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Progressive Islam (two conversations)

A few days ago I sent an e-mail to my friend Doga, asking him what he thought about two quotes from the article The Moderate Martyr by George Packer, which appeared recently in the New Yorker.

    The quest for spiritual meaning is typically a personal matter in the West. In the Islamic world, it often leads the seeker into some kind of collective action, informed by utopian aspiration, that admits no distinction between proselytizing, social reform, and politics.
    For any Muslim who believes in universal human rights, tolerance, equality, freedom, and democracy, the Koran presents an apparently insoluble problem. Some of its verses carry commands that violate a modern person’s sense of morality.

Packer uses the terms tajdid and islah, which he translates respectively as “renewal” and “reform.” For him they are problematic terms, because they are often used in the sense of returning Islam to the purity it supposedly had at the time of the Prophet. He contrasts the reactionary thinker Sayyid Qutb, whom many consider to be the spiritual father of Al Qaeda, with the moderate reformer Mahmoud Mohamed Taha of Sudan. Both were martyred for their beliefs, Qutb by the Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and ironically, Taha by followers of Qutb who came to power a generation later in Sudan.

Doga and I chatted online and had the following exchange.

    doga: In your e-mail you asked me, “What do these two words mean for you, tajdid and islah? How can we apply them to the interpretation of religion in modern times, and how can we apply that to society?”
    eatbees: You can add the idea of fitra too. I just learned that word. I understand it to mean that God gave humans the inherent ability to tell right from wrong.
    doga: Yes. Normally these two words, tajdid and islah—for me the first means to enter into a new experience, and the second means to apply reforms.
    eatbees: So how can we apply that to Islam, to understanding Islam in the modern context?
    doga: For me, the two words together mean “a democratic leap.”
    eatbees: What do you think of the notion that there are verses in the Qur’an that are difficult for a modern person to accept?
    doga: I understand that there are things in the Qur’an that the modern mentality can’t accept, because until now we haven’t achieved modern wisdom.
    eatbees: So it’s modernity that is at fault?
    doga: Not at all. I want to say that understanding only comes when knowledge and morality work in parallel. It looks to me like science has given people a sort of egoism, so they don’t really want to discuss what they see going on even when it is completely illogical.
    eatbees: Is this the same thing you’ve said in the past, that the ego can find arguments to justify any action or any opinion at all?
    doga: Absolutely.
    eatbees: So we need to temper our logic with a moral sense which is above logic?
    doga: Of course.
    eatbees: But the author is talking about somthing else. He says there are things in the Qur’an which a modern conscience rebels against, like slavery, or the situation of women, or the insistence on war.
    doga: First you need to understand the language the Qur’an is using.
    eatbees: So find me the humanist spirit of the Qur’an. Or rather, because I’m not the one with the problem, since I’ve already done my homework, find it for the Westerners who are upset.
    doga: Okay, I’ll write an article about that.
    eatbees: I think the author’s starting point isn’t bad, because he contrasts Sayyid Qutb and Mahmoud Taha, two opposing points of view. I can tell you the solution that Taha came up with. He said that the Qur’anic verses revealed at Mecca are pure Islam, while the later verses revealed at Medina are more limited and respond to the needs of the moment. The extremists didn’t like that, so they killed him.
    doga: Those who don’t separate religion, politics and reform, as the author puts it, have ways of reasoning about such things.
    eatbees: Could you explain?
    doga: Religion has a history and a culture that can evolve through shura, “democracy for the East.”
    eatbees: Watch out! The idea that religion can evolve is dangerous for some people. You could end up like Taha….
    doga: I don’t think so.
    eatbees: I understand where you’re headed, but could you define shura?
    doga: Shura means development through the analysis of obstacles.
    eatbees: What sorts of obstacles?
    doga: There are obstacles in many of the areas that make up society, such as politics and the law….
    eatbees: Do you mean that divine laws, being ideal, can never be applied perfectly to human society? That it’s always a quest, a journey toward the good?
    doga: We need to know how to apply them, of course, and even go beyond them if necessary.
    eatbees: Go beyond…! You really are dangerous. You place a lot of confidence in your fitra.
    doga: You make me think you don’t understand the spirit of Islam.
    eatbees: You can’t deny there are people who distort that spirit. In Baghdad there are militias who terrorise barbers for cutting young men’s hair in the latest styles, so it’s long and sleek.
    doga: I know.
    eatbees: I want you to explain the spirit of Islam as you understand it.
    doga: There are ideologues everywhere. Don’t forget Hitler.
    eatbees: I’m sure your view of Islam is the correct one, but obviously there are people around you who don’t share your flexibility. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not criticizing Islam, but rather the human spirit. If you were to tell someone like Youssef, for example, that Islam can evolve, I’m not sure he’d understand.

Youssef is a mutual friend. As it happened, I chatted with him later that same afternoon.

    eatbees: Why do you think the West misunderstands Islam? That’s what I’m struggling with now.
    youssef: Maybe because they know nothing about it.
    eatbees: I was talking before with Doga about tajdid and islah.
    youssef: You know we can’t restart Islam….
    eatbees: There are people trying to reconcile Islam with modernity, or rather to show there is no problem. At the same time, there are Muslims who say that everything modern is evil.
    youssef: It depends.
    eatbees: I read an article that contrasts Sayyid Qutb of Egypt with Mahmoud Taha of Sudan. Two very different mentalities. Do you know them?
    youssef: I know the first.
    eatbees: He’s better known. And very conservative. Doga said that religion is capable of evolving. I told him you wouldn’t agree.
    youssef: Maybe we can reform people, but the religion no. It is we who must evolve, not religion.
    eatbees: Doga said, “Religion has a history and a culture that can evolve through shura, ‘democracy for the East’.” What do you say to that?
    youssef: In some ways yes, but only if we respect its principles.
    eatbees: Can you explain to me what shura means, in your opinion? Doga said it means “development through the analysis of obstacles.”
    youssef: Shura means that scholars should talk and debate to resolve certain obstacles.
    eatbees: Can we add the idea of fitra to this discussion? I think it fits.
    youssef: No, fitra means something else.
    eatbees: Isn’t fitra what you use in considering how to evolve?
    youssef: Can you elaborate?
    eatbees: It seems to me that no set of rules can be truly universal, because the context changes. It’s necessary to sort the truly universal from what was meant for the particular context.
    youssef: Yes.
    eatbees: For example, when Allah gave Muhammad permission to fight infidels, it was because they were persecuting him and putting his community in danger. There are those who want to apply that today in the wrong context.
    youssef: You’re right.
    eatbees: But Allah gave us fitra, which is a sense of right and wrong, so we can make our interpretations with sincerity based on the context.
    youssef: I get you now. That’s true.
    eatbees: This is one of the things Westerners don’t understand about Islam. But then, Muslims are at fault too, for not explaining it better. Even to each other.
    youssef: I agree. Muslims are even more responsible, because they know their religion better.
    eatbees: Obviously. But then, sometimes what one “receives,” one receives without thinking.
    youssef: You know, I agree that if Muslims explain Islam to each other and understand it, they can convey the message to Westerners easily.
    eatbees: That’s what I’m getting at. I think that the way Islam is often taught and discussed among Muslims doesn’t lend itself well to critical thinking. But that isn’t Islam’s fault, it’s just lazy thinking.
    youssef: So now that you were “among Muslims,” what do you think of them? You know, I was always thinking that you are a Muslim.
    eatbees: I’m trying.
    youssef: I’ve never thought of you as a Westerner.
    eatbees: Anyway, Islam isn’t an “Eastern religion.”
    youssef: Hahah. Which brings us to the idea that it’s a universal religion.
    eatbees: I say on my website that I’m a Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Jew. Then I read that Gandhi said the same thing.
    youssef: Maybe if Islam is universal, it’s you who are universal.
    eatbees: Here in the West it’s necessary to deal with a certain type of Christian who only wants to prove other religions wrong. Very tiresome. At the same time, it’s necessary to deal with people who seek a materialist explanation for everything.
    youssef: So their lives are scattered.
    eatbees: I’ve said before that I think all religions are true. When people get caught up in “proofs” they distort the meaning. The truths of religion don’t need proof, they’re right in front of us.
    youssef: Yes.
    eatbees: Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is within you.”
    youssef: You’re right.

Comments

Comment from Kenza
Time: November 17, 2006, 18:11

I am learning a lot here :)
it feels good to find some poeple sharing the same point of view with what I believe.
I like the way you put things, sometimes I have some ideas and I don’t really know how to put or explain them (that is mainly why I started a blog to learn how to write things and explain them…)

I will come back often

Comment from Dave
Time: March 19, 2007, 06:31

Tariq has often been touted as the Islamic Luther. However a reading of his English written books indicate that he is more like his grandfathers co mentor Sayyid Qutb but a little more suave. I have begun a study to compare the two and hope to have something available at the end of the year. I have a blog on Sayyid Qutb and Islamists in general that explores Islamists mind set. You may be interested in visiting and contributing to this blog that explores the totality of Qutb and Islam in the form of considered essays.
http://anti-sayyid-qutb.blogspot.com/

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