In this Radio Netherlands interview (thanks to all who sent this in) by Michel Hoebink, the celebrated “apostate of Damascus,” Sadiq al-Azm, says what I have been saying for years now: that genuine Islamic reform “requires a departure from the literal text of the Koran.”
What is the difference between you and modernist reformers such as Fatima Mernissi and Abdolkarim Soroush?
People like Mernissi and Soroush pretend to reform Islam from the inside. They reform Islam as good Muslims. The group to which I belong does not do this. I want to reform the thinking of Muslims too, but I never pretended to do this from inside Islam or as a Muslim. I never made a concession on this matter.
So they are pretending?
Since the 19th Century, modernist thinkers have been haunted by rumours that they are not real believers, that they merely use religion as a means to mobilise people for reforms. And they even say so themselves: Until today, many of these reformers argue that, if you want to convince the people, you have to speak to them in their ‘own language’, that is to say: in religious terms.
This may be a valid argument, but it also reveals the instrumental way in which they think about religion.
I admit that it is easy for me to criticise them: I am a man of ideas, a public intellectual who is sometimes called upon to give his supposedly studied judgement on matters of public interest. I’m not involved in organising people and directing movements and so on.
Let me put it this way: In my view there is a division of labour in this effort of modernising Muslim societies.
Both approaches are valid. We need people who work on the inside and we also need people who work from the outside. But personally I think there is a certain intellectual dishonesty in this claim to reform Islam from the inside.
Can Islam be reformed at all?
I think so, but it requires a departure from the literal text of the Koran. That’s a radical step, because the Muslim masses cling to the idea that the Koran is literally true. But it is obvious that the literal text of the Koran simply cannot be applied in modern society.
Take for instance the corporal punishments prescribed in the Koran. Radical Islamists want to impose them, but they are a minority.
The majority of Muslims have split personalities on this matter: They insist that this is the penal law of Islam and at the same time they admit that it is inapplicable. What I propose is to resolve this contradiction and officially state that the shari’a corporal punishments are obsolete.
The problem is that most of my colleagues who claim to reform Islam from the inside do not address this problem, probably because they fear it will alienate them from their audiences. Modernists such as Fatima Mernissi keep playing this game of quoting texts of Koran and Prophetic Traditions in support of their case, implicitly assuming the literal truth of these texts. And if they do not find anything that supports them, they twist and torture the meaning of the text until it suits their demands.
Read it all.