A city in Italy a few years ago barred pet owners from keeping goldfish in curved bowls, why? Because it is cruel the town argued, to give the fish "a distorted view of reality".
For a long time now the worldview of Muslims has remained warped by the kind of lenses they are being made to see through. Flawed interpretive structure is the challenge for Muslims today. Inherently flawed architecture remains the reason for confusion and conflict within Islam and also Islam's interaction with modernity.
The current status of Muslim societies shows the hollowness of so much that has passed for Islam over time. Conflated personal opinions, mainly to establish a power base and following, has been a problem. The actions of radicals claiming to represent a "truer and more pious" form of Islam are mainly to stifle the discussion and progress toward reform and renewal. It is clear that Islam remains bound by obligations of doctrinal orthodoxy imposed by the tutelary authority of state-established religion and others; too many stakeholders have an interest in creating conflict, not solving it. What seems missing in the Islamic world is an authority to recognize such changes in practice as religiously legitimate.
In the absence of a central authority, church, or Pope and in the absence of a sacramental clergy, Muslims seem unable to resolve the contradictions under which they have been continuing to labor for a fairly long period of their own history.
Arabic the language in which the Qur'an was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is spoken by 20 percent of the global Muslim population who are Arabs; the majority of Muslims do not speak or understand the language. Among Muslims Arabic has a higher status than being classified as a sacred language. Since the Arabic Qur'an is the Divine response to the Prophets' calling, the Arabic language itself is understood by Muslims to be Divine. This naturally has generated an attitude of deep reverence among all Muslims whether they are Arabs or non-Arabs to the extent that a literate interpretation or understanding of the Qur'an remains a dominant mode. It is a sad irony that the majority of Muslims who are non-Arabs and pray five times a day recite Qur'anic Arabic during their prayer sessions with hardly any understanding of the verses they recite or listen to!
Islam is centered around and bespeaks of Arab culture and why shouldn't it since it is after all a product of the Arab culture prevailing at that time. The entire narrative of Islam remains bound to Arab culture and the Arabic language.
Literalism leads to particularity and since the Arabs are the group who speak, read and write Arabic, in Islamic hierarchy they dominate the Muslim and Islamic discourse. Even the non-Arab Muslim majority has acquiesced to this notion. This idea remains strongly linked to the historic practices of the 7th to the 10th centuries which remain a normative model for current actions and attitudes.
The Arab-centric "Islamic" culture's application in far-off, environmentally and culturally-different lands has been present since the beginning of Islam and is not a new problem. This was, however, easily dealt with in early Islam during the rapid expansion from its center in Arabia to far-flung areas of the world mainly because the early Muslims upheld the Qur'anic emphasis on "reflection and cognition". The Qur'an in a number of verses emphasizes and enjoins this duty for all who follow its message. Those who were coming into the folds of Islam were bringing in insights, wisdom, experience and knowledge; they were readily welcomed by the early Muslims and no fatwas of heresy were invoked.
The diverse processes of localization, adaptation, renewal, and change that took place in the Muslim communities in the flourishing phase of early Islam need to be revisited. Because there is no centralized hierarchy in Islam that governs the use of Arabic, there was less emphasis on distinguishing Arabic from local languages and, by extension, less emphasis on distinguishing a pure Islam from local variants. As such, local traditions produced highly particular forms of Islamic practice and theology. Though processes of Islamization in these regions produced tensions, schisms, and accusations of heresy, Islam survived and flourished. By accommodating and embracing a new understanding of the past that was based on Muslim history and by adopting and adapting the Arabic language in ways that made it local and familiar these tensions were minimized. This whole process reflects the ways in which ideas, beliefs, and stories that arrive on new soil generate debate, creativity, and engagement that can never be identical across place and time. It also highlights the importance of recovering elements in one's traditions or cultural environment to solve certain social and individual life-problems, such as those related to living together in deeply plural societies.
The current reality regarding Islam and any chance of meaningful change demands understanding. It is clear that the world view, the historical cultural narrative that has been fed to generations of Muslims is not working. The state of cognitive dissonance due to the inherent contradictions that prevail must be addressed now and eliminated. It is necessary for Muslims living in the contemporary age to re-engage with the overarching ethical aims and ideals of the Qur'an and not remain fixated to "form rather than substance". Development of instruments that would give fresh insights into Qur'anic understanding will help eliminate the contradictions and instill and build confidence in young minds. There needs to be a change in approach and attitude in terms of understanding the real world that we live in, enabling us to embrace the global diversity and coherence of religion.
Whenever the need for reform in Islam is mentioned, it immediately draws an angry response from Muslims that "Islam does not need any reform because it is already perfected by God". The problem though is that Muslims have become identified with Islam and Islam with Muslims through inescapable historical and cultural processes. This is the reality Muslims need to acknowledge. The world at large perceives the issue in this manner. At the time of Islam's rise and spread to distant parts of the world, people understood and accepted Islam through the conduct of the Muslims of that time. Why should it be any different now?
The extreme sensitivity among Muslims in regard to the issue of interpretation or reinterpretation away from already existing and so-called established views of the earlier scholars or sheikhs remains a major obstacle to the idea of the much needed reform. The mention of the very idea of reform evokes a plethora of negative responses from Muslims, ranging from this being a Western conspiracy to discredit Islam to the notion that any step in this direction may cause damage to the entire edifice of Islam's practices or expressions leading to its collapse.
It is time that Muslims especially those who are concerned, committed and educated, show responsiveness to perception, to precedent, and to the promise of Islam in forging a new framework and a coherent narrative. Ambivalence, avoidance, hedging, and delay will only make the problem worse. Muslims must rise to fit into the Qur'anic framework "You are the best of mankind establishing good deeds and preventing what is wrong".
Is there anywhere in the Muslim world that there is a practical demonstration of reform and change?
Dr. Nazir Khaja is Chairman of the Islamic Information Service, Los Angeles. He can be reached at Nazir.khajagmail.com