A Call for External Input to Renew Islam

Renewal is the ability to allow for a massive dose of new thinking to pour into our lives, even if it’s not derived from our own cultural heritage.

BY RYAN MAURO | Wed, January 22, 2014 

Ammar Abdulhamid is a liberal Syrian pro-democracy activist whose anti-regime activities led to his exile in September, 2005. He currently lives in Silver Spring, Maryland. He is the founder of the Tharwa Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting democracy. The following is Ammar Abdulhamid’s interview with Clarion Project national security analyst Ryan Mauro: 

Ammar-FDDRyan Mauro: You wrote that “Muslims don’t need reformation, Muslims need renewal.” What do you mean by that?

Ammar Abdulhamid: It’s not enough for Muslims to stress or de-emphasize certain teachings in the Quran or the traditions of the Prophet for them to be able to cope with the challenges of modernization. What we need is renewal, that is, the ability to allow for a massive dose of new thinking to pour into our lives, even if it’s not derived from traditional sources and our own cultural heritage.

If Allah is the God of all people and not just Muslims, then, every scrap of learning everywhere is part of our heritage. Muslims often quote a saying of the prophet that goes “Seek wisdom even in China.” In other words, don’t just focus on local sources of learning. But I doubt that Muslims have ever understood the implications of this saying, otherwise they would have been able to quote the Tao Te Ching as readily as they quote the Quran.

Today, Muslims need to learn from the wisdom embedded in contemporary Western philosophical and sociological works, but only secular-minded Muslims seem able to do so. Practicing Muslims remain incapable of even admitting the need or the possibility of finding wisdom there. In short, to me, reformation is a process of restructuring within a familiar sociocultural framework. Renewal is what allows for external input from frameworks that are truly “other.”   

Mauro: You said in your newsletter that the reformation is “unfolding.” What evidence is there of that?

Abdulhamid: One sign of that is the growing sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shia communities throughout the Muslims World, especially in the broader Middle East, as evident in the current conflict in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, among others places.

Another sign is the growing divide between secular Muslims and Islamists, that is, those who still call for the establishment of an Islamic State and the imposition of sharia law on all, irrespective of their individual preferences. The ongoing struggle in Tunisia and Egypt seem to underscore the significance of this divide for the future stability and governance in these countries.

But in Syria, for instance, we can also see how such a divide has been instrumental in foiling opposition efforts meant to create a more cohesive and viable political structures. This has had a major negative impact as well as on the rebels’ ability to coordinate their actions on the ground, allowing for the rise of extremist forces and for a further retrenchment of loyalist militias behind the Assad regime. All politics in our region, at this stage, seems to be identity-based.

Mauro: How can sharia be reformed if it is viewed as Allah’s word?

Abdulhamid: Allah’s word has always been subject to interpretation. In fact, the whole concept of sharia did not exist in Muhammad’s life. Sharia as a concept that emerged long after Muhammad’s passing as a result of the work of scholars who tried to interpret the Quran and the “Traditions of the Prophet” in light of the experiences and realities prevailing in their time and in their communities.

As such, reforming sharia depends on the willingness of Islamic scholars to offer new interpretations of certain rules, especially as they pertain to personal conduct and the right of privacy, and their willingness to accept delineation between what they think is religiously desirable and what rules the state is actually entitled to actually impose on its citizens.

The history of the 20th Century and the course of events so far indicate that Islamic scholars are still quite reticent when it comes to offering new interpretations. As such, they are proving to be a major stumbling block in the path of Islamic renewal.

Mauro: Muslims uphold Mohammed as the model for living, yet he engaged in warfare and combined mosque and state. How can a reformation overcome this without being cast away as apostasy?

Abdulhamid: There are a variety of ways for achieving this. Some scholars have indeed suggested that people should differentiate between the conduct of Muhammad in Mecca, where he was more of a religious preacher, and his conduct in Medina, where he became a political leader as well.

Indeed, Muhammad’s intention may not have been to actually combine mosque and state. He might have had to play a dual role due to the uniqueness of the circumstances at the time. But these conditions are not replicable. Muhammad was considered a prophet. The leaders who came after him cannot make that claim. They had to extrapolate and interpret without direct divine guidance. Their decisions, therefore, could not be assigned religious significance, even if they dealt with religious affairs. They simply cannot be accorded a position similar to that of Muhammad.

For this reason, these people need to be elected, need to work with an elected parliament and need to allow for greater popular input into the decision-making process for all segments of the population. After Muhammad, and because Islam does not accept priesthood, the decision-making in the community needed to be passed on to the community at large, because no one is a prophet and no one can claim to have a special relationship with God that elevates him above the rest in the day-to-day conduct of social affairs. Sufi figures claiming such a relationship are fine, so long as they don’t seek to impose themselves on the political level.

Of course, this is one argument, and it’s not going to become instantly popular. And those who would advocate it will be accused of apostasy by the traditional scholars, and will be targeted by the extremists. But, this issue can no longer be avoided for all the risks involved. Unless such interpretations are made popular, the choice in our part of the world will continue to be reduced to ones between two types of dictatorial regimes: secular or Islamic. Democracy, development, justice, freedom, dignity, transparency will continue to be relegated to the sidelines.

Mauro: What I’ve found is that there are many Muslims who are relatively progressive but still hold on to anti-Western ideas. For example, there may be a Muslim who opposes terrorism but still supports the death penalty for apostates and homosexuals. There may be a Muslim who opposes violence, but still preaches anti-American themes depicting the U.S. as an imperialistic enemy. If positive change will happen gradually, what should be the standard for those we consider “moderate?”

Abdulhamid: This is indeed part of the problem that is confronting us. The progressives amongst us tend to be ideologically motivated, and their worldview tends to be anti-Western and anti-American in particular. We need to empower the more pragmatic elements, those who put greater emphasis on development and education, rather than ideology. We are much too obsessed with power politics; it’s like an amateur boxer turning pro and immediately wanting to go for the title match. Improving our lot in the world and having greater global impact cannot happen without going through certain necessary stages.

For several generations our emphasis should be on infrastructure development, education and closing the gender gap and the various social divides between communities. Those who show a true understanding of these issues and who are willing to stake out a public position in this regard, irrespective of the immediate price they might have to pay, are the ones that we need to engage and empower today. They may not be too influential today, but, with the right support, they can emerge as powerful brokers for democratic change in the morrow, so to speak.