Nation & World

Islam in the contemporary world: Questions of interpretation

5 min read

In the Thompson Room of the Barker Center, a chamber filled with Harvard tradition in the form of full-length portraits and other symbols of “veritas,” several dozen scholars from across the United States and abroad gathered last weekend (Nov. 3-4) for a conference offering some windows into another important tradition: Islam.

“Interpreting the Islamic Tradition in the Contemporary World” was the title of the gathering, the first annual Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program Conference.

“Interpretation” — or ijtihad, to use the term Islamic scholars employ — is much in demand these days. How should the teachings of the Quran be applied in a country where only civil marriage ceremonies are legally valid? Are there times when it’s acceptable for a good Muslim to take out a mortgage loan, despite the Quranic prohibition of usury? (Sometimes, yes.) Should polygamy be avoided because it dishonors Islam in the eyes of the rest of the world, even if the Quran allows a man more than one wife? (Yes, it was suggested.)

The presentations covered a lot of ground.

John R. Bowen of Washington University, St. Louis, described how the work of the 20th century Tunisian scholar Muhammad al-Tahir Ibn Ashur is informing the reasoning and actions of Islamic officials trying to adapt tradition to contemporary realities in Indonesia — the world’s most populous Muslim nation — and France, a proudly secular state with a large Muslim minority.

Muhammad Qasim Zaman of Princeton University touched on the difficult question of religious authority within Islam, and what that means for ijtihad.

And in his remarks on the politics of fun, Asef Bayat, an Iranian now at Leiden University, discussed just how subversive a sense of ordinary human joyfulness can be to a puritanical regime like the one in Tehran.

In Bowen’s talk, “Ibn Ashur in Paris and Aceh” (“not really a travelogue,” he quipped), he spoke of how Muslims are drawing on the Tunisian scholar’s understanding of five universal objectives of Islamic law, or sharia: the preservation of religion (dîn), of life (nafs), of reason (`aql), of descendants (nasl), and of property (mâl).

He gave examples of how drawing on these essentials, rather than religious tradition per se, had enabled religious leaders to interpret Islam in useful new ways.

The Tunisian educator Hichem El Arafa, for instance, a “working imam” in Paris and the director of a major Islamic institute in France, advises young couples who come to him to go ahead with civil marriage as the only legal way to marry in France — despite their feelings that they should be married by an imam. Young women who follow tradition and later are abandoned by husbands to whom they are not married in the eyes of the state often find themselves without legal recourse, Bowen noted.

And so El Arafa tells young Muslims “that they should consider the civil marriage to be part of what Islam requires of them and not just a state rule,” Bowen said. This may not be part of Islamic tradition — which would have stuck with marriage by imams. But under reasoning by the universal “objectives,” civil marriage serves the larger good.

Indonesia is a majority Muslim state. There, the adaptive challenge is to modernize, and there, too, reasoning in terms of the five “objectives” helped push public discourse in a direction Westerners would consider “progressive.”

Recounting an episode from his field research, Bowen said, “Several teachers at the local Islamic university said that in terms of the five maqâsid ash-sharî`a, the objectives of Islamic norms, issues that endanger human life such as damage to the environment and problems of youth unemployment ought to be given the highest priority, and not those that the government had chosen to tackle,” namely, consumption of alcohol and unrelated young people meeting for dates.

The word ijtihad itself is a hot topic within Islamic scholarly circles, according to Zaman. “Modernist and liberal Muslims have often invited their co-religionists to rethink their dogmatic certainties in terms of ijtihad,” he said.

Since the late 19th century, a group called the Salafis has rejected “the authority of the medieval schools of law in favor of unmediated access to the Islamic foundational texts — the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad.”

But this approach has caused a backlash, particularly among Sunni scholars, who have “expressed grave misgivings about ijtihad,” Zaman said. “Any willingness to set aside … time-honored [scholarly] norms immediately raises, for them, the specter of willfully subordinating God’s word to one’s uneducated, tendentious guesses, which serves only to pave the way to religious anarchy.”

In his presentation, Bayat insisted, “Fun is a serious subject,” and it was clear that he has given a fair bit of thought to that subject. He is interested in why Islamists are so apprehensive of the expression of fun. The Iranian regime, for instance, has banned “even the innocent joy of flying kites,” he noted.

“One of the ironies of ‘fundamentalist’ Islamism is that it has tenaciously withstood waves of political challenges but has felt powerless before simple displays of spontaneity and joy and the pursuit of everyday pleasures.”