The challenge for the future is to reform the Muslim, by Dr Al Ajami
In the aftermath of the Tunisian et Egyptian revolutions, the late Jamal Al Banna wrote that ‘the people have risen up against their rulers. Will Muslims now rise up against their faqihs ?’
Can we consider that an intellectual uprising against the current clerks’ domination on the social mind-set is inevitable? Is it the first step before undertaking the reconstruction of a free and creative thought in Islam?
The challenge for the future is to reform the Muslim
Dr Moreno Al Ajami is a French physician and theologian living in Morocco. Most of his works are on exegetic research and literal analysis of the Qur’an. He is currently preparing a History of the Qur’an which will be a critical review of classical Islamic resources. He is the author of Que dit vraiment le Coran ? (Éditions Zénith, France, 2009) and Quarante Hadiths authentiques de Ramadan(Éditions Zénith, France, 2006).
I guess I got quite well what Jamal al Banna meant; and even though we share a broad common ground of ideas and methods of analysis of Islam and mainly of the Qur’an, I do not think I got deceived by the spring breezes delusions.
Revolutions are not no deliberate things, they stem from a ferment of ideas that worked before deeply in the societies. By cons, uprisings, rebellions can be spontaneous, although springs in winter smell adulterated jasmine. Reading realities, intellectual constructions seem more illusory and ephemeral.
An uprising against authority in Islam is not actually possible, since the fluid structure, yet existing body assumes that you cannot materially face it. The orthodoxy has endogenous causes and clerics are its self-appointed guardians, they defend a mythological palace which cannot be attacked. Historically, any such attempt resulted in successful cases to a deep split and the creation of a new religion, as is the case of the “Reform” that did not reform, but whose suffering engendered Protestantism in its multiple branches. This is also the case for various revolts in the lands of Islam which gave birth to other Islams: Kharijism, Shi’ism, Ibadism, etc. But what reformer would claim to create a new Islam?
If the clerics of Islam still apparently have moral weight on social attitudes, this does not mean that they have the power to shape them, they are rather their reflection.
Orthodoxy is only an average definition resulting from a culture and a time of one or a number of societies which validate its content and formulation. In return, the guardians of the Temple speak on behalf of those who legitimized them and express what the majority wants. Thus it would be by changing the attitudes, i.e. the “habitus,” that orthodoxy – and consequently the custody of official scholars – could be modified.
Similarly, it would be wrong to conceive the conservative forms of Islam as marginal or outside of an Islamic reference (an Islam in capitals letters then created by contrast as a pure entity and the paradigm to achieve the reform or a renewed effort thought). In reality, these expressions are an integral part of Islam, more, they are Islam. Islam is not a religion descended from heaven, but born from earth. This mix does not prohibit conducting the battle frontally, but it condemns the struggle to failure, because we cannot destroy what we want to deconstruct.
In this sense, forced secularization that the societies of the said “Muslim” world experiment is certainly more effective than any attempt of reform or revolt. But the strength of this phenomenon is uncontrollable and it is only in desperate cases that a doctor bets on a remedy that is even more toxic than the disease. This is a situation of breakdowns and increasingly obvious disharmonies, and the observation of symptoms, its evolution, indicate that intellectuals should seek concrete concepts and tools able to resolve them.
It therefore appears more productive to work on the actual body of orthodoxy, that is to say Muslims, not against those who show no signs, but with those who are suffering, questioning and unbalanced, with those who perceive the mismatch between what they believe that they have to believe and their own adequacy to the modern world. Those are listening and waiting. It is thus by healing the sick parts that the whole body regains its health.
Consequently, the first step should be “to undertake the reconstruction of a free and creative thought in Islam“; this seems to me intellectually and sociologically more realistic than saying to the mandarins of our celestial empire “out! irhal “. In addition, Muslim thinkers are not under the control of religious authorities, they do not belong to the same epistemological world, they are free, or at least they are able to free themselves. The universe of critical thinking allows discovering new horizons from new observations; the religious authorities can only stay immured in their certainties.
It is then possible to directly change the perception that Muslims have of their religion and of the interface of their religiosity with their realities, in others words the perceptible nature of their relationship to God.
Therefore it becomes necessary to upgrade the basic and fundamental data: Qur’an, Sunna, Islam, an adequacy process towards new mental attitudes of an emerging world in which Muslims are increasingly faced with and towards which they are converging. I would add that the presence of Muslims in the West – a presence intended to last – can only accentuate the feeling of gap, maladjustment, because, whatever is said, Islam is based on a universe that remains more magical than rational. There is a need to deconstruct a whole world without wanting to destroy it, but to deconstruct constructively.
For over a century, reform of Islam has not given the expected fruits. The challenge for the future is to reform the Muslim. That is to say, the reform of the individual; an intrinsic upgrade of the new Muslim. As Islam is the religious code part of his/her “habitus”, (s)he must develop a double interpretation on his/her world and this world. Clerics of Islam will not do that for him/her, so it is a personal revolution, not a revolt against Islam.
Observers, thinkers and researchers have a vital role to play; they should strive to provide adequate materials to those who feel the need to complete their reform. This revolution will require referents and not references. As such, and as an example to study and research, we think that the Qur’an is the shared common referent, as it seems to me essential to initiate a rigorous method and a real research work which open the possibility of rereading the Qur’an at its origin, a resource. Perceiving again a Message whose initial energy – the fact remains historically indisputable – allowed an amazing birth of potential and can still fertilize hearts and minds, at least that is our hope.
Dr. Moreno al Ajamî