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The Perils of Reform - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Hundreds died in a stampede this year at the foot of the Jamarat bridge in Mina happened despite the Hajj (annual pilgrimage) being very well-organized.

Having performed the pilgrimage on more than one occasion, I recognize that the biggest logistical problem lies in the reluctance of our scholars and jurists to provide answers to problems posed by the influx of pilgrims, which cannot be resolved by the host authorities for religious considerations.

Among these issues is that of the Mawaqit or the specific places where a pilgrim must declare his intention to embark on Hajj and put on ihram, the pilgrim garb. Anyone intending to perform Hajj or ‘Umrah (the lesser pilgrimage) must not pass beyond these places without ihram. The mawaqit were outlined in religious texts, in the past, according to the itinerary of pilgrims at the time. Nowadays, the airport in Jeddah is the first point of entry for the majority of pilgrims.

Yet, the majority of jurists continue to refuse to rule that the Western port city should be considered a miqat or station for pilgrims coming from elsewhere, thereby creating logistical and practical problems for the visitors.

The biggest hurdle remains the prohibition of stoning of the devil ritual before noon , which has, in the past few years been the prime source for tragedy during the Hajj. Despite the absence of a consensus on the issue, Muslim scholars insist the prevalent opinion should be upheld, even at a cost of hundreds of lives. They seem unaware that more than 2 million pilgrims cannot cross over the bridge in a short period that does not exceed six hours without accidents occurring.

This reveals a dangerous discrepancy in their interpretations and the mechanisms they use to understand sacred texts and apply them to current situations.

The same shortcomings occur with other important issues that Muslims who wish to retain their religious identity and integrate in modern life, without suffering from an intellectual or existential schism, face nowadays.

At the forefront of these challenges are the legislative and economic issues which continue to be the weakest link in the thinking of contemporary jurists.

Even if jurists and scholars talk about opening the gates of interpretation and cementing the spirit of openness, they seldom adopt a serious attitude to the requirements of such a position which demands a methodical interpretation that goes beyond the authentication of a Hadith (saying by the Prophet Mohammed) or the support of one old saying over another.

If we overlook the category that is opposed to reform and renewal and is holding on to the inherited set of edicts as codified by the main judicial schools, we may discern three trends:

1- The first seeks to invest the richness and variety of the scholarly heritage in Islam in search for statements and verdicts that are apt to be adapted to modern circumstances, within the existing sectarian limits.

2- The second focuses on the fundamentalist mechanisms and tools of past scholars and believes these tools are flexible and rich enough to enable ijtihad (interpretation) to occur and arrive at successful solutions to the problems faced by today’s Muslims.

3- The third adopts a project to reform fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) by building a new paradigm that combines the focus on the theological aims of religion and the propensity to provide easier opinions, according to what has been called the fiqh of priorities or jurisprudence of reality.

In the Shiaa tradition, and especially in Iran , a trend has emerged that that transcends the traditional fundamentalist fiqh paradigm by devising a new philosophy of jurisprudence. It is based on modern interpretations and methodological tools inspired from modern humanities discipline. Efforts in this perspective remain at an early stage.

Despite their differences, the three aforementioned trends agree on two main principles: they are committed to the authority of the traditional juristic paradigm, albeit with varying degrees, and are uncomfortable with the modern tools and mechanisms of interpretation derived from hermeneutics.

In the last few years, several attempts have been made, including the project of “new jurisprudence” by Jamal al Banna, brother of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al Banna, and intellectual discussions by the Washington D.C –based International Institute of Islamic Thought, featuring Taher Jaber al Alwani and Abdul Hamib Abu Suleiman, but these attempts remain limited.

Most jurists continue to reject the use of contemporary sciences in order to understand the inferences of religious texts, in spite of the efforts by a number of enlightened jurists such as Abdulaziz al Qassem, Radwan al Sayyid and Abdul Majid al Turki.

When, a few months ago, the Swiss Muslim thinker Tariq Ramadan called for an open dialogue between jurists on the application of Islamic criminal penalties and asked whether they should be suspended until jurists arrive at a decision on their applicability in the modern era, he was viciously attacked. Ironically, at the time, he was preoccupied with a campaign by the Zionist lobby in the US and Europe which sought to depict him as an extremist fundamentalist.

In addition, the fatwa by the Sheikh of al Azhar, Mohammed Sayyid al Tantawi on bank interest caused uproar in Egypt and the rest of the Muslim world. Meanwhile, our jurists have yet to develop a functioning Islamic banking system in a globally unified economy.

In conclusion, I want to alert readers to the increasing gulf between the efforts of the movement for reform and the dynamics of an ever-changing Muslim reality. I believe that Islam is capable of renewal and scholars can modernize their religion.