Ameer Ali celebrates the ‘collapse’ of traditional religious authority

Former president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils (AFIC) and former chairman of the Prime Minister’s handpicked Muslim ‘reference’ committee Dr Ameer Ali has an article in tomorrow’s The Australian which is going to make some waves (to put it rather lightly). The article isn’t online yet so we’re publishing a copy over the fold.

The authority of the pulpit is collapsing by the hour A wave of rationalism is spreading from emigre Muslim intellectuals, contends Ameer AliIN the minds of many Muslims, an imagined West is the source of all or most of the problems afflicting the world of Islam. Similarly, in the West, an imagined Islam, purposefully structured and popularly propagated, has created a perception that this religion is a threat to Western civilisation. Between these mutually exclusive mind-sets a new phenomenon is emerging in the real West, laying the foundations for a new wave of Islamic rationalism in the 21st century.The Islamic resurgence of the post-1970s strengthened the hands of the religious orthodoxy and engendered the spectre of political Islam but failed to rekindle the spirit of intellectual rationalism that once pushed Islam to the frontiers of science and modernity. That failure was compounded and worsened by the rise of tyrannical regimes in the Muslim world. The absence of democracy and lack of popular support forced these regimes to look for legitimacy elsewhere.By championing the cause of religious orthodoxy of the dominant variety in each context, these regimes masqueraded as champions of popular and populist Islam. Any intellectual pursuit that threatened this state-mullah alliance was aggressively curtailed. In Egypt, in Pakistan, in Syria, and in many other Muslim countries Muslim intellectuals who challenged populist Islam faced condemnation not only by the religious hardliners but also by the secular elite that governed these countries.

One happy outcome of this tragic situation was the voluntary exodus of Muslim intellectuals to the West. From an inhospitable environment of political tyranny and ideological oppression Muslim scholars migrated to find refuge in the West, where the mind enjoys more freedom to think, debate and express. As a result, the migrant Muslim intellectuals are now producing a new genre of publications, many of which are questioning centuries-old interpretations of the primary texts in Islam. A new era of ijtihad (independent thinking) rooted in scientific, objective reasoning is spreading from the West and is beginning to make its mark in the Muslim mind-set.

These intellectuals are not necessarily religious scholars by training, like the graduates from al-Azhar University in Egypt or Zeituna from Tunis or Qarawiyin in Morocco, but scholars trained in other fields such as social sciences, medicine, engineering, physical sciences and law.

For example, Mohammed Arkoun, an Algerian Muslim, is an emeritus professor of Islamic thought at the Sorbonne, Paris, who approaches the Koran and other classical texts in Islam from historical, social, psychological and anthropological angles. The methodology of his research, the sharpness of his arguments and conclusions of his writings are dynamite to traditional Islam. Laleh Bakhtiar, a Chicago-based American female convert to Islam, is not a classically trained Arabic scholar, but has translated the Koran after years of research and is questioning the conventional meanings of some of the Koranic concepts.
Bassam Tibi, a political scientist, who writes mostly in German, applies sociological and anthropological theories to study Islam and finds that the cause of Muslim underdevelopment lies not in the West but in Islam as understood and preached by the orthodox clerics. Amina Wadud, an Afro-American Muslim convert from Bethesda, Maryland in the US, has a PhD in Islamic Studies and Arabic from the University of Michigan and is pioneering the research on gender relationship in Islam and retheorising Koranic hermeneutics. Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a former Sudanese diplomat based in London, published Who Needs an Islamic State? in 1991, in which he questions the theological arguments advanced by the protagonists of an Islamic caliphate.

And finally, Abdullahi An-Naim, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, questions the inadequacies of Islamic sharia and its suitability for a pluralistic society.

There are too many of these scholars to enumerate and the number is increasing. All these cases underline the revolutionary thinking among Muslim intellectuals that is setting the pace for a new wave of Islamic rationalism radiating from the West.
Even writers from Muslim countries who are afraid to publish their works at home are doing so abroad. For example, The Book and the Quran [Koran]: A Contemporary Interpretation by Muhammad Shahrur, a civil engineer from Syria, is banned in his country. He argues that human understanding of the Koran is relative and changing and that it requires the continuous exercise of human reason.

His appeal to apply tools of modern epistemology and objective scientific reasoning to the study the Koran is anathema to hardline Islamists. Similarly, Hassan Hanafi, an Egyptian professor of philosophy, is well known for his rationalist views on Islam throughout the intellectual circles in the US, Japan, Germany and Morocco but is frowned upon by the al-Azhar establishment in Egypt. In short, scholars such as Shahrur and Hanafi have become intellectual prisoners in their own countries.

The situation is changing fast. The internet and electronic communication technology have revolutionised the production and distribution of knowledge. Sources of information that were only remotely accessible to a selected few are readily available to many at the click of a mouse. Inquisitive Muslim minds do not have to wait for a cleric to arrive for consultation on theological issues. With the help of the internet any verse or chapter of the Koran and any sayings of the Prophet can be accessed from multiple sources and the reader has the luxury of choosing from among a variety of interpretations, meanings and elaborations.

This revolution in information gathering has become a subversive tool and is eroding the power base of traditional clerics. The authority of the pulpit is collapsing by the hour. The traditional argument that one should be a trained Islamic scholar or an imam to interpret the Koran does not carry weight any more. There is a rising tension between the traditional guardians of Muslim orthodoxy and a new crop of secular educated Muslims, many of whom are better equipped with advanced methodological tools to handle the primary religious texts. An Islamic spring is dawning from the West.

While Western governments and the media are too preoccupied with fighting militant Islam and its terrorist offshoot, the more positive developments that are taking place within the Muslim intellectual world are being ignored. The wave of critical thought emanating from a new breed of Muslim scholars in the West is one of those positive changes. It is a good omen for a long-awaited Islamic renaissance. The hated West has become the surrogate mother of this wave of Islamic rationalism.

Ameer Ali, a former chairman of the Muslim Community Reference Group, is a visiting fellow at the business school at Murdoch University in Perth.