Reforming Islam or Reforming Muslims?

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Jews have Reform Judaism, Christians have Protestantism. So why don’t we have “Reform Islam”?

Reform Judaism’s central emphasis is on faith, rather than works. While it respects many aspects of traditional Mosaic Law, it does not attach binding authority to it, and regards many religious rituals as merely picturesque. Since the early 1500s, Christian Protestantism has rejected the authority of the Pope and over time, various Protestant denominations have held different and evolving church positions on a wide range of issues.

However, many Muslims have long believed that Islam itself does not need to be “reformed,” but that Muslims’ attitudes toward their faith are what must be changed. I wholeheartedly agree.

The compelling need facing Islam today is for Muslims to regain their collective self-confidence and learn to deal effectively and constructively with the demands and challenges of the real world around them.

In fact, the Qur’an insists time after time that Muslims cannot expect God to support them utterly, and it points to the example of ancient nations who disappeared before them.

Muslims should begin by celebrating the structure of Islam as a highly decentralized faith — one with no institutionalized Church, no Pope, no Archbishops, no chief Rabbis, no power of excommunication, no mandatory confession, and so on.

The non-practicing Muslim, the most conservatively pious Muslim, and the eclectic Muslim mystic can all be considered simply Muslims, without the need for any qualifying adjectives. Some may personally consider themselves “more Islamic” than others, but the basic truth is that they are all Muslims. When this golden rule of community is broken, the result is dangerous extremism; and extremism reveals the defects of misguided Muslims, not defects in Islam as a faith.

Islam is a highly personal religion that holds everyone, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, responsible for his / her faith and deeds. The Qur’an teaches that by Divine Will, God’s human creation follows different religions, or no religion at all (11:118), (10:99), (18:29). But it also teaches that The Almighty is not pleased when some of God’s servants (the Qur’an considers all humans to be servants of their Creator in one way or another) choose not to believe (39:7).

The Qur’an also teaches that everyone’s God-given human dignity must be respected, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity, gender, or social status (17:70). Because they are all created by God Almighty, the Maker of All, humans must treat one another with full honour, respect, and loving-kindness.

The Qur’an also states clearly that freedom of religion is a God-given right (2:256) and that the final judgment of all humanity lies in the hands of the One Almighty, to whom we all return (22:68-69), (42:15).

Thus, we Muslims need not search for new principles of conduct from outside, but have only to apply our old and forsaken ones in order to launch a modern and moderate reformation movement. We certainly may use new methodologies gained from the experience of others, but we must not displace the essential fabric of Islam, as some commentators seem intent on doing. They are trying to address a so-called “crisis of modernization” by blaming Islam instead of Muslims. They insist on finding an incompatibility of values between Islam and the modern world, especially the West.

In reality, the materialistic drive of the West is virtually inseparable from a value system that demands people of faith — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — give up their moral identity, their spirituality, their love for the traditional family, etc.

Thus it is more important than ever that we Muslims live an Islam that is alive for today. We must overcome our collective laziness, our apathy, our self-conceit, our shortsightedness — in sum, our spiritual defects, our own “heart diseases” — and not place the blame on some supposed defects of Islam.

What are our most urgent needs now?

Islam teaches that God loves justice and those who strive to practice it, especially toward people who are different from them in any way, but chiefly in the area of religious belief (5:8), (60:8).

Then why are we not all putting this key teaching into practice? If we were to do so, Muslims would quickly be regarded by everyone around them as true believers, exemplary family members, the best of neighbors and co-workers, and the most active, caring citizens of any country. Muslim countries themselves could emerge as shining examples of social justice, democracy, respect for human rights, and much-needed world peacemakers.

Muslims meet God face to face five times a day in prayers. Thus, they should be able to hold their heads up in His presence, saying, “I love You and I am trying to be worthy of Your love.”

A reformation there must be: but it should be a reformation of Muslims from within, NOT of Islam itself.

Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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