Time to Reform Islam

Can any part of Islamic law be reformed?

Not all of it, but let's see if we can open a dialogue.

My only platform or right to speak is that I spent endless hours from 2004-2007 studying and writing about Islam.  I felt it was my duty to write critically about its unpleasant aspects because back then hardly anyone knew about them.  Then I updated my sharia articles in 2012, culminating in a long summary.

I'm not going back to writing about this religion, but with the terrorist attacks on 11/13 in Paris, I would like to offer a possible path for reform.

Are there any Muslims who have the courage?  Are they teachable?

El-Sisi of Egypt called for reform led by religious leaders.  Assuming they heed his call, which parts of sharia need it most?

First, let's lay out the basics.

Islam is steeped in sharia or religious law – it permeates daily life inside and outside the mosque, the business world, politics, and even warfare, to name only them.

Sociologically and historically speaking, why is that?

Throughout his life, Muhammad barely made contact with Christians, but when he moved up to Medina, a large community of Jews thrived there.

Judaism deeply influenced him.  And there is no clearer religious law than the Torah and Talmudic interpretations.

Some examples: the Medinan Jews scurried around the marketplace on Friday to get ready for the Sabbath, so Muhammad ordained that his sacred time would be Friday.  If they had animal sacrifices, then he allowed ritual slaughtering, too.  If they had a religious tithe-tax, then he imposed a religious tax, though not ten percent.  If they had various fasts and feasts, then so would he have a season of fasting and feasting.  If their law stoned adulterers to death, then his law would, too.  He incorporated many stories from the Old Testament (and the New).  The list is just about endless.

Of course, there are other sources of Islam, usually Arab culture.  One is the pilgrimage to Mecca.  Another one is raiding.  As Muhammad's raiding succeeded, it was transformed into jihad and qital (only warfare).

In many instances, Muhammad simply absorbed his culture.  He may have tweaked or adjusted his religion differently, but Judaism and Arab life were strong influences.

Now let's look at the two main sections of sharia with their subsets:

  1. The acts of worship, or al-ibadat.  These include:
    1. Ritual purification
    2. Prayers
    3. Fasts
    4. Charities
    5. Pilgrimage to Mecca
  2. Human interaction, or al-mu'amalat, which includes:
    1. Financial transactions
    2. Endowments
    3. Laws of inheritance
    4. Marriage, divorce, and child care
    5. Foods and drinks (including ritual slaughtering and hunting)
    6. Penal punishments
    7. Warfare and peace
    8. Judicial matters (including witnesses and forms of evidence)

I suggest we skip over the first section, because it doesn't "pick my pocket or break my leg," to quote Jefferson.  And it is the first section that is least likely to be reformed, since it shows a Muslim's devotion to God.  Though I disagree with each one theologically, I have been careful in all my articles to avoid that section.

So it is parts of the second section that must be reformed, because they might indeed pick our pockets or break our legs.

To read which ones of the second section that urgently need to be reformed, please click on Thirty Sharia Laws.  Though it is difficult for liberal Western intellectuals to believe, a careful reading of them explains why ISIS do what they do.

Though there are many laws of those thirty that need reforming, let's boil them down to the penal code (6), warfare (7), and marriage and divorce (4).

We don't have to answer each one with detail; rather, my purpose here is to offer some general principles.  Christians use three of them to interpret the Bible.

Here are four of them that might lead to the beginnings of reform.

1. Muslims have to admit that Islam has problems.

There's no use denying it or calling critics "Islamophobes."  Everyone else (except Western university professors and journalists) can see it has problems that other religions don't have.

I can easily imagine the Reformers of Christianity in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries having personal difficulties in deciding to change.  But they stepped forward and decided to act, notably Martin Luther (1483-1546).  Even Catholics at the Council of Trent, held at various times from 1545-63, in response to the Reformation, admitted that their practices (but not their main doctrines) had to change.

Will Muslim leaders call an international conference and reform or remove parts of Islamic law?

2. The doctrine of inspiration must be modified.

You can believe that Allah dictated it, but as noted, it is clear that the Qur'an has historical aspects that inform it.  That means Allah spoke some verses in the language of the seventh-century Arabs.

Christians might be able to help here.  We believe that God inspired the Bible, but we recognize that there are cultural and historical aspects to it, for God spoke to people back then in their own language.  We don't bring all of the cultural aspects forward today.  This leads us to the next point.

3. An interpretive method has to be devised to separate the cultural aspects of the Qur'an and the timeless and universal aspects.

Christians have come up with the historical-critical method.  We examine each verse in its historical context.  If any one of them is timeless and universal, then we take it forward and apply it to our lives.  For example, Psalm 23 – the most beloved psalm of all – talks about God as a shepherd, which was a common agricultural trade back then.  The timeless and universal part is that God will take care of his people.  But we don't believe that God calls each of us to imitate the poetry and become literal shepherds.

4. The verses about jihad and qital, punishments, and marriage and divorce laws have expiration dates.  It is clear they are adaptations of Arab culture.  They are not timeless and universal.

America has changed. In the seventeenth century, Christians imposed some of the Old Testament punishments, but later, more intellectual Founders in the late eighteenth century realized that the old religious law was outdated.  Islam doesn't need to whip alcoholics or chop off the hands of thieves.  Those are harsh (whipping) or were simply part of Arab culture (chopping off a hand).  No, our Founders didn't chop off hands, but they did change some harsh laws.

Another example between Judaism and Christianity: one interpretation of an old Deuteronomy divorce law said a man could divorce his wife for any "displeasing" or "indecent" cause.  All a man had to do was present a certificate of divorce.  Islam says a man (not a woman) can pronounce "I divorce you" three times, and it is perfectly legal and final.  No paperwork is needed.  Either law is oppressive for the wife and makes her vulnerable in society, where women's rights are limited.

For his kingdom community, Jesus reformed the old divorce law and severely circumscribed the circumstances under which one can divorce.  Though no one today can measure up to Jesus, can Islam update or reform this old sharia rule in a well-attended council of scholars?

Let's wrap this up.

Muslims must show more courage than Western university professors of religion and journalists who deny that Islam has unique problems that are not faced by other religions.  If someone does point this out, then he's called an "Islamophobe."

Even el-Sisi modified or softened his call.  Now Saudi Arabia threatens to sue Twitter users if they compare Saudi Arabia's sharia with ISIS.  Maybe they can explain how their crucifixion differs from ISIS's crucifixion.  Yes, this punishment is found in the Qur'an.

Saudi Arabia's defensiveness is not a very hopeful sign for reform.

So it's my sad prediction that this absence of the will to change means that we will have to wait several generations before we see a reformation of any sort – if at all.

In the meantime, we will just have to laugh behind our hands when they wrongly call us "Islamophobes."

James Arlandson, Ph.D. (1994), has been teaching college and university for years. His website is Live as Free People, which is updated almost daily and where he has posted Three Universal Values and Thirty Shariah Laws.