In today’s world it is rare to find a more backward community than the Muslim community. The “best community ever raised among men” (cfr. Cor. 3,110) ended on the day of Prophet Muhammad’s death and probably the Qur’anic discourse on the “best community” is specific to Muslims in the era of the Prophet without including those who would come after them. Otherwise, the evil that for hundreds of years has affected Muslims, their backwardness as well as their current division, all the way up to ISIS, the last of their productions and their crowning glory, would remain unexplained.
It is useless to separate Islam from its followers in order to forgive the former from the backwardness of the latter and its crimes. The problem of Muslim backwardness cannot be resolved by creating a distinction between Islam as a civilized religion in theory and the Muslim people as its applicative tool of distortion. In fact, there are distorted forms of Islam that many Muslims make their own and apply fully. [In these cases] renouncing Islam and leaving it alone is much better than distorting it or shooting it down through an attachment to it. The problem is not so that Muslims have strayed away from their religion as much as the fact that they misunderstand it and apply its teachings in distorted ways, thus transforming it, in such conditions, in fossilized beliefs and unchanging and destructive ritual practices.
If the Prophet Muhammad had come in our time, for instance, would he have ordered to cut off the hands of thieves rather than put them in jail? The hadīths state that the much awaited Mahdi,1 at the end of time, will bring a new religion. This vision is in tune with the “novelty”, understood as the dominant character in the era of globalization and modernity. Religion is the revelation of the context, of the diagnostic diseases of such context and it proposes the appropriate cures. Religious teachings do not change their spirit and goals (maqāsid), but with the change of era their standards and instruments may vary. The new religion is essential to ensure that modern man and the new worlds conform to the divine teachings. Thus, Muslims need to return to understanding the religious text in light of the context in which they live, rather than evoking the historical context of the text and pushing it into the present.
Islam practiced by most Muslims suffers from a preference given to form over substance, ritual over value, matter over mind, to means over end, precept over purpose, signifier over actual meaning, the literal interpretation (tafsīr) over spiritual interpretation (ta’wīl), prince over community, class over society. Most Islamists take into consideration certain parts of the sacred text while leaving certain others out. On this regard, they act like surgeons wielding the scalpel with skill over the patient's body, but stops short curing and eradicate the disease. The Islamists, for example, impose the law (fiqh) not taking into account ethics, where the two dimensions are closely linked in the text, and indeed the former is the premise of the latter and should be seen as its source.
In addition, the law in force in many Islamic groups continues to represent a restriction of the religious text, trapped in literal molds that inhibit the progress of humanity and its capacity to evolve; otherwise it would be hard to explain the ban on the use of banks and on music and arts, the need to destroy the idols, and the fact of considering women as ‘awra [understood as a sexual object that must be covered, Ed.].
Renewing Islam means cleansing it from prejudices, falls, myths and changes that have affected it throughout the course of history, and apply it in a manner consistent with the spirit of the time and era. It also means going back to reading the religious texts with the reason, morality and spirituality of the Prophet, and not merely literally.
*A Professor at the Lebanese University, Habib Fayyad holds a doctorate in Philosophy and Islamic theology with a thesis entitled: “The Renewal of Arab Thought During the Nahda”. He is a columnist for Al-Safir, a Lebanese leftist newspaper.
1 The eschatological Savior, whose wait for is particularly alive in the Shi‘ite world (Ed.)
[This article was translated from the original Arabic]