16 October 2007

Karen Armstrong's Islam - 2

Another issue is the matter of reform. Karen Armstrong says that Islam has periodically produced reformers who have tried to renew the faith and infuse fresh energy into it. As examples she cites Ibn Taymiyyah and Abd al-Wahhab (in West Asia) and Ahmed Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah (in India). The problem is these men are notorious, even among Muslims, as fathers of Islamic fundamentalism. Which brings us to the heart of the problem of reform in Islam.

The way of life developed by the Prophet was suitable for 7th century Arabia - which was a primitive tribal society. It may not be suitable for, say, 21st century India, or even 14th century Syria. And to be fair to Islam, like any other great religion it has always adapted itself to changing times and circumstances. That is why it has survived for 1400 years. That is also one of the reasons why it is the second largest religion in the world, in spite of being the youngest.

When things are going well for the Ummah there is no problem. But whenever there is a crisis, it is very easy for someone to come up and say that the Ummah is in trouble because it has strayed from the True Path and the Word of God. Ergo, the solution is to return to the fundamentals - as expressed in the life and times of the Prophet and the Quran. This is what 'reform' - unfortunately - has come to mean in Islam: fundamentalism. And we can only imagine what will be the consequences of implementing 7th century Arabian norms in the 21st century. 'Reformer' is usually a positive label. But in the context of Islam it has a specific, and potentially dangerous, meaning. Again Karen Armstrong doesn’t seem too bothered by this point.

Finally, it is clear that the Karen Armstrong doesn’t know anything about Hinduism and India. When she writes about Islam in India, she cuts a sorry figure. She talks about 'Hindu fundamentalism'; she says that the BJP is a 'Hindu fundamentalist group' and that Muslims in India 'get a bad press'. One should not write about something if he/she knows nothing about it.

But such arguments apart, it is still an excellent book to start one's study of this fascinating subject.

PS: It is possible that I have said some incorrect/unfair things above. My study of Islam has only just begun, so I welcome any criticism and correction. Book recommendations are also welcome.

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