Ever since 9/11 there has been much talk about reforming Islam so that it can be more in step with the modern world.
What would a reformed Islam look like? One doesn’t have to look far for an answer. In a sense the Islamic reformation has already come and gone. It began in the colonial period and reached its height in the middle of the last century.
Unlike the Protestant Reformation, there was no dramatic moment of rebellion—no Ninety-Five Theses nailed to the door of the Grand Mosque in Cairo. Rather, the Muslim world experienced a gradual dilution of the faith as educated Muslims, enamored of the West and disillusioned by the failure of Muslim societies drifted away from Islam. In other words, the “reformation” was marked not by a new flowering of Islam but by a neglect of Islam. Consider this reminiscence by Ali A. Allawi, a former Iraqi cabinet minister:
I was born into a mildly observant Muslim family in Iraq. At that time, the 1950s, secularism was ascendant among the political, cultural, and intellectual elites of the Middle East. It appeared to be only a matter of time before Islam would lose whatever hold it still had on the Muslim world. Even that term—“Muslim world”—was unusual, as Muslims were more likely to identify themselves by their national, ethnic, or ideological affinities than by their religion.
But what looked like a change for the better from the Western point of view, looked like a loss of faith from the point of view of the true believer. For some devout Muslims, it looked like a capitulation to Satan. Thus, the “reformation” was followed by another reformation. This time it was a reformation in the generally accepted sense of the word—an attempt to return to the original form of the religion. Moreover, it was a highly successful reformation that brought sweeping changes to Muslim nations that had been on the path to secularization.
Naturally, the West is hoping for still another reformation—one that would return the Muslim world to the sleepy-time Islam that existed under the rule of monarchs such as King Farouk and the Shah of Iran. But it’s easy to underestimate the difficulty of the task. It wouldn’t be just a matter of a tweak here, a modification there, and a little less literalism elsewhere. A reformed Islam—that is, reformed to suit Western tastes—would require a radical reduction of the faith. Huge chunks of the Koran would have to be excised, ignored, or explained away. Sharia law would have to be abolished or else sharply curtailed. Most difficult of all, modernization would require a complete re-evaluation of Muhammad.
The biggest obstacle to the modernization of Islam is Muhammad himself. The task of making a man who owned a sword named “Cleaver of Vertebrae” compatible with the modern world is not an easy one. Here are some of the prophet’s exemplary deeds:
- He married a six- year old girl and consummated the marriage when she was nine. (Bukhari, 5. 63. 3896)
- In violation of Arab moral standards he married his own daughter-in-law. (Koran, 33:37)
- He ordered the beheading of all the men of the captured Banu Qurayza tribe and the enslavement of the women and children. According to some accounts, between 800 and 900 men and adolescent boys were executed as Muhammad and his child bride looked on. (Ishaq, p. 464)
- He sanctioned the rape of women captured by his troops in battle. (Muslim, Vol. 4, No. 1438)
- After the assault on the Jews of Khaybar, Muhammad ordered that a leader of the tribe, Kinana bin al-Rabi, be tortured until he disclosed the location of the group’s treasure. A fire was lit on Kinana’s chest but, as he still refused to reveal the secret, Muhammad had him beheaded. Muhammad had promised Kinana’s young wife, Safiya, to another Muslim, but, after hearing of her beauty, he went back on his word and took her in “marriage” for himself. By some accounts, this occurred only hours after he dispatched her husband. (Ishaq, p. 515; Bukhari, 1. 8. 367)
Quite obviously, the prophet’s life is hard to reconcile with the moderate modern view of things. So how do you solve a problem like Muhammad? To the Western mind the answer seems easy enough. Simply give Muhammad a downgrade. De-emphasize his importance. Recognize that all great men have feet of clay. Think of him as a very imperfect vessel through which Allah was trying to impart timeless truths. Above all, remember that he was a man of his time, and make allowances accordingly.
But if he was a man of his time—with all the brutality, blood lust, and narrow prejudices of those times—how can he be a model for our times? Because that’s what he is for Muslims all over the world. In Islamic tradition he is considered to be the perfect human and therefore, as the Koran says, “a beautiful pattern” of behavior (33:21). This passage, by the way, comes just three pages before the passage in which Allah exonerates Muhammad for having married his daughter-in-law, Zaynab: “No blame shall be attached to the prophet for doing what is sanctioned for him by God” (33:38).
With a few exceptions, the general rule of Islamic ethics is that if Muhammad did or sanctioned something, then it’s okay for other Muslims as well. (One of the exceptions is that whereas Muslim men are allowed to have only four wives at a time, Muhammad was permitted to have as many wives as he wished.) Exceptions aside, Muhammad is the model for Muslims. The dominant Muslim belief is that he was without sin. Although no claim of divinity is made for him, he is a highly exalted person. Thus, the role Muhammad plays in the lives of Muslims is comparable to the role Christ plays in the lives of Christians. Just as Christians who are seeking direction ask, “What would Jesus do?”, Muslims ask, “What would Muhammad do?”
Non-Muslims tend to underestimate just how central Muhammad is to Islam. He cannot be safely kept out of sight like some embarrassing relative in a nineteenth-century novel who is locked away in the attic of the family mansion. Preaching an Islam without Muhammad is like trying to preach Christianity without Christ (it’s been tried, but not many have been attracted to what a Flannery O’Connor character calls “The Holy Church of Christ Without Christ”).
Although Muhammad is not considered to be divine, he is considered to be the chief spokesman for the divinity. And although the worst sin in Islam is to associate partners with God, Muhammad seems to have formed an indissoluble partnership with Him. For example, almost every time Allah is mentioned in the Koran, Muhammad is mentioned in the same breath. Consider some sample passages:
- He that obeys God and his apostle shall dwell forever in gardens watered by running streams (4: 13).
- Believers, obey God and obey the Apostle…. Should you disagree about anything refer it to God and the Apostle (4: 59).
- He that obeys God and the Apostle shall dwell with the prophets and the saints (4: 69).
- He that leaves his dwelling to fight for God and his apostle … shall be recompensed by God (4: 100).
- Believers, have faith in God and his Apostle (4: 136).
And that’s just from one sura. The God-and-his-apostle theme appears over and over in the pages of the Koran. Need I point out that the apostle referred to is Muhammad himself? So on the one hand, Islam declares that God has no partners, and on the other hand, Muhammad and God seem to have formed one of the great partnerships of all time—beside which Antony and Cleopatra, Lewis and Clark, and Rodgers and Hammerstein pale by comparison.
The religion of Islam was at one time widely known as “Mohammedanism.” You can see why. Muhammad wrote the script, directed the play, and assigned the central role to himself. Since God is inaccessible and is known only through what Muhammad says of Him, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that when the Koran says “obey God and the Apostle” what is really meant is “obey the Apostle.”
Muhammad is the cornerstone. The religion is built around him. He can’t be left out of the story. According to Reliance of the Traveller, one of the most authoritative manuals of Islamic law:
Allah has favored him above all the other prophets and has made him the highest of mankind, rejecting anyone’s attesting to the divine oneness by saying “there is no God but Allah,” unless they also attest to the Prophet by saying “Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
Got that? It’s not enough to declare your belief in the oneness of Allah. You also have to affirm the prophethood of Muhammad. He may be a messenger, but he’s no messenger boy.
Muhammad must be kept free of the stain of human imperfection because he is indispensable to Islam. The very authenticity of the Koran hangs on his word. Muhammad’s claim to have received a revelation from God is not corroborated by any other source. No one else received any message from Gabriel and no one witnessed any message being imparted to Muhammad (although he was on occasion observed to sweat and go into a trancelike state). In the final analysis, Muslims have nothing to go on except his word. Consequently, they don’t take kindly to any questioning of the prophet’s trustworthiness.
To Western eyes, the words and deeds of Muhammad make him incompatible with everything modern and moderate. From our perspective, he is an impediment to the reformation of Islam. It seems reasonable to deemphasize him. But because Islam and Muhammad are conjoined at the hip, what seems reasonable to us seems impossible to Muslims.
In the 1930s, Turkish president Kemal Ataturk could refer to Islam as the “theology of an immoral Arab.” It’s highly unlikely that any Muslim leader of today would dare to say such a thing, even if he believed it. The conditions that made possible the mellowing of Islam during the last two centuries no longer exist. Islam then had been on the skids ever since the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Islam now is both feared and respected. The West then was strong and confident. The West now is still militarily strong, but in cultural and political terms it is perceived to be weak and indecisive.
Something else has changed as well. Islam’s transition to a more moderate mode occurred before the era of mass communications—before television, before the Internet, before smartphones and i-Pads. It was somewhat easier to ignore the prophet then because he existed largely as a folktale figure—a semi-mythical personage who seemed almost as distant as a character in the Arabian Nights. It’s a little more difficult to ignore him now, seeing that there are hundreds of websites devoted to telling you exactly what he did and said (with source references) and what he expects of you. The Internet has also made possible the re-creation of the sense of belonging to the umma—the worldwide community of Muslim believers. When Ali Allawi was a boy in the 1950s, “Muslims were more likely to identify themselves by their national, ethnic or ideological affinities than by their religion.” Nowadays, increasing numbers of young Muslims think of themselves not as Turks or Egyptians or Swedes or Brits, but as Muslims and many seem willing to go wherever the jihad calls them.
The re-reformation of Islam will be a difficult task indeed. Thanks to modern communications, Muhammad, the umma, jihad, jizya and sex slavery are more present now than they were a hundred years ago. Those genies will be difficult to put back into the bottle.
From the Vault
This article originally appeared in the October 30, 2014 edition of Crisis.
Pictured above: Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi. Photo credit: Pixabay