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With a Grain of Piquant Salt

How you judge reform depends upon where you are standing

 article about How you judge reform depends upon where you are standing

This article belongs to With a Grain of Piquant Salt column.

The use of Islam as a terrorist ideology or even a political ideology is causing governments, as well as liberal / progressive Muslims themselves, to explore, support, develop and push for reform. But Islam always had reformers, starting from almost the very beginning after the four Rightful Caliphs. Khajarites, sufi's, Asha'arites, Mu'taziltes, etc. have all claimed to be reformers and desired to reform Islam. In my opinion, reform is in the eye of the beholder, and reform can come in different ways. Three worthies, Abdel Wahhab, Qutb and Banna considered themselves as reformers and have implemented, or at least tried to implement, their policies to reform Islam. What they called as reform is not what the western liberal progressive groups would term as reform. However, the crucial thing to remember is that their interpretation of reform is as justified as the western liberal interpretation.

As before, this essay came by from a juxtaposition of multiple factors. One of my very kind readers poked me and said that I haven't written about Muslim reformers in a while. While at the same time, I had a very heated debate about what constitutes reform with my sister, as well as on a reformist Muslim internet group. Not that we reached any tangible conclusion, but instead of bellowing down the phone, slamming it down, emails and other disjointed ways of communication, I thought it would make more sense for me to write out my thesis. Well, between these two aspects, this essay was born. Let us look at Muhammad Ibn Abdel Wahhab, Hassan al Banna and Sayyid Qutb. Each of them, in and after the twentieth century, had a major impact on Sunni Islam across the world. Abdel Wahhab has been discussed threadbare before in other places, so will not repeat it.

Now I am sure that people are going to look at me like I have three heads, simply because I am incorporating Abdel Wahhab, Banna and Qutb in the list of reformers. But yes, I do think of them as reformers. After all, they thought of themselves as reformers, didn't they? And this is the crux of the matter. Reform as with beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We who have been exposed to the Judeo-Christian / Greco-Roman tradition tend to think of reformers as those who move a religion towards liberalism (such as Raja Ram Mohon Roy with Hinduism, Rabbi Avraham Geiger or Rabbi Samuel Holdheim with Reform Judaism, etc.), but that's not really the case necessarily. There is a very good argument that Martin Luther's conceptual reform framework has very many parallels with what Wahhab, Banna and Qutb attempted or did.

Martin Luther's proclamation was not a nod towards liberalism, but a call towards going back to the roots, conservative, non-accretive, etc. After all, all these men wanted to remove the bad accretions which culture, tradition, history, geography have encrusted on the original religion. If you look at Wahhab, that is exactly what he wanted and got, namely a way of looking at an Islam which was pure, free of all the tribal traditions and rules, the jahaliyya bits, the bits which had crept in due to outside influences etc. One might quibble about the philosophical and theological substance of looking at Islam as a literal transcription of rules, regulations and rituals based upon the clear word of God rather than say the more mystical approach of the Sufis. But Abdel Wahhab was a reformer, he wanted to reform, he managed to convince people of the need for reform. He got the people and tribal leaders to follow him and you can see the end result in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Pakistan, USA, UK and other places where Saudi money has propagated the Wahhabi creed.

Looking at Islam, we have tens, possibly hundreds, of sects who differ significantly from each others' interpretation. And these differences are seriously seminal differences, ranging from who was the last prophet, to the number of formal prayers per day, to marriage rules, etc. Why go that far, a celebrated study in Pakistan is oft quoted in this respect. A couple of very senior legal luminaries called a bevy of Islamic theologians to depose in front of them on who or what is or defines a Muslim. As the learned judges reported, there was simply no consistency nor does agreement amongst the scholars on what defines a Muslim. If Islamic scholars cannot agree on what or who a Muslim is, what hope does a non-Muslim have? Hence, one is forced to the conclusion that all these interpretations are valid since there is no commonly accepted framework. Or none are valid or at least acceptable, but that would be wrong, since one cannot prove a negative in metaphysics or faith.

Given the imperfect understanding of human beings of the vast majesty of the Almighty, it is but natural that we will need interpretations, even of the literal word of God. So while the Quran might be the literal word of God and can be said to be absolute, our limited understanding of it will always mean that there is a Doppler shift in understanding and interpreting of the Quran between each and every human being. Once you multiply this with the billions of believers, thousands of generations, millions of scholars, thousands of libraries and zillions of cultural, linguistic, religious and other influences, it is simply not surprising that we have multiple interpretations and sects. For somebody like me who believes that there are multiple ways to the Godhead, it is perfectly logical and just fine to have multiple sects. So a person like Abdel Wahhab is a reformer to me, because his interpretation of his viewpoint of what Islam consists of is perfectly valid, and from his perspective reform means going back to basics. But when the argument is taken to the next step and no other interpretations are allowed, then we start seeing people's hackles rise. When the logical next step starts using violence to impose one's viewpoint, then sectarianism arises (see the issues with Ahmadi's in Pakistan, Shia versus Sunni in Iraq, Salafi versus Sufi in Saudi Arabia and India, etc.). But mainly, these reformers I spoke of got upset that western secular liberal ideas or culturally based traditional tribal ideas were polluting Islam and were the reason for the decline of Islamic societies.

Banna's claim to fame is that he formed the Muslim Brotherhood, the first mass political  organisation (with some social elements) in 1928 to oppose the western, liberal secular ideas which were flooding into the middle east – such as new technology like steam power and telegraph for example - due to the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the European colonialism. His desire was to fight against these secular liberal ideas which he thought were the reason for the decay of Middle Eastern Islamic societies and he advocated a return to a relatively traditionalist/literalist interpretation of Islam. And he got it! The organisation he founded, is a force to be reckoned with (directly or indirectly) in almost every Muslim country (and countries with a Muslim population).

There are two main reasons for his success. The first was his prolific writing, which provided the ideological underpinnings of his reform movement and second were his organisational skills. For possibly the first time in Islamic history, an organisation was formed which was not based upon individuals but on a proper institutional framework (think about the Catholic Church and you will understand what I mean! The Catholic Church, for a majority of its life, was deeply involved in every part of its parishioners' daily existence, religious, economic, social, etc.). In Banna's formative years, he was exposed to anti colonial fights and grew to see the impact of British liberal thought in Cairo. What he took away from his observations was that the reason for the decline of Islamic civilisation was not the conservatism of Al Azhar and the Muslim theologians but western liberal secular ideas. Once it had reached critical mass, it started becoming a political force and Banna was assassinated for his trouble. But it is a measure of his success that despite his death at only 43 years of age, the organisation has kept on growing and multiplying despite tremendous oppression by almost all parties.

Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966) on the other hand, is more modern. A teacher by training, he took up a job teaching and initially had a great interest in literature. Then the seminal event of his life happened, he was sent to the USA to study their educational system. For a variety of reasons, this USA sojourn caused his brain circuits to fry and he fulminated against the sexual freedom, haircuts, racism, individual liberties, lack of support for Palestine, interest in sports etc. As usual, he took up religion in a big way and joined the Muslim Brotherhood as their in-house intellectual and published some seriously impressive theological and sociological works. Also participating in the governing bodies of the brotherhood, he started poking around the highest circles of Egyptian political, military and intellectual life.

Then Nasser happened and he brought a secular militaristic pan-Arab nationalist ideology to fruition. While the coup was welcomed initially by Qutb as the pro-western monarchist government was overthrown, it soured rapidly for him as Nasser made it very clear that the state will be secular and booze will flow down the Nile. After an attempted assassination of Nasser, Qutb was thrown into jail. The prison air helped in lubricating his pen and he further wrote some more impressive tomes on basic Islamic concepts, political Islam, social Islam and role of Islam in modern life. While he was initially let out of jail, very soon he was back inside and this time he was tried for treason and hanged. But his philosophy lives on and that is very powerful indeed.

This is not the place to go into the details of what Qutb and Banna professed (which we will go into in a later essay), but given the two key aspects, an organisation and an ideology, they are well placed to provide an alternative system of governance to the world. The Muslim world has seen liberal democracies and it has seen autocracies (either royal, military or civilian). None of them have worked for the majority of the Muslims are still in decline. The attractiveness of this alternative form of politics is tremendous, first because of what western civilisation did to the Muslims and second is the Islamic faith based governance. If they can have an Islamic system of justice, morality, society, family law, governance, politics, etc. then why would they need to go for a western liberal democratic model? But how did Qutb propose to implement this new system? Through classical revolution via jihad something which Al Qaeda and a whole host of other organisations picked up and are running with. Banna and Qutb could well be considered as the Plato and Paine of the Muslim world and their influence will end at eternity. (In a following essay, I will try to analyse just what did they do to achieve success in implementation of their version of reform)

All this to be taken with a grain of piquant salt!

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