In common parlance, “reform” is translated as “a sense of reshaping for the sake of improving effectiveness”. In a religious context, the term “reform” or “reformation” is associated with the religious revolution sparked in the Western church in the 16th century, with Luther and Calvin as the important leaders, who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, thus paving the way for Protestantism, one of the central branches in Christianity.
Generally, the traditional Muslim masses are uncomfortable with the term reform/reformation and reform thinkers/reformers. Due to lack of historical and theological knowledge, and the traditional religious dignitaries` negative characterisation of reformistic discourse as heretical innovation, the majority of the Muslim peoples consider discourses on Islamic reform as heterodoxy, deviating from the established orthodox positions, hence marginalised.
However, what does “reform” really signify within Islam?
Contrary to conventionally impressions, in Islamic history and in the Qur’an, the concept of reform has a profound sense and a pregnant meaning. The Arabic term for reform is “islah,” which, apart from its tone of increased prosperity and material welfare, has a moral dimension as well. Islah has a strong sense of both “moral righteousness” and “societal improvement.”
In the Qur’an, islah is intimately connected to the task of the messengers of God whose primary objectives were the “humanisation” of character and then, as an implication, the humanisation of societal structures conducive to creational welfare. Those who are engaged in the struggle of islah, the Muslihoon, are on several points praised in the Qur’anic scripture. Their reward will never be lost (Qur’an 7, 170). Put differently, the prophetic praxis (Sunnah) of the chain of God`s messenger’s entails “righteous reform.” i.e., the quest for moral maturation as well as societal and planetary improvement, with no life left behind.
Indeed, when understood as growth in moral maturity and service to the needs of society, reform can be understood as a direct response to the living call of Allah and as a way of establishing a connection -- a relationship -- with Allah that would otherwise be absent. Allah takes pleasure or delight in reform.
The cry for an “Islamic reform” need not worry Muslims. By a holistic approach to the Qur’anic text – that is, looking at the Qur`ans Welthanschauung, and by bringing an open mind and a compassionate heart, we can identify that the scripture centres more on this-worldly matters rather than the glorification of a Divine monarch, high up in the sky. Or, to say the same thing, we can recognize that the very aims of the divine monarch are not to be worshipped on a throne; they are instead that we recognize that the very essence of divine consciousness, and thus the very aims of the divine, are that we help make our world more heavenly -- that is, more compassionate and inclusive and just -- so that the fragrance of divine love is known everywhere. Other people will recognize that we are Muslims, not because we are so self-contained and isolated from society, but because we are so creative and compassionate and loving. Moreover, when the true spirit of reform is understood -- that is, as a righteous activity -- we will understand that we are always being reformed. Reform does not occur once and for all, it occurs again and again, as we respond to the divine call to help bring about a more just and sustainable world. Reform is an ongoing process of becoming reformed.
A Reform of Islam
This raises the question: Can Islam itself be reformed? If Islam refers, not to our response to Allah, but to Allah as such the answer is No. There is a perfection in Allah's mind and heart that is changelessly good, not needful of reform. But if Islam refers to our response to that changeless perfection, situation by situation, circumstance by circumstance, then the answer is Yes. If Islam refers to we Muslims, then reform is possible and necessary, always. We can and should be reformed not only in our individual responses but our collective response as a people: a sisterhood and brotherhood who seek to be surrendered to the will of Allah in our daily lives, individual and social.
The essentials of Islam, as understood by the Qur’anic text, are equality, social justice, freedom, the innate dignity of the human species, and our normative responsibility toward non-human communities of life. A “reform of Islam” will entail rediscovering and re-actualising these holistically humanistic values, and the efforts to make them the centre of our lives on earth – both on the individual and corporate level. As I have proposed in many other essays, this reform of Islam requires that we Muslims become self-critical, that we leave behind our idolatries of the past (including our idolatrization of the past itself), that we move forward to help realize the potential of Islam as a positive force in the world. This movement is Islam at its best.
Although the time of the Prophets have ceased, their objective of holistic reform is an ongoing process, which Muslims need to embrace in their individual and collective capacities. And in the act of creative engagement for the betterment of all life, becoming God`s companions in bringing about greater justice, greater love and greater inclusion of life on planet earth.