Episode 26. Islamic Reformers

Mohamed Islam: Islam, since its foundation 1400 years ago has undergone many reforms. What are the reform movements? How did they come about? Why was Islam in need of reforms? 

Abdel Wahab El Messeri: There was the obvious historical facts: the western armies succeeded in invading Muslim society, and succeeded in imposing their value system, their way of life and their method of government, and started to marginalize Islam. Many thinkers started looking at Islam closely. They Questioned the Muslim values and assumptions. After looking closely at the Islamic society they felt that there has been some kind of misinterpretation of Islam and its true values. The defeat and increasing alienation of Islamic values was due to the fact that we misinterpreted Islam and its fundamental reality. This took place at the beginning of the 19th century, when Napoleon invaded Egypt. The Islamic reform movement peaked at the end of the 19th century, near the end of the imperialist era. Most of the pioneers lived at the end of the 19th century. The Ottoman Khalifate was then the "sick man" of Europe. Everybody was thinking of how to dismember it. All kinds of nationalist movements ( Arab, Armenian, Turkish ) sprang up to fill the ideological void. Islamic thinkers thought the ideological void was created not by an intrinsic drawback or shortcoming of Islam, but by a deviation from its fundamental reality. 

MI: When did it start? Who were the first reformers? What were their objectives? 

AWM: There were the Pioneers, the Major Reformers and the Modernists.  The first real Pioneers were the Wahhabi Movement, and the Sanussi Movement. The Wahhabi movement in particular tried to purge Islam from the accretions that had become attached to Islam: e.g. superstitions, and wanted to go back to a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran. They revived the Hanbali school of thought, and adopted its dictates and writings. Ibn Taymiyah considered it the right interpretation of Islam. The Wahhabi movement coalesced with the Saud family and together developed the ruling ideology for Saudi Arabia. 

 After this the Major reformer was: Jamal al Din Afghani: He was from Afghanistan. He learned Arabic, wrote in Arabic. At the time there were no distinctions between Arab and non-Arab. There was Islamic solidarity, Islamic unity, and an Islamic dream. He joined the resistance movement against the British occupiers in Afghanistan. He came to Cairo where he found his school of thought with his major disciple Mohammad Abduh, an Egyptian who later became Shaik ul-Azhar. He felt the marginalization of reason in modern Islam has led to the state of affairs that existed in the Islamic world. 

MI: Was this marginalization of reason the cause of the Ottoman downfall and conquest? 

AWM: This is very controversial. The Ottoman Empire has had a very bad press. The Turks, the Greeks and the Arab Nationalists were against it. So the history of the Ottoman Empire was very biased. The true history still needs to be written. The other day I was listening to a lecture on craftsmen taken from Egypt to Istanbul to build mosques in the Ottoman style. This did not make sense since they were accustomed to a different style. Afghani was aware of this situation in the Ottoman Empire. New life could be infused into it. He did try to argue that the Office of Khalifa could revive Jamia Islamia (Pan- Islamism) a way of bringing about reform in the Islamic World. 

 After Afghani were: Mohammad Abdu, then Rashid Rida, a follower of Abdu accept for being a little more radical. After him came Hassan Al-Banna. !After them came the more modern reformers like Mohammad Emara. 

MI: Before we get to them, what antidote did the Afghani School offer? 

AWM: We can cover the major themes of the early reform movements. Afghani, Abdu and Ridha all had the same strategy. They all wanted to find the true core of Islam, with all the accretions removed ( shell ). They seeked rejuvenation by going back to the roots. They all believed there were certain attributes of Islam that had to be emphasized: 

  1. Restoration of Reason: Reason has to be rehabilitated if Muslims are to revitalize themselves. If they are to have a niche in world history once more. They have to become rationalists rooted in faith (iman). This is what Al-Ghazali had recommended. When reason is rooted in faith it becomes absolutely free to do what it wants. 
  2. No Priesthood in Islam., and no established church. 
  3. Ijtihad: Individual Interpretation: was a very valid method, very acceptable in Islam. 
  4. Another major theme was Democracy. It brought back the concept of Shura (consultation). This idea was very important in Islam. Tyranny was against Islam. 

Some enlightened secular thinkers sought to study Europe completely, thoroughly, learning its lessons and applying it wholesale to Islamic society, with its good points and its drawbacks. (with merits and demerits ). They claimed that this was the only way to revive Islam. 

The reformers said: Try to use only its good values and adapt these to the Islamic society. Keep the integrity of Islam and apply reason and science within this ideology. They were quite successful: They rediscovered democracy, reason, and rehabilitated the physical sciences. 

MI: How were these thoughts accepted? Were there any resistance? 

AWM: With Mohammad Abduh for example there were some resistance at Al-Azahr and some other places. This is always the case : suspicion of new things. But on the whole the reformers succeeded in showing that they were going to the heart of Islam itself, not bringing anything new. Eventually even the Al-Azhar curriculum was reformed. 

The modern Islamic discourse revolves always around reason rooted in faith, seeing that Islam is rational but not materialistic. 

MI: What about contemporary reformers? 

AWM: I think that Islamic Reformersí discourse has changed since the 1960ís. The question is how to adapt the modern to Islam. We were all optimistic with modernity, we thought that by setting up big cities and big central governments, and establishing lots of factories and industries, we will all live happy forever after. But a crises has occurred from this paradigm. It has brought disaster: alienation, and ruthlessness, disintegration of morality and personality, and breakdown of the family. The big city is not merely a city, it is also an ideology in itself. It is not only anti-religious, but also anti-human. The West thas its own criticism of modernity. So contemporary modern reformersí discourse is not optimistic of modernity. It does not call for reconciliation between modernity and Islam, but calls for a completely new Islamic Modernity, with completely new conceptions: Islamic Architecture, Islamic Cities, Islamic ways of Communication. With the crises of western modernity it has become incumbent on us to think of a new modernity. The Islamic modernist who is very well known is Tariq Al-Bishri. He is a leading Egyptian historian and modern reformist. He does not think highly of a central government. He considers it a complete disaster. He thinks the crises in Egyptian education is a direct result of this centralization. Decentralization would be better. Local communities should have input and decision making powers. 

MI: Where does this fit in with giant leaps in technology? 

AWM: Giant leaps in technology are beginning to be questioned. We are now talking about middle level technology, labor intensive technology. Because giant leaps in technology leads to giant leaps in the dehumanization process and social havoc because technology mechanizes reality. So we probably have to change direction and go for a middle level, labor intensive technology, that accommodates the needs of human beings. We no longer see a virtue in elimination of human labor, because it creates unemployment, alienation, and social havoc, that goes beyond any material gains from giant leaps in technology and total industrialization. 

MI: How would you some up Islamic Reformers today? 

AWM: Basically it is a continuation of the major themes of the reform movements, with a radical critic of modernity, with an attempt to develop a new Islamic modernity, based on Islamic values of harmony, love and solidarity, with a sense of community rather than self interest. 

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