Faith and Reason: Up against the powerbrokers: Ziauddin Sardar continues the debate over Islam in the modern world started by the Right Rev Michael Nazir-Ali and Shabbir Akhtar. He is the presenter of Islamic Conversations on Channel 4

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The Independent Online
THE ARGUMENT that Islam should 'modernise' and 'liberalise' itself has by now grown too stale to stomach. Little wonder that Muslims find the potion of modernity that Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali wants to administer to Islamic body politic so unpalatable ('The way to tame fundamentalism', 15 January).

Like the good Bishop, I too seek a tolerant and peace-loving humanity. And, I am confident - if Islam's historical record is anything to go by - that the aftermath of Islam's present war with an internal fundamentalist modernity and an external crusading secularity will be the re-emergence of a humane, compassionate and self-confident Muslim community. However, to believe that such a world can come about within a world order that never listens but merely dictates is a delusion. To hope that Muslims will willingly embrace a world order which makes their faith, tradition and history redundant, that only they should make all the compromises and concessions, is to display a very unsound political instinct.

That Islam today wears an intolerant and fanatical mask is due to the numbing of its moral conscience. But it is also due to the fanaticism and bigotry of the dominant order which treats the Muslim polity as a pariah. It owes as much to the Western community of nations which has kept its historic hatred alive and which shares neither power nor knowledge with its erstwhile adversary. Secularism and equality of citizens, both of which Bishop Nazir-Ali applauds, may be a fundamental tenet of the state constitution but within the inter-state world of global politics there is only discriminatory legislation and practice.

Fundamentalism has to be seen as the flip-side of modernity. It is the nuclear spill of Western domination, the shadow that refuses to leave the body politic of modernity. Western arrogance and intolerance has found its match in the defiance and assertions of religious faiths, not all of them Islamic. Whereas it is undeniable that Islam has to fight its own battle against the preachers of intolerance, the greater struggle against the powerbrokers of hegemonic order is also on its agenda. In order to rid the world of religious fundamentalisms, Islamic and otherwise, the dominant world has to rid itself of its own intolerance and ignorance. It must vanquish its own demons of racial and religious apartheid.

Contemporary Islam is faced with two tasks. Externally, it has to demonstrate that alternatives can be developed to an alienating, arrogant and devouring modernity that seems to consume all non-Western cultures. There is no reason why modernity should be defined by the West or for non-Western countries to accept this definition. Islam and other non-Western religions and cultures have to develop their own models of modernity based on their own experience and categories of thought. This is an intellectual challenge.

The challenge can be met by the internal reform of Islam. Now the call for an internal reform of Islam is hardly new - it is in fact pre-modern, going back, at least, to the 17th century, and owes as much to Islam's eternal imperative to be true to its genius as it constitutes a response to Western encroachment. So, why have all the systematic attempts at reform failed miserably and spectacularly? Because Islamic movements of all shapes and varieties have consistently used a modernist framework for reform, as if round pegs can be fitted into square holes. Another fatal error has been the assumption that it is Islam that needs reforming - not the Muslim understanding and appreciation of Islam.

Enter the modern fundamentalists, who are determined to push the whole reform debate back several centuries. Modern fundamentalism has no intellectual content: it is based on the simple assertion that if enough Muslims bang their heads against a brick wall, that wall will eventually collapse. Hence Shabbir Akhtar tells us ('Islam avoids the dangers of doubt', 29 January) that Islam has 'merely to say seven Arabic syllables' of the witness to faith and the world automatically restructures itself and all problems disappear.

The champions of fundamentalism have banished all doubt, thus turning their followers into self-righteous and pathological terminators. This, despite the much-venerated Islamic sentiment so eloquently captured by al-Ghazzali, that 'one cannot believe unless one doubts'. The fundamentalist credo that the answers to all our worldly ills, from senseless consumerism to traffic congestion, are to be found in the Koran and that rejecting the West will free Muslim societies from all evil has a great appeal for the simple-minded.

Under such circumstances, concerned and thinking Muslims cannot be complacent. The reformers must repeatedly point out that there is a great deal out there under the rubric of Islam which is patently un-Islamic. At best, modern Islam is 90 per cent obscurantism, based on outmoded interpretations and centuries-old legalistic canons, which owes more to the dominating spirit of yesterday's monarchs than to the essence of Islam.

Contemporary reformers argue that we can only have an interpretative relationship with a revealed text (the Koran) or a fixed one (the life of the Prophet). No interpretation of these texts can be binding for all time. Each generation of Muslims has to gain a fresh understanding of Islam, develop a new interpretation, according to its own awareness, needs and requirements.

This message is now beginning to permeate through Muslim intellectual and reformist circles. Even radical women scholars like Leila Ahmad and Fatima Merssini, who have more than a passing familiarity with the original sources of Islam, now present more equitable interpretations of the teachings of the Koran. And Muslim professionals and academics in numerous disciplines, from political economy to state theory, are trying to shape distinctively contemporary and recognisably Islamic alternatives.

Obviously, the answer produced by the new reformist writers, thinkers and professionals will neither be simple nor easily forthcoming. Neither would they be to the liking of modern fundamentalists or the more complacent traditionalists. However, the efforts themselves, as well as the initial ideas, interpretations and models, tell us a great deal about the regenerative capabilities of Islam. It seems that, despite the haze of fundamentalism, Muslims everywhere are beginning to chart a more humane future for Islam.

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