Freedom of expression, independent thought, reasoning and rationalism have hardly been appreciated in the world of Islam. The task of elucidating the holy scripture and issuing religious decrees have always rested with a group of religious scholars. Most of the religious scholars have also played into the hands of the rulers, either out of fear of being killed by those rulers or for the lust of power. In order to win the support of the people, the rulers would seek the help of the religious scholars who would interpret the Quran and the Hadith in ways that would best suit the aims and objectives of the rulers of the times, and sometimes even of the priests themselves. By so doing, the religious clerics enjoyed an unprecedented and unquestionable authority to the extent that anyone questioning the veracity of the interpretations and the authority of the interpreters was met with severe criticism, desolation and annihilation. It was, perhaps, the beginning of the corruption of power in Islam.
It was during 8th and 9th centuries that two very prominent schools of thought, Mutazilites and Asharites, laid the foundations of engagement in discourse on the studies and interpretation of Quran and Sunnah.
Apparently, there are two opprobrious versions of Islam in the limelight today, the radical one and the moderate one. The radical Islamists reject pluralism, inter-faith harmony, western education & political ideals. They insist on a literal interpretation of the Quran and Sunnah, propagate religious exhibitionism, i.e. compulsory keeping of beards, keeping panchas above ankles, wearing of burqas and the glorification of ‘Daagh-e-Sajood’ (the mark one gets on his/her forehead due to vigorous prostrating). By real Islam, extremists mean violent jihad, xenophobia, cultural isolationism, religious coercion, and, at times, a display of sheer barbarism which is glorified by telling tales of medieval Muslim heroes. They do not encourage debate, reasoning and independent & rational thinking. Infact anyone who questions the authenticity of the particular Hadith or a particular story from the life of the Prophet [pbuh] is declared as blasphemer and/or apostate. Sectarianism is at heart of radical Islam, where each sect claims to be on the right path and doesn’t hesitate in proclaiming the people belonging to other sects as infidels, out of ambit of Islam.
The modernists, on the other hand, advocate re-interpreting the traditional texts which constitute Islamic law and how to apply the core Islamic values to modern life. They believe in and champion greater freedom of expression, rational thinking and individual autonomy in understanding Quran and Hadith rather than focusing on the literal interpretation of the Quran. The moderates propose that Muslims cannot simply rely on the interpretations of texts provided by medieval clerics, they need to use reason to keep up with changing times, since man is given intelligence so he should be guided by knowledge. The modernists preach for the reformation in Islam, and therefore are proponents of Ijtihad and feminism [such as woman leading the prayers]. Some modernists have even gone so far as to preach that there is nothing in Quran or Hadith that forbids homosexuality in explicit words. Such an interpretation of the Quran also equals literal interpretation of the scripture because it would mean that since its not explicitly mentioned therefore it is not forbidden. They believe shariah is man-made law so it should be changed from time to time. Islamic modernism is an attempt to prove that Islamic faith is compatible with modern western values regarding democracy, rationality, equality and progress. It emphasizes the critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis.
To me both are violent. Both are dangerous. Extremism in any case is bad. Radicalism is extreme right and modernism is extreme left of the world of Islam. I believe forcing anyone to cover her head or keep a beard in the name of Islam is as bad and insensible as is forcing someone not to cover her head or not to keep a beard in the name of secularism. Islam is neither old nor new. Islam is a philosophy wherein seeking knowledge is of utmost importance, and believing things blindfoldedly is strongly interdicted. Islam isn’t violent, it isn’t apologetic either. It directs us to stand against the injustices in the society and even take arms against the oppressors. Notwithstanding, Islam also advises in strongest terms not to harm innocent people, not even the plants and trees and animals in the state of war, leave alone in times of peace.
Extremists are busy trying to prove their violent acts of terrorism, modernists are busy re-explicating the Quran to make it compatible with modern times. Extremists emphasize the rhetoric, whereas modernists stress upon the actions. One thing that I appreciate about the modernists is that they are working hard for the portrayal of the real image of Islam in the West through their writings, healthy debates and PR. They condemn the imperialistic and double-standardized policies of the West.
Muhammad Abduh, the 19th century Egyptian scholar, upon his return from Europe in 1888 said, “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims; I got back to the East and saw Muslims, but not Islam.” This holds true even today after span of over 120 years.
Whose version are you reading?