Reformists, Revisionists and Real Islam

The world is rapidly changing. If you want to be considered fit for the 21st century, you have to abandon the idiosyncrasies of the past. This includes religion, unless you want to be accused of worshiping an “imaginary sky fairy”, or held accountable for what extremists do. It’s not becoming for a modern, progressive individual to involve themselves in something as outdated as religion, now is it?

Unless of course, you update it. Change things around, cut out some stuff, an addendum here and there for a ‘modern’ touch, and viola, you have yourself a better religion.

Many religions, if not most, have seen major reformist movements. The most tenacious and stubborn religion against these movements is, of course, Islam.

I suppose what makes Islam so different is that it’s less complex than the others, with the followers being largely in agreement over what’s right and wrong, with minor disputes on how to follow it. It’s also the youngest major religion, which could be a factor in how intact it appears in terms of religious texts and chains of narration.

But with the fear that questioning our beliefs will destroy our faith an ever present concern, it’s become difficult for Muslims to make the move into the 21st century. The gap between traditionalists and reformists is so large that it’s near impossible to straddle it. The result is that you get labeled a mindless follower of the opposing camp when expressing your views.

This has happened to me quite often. I once commented an article about the France ban on niqabs, likening the niqab to the bikini in Muslim countries (i.e. surprising,unusual and culturally strange). If we have the right to ban bikinis in our countries, they should have the right to ban the niqab in their own countries, adding that the religious justifications were incorrect since the niqab is not technically part of Islam. I was decried as a hypocrite, a feminist, a Western puppet and a liberal fool.

For another article, on the topic of gay marriage, I made my statement that disagreeing with gay marriage does not make one a bigot or homophobic, that it was a matter of double standard when weighed with issues like polygamy or marriage between cousins or siblings, or that equating it with the African-American civil rights movement was illogical. There I was called a backwards ‘bible thumper’, a religious fool and a caveman.

As you can see, you need to be one or other, you can’t be both. Either you follow your religion to a T, or you disregard it and jump on to whatever bandwagon the latest activists have been driving around.

While the internet has become a powerful tool for furthering knowledge, it’s also created ‘online cliques’, where you find yourself conforming to one ideology or another in order to fit in. The internet is expansive, confusing, and at times downright terrifying. By aligning yourself to a certain group, you develop this sense of belonging and security against the Great Unknown. According to Maslow, these are basic human needs.

I’m guilty of it myself. When I first seriously got into the internet, I found a snug corner to hide in, with the ‘young Muslim clique’. Obviously within this clique there were sub-cliques, like the Shias, Sunnis, Quranists, and while tiffs broke out often, we functioned as one community.

But I’ve never been one to settle down. I began jumping around, taking on the roles of Palestinian freedom fighter, literature enthusiast, graphic designer, a brief stint as Islamic debater/apologist/champion, and then I started university and realized I couldn’t waste my entire day arguing and/or chumming around online. (Interestingly enough, I’ve never developed an architecture persona online, either because I grew up enough not to need a defining characteristic, or because architects make for lousy debaters).

During my online gallivanting I discovered the Muslim reformist movement, which I found hilarious, until I realized that they were actually being taken seriously. Granted, their main audience were anti-Islamic bigots who used the cries of ‘change Islam!’ to validate their belief that the religion itself is inherently corrupt. But there were also building up another audience, the young Muslims I once rubbed elbows with (or binomials, if we must be technical), who were frustrated with the stagnated state of Islamic education that was being dominated by wizened, old, bearded men.

Sure, the reformers were spewing drivel like “You don’t need to take the Shahada to become a Muslim! Just saying you’re Muslim is enough”, but they were also encouraging independent and critical thinking, as well as acknowledging the problems in Muslim societies, something that younger Muslims are quenching for.

And so there was a dilemma. The reformists promised free thought, but the admission fee was forgoing religious texts. The traditionalists (or ‘moderates’) were uptight, tedious and offered no challenging intellectual dialogue that bred progress.

This dilemma has been mutated into the gap I spoke of earlier, where you must ultimately make the choice of where your allegiances lie. Of course many don’t bother taking a side, and reside happily in the grey area where they can disregard the debate altogether.

The moderates have seen change with the introduction of young blood on the preaching scene. Scholars like Nouman Ali Khan, Suhaib Webb, Hamza Yousef (who’s been around for a while) and Omar Suleiman have changed the way Islam is taught, without losing the integrity of the religion.

Sure, it’s still not palatable in an age where hot button issues like abortion, gay marriage and women’s rights must be argued in a secular context or else you’ll be ridiculed, but these are steps in the right direction that will pave the way for dialogue without fear. Muslims aren’t immune to the problems of this day and age, and telling them to shape up or ship out will leave you with less followers than when you started.

I’ve accepted long ago that if I was to follow this religion, I would have to take it all or none. Picking and choosing is, for me, being dishonest. If you acknowledge that God exists, you must exercise faith, and this faith should extend to what He ordains. But to twist and bend beliefs to suit your own lifestyle defeats the point of religion. Be sincere with yourself always, instead of justifying and making claims to appease others.

“I came to the messenger of Allah and he said, “You have come to ask about righteousness?” I said, ” Yes.” He said: “Consult your heart. Righteousness is that about which the soul feels tranquil and the heart feels tranquil, and wrongdoing is that which wavers in the soul and moves to and from in the breast even though people again and again have given you their legal opinion [in its favor].”” (Narrated by Wasiba bin Mabad, An Nawawi’s Forty Hadith)

(The Muslims I’m referring to in this post are the ones who live in the West, where the culture is often at odds with religion. The issues of religion in the Middle East are largely different, and for me, difficult to understand. Culture here seems to be dominant, and Western solutions are shunned out of pride, and are neither compatible or realistic. The problems here are a tangled knot that are political and socio-economic in nature, besides religion.)

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