IIIT’s Islamic Reform Mission


[This is the fourteenth in a series of my notes on the International Institute of Islamic Thought conference on approaching the Qur’an and Sunnah held in Herndon, VA. These notes are raw material for an edited report I will write on the conference later and represent my perception of the discussion. The proceedings will be published by IIIT at a later time. The Minaret of Freedom Institute thanks IIIT for the grant that makes the publication of these notes possible. Responsibility for any errors in the notes is mine alone.]

Session 14. Moderator: Hisham Altalib
Panel on “IIIT’s Islamic Reform Mission”

Panelist Mahmoud Ayoub
Islam is at least a two-dimensional religion. God does not do all things in vain. For all things he has a purpose. His will is represented on earth through the various dimensions of Islam. What then is to be reformed? I wish to argue that Islam does not need to be reformed. We are not in the position of Christianity of the late Middle Ages in which a theology and church institution was in need of reform. To this day a Catholic cannot pray in a Protestant church except as part of some special ecumenical service, while any Muslim can pray in any mosque anywhere.

We have to reform our understanding of Islam and work for a unity of the Muslims that would allow us not to regain our place on the stage of history but to gain a place alongside nations that are working for prosperity and happiness. Islam is not a religion of austerity and asceticism. When Allah gives his servant of his bounty he wants to se his servant enjoy it, but without arrogance or ostentation.  “But seek with the (wealth) which God has bestowed on thee the Home of the Hereafter nor forget thy portion in this world: but do thou good as Allah has been good to thee and seek not (occasions for) mischief in the land: for God loves not those who do mischief” (28:77). Reform is a cumulative effort.

Panelist Aisha Musa
I agree with Asma Afsaruddin that there is a real lack of appreciation for the depth and breadth of Islamic history.  We have had energetic conversations by people who have different ideas but all want the same things, to better understand how we can be good Muslims. The cure for ignorance is education and the IIIT is in a position to do something about that.

Panelist Louay Safi
Does Islam need islah? Certainly the Qur’an needs no reform. The interpretations, the methodology of understanding the text, the application of the law are another thing. Islah means improvement, but I like the English word reform After things have been deformed, they must be reformed. With the passage of time anything can be deformed. Islamization of knowledge has been the raison d’etre from the beginning of IIIT. I will suggest that maybe it I time to push this concept and give it a new form. What it meant to the originators of the term is (1) to question the presuppositions of modern knowledge and (2) to critically engage both modern Western science and traditional Islamic sciences in order to sort out the particular from the universal. I propose that we no longer employ the term, because it creates more heat than light. I agree with Asma’s proposals, four of which are already done by IIIT. The fifth is to establish a residential scholars program for at least two people, a Muslim and a non-Muslim. I would also include other programs including non-Muslims so that we can directly engage Western thought. All of agree that the Shariah is not for the benefit of God, but for the benefit of people.

Panelist Jamal Barzinji
The founders of IIIT considered themselves to be a product of the Islamic reform movement, but it appeared to us that we were at a dead end in the effort to reform the ummah, to put it in an equal station with the powers of the earth. We came to the bitter conclusion that we needed to reform Islamic thought along five major themes. (1) The Ummah is no longer capable of using the Qur’an as a book of hidayyah (guidance). (2) The Sunnah was no longer helping us but instead was being to justify every conflict in the ummah. (3) During the colonial era we glorified our turâth, but now we need to look critically at this legacy; it is not sacred; there are jewels in it, but we must wipe out the dust. (4) The Islamic movement throughout the world never thought the West was a problem for us, never realizing that there are things in the West that are a serious challenge and that there are good things in the West. (5) The biggest problem is the issue of methodology, for many reasons not least of which that some major scholars  (including Qaradawi) thought there is no way you can touch the usûl al-fiqh. Obviously there are many other problems (political reform, human rights, etc.), but we are dedicated to intellectual reform. We are challenged with different versions of Islam today. What has yet go be achieved is an honest critical assessment of what the West has achieved. In the issue of methodology we focus on the maqâsid ash-shari`a. Now we also have the issue of educational reform. I could mention 15 to 20 universities around the world concerned with what can be done to produce a better caliber of scholars.

“The Future of Faith in a Globalized World” is a conference scheduled for Bosnia. We need help in the distribution of books. We are building our own university in northern Lebanon, scheduled to take in students beginning 2011.

Imtiyaz Yusuf: Instead of critiquing them, we are more attached to classical or modern or post-modern knowledge.

Safi: Study of Islam in many Muslim seminaries is traditional, but even worse than it was a hundred years ago.

Ayoub: I would sound cautionary notes. We should be aware of what is doable and of priorities. Why do have to engage everybody on the face of the earth on what is a matter of our private life? I would like us to put our own house in order. We must be careful when we do scholarship that the reforms we advocate be as acceptable to as wide a spectrum of the ummah as possible. Finally, whatever we do in the way of reform should be balanced with regard to the ideals and realities of Islam. Islam is equilibrium between too much and too little. We should also be wise as to which projects we take on. What needs reform is not Islam but Muslims.

Hisham Altalib: Some people are wise and some people are otherwise.

Ahmad: Muslim women cannot pray in some Muslim mosques. This illustrates the need for reform.

Ayoub: Muhammad died in 632, but he continues to live. He is just a man, but he is more than a man, he is also an inspiration.

Al-Shingieti: To achieve the mission, you need a means of connecting thought to policy and to politics.

Ahmed Rafiq: There is a popular Islam with informal teachers who are unaffected by the ivory tower of the intellectuals.

Khaleel Mohammad: I would reinterpret the hadith that the Prophet had no shadow in modern terms: it means no one is following [“shadowing”] him.

Safi: Intellectuals do not affect society directly, but they influence the influential ones like the writers influence the rest of society.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D
Minaret of Freedom Institute

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