By Suzanne Schneider
Does Islam need a Reformation? The question has appeared seemingly everywhere in the years since the attacks of 9/11, when radical Islam surged onto the global stage as the defining threat of the twenty-first century. Public figures like Thomas Friedman and Salman Rushdie have long argued either that an Islamic Reformation was needed or, more hopefully, in the process of occurring. More recently, one article by Cheryl Benard in the National Interest seized upon this theme in locating a possible silver lining in the rise of the Islamic State: namely, that such repulsive violence in the name of Islam may propel the world’s Muslims toward a true Reformation, to, in the author’s words, follow the Christian example by abandoning certain Qur’anic passages “as the centuries and humanity” march toward progress.
The suggestion that Islam can follow in Christianity’s footsteps by selectively privileging those portions of their tradition that some Muslims deem most compatible with late-capitalist modernity betrays a deep ignorance of both the nature of the Islamic textual tradition and the historical roots of the current crisis. A chief tenet of Islam, widely accepted across sectarian divides, concerns the divinity of the Qur’an itself. Within a tradition that de-emphasized the type of wonder-working that appear in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, the Arabic text of the Qur’an is considered Islam’s chief miracle. This gives its content an entirely different status than, say, Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
We should not take this to mean, however, that Muslims are trapped in practices of textual literalism that prevent them from being full participants in modernity. Historically, there have been numerous factors, ranging from the influence of political expediency to the power of local custom, that have helped bridge the gap between the sacred text and the actual lives of Muslims. Yet even more important than either of these factors is the tradition of jurisprudence (fiqh) and the principles it long ago established for how to interpret the Qur’an’s sometimes enigmatic passages.
The suggestion that Islam can follow in Christianity’s footsteps by selectively privileging those portions of their tradition that some Muslims deem most compatible with late-capitalist modernity betrays a deep ignorance of both the nature of the Islamic textual tradition and the historical roots of the current crisis.
These include foundational principles (usul al-fiqh) that govern the acts of Qur’anic exegesis, without which no authoritative legal rulings can be generated. For instance, one cannot issue a judgment on a particular issue without consulting all of what has been said about it within the Qur’an and the hadith (sayings attributed to Muhammad). Because the Qur’an, like the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, contains passages that seem wildly contradictory, this means that jurisprudence has traditionally entailed acts of textual reconciliation that are far more complex than a simple reading of any single verse might suggest. The Islamic hermeneutic tradition also requires familiarity with the “conditions for revelation” (asbab al-nazul) for each verse, as some are considered historically limited to Muhammad’s Arabia rather than general commands for all times and places.
Beyond these interpretive guidelines, there is a tradition of abrogation in Qur’anic exegesis in which certain verses are understood to overrule others. And we haven’t even mentioned the centuries of commentary that established judicial precedents that impact how contemporary rulings are decided. Oh, and by the way, these commentators don’t necessarily agree with one another on any given matter. If this sounds awfully complicated, that’s because it is. To suggest otherwise is not just foolish, it’s actually quite dangerous.
In fact, the current wave of Islamic extremism exemplified by ISIS is not the product of too great an emphasis on the practice of jurisprudence and the tradition of shari’a—possibly the most misunderstood word in America today—but rather of their neglect.
Understanding why this is requires taking stock of a number of factors: the decline of Islamic education over the last 150 years—occasioned by the desire to nurture secular schooling in order to compete against European military and economic might—and the growing illiteracy in the Islamic textual tradition that resulted; the attempt to codify Islamic law by both colonial powers and post-colonial states, which, as the preeminent scholar of Islamic law, Wael Hallaq, has argued, has made shari’a substantially less responsive to local circumstances and more focused on punishment than ethics; the rise of mass literacy in Arab societies and the proliferation of translations of the Qur’an in other societies enabling unprecedented access to (though not necessarily deep understanding of) the sacred text; the rise of mass politics and a class of leaders who are not well-trained in conventional Islamic teachings, though certain that Islam’s past greatness can somehow be revived; and the creation of new channels of communication, ranging from the cassette tape to the social media platforms so favored by ISIS, that offer just about anyone with web access the opportunity to opine on what is and is not Islamic.
The argument here contains numerous moving parts whose points of connection become most evident by considering two contemporary responses to ISIS: one calling for the overhaul of Islam, the other attempting to combat radicalism from within the framework of shari’a itself. Let us first address those who believe an Islamic Reformation is long overdue. Writing for National Interest, Cheryl Benard begins her aforementioned article by recognizing that all religious traditions contain “multiple injunctions and sanctioned behaviors that shock us today.” However, she goes on to claim, “Judaism and Christianity have adapted their religions to changing mores by tacitly ignoring those passages that no longer fit the times.” This may sound plausible, but the elision here between the Jewish and the Christian only works if you ignore the entire Jewish legal tradition, which, though sharing many features with that of Islam, has no parallel within Christianity.
In fact, Jews did not alter their tradition by selectively ignoring parts of the Hebrew Bible, as Benard suggests, but by arguing about them. And those arguments are not, mind you, a modern phenomenon, but engrained in a hermeneutic tradition stretching back two millennia. Take for instance, the Torah’s prescription regarding ben soreh u’moreh, a wayward and defiant son, from Deuteronomy 21:18:
“If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death.”
Luckily for wayward and defiant sons everywhere, Jews, for almost as long as we have a historical record, have not lived their lives in accordance with the literal text of the Torah—and not simply because they embraced allegorical interpretations. Rather, any attempt at textual literalism has been definitively mitigated by the juridical wrangling of the Talmud. With regard to the passage quoted about, the Talmud in tractate Sanhedrin features a discussion in which the definition of what constitutes rebelliousness is so restrictive—e.g. that the son must be of a certain age, that he must have eaten meat acquired cheaply, that the act must involve stealing from the father and consuming the meal in the home of a stranger—so as to almost certainly never be met.
You may think that all this legalistic hair-splitting is arcane and senseless, and that it is better to work against engrained systems rather than within them. In the case at hand, this argument may warrant consideration if we are speaking, as mainstream discourse tends to do, of Islam as a religion composed of certain beliefs and ethical practices that provide the individual with a sense of spiritual meaning. However, actually understanding how the Islamic State has emerged requires breaking out of this naturalized, Christian way of thinking about religion and instead considering Islam as a legal system, shari’a as a tradition of hermeneutics, and jurisprudence as its core “religious” practice. Might not this deeply engrained legal tradition have some bearing on Islam’s modern evolution? In short, if we approach Islam this way, would it make sense for an Islamic Reformation to proceed in the same fashion as the Protestant one, or might the same practices—the attack on institutional authority, the promotion of unmediated, individual reasoning, etc.—produce a radically different outcome?
To sharpen the contrast, let’s take a momentary detour through the substance of Luther’s revolution and the philosophic basis upon which it was built. Recall that the New Testament arrived to redeem man, not just from his sin, but also from the Jewish legal code. It was the figure of Paul who best articulated this anti-juridical stance, which, in Luther’s thought, facilitated the theological move away from Church sacraments and papal authority and toward the doctrine of sola fide (by faith alone). Following Paul, Luther grounds his argument in the distinctly Christian notion of humanity’s “twofold nature”, divided into flesh and spirit, which correspond to the material world of “works” and the transcendent realm of faith. Furthermore, and contrary to the juridical creep of the Catholic Church, “the soul needs only the Word of God for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not any works.”
This kernel of an idea—that a man’s actions are irrelevant to his salvation, whereas the truth of his faith is paramount—is completely foreign to a religious tradition built upon law, such as Judaism or Islam. More speculatively, there’s an argument to be made that Luther can grant the Christian an incredible amount of religious freedom because that freedom is limited, by definition, to the realm of faith. Here it is useful to recall Luther’s chastisement of the Swabian peasants who, claiming inspiration from his own writings, rebelled against their lords and princes. The freedom of the Christian, as Luther reminded them, does not apply to the external world of temporal concerns.
In short, we arrive at an ethical system in which matters of individual belief are quite necessarily individual. Yet we do not grant individuals the same amount of interpretive latitude when it comes to outward matters that impact others, but rather, look to laws, legal precedents and individuals with specialized legal training to establish and maintain a social order. To give an example from our own legal framework, most of us would never choose to disregard years of judicial rulings and govern the United States with only the text of the Constitution. Similarly, no sane person would want to live in a society where individuals are encouraged to interpret and execute the law for themselves. It would undoubtedly produce anarchy, the complete breakdown of authority and probably give rise to acts of senseless violence. In other words, it would look a lot like the Islamic State.
And here we can start to discern the real problem with calls for an Islamic Reformation. The religious fundamentalism of ISIS and its cohort is not evidence that Islam needs a Reformation, but that one has already occurred. There was, after all, no logical reason to believe that an Islamic Reformation would follow the same historical trajectory as the Christian model, which was rooted not merely in a specific time and place, but in a unique conceptualization of the relationship between religion and law. In contrast, both historical examples and common sense would indicate that juridical traditions evolve most successfully within the structure of legal disputation. Yet, over the last two centuries, it is precisely this tradition of Islamic jurisprudence has been progressively weakened by attacks from Muslim reformers, colonial governors and, more absurdly, the state of Kansas.
The religious fundamentalism of ISIS and its cohort is not evidence that Islam needs a Reformation, but that one has already occurred.
Focusing on the first group here, as writers including Ali Eteraz, David Kelley, and even Reza Aslan have noted over the last several years, we need look no further than the Arabian peninsula to locate Islam’s Luther. If we want to find someone who undermined the institutional authority of Muslim clerics in favor of the individual’s right to freely interpret religious doctrine, Abdel Wahhab, the ideological forefather of Saudi Arabian Islam, certainly represents a formidable contender.
It was he who first rejected the traditional regard given to judicial precedent and thereby created a new brand of puritanical Islam powered by ijtihad, or independent juridical reasoning. In the Sunni world, ijtihad had not been widely exercised by scholars (‘ulema) since the eleventh century. Yet contrary to what we might expect, Abdel Wahhab’s resuscitation of ijtihad led to the creation of an Islamic society that was markedly less tolerant and pluralistic than that of Sunni traditionalists, who, the common narrative went, were engaged in a cycle of imitation (taqlid) that had led to Islam’s stagnation. The radicalism of his message was not lost on the nineteenth century Orientalist, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, who described the Wahhabi movement in his 1882 text, The Future of Islam:
“The reform preached by Abd el Wahhab was radical. He began by breaking with the maxim held by the mass of the orthodox that inquiry on matters of faith was closed. He constituted himself a new mujtahed [one capable of exercising ijtihad] and founded a new school, neither Hanafite, Malekite, nor Shafite, and called it the school of the Unitarians, Muwaheddin, a name still cherished by the Wahhabites. He rejected positively all traditions but those of the companions of the Prophet, and he denied the claims of any but the first four Caliphs to have been legitimately elected. The Koran was to be the only written law, and Islam was to be again what it had been in the first decade of its existence.”
Blunt noted that Abdul Wahhab’s reformation was halted, at least temporarily, as the peninsula was brought back into the Ottoman imperial fold by Muhammad Ali’s army. Yet, as Blunt saw matters,
“Just as the Lutheran reformation in Europe, though it failed to convert the Christian Church, caused its real reform, so Wahhabism has produced a real desire for reform if not yet reform itself in Mussulmans. Islam is no longer asleep, and were another and a wiser Abd el Wahhab to appear, not as a heretic, but in the body of the Orthodox sect, he might play the part of Loyola or Borromeo with success.”
Abdul Wahhab was hardly the only modern figure to argue that the “gates of ijtihad” remained open, and what is striking is how this posture has generated some of the most puritanical interpretations of Islam and the most liberal. Another famous reformer who embraced ijtihad as central to Islam’s future was the Egyptian scholar, Muhammad ‘Abduh. He similarly turned away from judicial precedence and placed renewed emphasis on the text of the Qur’an and sunna (the words, habits and actions of Muhammad) as the only true sources for deriving legal rulings. Yet unlike his Saudi counterpart, he did so in support of women’s education, religious pluralism and the advance of the modern sciences.
There was a tension, however, present in this reformist platform, the nature of which remains instructive. On one hand, ‘Abduh followed in Abdel Wahhab’s footsteps by condemning heterodox local practices and Sufi customs, and thereby attempted to centralize control of religious knowledge in the hands of select members of the ‘ulema who alone claimed the capacity to understand the true nature of Islam. Yet on the other hand, he embraced the use of ijtihad as a means to accommodate Islamic practice to contemporary needs and recognized that any educated individual could theoretically be a mujtahid. In Indira Falk Gesink’s words, this effectively meant, “legal authority on religious questions would no longer reside in the hands of the scholars, but would be possessed by ordinary individuals.” Conservative members of the ‘ulema rightly pointed out that the displacement of legal rulings into the hands of each individual would mean the undermining of judicial precedent and with it, the entire structure of shari‘a.
Muhammad ‘Abduh clearly never envisioned a world in which ijtihad would be practiced by the masses or the Sufi sheikhs and village imams with whom they associated. At the time of his death in 1905, the literacy rate in Egypt is estimated to have been in the low single digits. Yet over the following decades, literacy expanded dramatically with the creation of new public school systems in Egypt and across the Middle East.
To compress a much more complex story into a few sentences, the new Egyptian public schools featured standardized curricula and textbooks that were devised by centralizing bureaucrats intent on “putting Islam to work,” as anthropologist Gregory Starrett has coined the process. While this meant that schoolchildren were still learning about Islam, the instrumentalization of religious knowledge meant that what they were learning lacked much of the energy and local diversity that existed in the past. On one hand, this meant Islam was increasingly boiled down to certain orthodox elements that every pious Muslim was called to believe. School texts from the interwar period are instructive in this regard, inviting the student to read a certain passage from the Qura’an or hadith, and then didactically providing its “correct” interpretation. Not surprisingly, curricula displayed a marked preference for those portions of the Islamic textual tradition that could be best mobilized in the service of the modern state.
This occurred not merely in Egypt, but in Palestine, Transjordan and Iraq as well.
It is worth noting the British colonial presence in each of these countries. As I have argued elsewhere, the interwar years there were characterized by an expansion of public schooling in which religious instruction in the Protestant mode played a central part. Take, for instance, the syllabus for Palestinian public schools published in 1921: “The Qur’an should be the source of authority in deducing doctrines, ritual, moral axioms, and civil transactions.” Elsewhere the curriculum stressed the usefulness of the Qur’an in helping students achieve literacy, and spoke of the need to develop in the population a “habit for rapid silent reading.” Whereas the Qur’an was typically a text that was memorized and recited in social settings or, in anthropologist Brinkley Messick’s terms, embodied, a new generation of educators dismissed this practice as pedagogically backward. True comprehension, it was assumed, could only be attained by sitting down and reading a text in quiet solitude.
As historian Richard Bulliet has long argued, this expansion of modern education marched side-by-side with the decline of traditional centers of Islamic learning. In the decades following the Second World War, the fruits of this process were beginning to appear, chiefly in the form of a new generation of leaders who had never received a conventional Islamic education, yet proffered solutions to all forms of modern malaise with Islam at the center: Sayyid Qutb (who, not incidentally, was educated and later taught in Egyptian public schools), Ali Shariati (trained in sociology), Khurshid Ahmad (economics), Hasan al-Turabi (law, at the Sorbonne). Osama Bin Laden’s training as a civil engineer rather than a religious scholar is surely most familiar to many of us, but he was merely the most glaring example of a trend that began decades before. As Bulliet argued in the mid-1990s, “the fact that the answers these thinkers gave to the questions asked them were often at odds with traditional teachings, or manifestly predicated upon ideas deriving from Western academic study, did not deter the young men and women from the new edge from following them.”
All of this brings us to the present, to ISIS, its leadership and the crisis engulfing the Middle East today. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State and the self-appointed Caliph of Islam, claims to be a graduate from the Islamic University in Baghdad (today the Iraqi University). In what is likely purposeful ambiguity, his biography implies he received a Ph.D. without actually stating so: “he studied in the university at all levels (Bachelor, Masters and Doctorate).” It’s impossible to deduce the exact nature of his educational experience in the university, which was only founded in 1989, but it is certainly not a known leader in the training of ‘ulema. The fact that al-Baghdadi uses his university experience to shore up his religious credentials ultimately testifies to the shift away from traditional institutions of Islamic learning and the type of knowledge they offer.
It is connection to this upheaval in religious authority that we should consider a second and entirely different response to ISIS: a 17-page open letter to al-Baghdadi that was issued by Muslim leaders in late September. A powerful rebuke, the letter is signed by 126 scholars, intellectuals and Muslim leaders from countries as diverse as Egypt, Uzbekistan, Morocco, the United States and Indonesia, many of whom are prominent members of the Sunni ‘ulema. What is most noteworthy for our purposes is the type of rebuttal this is: it is not grounded in a liberal discourse of universal human rights, nor does it echo Obama’s attempt to distinguish between ISIS and true Islam (a slippery theoretical slope when combatting a group that persecutes Muslims based on similar logic) or follow the Saudi course of action and declare ISIS modern-day Kharajites. Rather, this is a legal disputation that operates within the boundaries of Islamic jurisprudence and showcases the dangers of an Islamic Reformation in the Protestant mode.
The document opens with an Executive Summary, the first points of which are as follows: 1. It is forbidden for an individual to issue legal rulings (fatwas) without the necessary qualifications, and fatwas must conform to the rules of “Islamic legal theory as defined in the Classical texts.” 2. No one who lacks mastery of the Arabic language may issue legal rulings. 3. It is impermissible to oversimplify shari’a and “ignore established Islamic sciences.” 4. “It is permissible in Islam [for scholars] to differ on any matter, except those fundamentals of religion that all Muslims must know.” The rebuttal therefore begins by calling attention to the requirements of legal training, the importance of judicial precedence and the heterogeneous nature of shari’a, all factors that mitigate the untrained individual’s capacity to simply read the Qur’an and decide for him or herself what it means.
As the letter goes on to state, this is in fact exactly what the leaders of the Islamic State entice their followers to do. The third section of the letter, simply titled “Oversimplification,” includes the following admonition:
“It is not permissible to constantly speak of ‘simplifying matters’, or to cherry-pick an extract from the Qur’an without understanding it within its full context. It is also not permissible to say: ‘Islam is simple, and the Prophet and his noble Companions were simple, why complicate Islam?’ This is precisely what Abu Al-Baraa’ Al-Hindi did in his online video in July 2014. In it he says: ‘Open the Qur’an and read the verses on jihad and everything will become clear…all the scholars tell me: “This is a legal obligation (fard), or that isn’t a legal obligation, and this is not the time for jihad”… forget everyone and read the Qur’an and you will know what jihad is.”
No, you won’t, or so the letter argues, bringing the following arguments to the foreground: a war against fellow Muslims cannot be classified as a jihad, one must receive permission from his parents to participate in a jihad, an armed jihad is considered the lesser battle than that of man against his ego, jihad is necessarily defensive, not offensive, the rules of conduct in armed jihad forbid the killing of prisoners, refugees or non-combatants, and on and on. In short, the letter argues, “jihad without legitimate cause, legitimate goals, legitimate purpose, legitimate methodology and legitimate intention is not jihad at all, but rather, warmongering and criminality.”
The case for the mitigating influence of jurisprudence is also made in the discussion of hudud, punishments like amputation and stoning meted out for serious crimes. In an interesting parallel to the example of the wayward son quoted above, the letter states that hudud “are not to be applied without clarification, warning, exhortation, and meeting the burden of proof… In all schools of jurisprudence, hudud punishments have clear procedures that need to be implemented with mercy, and their conditions render it difficult to actually implement them.” While Disney’s Aladdin has helped popularize the idea that shari’a commands cutting off one’s hand for an act of minor theft, the juridical reality is of course more complicated:
“Moreover, suspicions or doubts avert hudud; i.e. if there is any doubt whatsoever, the hudud punishment cannot be implemented. The hudud punishments are also not applied to those who are in need or deprived or destitute; there are no hudud for the theft of fruits and vegetables or for stealing under a certain amount. You [ISIS] have rushed to enact the hudud while, in reality, conscientious religious fervour makes implementing hudud punishments something of the utmost difficulty without the highest burden of proof.”
On issue after issue—the establishment of a Caliphate, the mutilation of the dead, the treatment of women and children, the massacre of non-Muslims, the use of coercion and the killing of innocents—the letter condemns ISIS from within the juridical framework of Islam itself. And herein lies the tragedy of this rebuttal, which no doubt required substantial effort to produce: such an argument will be of little use in tackling a group that has so explicitly disconnected itself from the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence and rebelled against the established sources of religious authority.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the longest section of the open letter to al-Baghdadi is that dedicated to the issue of declaring people non-Muslims, or takfir. This section quotes several Qur’anic verses and hadiths that discourage this practice, such as Muhammad’s warning that “the person I fear for you the most is the man who has read the Qur’an…cast it off and thrown it behind him, and taken up the sword against his neighbor and accused him of polytheism.” The letter prefaces its discussion of takfir by stating, “Some misunderstandings about takfir are a result of the exaggeration of some Salafi scholars.” To whom might they be referring? The next page makes it clear: “The reason this point has been discussed in such detail is because you [ISIS] distributed the books of Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahhab as soon as you reached Mosul and Aleppo.”
And indeed, Abdel Wahhab did more than any other modern figure to advance the practice of takfir, a stance that required a break with the established Sunni precedent. This brings us to the oft-noted irony that Saudi Arabia, America’s strongest Arab partner in the fight against ISIS, is similarly devoted to Abdel Wahhab’s “protestant” approach to Islam and in particular, his rebellion against jurisprudence. The distinction, of course, is that, since the dawn of its modern statehood, Saudia Arabia has been deeply invested in reconstructing an authoritative institutional structure in order to monopolize the discourse about Islam and ensure its compatibility with the whims of the ruling dynasty. This is no doubt why the Kingdom has denounced ISIS in terms that differ significantly from those evident in the open letter to al-Baghdadi: they are not sinful or misguided Muslims in need of rebuke and correction, but Kharajites who are outside the boundaries of Islam. It is the anxious response of a Kingdom looking its reflection in the eye.
Yet at the end of the day—having taken note of these “protestant” challenges to the tradition of Islamic jurisprudence, the changing nature of education and the spread of mass literacy—the rapid growth of ISIS would be impossible without the thoroughly modern means of communication on which it relies. There is, of course, something egalitarian about media forms that allow individuals to share views that might otherwise never find their way onto mainstream platforms. At the most basic level, social media allows one to circumvent those traditional sites of authority that govern whose voice can be heard by the masses. However, with regard to Islam, the use of such media both reflects and contributes to the decay of institutional powers that historically decided who was qualified to issue legal judgments or offer religious guidance.
It is tempting to view this as a battle between the old guard and the young generation, and this image is not entirely off. Against the cautionary scolding of ‘ulema who warn that the waters of Islamic law are deep and treacherous for those without proper training, ISIS offers recruits a chance to jump right into the waves, automatic weapon in hand. If ISIS recruiting videos sometimes resemble a particularly violent spring break—young, angry men gone wild—it is because its leaders are skilled at appealing to a generation of Millennials that combines an ingrained skepticism against authority with bleak economic prospects and a preference for consuming information in 140 characters or less. Combine this human material with the assurance that Islam is simple and scholars are useless, and you have the elements for a perfect storm.
Yet, while many ISIS recruits are young, it would be wrong to view its success as stemming merely from the failure of Millennials to appreciate nuance or respect their elders. The battle underway is not primarily between the young and the old, but between radically different approaches to understanding Islam: one that stresses proper legal training and respect for judicial precedent, and one that urges Muslims to open their Qur’ans and decide for themselves. The Reformation, you see, is already here. It just doesn’t look like we hoped it would.