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The New Religious Discourse Between Reform and Renewal

The New Religious Discourse Between Reform and Renewal

Friday, 15 April, 2022 - 12:00
Radwan al-Sayyed
Lebanese writer, academic, politician and professor of Islamic Studies at the Lebanese University

The Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s discussion with The Atlantic continues to stimulate reflections on the renewal and invigoration of a new religious discourse. What the Crown Prince has been calling for is a new approach to addressing religious matters and their functions and concerns. A new approach is also needed for assessing the role of Islamic scholars in confronting misrepresentation, oversimplification, and rigid adherence to customs on the one hand and the pushing for renewal and progress on the other.

Throughout the twentieth century, all groups, intellectuals, politicians, and religious scholars, deliberated over reform. And reform means making modifications, striving for restoration, and providing support through indigenization. In fact, this varied and practical discourse was seen as ‘ijtihad’ or opening the door to ijtihad after it had been closed.

Ijtihad made several breakthroughs in the jurisprudence of personal status and financial transactions, as well as adherence to the necessities of modern medicine, for example.

Indeed, some of the jurisprudence that emerged through ijtihad came close to making breakthroughs and reformulating the Dar al-Islam/ Dar al-Harb (abode of Islam/ abode of war) dichotomy, Islam’s relations with other religions, citizenship, and the promotion of peace in modern and contemporary Islamic societies.

However, in the seventies, two phenomena emerged: the first was the emergence of an emphasis on the relationship between religion and the modern state and the implementation of Sharia by new partisan groups; the second was great Arab intellectuals coming to grips with their religious and cultural heritage, generating sharp polarization and threatening the project for a modern, Arab, and Islamic state.

In previous conversations, the Saudi crown prince has spoken of 1979 as a year that saw three events that preoccupied Muslims and the world, creating ripple effects still felt four decades later: Juhayman’s seizure of the Great Mosque of Makkah, the religious revolution in Iran, and the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan (with the emergence of the Mujahideen that came with it).

Throughout the following decades, tensions between Sunnis and Shiites intensified, undermining the stability of entire societies and countries, spreading violence in Muslim lands and around the world, and exacerbating Islamophobia worldwide.

A long struggle that involved security and military measures, as well as an intellectual battle, allowed for breaking these cycles of destructive violence, though this does not imply that the phenomena have faded or withered away. Thus, the plans of the Saudi Crown Prince moved along two tracks: the first is the state’s adoption of holistic development policies through the 2030 project/ Saudi Vision 2030, which seeks to reinvigorate the nation-state and fortify its legitimacy, and the second is a radical rethinking of intellectual and religious questions in such a way that removes the dark cloud that had been hovering over Islam and readjusts the place of religion in society and the contemporary world.

Reform through ijtihad, then, was not enough to restore harmony between religion and the state, nor was it sufficient for leaving Muslims at peace with their religion. Religion is the message and its recipients, as well as a rich dialogue and coexistence between two poles: the great ancient religion and the general public that live in the modern era. Venerable religious and cultural figures have acted as mediators for over a century, but their efforts were not sufficient; they failed to generate the right adjustments, ensure peaceful continuity, and empower Muslims living in today’s world.

Of course, attributing all the pervasive turmoil we have undergone and continue to undergo to a single factor, religious despotism is untenable. Global politics had a massive impact. Other religions and ethnicities have seen and continue to see upheaval that differs or resembles ours.

Today, what we are concerned with is that a great statesman, the Saudi Crown Prince, who is leading the effort to create a new Arab and Islamic national state experience, also wants religious and intellectual renewal and progress. It differs from selective reformation and from puritanical fundamentalism.

The Arabs, along with all other Muslims, have had a long and rich history of establishing states in which they have lived as Muslims and lived with Islam.

Amid the radical changes unfolding in our world today. Only change with radical features, or what has become known as changing a worldview, does any good. Religious reformation is no longer sufficient; indeed, doctrinal and conceptual changes are needed. Change must address the origins of religion and sources of religious knowledge, stimulate critical readings of religious and civilizational experiences throughout history, and anticipate the present and forthcoming needs of Muslims.

The Indian scholar Shibli Nomani spoke about this in his 1902 book, Ilm al-Kalam Al-Jadid (literally translates to science of discourse), in which he discusses creating a new Islamic dialectical theology. The solution is not to abolish dialectic theology or engage in dogmatic interpretation and research because of its inertia and failure. In other words, the solution is not to stop thinking about religion but to reformulate our conceptualization of religion, its functions, and its relationship with the world and the Muslim masses. This is what Muhammad Iqbal followed up in the 1920w through his book: The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam.

What is needed, then, is renewal and not reform. The latter did not quell the acrimony or prevent splits. Renewal implies introducing a different paradigm that places religion and religiosity within contemporary contexts, which necessitates a new vision of what religion is, its functions, its mechanisms, and its implementation that is neither hypocritical, arbitrary, nor based on ignorance.

What is the role, or what are the roles, of religious scholars and their institutions vis a vis the new thought? The Saudi Crown Prince has noticed that fundamentalism and schisms were not pushed back against (by religious scholars). But what are the traditional functions of religious scholars? They are four: working to maintain the unity of belief and worship and providing religious education, fatwas, and general guidance. These tasks begin with belief and end with directives and guidance. Doctrines were not looked into because of Salafist opposition.

In addition, religious guidance missions were not successful more generally because of intellectual pitfalls and the limited number of initiatives, leaving other projects ahead of them. What do we do? Do we abolish institutions or antagonize them, as happened to Catholicism in the French Revolution? Of course not.

However, men of religion must proceed with what I call: equipping and being equipped.

These are two matters that require a new consciousness and a sense of purpose and responsibility: the purpose and preserving religion through its renewal, as well as awareness of the responsibilities that modern knowledge necessitates. We must learn about the experiences of other religions and cultures.

Renewal will emerge because it is necessary for man and his life on this earth. This is the Muslim’s concern today, and it tops the list of things they have to do to bring harmony back to the religion, renew the experience of the modern state, and calibrate relations with the rest of the world.

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