Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Will and can the reformation come to Islam?

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on June 2th, 2009- 

-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 2 Haziraz 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

A few weeks ago, Fehmi Koru/Taha Kivanc wrote about how he happened to sit next to "Islam expert" Reza Aslan at some gathering, as another lucky encounter. 

While Koru was mentioning Aslan, he described him as someone a "little confused." I am not sure how much Koru is familiar with his writings, but his "little confused" remarks urged me to read his long overdue book. I know it seems as if I, somehow, suggest that if there is something Mr. Koru disdains, it becomes worth paying attention to because I will likely find some jewels. I do not mean that necessarily. What I mean is, I remembered the book again.

I know Reza Aslan from his writings in the Daily Beast, also from talk shows and news hours on American TV that he joins occasionally. His sharp-witted humor with quick and intellectually superb arguments and jokes made him kind of a star.

So as I started to read Aslan’s "No god but God" book from 2006, first it seemed the book was one of those books which talks about the miraculous history of Islam and the flawless life of the Prophet Mohammad that I have read over again. Though, at some point in my life, I realized that whenever I read about the Prophet’s life and his wonderful actions, I was usually getting disappointed, because he was always so faultless and perfect and that comparison usually crushed my faulty life.

Here, however, Aslan brings an authentic look to the Prophet Mohammed’s life. We see that Mohammad’s pre-Islamic life wasn’t watertight. For example, his participation in pagan rituals, something that unheard of, actually is not contrasting with Koranic verses. Aslan is also analyzing the political aspects of the Islamic movement, with many checks and balances that Prophet Mohammed was paying attention to while he was constructing his religion. 

As the book flies by, one feels like reading a real history, rather than some fairy tales. However, Mr. Koru can be relaxed, Mr. Aslan is still making the case ’for’ Islam, though a new Islam that is clean from its new idolsÑbigotry and fanaticismsÑthat have replaced Mohammed’s original vision of tolerance, against hatred and discord.

Mr. Aslan claims Prophet Mohammed was a social reformer before anything else. The Prophet’s first message was simple: the Day of Judgment was coming and those who did not "free the slave" or "feed others in times of famine" would be surrounded in fire. Mohammed was demanding economic justice, and trying to attract plebs, before challenging the leadership of Mecca. The messages of social and economic reforms were coming before monotheistic teachings.

With the unprotected of Mecca, whose rights he first started to advocate, Mohammed was also going after the "elite young men," from "the most influential families in the most influential clans," who felt the same discontent with Meccan society as Mohammad did. And this majority of less than thirty-year-old was relatively an easy target. 

Not directly challenging the leadership of the Meccan society, and bringing a new religion to the already crowded religious field of Mecca, Mohammad was not making the powerful angry. After all, religion was what Mecca was making money out of. Therefore the more religion there was, the more merrier/money for them.

One of the most courageous assertions of Aslan is his challenge of the history and of the seemingly "strong" hadiths, or Mohammed’s sayings. Many of the hadiths, Aslan explains, even the ones that have been narrated by the Muslim and Bukhari, the most trusted two books, contrast with Mohammed’s own behavior and actions. The egalitarian (male-female equality) face of the early Islamic teaching and rituals seem to have taken the biggest beating by the male-dominated Orthodox Islam hadith transmission exercise throughout Islamic history. 

Although Mohammad’s biographers present him as repeatedly asking for and following the advice of his wives, even in military matters, many hadiths have been transmitted intentionally to enable men to be superior and care for women as if they, with much-celebrated Koranic commentator Fakhr ad-Din ar-razi’s words, "were created like animals and plants and other useful things [not for] worship and carrying the Divine commands."

The reason of the huge difference between Mohammad’s approach and orthodox Islam, Aslan says, is that for fourteen centuries, the science of Koranic commentary has been the exclusive domain of Muslim men. Even the "untouchable" Omar, the second Caliph, was evidently ready to destroy this equality of Prophetic view. 

Omar’s misogynist tendencies were apparent from the moment he ascended to the leadership of the Muslim community. He tries (and fails) to confine women to their homes, and institutes segregated prayers and forces women to be taught by male religious leaders, which all are an apparent and direct violation of the Prophet’s exercise. Incredibly, Omar also instituted a series of severe penal ordinances aimed primarily at women; "chief of among these was the stoning to death of adulterers, a punishment that has absolutely no foundation in the Koran."

Today, it is clear that Islam needs a reformation with a daring and unyielding interpretation for the modern world. 

Today’s Islam can be enough for many who live in their backyard and haven’t changed their environment for centuries; however Islam feels stretched and falls short for those who are struggling to merge their values and beliefs with contemporary life. 

Like other religions, Islam has encountered many historical and social adaptations on the way, and it also needs a course of elucidation. 

As Aslan claims, and I believe, the voice of moderation, contrary to the common belief, is winning against the voice of extremism. Though this is not sufficient. The voice of moderation also needs tools to prove Islam has answers to many of today’s challenges that it can participate and live together with modern life that desperately lacks currently. When can the reformation come to Islam and who will lead the charge to reinterpret it more courageously to make it open its arms all humanity? And can it really make this historic leap forward? These are the questions.

I am curiously following Fehmi Koru about what to read, who to follow and not. It has been very useful so far. 

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