It is values which provide the moral base and stability to society, and that five values are most fundamental in the Quran. These are: the truth (haq), justice (adl), benevolence (ihsan), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah). No Islamic law should violate these fundamental Quranic values, and any laws framed to serve existing social needs must uphold these values.
By Asghar Ali Engineer
Friday, 02 Jul, 2010
AT a conference held at Oxford University last month it was encouraging to see many reformist Islamic scholars from across the world come together to discuss various issues pertaining to Islamic societies and contemporary challenges.
The theme of the conference was ‘Critical thinkers for Islamic reform — the way forward’. The moot began with the Friday prayers, and in keeping with the reformist approach seeking equal rights for Muslim women, the prayers were led by a woman scholar from Canada, Ms Raheel Raza, who delivered the sermon. The media was present in full strength as it was for the first time that a Muslim woman was leading the Friday prayers in the UK. Ms Raza’s sermon was focused on reform and change.
The most important thing for Islamic reformers is to have a deep conviction in the faith whose practices they seek to reform. All those participating in the conference were from diverse cultures; they spoke different languages but had one thing in common: pride in being Muslim. They were convinced that Islamic laws, as developed during the medieval ages, need urgent change, and that the Quran needs to be interpreted in keeping with new challenges emerging around us in a globalised society.
Edip Yuksel was once an orthodox scholar from Turkey. He has written extensively in the Turkish language from a conservative standpoint. However, over a period of time his views have changed after he became convinced that critical thinking on various Islamic issues is a must in modern times.
He concluded that earlier translations by eminent Muslim commentators (mufassirs), however scholarly, are not satisfactory for this age. Along with two other Islamic scholars, Layth Saleh al-Shaiban and Martha Schule Nafeh, he has attempted a fresh translation of the Quran. It has been published under the title, Quran: A Reformist Translation. It is worth studying as these three scholars have gone into the roots of crucial Arabic words used in the Quran to capture the real spirit of the holy text, cleansing it of the superstitious approach of the early scholars.
Some of the subjects discussed at the conference were: ‘The paradigm of Islamic reforms — history and heritage’; ‘Theological and philosophical imperatives for Islamic reform’; ‘New Quranic hermeneutics — Muslim law and Islamic reformation’; ‘Islam, science, culture and freedom — towards a Muslim renaissance’; ‘Gender, sexuality and human rights in Islamic discourse’; and ‘Media, war on terror and western foreign policy’.
All the discussions that took place were Quran-centric as against hadith-centric among those who stress on a conventional practice of interpreting Islamic law. Some scholars were of the opinion that a hadith-centric approach cannot admit reform and change, and that the Quran after all is totally divine so there is absolutely no difference of opinion about its text.
Many hadiths are not only controversial but also based on Arab culture, customs and traditions of the time. The Quran, on the other hand, goes beyond any geographical area and is not restricted by any time period. It is, in other words, beyond space and time and thus an eternal guide.
Some of the participating scholars felt that though many hadiths are controversial, there are also those which are in conformity with the Quran and normative in nature (apart from those which are contextual). The reformists believe that such hadiths can serve a useful purpose even for re-understanding the Quranic text and for making reforms in the existing Islamic law structures. Despite some such differences on these issues all participants were united in their desire for reform.
The participants also felt that values and principles are immutable, not laws based on these values and principles. Laws must remain dynamic and change with social needs. It is values which provide the moral base and stability to society, and that five values are most fundamental in the Quran. These are: the truth (haq), justice (adl), benevolence (ihsan), compassion (rahmah) and wisdom (hikmah).
No Islamic law should violate these fundamental Quranic values, and any laws framed to serve existing social needs must uphold these values. All reforms to be attempted should be with a view to strengthening these Quranic values, because the law is not the end but a means to achieve the implementation of these values. Also, any change and reform must keep as its aim the maqasid (objectives) and masalih (interests and welfare) of society. The conference concluded on this sagacious note.
The writer is an Islamic scholar who heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.