Critics of Islam often argue that Islam is long overdue for a “reformation.” There are several problems with this argument.
The first problem is that those who call for a reformation ironically tend to be nominal Muslims who attack Islam from within, or non-Muslims who make no secret of their disdain for Islam. It is curious that those who lack an in-depth knowledge of Islam and perhaps even harbor ill-feelings towards it would see themselves as fit to steer its course.
The second problem is a classic case of projection wherein Christianity’s unique historical circumstances are imposed upon Islam. Around the time of the Christian Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church itself, the official high seat of European Christendom, stood guilty of corruption, mass exploitation, and decadence. For centuries, it had vanquished dissenting views with persecution and execution. Since the Pope had been widely accepted as the divine appointee of God on earth, his excesses and shortcomings could be attributed to Christianity itself. Hence a reformation at the level of the theological understanding of Christianity was deemed necessary by critics of the Church.
Islam never had an official high seat dominated by a single institution; Muhammad (pbuh) never sanctioned a single post considered as a divine interlocutor between man and God. As such since its very early days, Islam has seen a diversity of views flourish under its all-encompassing dome. As a consequence, shortcomings or excesses can be attributed at the interpretative level of the individual, rather than at the dogmatic level of revelation, and so can be challenged by an alternative interpretation, rather than dogmatic restructuring. And so today, in the face of corruption by Muslims who claim to speak for Islam, religious reformation is not the appropriate response, instead, a journey back to the authentic teachings of Islam is warranted – a process of rediscovery if you will.
At this point of our history, Muslims the world over are in dire need of rediscovering Islam. Many are Muslim by name only, others append their political and personal ambitions on Islam, rather than allow Islam to mould and temper their ambitions. The result is a combination of ignorance and zeal that unfortunately sees Islam itself take the blame.
A discerning look at the Muslim-majority world reveals a chronic pattern of underachievement in many facets of life including the arts, the sciences, education, athletics, industry, and the overall quality of daily life. Dictators and despots are disproportionately high in that part of the world, freedom of expression is relatively limited, and anti-Islamic cultural traditions are alive and well. Innovation is limited, while bureaucratic corruption is rampant. Clearly, criticism including self-criticism is warranted. But a closer look reveals that while admittedly, the flag of Islam is often raised by many who are part and parcel of this problem, Islam is often the victim not the victimizer.
The solution then is not to reform Islam at the behest of reactionary observers who fail to understand the problem, but to reform the prevalent misinterpretations of Islam; that is to question what Islam really means and assess whether we the flag-bearers of Islam are actually holding true to its spirit and teachings.
Are we doing Islam justice by merely engaging in rituals while failing to allow them to transform our characters and our outlook on life? Can we go on placing emphasis on reading and memorizing the Quran while failing to place the same emphasis on understanding it and allowing its teachings to permeate us and elevate us to a higher standard of humanity? Can we continue to engage in the same petty conflicts and egotistical exploits of those who seek personal gain, evoking Islam and Allah only so far as that seems to validate and legitimize our unholy pursuits? Yes, there certainly is a problem out there, and we Muslims need to be the first to acknowledge it. The solution rests on our shoulders: a humble rediscovery of Islam and a re-prioritization of our approach to our faith.
The first command in our faith is “Read.” We must bring back the emphasis on education and scholarly pursuit as one of the most basic duties of a Muslim. We must reclaim the concept of Ihsan, or the pursuit of perfection and beauty, not only in our acts of worship but in everything that we do including our professional and civic duties. We must understand that industriousness and inventiveness towards the betterment of our world are part of our religious obligations before God and humanity. We ought to seek righteousness without being self-righteous, understanding that the more knowledge one attains the more, not less, humility it ought to bring. We need to rediscover the treasures of prophetic tradition and heed their transformative powers at the individual level of character, temperament, and outlook.