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Contemporary Islam: Reformation or Revolution?

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John L. Esposito

From Oxford History of Islam
© 2000 Oxford University Press
Used by permission of Oxford University Press

Contemporary Muslim Societies: Old and New Realities


Islam in the twentieth century has been associated with reformation and revolution. Political and intellectual movements responded to the challenge of European colonialism, achieved independence, and established modern Muslim states and societies. In the last decades of the twentieth century, a second struggle emerged. This Islamic resurgence signals both the failures of Muslim societies and deep-seated, unresolved religio-cultural issues, as Muslims continue to struggle with the meaning and relevance of Islam in the world today. The issues have extended from textual criticism and interpretation of the Quran and Prophetic traditions to the role of religion in state and society. This resurgence has yielded a variety of questions, from the nature of the state and Islamic law to pluralism and the status and rights of women and minorities.

Although the Quran and Sunna of the Prophet Muhammad remain normative for most Muslims, questions of interpretation, authenticity, and application have become contentious items. Some Muslims see little need to substantially redefine past approaches and practices; others strike out into new territory. Some Muslim scholars distinguish the eternal, immutable principles and laws in the Quran from those prescriptions that are contingent responses to specific contexts. Other scholars distinguish between the Meccan and Medinan suras (chapters): the Meccan chapters are regarded as the earlier and more religiously binding texts; the Medinan are seen as primarily political, concerned with Muhammad's creation of the Medinan state and therefore not universally binding. Still other Muslim scholars have distinguished between the Quran's eternal principles and values, which are to be applied and reapplied to changing sociopolitical contexts, and past legislation that was primarily intended for specific historical periods.

Although the example of the Prophet Muhammad has always been normative in Islam, from earliest times Muslim scholars saw the need to critically examine and authenticate the enormous number of hadith (Prophetic traditions), to distinguish between authoritative texts and pious fabrications. In the twentieth century a sector of modern Western scholarship questioned the historicity and authenticity of the hadith, maintaining that the bulk of the Prophetic traditions were written much later. Most Muslim scholars and some Western (non-Muslim) scholars have taken exception with this sweeping position. Many ulama continue to unquestioningly accept the authoritative collections of the past; other Muslim scholars have in fact become more critical in their approaches and uses of hadith literature.

New approaches to the study and interpretation of Islam's sacred sources have been accompanied by similar debates over the nature of Islamic law, the shariah . As noted, many ulama continue to equate the shariah with its exposition in legal manuals developed by the early law schools. Other Muslims - from Islamic modernists such as Muhammad Abduh, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, and Muhammad Iqbal to Islamic revivalists and neomodernists - have distinguished between those laws based on clear texts of the Quran and hadith and those that are the product of human interpretation and application, the product of reason and custom. Some express this distinction as that between the eternal law of God ( shariah ) and its human interpretation and application ( fiqh ) by early jurists. The distinction is often articulated in terms of the classical division of law into a Muslim's duties or obligations to God ( ibadat, worship) and his or her duties to others (muamalat, social obligations). The former (for example, the performance of the Five Pillars of Islam, the essential beliefs and practices) are seen as unchanging; the latter are contingent upon historical and social circumstances.

Contemporary Muslim discussion and debate over the role of Islam in state and society reflect a broad array of questions: Is there one classical model or many possible models for the relationship of religion to political, social, and economic development? If a new Islamic synthesis is to be achieved that provides continuity with past tradition, how will this be accomplished, imposed from above by rulers and the ulama or legislated from below through a representative electoral process?

Legal reform remains a contested issue in many Muslim communities. Many emerging Muslim states followed a pattern of implementing Western-inspired legal codes. The process of legal change did not reflect widespread social change so much as the desires of a small secular-oriented sector of the population. Governments imposed reforms from above through legislation. The process, contradictions, and tensions inherent in modernization programs in most Muslim societies were starkly reflected in family law (marriage, divorce, and inheritance) reforms. Family law, which is regarded as the heart of the shariah and the basis for a strong, Islamically oriented family structure and society, was the last area of law to be touched by reformers. Even then, unlike most areas of law that implemented Western-inspired legal systems and codes, Muslim family law was not displaced or replaced but instead subjected to selective reform. Officials often employed an Islamic modernist rationale, in an ad hoc and haphazard manner, to provide an Islamic facade and legitimacy.

Family law ordinances were drawn up and implemented by the state, not by the ulama, pitting religious leaders against both secular and Islamic modernists. The ulama tended to object to any tampering with Islamic law, maintaining that (1) they and they alone were the qualified experts in Islamic doctrine and law; (2) the law was sacred and unchangeable; and (3) modernists were unduly infiuenced by the West and thus family law reforms were simply an illegitimate attempt to "westernize" God's law. However, the government imposed reforms that were ultimately accepted, albeit reluctantly. Modernizing elites accommodated the force of tradition in their unwillingness to directly challenge or invalidate classical Islamic law. Thus, violation of the law did not render an act invalid, only illegal. Moreover, punishments in the form of fines and imprisonment for men who ignored reforms that limited their right to polygamous marriages or to divorce were often minimal. The contemporary resurgence of Islam triggered the ulama 's reassertion of the authority of the past, as they called for a return to the shariah and sought to repeal family law reforms and reassert classical, medieval formulations of Muslim family law.

In more recent decades, the debate over whether the shariah should be part of or the basis of a country's legal system has become a sensitive, and at times contentious, issue. If it should be, to what degree? Does Islamization of law mean the wholesale reintroduction of classical law, the development of new laws derived from the Quran and Sunna of the Prophet, or simply the acceptance of any law that is not contrary to Islam? Who is to oversee this process: rulers, the ulama, parliaments? As Iran, Sudan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia demonstrate, the implementation of shariah has not followed a fixed pattern or set interpretation even among those dubbed conservative or fundamentalist. For example, women in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan under the Taliban cannot vote or hold public office. In Pakistan and Iran, despite other strictures and problems, women vote, hold political office in parliaments and cabinets, teach in universities and hold responsible professional positions. However, Islamization of law has underscored several areas that have proved particularly problematic: the hudud (punishments as prescribed by the Quran and hadith for certain crimes, such as alcohol consumption, theft, fornication, adultery, and false witness) and the status of non-Muslims ( dhimmi ), minorities, and women. All involve the question of change in Islamic law.

Although many traditionalists and neorevivalists or fundamentalists call for the reimplementation of the hudud punishments, other Muslims argue that they are no longer appropriate. Among those who advocate imposition of the hudud (for example, amputation for theft or stoning for adultery), some call for its immediate introduction and others argue that such punishments are contingent upon the creation of a just society in which people are not driven to steal in order to survive. Some critics charge that although appropriate relative to the time period in which they were introduced, hudud punishments are unnecessarily harsh in a modern context. Although many Muslim rulers and governments try to avoid directly addressing the issue of the hudud, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia, advocate of a modernized Malaysia with a moderate, tolerant Islam, directly criticized the conservatism of his country's ulama, their legal opinions ( fatwas ), and religious courts. In addition, he refused to allow the Malaysian state of Kelantan, the only state controlled by PAS (the Islamic Party of Malaysia), an Islamic opposition political party, to implement the hudud .

The reintroduction of Islamic law has often had a particularly pronounced negative impact on the status and role of women and minorities, raising serious questions about whether it constitutes a setback in the gains made in many societies. During the postindependence period, significant changes occurred in many countries, broadening the educational and employment opportunities and enhancing the legal rights of Muslim women. Women became more visible in the professions (as teachers, lawyers, engineers, physicians) and in government. Admittedly, these changes affected only a small proportion of the population and varied from one country or region to another, influenced by religious and local traditions, economic and educational development, and government leadership. The contrasts could be seen from Egypt and Malaysia to Saudi Arabia and Iran.

One result of contemporary Islamic revivalism has been a reexamination of the role of women in Islam, and at times a bitter debate over their role in society. More conservative religious voices among the ulama and Islamists have advocated a return to veiling and sexual segregation as well as restricting women's education and employment. Muslim women are regarded as culture bearers, teachers of family faith and values, whose primary roles as wives and mothers limit or exclude participation in public life. The imposition of reputed Islamic laws by some governments and the policies of some Islamist movements reinforced fears of a retreat to the past: in Afghanistan, the Taliban enforcement of veiling, closure of women's schools, restriction of women in the workplace; in Pakistan, General Zia ul-Haq's reintroduction of the hudud punishments and a law that counted women's testimony as half that of men's; greater restrictions on women in the Islamic Republics of Iran and Sudan; the murderous brutality of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group toward unveiled or more westernized professional women. In fact, the picture is far more complex and diverse, revealing both old and new patterns.

Muslim women in the twentieth century had two clear choices or models before them: the modern westernized lifestyle common among an elite minority of women or the more restrictive traditional "Islamic" lifestyle of the majority of women, who lived much the same as previous generations. The social impact of the Islamic revival, however, produced a third alternative that is both modern and firmly rooted in Islamic faith, identity, and values. Muslim women, modernists, and Islamists have argued on Islamic grounds for an expanded role for women in Muslim societies. Distinguishing between Islam and patriarchy, between revelation and its interpretation by the (male) ulama in patriarchal settings, Muslim women have reasserted their right to be primary participants in redefining their identity and role in society. In many instances, this change has been symbolized by a return to the wearing of Islamic dress. This has not simply meant a wholesale return to traditional Islamic forms of dress, however. For some it is the donning of a head scarf ( hijab ); others from Cairo to Kuala Lumpur have adopted new forms of Islamic dress, modest but stylish, worn by students and professionals. Initially prominent primarily among urban middle-class women, this new mode of dress has become more common among a broader sector of society. For many it is an attempt to combine religious belief and values with contemporary levels of education and employment, to subordinate a much-desired process of social change to indigenous, Islamic values and ideals. The goal is a more authentic rather than simply westernized modernization.

Islamic dress has the practical advantage of enabling some women to assert their modesty and dignity while functioning in public life in societies in which Western dress often symbolizes a more permissive lifestyle. It creates a protected, private space of respectability in crowded urban environments. For some it is a sign of feminism that rejects what they regard as the tendency of women in many Muslim societies to go from being defined as sexual objects in a male-dominated tradition to being exploited as sexual objects Western-style. Western feminism is often seen as a liberation that has resulted in a new form of bondage to dress, youthfulness and physical beauty, sexual permissiveness and exploitation, a society in which women's bodies are used to sell every form of merchandise from clothing to automobiles and cellular phones. Covering the body, it is argued, defines a woman and gender relations in society in terms of personality and talents rather than physical appearance.

Contemporary Muslim societies reflect both the old and the new realities. Traditional patterns remain strong and are indeed reasserted and defended by those who call for a more widespread return to traditional forms of Islamic dress and sexual segregation or seclusion ( purdah ) in public life. At the same time, however, Muslim women have also become catalysts for change, empowering themselves by entering the professions, running for elective office and serving in parliament (in countries as diverse as Egypt and Iran), becoming students and scholars of Islam, conducting their own women's study groups, and establishing women's professional organizations, journals, and magazines. Women's organizations from Egypt and Iran to Pakistan and Indonesia - such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws, based in Pakistan but international in membership, and Malaysia's Sisters in Islam - are active internationally in protecting and promoting the rights of Muslim women.

The simultaneous call for greater political participation and for more Islamically oriented societies has not only had a negative impact on non-Muslim communities, but it has also sparked a lively discussion and debate among Muslim intellectuals and religious leaders over the status of non-Muslims in an Islamic state. The traditional doctrine of non-Muslims as "protected people," enabling many to practice their faith and hold positions in society, was advanced relative to its times and to the then far more exclusive approach of Western Christendom. By modern standards of pluralism and equality of citizenship, however, it amounts to second-class status. More conservative Muslim voices continue to celebrate and defend this doctrine, while other Muslims from Egypt to Indonesia have advocated a redefinition of the status of non-Muslims, in terms of their right to full and equal citizenship, which would enable an egalitarian and pluralist society of Muslims and non-Muslims. This is reflected in debates in Egypt over whether the Copts can serve in the army or should have to pay a special tax and similar discussions about issues of religious and political pluralism in countries such as Lebanon, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Ironically, questions of citizenship and the exercise of political rights have become increasingly significant for Muslim minority communities in the second half of the twentieth century. At no time in history have Muslim minorities been as numerous and widespread. Both the swelling numbers of Muslim refugees and the migration of many Muslims to Europe, Canada, South America, and the United States, where Islam is now the second or third largest religion, make the issue of minority rights and duties within the majority community an ever-greater concern for Islamic jurisprudence. Can Muslim minority communities accept full citizenship and participate fully politically and socially within non-Muslim majority communities that are not governed by Islamic law? What is the relationship of Islamic law to civil law? What is the relationship of culture to religion? Are Muslims who live in the United States American Muslims or Muslims in America? How does one distinguish between culture and religion, that is, between the essentials of Islam and its cultural (Egyptian, Pakistani, Sudanese, Indonesian) expressions?

The history of Islam in the contemporary world, as throughout much of history, continues to be one of dynamic change. Muslim societies have experienced the effects of rapid change, and with it the challenges in religious, political, and economic development. Muslims continue to grapple with the relationship of the present and future to the past. Like believers in their sister traditions, Judaism and Christianity, the critical question is the relationship of faith and tradition to change in a rapidly changing and pluralistic world. As Fazlur Rahman, a distinguished Muslim scholar, observed in Islam and Modernity (1982), Muslims need "some first-class minds who can interpret the old in terms of the new as regards substance and turn the new into the service of the old as regards ideals."

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