The Thirteenth General Conference : Renewal in Islamic Thought
The Necessity of Renewal
The Necessity of Renewal
Dr. Murad Wufried Hofmann
This study deals with the questions whether Islamic renewal is
legitimate, necessary, and possible, and answers each of them in the
affirmative. The author admits that renewal is not without danger but
it sees there is no alternative to it. Muslims, in particular, should not
follow the discouraging Christian example of Reformation and the
Renaissance since it led to its decomposition. At the same time, they
must recognize that emerging issues demand specific answers and that
knowledge is accumulative. The author urges to keep hands off
al-`aqida, al-`ibada, and al-akhlaq but see a legitimate need to move
forward in the areas of political participation, rule of law,
empowerment of women, distribution of wealth, literacy, general
education, and science. In doing so, Muslims will have to learn to draw
the line between their immutable faith and those elements of Islamic
civilization that can be the subject of al-tajdid, al-nahda, and al-islah.
I. The Permissibility of Renewal
1. The overall theme of the current conference is based on the
assumption that renewal (al-tajdid). reawakening (al-nahda) and
reform (al-islah) are all legitimate aims and activities within
Islam. This assumption, however, can not be taken for granted.
Indeed, there are many Muslims-not only so-called Stone Age
Islamists la Taliban-who question both the necessity and
permissibility of Islamic renaissance. Understandably, some
Muslims panicky at the very thought that Islam might become a
watered-down version of modernism. They tend to view renewal
as an effort towards assimilation, more or less total, of Occidental
civilization, values, and mores. In short, many suspect renewal to
aim for un-Islamic purposes in clever disguise.
2. Such skeptics base their worries on the observation of what happened
to Christianity as a result of its assimilation of foreign trends of thought
and rites-like Hellenistic philosophy (Gnosticism, Neo-Platonism as well
as Aristotelian naturalism). In fact, they can point out that dogmatic
tenets of Christendom now considered essential-like Trinity, divine
Incarnation and angelology-had crept into the Church via Indian,
Pharaonic, Platonic, and Roman sources. The same is of course true for
elements of Christian rites like the mass, which is borrowed from the
Roman Mithras cult.
3. These critics suspect that contemporary Muslims might now commit
the very mistake their ancestors barely avoided during the 10th and 1lth
centuries when Mu'tazili rationalism based on Greek philosophy was
about to undermine the Islamic foundations of faith. It is therefore no
mere coincidence that contemporary Wahhabi followers of the ancient
schools of al-Ash'ari and Imam Ibn Hanbal are among the most
outspoken skeptics of Islamic renewal.
4. At the same time, this understandable attitude has to be brought into
line with the equally established fact that orthodox Islam already
conceived the figure of a periodic renewer (al-mujaddid) of faith, among
them Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111CE). His very book
Ihya'ulum ad-Din implies that there can be such a thing as a revival of
Islamic sciences. The same conclusion can be drawn from the title of the
famous lecture series given by Muhammad Iqbal on The
Reconstruction of Islamic Thought. Few, if any, Muslims would
dispute that Ibn Taymiyyah (d.1328), Shah Wali'Allah (d.1763),
Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (d.1787) and Muhammad Abdu
(d.1905) have been true, legitimate revivers of Islam, each one at his time
Ahmad-i Sirhindi (d. 1624), could even claim to be "renovator of the
second (Muslim) millennium- al-mujaddid alf thani".
5. Against this background it would seem reasonable to assume that
Islam, like all religions, needs to be invigorated through fresh impulses
from time to time, at least through innovations called "bid'a hassana"
How else could it be since Islam has never been realized fully during the
Umayyad, `Abbasid and Ottoman periods and not even during the famed
flowering of Islamic culture in Andalusia? Every so-called Golden Period
of Islam, when inspected more closely, reveals specific weaknesses in the
implementation of the Qur'an and Sunnah. Just review the dismal
situation typical of Makkah and al-Madina during the decadent 19th
century as observed by Western visitors like Johann Luwing Burckhard
(1814-15), Richard Burton (1853), and Heinrich von Maltzan (1860)-
filth, crime, drugs, prostitution, and superstition- and compare it with
the admirable current situation during the hajj period. What an
exemplary case of modern tajdid in terms of cleaning up deviations!
6. Common sense alone should convince us that the Muslim Ummah, too,
should profit from the accumulation of Knowledge and wisdom over
time. Are we not in a better position today to understand certain
Qur'anic verses, e.g. on cosmology and embryology (like 96:2), than our
Muslim ancestors? And did Allah ta'ala promise us help if we do indeed
change our ways (13:11)- not through "reforming" Islam but through
reforming our attitude toward it?
7. This, indeed, is the key: There can be no renewal of Islam as such, in
particular its creed (al-'aqida), its worship (al-'ibada) and ethics (al-
akhlaq). Hands off the core of Islam as a religion! but there can be a
renewal of the civilizationary aspects of Islam, also in the field of al-
mu'amalat. And there must be of course a revitalization of the faith, and
commitment of Muslims to their faith, as they move on from being
muslimun to becoming muminum.
As long as we keep these distinctions in mind, there can be no
doubt that Islamic renewal is legitimate and thus permissible.
II. The Necessity of Renewal
1. That the Islamic world is in need of renewal is a prima facie case,
i.e. it is so obvious that it does not have to be established. The
condition of the Ummah deteriorated fast as from the 16th century
CE. The previous superiority of Islamic culture, science, and
technology was quickly lost. As a result, the Muslims became
economically weak, which, in turn, resulted in military inferiority.
The overall decadence of the Muslim world was a direct result of
spiritual stagnation, following the notion of taqlid, and thus the Muslim
world fell victim to European imperialist colonization. The Muslim did
not become decadent because they were colonized but they became
colonized because they had been decadent, Therefore, de-colonization
was not the solution of their problems either.
2. Nor is it difficult to identify the major weaknesses of the Muslim
world crying out for reform:
a) In many Muslim countries political participation (al-shura) is too
b) This frequently corresponds to insufficient protection of individual
c) In particular, women are often deprived of their Qur'anic rights of
participation, education, and self-fulfillment.
d) The universal evil of corruption is also typical for the Muslim world.
e) The distribution of wealth is no less unequal in the Muslim world than
in the Third World in general.
f) There is a technological gap between the Third World, including many
Muslim countries, and the development world.
g) There is as well a corresponding productivity gap.
h) The illiteracy rate among Muslims is unacceptably high.
No matter which indicator one uses- human development index,
underweight children, infant mortality, life expectancy, adult literacy,
gross domestic product per capita, cigarette consumption, personal
computers per 1000 people- Muslim countries rank low. In fact, they are
only ahead in terms of fertility and their low number of AIDS cases.
The indicators mentioned are quite diverse. Nevertheless, they are
all linked to the eight weaknesses just listed.
III. The Focus of Renewal
1. If the above analysis is correct, while reforms are necessary in many
areas they ought to focus on the following three:
Division of power
2. Division of Power:
a) A proverb says: "Power corrupts, and a lot of power corrupts a lot".
It is therefore not remarkable at all that a truly Islamic polity is based on
a system of checks and balances between the amir, the qadi, and majlis
ash-shura, all three being originally Islamic institutions. "Democratic"
participation is well based on the astonishing fact that the Qur'an
declares each and every human being to be a khalifah, i.e. a vice-regent
of Allah on earth (2:30; 6:165; 24:55; 27:62; 33:72; 35:39).
b) This, combined with the republican nature of the original Islamic
confederacy of al-Madinah, helps to assure that an Islamic State is, as if
should be, under the rule of law. Protection of individual rights is further
enhanced Islamically by the fact that legislation is essentially a divine
prerogative, reducing human efforts in the field to the implementation of
already given norms and principals (al-maqasid).
This political foundation is the basis of the freedom of thought,
expression, and movement without which no culture and no economy can
c) It is, therefore, of the essence that Muslim fuqaha' everywhere design
a model Islamic constitution for both State and economy. In doing so
they should not be discouraged by the fact that "democracy" nominally
meaning "rule of the people" (rather than Allah) and that it has been
malpractised so frequently by colonial powers. In contrast, an Islamic
shura yah should be guided by the Shari'ah as the sovereign basic law of
3. Female Empowerment:
a) Given that mothers play a decisive role for the physical, emotional,
and intellectual development of their children and also for some of their
"emotional intelligence" (David Coleman) it is the quality of women that
decides the quality of any given society. This is so much more true since
some intellectual tracks are laid once and for all, or not at all, during the
baby years. In other words, no nation can excel beyond the excellence of
its women. In other words again, investment in the education and
general human development of women is a direct investment into the
future level of science, technology, and economic performance.
b) To be aware of this factor is as important as it is to keep in mind that-
to quote the Holy Qur'an- "a male is not like a female" (3:36). No
Muslim will deny that men and women while being equal in dignity,
religious duties, and destiny have differing potentials, not only in terms
of procreation. But this does not mean that the potential of one should be
less developed than the potential of the other! It is one thing to insist on
the complementarily of men and women in marriage and another to curb
legitimate female activities.
It is therefore of far-reaching societal consequences whether Surat
An-Nisa: 34 is understood, or not, to call for a marginalisation of women
and whether Qur'anic verses calling for marital love and partnership
(2:187; 9:71; 30:21) are overlooked or not. What is at stake here is much
more than the individual relationship between the two genders: At stake
is the fate of the nation.
c) Consequently, equal efforts must be made to achieve adult literacy
among men and women, without exception. Muslim women should be
encouraged not only to pursue university studies, if they so desire, but to
exercise the academic skills obtained, as medical doctors, lawyers,
journalists, researchers, judges in juvenile courts, and as
parliamentarians, and police women as well, if that is their vocation.
This appeal was first made twenty-eight years ago by Dr. Hasan al-
Turabi in his ground-breaking book Women, Islam, and Muslim Society
(1) in which he called for a revolution against the situation of women in
traditionally Muslim society. Turabi is outspoken in his judgment that
the basic religious rights and duties of women have been forsaken and
that the greatest injustice visited upon women is their segregation and
isolation from the general society (2).
Turabi has been forcefully seconded by Dr. Fathi Osman who has
frequently insisted that Muslim women can vote and be elected and
become, if they so wish, soldiers, politicians, judges, and cabinet
4. General Education:
a) Education in many Muslim countries suffers from shortcomings both
in method and subject matter. Both weaknesses are deeply rooted in
tradition. They will not be overcome, therefore, unless fully recognized
1. Republished in 1991 in London by Milestones Publishers- JSBN
2. Turabi (notel) pp.38,40.
3. Fathi Osaman, Sharia in Contemporary Society, Los Angeles:
Multimedia Vera International 1994; The Children of Adam,
Washington, D.C: Georgetown University Press 1996; Human Rights on
the Eve of the 21st Century, London: Islam & Modernity 1996.
b) Muslim teaching is still too much based on learning by heart. There is
nothing wrong, basically, with committing important data to memory,
like the Qur'an. What is problematic (except in the case of the Qur'an) is
the silent assumption going with rote learning that the memorized date
are beyond dispute. This attitude runs counter to the skepticism, which is
so necessary for the progress of science that it can be called its "mother".
Knowledge increases via the dialectical method of opposing each
thesis by a counter-thesis, i.e. by putting seemingly established things
systematically into doubt. This is the very opposite to thinking in terms
of authority. Traditionally, in Muslim countries, in addition to Allah and
His prophet (s.) there are many secondary sources of authority: Father,
older brothers, Government, policemen, `ulama, fuqaha shuyukh.... To
respect their authority is admirable and helpful for the cohesion of
society, but not for scientific progress and inventive technology.
There may be other reasons for Occidental leadership in fields like
astronomy, genetics, micro-biology, bio-physics, nano, and nuclear and
computer technologies. But one contributing negative factor for the near
absence of Muslim scientists in these fields certainly is the Muslim sense
of authority nourished in primary and even secondary schools.
c) Equally important may be the imbalance in Muslim curricula,
Traditionally, Muslims treasured Islamic sciences (tafsir, hadith, fiqh,
sirah, grammar, kalam) and other social sciences, including poetry, so
much that natural sciences were given lesser social prestige. This was
dissimilar during the peak of Islamic civilization both in Baghdad and
Cordoba. But long gone are the days when a Muslim judge or
philosopher like Ibn Rushd or Ibn Sina was a medical doctor or natural
scientist as well.
For similar reasons, the modern Muslim world conspicuously
suffers from the absence of qualified modern craftsmen like plumbers
and electricians while still sporting the traditional crafts necessary for
the decoration of mosques and books, including calligraphy.
A nation in which each child learns to play a musical instrument is likely
to produce virtuosos. Similarly, a nation which values the teaching of
mathematics, physics, and chemistry at a very young age is likely to
produce Nobel- prize winning professors in these fields. There is always
the inexplicable occasional genius like a Newton, Pascal or Einstein. But
in general science progresses from bottom to top, without jumps and
Therefore, the Muslim world will remain a consumer of
technology, rather than its producer, and fall even farther behind unless
it encourages science from the kindergarten level onwards.
IV. Dangers and Limits of Renewal
1. My exposition could easily be misunderstood as a fascination with
progress for progress sake". But no, I am not trying to make the
Muslims catch up with the Jonesses in a consumerist spirit. I see very
well that the quality of Muslim's life is not a mere function of the
quantity and quality of the goods at his her disposal. Muslims do have
different priorities and they shun the materialism inherent in
technological gadgets as much as the danger of addiction to the
INTERNET as an electronic drug. Muslim life must never be dominated
by economic considerations. The paradise we are after is not in, or of,
2. This being said, the Muslim world (and much Islam with it) is bound
to go under unless it can stand up to the Occident, i.e. remain
independent and self-governing as much as this is possible within a
global context. This, however, presupposes a level of economic welfare
and military capability that can only be obtained, and afterwards
maintained, if the Muslim world becomes competent in all fields of
science. This endeavour is not un-Islamic in as much as Allah ta'ala has
manifested Himself not only in His book, but also in His creation. A
Muslim should indeed read in both "books", the Qur'an and the book of
nature, and become an expert in either.
3. There are those, like the American Muslim Maryam Jameelah in
Lahore who are mortally afraid that we will lose our soul, even if we give
as little as a little finger to Occidental technology. I admit that this
danger is there. But there is no alternative. It is true enough that
Western technology is based on secularism, scientism, and materialism
and thus likely to transport these "values" to whatever consumer.
Western TV is an obvious case in point. So is the car, the telephone, and
the credit system. Yet, unless Muslims learn to dominate these
and other gadgets they will inevitably be dominated by them.
4. In the end, the outcome will largely depend on the Muslims' ability to
integrate into modernity without assimilating.
This demand may appear like a mere trick to some and as
impossible to others. I submit, however, that it is possible to integrate
into modern societies without assimilating provided Muslims learn to
distinguish between the core of their faith, i.e. al-'aqida, al- `ibada and al-
akhlaq, from merely civilizationary aspects of various Islamic cultures
and civilizations. In other words: Muslims in the Islamic world and in
the Occident must both learn to draw the line.
I therefore conclude this reflection by re-stating that
Islamic renewal is legitimate, necessary, and possible.
1- Republished in 1991 in London by Milestones Publishers-
2- Turabi (note 1) pp. 38, 40.
3- Fathi Osaman, Sharia in Contemporary Society, Los
Angeles : Multimedia Vera International 1994 ; The
Childern of Adam, Washington, D.C: Georgetown
University Press 1996; Human Rights on the Eve of the 21st
Century, London: Islam & Modernity 1996.