Rethinking Reform

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Event Name: Rethinking Reform
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Rethinking Islamic Reform conference on behalf of Oxford University Islamic society.



SHAYKH HAMZA YUSUF HANSON: Bismillah al-Rahman Al-Rahim. Allahumma salli wa sallim 'alaa Sayyidina Muhammad wa ‘ala alihi wa sahbihi wa sallim tasleeman katheera. Wa la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah al ‘aliy al ‘adheem In the name of  God, the merciful, the compassionate and peace and prayers be upon the prophets of God and upon our prophet Muhammad. Alhamdulilah. #00:16:25-9#


YUSUF*[1]: I'm going try to address each one of these points that I've been asked to address but before that I would like to preface my remarks by talking about a specific problem that we have when we look at the Islamic tradition, when we look at Islam as a faith and when we are addressing an audience that contains both peoples from the Islamic faith of various obvious types and backgrounds and then of western people. In science, you have what are called 'non-complementary paradigms' and to give an example of that, Newtonian Physics is a certain way of viewing the world and it works at a certain level, but if you attempt to apply Newtonian Physics to Quantum Mechanics, it doesn't work - you have a non-complementary system attempting to address things that are very different and need a different language to describe them and a different theoretical basis to make sense of them. In many ways, the post-industrial, increasingly post-modern Western Liberalism is akin to Quantum Mechanics and the Islamic tradition is more akin to Newtonian Physics; and so when the two of us attempt to talk, we're speaking completely different languages and it really creates a massive barrier.


YUSUF: Let me give you one example: one of the fundamental premises of the Islamic tradition is that human activity has metaphysical impact; that what we do in the world is actually reflected back to us through the world, so natural disasters are not seen as events that happen because of tectonic plate shifts but there's actually a relationship between human behaviour and between what is happening in the world. For many, many western peoples now, that idea is a quaint, superstitious, historical idea from a previous time; something very difficult for western peoples to actually relate to. One of the problems with that idea however, and I do put this caveat, is that many Muslims will use that as a way of pointing the finger at people and saying ''this is why it's happening! You're an evil person and therefore God is zapping you!'' That is also a major problem because there is nothing in the Islamic tradition that permits one to do that, because it is arrogating to one's self the judgment of God and that is simply not in the realm of a human being to do and that's a very important point.


Another*[2] aspect that is very difficult for western peoples to relate to is the fact that the primary texts of Islam are fourteen hundred years old and it is very difficult for western people to understand how you can use a text that was written fourteen hundred years ago to have anything to do with modern legislation. This seems really quite incomprehensible for many people and - to give you an example - in the United States, we have a two-hundred year old document (it's actually older than two hundred years) but we have a document that is a little older than two hundred years called the Constitution *[3]. It's the basis our legal system!


In the arguments that we have in the United States of America, we have arguments around what they call 'strict construction' and 'loose construction' - how we interpret the constitution - 'originalism' versus a 'living constitution', the idea of what's called 'textualism' in our tradition, 'intentionalism' - what was the intent of the framers when they said these things? Should we base it on their intent even though they were speaking two-hundred years ago in a very different context? Or is it a 'living constitution' that can be re-interpreted based on the changes of time? The founding fathers didn't really leave a lot of explanation about how they wanted it to be understood, although there are some remarks - Thomas Jefferson said that ''you can't expect an adult to wear the coat of a child'' and ''countries grow, and therefore our understanding will grow and there needs to be changes'' but he also said ''but don't allow the constitution to be wax'' in the hands of the government to where they can shape it to fit the way they want. This dilemma that exists in the United States is very similar to the dilemma that Muslims are going through today. There are many Muslims that are arguing for a 'living' Qur'an as opposed to a type of textual approach or an intentionalist approach to the Qur'an: how do we interpret the Qur'an in the light of modern society? #00:21:23-5#


Now, the reason that I really wanted to drive that point home is because the problems of Law and language are perennial problems. We still study Plato because Plato raises questions which are still pertinent to people living today; we still study Aristotle because Aristotle also addresses issues that are pertinent to people today and so in light of looking at the past to illuminate the present, I would like to honour a graduate of Oxford and an Oxford don who I really like, and that is the great Arnold Toynbee. Arnold Toynbee studied at Balliol College (and I'm speaking about Arnold J. Toynbee, not the great economist of the 19th century who also has that same name). Arnold Toynbee wrote an essay in 1947 called - he wrote a series of essays in a book called Civilisation On Trial'.


One of the things that he said in th at book*[4] is that when civilisations are confronted with challenges, they tend to respond in different ways and their responses will determine their success or their failures; but he said one of the common characteristics of a civilisation when they're under great stress is to find what he called 'bug-bears' - people to blame for their problems - and he mentions now the capitalist west, it uses communism: he said "in the divided world of 1947, communism and capitalism are each performing this insidious office for one another. Whenever things go awry in circumstances that seem ever more intractable, we tend to accuse the enemy of having sewn tears in our field and thereby implicitly excuse ourselves for the faults of our own husbandry. This is of course an old story; centuries before communism was heard of, our ancestors found their bug-bear in Islam. As lately as the 16th century, Islam inspired the same hysteria in western hearts as communism in the 20th century.''


It's very interesting in this same essay he actually argues that Islam is also going to become a problem again and he address what is very fascinating to me; the fact that Islam *[5] is 'up against the wall' these of the western civilisation, and because it's up against the wall it responds in one of two ways. He calls one of the responses 'herodianism' and the other 'zealotism.' Herodianism, he said is mimicry; it's attempting to find the secret of the people that have conquered you and to become like them: this is the Japanese response to the post-world war situation, where the Japanese now have better Rock and Roll than the Americans! They can imitate Elvis Presley - even their Prime Minister when he came to America, he wanted to go to Graceland! That was the first place that he asked George Bush to go to and he actually did go and visit because apparently he is a great fan of Elvis. They have some of the finest classical musicians... This is very common for conquered peoples to imitate those who have conquered them. This is why Native Americans are often the last people to wear cowboy clothes; literally wearing the Levis and the cow - they will embellish it with traditional beads and things but this is something that happens.


But he says that the other response is 'zealotism', which is an attempt to fall back on the past in this rigid nostalgic structure and he identifies three places*[6] where he feels that this will be the biggest problem for the west in dealing with the Muslims: Saudi-Arabia, Afghanistan and Yemen; and it's quite stunning that he did this in 1947, and I would attribute that to the Oxford education! (laughing). #00:25:28-1#  So, we're looking forward to such prescient understandings of the future from these young Muslims that are coming out of here. But one of the things that he says is that the problem with Herodianism, is that the mimicry is always pale imitation; they can never become really as 'good' as those that they are trying to imitate and he says that the problem with Zealotism is that it is invariably a dead end and it comes to a failure.


Now, in terms of looking at Islamic reform today, I have a problem a word and I clarified it with Dr. Ramadan and the word that he understands will form is 'Islah' in Arabic, which is a good Arabic term. ‘Islah’ is the idea of rectifying something after it's corrupted, and it's a good word because the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, actually used that word when he said 'blessed are the strangers' - and he was asked who the strangers were, and he said 'they are people who rectify my 'Sharia' (my way) after people have corrupted it.' So he said: ‘Al-latheena yuslihuna shariati ba'da ma afsadaha an-nas’. The importance of that tradition is two things that can be immediately gleamed from it: one is that his Shar'ia does get corrupted by his own testimony - that it can be misunderstood; it can be - it can deviate from its original intentions, but then the other thing is the need for people to rectify it, this 'islah' - this idea of rectifying it.


Now*[7], for me with the language 'reform' is that it is more of a Christian term coming out of the Protestant Reformation, which was a response to the abuses - and I know it's the most radical of the Protestant Reformation came out of Switzerland, so you know...[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] #00:27:28-2# Zwingli was actually more radical than Martin Luther, but the end was the banking state of Switzerland and this is often the danger of reformations because there is a wonderful statue of Calvin in Geneva because the bankers love the fact that the protestants allowed for usury, whereas the Catholics opposed usury and now we're living in a world that is economically disintegrating before our eyes because of this hegemonic banking madness that is out of hand. But, the idea of 'reform' - Islamic Reform is an old idea and the idea of using a language that comes out of another set of historical problems for me, is problematic.


My own teacher, SHAYKH Abdullah Bin Bayyah we spoke about this, I asked him and he speaks French and he knows the history of the reformation and the use of the term, and he said that he preferred the word 'renovation,' and used that as French, because it's closer to the idea of ‘tajdeed’. The idea of reformation - because reformation can be a complete restructuring of something, whereas in the Islamic tradition the idea is that the house is of fundamentally of sound - it's of sound foundation, but it often needs renovating: sometimes the faucets aren't working anymore, the water's not flowing, people aren't getting fresh air because the window can't be opened; so you need people to come in and renovate the house, and this is the idea.


Now*[8] this process has been going on for centuries; there's than idea like ''What's wrong with the Muslims? Why won't they change?'' If you look at the Muslims today, the Muslims of the 19th century would not recognise the Muslims of today. The radical changes that have occurred in the Muslim world in the last thirty years, let alone the last hundred years are beyond belief. If you look at Arabic culture and the fact that MTV, there is a Muslim version - well not a Muslim but an Arabic version of MTV which is as racy as the MTV that people experience in the western hemisphere. Now people like Osama Bin Laden who turns that on and sees that, literally will pull their beards out! [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] because it's incredibly traumatic to see something like that happening in their culture. The Arabs pride themselves on what called 'gheerah'. In Urdu, it's translated as 'ghayrat' . Urdu people say that's where the Arabs got it from, but it's actually the other way around! [AUDIENCE LAUGHTER] #00:30:15-5#


'Gheerah' is the concept of - it's a type of jealousy. It's the idea of coveting something so much that you're willing to fight for it. I don't think people in the west can really appreciate any more the degree to which this virtue in Islamic and Arabic tradition is still upheld. I certainly believe that that was a far more dominant virtue in the 19th century in the west, but it's certainly something - now it's a very live and let live attitude; and there are reasons for that. Two world wars in Europe have led to a certain way of looking at the world. The crisis that happened in the west because of a hundred and eighty million people dying - we tend to want the Muslim world to 'catch up' with us. ''What's wrong with you? Why can't you catch up with us?'' And yet we don't realise that we have been through, in the west, so much trauma to get to this point that we're at, and the Muslim world had a different set of historical traumas, much of it in fact a result of colonialism. So we have very different historical circumstances.


Now, in terms of what is legitimate renovation*[9] or ‘tajdeed’, I would argue that the Islamic tradition is a vast tradition. The Islamic tradition is largely un-read. Even people now that are studying in ‘madrasahs’, studying at Shar'ia colleges do not go deeply into this tradition. This is simply a fact. One of the things - I'll give you one example. When I wrote a paper on female prayer, because this was an issue a few years ago, years ago when I was a student in Mauritania, I remembered in a book that Ibn Ayman from the Malaki madhab considered female prayers was permissible, and I remember as a twenty-one year old student underlining that; and I actually went back to the book and found my underlining of that statement. When I studied the prayer issue, I was so stuck by the fact that not only was it debated early on, but there were multiple opinions. Imam Tabari considered it permissible for women to lead the prayer if they were more qualified than men - to lead men in prayer. Ibn Taymiyah himself permitted women to lead men in prayer if they were illiterate and she was literate. He just said that she should lead from the back because she might distract the men if she was leading from the front. Ibn Taymiyeh! Permitting a woman to lead men in prayer! #00:33:11-3#


This is the tradition, it's all there. People have no idea how many of these issues were already examined and discussed, and erudition and energy went into this so if you look, I would argue*[10] that the Islamic tradition has within itself all of the needs to renovate the house, but it's going to take an immense amount of intellectual energy, it's going to take very highly qualified people which necessitates institutions that can train and produce the types of people that are needed to engage in this activity.


‘Usul ul –fiqh’, which is one of the great - it is essence the philosophy of legislation in the Islamic tradition - much of the Qur'an and the hadith is in fact closer to what we would call 'constitutional Law' in the west. It's not Statute Law. The Prophet, peace be upon him, gives far more constitutional expressions in legal injunctions than he ever gives cut and dry statute law - 'do this, don't do that.' He leaves things open. There's an immense amount of ambiguity in the hadiths; this was known early on. There are very few verses of the Qur'an and hadith that are considered as what is known as ‘qat’iatil dilala’, which is where the understanding of the expression is absolute; that we know exactly what it means. It often holds two, three, four, five, six meanings and you get all these multiple interpretations.


The other thing that is so extra-ordinary about our early scholars is that they were very well aware of what we would call 'fallibalism' - that they were not dictating 'God's Law' in their jurisprudence. They were dictating the ‘mujtahid’ or the individual's understanding of God's Law. In fact even Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziya in I'laam ul Muwaqqi'een has a chapter entitled ''The Prohibition of Calling a Fatwa 'The Ruling of God ". The Prohibition of Calling a Fatwa the Ruling of God! The ‘fatwa’ is a personal opinion of a ‘mujtahid’ in attempting to understand the intention of a text.


Moreover, the fatwa was known and understood to be specific in many cases to time and place. This is another aspect of fatwa's that are rarely understood even amongst people that are trained in classical Islamic education. The Hanafi*[11] school believes that the place actually affects the ruling, even though the other schools do not in the Sunni tradition. So if you're in England, there are certain rulings that would be permissible here that might not be permissible in another place. Other scholars argue 'no', but these are the differences of opinion and nuances - this is another aspect - the Muslims have always recognised diversity and differences of opinion, but we have what are called ‘thawabit’ and ‘mutaghayyirat'’ in our Islamic tradition. The ‘thawabit’ are things that do not change: they cannot be reformed. One of them is our basic understanding of God, our basic understanding of Prophecy, our basic understanding of eschatology, of what happens after life; these things are fixed and eternal, they do not change with time and place. God is all powerful, omniscient. He speaks and he has no gender even if we use gender language to expr