What is the essence of Islam, and does it need reforming?

Renowned Jordanian Islamic scholar Fehmi Jadaane vehemently objects to the transformation of Islam into an ideology. The religion ends up mired in a political swamp, he says, its message nothing more than an instrument of governance. Interview by Alia Al-Rabeo

By Alia Al-Rabeo

In recent years some authors and intellectuals have shown increased interest in the so-called "reformation" of Islam. Do you address this issue in your book "The Liberation of Islam"? Does the modern Arab world need this kind of reformation? And would it help in countering religious fundamentalism?

Fehmi Jadaane: Let me make it quite clear that I am not interested in a reformation of the faith in its essence, nor with questioning what the revelatory scripture contains, implies or aims at. Because that would imply that there is a defect in the structure of the text that needs to be repaired. Which is not at all my conviction. What I'm really getting at is this: the text of revelation, inscribed for all time on God's "well-guarded tablet", is confronted today with numerous contradictions in the reality that manifests itself to believers – that is to say to individual human beings. These contradictions stem from the fact that man is imperfect through and through, in all facets of his existence. For there is nothing more contradictory than a human being.

This has implications for how the text is understood, how it manifests itself and materialises in experienced and imagined reality. The obstacles and contradictions to which Islam has been and still is exposed are countless. If we want liberation, we must face up to this fact.

There is no doubt that the upheavals triggered by religious fundamentalism are currently the most prominent phenomenon in this scenario. But there are also other deep-seated contradictions that are wreaking massive damage on the global image of Islam. I dealt with some of them in my book "The Liberation of Islam". We must resolutely censure, reject and remedy these contradictions – just as we must the notion of an Islam reduced to its ideological-political aspects.  

You call for a dialogue between all groups across the social spectrum so that the Arab region can enter into modernity. Do you really believe it is possible for such dialogue to take place, given the massive polarisation and divisive tendencies that run through Arab society – sectarian, political and ideological?            

Fehmi Jadaane: I would like to take this opportunity to throw in a quote: 'where justice is manifest, divine law comes into its own'. The just state is thus quite capable of providing for the needs of the general public. Of course, fanatics won't let themselves be dissuaded from their dogmatism and entrenched views just like that. Because they are ruled and controlled by "passions", not by reason and pragmatism.

I therefore share your fears regarding the question of whether current generations in the Arab countries – at least the older ones among them, who have experienced politics as senseless conflict their entire lives – are ready for such new approaches to thinking and action.

I am pretty sure that this will only be possible for future generations – provided that an early start is made to inculcate in them paedagogical values based on what Jurgen Habermas called "communicative action". In other words, the values of free debate, dialogue, exchange, openness and mutual respect.  

A handmade Koran with pages of silk in the Afghan capital Kabul (photo: Getty Images/AFP/W. Kohsar)
Put an end to the fatwa cacophony: "I would like to see an end to this demeaning chaos with respect to the issuing of legal opinions, the so-called fatwas. I would like to see a religious institution that is credible, that can be trusted and respected. One that would be in a position to reconcile the different religious dogmas and interpretations and to protect the faith from the arbitrariness of the propagandists, preachers, jurists and theorists in the various political religious movements who impose all sorts of doctrines on the people and inundate religion with their heinous fatwas," says philosopher Fehmi Jadaane

In your book you blame the Arabs for Islam's current state of decline. How exactly are the Arabs responsible for that decline? Isn't that an exaggeration? Particularly considering that Islam is also in decline in non-Arab regions such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa?

Fehmi Jadaane: I am an Arab body and soul, but I am not satisfied, let alone happy, with the "historical achievements" of the Arabs, neither in the past nor in recent times. Yet I also disagree with those who are obsessed with the fixed idea of an unchanging "Arab mentality" that purportedly makes them responsible for everything bad in the world.

Everything that is found among Arabs can in fact also be found among other peoples – and often to an even greater extent. It cannot be denied that Arab actions have often been ruled by their "passions". Examples include the seizure of power by the Umayyads in 661 AD, which put an end to the era of the "upright caliphs", and then their overthrow in turn by the Abbasids in 750 AD. It is a pattern that continues into the present day.

It is likewise undeniable that the rationalist currents within Arab culture – which have produced such notables as the physician Rhazes (Abu Bakr al-Razi), the polymath and translator Al-Kindi, the historians Ibn Miskawayh and Ibn Fadl Allah al-Umari, the logician Al-Sijistani, and the physician and Aristotle commentator Averroes (Ibn Rushd) – were appropriated and suppressed.

The era of functional, action-oriented reason was short-lived in the Arab world. The modern West has instead become the representative of this type of rationality. It has brought it to its zenith and with its help changed the world, while the Arabs have yet to come close to achieving such heights again.

From a structuralist point of view, however, there is no need to despair. I don't think much of the racist postulates of Orientalism, nor of the representatives of "critical theory", such as the Moroccan philosopher Mohammed Abed al-Jabri and other contemporaries who shamelessly emulate Western thinking, importing all their knowledge from outside, and then without hesitation label the "Arab mind" as inadequate and incapable.

Despite everything, I will not give up my hope and my optimism. And I will continue to argue in favour of holistic and analytical, critical reason, in which intellect and emotionality are combined, and which is oriented towards the principles of justice, the common good, freedom, human dignity, progress and "communicative action" according to Habermas. All that is needed is a just and well-governed state together with free and unselfish citizens.

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To return to the previous question: You say that Arab Islam will turn into "Arab cultural imperialism" if it continues to exclude non-Arab Muslims in the process of the so-called liberation of Islam. At the same time, you feel that non-Arab Muslim societies are not able to take a leadership role in Islam, given the many obstacles you describe in your book. Aren't these two ideas contradictory in a way?

Fehmi Jadaane: The statements in my book on this matter have been misconstrued in several respects. What I meant to say was: if the Koran and Islam are approached exclusively via the gateway of the Arabic language, it can lead to non-Arab Muslims seeing this as "Arab cultural imperialism" – that is in fact how some of their representatives have put it. In my view, a "conceptual and terminological" approach would be more appropriate.

It thus follows that the insistence on the "linguistic inimitability" of the Koran and on the "holiness of the Arabic language", as well as reducing everything that has to do with the Koran and Islam to the "purity" of the Arabic language and its special features, i.e. assigning Arabic a "reference role", triggers feelings of inferiority among non-Arab Muslims or even negative projections towards Arabs.

We should be aware here that the theory of "linguistic inimitability" is extremely controversial, and that there are other theories that take a different view of this issue. But to conclude from this that the salvation of Islam and Muslims lies in the hands of non-Arab Muslims is not necessarily my approach. Rather, I believe that their situation does not differ significantly from that of the Arabs, and that in some countries it is even worse.Why does Islam even need a governing body? Wouldn't this result in a kind of religious central power based on the model of the Catholic papacy?

Fehmi Jadaane: This is indeed an essential question. I am not interested at all in the creation of a clerical system of rule, like the Catholic Church's College of Cardinals for instance, although it is not my intention to badmouth such a system in general.

I would like to see an end to this demeaning chaos with respect to the issuing of legal opinions, the so-called fatwas. I would like to see a religious institution that is credible, that can be trusted and respected. One that would be in a position to reconcile the different religious dogmas and interpretations and to protect the faith from the arbitrariness of the propagandists, preachers, jurists and theorists in the various political religious movements who impose all sorts of doctrines on the people and inundate religion with their heinous fatwas.

Meidan-e Imam square in Isfahan with the Imam mosque (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
For a compassionate interpretation of Islam: according to the Islamic reform thinker Fehmi Jadaane, the true identity of Islam lies in its higher goals. He believes that it is the task of a humane and just system of government to translate these into reality

Isn't it striking how the "freedom" that we would like to see associated with Islam and its interpretation time and again degenerates into sensational scandals, because anyone and everyone thinks that they can issue fatwas at their own discretion?

How are we to take it when someone comes to the conclusion that the "urine of the prophet" and everything that ever left his body is to be considered pure? And what kind of nonsense is behind the endorsing of "breastfeeding for adults"? Or the "jihad marriage"? Or "farewell sex" with one's late wife? And all the other pearls of wisdom that the "exegeses" of jihadist theorists have bestowed upon us.

The list is almost endless. Because every graduate in Islamic law or religious studies presumes the right to interpret the Koran and to issue fatwas, taking it into their own hands to dispose over the spiritual and practical life of Muslims. And nobody can stop them. Doesn't this inevitably lead to a deformation and disparagement of Islam, as has happened in recent years?

I would like to differentiate here between issuing legal opinions (in the form of fatwas) and exercising freedom of expression. The latter must be protected at all costs, whatever stupidity and absurdities it may bring forth. Passing judgement on the basis of the Koran and Sunnas, a practice known in Arabic as ijtihad, and the issuing of religious fatwas should, on the other hand, be bound to a collective institution, to an authority, to a "college of faith", as it were, which should have the last word and an exclusive right to issue fatwas.

I therefore strictly reject leaving such opinions to the discretion of individual preachers and scholars without any checks. Basic freedoms are sacred to me, including freedom of opinion and belief. But I consider it absolutely unacceptable for individuals – whether they are preachers, representatives of certain ideologies, professors at institutes of religious studies or would-be Islamic scholars – to have the freedom to issue fatwas. This kind of freedom leads to merciless disputes and gives rise to disastrous notions, views and positions.You propose solutions for changing the stereotypical image of Muslims in the West. But some might say that you are overlooking the role of the West somewhat in working toward a rapprochement between the Western and Islamic worlds. Do you think the Arabs should take a leading role in this dialogue?

Fehmi Jadaane: I experienced this problem first-hand when I was given a short-term administrative assignment at a scholarly institute for interfaith relations a few years ago. There were simply more initiatives coming from the Christian than from the Muslim side, and accordingly the interest was also greater. It is of course true that some regions of the Arab world, especially Lebanon, can look back on a much richer tradition of exchange and dialogue, which is reflected in the way this issue is handled as a matter of course.

In other regions, both inside and outside the Arab world, such dialogue is not much in evidence. Today's global developments, in particular with regard to the politically and culturally tense relations between the Islamic and Western worlds, call for an intensification and deepening of dialogue initiatives addressed by the Muslim side to the Western public. This could help to improve the negative image of Islam that extremist religious political groups have created in the collective and individual mind of the West. And that is something that is urgently required, posing a challenge in particular to us Arabs and Muslims, in both moral and legal terms.

Monument to a tolerant Islam – the Alhambra in Granada, Spain (photo: picture-alliance/R. Linke)

"Political Islam" as an ideological construct

You are of the opinion that "political Islam" is an ideological construct, a notion expressly created by the West? Your colleague the Lebanese Islamic scholar Ridwan as-Sayyid, on the other hand, believes "political Islam" exists in the form of Islamist movements that distance themselves from jihadist Islam and do not follow its path. Why do you refuse to define this term?

Fehmi Jadaane: I will not try to deny that there are certain aspects of the overall system of Islam that are associated with politics. After all, everything that is part of society – and Islam is a religion that relates to society – has political implications. What I do object to, however, is the transformation of Islam into an ideology, because faith then gets mired in the political swamp and the divine message becomes a secular instrument of rule, political Machiavellianism without morals. Islam is then nothing but a repressive, exclusionary, party-political and morally rigorous entity. Yes, that is indeed a construct.

The renowned Islamic scholar Ridwan as-Sayyid specifically addresses "religious foundations" and other institutions that fall into this category, such as religious charities concerned with the well-being of believers and attending to their spiritual and social life. This is a righteous approach and something completely different from "political Islam", because it does not require a "theocracy", a religious political regime headed by a caliph that aims at taking over and ruling the world.

We need to realise that the true identity of Islam lies in its higher "goals" and intentions. A humane and just system of government has the task of translating these into reality.

Now that this controversy in the intellectual discourse of the Arab and Islamic world has gone on for over a century, what is the solution for conceiving a state that does justice to both religious and secular needs? What role should religion play? Do we have an alternative to the modern Western system of statehood and politics?

Fehmi Jadaane: Let me formulate my opinion on this question as follows: Islam is a structuring message with ethical, social and humanitarian components, and as such forms the basis for higher values that guarantee the well-being and happiness of human beings ... in the "here and now" as well as the "hereafter".

The "religious" values of this message lie in the ultimate goals of the faith. They are in accordance with the highest "human" values, which in turn are a result of the common understanding and clear faculties of judgement of all human beings – beyond the limits imposed by emotions and by circumstances specific to place and time. And the state, guided by principles and fundamental values – such as justice, human dignity, respect for natural rights and basic freedoms, impartiality, the common good – is the guarantor that the values and goals demanded by religion are put into practice.        

Interview conducted by Alia Al-Rabeo

© Qantara.de 2020

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor