Wilfrid Scawen Blunt commented in his book, The Future of Islam, that Islam needs to “work out for itself a Reformation,” resembling that which took place in Europe. Blunt points out that in Al-Azhar University (his writing concerning al-Azhar was in 1882, and afterward) the “basis of a social and political reformation has been laid.” European Reformation witnessed Martin Luther’s challenge to the official Catholic Church structure, and brought about the birth of the Protestant Movement across the continent and the world as well. Luther’s movement made it possible for everyone to have access to the sacred religious text, which up to that point was limited to those within the official ranks of the Catholic Church, thus opening the gates of re-interpretation and through it subverting the existing power structure. Indeed, the end result is that Luther managed to undermine the established religious authority and altered the Church’s dogma held for centuries and transformed society to something completely different.
Blunt’s yearning for a Muslim Martin Luther was a hope on his part that a similar “Reformation” may occur in the Muslim world where the existing religious authority can be challenged and a new spirit of interpretation can take hold. The idea of “Islamic Reformation” has been around and introduced by Europeans since the early 17th century as Muslim political and economic fortunes began to decline opposite a massive transformation occurring as result of the “discovery of the new world”, changes in trade and economic patterns effecting taxes and tariffs, inner-fighting, ineffective dynastic rule, fragmentation, loss of territories and the onset of colonization. These causes collectively were not at their foundation a textual challenge and the religious authorities were on the sidelines for the most part since the executive power in Muslim societies were not vested in a clergy rather it was dynastic and often tribal based.
Thus, the idea or the need for “Islamic Reformation” was an external one and based on setting the European model as the “norm” in reading and thinking about the relationship of religion to society and state formation. How this process of “Islamic Reformation” was initiated is very critical and the emphasis of the issues highlighted likewise are of great importance.
Beginning in the early part of the 19th century Muslim political leaders attempted to slow down or reverse the political and economic decline; thus embarked on various initiatives to reform the society and at its core was accepting the problematizing of Islam’s role in the society. In this context, the symptoms of decline were mistaken for the actual causalities and foremost of which is a misreading of the shifts occurring in the world and lack of internal preparation to meet these challenges due to corruption, nepotism, territorial and society fragmentation and elite’s disinterest in uplifting the society as a whole. Problems were many but access to the text and religious authorities were not at the driver seat in the same way the Catholic Church was in Europe.
While it is plainly obvious that Muslims throughout the world are facing layers upon layers of conflict and massive challenges confronting them at every turn; however access to the text was not the focal point nor was it the same dynamics witnessed in Europe in relations to the Clergy. In this context, Muslims were being asked to re-enact Europe’s religious history and constituting it as the universal norm- methodologically faulty at best. I am not downplaying the problems present in approaching Islamic religious text and the multitude of real pressing issues that calls for the best and the brightest to avail themselves to it; on the contrary what I am asserting is a correct identification of the causes and prescribing the appropriate remedies.
The call for “Islamic Reformation” has accelerated over the past 20-30 years with conferences, strategic papers from think tanks, government interventions, direct violence, movies, and children books and media pundits-all are attempting to give birth to the “new reformed Muslim”. In my view, all these are directed at bringing about a Muslim subject that is a mirror image (inferior in status) of the successful European man/women who managed to dislodge the hold of religion upon the society and become a master of his/her destiny. No less than reconciling Islam with its status opposite the successful secular European is at the forefront of this constant engagement and problematizing it in contemporary discourses.
Many Muslim intellectuals’ efforts are directed at reconciling Islam with “Western” thought, a broad term implying that there is a binary in existence and also accepting the basic division inferred in the historical progression of the relationship. The process of promoting “Islamic Reformation” by a particular set of interests have found a ready band of writers and thinkers who play along and write for an attentive audience; thus giving further rationale for the effort. Henceforth, the intellectual production has been directed at a particular audience and addressing a set of issues that are of no concern or limited impact to Muslims across the world. How many address militarism, poverty, economic rights, IMF, WTO, and World Bank, human rights, dynastic rule, corporate power and the loss of meaning for human beings. “Islamic Reformation” is hollow if it does not confront all these issues head-on from a spiritual and Islamic worldview.
What is the point of departure for addressing the role of Islam and religion in society? What are the particular modes emerging from Islamic history that can inform and guide the relationship to the text so as to engage in “reform”, “renewal” and “innovation” that are not imitative in nature nor is set in an inferiority induced complex or worst make the Muslim society another commodity for corporate greed? If one approaches the subject with the notion that Islam is inferior, unworkable, and is not open to new and fresh examination then the end result would be more of the same.
More critically, why do Muslims today have such a deep rooted feelings of inferiority making them collectively act and think with the “West” being the eye through which they measure all things and are ready to play their Muslimness in a lens founded upon “double consciousness” that negate the centrality of the self in pursuits of meaning. I am for a renewed energy focused on Muslim self-rediscovery rooted in meaning arrived at from within Islamic epistemology that is in conversation with every tradition and society because we belong to the vast human ocean that produced multiple viewpoints to address the complexity of our condition. I am calling for a particular renewal and reform that is at the same time universal and global in its conversation and not centered in seeing only the “west” that is living in our collective minds.