Our Jihad to Reform: The Struggle to Define Our Faith

Recent events in the Muslim world raise serious concerns and questions about the current state of Islam and the role the religion plays in the social and political dynamics of both Muslims and non-Muslims around the world. Even if we ignore the continuous acts of terrorism committed "in the name of Islam," both the Saudi rape case and the Sudan teddy-bear-teacher crisis late last year were disturbing examples of the dismal state of affairs of the global Muslim community.

The Saudi rape case, for instance, in which the rape victim was given a much harsher punishment for indecency and having an illicit affair than were the men who gang-raped her, raises serious questions about the justice, or lack thereof, of an oppressive and patriarchal Saudi state that dubiously claims to be an Islamic government in both letter and spirit.

Perhaps even more disturbing is the case of the British teacher in Sudan who was initially sentenced (before being pardoned) to imprisonment and lashing for allowing her students to name a teddy bear "Muhammad." More alarming than the sentence itself were the mobs of Sudanese Muslims putting their piety on display, as they demonstrated how devoted they truly are to the teachings of their religion and how much they truly love their Prophet, by calling for the death of the teacher for her unbelievably terrible crime. This looks like a picture-perfect Hollywood depiction of Sam Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations," as ignorant and intolerant mobs called for the death of a Westerner for no justifiable reason.

For reflective Muslims, these are perfect examples of our global community's betrayal of fundamental moral principles laid down by the Qur'an and by our beloved Prophet Muhammad. Such a betrayal must lead us to question and reconsider many understandings and manifestations of our faith that are seemingly so widespread in our community. These cases lead us to an important question that the Muslim community will be addressing on campus in the coming weeks: is the Muslim world in need of reform?

And the answer seems to be an obvious yes. The overwhelming injustices being committed in the name of our religion and the widespread ignorance and intellectual stagnation of our Muslim communities must make us think seriously about reform in the Muslim world.

Yet when one hears of reform, one often thinks of such a notion in the context of the West and the Christian experience of reformation since the 15th century in Europe. However, the Muslim world does not have the same historical and theological contexts that defined Western reform, and is thus in need of its own, unique Islamic reform.

It is essential to emphasize that such reform must be inherently Islamic and rooted in Islamic principles and ideals. Our reform must be based not upon the wishes of Western ideologues (whether Christian fundamentalists or secular extremists) in an attempt to appease our colonizers and masters, but rather based upon our Islamic principles in a sincere and faithful attempt to return to the essence of our religion and fulfill our duty to question, understand, and live the principles of our faith. Our reform will not be dictated by the likes of Daniel Pipes, Ayaan Hirisi Ali, and David Horowitz, according to their desires to subvert our tradition, but by Islamic scholars according to the Islamic notion of reform.

The Islamic notion of reform is expressed in terms such as tajdid (renewal) and islah (improvement), a notion that implies returning to the basics and fundamentals of the religion and remaining faithful to the original sources that define our principles: the Qur'an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. Such a notion implies reforming not the religion itself, but our understanding of the religion, reforming our selves and our communities and struggling to interpret and practice our religion in a way that is faithful to the texts yet compatible with contemporary realities. Such a struggle is not only essential if the Muslim world is to be part of the global community, but it is also true to the essential Islamic concept of jihad.

Often mistranslated as "holy war," the Arabic term jihad literally means "a struggle" and comes from the root word jahada which means "to struggle." The Islamic concept of jihad is an essential and fundamental part of the faith, perhaps an all-encompassing notion that defines our purpose in life. Submission to God - the meaning of "Islam" and our purpose as human beings - is nothing other than jihad: a constant struggle against the lower tendencies of human nature, a daily and hourly struggle to transcend our human capacities of aggression, injustice, greed, hate, lust, anger, arrogance, and to reach towards our higher nature. Jihad is manifested first and foremost, most essentially, as an inner struggle to subdue those lower tendencies of our nature and strive towards God, an upward spiritual climb, toilsome and difficult, yet of absolute and utmost importance.

Yet the notion of jihad is to struggle in all senses of the word: internally and externally, personally, socially, and politically. Therefore, it is inevitable that at times this struggle against the lower tendencies of human nature will be manifested in military conflict against injustices, and this is also undeniably a part of the faith (of course, even in violent conflict, there are limits and guidelines that one must follow, all of which are part of the struggle to overcome our lower nature); yet this is only one element of jihad, and arguably of much lesser importance than the struggle to reform one's self before all else.

And thus we return to reform. Part of the Muslim jihad (especially for those of us who are blessed enough to be educated and in positions of influence), perhaps the most important after our inner spiritual struggle, is to understand and live our faith in a way that does not betray the essence, that is not merely an external and superficial manifestation of Islam, but rather is true to the fundamental moral principles that are espoused in our texts. We must be cognizant of contemporary realities and challenges that the Muslim world and the global community face, and confront those realities and challenges with an understanding of our faith that goes beyond the intellectual stagnation that so often plagues our community.

Some of the biggest such challenges that the Muslim world must face up to in today's world are those of intolerance and coexistence, extremism and terrorism, patriarchy and women's rights, and the role of Shari'ah (Islamic law) in governance. To confront such challenges is our jihad. And that is exactly what the Muslim community at Stanford is doing. From January 31 to February 18, we will have some of the most profound scholars of Islam in the nation tackle these issues and offer their insight as to our present situation and where we are headed. For more information, see http://msan.stanford.edu.