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On Social Change and Islamic Reform

Q. You are obsessed with change. This is in fact, your critics argue, one of the main problems with your thought.

A. Wouldnt you be, if you see so much injustice, poverty and degradation all around you?

Q. But see social change as essential. A natural part of life.

A. I see change is normal; indeed, a natural part of life. And social change follows the patterns of overall change. It is normal and an integral part of life. However, the term social change is itself part of the western jargon of sociology and as such it reflects the values of the West. Whatever the value of Comte, Durkheim and Mannheim, it is Marx who has, more than anyone else, shaped western sociology. Indeed, Weber can be considered to be nothing more than a gloss on Marx. As such, I believe, western sociology assumes the Marxian dimension to a very large degree. The basic assumptions can be identified as: stratification of society (in classes), and the influence of economics on all spheres of society. Other cultures do not (necessarily) subscribe to these notions of society and hence sociology. In Islam, for example, society is structured not on the basis of class but piety (so the ideal theory goes). Furthermore, in western sociology change is itself a positive value. Again, other cultures do not see change itself as good. In Islam, change is not a value in itself. It can be blameworthy or praiseworthy and the society is suppose to exert and work towards positive change in Islamic terms. The value of change as perpetual and permanent is equated with the idea of progress; which is by definition good. All progress is progress and innately good. The binary opposite of progress is stagnation. Thus nothing should be allowed to impede change; and all obstacles to change are necessarily bad leading to reaction, decadence and death. Most non-western societies do not subscribe to such notions of progress. From social change to progress and from progress to development. This is the conventional western historic dynamic. What I say about progress also holds true of development.

Q. So, what are the primary agents of social change? What drives change?

A. In contemporary society, the dominant agents of change are science and technology. Plus fashion and zingiest. But this is hackneyed territory and I do not want to go into it. What I want to say is that different cultures have different notions of agents of social change. In Islam, the primary agent of social change is conceptual. It is a concept called ijtihad meaning reasoned and sustained struggle for innovation, positive change and uplifting progress. There are other concepts which have a bearing on this such as the notion of tajdid (renewal), islaah (correcting negative change) and istislah (promoting public interest). Theoretically, at least, change in Muslim society is brought about by exerting ijtihad and putting other concepts into practice. This is the kind of change I have argued for in Muslim societies.

Q. Do you assign any priority or instructions for determining which are the most crucial?

Yes. I always ask a simple question: Cui bono? Who benefits? It seems to me that almost all change in a globalised world benefits only certain societies and certain individuals and groups in those societies. On the whole, I am not really interested in change that leads to further marginalisation of the non-west or inner city poor in western societies. Neither am I interested in change that enhances the power of the corporations. My priorities are very simple: first the marginalised of the world wherever they are; second nature and environment; third knowledge. I judge all social change by this criteria: does it benefit the marginalised? The environment? Does it enhance our knowledge and understanding of our selves? I also think existing institutions are an impediment to positive change. The quest for sustainable society forces us to actually re-imagine society itself. We need the ability to transcend the existing poverty of thought and move forward to a future with new institutions based on new visions. I have seen, for example, how Muslim scholars tried to develop the idea of an Islamic economics (based on zero interest, the idea that land cannot be owned, notions of partnerships and cooperatives, and deep notions of social justice) using existing, conventional institutions. After 30 years of effort, we can safely say that they have failed. Existing institutions are innately unjust the injustice inherent in them (the bias towards the poor and environment, for example) is difficult to overcome. We need new institutions that are premised on the ideas of equality and social justice.

Q. Who is best placed to bring about positive social change?

A. You, me, everyone. Rivers are made of drops of water. Each drop of water must do the bit that is required. And we should work collectively to enhance our efforts. We tend to neglect the power of the ordinary people. An average Joe Bloggs or Sarah Smith has tremendous power even if he/she assumes that they are totally powerless. There is power even in absolute powerlessness. What is need is the will to change, struggle and fight for positive futures. And thats what I think is really lacking. Most of us are too comfortable and hence too complacent.

Q. You are critical of attempts to package Islam into a single ideology, or to view Islam as a simple set of rules and regulations that define everything from personal conduct to state power. At what point in your career did you discover or learn that this is not what Islam meant for you?

A. In the mid-seventies while living in Saudi Arabia. If you want to see the true manifestation of Islam as a one-dimensional ideology, simply look at Saudi Arabia. When I was first invited to come and work in Saudi Arabia, I felt as though I had won the lottery. It was the height of the oil-boom years in the late seventies, and I was going to join the newly established Hajj Research Centre at the King Abdul Aziz University in Jeddah. Saudi Arabia is, after all, the land of the two holiest cities of Islam: Mecca, the prime focus of every Muslim during daily prayers, the site of the Sacred Mosque with the Holy Kaaba – the House of Allah – and the goal of hajj, the pilgrimage that every Muslim must undertake at least once in his or her lifetime; and Medina, the city where the Prophet Muhammad laid the foundations of the Muslim civilisation. The emotional content of the words Mecca and Medina on a young Muslim looking for his first job cannot be measured on any human scale. I thought I was going to an Islamic paradise. But I soon discovered that when Islam and the state are one and the same thing, and when there is only one way of interpreting Islam and of being a Muslim, you end you with self-righteous fascism. If you believe that you possess the absolute truth, you naturally want to keep it pure and exclude everything that you see as falsehood. Moreover, you are keen to impose it on others whatever the cost. When you internalise Islam as a single ideology, you cease to be, in my opinion, human. . In their excessive zeal to be guardians of their brand of hyper-orthodox Islam, many Saudis have forgotten how to be human. When I first went to Saudi Arabia I thought I will discover a new level of humanity, a new, unparalleled appreciation of the dignity of difference. Instead, I encountered a type of religious xenophobia that I could not imagine. I realised then that Islam cannot be packaged into a single ideology. Later, revolutionary Iran and the Taliban further strengthened my belief. For me, Islam is all about knowing yourself as a human being. Before you can be a good Muslim you must be a good human being. Simplest, monolithic interpretations of Islam undermine this equation.

Q. The Ijmalis were perhaps the most dynamic group of Muslim Diaspora intellectuals whose vision and output is likely to remain unmatched for many decades. Why could you not institutionalise?

A. You insist on labelling me; and I insist on rejecting all labels. I am not a Diaspora anything. I do not feel displaced. I am not in exile. I feel totally at home where I am! The Ijamlis did not see themselves as Diaspora intellectuals they felt perfectly at home in the West because they were from and of the West. They emerged as a network before networks were in fashion. It is very difficult to institutionalise a network. The Ijamlis were a product of their time and existed as long as the network performed a useful function. They evaporated when the network was no longer needed. I do not really lament their demise. The world has moved on and we need new networks geared to contemporary times.

Q. Among the next generation of Diaspora Muslim public intellectuals, Tariq Ramadans ideas are perhaps closest to yours. Notwithstanding 9/11, why do you think it has taken a quarter of a century for your ideas to resurface in the public sphere?

A. Well, better late than never. When The Future of Muslim Civilisation was first published, I remember my friend Jerry Ravetz saying, dont expect anyone to understand it; it will take decades for many of the ideas in it to filter down. I think it is the job of reformers to be ahead of their time. Moreover, I am asking Muslims to transcend centuries of historical baggage and overturn deeply entrenched obscurantism. I have always seen this as a multi-generational task. Sometimes you need a crisis for certain reformist ideas to come to the fore. I think the total failure of the notion of Islamic state and the Islamic movement, as well as intellectual movements such as Islamisation of knowledge, has generated a sense of crisis. 9/11 has given this crisis an urgent spin to this crisis. So the time is now ripe for many of my ideas to come to the fore. Indeed, it is gratifying to see how so many of my ideas sometime with acknowledgement, mostly without acknowledgement have now been embraced in places like Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey and in various European Muslim circles. But I do not believe that Tariq Ramadan and others have still caught up with the true import of my ideas.

Q. Talking of Europe, do you think that a European Islam is possible? Considering that Muslims are a minority, do you think that a minority can play an role in shaping new interpretations of Islam?

A. I think the first thing we need to appreciate is that Islam is not a monolithic entity. We can interpret it according to the situation we find ourselves in. The basic contours of Islam what we believe, they way we do our worship, the basic injunctions of the Quran and Sunnah are immutable; but the rest is open to interpretation. And, I think, that it is the duty of European Muslims to shape a European Islam based on their experience and understanding of both Islam and the contemporary European societies. So, I see the development of a dynamic European Islam, underpinning European Muslim identities, as an urgent social and cultural project.

To the question of minorities. Minorities have always played a great role in shaping Islam and giving it a sense of direction. The idea of hijra or migration that leads to the formation of a Diaspora is central to Islam. Our calendar itself starts with the hijra of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. And when the Prophet arrived in Medina, the Muslims were a minority. Moreover, throughout Muslim history, minorities have played a major part in transforming the centre. It was the scholars and thinkers of the periphery, such as Samarkand and Bukhara, who informed and changed the classical period. Think of the immense contribution of Moorish Spain clearly a minority in relation to the rest of the then Muslim world in building the Muslim civilisation. So being a minority is not necessarily an impediment to developing a civilisational project. I think European Muslims are well placed to undertake this project and, through their efforts, change the rest of the Muslim world itself.

Q. Do you think Turkeys membership can help this process? Is Turkeys exclusion from EU solely based on economical and social reason? How can they contribute to the debate about Turkey or learn from it?

A. Certainly. I think Turkeys membership of EU will provide a big boost to the confidence of European Muslims. It will confirm that Islam not only belongs in Europe but also has European roots. There are primarily two reasons for Turkeys exclusion from the EU. The first is racism pure and simple. Europe has never sees Turkey as part of itself; no matter how much Turkey saw itself as European. Western Europe has always suffered from a serious identity crisis and where Europe ends and the rest of the world begins, its boundaries, is an integral part of this identity crisis. So Eastern Europe, for example, is never actually seen as European but as a part of the East. This is why Slovakians, Romanians and Albanians are never accepted as fully-fledged Europeans. As the historic Other of Europe, Turkey is hardly likely to be seen as a true European state. The second is Turkeys human rights records. Indeed, this and the armys involvement in politics, is often used to justify European racism against Turkey. Now, this has nothing to do with Islam. In fact, the military justifies its involvement in politics and human rights abuses in terms of keeping Turkey secular and suppressing Islam. It is perfectly possible for Turkey to be ruled by a moderate Islamic elements, be free of human rights and freedom of expression abuses, thrive on plurality and develop a prosperous economy. What is not possible is for Turkey to be totally overshadowed by the army and be a free, pluralistic and democratic state. Only when the army cuts itself off totally from politics will it be possible for Turkey to fulfil the basic condition for inclusion in the European Union. And only then can it have the moral ground to fight the racist attitudes and deeply held prejudices that Europe holds about Turkey. I think this is happening. Europe cannot keep Turkey out of the Union for ever; this could have serious consequences for the EU itself. So, sooner or later, I think, Turkey will join the EU.

Q. You have upset lots of people with your thoughts on conversion to Islam. On the whole, you do not think this is a good idea. Why?

A. In my experience, many converts, if not most, converts come to Islam to seek certainty and simplicity, and perhaps a recognition that they need authoritarianism the three things I believe Islam is not about. Most converts tend to be more Muslims than the Muslims and take every minute aspect of Islam as they have been thought or have learned very, very seriously. If they happen to adopt the Wahabi way, they want everyones who does not have a beard to be declared an unbeliever, those who are not vigilant with their prayers are seriously lacking in faith, and want to impose Shariah law on everything and everyone. Now, I dont want to name names; but check out the opinions of some prominent white Muslims and you will see what I mean.

There’s another problem. Converts automatically assume leadership position. In America, Hamza Yusuf and in Britain Yusuf Islam and Abdul Hakim Murad are a clear example. In the eighties many white converts formed what was than known as Islamic Society of Britain (now it has changed a lot) and their declared purpose was to (1) lead the Muslim community because the immigrants were not capable of being leaders; and (2) represent Islam to the host community because the Subcontinental were a bad advert for Islam. I found many of its members to be totally obnoxious, and some were plainly and expressly racist. Indeed, converts only play the race card sometime consciously, sometimes innocently – viz a viz the Arabs. The Arabs, as you know, are deeply racist when it comes to white converts because they prove the superiority of Islam. They look up to them. And some white converts exploit this. In a strange way, converts also play a role in projecting a normal image of Islam. They are often brought on radio and television to make the point: look if a Yorkshire (for example) born lassie can convert to Islam, then it must be alright. Or at least cant be bad. I wouldnt say I am against converts per se. But I am concerned that many of them have extremists or very narrow views on Islam; and many impose themselves as leaders of the Muslim community.

Q. Yet your closest collaborator and co-author Merryl Davies is a convert from Wales.

Those coverts who retain a balance, take their newly adopted religion in their stride, make tremendous contribution all around. Consider the achievements, for example, of Mohammad Asad or Marmaduke Pickthall, both of whom translated the Quran. Converts that do not wear their Islam on their sleeves, or suffer from some kind of identity crisis, can be a boon to Muslim society. Unfortunately, such people are few and far in between. Merryl is one of them. She is so confident of her Welsh identity that she did not even bother to change her name. That says something!

Q. The Sufi Traditionalists claim that your ideas for an Islamic Science are devoid of an appreciation of spirituality and the soul. Would you say there is some truth to this?

A. Science is all about problem solving, it has nothing to do with the soul. You may find spirituality in nature but that is not the same thing as studying nature to understand it laws. Now I do think that values play an important part in shaping science; and these values can be spiritual values. But at the same time, I believe science to be socially objective and its results to be repeatable and applicable throughout all cultures. This view clashes with the Traditionalist notion that sees science as sacred, secret, concerned with the occult, and based on some sort of perennial philosophy. I make no apology for that. I reject this notion of science totally.

Q. In retrospect, do you feel you were too hard on Hussian Nasr, the champion of Traditionalist notion of science and the Bucaillists, who seek to justify the discoveries of science through a reading of the Quran. Their views remain mainstream among Muslims all over the world.

A. As I said earlier, I believe in speaking my mind, and stating the truth as I see it. I may be wrong; and often am. But I still prefer to speak truth to power. I dont believe that I was either hard or soft on Nasr or Bucaillists. It is for others to critically evaluate my arguments. My views often go against the mainstream. That doesnt really bother me. What does bother me is the lack of critical thought in Muslim societies. I think the mainstream views of Nasr and Bucaillists are pushing Muslim societies away from science. Muslims, I think, need to realise that there are no quick fixes in science you cant do science by contemplating the universe nor can scientific discoveries be made by simply reading the Quran. There is no substitute for rolling ones sleeves and going back to the laboratory.

Q. After 9/11, Muslims everywhere began to ask questions about their faith. Britains Muslims are racked with pain and soul-searching following the 7 July London bombs. What impact do you think these events have had and how do you interpret the debate?

A. I dont think September 11 marked a sharp departure soul searching has been going on in the Muslim world for decades. But 9/11 and 7/7 do bring certain questions into sharper focus. Why do Muslims feel so enraged? What kind of despair has modernity, postmodernism and western foreign policies engendered in non-western societies? We need deep answers to these question not the ridiculously facile ones provided by American politicians and newspaper columnists such as we – the rest of the world – are jealous of American success or we envy their democracy September 11 also raises some profound question for Muslim too. Why does Islam today appear to be synonymous with violence? And why are those who claim to be following the will of God so bent on the path of war? How in the 21st century, the Muslim world could have produced a bin Ladin? Why is the Muslim world so crammed with despots, theocrats, autocrats and dictators? Or, to put it another way: Why have Muslim societies failed so spectacularly to come to terms with modernity?

These are not new questions. I have raised them many times. Other writers and scholars have asked the same questions. But after September 11, these questions have acquired a new poignancy and a much broader currency. However, such debate and earnest discourse has some notable features. The debate is conducted, for the most part, by Muslim intellectuals and writers, who like myself live and work in the West, though they enjoy a readership and close links within the Muslim world. The reason is not hard to find. Living in the West requires a direct response to the circumstances and human dilemmas of modernity; it allows more ready access to sources of Muslim scholarship than in most Muslim countries; within the Muslim world dissent, wide ranging intellectual inquiry and argument has little if any public scope. So the central debate on the contemporary meaning of Islam is, in its most challenging form, doubly marginal. It occurs outside Muslim nations, where any attempt to apply its ideas is blocked by existing power structures and entrenched vested interests. In the West it is hardly known, being the concern of a minority of a minority, it is almost inaudible and invisible. Furthermore from a western perspective it is not consistent with popular perceptions of Islam, nor the real politick of relations with the Muslim World. I think, we need to ensure that this debate has the widest currency possible. Everyone must be involved in thinking about and attempting to answer these questions.

Q. This brings us to the vexed questions of democracy and liberalism. Are these concepts products of the imperialist West, as some Muslim writers argue? Do they have any place in Islam?

A. I think Islam does not have any problem with democracy; indeed, I would argue, that Islam is inherently democratic in that it seeks, without compromise, governance that is both accountable and participatory. Indeed, democracy and other western ideas, clash with Islam only when they conceive themselves as a doctrine of Truth or violates one of the fundamental notions of Islam. Only when democracy becomes wedded to atheistic humanism, becomes an arch ideology, and lays claims to being a dogma of Truth, or when secularism interprets itself as an epistemology, does it clash with the faith of Islam. As a mechanism for representative government, devoid of its ideological pretensions and trappings, democracy has no quarrel with Islam.

We can say the same about liberal humanism. Indeed, the West took humanism from Islam. And, if Europe was true to its origins, and if it had any integrity and self-respect, it would acknowledge that it learnt how to reason, what is the difference between civilisation and barbarism, and what are the basic features of a civil society from Islam. It was thinkers like ibn Sina, ibn Rushd, ibn Khaldun and al-Baruni who introduced humanism to Europe. Indeed, with these and other Muslim thinkers, Europe as a civilised idea is inconceivable. So there is nothing in humanism per se that is European or anti Islamic. But Europes unique role was the construction of liberal humanism as an arch ideology, as a grand narrative, into which all other narratives must be assimilated. It is this dimension of European humanism that we reject.

I think a major goal for us Muslims today is to rediscover our democratic and humanist roots. And, in the process, show Europe that there are other notions of democracy and other ways of being human. To some extent, that is also the goal of reformulating Islam as a transmodern outlook.

Let me distinguish between transmodernism and postmodernism and modernity. Transmodernism goes beyond modernity; it transcend modernity in that it takes us trans ie through modernity into another state of being. Thus, unlike postmodernism, transmodernism is not a linear projection. We can best understand it with the aid of chaos theory. In all complex systems societies, civilisations, eco-systems etc. many independent variables are interacting with each other in great many ways. Chaos theory teaches us that complex systems have the ability to create order out of chaos. This happens at a balancing point, called the edge of chaos. At the edge of chaos, the system is in a kind of suspended animation between stability and total dissolution into chaos. At this point, almost any factor can push the system into one or other direction. However, complex systems at the edge of chaos have the ability to spontaneously self-organise themselves into a higher order; in other words the system evolves spontaneously into a new mode of existence.

Transmodernism is the transfer of modernity from the edge of chaos, where it has brought the Muslim world, into a new order of society. As such, transmoderism and tradition are not two opposing worldviews but a new synthesis of both. Traditional societies use their ability to change and become transmodern while remaining the same! Both sides of the equation are important here: change has to be made and accommodated; but the fundamental tenets of tradition, the source of its identity and sacredness, remain the same. So we may define a transmodern future as a synthesis between life enhancing tradition – that is amenable to change and transition – and a new form of modernity that respects the values and lifestyles of traditional cultures.

In developing democratic, humane and pluralistic models of Muslim societies, that is a transmodern framework, it is important to think of the Muslim world beyond the straight jackets of governments. Most Muslim countries are governed by ultra modernists or ultra traditionalists neither of whom have any understanding of the complexity of the contemporary world or the urgent need to develop transmodern frameworks. We need to go beyond decision makers and involve ordinary people scholars, writers, activists, academics, journalists in our discussions. We will discover that most people have a critical but positive attitude towards both tradition and the West; and women will be as willing, if not more so, to participate in such discussions and the transformations they may initiate, as men. Transmodernism is not about conflict, or a false sense of aggrandisement, but about symbiosis between Islam and the West. Its aim must be to replace homogenising globalisation with what Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia, has called global convivencia that is, a more harmonious and enriching experience of living together.

Q. In Battle for Islam, you travelled across 5 Muslim countries, talking to everyone from catwalk models to military dictators. How was this visit different from all your previous journeys?

A. For one thing, I was accompanied by a television crew. For another, I had a good idea what I was looking for, the kind of conversation I wanted to generate, and how I wanted to mediate the end product. So in a sense it was an artificial journey. All television is mediated and constructed. Battle for Islam was no exception.

Q. Your many journeys have taken you to many places and brought you in contact with a multitude of personalities. Do you ever tire of travel? Can you see yourself ever stopping?

A. After each journey, I vow to stop. Somehow I never do.

Q. Some of your critics have suggested that sometimes you are too self-mocking and not serious enough.

A. I am very serious; but I do not take myslef seriously.

Q. What do you see yourself doing when you are 70?

Reading, writing, thinking, loving, regretting, and as usual, planting seeds that I hope would grow and prosper and turn the world into a garden.