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Is it Possible to Reform Islam?

The dialectic between renewal and conservation doea not always lead to the path traced by liberal modernity

Michele Brignone | 09 March 2017
Inside the al-Azhar Mosque © Dr. Mohamed Fouad

Is it possible to reform Islam? The question, which is now part of the public debate both in the West and in the Muslim world, could have a straightforward answer: not only is Islam reformable, but in the last two centuries it has been repeatedly reformed. From modernists to Salafis, there are more than a few streams who interpret Islam in discontinuity with the pre-modern tradition. Moreover, Islam itself presupposes the need for constant internal renewal. In fact, a famous saying attributed to Muhammad says that “God will raise for His community at the end of every hundred years the one who will renovate its religion for it.”

The point is rather that the dialectic between renewal and conservation does not always lead to the path traced by liberal modernity. Sometimes it can intertwine with it, other times it goes the other way. This is demonstrated by two positions recently taken by al-Azhar, the prestigious center of Egyptian teaching that wants to be the guardian of “authentic” Islamic tradition and at the same time is committed against extremist readings, in an effort of “religious speech” renewal.

Last January, the Grand Imam of the mosque Ahmad al-Tayyeb stated that the dhimma system, the protection that classical Islamic jurisprudence provided to the “People of the Book” (Jews and Christians) in exchange for a tax payment (jizya), can no longer be applied to Christians because it belongs to a past historical context. In the current framework of a modern nation-state, Christians are to be considered full citizens, with the same rights and the same duties as Muslims. To justify this evolution of thought, the Imam evoked the precedent case of the community of Medina, where the Prophet Muhammad had set up a “state” based on the “principle of citizenship”, in which Muslims, Jews and Gentiles lived together with equal rights. Such approach is a cornerstone of Islamic reformism: a reinterpretation of Islam that, bypassing the jurisprudential tradition, searches the past for a possible agreement, even an anachronistic one, between Islam and modern institutions. The same happened a year ago with the signatories of the “Marrakesh Declaration on the rights of religious minorities in the Islamic world”, who had identified in the “Charter of Medina” “a reference to guarantee rights to religious minorities in the Islamic world.” And even before them, some Islamist ideologists such as Yousef al-Qaradawi, Rachid Ghannouchi, Tariq al-Bishri and Muhammad Salim al-‘Awwa had expanded on the theme of citizenship, and they had also explained systematically the reasons why the dhimma system and the jizya payment, although being explicitly required by a Qur’anic verse (9,29), do not apply in today's context. Not to mention the whole reflection on “secular” Arab nationalism, which had already faced and solved this issue in the nineteenth century.

A month after the statements on citizenship, Imam al-Tayyeb, together with the other members of the Council of the Senior Scholars of al-Azhar, spoke on another sensitive issue, i.e. divorce, this time blocking any reform. In a speech delivered in front of the most important Egyptian personalities, president Abdelfattah al-Sisi indeed called for a law to limit the practice of oral divorce, according to which a husband can divorce his wife by reciting a simple formula. The statement with which the Cairo Ulama reacted to the President’s proposal confirms that this type of divorce is attested to among Muslims since the time of the Prophet, and with it, they merely invite the legislators to ensure the rights of wife and children and to strive to counter this phenomenon by means of culture and education.

It is interesting to note that the same method, i.e. referencing to the origins of Islam, allowed to “update” the doctrine in the citizenship case (even in the presence of a Qur’anic verse that would lead to a different direction), and was used to confirm the existing doctrine in the oral divorce case.

This apparent discrepancy may be explained according to some criteria that the Grand Imam of al-Azhar himself had exposed in a series of conversations on Islam broadcast on television during the month of Ramadan last year. In the episode dedicated to the renewal of Islamic thought, al-Tayyeb explained how reform is required by the very nature of Islam, which, having a definite message but collocated in time and space, has to reread his norms with the changing historical circumstances and geographical contexts. But he had also added that this interpretation process is not limitless. Within Islam there are in fact some constant elements (thawābit), regulated by stable norms, and variable elements (mutaghayyirāt), whose norms may instead evolve. The acts of worship (‘ibadāt) and issues concerning the family belong to the former, while politics, economics and social relations belong to the latter.

It is a well-established distinction on which the reformist thinkers push in order to open paths of renewal within Islam, although even the stable norms are not always that untouchable. Sometimes, political powers have indeed stepped in to force new interpretations. For family law, this happened with former President Habib Bourguiba in Tunisia, and, more subtly, with Mohammed VI in Morocco. An Egyptian scholar recently said that Islam cannot be renewed through guidelines from above. President al-Sisi seems to think otherwise.

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