New Chapter Needs New Thinking

For the first time in Islamic history, millions of Muslims are living a new reality: As a religious minority in non-Muslim Western societies. This new situation requires renewed thinking in Islamic legal and theological scholarship.

The mid-20th century centrifuged millions of Muslims out of the heartlands of Islam and into a whole new world in Western societies as political, economic and educational factors in their homelands sparked an exodus to Europe, Australia and North America.

The result was a new historical reality for Muslims who were previously accustomed to belonging to either the majority, or a very influential minority within their societies. Now, they found themselves living for the first time as minorities within established and advanced non-Muslim majority societies. another first, Muslims from all the corners of the globe, with all backgrounds, sects and schools of thought began living together in one place indefinitely. Vastly different Muslims co-exist in Mecca during the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, but this lasts only for a few days and for most individuals, just once per lifetime. But to be stuck together permanently, as a minority in one place is a new dynamic altogether.

These new realities brought several new challenges. First to Muslims identity. Second, they also raised questions about integration, assimilation, loyalty and implementing what is perceived as the teachings of the religion.

A half century since their arrival in non-Muslim majority nations, different Muslims in Western countries are still struggling with these challenges.

The new legal, social and political circumstances that Muslims face as minority populations in the West have created an urgent need to reexamine Islamic legal principles (i.e. sharia). The question of what is Divine, and hence unchangeable to a Muslim, versus what is manmade and fallible, was always left to the minds of scholars who are themselves the natural product of their historic socio-economic political context. This question of fixed and flexible within Islamic law has to be posed and to be answered anew. Thus, very necessary and very exciting developments must be undertaken by Muslim intellectual leaders in their new homes in the West.

It is clear that Islamic law historically was codified to serve a ruling majority, which presents difficult (if not impossible) expectations for a minority group that is trying to establish its place within a new multi-faith, pluralist society.

For example, the Quran was revolutionary in its time for restricting polygamy from an unlimited number of wives–a common practice in pre-Islamic Arabia–to four if they could be treated equally. But given its outright prohibition by law today, a modern Islamic understanding would indicate the practice of polygamy is illegal and therefore prohibited.

In another case, Muslims living in Western societies usually can only purchase homes through interest-bearing loans. While interest is understood by some as usury which is prohibited by the Quran, new economic realities and different interpretations should lead to a deep examination of this issue.

When undertaken properly, the interpretation and re-interpretation of Quranic principles and the development of new and modern Islamic law addressing new and modern issues and challenges can be both invigorating and enhancing to all human life. If undertaken by Muslims and for Muslims, this presents an opportunity to purify Islam not by changing the Quran but by embracing the Islamic tradition of dynamic reinterpretation fitting each new day and age.

At the Islamic Center of Southern California, we as concerned Muslim intellectuals initiated what we called jurisprudence for minorities. It is a project in progress that could be contribute to the much-needed revival of Islamic scholarship for an ever-changing world.

For Muslims in adopted lands, life will be easier if they avoid imposing on themselves unneeded restrictions and hardships and instead follow Islamic teachings that discourage hardship and promote the development of a moderate and facile way of realizing the goals of sharia, which is what is good for people in this life as well as the life of eternity.

By doing this, minority Muslim populations will not place themselves in either physical or virtual ghettos, but rather will be ready to cooperate in a constructive way with their fellow, non-Muslim citizens. As such, it will not be difficult for any Muslim to avoid what is prohibited by God, nor what is outlawed by humans in any particular time or place.

For Muslims all over the world, this will lead to the needed reform of Muslim people and Muslim thinking–and it will be reform from within, not one imposed from outside.

Dr. Maher Hathout, the author of In Pursuit of Justice: The Jurisprudence of Human Rights in Islam (MPAC, 2006), serves as the senior advisor to the Muslim Public Affairs Council and the Chairman of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

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