jurisprudential issues that share a sense of frightening radicalism that had emerged also in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the fascist trends. The difference hers is that this radicalism comes in the name of religion and it emerges from something “imagined” created by ignorance, selectivity and the exploitation of techniques that have become known in the means of communication, producing legal realities “Virtual Reality.” In the picture, there is the peace of the “Islamic State,” its well-being and integrity, while in reality; people are killed as if they were flies, and in the name of what? In the name of the application of Shariʿah! The discourse of the Qur’an is that: believers who do good deeds “have the glad tidings in the world and in the Hereafter.” How this glad tidings be materialized? Is it through such fire on earth? Shiite and Sunni Islamic movements are modern movements produced by the disparities of modernity between the powerful and the weak, and by the failure of religious reformation. They emerged also due to the weakness or collapse of religious institutions. By their nature, in theory and development, they can only be violent because they aim to remove away the “reality” in favor of the imagined exemplary model and the ill imagination that sees conspiracy in everything and at every moment. Beyond Al-Qaeda and ISIS, let’s look in the practices of (al-Faqih al- Wali) the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist. He practices fierce violence against his own people, and at the same time, he does not hesitate to provoke violence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan and Bahrain, with the intention of subversion and nothing else!

As I am an Azharite, and I was raised at the Religious Institute and the University for Peace, safety, tolerance, moderation and the prohibition of violence even by word or gesture. I was among those astonished at the killing of the Egyptian Minister of Awqaf by extremists (1978). He was the one who taught us the course of Qur’anic exegesis in the Faculty of Usul Al-Deen in 1968, and I was more and completely astonished by the killing of President Al-Sadat. Since then, given the actions of followers of Khomeini and the Sunni Jihadists, I have realized that violence in the name of religion, and Islam in particular, will be the most destructive for religion and the most dividing reason for communities, and it will be an evil that will justify every transgression.

From Reactions to Reformation

Religious institutions were at the top of those harmed by violence from Jihadists and the politicization of religion by followers of the Sahwah (Islamic Awakening). However, the reactions of these institutions before 2001 were neither strong nor impressive. This is because they were not in good condition with regard to their thought and administrative structure. In six decades, national States have taken three paths toward these institutions: preservation, respect and mutual support in major Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco; weakening and fragmentation for example in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Tunisia and Algeria; or positive neutrality and neutralization in small countries such as Lebanon, Mauritania, Jordan and Oman. The Followers of the Islamic Sahwah and Jihadists considered religious institutions from the beginning to be the Ruler’s tongue and a burden on the true religion, while modernists attacked them for their traditionalism and regressiveness. In the 1980s and 1990s, religious institutions were still interested in two topics: pressure on national states to codify the Shariʿah, and arguing with Arab and foreign modernists who, in their view, distort the image of Islam.

However, the blatant violence practiced by Jihadists everywhere, culminating in the attack against the United States, waging the two civil wars in Iraq and Syria, the establishment of an imagined state, threats to Arab and Muslim states and societies from inside and outside, and the pressures facing states themselves. All this led religious institutions to draw power from their weakness. Thus, we found them in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates move towards starting practices that have turned after a while into initiatives to combat extremism and terrorism, and then to produce a new vision of religion. I called this rich process (between 2004 and 2015) as the self-qualification stage, and after 2015, I added the word: qualification of others, that is, as religious institutions have obtained possibilities and became free from some restrictions, they have started activities that were all intended to come up with long-term plans, to do three interrelated things: Administrative and intellectual capacity building, launching cries at seminars and conferences against extremism and terrorism, and communicating with the outer world, whether religious, cultural and political, to present another image of Islam. The major Sunni religious institutions were in a real alienation from their being, their tasks and their roles. I discussed this in my book “Times of Change: Religion, State and Political Islam” [Abu Dhabi – 2014, Egypt – 2016]. Therefore, when I started working under the pressure of reality, I became more aware of gaps, the necessity of filling them, and raising efficiency in religious thinking, reading the internal religious reality, and the problems of Islam and Muslims with the world which were results from Jihadists and followers of the Sahwah, along with the international policies.

It began with seminars and conferences that speak up against violence in the name of religion. Confrontation became public between violent people and religious institutions. Some tactics have worked, while others needed switch and change. In practice, it seemed that presenting texts on peace in the Qur’an and Sunnah can be contested by Jihadists and some followers of Sahwah by presenting texts they believe supporting violence against the enemies of religion. On the other hand, some concepts became axioms among all Muslim and were used by Jihadists and followers of Sahwah, such as: faith, Jihad, Caliphate, state, abode, and relations with non-Muslims, and it became necessary to be courageous in criticizing them radically. Institutional scholars hesitated, but soon they determined to defend the religion and Muslims against harm caused by the Jihadists’ manipulation of the traditional reading of these concepts and institutions. Usual ideas or understandings become difficult to remove, because they become part of the tradition, and over time, they become part of the religion. Away from the three pillars of belief: Oneness of Allah, Prophethood and Scriptures, and the Last Day, any other thing is open for discussion. Sometimes, it may be necessary to even discuss them critically.

Anyway, after 2015, the three or four major and active religious institutions in the Arab world have begun to qualify themselves and qualify others for religious renewal and reformation. I want to give the example of three documents in this regard: “The Document on Human Fraternity” signed by the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and the Pope, the Document of the Forum for the Promotion of Peace (The New Al-Fudoul Alliance), and the Document of Mecca (Peace and Universal Citizenship) by the Muslim World League. These and other institutions have issued dozens of statements and announcements in the last 10 years. However, these three documents represent the culmination of the progress forward from renewal to reform, and the change of Muslims’ “vision of the world”. In 2019, I delivered a lecture comparing these documents with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and found agreement in fourteen items. There was no disagreement in other items, but some items and issues were overlooked. In addition to the change in religious thought, there is another important thing, namely, those undertaking the renewal and reformation this time are the religious institutions which did not intervene throughout the twentieth century, or at least some members from them would intervene. Change is qualitative, and it presents alternatives to the current situations of the world and to Muslims.

Since 2016, and as I participate since 2007 (=King Abdullah’s Initiative for Interfaith and intercultural Dialogue) in attempts and projects to change the world’s vision in consideration of Islam, I have realized that a qualitative change taking place, and it may not be noted even by some of those undertaking it. Therefore, after a long thinking and tearing many papers, I delivered a lecture on (The Integrity of Religion and the Peace of the World: Towards a New Narrative in Islam). In this lecture, I concluded that the new vision of Islam, which is formed in the religious institutions and in the public, is based on three rules: Mercy which is the basis of God’s relationship with His servants, knowing one another which is the basis of people’s relationship to each other, and the Objectives of Shariʿah which is the Muslims’ commitment towards their religion and towards the world.

I have followed the mechanisms of thinking and management in the religious institutions and some intellectuals of moderation and found theses mechanisms based on two types: the area of hermeneutics and eclecticism. According to Paul Ricœur, hermeneutics allows texts and incidents to be read in new structures and contexts. Going forward in this mechanism that implies great change in the meaning and the possibilities of the texts and the incidents, circumstances will be ready for reformation and composition of the new set of concepts and considerations.

I do not claim that renewal or reformation has been completed or integrated, as they continue to affect and get affected by crises, congestions and attritions. On the other hand, the process of change has been so quick that some of those undertaking it were unaware of the significance of the steps that have been taken along the long way. Their intellectual opponents did not realize that the issue or the problem of heritage had become something of the past. We are in a new era of understanding and neighbouring without severances, denial or reverence. Renewal and reformation of religion are going forward on the ground, and this issue has become an option and is no longer driven by necessity. Thus, we have to work until the completion of the awareness thereof and to make institutions have full self-confidence and continue their process of self-qualification and qualification of others, and to continue our struggle for better relations between institutions and intellectuals.

To Allah belongs the command before and after!

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