Monthly Archives: January 2004

Islamic revivalism

For Muslims to reform, they should aim for moderation to achieve a justly balanced community, which is primordial in Islam.
The estimated 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide have long ceased to be a homogeneous throng of the faithful, but Islam as faith and civilization marches on, proclaiming and practicing the worship (ibadah) of One Supreme God—perhaps the only remaining monotheism that has resisted adulteration by the adoration of subalterns.
While this basic doctrine of unity (tawheed) has been the binding force for Muslims across races and nations, it may have unwittingly led to a stone-walled religion, impregnable in its fundamentals, unyielding to shifting social tides, and giving rise to what Malaysian thinker Ziauddin Sardar calls “fossilized” religious beliefs.
In areas where divergent ideas brook into modern paths, many theologians of Islam and jurists of Islamic law (shariah) are quick to label such ideas as innovations (bida’a), condemn them as pollutants of the faith, and call for a return to the traditional ways (Sunnah) of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and the first Muslim community (ummah) in Madinah, oftentimes advocating a literal adoption of perspectives and practices that are more attuned to medieval Middle East rather than the contemporary international community.
Never mind that the Holy Quran was first revealed to the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) in a cave in the outskirts of Makkah with a divine command to the unlettered Prophet to “Read (iqra’), in the name of the Lord!” Never mind that the Holy Book itself contains many verses that decree man’s use of his mind and senses, and therefore, his power of analysis (ijtihad) to arrive at the truth. To the traditionalists, these exhortations for study and analytical thinking are best dumped into the dustbin of heresy, mainly for fear that utilizing thinking tools might disfigure their rigid concept of what should appropriately be a dynamic Islam.
Hence in recent times, the insistence on literal imitation (taqlid) has given rise to an Islamic revivalism dragging Islam and the Muslims back to an archaic netherworld, instead of thrusting them forward and equipping them with a modernist reinterpretation of fundamental Islamic social and ethical values crucial for competition in the international arena. This continuing resistance to modernity has resulted in the Muslim world’s technological backwardness.
More tragically, it has spawned stringent fanaticism borne of stray doctrines of holy war (jihad) that eschew peace. Various writers have called this errant strain “militant or extremist” Islam. Western media and the US government and, by osmosis, local media and the present administration, have given it a bogeyman character: “Terrorism.”
This is not to say that the terrorist threat is imaginary or the fear misplaced. From the Sept. 11, 2001, attack to the Bali bombing last year, from the unceasing suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories to the recent spate of fatal explosions in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the aim to instill terror by violence is condemnable. But the state violence inflicted by the US on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan should be equally cursed.
A clash of ideologies is not always a delineation of black or white; it is mainly a gradation of hues where, as they say, one man’s terrorist is another man’s martyr, and state violence could well be legitimate internal defense or unjustifiable external aggression.
The worldwide anti-violence sentiment should be accompanied by analytical objectivity (something that Western media have not fully displayed in relation to Islam, due in part to longstanding cultural biases, and in part to a failure by Islam’s progressive thinkers and counsels of moderation to expound their message of reason and restraint to the world and the Muslim Ummah. Unfortunately, bias and mental default have emboldened the extremist minority.
These are ideas not countenanced by Islam, but adhered to by misguided Muslims—a position taken by religious leaders in the Philippine south every time the Abu Sayyaf indulge in their favorite cottage industry: kidnapping for ransom. But who among the non-Muslim is to distinguish between Islam as practiced by Muslims, and Muslims engaged in criminal acts? To them, any public actuation of a Muslim has the imprimatur of faith and religion, particularly in the case of Muslim extremists who justify their mischief with quotations from the Holy Book.
The situation worldwide is fast degenerating, aided by the unwelcome intrusions by the self-righteous American military into Afghanistan and Iraq; the first, to hunt the reputed number one world terrorist, Osama bin Laden, and the second, to unearth weapons of mass destruction. In both, the Bush administration has come up empty-handed, and has instead brought simmering anti-American sentiments to their boiling point among Islamic radicals worldwide.
All these make us wonder: amid all the rhubarb about fighting terrorism, is the war against terrorism really being won, or are we just creating more terrorists poised to launch fanatical martyrdom attacks? And what will happen if the forces of Islamic moderation lose out to the extremist militant elements? Will the clash of civilizations envisioned by Samuel Huntington eventually happen between Islam and the West?
These questions have gained urgency. Huntington, propounding on his theory on the clash of civilizations, says that “in the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace,” and suggests that “an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.” The Huntington solution, however, is easier said than done, in fact, almost unrealistic. It requires an international consensus of civilizations through untiring efforts to harmonize so-called cultural and ideological “commonalities” among all nations.
It is easier for each civilization to institute internal reforms to bring their fundamental tenets into middle ground instead of allowing them to dangerously meander in the peripheries. For these civilizations, this means recognizing that theirs is not the best exclusive of the rest. It signifies an admission that theirs can also be breeding grounds for extremist views and militant acts.
For Islam and the Muslims, this is giving flesh to the divine decree of the Holy Quran: “We have made you a community justly balanced!” The concept of the Ummah Wasat, or the justly balanced community, is primordial in Islam because this is the identifying mark of the ideal Muslim community: balanced belief and action emanating from balanced body and spirit. This balance should stay firm, tilting only when its load unequally burdens the extremes instead of evenly pressing at the fulcrum. For the Muslims to reform, they should aim for moderation at the fulcrum rather than overloading the extremities of beliefs.