Revival and Reform in the Journey of Islamic Thought (by Prof John Esposito)

Where are the Martin Luthers, the reformers, in Islam? Is Islam capable of change and reform? Is Islam compatible with modernisation, democracy, pluralism, gender equality and human rights? What role should Islamic law play in Muslim society today? While these questions continue to be common today, few realise that the issue of modern Islamic reform is more than a century old, dating back to the late nineteenth the and early twentieth centuries, from Muhammad Abduh and Hasan al Banna in the Middle East, and Ahmad Khan and Muhammad Iqbal in the Indian Subcontinent.

The dual processes of revival (tajdid) and reform (islah) have been integral to Islam. Both concepts involve a call for a return to the fundamentals of Islam (the Quran and Sunna). lslah is a Quranic term (7:170; 11:117; 28:19) used to describe the reform preached and undertaken by the Prophets when they warned their sinful communities and called on them to return to God's Path by realigning their lives, as individuals and as a community, within the norms of the sharia. This Quranic mandate, epitomised in the lives and preaching of the prophets, especially of Muhammad, coupled with God's command to enjoin good and prohibit evil (3:104, 110), provides the time honoured rationale for Islamic reformism, however diverse its manifestations in history.

Recognition of the need for renewal and reform is as old as the Islamic community itself, beginning with the Prophet Muhammad who saw himself as a reformer following in the footsteps of the biblical prophets, calling the citizens of Mecca and Medina - and indeed humankind - to return to the message and worship of the one true God, revealed to Moses, Jesus and one final time to Muhammad. Islamic revivalist movements have drawn on this long and rich tradition of revival and reform. The failures of and threats to Muslim societies have given rise to individual reformers and to reformist movements led by scholars or mystics. Islamic revival and reform involve a call for a return to the fundamentals, the Quran and Sunna, and the right to interpret and apply ijtihad or use of independent judgement to these primary sources of Islam.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, revivalist movements stretched from Africa, Sudan (the Mahdi) and Nigeria (Fulani), to Arabia (Wahhabi), South Asia (Shah Wali Allah) and Southeast Asia (Padri). In the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, in response to the impact of European colonialism and emergence of modern nationalist organisations, two broad movements, Islamic Modernism and what is popularly called Islamic Fundamentalism, grew. Both sought to respond to the challenge both of European colonialism and of modernisation and the need for Islamic reform. In the midst of political and economic decline, Muslim reformers from North Africa to Southeast Asia called for ijtihad (reinterpretation) of Islam as they struggled to meet the emerging questions or demands of modern life. Like secular (non-religious) Muslims, Islamic reformers were influenced by the challenge and threat of the “success” of the West: the West was strong whereas Muslims were weak and, were thereby, subject to Western domination.

Islamic modernists sought to restore the pride, identity and strength of their debilitated and European dominated Islamic community by bridging the gap between their Islamic heritage and modernity. They argued that the decline of the Muslim community was not due to any flaw in Islam itself but rather due to a departure from the dynamic approach to faith and the practice of the Prophet Muhammad, and the early Muslim community. Some called for an Islamic renaissance to respond appropriately to modern Western ideas and institutions. Emphasising the compatibility of Islam with reason, modern science and technology, they reminded Muslims of the development of Islamic civilisation and its rich historical contributions to philosophy, science, medicine, mathematics and architecture. Though they differed, all championed the need for ijtihad, the reinterpretation of Islamic law to meet the needs of the modern world.

Intellectuals whose names and ideas remains alive today, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) in Egypt, and in the Indian subcontinent Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1876-1938), called for theological, educational and scientific development, an Islamic reformation. Thus, for example, Sayyid Ahmed Khan argued the need for a new theology: ‘Today, as in former days, we need a modern technology by which we either render futile the tenets of modern sciences or [show them to be] doubtful, or bring them into harmony with the doctrines of Islam.’ Muhammad Iqbal, a philosopher-poet who had earned a law degree in London and a doctorate in Germany, called explicitly for an Islamic reformation: ‘We need a new theology, a period similar to the Protestant Reformation; the lesson of Luther’s movement should not be lost.’ Toward that end, Iqbal wrote the still influential book, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Reformers re-interpreted the Quranic verses to promote greater gender equality and women’s education, the legal restriction of polygamy and a husband’s unilateral right to divorce, political and educational reforms.

However, their impact was limited by the influence of authoritarian regimes and an entrenched conservative religious establishment. Moreover, most reformers did not pay due consideration to developing strong reform organisations in parallel with the development of ideas. Their ideas did not quickly materialize into popular movements, in contrast to some of the conservative movements that were gaining traction, offering a sense of certainty in a period where change – steady shift in world power structures - brought about the anxiety of change being felt in many quarters the Muslim world.

Modern Islamic revivalist organisations (sometimes referred to as fundamentalist and more recently now as Islamist movements), the Muslim Brotherhood in the Middle East and Jamaat-i-Islami (the Islamic Society) in South Asia offered an alternative vision and agenda for change to the reformers. Whilst they recognized the necessity to modernise, they made a clear separation between technological sciences and technology, where they were at ease borrowing from the West, and the social or political sciences, where they sought to protect Muslim society from is secularization and its Westernisation. They criticised Muslim secular elites as having as unIslamic for seeking to Westernise Islam, seeing such an import as necessarily meaning the de-Islamisation of Muslim society.

The journey of ideas in Islamic thought shows the tenacity and consistency of the processes of revival and reform over the modern period of Islamic history. They also point to the intra-Muslim or internal challenges and tensions in the validation of ideas and their dissemination. Whilst accepting the need to adapt and progress occupies much common ground, suspicion and fear of importing ideas from the West has been a source and intra-Muslim tension and conflict. In their own ways, many of these different social and political movements, and the ideas of reformers, continue to be forces in the Muslim world today.