Faith and Reason: The way to tame fundamentalism: The Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali, of the Church Missionary Society, urges Muslims to rediscover an Islam which can co-operate with liberal democracies.

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The Independent Online
'BACK to basics' is a cry heard all over the world. In Muslim countries, the resurgence of fundamentalism has complex roots, including the failure of both capitalism and socialism to bring about prosperous and just societies in the Muslim world.

In countries where Muslims are a minority, they have often experienced marginalisation and even discrimination. This has often had the effect of 'radicalising' the politics of these communities, and particularly of the young, in a fundamentalist direction.

It is important for us to avoid 'simplistic' answers to the problems with which this fundamentalism confronts Christians and Muslims alike. The first of these has to do with the sharia or Islamic Law. Like all the sacred books of the world's religions, the Koran has within it a great deal of spiritual, moral and legal teaching. In the first three centuries of Islam this was codified by several schools of law to provide systems of legislation which in their complexity are paralleled only by the Talmudic legislation in Judaism.

Throughout the modern period, also, Muslim jurists have used principles of movement within the traditional schools of law to relate the sharia to changing conditions. This has enabled them to extend or to limit the application of certain laws in the light of modern conditions and for the greater good of society. Others have distinguished between the eternally valid principles revealed to the Prophet of Islam and the ways in which they were applied in the first centuries of Islam. According to them, the latter cannot be the same for every age and culture. Some influential scholars have argued for a fresh ijtihad, or rigorous research, into the sources of Islamic Law so that a new ijma, or consensus, can emerge.

In the light of such a tradition of creative thinking about the sharia, we need to ask our Muslim friends, why are so many seeking the literal application of law codes designed for another age?

In the Graeco-Roman world and also in the Persian Empire, the other superpower of the time, there were traditions of limited tolerance for certain minority faiths. The position of the Jews in the Roman Empire and that of the Christians in the Persian are examples of such traditions. This tolerance was often very fragile and the position of minorities was hazardous at the best of times; but it existed.

The notion of the dhimma or protection of certain minorities, ie the Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, as it emerged in Islam, has certain affinities with the Roman and Persian traditions. The protection is offered only under certain conditions, is limited and imposes quite significant legal, economic and social disabilities on 'protected' non-Muslims. It has to be said, however, that it compares favourably with the intolerance found in many medieval European societies contemporaneous with the 'classical' Islamic period.

In recognition of the growing awareness of communal rights and also of personal liberty, many Muslim governments have taken drastic measures to reorder their relations with religious minorities. Since the middle of the last century, non-Muslims have been recognised as full citizens in many parts of the Muslim world. In turn, they have made a creative and vigorous contribution to the political life and thought of these countries, Adding this to the contributions they have traditionally made to culture and commerce.

Once again, however, the wheel appears to be going around full circle. Instead of building on the traditions of tolerance of the earliest period, the lifetime of the Prophet himself, and on more recent developments, there seems to be a desire to return to the most restrictive aspects of the dhimma. Can our Muslim friends reassure us that the ummah, the Muslim world at large, will not allow this to happen but will, rather, encourage the further development of tolerance?

Notions of communal and personal liberty, freedom of belief and of expression bring us to a great reality of modern times, that is democracy. In its earliest days, Islam had the practice of shura, or consultation. This enabled the leaders to consult with a wide cross-section of the community before making decisions. The growth of hereditary rule in the Islamic world, however, resulted in the erosion of this institution.

Democracy, in its modern form of universal adult franchise, is as much a newcomer to the world of Islam as it is to the rest of the world. In the Islamic world, moreover, it has been an especially delicate plant, constantly threatened by the bitter winds of sectarianism, fanaticism and militarism.

So far we have been considering situations where Muslims are in the majority. A significant and growing number of Muslims, however, live in countries where they are a minority. In many of them they enjoy all the privileges of citizenship. Such countries cannot continue to be viewed as hostile, infidel territory, ultimately to be subdued by jihad, or Holy War.

They need to be seen as friendly powers which have been hospitable. Their institutions and laws offer Muslims the possiblities of freedom and protection. In such situations, Muslims will need to recognise that the instruments of state which protect their freedom also protect the freedom of those who disagree with them. At the same time, the legal traditions of the host communities may need to develop in such a way as to recognise the presence of Muslims and their sentiments and aspirations. This may be so, for instance, in the need to provide for laws which promote respect for people's religious beliefs and prevent slanderous or libellous attacks on them, while preserving freedom of expression, genuine inquiry and criticism.

We have noted already how the sharia has developed in relation to a people's customs and tradition. Muslims in minority situations need to exercise a rigorous ijtihad so that the demands of the sharia are related to their particular circumstances. In matters of dress, devotion, diet, education, health and even patterns of family life there are large areas where Muslims could follow the dictates of the sharia, if they wished, in many ways consonant with the legal traditions and customs of the majority. In other areas such as freedom of belief and of expression, the rights of women and respect for privacy, they will need to reinterpret their tradition with the help of resources available in their own history. These will have to be brought to bear, however, on the particular situation in which they find themselves. The emergence and development of a critical attitude to their own tradition is vital if Islam is truly to engage with the irreversible modernity which is the context of the lives of so many Muslims. It is encouraging to see that this is happening in certain contexts.