Tag Archives: Islam

Reforming Islam?


Written by Randeep Singh

This is a summary of talk I was scheduled to give at the White Rock Philosopher’s Cafe on November 9, 2016.

Does Islam need reform?

Do Christianity, Judaism or Sikhism need reform?

Like these religions, Islam is concerned with the mystery of the universe. It teaches love, justice and mercy. It reforms its followers through rituals like prayer, charity, fasting and pilgrimage. It gives one hope of a world to come. As a religion, Islam needs reform no more than any other.

Islam has no supreme ecclesiastical authority to reform. There is no intermediary between God and the believer to purge. The ulama, the class of clerics of Islamic law and religion, should and can be reformed. Changing who interprets Islamic Law, invariably changes the interpretation as it has under the feminist interpretations of Aisha Abd-al Rahman and Asma Barlas. This, however, is a question of reforming Muslim communities, not of Islam.

What also needs reform are the conditions of Muslim societies. Societies that continue to burn in the fires of hunger, war and oppression cannot engage in any meaningful or sustainable self-improvement, let alone reform.

Perhaps we need to shift our focus on “reforming” Islam to reforming those political and social conditions of societies like Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria, which deprive Muslims societies of life, dignity and opportunity.


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(Na)Pakistan: The Land of the (Im)Pure

Written by Saeed Umer Abassi

The case for separation of religion and state in Pakistan has been made by atheists, agnostics and non-believers.

I argue that case, as a believer.

In Islam, God is the supreme authority. His Will creates, sustains and destroys the Universe. He is the ultimate judge of human beings based on their thoughts, words and deeds.

What need has this Almighty God for mortals to legislate in His name? What does it benefit Him whose Law is eternal and universal to have the laws of men perpetrate injustice and cruelty?

The teachings of religion on love, benevolence and justice can better politics; but why otherwise corrupt the sanctity of religion with blood, power and greed? Why further divide humanity “in creation of one essence and soul?”

Why do Pakistanis need a state to save their souls when it does not fill their bellies? What need has Islam or God for the Hudood Ordinance, the Blasphemy Law and the murder of its people in His name? What has sixty-eight years of Pakistan done in the name of Islam and God?

The Persian sage and poet Sadi remarked in the Gulistan:

Oh! Though above all human though supreme,
Above our every word or deed or dream,
Thy service closes and we quit the Mosque
Yet of Thy meaning, scarce have caught a gleam

If the mosque has failed to bring Pakistan closer to Islam or to God, then nor will all of the Islam-pasand politicians, mullahs and mujahideen of the Land of the Pure.
Sign this petition for a secular Pakistan
Separate Religion from State. Remove Article 2 of the Constitution of Pakistan. Declare Pakistan to be a Secular Democracy

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The Separation of Religion and State in Islam


Islamists and CNN proclaim alike that religion and state are one in Islam. The oneness of religion and state justifies the existence of Islamic states like Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban. It is a claim which inspires Islamist groups like Hizb-ut-Tahrir to petition for the re-establishment of the Caliphate in the twenty-first century.

In his Allahabad Address in 1930, Muhammad Iqbal held that “the religious ideal of Islam…is organically related to the social order which it has created.” Yet Iqbal discusses neither what that social order is nor how those ideals are embodied in a social or political organization. Indeed, the idea that religion and state are one in Islam is a recent one with little historical precedent.

First, Islam originated in a society where there was no state. The revelations of the Qur’an are moral commands on how a Muslim should live, on the Oneness of God, on the inevitability of the day of judgement and on the line of prophets before Muhammad. Whereas the revelations do speak to some matters of marriage, divorce, the payment of alimony and inheritance, they say little on how states should be formed, how governments should be run or organizations managed.

Second, the idea that religion and state are separate in Islam is not borne out by history. The Prophet of Islam did not appoint a successor for the community. Although the Caliphate was the religious and political head of the early Muslim community, its authority remained temporal, leaving matters of religious doctrine to the Ulema. After the siege of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the Caliphate existed essentially as a figurehead until it was abolished in 1924. As Ayubi makes clear, the early Muslim communities were concerned more with the politics of survival and succession than political theories of the state.

The great Islamic empires of the medieval ages – the Ottomans in Turkey, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India – saw powerful rulers run their empires through bureaucracies, economic systems and armies all of which had little if anything to do with religion. The Ulema meanwhile monopolized matters of religion, the preaching and administering personal law. Religion and state co-existed, but separately.

Third, the Qur’an does distinguish between the temporal world (dunya) and an eternal, spiritual world (akhira). The temporal world can be further separated into matters relating to the “secular” world (dunya) and to religion (din). This distinction is similar to the Christian idea of the “secular” as the temporal world of human activity and the “eternal” world of God or the spiritual.

Ironically, the father of secularism in the West is the Muslim philosopher, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198) or Averroes. Ibn Rushd distinguished between religious knowledge (ilm al-kalam) and philosophical knowledge (ilm al-falsafa) and between the human soul into the divine (eternal) and the individual (non-eternal), distinctions again important for distinguishing between the “temporal” or secular world and the “eternal” or spiritual world.

Fourth, and as a modern-day ideology, the characteristics of Islamism are shaped by the times and societies in which it originated. As Ayubi points out, Islamism emerged in post-colonial Arab societies amongst groups who felt excluded from power, who were distrustful of state authority, were also disdainful of modernity and sought to resurrect the “authenticity” of their culture which they presented as Islam. It was up to the Islamists to reassert the supremacy of that culture and to root out social, political and cultural corruption by seizing the instruments of power.

Like Islam however, Islamism has no specific theory of the state. What is “Islamic” for an Islamist is typically identified in opposition to what is “un-Islamic” (modernity, non-Muslims, foreign powers). There are little if any positive political theorizing or policy solutions in Islamism. The tendency of Islamists is to escape upwards to the Heavens by seeking absolute submission to God.  For them, Ayubi points out, “Islam is the solution” (al-islam huwa al-hall), with the implication that if Islamists took power, and declared the full sovereignty of God, social, economic and cultural problems will somehow solve themselves.

Written by Randeep Singh

Further Reading:

Nazih N. Ayubi, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World (Routledge, London: 1991).

William Cleveland and Martin Bunton. A History of the Modern Middle East (Westview Press, Boulder, CO: 2009).

Charles Taylor, “Modes of Secularism” in Secularism and Its Critics, ed. Rajeev Bhargava (Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1998).

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The Problem of Pakistan


“Meri tamir mein muzmir hai ik surat kharaabi ki”

In my being lay the seed of my destruction (Ghalib)

Ulema in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan recently banned women from entering bazaars unless they were accompanied by a close male family member or “mehram.” For many, it seems like one in a long line of laws, edicts and fatwas in Pakistan including the Hudood Ordinance of 1979, the blasphemy provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code and the enforcement of Muslim religious practices – enforcing zakat, fasting duringRamzan and prayer times – as if God, the Qur’an and all the masjids in Pakistan weren’t enough.

Curiously, many Pakistani apologists of the country’s Islamization of law and politics blame Zia while praising the secular legacy of Jinnah. But the the Islamization of Pakistan is a cause of and not a consequence of the Zia era. The “Islamic” character of Pakistan – as sanctioned by the country’s state-sponsored scholars – is inherent in the idea of the Pakistan itself.

First, what is the difference between a country founded as a homeland for India’s Muslims and an Islamic state? While I agree with Hamza Alavi that the movement for Pakistan started off as a movement for Indian Muslims to protect their community interests in a Hindu-majority country, the line between a homeland for India’s Muslims and an Islamic state became increasingly  blurred as the years went by. In “Now or Never,” published in 1933, Chauhary Rahmat Ali, refers to Muslims as a “millat” with its own distinctive culture, tradition, social code, economic system and laws of inheritance, marriage and succession.

Despite his much vaunted secular credentials, Jinnah also referred to Islam as not just a religion but a civilization and a way of life and exhorted his followers that Pakistan was not simply a question of political independence for the Muslims of India but the means through which “the Muslim ideology” could be preserved in the subcontinent. After 1947, Jinnah exhorted an audience at a speech he made on the occasion of the Prophet’s birthday to prepare themselves to “sacrifice and die in order to make Pakistan (a) truly great Islamic State.”

Second, Jinnah’s death in September 1948 paved the way for those who believed Islam should be the guiding principle of Pakistan. The “Objectives Resolution” adopted by the Constituent Assembly in March 1949 provided that “Muslims shall be enabled to order their lives in the individual and collective spheres in accord with the teachings and requirements of Islam as set out in the Holy Qur’an and the Sunna.” Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan went on to declare that “the state will create such conditions as are conductive to the building of a truly Islamic society, which means that the State will play a positive part in this effort.”

Third, the Constitution of 1956 named the new country the “Islamic Republic of Pakistan.” What was an “Islamic Republic?” Who qualified as a Muslim? Even before 1956, Sunni Muslims had called on the government to have Ahmadiyyas declared as non-Muslim, resulting in the anti-Ahmadiyya riots of 1953. The country’s first education minister, Fazl Ur Rahman, declared that Pakistani education would be permeated and transformed by “Islamic ideology.” Liaquat Ali Khan’s official injunction on obeying Ramazan resulted in angry mobs attacking restaurants and hotels who cooked and served meals during the day.

Before Zia, it was under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s tenure that Ahmedis were declared non-Muslims in 1974, setting a precedent of using religion as a means of electoral gain. What Zia may have done may have been unprecedented, but the the 1949 Objectives Resolution, the speeches and writings of Chaudhry Rehmat Ali and Liaquat Ali Khan if not Jinnah himself and the Constitution of 1956, all helped lay the foundation on which Zia could erect an Islamic State.

Written by

Randeep Purewall

Further Reading:

Stephen Hay ed., Sources of Indian Tradition (1988).

Ayesha Jalal, The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence (1990)

Choudhry Rahmat Ali, “Now or Never” (1933)

Ian Talbot, Pakistan: A Modern History (2009).

Zahir Shah Sherazi, “Women in Karak barred from leaving home without Mehram,” in Dawn, July 20, 2013: http://dawn.com/news/1030354/women-in-karak-barred-from-leaving-home-without-mehram

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‘Morocco: Islam should stay in mosques’ by Tahar Ben Jelloun


It’s an expression devoid of meaning and one that ultimately deceives us: “moderate Islam.” A religious person invested in politics cares not for moderation. As Montesquieu explains in The Spirit of Laws, “the political good, like the moral good, always finds itself between two extremes.” And yet, Islamists the world over know only the extreme even if they would like to reassure us otherwise.

We know that religion and politics, when combined with techniques of modern communication, result in an autocratic system. The machinery of regression, the revocation of civil liberties comes into motion often disguised behind such terms as “normalization” and “authenticity.”

The irrational is married to right objectives. Not only does this fail, but worse, it aggravates problems notably in the economic realm. The recourse to religious principles to combat poverty and corruption is a snare, something totally unsuited to modernity’s principles. One imparts morality to the masses rather than address problems rooted in the economic and political order.

Islam, understood properly, is a beautiful religion: it should remain in hearts and mosques. Moreover, God insists that an individual’s responsibility lies in his or her acts. Islam does not need a religious government for God to dictate what has to be done. And yet political Islamism is generally characterized by direct action against the peoples’ way of life.

It starts with some moralizing preaching and finishes with decrees and laws (fatwas) which govern the daily life of citizens. It curtails thinking or better yet thinks in place of citizens. What good is it to think, to question, to debate since everything is written out in advance?

Morocco has always been Muslim, without ever feeling the need to mix religion and politics. Brotherhoods have always existed, oftentimes shifting amongst themselves, in contrast to the rites of the Maliki, and encouraging critical debates between themselves. Why then is this country today falling into the hands of careerist politicians with populist support and fuzzy agendas? What has happened? I don’t believe in the domino effect; the situation in Tunisia has had nothing to do with what goes on in Morocco since the accession of King Mohammad VI.

An assessment: democracy as an electoral system benefits from a motivated and highly active group on the ground. Add to this the fact that many groups, old and new, Muslims of a rather secular demeanour don’t know how to communicate with the people and, above all, with the distraught youth. Religious discourse is made all the easier.

There was even a candidate of the Party for Justice and Development (PJD) promising a “paradise corner” to those who would vote for him. The worst thing is that it works! Try competing with this idiotic yet effective demagoguery!

Moroccan Islamism was manufactured a long time ago. One may date its emergence to the irresponsible politics of Arabizing education which produced a monolingualism devoted entirely to Islamic thought. I remember in 1971, having left my position as professor of philosophy on the day when the ministry of the interior decided to Arabize education with the undeclared goal of limiting the access of Moroccan students to those texts judged subversive for their philosophy which taught itself to the era in French.

The texts of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, Weber and many others were replaced with the history of Islamic thought which was taught alongside current streams of thought.

The failed Arabization of the national education system was hastened by the recourse to the private bilingual instruction and openness to other cultures. All the officials in this system were not sparing in their rush to register their children in the secondary schools of the French Mission! The French-speaking (bilingual) graduates found work more easily than those who only mastered Arabic.

A sociological rift hollowed itself out between these two communities. Islamists will recruit in the Arab-speaking milieu,frustrated and marginalized by the establishment.

It’s not this factor alone which helped give rise to political Islam in Morocco. The Iranian revolution, the propaganda work of the Muslim Brotherhood, the importance of the chain of Gulf States, veritable posts of Proselytism, will stimulate the imagination of Moroccans inclined to hear a reassuring speech, all the more when other groups (or parties) have shown their incompetence or their naiveté.

The other important factor is that these elections are not the result of democracy. Of course, the votes took place without interference, without rigging. But the fact that only 45% of those registered moved themselves to vote means that democratic pedagogy was not advanced. For democracy is not a technique but a culture. Morocco never had the time to cultivate a democracy of the spirit.

It takes time; it’s not enough to go vote, but to vote in a spirit that underlines the values of modernity (the rule of law, respect for individuals etc.). And yet, as long as religion mixes with politics, such pedagogy is bound to fail.

Morocco cannot afford to build an economy based on an Islamist experiment. Let’s hope that politicians don’t do too much damage, do not cause tourists to flee nor discourage investors. One will see what they will do once in control.

Even chequered by a coalition government, Moroccan Islamists may risk blocking development of a country where the scourge of corruption and where instability and inequalities are becoming more and more intolerable.

These larger problems will not resolve themselves by prayers, but by a rational mobilization and a political will which makes the struggle against poverty and destitution its foremost priority.

From:  “Maroc : l’islam doit rester dans les mosques,” by Tahar Ben Jelloun, writer and poet, in Le Monde Diplomatique, December 5, 2011http://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2011/12/05/maroc-l-islam-doit-rester-dans-les-mosquees_1613522_3232.html

Translated into English by Randeep Purewall.

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