Islam, Reform and the “Modern” Rational

At the gates of the 20th century, Muslims had already taken an intellectually defensive and at times hostile posture toward the “West” with a hegemonic colonial discourse slowly casting itself in many parts of the Muslim world. Across all regions Muslims found themselves at a military, economic and political disadvantage visa via the “West” and in response various ideas and theories were introduced to deal with this pressing and real problem. At one end of the spectrum some advocated a complete embracing of “Western” thought and ending Islam’s role in the society, while at the other end others called for the preservation and rescuing of what little is left of Islamic ideas, principles and institutions. Those who embarked on total embracing of Western thought went ahead and utilized heavy handed policies to push Islam out of contesting public space and institutions. At the other end, a closed and protectionist approach to the Islamic tradition developed that caused a particular mode of reactionary engagement on the one hand and an elevation of a set of Islamic texts as constituting the foundation not open to further elaboration or further re-interpretation.

However, another group argued for an adaptive Islamic model that is able to maintain its character while absorbing the newly found “Western” scientific spirit already been forced upon them during the colonial period. The argument of this third group was an effort to find a way to save Islam be embarking on a process of legal, economic, educational and social reforms, which if successful, would prevent the further erosion of Islam, as a religion and a way of life. This group pushed for an overhaul of Islamic law to bring it in-line with rational “modern” scientific discourses. The reform ideas were centered on bringing Islam into the “modern” world through embracing rational discourse and setting aside existing methodological approaches present within Islamic legal and intellectual confines. The question then and at present centers on the possibility of reforming Islamic legal and intellectual thought in such a way that it can fall in line with the precepts of “modern” rationality? More critically, could such reforms lead to the preservations of Islamic legal and intellectual thought or would it cause further erosion and fragmentations?

At the start, we must admit that a major epistemic problem exist. The problem put simply is that “modern” rational discourse is both secular and philosophically empirical, while Islam is a religion founded upon revelation with the centrality of metaphysical understandings of the world. Indeed, at a core level this leads to differing epistemological notions of the world, human role and understandings of it.

A basic assumption at the root of this approach is that “modern” rationality is impartial and it can be incorporated into Islamic thought without fundamentally altering the basic contours upon which the intellectual tradition is built. The “modern” is laden with values emerging from the post enlightenment period, philosophical materialism and is reflective in all its details of it; thus the process of adaptation was built on an inherent contradictions. At times the process of adaptation of Islam into the “modern” had to be clothed with a dose of legitimizing classical outfits so as not to be seen or considered as a basic imitative project of the West. To down play the philosophical and epistemic problems, the focus was maintained on advancing Muslims in the fields of science and technology, which, was argued, would enable them in the future to catch-up and possibly reconfigure the relationship with the West. However, science and technology are not value free since they emerge from and are the fruits of an epistemic system that arranges and determines the relationships that produces these advances.

Another critical point related to the above and is foundational has to do with the role of philosophy and religion in society and how to reconcile the dichotomy between both as they relate to the reform project. Religions have had a long history of inherent hostility toward philosophy and the opposite is true as well for each arrives at truth through a different door (some exception are found in Islamic philosophy but they are not utilized in the current project). The philosophers view the relationship between the people and religion as something that is negative and a sign of their lack of intellect and reason. The philosopher is endowed with reason and therefore does not need religion and revelation to guide him/her to the good or evil in this world. In this context, the philosopher is “the measure of all things” and needing no external revelation to guide him/her in this world. The “modern” project is constructed around this notion and also emerges out of a particular European historical trajectory defining the relationship between religion and reason; something that is completely different in the Muslim experience.

Islam, as a revealed religion with a human prophet, bring forth a set of practices that regulate the life of those who freely adhere to it but more importantly calls for a belief in the existence of a higher authority having dominion over them in all aspects of life. The human agency in this area is limited to the role of an ethical transmitter of the precepts of God’s regulations and in places were ambiguity are to be found an interpretation attempt must be undertaken that is subject to error. Man’s own intellect is deficient when compared to the creator and therefore we are in no position to find out with absolute certainty that which is good and that which is evil since only God has this ability and through delegation is transmitted to the prophets. Revelation provides man with this certainty and guide’s him to regulate his life in accordance with its precepts.

Philosophers, on the other hand, maintain that a man’s intellect is capable of reaching, by itself without need of external revelation, a clear identification of that which is good and which is evil. Good and evil are not absolutes revealed by God, rather they are the byproducts of man’s own actions and engagement in this world and subject to change. The philosophers feel that they can, through the use of their unimpeded intellect, reach the same type of conclusions, if not more definitive than that the prophets come with since they use proofs that can be cross examined for validity. In addition, philosophers’ ability to use demonstrative proofs to validate their thoughts and ideas is a much more reliable than prophets who depend on the unseen as a way to captivate the minds of the un-thinking people. The existence of a God that is unseen and having authority over man is an idea that the philosopher by necessity of his craft must reject for its acceptance would negate his self-assigned role as the arbiter of reason and rationality.

Going back to “modern” rationalism, which is rooted in a set of assumptions emerging from a philosophical point of view that posits man as the measure of all things as well as an inherent rejection and open hostility to religion. The attempt to forge a reconciliation between Islam and a particular notion of “modern” rationalism is fraught with contradictions and unresolvable tensions and an attempt to focus purely on science and technology will mistake the sweet fruits for the spite of the tree and its roots.