Islam and Progress Episode 2
As religion struggles to stay afloat in many parts of the West, there’s a rising tide of devotion surging through the Islamic world. Increasingly Muslims are coping with modern life by reviving the age old certainties of their faith. But once they turn to religion they have to ask themselves a question as old as Islam itself - who decides what it means to be a good Muslim in today’s world?
Islam has never had a formal clergy but it has scholars who translate the Quran and the Way of the Prophet into rules that Muslims live by. But when life keeps on changing the rules need to change too – as the 16th century debate about coffee shows. When coffee became all the rage in Arab cities the scholars couldn’t agree whether this seductive new drink was haram or halal – forbidden or allowed. In the end, the coffee fans won because they proved the popular will was behind them. They were actually drawing on a very important principle of Islamic law: consensus. To paraphrase the Prophet, if the community agrees on something, it cannot be wrong.
Six centuries later, finding consensus in a global community of 1.3 billion Muslims is proving much more difficult and those who want to reform Islam are locked in battle with those who want to revive its core values.
Islam Online is the biggest Muslim website in the world and its staff at its Cairo head office are drawn from all corners of the globe. While it looks very multinational and modern, Islam Online is designed to keep Muslims rooted in tradition and one of its most effective tools is the cyber fatwa. Fatwa is simply a scholar’s opinion on a given subject. Islam Online is used by the scholars of the Muslim establishment to maintain order and control at a time of great change.
Every day Islam Online recieves hundreds of requests for fatwas from around
the world and there is no limit to the subjects the online scholars have to deal with. The website’s spiritual mentor is Yusuf al Qaradawi, perhaps the most influential traditionalist scholar in modern Islam. The Dublin’s Islamic Centre is headquarters for his European organisation.
Amr Khaled is a new kind of scholar and is Islam’s first global evangelist, a Muslim Billy Graham. He makes use of television, text messages and the internet and he appeals to young Muslims who have lost faith in the old order. However he preaches a traditional vision of Islam and at the heart of the Amr Khaled phenomeon is a change in style, rather than substance.
To some Muslims, no scholar should dictate the course of Islam’s future. Irshad Manji is one of the most controversial Muslims alive today. A feminist, lesbian and dissident, she believes the scholars became the problem when they assumed the right to interpret God’s will. Not surprisingly, few Muslim leaders agree, but she raises a genuine dilemma for modern Muslims - what happens when your personal views collide with the official Islamic code? For many Muslim women, this is the defining question in Islam today.
Malaysia’s system of Islamic law, or Sharia, applies to the country’s Muslim majority. Sisters in Islam was set up to defend Malaysian women by using religion as their ultimate protection. Sisters in Islam has put that approach to the test in the lives of women like Aida Melly. When Aida looked for a divorce, her husband refused, but she fought on, using the Qur’an as her defence. She set out on a lonely seven year struggle through Malaysia’s Sharia Courts and was finally granted a divorce in 2002.
Deeyah is a rising star of hip-hop - some call her the Muslim Madonna. She was born in Norway and was still a teenager when her music made her famous. But fame brought condemnation from conservative Muslim leaders and also death threats and abuse. Deeyah’s message to her fellow Muslims is clear - the problem with Islam is not the religion but all the customs and cultural baggage it has picked up through history. Deeyah may be attractive to Western eyes but to most Muslims around the world she is an aberration. The real Islamic trendsetters right now are revivalists like Dr Hebba Essat, one of the founders of Islam Online.
Political Islam sees Islamic revival as a stepping stone to Islamic law and – ultimately – an Islamic state. Its philosophy is summed in the slogan of the Muslim Brothers: Islam is the solution. The brotherhood was founded in Egypt eighty years ago to halt the long decline of Muslim power. It has, at various times, inspired violence and is still linked to militant groups like Hamas, but now the Brotherhood says democracy is the way forward.
Political Islam is on a roll right now –the victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections is a good indicator. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt eventually hopes to mirror that triumph. Through it’s worldwide network, it sees its influence spreading far beyond the Middle East.
Istanbul was the heart of Islam’s greatest empire, the seat of the last Muslim Caliphate. Islam was banished from public life by Turkey’s founding fathers and their secular code is still strictly enforced. Islam is enjoying a revival here too and now Turkey is ruled by a party with strong Islamic roots. The clash of secular codes and religious revival has created a fascinating compromise in Turkey. Islamic values shape the actions of politicians but are not allowed dictate the political system. Turkey may not be the perfect role model but it is evidence that – in the right place, at the right time – Islam and politics are not a recipe for disaster.
The more the Muslim world clashes with the modern western world the more likely it is that Muslims will turn to religion for answers. Is it possible to square the circle between reform and revival, between Islam and democracy, between the Muslim world’s past and its future?