A THOUGHT OR TWO ON THE RELATION OF REFORMATION AND IDENTITY IN ISLAM

Reformation related to Islam is a term strongly despised by many. While non-Muslims sometimes demand a reformation of Islam and some liberal Muslims strongly reflect on how such a reformation could look like. Others, non-Muslims and also rather conservative Muslims, reject this idea totally. Those non-Muslims consider Islam irreformable, while conservative Muslims consider Islam as the final and therefore immaculate revealed religion by God, Allah. Therefore, a reformation of Islam is understood as a human approach to better something which is already perfect—a sign of human ignorance and hubris. In the following I want to argue for the rehabilitation of the term reformation in the context of Islam.

The fundamental problem in the relation of reformation and Islam is twofold. First of all, reformation is seen as a Christian—in a certain sense western—concept being forced upon Islam as a neo-colonial and orientalist attempt not just to reign Muslim land, politics and economy, but also their hearts and minds. Secondly, what is understood by reformation applied to Islam? It is mostly understood as to correct or improve and ultimately change Islam, which also means to change the perception of Islam’s fundamental scripture—the Koran. Let’s start directly there, with the Koran. Reformation from within a religion does not change its text, rather reformation from within changes the approach of the people towards the text. But why talking about the Koran as a text in the first place? If the Koran is a text, then it is an ancient one, namely from the early 7th century and will basically remain there. Why not approaching the Koran as what it is, namely a “dialogue” like Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (1943-2010) had convincingly argued for?

From Abu Zayd’s point of view living with the Koran in the 21st century is possible as it was or could have been in any century without following the orthodox or fundamentalist literal reading of the Koran. From the orthodox or fundamentalist point of view, the Koran is a fixed text, which they consider perfect, while at the same time invented and applied theological concepts like „abrogation“ on the Koran – the so to speak written dialogue – in order to choose one passage of it over the other, if those two contradict each other. Taking the divinely-human origin of the Koran serious, Abu Zayd’s approach doesn’t need such an arrogant approach to the Koran, because he was able to see the Koran as what it always was and what it is for the faithful Muslims, even if those Muslims aren’t totally aware of it, namely a dialogue on different levels. Its most important of course the dialogue between God and man, but also between men. Dialogue and the ability to get into one, to lay down your arguments, to respectfully dissent and being able to let yourself being persuaded by reasonable arguments, is a core asset not just in modern-day life.

Connecting Abu Zayd’s approach directly to Islamic law, Islamic philosophy and Islamic culture, has surely the potential to once again lead Islam into a ‘golden age’. Scholars of today wouldn’t speak about this age as a golden one, if back then everything would have been like a solid hard rock, without any internal, relational movement or motion, which is in fact what dialogue is all about. Therefore, only a status quo as constant dynamism in the man-oneself, man-man and God-man relationship is required. The so-called ‘golden age of Islam’ was possible because of the dialogical essence of the Koran which shaped the thinking and approach to the world of early Muslim scholars and lay-persons until the Middle Ages.

Everywhere where else, where the Koran was understood as eternally fixed by the divine, being therefore unchangeable like a solid hard rock, hence, from being understood from the literary perspective “just” as a text and totally reduced to its letter, the dialogical essence of the Koran vanished. The Koran became a mere shell of its original self. Consequently, the richness of Islamic law, Islamic philosophy and Islamic culture was reduced to one or just a few positions, which were not rarely connected to violence, led finally to the breakdown of those amazing achievements Islam stood for and for some still stands for. Those achievements aren’t lost. They are preserved by scholars of today, also by Muslim people who are aware of their heritage and cherish every bit of it and also by historical evidence found here and there. A lot of Islamic intellectual and cultural achievements were destroyed or not preserved, thus, is unfortunately lost today. But luckily not everything. Therefore, it is not too late to revive this culture. If Muslims once again realize what a treasure they possess, actually the essence of their religion, sitting and waiting to be rediscovered, they could revive a ‘golden age of Islam’ in our time and our ancestors time. Islam once again will be understood as a gift to mankind.

Thus, reformation mustn’t mean a change of Islam being forced on it by western non-Muslim people. Reformation is not a Christian invention. In general, being in a (constant) dialogue with (living) subjects and objects means to constantly reform yourself and others peacefully. Hence, reformation is a necessity every people and every culture need in every age. In order to rediscover the dialogical essence of Islam, namely the Koran, Muslims and non-Muslims alike have to reread the transmitted text we call today Koran and other written Muslim sources, and we also have to rethink and reinterpret its message and meaning in every age. According to my understanding, the necessary reformation of Islam is therefore not an intended recreation of Islam based on a Christian model, but to become aware of the fundamental structure of early Islam, especially the Koran as its primary source and the Sunna, the traditions attributed to the prophet Muhammad. An inner-Muslim reformation is therefore a rediscovery of what was always there. Reforming Islam by Muslims is to come to terms with Islam’s and their own essence. Reforming Islam is nothing else than reconciling themselves with themselves, with their fellows, with non-Muslims and foreigners and ultimately with the divine—Allah.