Is This the First Step toward Islamic Reform?

Whatever the open letter's merits in confronting the "caliph" of ISIS, it does not come close to what is needed in reforming Islam.

In a 2014 open letter to Dr. Ibrahim Awwad Al-Badri, alias "Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi," leader of the ISIS "caliphate," over 176 (and growing) Muslim (and some Western) jurists, scholars, professors, and imams have endorsed their grievances and disagreements with the caliph.

Not very long, it contains quotations from the Quran, four rightly guided caliphs, and classical legal scholars.

Here's an analysis.

In the section "legal theory and Quran exegesis," the scholars, through a committee, write:

With regards to Qur'anic exegesis, and the understanding of Hadith, and issue in legal theory in general, the methodology set forth by God in the Qur'an and the Prophet in the Hadith is as follows: to consider everything that has been revealed relating to a particular question in its entirety, without depending on only parts of it, and then to judge – if one is qualified – based on all available scriptural sources.

This is a good beginning, because it commands Quranic interpreters to look at the entire Quran and let it guide the interpretations.  One can only imagine al-Baghdadi saying to himself that he already does this.  And the entire Quran seems to flow in one direction: harshness in war and punishments.

They continue:

... Once all relevant scriptural passages have been gathered, the 'general' has to be distinguished from the 'specific', and the 'conditional' from the 'unconditional'. Also, the 'unequivocal' passages have to be distinguished from the allegorical ones. Moreover, the reasons and circumstances for revelation … for all the passages and verses, in addition to all the other hermeneutical conditions that the classical imams have specified, must be understood. Therefore, it is not permissible to quote a verse, or part of a verse, without thoroughly considering and comprehending everything that the Qur'an and Hadith relate about that point. The reason behind this is that everything in the Qur'an is the Truth, and everything in authentic Hadith is Divinely inspired, so it is not permissible to ignore any part of it. Indeed it is imperative to reconcile all texts, as much as possible, or that there be a clear reason why one text should outweigh another.

Another promising beginning, because it distinguished from the conditional and unconditional – what we can, perhaps, call timeless and universal as opposed to the cultural aspects that have expiration dates.  The shortcoming with their interpretive method as outlined in that excerpt will be clear as we move along, but loosely, it will be seen that their definition of universal vs. cultural is insufficient.

In the introduction to their section on jihad, they write a short summary:

In truth, it is clear that you and your fighters are fearless and are ready to sacrifice in your intent for jihad. No truthful person following events – friend or foe – can deny this. However, jihad without legitimate cause, legitimate goals, legitimate purpose, legitimate methodology and legitimate intention is not jihad at all, but rather, warmongering and criminality.

Al-Baghdadi could reply that he does meet those conditions.  He's in a state of perpetual jihad/qital with the West and has those goals in mind.  This only reveals the deficiency in the letter – how to interpret the Quran in the modern era.

In the section on punishments (hudud), they write

Hudud punishments are fixed in the Qur'an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law. However, they are not to be applied without clarification, warning, exhortation, and meeting the burden of proof; and they are not to be applied in a cruel manner. For example, the Prophet avoided hudud in some circumstances, and as is widely known, Omar ibn Al-Khattab suspended the hudud during a famine. In all schools of jurisprudence, hudud punishments have clear procedures that need to be implemented with mercy, and their conditions render it difficult to actually implement them. Moreover, suspicions or doubts avert hudud; i.e. if there is any doubt whatsoever, the hudud punishment cannot be implemented. The hudud punishments are also not applied to those who are in need or deprived or destitute; there are no hudud for the theft of fruits and vegetables or for stealing under a certain amount. You have rushed to enact the hudud while, in reality, conscientious religious fervour makes implementing hudud punishments something of the utmost difficulty with the highest burden of proof.

It is a positive development (from a Western point of view) that Islamic punishments can be applied only with "clarification, warning, exhortation, and meeting the burden of proof" but with no cruelty.

The only problem is the first sentence: "Hudud punishments are fixed in the Qur'an and Hadith and are unquestionably obligatory in Islamic Law."

No, they are not unquestionable.  It is here that the Islamic scholars miss the point.  No one should be crucified today, a punishment in the Quran.  No one should have his hand chopped off for grand larceny (high-dollar theft), a punishment in the Quran.  No one today should be stoned to death for adultery, a punishment in the hadith.  No one should be lashed for sexual sins, a punishment in the Quran.  No wife should be hit, regardless of the prior mitigating steps, a punishment in the Quran.

Let's wrap this up.

First, the problem with the letter from the point of view of reforming Islam is that it assumes that seventh-century Arab culture, as filtered through the Quran, hadith, and earliest seventh-century caliphs, is still valid today.  The perfect examples are the punishments.  No, they are not valid today.  Those are commands found in the ancient Arab world.  If original Islam improved on its surrounding culture, Islam did not go far enough.

Second, men like al-Baghdadi will never see this, but perhaps millions of Muslims will.  Namely, it is time for these Muslim scholars and leaders to abandon these cultural aspects in the Quran and in the hadith and the pronouncements by the earliest seventh-century caliphs.  They may have enjoyed wisdom on certain things back then, but not on everything today.

By analogy, we listen to our eighteenth-century Founders on important political issues, but we don't approve of their owning slaves (not every one of them did, either).  They were a part of their time on that one matter.

Third, perhaps Christians can help out by explaining how we interpret the Bible.  We don't apply all the commands in the Old Testament to life today.  We don't stone adulterers to death.  (We're not altering the law; we merely reinterpreting it with greater knowledge.)  We don't lash people for crimes – though the seventeenth-century founders did.  Today we have moved on (see the Eighth Amendment).  Those verses in the Old Law of Moses have expiration dates and are filtered through the New Testament, much as Jews filter them through the Talmud and modern discussions.  Moses may have been wise on countless things, but he was a man of his time in other matters.

In short, we use the historical-critical method.  We look at each verse in its historical context and discover in them timeless and universal elements or cultural elements.  For example, we no longer sacrifice animals, but we apply the principle of forgiveness that the ancients believed went through the sacrifice.  God forgives sins today.

Fourth, it is one thing to purge out terrorism and scold al-Baghdadi in the letter, but it is quite another to recognize and purge major portions of sharia and to leave some culturally conditioned Quranic verses back in the seventh century.

So the letter misses the larger objective of reform, though we can all applaud the primary one: rebuke the self-appointed "caliph."

James Arlandson's website is Live as Free People, which is updated almost daily and where he has posted Thirty sharia laws, Time to reform Islam, and how Christ fulfills the Law.