Resolving Islam's Conflict With Modernity

16/06/2016 3:05 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Before I begin, it is essential that I clarify my intent. I am neither a theologian nor a history scholar. So what follows is a friendly initiative to dialogue with like-minded individuals, without any pretense of high moral ground.

Let us start with three news items, taken from various parts of the world, that would outrage any modern liberal-minded person, regardless of religious persuasion.

2016: Pakistan's all-powerful Council of Islamic Ideology opposed a legislation passed by the Punjab state assembly, and said it was "un-Islamic" for women to leave abusive relationships as husbands should be allowed to "lightly beat" their wives if their commands are defied.

2014: Issam Abuanza, a British citizen of Palestinian heritage and an endocrinologist working with the NHS left Britain to join ISIS. In February 2015, he wrote about the Jordanian pilot who was burnt alive and released a video of his painful death. Abuanza said he would have tried to keep the pilot alive longer to prolong his torture.

2011: The Indonesian city of Jember introduced a compulsory virginity test for female high school students. This was done so that they could be barred from receiving diplomas if found to have had sex outside of wedlock. After much uproar, this proposal was scrapped.

This is not a selective collection by an Islamophobe. I am cognizant of the fact that every religion has streams of pluralism as well as absolutism. This holds true for Hinduism and Christianity as well, both of which have regressive and morally reprehensible strands of thought and action. There is often a conflict between what a religion actually teaches and how it is interpreted by followers. And while every religion has some heavy lifting to do in this regard, it is Islam that has the most urgent catching up to do. Given the fact that it is the world's second largest religion, and also the fastest growing one, the problem of its resistance to modernity concerns all of humanity.

Right-thinking Muslims may have to accept that the religious literature needs to be read in its socio-temporal context.

According to Jürgen Habermas, cultural modernity is based on norms, values, and a rational secular world view. This critical thinking and primacy of reason are the basis of modernity. All societies would have converged on this common platform had they not been subjugated by gun powder -- in Egypt and Syria by Napoleon and in India by the British, for example. In that sense, the appropriation of modernity as a European project has been the product of the mythical claim to superiority of the White world -- this suits certain obscurantist elements in Islamic society. Because once stamped as a Western concept, modernity can easily be associated with all the so-called evils in the "godless" societies of the White world. With this perspective, the enforced wearing of the hijab and other such practices seem logical and desirable.

So, will this chasm between modernity and Islam always remain?

To begin with, right-thinking Muslims may have to accept that the religious literature needs to be read in its socio-temporal context. The rapid developments in science have proved that our planet is a living system and nothing here is permanent or immutable. Not even the rocks, as common sense may make us believe -- as eminent geologist Kenneth Lacovara said in a TED Talk, "Moon rocks are forever. Earth rocks, on the other hand, face perils of a living lithosphere."

[T]he best chance for a reform process to sprout and grow is among the Muslim diaspora living all over the world in democratic societies.

This principle of change is not new to Islam. As Mohammed Al Jabir, the Moroccan Islamic scholar pointed out, this principle of non-immutability has already been accepted and expanded upon by the 13th-century Muslim scholar Averroes (Bin Rushed). It is further endorsed in the Quranic edict, "Allah does not change people unless they change themselves." This only shows that change or adaptation is not un-Islamic. Muslims can and should change to adapt with modernity. It is true that such change should be borne out of critical thinking which is also provided for by the idea of "Ijtihad" pointed out by the famous Canadian Muslim activist Irshad Manji in her book The Trouble With Islam Today in which she has extensively dealt with Islam's own tradition of independent and critical thinking. Reformation is within grasp, something which was elucidated beautifully by British Muslim extremist turned progressive scholar Maajid Nawaz: "What can unite us is a set of religion-neutral values. By focusing on the universality of human, democratic and secular values we can arrive at some common ground."

In my opinion, the best chance for such a reform process to sprout and grow is among the Muslim diaspora living all over the world in democratic societies. Once such changes gain traction globally, then extremists will really be isolated and start appearing as the fringe elements. No longer will it be necessary for Muslims to plead after terror attacks, "This does not represent Islam." It will already be clear to see.

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