Friday, 02 June 2017 17:06

Reform in Islam: Arab character vs. global necessity Featured

Written by Mona Khalil
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Talks about the necessity to reform Islam are conducted for many centuries. Throughout the history of Islam theologians and thinkers never stopped attempts to give a “right” interpretation to the Moslem scriptures.

Absence of a hierarchal structure in Islam that does not imply existence of a single legitimatizing religious body as well as lack of a “core state” in Moslem civilization, according to notorious Samuel Huntington, has led to appearance of a huge number of Islamic schools, thoughts, branches and sects.

Before wide-spread dissemination of radical Islamism and terrorist attacks against peaceful civilians the talks about reform in Islam had been mainly prerogative of a narrow circle of Moslem thinkers and intellectuals.

Today as secular paradigm is being gradually substituted with the religiosity the rebirth of traditionalism is taking place all over. And Islam, being world’s most actively growing religion (the number of adherents will presumably have a 73% increase by 2050), is facing today challenges of terrorism and extremism, being involved into global political, economic and ideological games. Such state of affairs can easily discredit any religious system as well as divide the world into its advocates and adversaries.

Thus, the reform of Islam is a vital necessity for the humankind in general and for the Moslems themselves in particular.    

Not long ago the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi has declared himself as world’s leading initiator of Islamic reform as he made several statements regarding the necessity of reform and even revolution in Islam.

In January 2015 at the world’s leading Moslem Sunni university “Al-Azhar” Al-Sisi made a legendary speech addressing country’s leading clergy: “It's inconceivable that the thinking, which we hold as most sacred causes the entire Islamic world to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible that this thinking – and I am not saying the religion – I am saying this thinking <…> It's antagonizing the entire world! <…> I say and repeat, again, that we are in need of a religious revolution. You imams are responsible before Allah. The entire world is waiting on you. The entire world is waiting for your word... because the Islamic world is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost. And it is being lost from our own hands”. Later in his speech at the Davos Forum the Egyptian leader referred to this issue again, saying Moslems must change the religious discourse and remove things that have led to violence: “Islam is a religion with values of tolerance. It should not be evaluated by the actions of murderers. We must mobilize all our efforts to eliminate the scourge of terrorism”, - he stated.  

However it is very unlikely that “Al-Azhar” scholars, who receive a very particular type of religious education and consequently adhere to conservative and sometimes even retrograde views would be capable of accomplishing the presidential task.

Moreover, the idea of reforming Islam by theologians of Egypt or even the Arab world at large seems doubtful. This assertion originates from the particularities of the Arab culture, which is rightly described as a culture of shame (or shame culture) as opposed to the culture of guilt (guilt culture) that is characteristic for the Western world.

The shame culture presupposes orientation towards face preserving of individual or group. Dignity, honour and reputation are priority values and are subject to protection at any cost. The same applies to group honour. For a European as a representative of guilt culture the main barometer of acts and emotions is his or her personal feelings, Kant’s “moral law within”, consciousness or “inner god”. For an Arab the factor defining behavior would always lie outside, be external – be it public opinion, prescribed rules or group guidelines.  

Primary questions put forward by the guilt culture would be those of truth, freedom and preservation of individual rights. In the shame culture priority belongs not to ideas of a person, but to what group members think altogether, i.e. group morals, rules and norms.

The guilt culture is characterized by self-criticism, self-reflection, personal responsibility for one’s own life and actions. Shame culture is determined by lack and fear of self-criticism and self-reflection, while responsibility for individual’s life and actions to a great extent belongs to group or society.

According to researches, there is causal link between the types of cultures and societies: guilt culture is originating from individualistic (industrial) society and shame culture comes as a result of collectivist (traditional) society. 

It’s obvious that any changes to say nothing of reforms begin with discovering and realizing flaws of religious system or/and its interpretations. Yet, if we take the present-day Arab culture it would be clear that public criticism of religious interpretations is factually impossible. Attempts of this kind threaten to damage Moslem ummah’s reputation and are perceived as discreditation of Islam itself and its adherents, which is inevitably leading to accusations of blasphemy. Thus, Arab shame culture can not afford itself to have a critical view on Moslem religious tradition, especially taking into account self-awareness of Arabs as guardians of Islamic doctrine and theology. In other words non-readiness of Arab thinkers and society at large for a religious reform lies in the sphere of value orientations of Arab culture at the current historical stage.

Meanwhile living in mono-religious Moslem ummah does not help in critical analysis of one’s own religious system, while Moslem activists and thinkers residing in the countries of greater religious variety, who are permanently introduced to communication with adherents of different religions, are more open to rethinking Moslem guidelines.

In this context it is only natural that attempts to find new approaches to Islamic teaching are taking place outside the Arab world – especially in the region of Asia (India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan) and among Moslems of the West (EU, USA, Canada and Australia). Enough to say that the majority of “Muslim Reform Movement” founders originate from Asian and Western countries being graduates from American and European universities and permanently residing in either EU or the USA.

Reform in Islam at present remains to be absolutely acute and greatly demanded by both the world and Moslem ummah. However, the probability is high that innovative ideas in Islam would be formed outside the Arab world due to the Arab cultural particularities.  

 

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