Last update: 2019-03-26 15:12:13
Review of Mohamed Bajrafil, Réveillons-nous! Lettre à un jeune français musulman, Édition Plein Jour, Paris, 2018.
Mohamed Bajrafil is a doctor of philosophy in linguistics, a teacher and the imam of a mosque in Ivry-sur-Seine, a commune in the southeastern suburbs of Paris. He has written his second book Réveillons-nous! Lettre à un jeune français musulman (“Let’s Wake Up! Letter to a Young Muslim French Person”) in intimate, confidential tones, addressing young French Muslims as an older brother would. Published in 2018, this concise, readable text tackles a whole series of controversial theological issues linked to current reality and makes multiple references to the contemporary context and the position of Muslims in France since the attacks in 2015. The author discusses problems linked to religious extremism, violence in the name of faith, relations with religious or cultural otherness and to gender issues, developing his points of view through a mode of reasoning that draws on the Qur’an and classical Islamic literature.
Bajrafil briefly played a prominent role in the project fostered by the Al-Kawakabi Foundation. This had the aim of developing a reformist Muslim thought that might be more consistent with the spirit of Qur’anic revelation and the Prophet’s example. He can therefore be called a Muslim reformist thinker insofar as he is against the blind following of tradition and advocates a critical re-reading of Islam’s scholarly literature. Faithful to the Qur’an, which he considers a reliable and unadulterated revelation, Bajrafil subjects the other sources of Islam—the hadīth and the writings of traditional ulamas—to critical scrutiny, imposing order on the vast heritage left by the Islamic thought of the last few centuries. His methodology is in line with that of other contemporary Muslim thinkers who are true to their faith in the Qur’anic revelation and reformist in their relationship with the other texts: these are scrutinized against the yardstick of reason and overall coherence. An emblematic figure of French Islam, Bajrafil takes an active part in the Muslim community’s debates and is regularly invited to talk at conferences and in various mosques, as in the media.
From the beginning of the book to its end, Bajrafil rails against what he calls bigotry: this obtuse, reductive vision of Islam that a certain number of French Muslims have. He demolishes (or, at least, relativizes) some of the positions supported in certain circles, but without departing from the scope of what can legitimately be accepted by believers and all the time playing on arguments that he draws from the Qur’an, the Sunna and works by the classical Muslim theologians. He constructs his theses systematically, starting with a reference to the texts and then developing a counter-discourse that is soundly reasoned from a theological point of view.
He thus insists on the freedom to believe or not believe and rejects the rule providing for the death sentence for apostates. He is, moreover, critical of the community’s obsession with “non-promiscuity” and gives a series of examples taken from the Prophet’s life and the Muslim tradition that relativize the limits currently dominating relations between the sexes. He uses his examples mainly to demonstrate two facts: in the first place, Muslim theology is very heterogeneous, since there are many points of view regarding one and the same issue; in the second, there is a gap between original Islam, assimilated by the Qur’anic revelation and the Prophet’s exemplary life, and the man-made theology to be found in the law (fiqh), which is the result of individual efforts to reflect on the texts made by persons rooted in specific contexts. On the basis of this two-fold consideration, he proceeds to distinguish what belongs to the revealed Islam from what depends, instead, on the theology produced during a certain era. But even more, the author tries to awaken a critical spirit in Muslims and trigger a quest for knowledge that is pursued independently of the patterns of thinking inherited from the past. Lastly, he advocates a vision and practice of Islam that is in harmony both with our contemporary era and with French society, arguing that there is no contradiction between Islam’s teachings and a French civic belonging. He ends his work by presenting the possibility of adapting some ritual practices (such as prayer in the workplace) in ways that are wholly consistent with solid theological arguments.
After presenting some of traditional Islamic jurisprudence’s “aberrations,” Bajrafil concludes by asserting the need for a reform and specifying its scope. He emphasizes that it is precisely Muslim law that must be reformed, through a process that may select that which is valid and relevant for our era, whilst constantly keeping in mind the difference between fiqh, a man-made product tied to a historical context, and Islam’s original, authentic teachings that hold a universal calling.
One negative aspect of the book could be its insistence on the presumed violent, extremist pipedreams cherished by the young French Muslims whom the imam is addressing. Repeatedly returning to the destructive violence of terrorist attacks, the author seems to be implying that a significant number of believers may have adopted such positions. Another perspective could emphasize that the majority of Muslims are peaceful and in no way associate with these ideologies, thereby calling into question the need to keep returning to this deadly vision of Islam that, admittedly only too present, remains rather a minority approach.
The author should nevertheless be credited with succeeding in the arduous task of treating theologically complex themes and grounding his arguments in sound references, and all this in a direct, concise and forceful style. His exposition is rich in significant examples. It maintains an overall coherence and, at the same time, transmits a valuable message that is innovative both in its content and in its theological approach. It can therefore constitute an equally interesting resource both for Muslim believers and for those who desire to know more about Islam and contemporary theological issues.
To cite this article
Baptiste Brodard, “A Plea for an Unbigoted Islam”, Oasis, year XIV, n. 28, December 2018, pp. 132-134.
Baptiste Brodard, “A Plea for an Unbigoted Islam”, Oasis [online], published on 27th March 2019, URL: https://www.oasiscenter.eu/en/a-plea-for-an-unbigoted-islam.