26 October 2013

Nigeria: Modernizing Islam


The attempt particularly by today's orientalists in the Arab and non-Arab Muslim World at modernizing Islam is not a new phenomenon in the cultural development of Islam.

The European occupation of some Muslim countries of Asia and Africa in the last quarter of the nineteenth century through to the first quarter of the twentieth century played important role in the western-inspired modernization of Islam under different intellectual appellations that include orientalism, secularism and modernism.

The impact of western civilization and culture on Muslim religious thought in the first half of the twentieth century produced a band of Muslim intellectuals that sought to modernize Islam through their literary activities. This group of Muslim elite believe that if Islam is to make itself relevant let alone acceptable to contemporary Muslims, its propositions (in their opinion) need to be formulated or re-formulated in a new way; to meet the increasing and complex needs of man in a globalised and technological-driven society.

Jamal ud-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) is recognized among other Muslim reformers as the chief agent at the inception of modernism in Islam. Born in Afghanistan, he sojourned in India, Makkah and Constantinople before taking up residence in Egypt. Among al-Afghani's disciples was Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) who through his writings and speeches worked hard to re-state Islamic doctrine from modern perspectives. H. A. R. Gibb, a professor of Arabic at the University of London and leading orientalist of his time maintains that restating the rights of reason on religious thought owes much to Muhammad Abduh. More than any other modern writers, both al-Afghani and Abduh left an intellectual progeny that pursued the modernization of Muslim religious thought. Prominent among them was Qasim Amin (d. 1908) who was the first to vehemently attack polygamy, divorce and the use of veil in Islam. The most extreme application of secularist thought and principles, however, was witnessed under the secularist Turkish administration of Kemal Attaturk which ended the Islamic state of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924.

Personal and individual attempts to formulate Islamic doctrine in terms of modern thought have continued to thrive in parts of the contemporary Muslim world. It is, perhaps, in furtherance of this cause that a beauty contest for Muslim girls was recently conceived and institutionalized. Condemnations have continued to trail the 2013 edition of the "Miss World Muslimah" which held last month in Indonesia. The contest according to World Muslimah Foundation, organizers of the event, was arranged as a riposte to the British-run Miss World pageant. Obabiyi Aishah Ajibola of Nigeria emerged first in the 2013 world Muslimah beauty contest; winning a cash reward of $2,200 equivalent to N350, 000 in addition to trips to Makkah and India as prizes. Eka Shanti founded the Muslimah beauty pageant three years ago when she lost her broadcasting job for deciding to wear hijab.

The notion held by organizers of the Miss World Muslimah which conceives it as an 'Islamic response' to Miss World pageant is, in my opinion, founded on wrong premise because the concept presupposes Islam as a religion that gives no recognition to women and their needs. This misconceived position also portrays Islam as a religion that is oppressive and discriminative against the befitting status of women, their rights and their feelings. The philosophical basis upon which the Miss World Muslimah was established is therefore faulty.

It is wrong to postulate that an Islamic equivalent can be evolved for every western idea, theory or concept. You cannot for the sake of fulfilling some linguistic or cultural obligations, for instance, create equivalents in Islam for evils or western ideologies that are contrary to the fundamental teachings of the Qur'an and Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW). It would seem ridiculous to fashion out concepts such as 'Islamic capitalism'; 'Islamic gay marriage'; or 'Islamic usury'. People need to know that it is not everything that exists in other cultures and religions that can conveniently be adopted in the true practice of Islamic religion. Similarly, the mere involvement of a Muslim in an evil does not make such Islamic. The misrepresentation of Islam by modernist Muslims has, over the years, led to civil rights campaigns for the entrenchment of equal rights between Muslim men and women in all religious, social, economic or political matters.

This brings to mind the case of Professor Amina Wadud who on March 18, 2005 became the first woman to lead a mixed-gender congregational prayer in New York. Three years later, on October 17, 2008; Wadud again repeated the same history at Wolfsan College in the United Kingdom. There is consensus among Muslim jurists that a Muslim woman can lead other women in prayers but the case of a woman leading a congregational prayer of both men and women is strange to Islam. Maybe, Amina Wadud's notion of gender equality expects me as a man to give birth or breast feed my children in order to feel equal with my wife/wives. To seek equality of religiously obliged duties or naturally assigned roles among Muslim men and women or between men or women of different backgrounds is an unwise enterprise. The Miss World Muslimah is simply another attempt to re-interpret Islam in order to misinterpret it.

The fact that participants in the beauty contest, like the regular pageants, had to take catwalk steps and wore stilettos makes the event un-Islamic. Allah (SWT) states in Qur'an 24:31 "And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what (must ordinarily) appear thereof; and that they should draw their veils over their bosoms... ."

Any attempt no matter how rigorous to modernize or change the principles of Islam, its tenets or doctrines is sure to end in futility. Allah (SWT) affirms in Qur'an 9:32 "They desire to extinguish Allah's light with their mouths but Allah will not allow except that His light should be perfected even though the unbelievers may detest (it)". Attempting to distort Allah's message in the re-interpretation of Islam to deliberately misinterpret it is like wanting to blow out electricity light with the mouth. May Allah (SWT) guide us to protect and preserve our faith in the face of modern global and regional challenges, amin.

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