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An Islamic Renaissance?

By Souheila Al-Jadda

The wave of murders, beheadings and suicide bombings committed by Muslims are yet more stains on Islam and its adherents. Muslims globally have condemned such violence.

Meanwhile, the 9/11 Commission report indicates that the newest threat to America is Islamic terrorism. While there are many factors that motivate people towards violence, the report has prompted many calls from the West for an Islamic reformation, viewing the religion as a source of terrorism. But, puritanical Muslim extremists worldwide want just the opposite, to implement Islamic law or Sharia as it was practiced more than 1400 years ago.

Today, more than 1.3 billion Muslims are finding themselves at a crossroad. Should Islam be reformed? Does the current rise in violence by Muslims reflect a problem within Islam? Or is it a malpractice of Islamic doctrines found in religious Sharia laws?

Sharia law uses as its source of reference the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, believed to be the exact words of God and the Sunna or teachings of the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

The understanding of Sharia affects the lives of all Muslims, governing all aspects of life from how to pray to the punishment for committing adultery.

Historically, the various interpretations of religious laws have created many different ‘Islams’ rather than one single, uniform religion. These legal understandings along with cultural customs of a certain region have shaped how Islam is practiced in diverse Muslim societies throughout the centuries.

But these days, some individuals have formed their own twisted versions of Islam.

Osama Bin Laden, the self-appointed renegade spiritual leader, issues religious edicts over the internet, radio and television, calling on his sympathizers to kill Westerners or bomb certain targets. Understandably, the media always reports these pronouncements.

Bin Laden and his copycats manipulate verses from the Qur’an, which indeed call for fighting, to justify their short-term political goals. Thus, “Bin Ladenism” changes the course of international debate, crowding out the moderate voices in the discussion of Islam, its laws and role in modern society.

The vast body of centuries of Islamic thought and jurisprudence requires careful study. Muslim thinkers learn for decades, writing books and teaching at universities. Some scholars are even advocating change.

These intellectuals receive little recognition by the media. They also face intimidation by members of their own religious community, who are quick to label them as heretics.

But some people do speak out. What do they say about Islamic laws and its applicability in the modern world?

In a recent PBS interview, American University professor Akbar Ahmed, author of Islam Under Siege, spoke of creating an environment for an Islamic renaissance. “I would use the word renaissance because reformation has theological implications,” Ahmed said.

Ahmed is calling for an enlightened reading of the holy book and practices of the Muslim prophet, since there is no monolithic entity to reform and the Qur’an can not be changed.

The Islamic Renaissance has already begun. Keeping in line with Islam’s rich intellectual tradition, scholars of Islam have studied the religion, offering many alternative analyses of Islamic laws.

Muslim women are interpreting the sacred texts from a feminist perspective. Ithaca College professor, Dr. Asma Barlas, does this by reading the Qur’an from a feminist perspective.

In a recent on-line interview she said that she does not deconstruct the Qur’an or offer a new translation. “I use existing translations…to recover the Qur’an’s opposition to patriarchy and its support for sexual equality by means of an interpretive strategy that I derive from the Qur’an itself,” Barlas said.

Emory University law professor, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, in his seminal book, Toward Reformation, argues that changing the interpretation of Islamic law can only be done by judging Sharia and the “historical experience of Muslims by the standards prevailing at the time Sharia was being developed and implemented, and to seek the development of alternative Islamic principles” for modern application.

In other words, Qur’anic verses that espouse violence should be interpreted within its historical context at the time, when war was the modus operandi.

In today’s relatively peaceful international environment, the verses that call for violence may not be as useful as others which express equality, liberty, peace and freedom for all, irrespective of religion and gender.

Some may argue the validity of such opinions. But, at least Muslim scholars, both here and abroad, are debating the issues.

There is nothing wrong with Islam, the Qur’an or the teachings of the Prophet. No apologies necessary. But a growing number of Muslim religious scholars believes that the Sharia or past interpretations of sacred text may need to be reexamined to reemphasize the true, peaceful and pluralistic nature of Islam.

All Muslims, including intellectuals, religious leaders, and heads of states, must continue to marginalize the voices of hate and violence by uniting to condemn them. As a community we should encourage dialogue and understanding towards Muslims with new ideas, even those who advocate change. Finally, the media must do its part to provide a platform for moderate voices.

The Islamic Renaissance may have begun, but years may pass before it takes effect. Only patience and perseverance will allow this enlightenment to revive the peaceful heart of Islam.

Souheila Al-Jadda is a freelance writer from San Jose, California.

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