Tuesday, May 23

City Circle: Approaching the Qur'an with fresh eyes, Professor Tariq Ramadan Click for more info

Spinning off of his recent Dispatches programme, Ramadan today spoke about the topic he seems to be most known for, Islamic Reform.

He started by saying that the concept is inherently rooted in the Islamic tradition, and not only is a permitted process but also something which brings you closer to what had been practised during the time of The Prophet. However while doing this, Ramadan also outlined the restrictions and caveats due, stressing that this is not a free for all kinda thing.

So The Quran and correct Hadith are protected scripture, the text of which should never be changed. Reform involves the renewed reading of these texts, a common phrase with the proponents of reform. Interestingly however, Ramadan specifically reserved Aqeedah and Ibadah as two fields that have been pretty much set in stone and so can never be subject to reform. Hmm.

Fields that can be renewed are those which texts are not clear (that's not to say that they are vague on these things, but just intentionally not specific and so deliberately open to interpretation), and those on which scripture falls silent. Examples of the latter include things like smoking, medical cloning and that old chestnut, citizenship.

The example of The Prophet entering Madina was put forward as evidence for the Islamic viability of reform. The Madinan culture of the time was assimilated into the practise of Islam there, with the existing framework that was present in other places used to form specific rules and laws relevant to the specific geographical and political situation present at that time. Ramadan then turned to reform in our modern time, pointing out how it has been demonised by some more averse to change, not realising that it's required both in a pragmatic way and in order to increase our own practise of Islam.

He also covered who should be making the reforms themselves, suggesting that it's a collective, communal effort. Questions should be asked by people in the community to mixed committees, consisting of experts of the specific field and others of the scriptural texts. They should then come up with an answer. Everyone involved would have to be self confident (in order to ask the right questions) and creative (in order to come up with the right answers).

The Q&A session was longer than usual. Amongst others, the questions which caught my interest were:

  • Why did Ijtihad historically fall out of favour? This was partly put to the steady loss of knowledge over time, but also to the changing political scene of the time. As other cultures, particularly "The West" grew in power, the Islamic centres that would usually be performing Ijtihad became somewhat defensive, setting down quite hard limits in order to protect itself from any alien and invading ideas. Hence things became either halal or haraam, black or white and always rigid. Creativity was lost and with it flexibility.
  • My question - Why we need reform, when should we stop reform, and how would we know we were correct by the end of the process? We need it since current answers are not good enough, embodied by the numerous crisis we see in the world around us. Identity, authority, a lack of contribution and global leadership are all indicators of the need for change. We shouldn't stop till we eradicate these things, provided we keep within the hard limits described previously, and as long as those limits are not breached we can be sure we are in a correct position at that time.
  • When does reform become bidah, and for example how can some allow music in Islam when others so strongly condemn it calling it bidah? The short answer is that bidah only becomes an issue when we try to reform or add to the fields of Aqeedah and Ibadah. As such the allowing (or disallowing) of music usually falls out of this definition. He elaborated by listing the three conventional answers ("it's haraam", "it's haraam, but drums are ok" and "it's ok under certain conditions regarding focus and intent"). All are ok depending on what the person asking requires at the time; like Yusuf Islam who previously chose to cut out music while more recently picking up his guitar again.
Overall the talk and Q&A session were pretty good. Although some questions I had regarding reform were answered, many more specific points were not, but then that's to be expected under the constraints and time limits of a forum like this. Still Islamic Reform is still a subject that feels a bit wishy washy and blurry - at one point Ramadan even suggested that we would always be in good stead if we picked reforms that "helped one feel at peace". Again, hmm.

As always, IANAS.