Islam, Islamists, Javed Ahmad Ghamidi, Syed Abul A’la Maududi

Can Islam Be Reformed?

Islamism is just one specific totalitarian interpretation of Islam. It is possible to adopt a version of Islam that can be reconciled with western values.

The phenomenon of Global Jihad has plagued the world for many decades now, and has consequently initiated a discussion about Islam. How Islamic are the Islamists? And most importantly, can there be a “moderate Islam” compatible with modern values? A quick observer might say no, but I would not concur.

The fact is that scriptures do hold value and meaning of their own, but they do not always speak for themselves. There are certain cases in which the scripture seems to be very explicit, while on other occasions the text is not very clear in its meaning and relies on our own conscience, intellect and wisdom. Therefore, the manner in which one may interpret the text depends not only on the text itself but also on the person’s intellect, intentions, motivations, methodology, and the geopolitics. I would like to elucidate by citing the example of Islamism.

‘Islamism’ refers to the diverse forms of social and political activism advocating that public and political life should be guided by Islamic principles, or more specifically to movements which call for full implementation of sharia.

I regard Islamism to be a specific totalitarian exposition of Islam. Islam is a faith similar to other Abrahamic faiths. It addresses various spheres of life related to our personal and social lives. Politics is also an indispensable and inseparable part of our lives. Ineluctably, Islam also focuses on politics. Islamism, however, does not simply emphasise the political dynamics of Islam, but it actually interprets the entirety of Islam through a political prism. Therefore, what was actually a single component of Islam, has become the most dominant aspect in Islamism. In order to understand Islamism, I believe that it is absolutely imperative to explore the religious thoughts of Syed Abul A’la Maududi, the most influential Islamist scholar of the 20th century.

“Islamism, however, does not simply emphasise the political dynamics of Islam, but it actually interprets the entirety of Islam through a political prism”

Marxism is referred to as the economic interpretation of history because in Karl Marx’s understanding of life, the economic factor dominates everything else. In the same way, Maududi projected Islam in such a way that every aspect of it acquired a political hue. He was one of the first Islamic thinkers to develop a systematic political reading of Islam. Accordingly, one can term the religious ideology of Maududi as the political interpretation of Islam. Here is one illustration of how Maududi inordinately exaggerated the political aspect of Islam and came up with a new ideology.

He says:

“Prayer, fasting, Hajj (pilgrimage) and zakat (charity), which God has made a duty for you and has appointed as pillars of Islam, all these things are not, as in the forms of worship in other religions, mere rituals and offerings and customs that you perform and God is happy with you. Rather, the fact of the matter is that they have been made into a duty to prepare you for a lofty purpose and to train you for an important task. This aim is to wipe out the rule of human beings and to establish the ruler-ship of the one God. To be ready to sacrifice one’s everything and make efforts for this purpose even at the cost of one’s life is called jihad. Prayer and fasting and Haj and zakat are all for preparing for this particular purpose”.

Unlike Maududi, who considers political struggle to be the underlying meaning behind the Islamic pillars, most Muslims believe that it is only a way to achieve God’s leniency and salvation.

In this excerpt, one thing is cardinal, i.e. politics. Maududi, unlike traditionalist scholars, has defined the Islamic pillars politically.

Now the most important question is what compelled Maududi to interpret Islam in such a political way. The answer lies in the political and social circumstances. Maududi’s whole discourse was based on castigating Western secular ideologies. As a young Indian, he too was anguished to see his country being run by an external force. He saw the infiltration of Western secular thought in the Islamic world and that had such a huge impact on him that he went on to propose a new understanding of Islam, an Islam that is political, totalitarian and that could confront and serve as a counter-narrative to Westernisation. In addition to being anti-Western, Maududi’s arguments were also motivated by Muslim and Hindu competition for power in British India. He sought an interpretation of Islam that would preclude the kind of cultural coexistence that the Indian National Congress promised.

This is what I referred to earlier in my article when I said that interpreting a text also depends on our own intentions, motivations and what we seek to derive from the text. An ordinary Muslim or scholar would not concur with Maududi’s views because at the first glance this is not what the scriptures suggest. But according to Maududi, politics is the underlying meaning behind all the fundamentals of Islam. He was not dishonest, but so obsessed by his intentions that he came up with this view.

Now I will come to the main argument that if Islam could be so badly turned into a political and totalitarian system, why could it not be turned into something more moderate to coincide with democracy and freedom of expression?

I believe it can be done. Just as Maududi, due to the socio-political circumstances, proposed a new understanding of Islam that rejected westernisation, it is also possible for the contemporary scholars to come up with an antipodal understanding of Islam that tends to accept and welcome Western ideas.

“it is also possible for the contemporary scholars to come up with an antipodal understanding of Islam”

To clarify, I would like to emphasise on the issue of apostasy and its punishment in Islam. The view that apostates deserve the death penalty is very common in traditional Islam. But the modernist Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has proposed a very different understanding of this issue. He believes that Islam does not assign death penalty for apostasy. He asserts that when prophets are sent to any nation, they are obligated to deliver the message of God. A time comes when the people of that nation have been presented the message of God in the most utmost and truest manner. He describe this process as the ‘fulfilment of truth’. He believes that because the people of Arabia were presented with the message of Islam by the prophet himself and there were no doubts about its validity, then according to God’s verdict they were punished when they renounced Islam. Ghamidi argues that the same concept cannot be applied today, and the apostates today do not deserve any punishment as per the Islamic law.

The fact is that Ghamidi’s interpretation of Islam’s stance on apostasy contextualises the whole scenario. Unlike the traditionalists who propose a literal understanding.

In the eight century, a group called the Mutazilites advocated free will over fatalism and cited Quranic verses showing God’s displeasure at an inactive mind. According to one such verse, ‘the worst of creatures for Allah are the deaf and dumb, those who will not reason’ (8:22). The Arabic word used here for reason is “  يَعْقِلُونَ”, which also means “ to understand”. If one opts for the latter translation, then the entire verse gives a different meaning than the Mutazilite’s understanding of the verse. This shows how selecting the right word for the translation can alter the meaning of the verse. Mutazilites also argued that the Quran was not co-eternal with God, but had been created.

This discussion actually shows us that scriptures can sometimes be very opaque and could be interpreted in numerous ways. This is precisely why there are so many sects and jurisprudences in Islam, each proposing a slightly different understanding of the doctrine despite the fact that Islam is a Unitarian religion: one God, one book and one prophet.

As it was possible for the Islamists, driven by the cause of Islamic Revivalism, to propose a totalitarian understanding of Islam, it is also possible for progressive Muslims of today, driven by their admiration for Western values, to propose a relatively liberal understanding of Islam. If our intentions are to reconcile Islam with modern values, then it is possible for us to interpret Islam in this way.

Ammar Anwer is a writer who focuses on Islamic History, Islamism and Islamic Reform.

Article Discussion

  • Posted by e lee

    23 July, 2017 at 12:58 am

    Either we find a way to put them out of business, or they destroy our civilization, our freedoms, our wives and children, and us.

  • Its hypocritical and they believe in Allah. There are are no divine gods. Therefor all religion is nonsense. God was not responsible for anything.

  • Were Mohammed and his companions Muslims? Much of the Quran consists of instructions to believe in one God and live righteous lives (in the Meccan verses not defined in particular detail) supported with heavy and very repetitive accounts of the pleasures of paradise, the torments of hell, and reference to Arabic/Jewish references to divine wrath. So far so good: any person can treat that as a religious work and give it the weight they see fit. The more problematic Medinan verses, however contain detailed laws, including specific punishments, and exhortations to military jihad that are unambiguously political. The inconvenient truth is that Mohammed, for Muslims the most perfect exemplar, at least in the Medinan years, would fulfil Ammar Anwar's test for an Islamist rather than an 'ordinary' or 'traditional' Muslim. That is the elephant in the room that 'moderate' (in truth lax) Muslims and Islam apologists are increasingly desperate to deny. Transferring Mohammed's and the Quran's 'political' interpretation to some third party and then condemning that person, is simply dodging the issue. But as the elephant careers around the room smashing all in its way the attempt to disguise it with a little smoke and mirrors is beginning to look a little tragicomic.

  • Whilst agreeing whole heartedly with the previous two commenters, there is one sentence in the article that stands out (to me) "....the main argument that if Islam could be so badly turned into a political and totalitarian system" Oops, but totally wrong. Islam was a totalitarian political system from the second that Mahmud set it up. A single, solitary person was to be the sole judge of what was right/wrong/permissible & that dictatorship of the spiritual ( & political ) was inherited by his successors, whether "rightly guided" or not. The nearest Christian equivalent was Calvin's Geneva, euw.

  • A fine intellectual try to save the reputation of Islam, but, IMHO, fundamentally flawed. I find it interesting that you omitted the usual source for Islamism, namely Sayyid Qutb? 1) Fundamental to all your arguments is the nature of 'reason' in Arabic - and since I have no knowledge of Arabic and have only therefore read the Qur'an twice in English, I accept your interpretation. 1a) You cite that "reason" in Arabic is closer to the words "to understand", and that to understand the Qur'an is the duty of Muslims. I can say that I "understand" your argument but can also say that I find it irrational. Therefore reason & understanding are two very different things. 1b) Islam means and requires submission to the words of the Allah as dictated to the prophet. Again, no room for reason there! 1c) Since the words of the Qur'an (in Arabic at least) are the 'unalterable word of god', then once again there is no room for textual change or for reason to raise its pretty head. 2) The second flaw is simply that there is no god. The Western philosophy of the European Enlightenment replaced the "need" for a god by replacing faith with reason. BUddha, Confucious and Socrates + many more ancient thinkers made the point that thinking for yourself is fundamantal to adulthood. However, thinking for yourself is specifically outlawed by Islam, and furthermore contradiction is punishable by any number of physical punishments - including death. There is no evidence for a god but I concede that politicians may find a usefulness in religion for the masses. You are quite correct to say that Islamists find a strong political message in the Qur'an as evidenced by Ayatollah Khomeini, the revolutionary leader of the 1979 Iranian revolution, displacing the Shah Of Persia (not such a bad thing in itself actually, but that’s another story ;-) ). "When anyone studies a little, or pays a little attention to, the rules of Islamic government, Islamic politics, Islamic society and Islamic economy, he will realise that Islam is a very political religion. Anyone who will say that religion is separate from politics is a fool; he does not know Islam or politics." The Jews have been waiting for their Messiah for 2,500 years and the Christians for the second coming of Christ for two thousand years. One has to admire their patience! Surely they ought to have twigged by now? To quote a well known Frenchman: "All religions have been made by men." "Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet." "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich." So there we are, Napoleon understood the political need for religion as did whoever who wrote the Qur'an and Hadith. If Allah had wanted to serve or educate humanity he or his scribes made a pretty poor job of explaining themselves. Hence the confusion, textual contradictions and complications presented to both believers and non-believers provoking the endless but pointless discussion of all Abramaic texts be they Jewish, Christian or Islamic. Islam cannot be changed. There are a huge majority of moderate Muslims who just want to work, bring up there kids and live peaceful lives, but there cannot be a moderate Islam.

    • As an ex-Muslim religious functionary who knows the sources well, and then went on to do a critical study of religions, I want to be saved from the effort of going into the details of this piece, suffice to say that it is so shallow. He accepts the presuppositions of the Islamic belief system as fact; that some God obligated prophets to propagate a divinely ordained "religion," however that may be defined. I fully concur with the commenter instead. The points you raise are extremely valid. Thanks

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