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The conflict between Islam and modernity

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Many in the Muslim community have long taken issue with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The declaration, these critics attest, was created by colonial powers with a history of gross human-rights violations, and amounts to yet another attempt by a few Western players to impose their will upon Muslim countries. Islamic conservatives and fundamentalists go further, as they declare that no human invention can equal — much less supersede — Shariah law, which amounts to the word of God.

This clash between the U.N.’s secular human-rights standards and Muslim religious doctrine mirrors the broader conflict between Islam and modernity — a conflict that has left some citizens of Muslim countries, including women and non-Muslims, highly vulnerable. Fortunately, an emerging school of Muslim thought addresses the question in a new way, emphasizing that the Quran, like any religious text, must be interpreted — and that those interpretations can change over time.

In fact, the Quran does defend principles like liberty, impartiality and righteousness, which indicates a fundamental respect for justice and human dignity. The problem, as emphasized by the Iranian theologian Mohsen Kadivar, is that many parts of Shariah law are linked to pre-modern social structures, which deny women or non-Muslims the same protections as Muslim men receive.

It does not help that, as George Mason University’s Abulaziz Sachedina points out, men have been the ones to interpret Islam’s holy texts. This, rather than those texts’ true content, is the root cause of legal discrimination against women in Muslim countries.

The theologian Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi points out that Islamic law regarding punishment — which includes brutal practices like stoning and amputation — originates from the Old Testament. Islam did not invent these punishments; they were simply the prevailing practices of the time.

As societies progress and evolve, so must the rules and standards that govern them. As the Iranian theologian Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari of the University of Tehran emphasizes, many of the ideas associated with justice and human rights, as we understand them today, were completely “un-thought” in the pre-modern era. But Muslims cannot simply disregard such ideas on the grounds that humans had not developed them at the time the Quran was written.

With the abandonment of outdated notions of tiered justice and the recognition of the liberty and dignity of all individuals, Shabestari believes that it will become possible to realize the Quran’s message that there should be no compulsion in religion. People’s religious decisions should be driven by their sense of faith, rather than their desire to retain their civil rights.

According to the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, this distinction between religious beliefs and civil rights should be obvious. But interpretations of Islamic law have traditionally been so focused on questions about mankind’s various duties that they have failed to recognize it. For Soroush, however, the denial of human rights based on “a person’s beliefs or absence of belief” is undeniably a “crime.”

The school of Muslim thought promoted by these scholars, who come from both Sunni and Shia backgrounds, offers a way forward for Islam. Its adherents know that key Islamic concepts, beliefs, norms and values can be harmonized with modern social structures and understandings of justice and human rights. By recommending ways to do so, they are reaffirming the durability of the core Islamic tradition. To use the language of the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, they are creating “saving translations,” whereby a language, conceptual apparatus and social system are updated to reflect progress in human reason.

Such saving translations in Islam have been emerging for a considerable period of time. Indeed, the late Iranian writer and philosopher Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri fell out with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after being designated his successor, over policies that he believed infringed on people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. In defending freedom of speech, Montazeri referred to a Quranic verse stating that God taught humans how to express themselves. “How can God, on the one hand, teach humans the ability of expression and, on the other hand, limit it?”, he asked. The obvious conclusion, he declared, was that “no one should be condemned for heresy, libel, or insult just for expressing his or her opinion.”

Montazeri, like today’s innovative Muslim thinkers, chose to remain open to alternate interpretations of the Quran, rather than becoming trapped by accepted tradition. The saving translations that these figures have offered demonstrate that modern global norms like the UDHR are not only compatible with Islam; they are deeply embedded within it. Reinterpreting — or even abandoning — antiquated rules rooted in outdated social structures does not amount to subverting the word of God. On the contrary, it proves the true depth of Islam’s sacred texts.

Mohammad Fazlhashemi is a professor of Islamic theology and philosophy at Uppsala University, Sweden. © Project Syndicate/Mohammed Bin Rashid Global Initiatives, 2016

  • tide1983

    Dear People of the word…..

    Do you know the truth about….. Islam?

    Or do you think it’s about

    Bombing planes and killing innocent people…..?

    Forget about the lies…..

    I’ am here to tell you how it really is…..

    You deserve to know the truth

    About this beautiful way of life…..

    People of the world

    Islam is all about peace

    Terrorism it doesn’t teach

    Its all about love and family and charity

    And praying to one God

    This is Islam

    It’s something you should know…..

    I know it’s really helped me grow

    It does away with greed, filth, arrogance

    And teaches us morality

    A perfect way to live…..

    So don’t believe all you see and hear

    Too many people wear a title of a Muslim…..

    But they don’t practice Islam…..

    People of the world

    Islam is all about peace

    Terrorism it doesn’t teach

    Its all about love and family and charity

    And praying to one God

    This is Islam

    And it teaches us the creator’s made this life for us a test…..

    And if we follow truth and do good deeds, He’ll reward us in the Next…..

    If we remember God & teach each other the truth and patience in His way

    Together we can live…..in peace…..

    This is Islam

    Lyrics by Yusuf Islam

    Please Google Islamic research
    foundation and visit the FAQ section for answers to questions you may have
    about Islam.

    I am sure that you will find
    that Islam is a religion of peace, tolerance, justice, kindness, charity, love
    and worshiping one God.

    • Pikassole

      I think you will only anger a lot of people if you proselytize here. Not the right time and not the right place. The best thing you can do now is to reform your religion, and advise your community to do likewise.

      • Omar Farooq

        I’m not angry, I love jazz

      • Reagan40

        I’m not only angry, I am offended at the attempts by Moslems to whitewash Islam. The Moslem problems will never ever be solved and many more people will die if we refuse to expose the evil fascism in islam.

      • Omar Farooq

        I’m not angry, I love jazz

    • Omar Farooq

      Outstanding!

    • Reagan40

      How I wish that’s all about Islam. But unfortunately that is fantasy islam. Let’s kill all those Moslems that do contrary to all you’ve just said and make Islam a peaceful religion.

      • Omar Farooq

        That sounds pretty angry

      • Reagan40

        What is angry about killing Moslems that kill non Moslems and wage jihad ? Is there anything wrong with self defence?

    • jeff dee

      You know absolutely nothing about Islam. Why don’t you go study it.

  • Omar Farooq

    There is always hope in reformation, Islam will be advanced through the Ahmadiyya Muslim community!

  • Reagan40

    Have you read the koran and hadith? The book of Islam is replete with hate. The hate speech in the koran need to be expunged or the cult banned altogether and Moslems need to stop imitating Mohammed because Mohammed is the most vile and evil man that ever walked this beautiful planet. Mohammed is worse than hitler. Mein Kampf is better than jihad because jihad is religiously sanctioned genocide against non Moslem majority world population. If you don’t want to be a paedophile worshipper, why remain a moslem? If you will not obey the creed of islam, leave Islam for good. Look Moslems are going to hell. All Moslems are going to hell. Mohammed is already in hell. There is no redemption in Islam. Mohammed has deceived all of you. ISLAM is Satan’s religion. Islam is sin, the anti christ. God hate sin and God hate islam. Open your eyes and flee the religion of satan. Allah is not God. Allah is one of the numerous gods in the pantheon of gods in pre-islamic Arabia. Enough said.