Islam and modernity
Modernity is not simply a particular epoch in the history of the world, but also a set of very large and important structural and material changes affecting people throughout the globe. It is a condition in which we all now live, and which we must confront with the intellectual resources of not only the modern world, but also our traditions and heritage (turath). It has too often been the case that to think about modernity has been to limit oneself to the European experience—the changing economic configurations, the wars of religion, and emerging political arrangements—as a model for how modernity should be understood the world over. This is no doubt in part because thinking about the concept of modernity—its nature and essence—has itself a long history within European writings.
However, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected through technological advances, we are now beginning to appreciate the differing experiences of the world’s many cultures in their encounters with the complex of institutions and ideas that we identify as modernity. In particular, we have the new concept of “alternative modernities,” a term which goes a long way in representing the diversity of the world in encountering new realities. So, whereas it was previously thought that to be modern meant to distance oneself from religion and tradition, it is becoming evident that community leaders have throughout the centuries found innovative and creative ways to merge religion and tradition with new advances in technology, politics, and economics. That is, it was, and is, possible to remain authentic to one’s religious traditions—even in the West—while still being a modern person.
A history of inclusion
This is no less the case in the Islamic world than it is in the West or elsewhere. But this should not surprise us. Islamic cultures have a long tradition of welcoming other philosophies and civilizations. Historically, the Islamic civilization was a moral and humanistic civilization that encompassed a variety of religions, doctrines, philosophies and peoples; in short, Islam contended with diversity, pluralism, and multiculturalism long before the modern West came into existence.
We see ourselves as a people who have absorbed a multiplicity of civilizations; throughout our history, we have been exposed to and assimilated the great civilizational accomplishments of the Persians, Indians, Chinese and Greeks into our cultural and intellectual life. Just as we benefited from them, we in return contributed to them. Islam places people and worshippers above places of worship. This humanitarian and cosmopolitan worldview does not allow us to consider ourselves as superior to other people. We are proud of our civilization, but we do not reject other civilizations; rather, all who work towards the constructive development of the world should be considered our partners. Since our civilization is concerned with humanity first and foremost, it brings together both the spiritual and the material, the Muslim and the non-Muslim.
This history should demonstrate that Islam is not, nor has it ever been, a static, authoritarian system devoid of flexibility. So, today, to live in accordance with Islam does not necessitate a return to the Middle Ages, nor does it require that we cease to be who we are. Islam has never required its adherents to give up their own cultures and become Arabs. This is why we see a vast variety of cultural, artistic, scientific and civilizational accomplishments, all of which can be described as Islamic, and that we can all as Muslims be proud of. These range from the Taj Mahal in India, to the winding streets of Fez, to the poetry composed by English converts that represents not only the rigor of English verse, but also encompasses the beauty of Islamic piety.
Flexibility, fatwas, and authority
This flexibility is not just present in the cultural output of Muslims. It is an integral part of the Islamic legal tradition as well; in fact you could say it is one of the defining characteristics of Islamic law. Islamic law is both a methodology and the collection of positions adopted by Muslim jurists over the last 1,400 years. Those centuries were witness to a remarkable intellectual diversity—no less than 90 schools of legal thought—and the twenty-first century finds us in the providential position of being able to look back on this tradition in order to find that which will benefit us today. This is one of the first steps in the issuing of a fatwa.
Many in the Western world have come to identify the fatwa with some unfortunate pronouncements of political or self-appointed religious leaders. But fatwa-giving is in fact one of the most important institutions in the endeavour to properly understand the relationship between Islam and the modern world. In an attempt to provide Muslims with authoritative guidance about their religion, muftis look not only to the vast legal tradition, but must also conduct a proper examination of the lived reality of Muslims, in order to provide them with relevant rulings. In effect, fatwas and Muftis represent the bridge between the long-standing intellectual-legal tradition of Islam and the contemporary world in which we live. They are the link between the past and the present, the absolute and the relative, the transcendent and the contingent, the theoretical and the practical. For this reason it takes more than just knowledge of Islamic law to issue a fatwa. Muftis are required to have an in-depth understanding of the world in which they are living and the problems that their communities are facing. When those who lack these qualifications issue fatwas the result is the extremism we see today.
We have to be clear about what is at stake here. When each and every person’s unqualified opinion is considered a fatwa, we lose a tool which is of the utmost importance to reign in extremism and preserve balanced understandings of Islam. We may point to any number of declarations posing as fatwas from extremists and terrorists as examples of how grave the consequences are of not following the historical Islamic example of differentiating between those with scholarly standing and authority and those without. The Muslim world has been particularly successful at creating institutions and bodies whose long-standing service to the community confer upon them legitimacy that cannot be had simply by someone with access to modern media. This is no time to abandon that example.
This flexibility I speak of is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is has always been an in-built part of the Islamic legal tradition, and especially the fatwa-giving process. Scholars have long argued that fatwas are available to being modified and updated as a result of changing circumstances (ahwal), the flow of history (zaman), the reality of geographical diversity (makan), and different peoples (ashkhas). Consider the words of the famous Ottoman Syrian jurist Ibn Abidin who insists in the 18th century that one of the essential requirements of a mufti is that he be knowledgeable of the customs of his people, and that he give fatwas in accordance with them, to the extent that he should give a fatwa in contradiction to a previous fatwa of his own if he thinks it to be more responsive to his present constituency’s customs. “For many rulings change as a result of changing customs, or because of necessity, to the extent that following an outdated ruling may entail undue hardship and harm, which would be in opposition to the principles of sharia which insist upon facilitating things for people, so that the world may remain orderly and stable.”
One of the most famous personalities in Islamic history is the famous scholar of Medina in the 2nd Islamic century, Malik bin Anas. Imam Malik is well-known for his adamant defense of the right to free thought, even in the face of persecution. However, when he was approached by the Caliph of the time with a proposal to make his entire dominion subject to the rulings in Malik’s famous Muwatta’, Malik refused, saying “Leave the people of each locality to themselves and what they have chosen.” Through this simple statement, Imam Malik set a precedent of intellectual and legal diversity in the Islamic world, that led to a vibrant culture of scholarship and tolerance throughout the centuries.
The flexibility of Islamic politics
Thus, it should be clear that Islamic law has always contained within itself the capacity to adapt to new challenges. However, this flexibility is present in the Islamic political sphere as well—though this is a point that is often missed. In order to further explore this contention, we may do well to concentrate on the Egyptian experience, which is at once particular and generally instructive, and carries within it many examples for our understanding of Islamic culture and politics.
It is widely assumed that an Islamic government must be a caliphate, presumably because this is the form it took in its earliest period. However, this is just one political arrangement Muslims adopted during a certain historical period, and this does not mean that it is the only possible choice for Muslims when it comes to deciding how they should be governed.
The experience that Egypt went through can be taken as an example of this flexibility. The nineteenth century was a period of cultural, social and political development in Egypt. This period of development was begun by Muhammad Ali Pasha and was continued by the Khedive Ismail who attempted to build a modern state. This meant a reformulation of Islamic law, but not a rewriting of it, nor an abandoning of previous elements of Islamic law. Many people are under the impression that Egypt adopted French law wholesale. This is not the case.
Here we must draw a distinction between form and substance. While Islamic law was rewritten in the form of French law codes, it retained its Islamic essence. The result of this process was that Egypt became a liberal state run by a system of democracy. It aimed at a separation of powers and a functional constitutionalism, with codified law, enshrining the equality of citizens and respect for fundamental freedoms. However all of this took place with a healthy respect for the prevailing culture of Egyptians, and an acknowledgement of the Sharia as one of its constituent elements. Indeed, recent scholarship on modern Egyptian history is slowly accepting that Muhammad Ali Pasha, as innovative and modern as he was, was also a product of the Islamic (Ottoman and Mamluk) cultures which he inherited, and in which he grew up.
And even when his grandson Isma’il Pasha wanted to distance himself from the Ottoman legacy by establishing a parliament, elections, and a codified legal system, he never intended this as a way to escape the Islamic Shari’a, but rather to give it a new form which would allow the faithful Muslim to emerge into the modern world as both a believer and a citizen. This is why it was established in writing in the Egyptian code of 1883, whose first article proclaimed that no other articles may invalidate a right established by the Islamic Shari’a. It is also why the early attempts at codification resembled very strongly in content the findings of earlier legal schools (madhahib).
Indeed, these were carried out by prominent Islamic scholars, educated in the Islamic legal tradition, such as Qadri Pasha and Abd al-Razza al-Sanhuri Pasha. The breadth of learning of these figures was incomparable. And even though other jurists at the time may have opposed these developments, everyone recognized their qualifications and religious devotion, and none of them saw their efforts as anything approaching an abandonment of religion. Consider, for example, the position of one conservative scholar, who though he actively voiced his objection to the approach of Sanhuri, never had it occur to him that such an approach could be thought in any way un-Islamic.
It must be understood clearly that the advent of modernity in Egypt was never accompanied by the supposedly inevitable retreat of religious sentiment. Rather, religious sentiment continued to flourish even as the nation modernized. The overwhelming lesson of this example, and of Islamic history as a whole, is that Muslims are free to choose whichever system of government they deem most appropriate for them, provided they respect and uphold basic principles of equality, freedom and human dignity. Indeed, these principles for which liberal democracy stands are themselves part of the foundation for the Islamic world view; it is the achievement of this freedom and dignity within a religious context that Islamic law strives for.
Why modern progress depends on religious authority
It is no secret to those attending this conference that the world has witnessed tremendous change over the last two hundred years. This change often came in the form of new technologies and political ideologies. New communications technologies developed allowing us to be aware of what is happening in nearly every part of the world the instant that it occurs, whereas in the past it would take months if not years for even the most urgent news to spread. New cultural and political developments have caused us to think of the world and our place in it in new ways. This wave of change has caused a complete alteration of nearly every aspect of our lives, including the way we think about ourselves and others. It is this modern occurrence that presents the greatest challenge to Muslim jurists and Muftis. The challenge is how to ensure that Muslims are participants and partners in the modern world, confronting new realities with wisdom and balance, while remaining faithful to our religious traditions.
This is something that I, as the Grand Mufti of Egypt, take very seriously. It is a responsibility entrusted to the Muslim nations’ leaders, and we must approach it with wisdom and caution. Islam is often portrayed as the stereotypical example of everything that is wrong with religious societies. And there are some key issues that are regularly pointed to as examples. However, the Dar al-Ifta or the National Fatwa Office , the body I head as Grand Mufti and which has been the central source of authority for Egyptians for more than one hundred and fifty years in matters related to Sharia, has been key in seeking to advance reasonable, religiously authentic, responses to these issues. And we would do well to pay more attention to them.
Consider, for example, the issue of women. Islam is firmly in favour of gender equality. Although Muslim sources affirm divinely-bestowed differences between men and women, both genders enjoy spiritual equality. Within the Islamic worldview, these natural differences are thought to give rise to differing roles, complementary roles that are equally necessary for the healthy and wholesome unfolding of humanity. While men are tasked with the responsibility of providing for their family, the woman also has roles as nurturer and educator, which is the reason behind the Prophet’s response to one of his companions when he was asked who was most deserving of the companion’s love and respect: “Your mother, then your mother, then your mother, then your father.”
Many have distorted this natural difference to permit discrimination, especially in the form of barbaric activities. An example of this is the very serious problem of female genital mutilation (FGM). The Prophetic example makes clear that this was not something he ever encouraged or practiced. More to the point, as I made clear in a fatwa issued after a scientific conference on the topic convened by Dar al-Ifta in 2006, it is a transgression against a particularly sensitive body part, and if carried out to an extreme degree merits proper punishment.
Another issue which has caused a good amount of consternation among Western circles is with respect to Islam’s position on certain corporal punishments. What is ignored, however, is the way in which many scholars have adapted an important principle from the Prophet to apply to the modern world. It is reported that the Prophet said: “Ward off corporal and capital punishments when possible. If there is an excuse available, avail yourself of it. For it is better that the ruler errs in the direction of punishment than the direction of forgiveness.” Many scholars have come to the conclusion that the particular circumstances of the modern world render this an era in which the utmost caution must be exercised, and therefore, such punishments ought to be suspended as it was suspended before when particular circumstances merited doing so.
Of course, the most famous—and the most unfortunate—issue that is associated with Islam is that of terrorism. It cannot be stated strongly enough that terrorism is opposed to everything Islamic law stands for. Islamic law is a sophisticated and humane system which mandates very precise rules for warfare. I have laid these out very clearly in a fatwa which prohibits the use of weapons of mass destruction. Those who undertake such activities not only commit crimes against their victims—many of whom are innocent women and children—and breach international agreements and treaties, but they overstep their boundaries, and place an unjustifiable burden on the rest of the Muslim community. The consequences of such actions are catastrophic, and will only lead to further bloodshed.
Rather than cause enmity among peoples, it is imperative that we work together in order to address some of the enormous challenges facing humanity. I have been vocal about the need for Muslims to cooperate with other communities and nations to avert the impending environmental crises. Islam contains itself within the resources, as some like the Prince of Wales have noted, to contribute towards the preservation and protection of our environment, because Islam views the environment as God’s creation to whom we must interact with love and respect. In the Islamic paradigm, creation is in a state of constant obedience to God, and nature loves those who obey God and grieves over their passing from the world.
I must reiterate, however, that these enlightened positions are only possible if we delegate authority in the Muslim world to its proper leaders. In both Islam and other religions we are witnessing a phenomenon in which laypeople without a sound foundation in religious learning have attempted to set themselves up as religious authorities, even though they lack the scholarly qualifications to authentically interpret religious law and morality.
It is of course true that every Muslim—learned or illiterate, rich or poor—stands before his Lord with his God-given status as a spiritual entity given to him at birth, and judged only by his conduct and sincerity throughout his life. However, this should not distract us from realizing that a society functions through delegation of responsibilities and tasks. It is the sacred duty of those who have spent their lives in pursuit of scholarship and learning to interpret the finer aspects of morality and law—those that cannot be arrived at through the unmediated application of one’s conscience, but call for an engagement with scripture and exegesis.
It is eccentric and rebellious attitudes towards the humane tradition of learning that characterizes Islam that give rise to extremist interpretations that have basis in neither reality nor Islam. The aim of self-appointed religious authorities is purely political and has no religious foundation. It is to create havoc and chaos in the world. And the first step in creating that chaos is to marginalize the sane mainstream voices of Islam’s natural and long-acknowledged leaders, its Muftis and jurists.
Our role as religious leaders who have spent our lives carefully studying our religion and our people is to re-assert our rightful authority. I have, through my present position, set out to outline an authoritative picture of Islam. This demands a proper appreciation of the flexibility and adaptability of Islamic law—perhaps its greatest asset. To provide people with practical and relevant guidance while at the same time staying true to its foundational principles, Islam allows the wisdom and moral strength of religion to be applied in modern times. It is through adopting this attitude towards the Sharia that an authentic, contemporary, moderate, and tolerant Islam can provide solutions to the problems confronting the Muslim world today, and in which Islam can partner with other religious and secular people and institutions to offer solutions to the many problems currently confronting the entire world and all humanity.