The Life After Research



My Zigzag Journey in the Maize of Muslim Reform

I had high hopes that Muslims would read my book and would feel an urge to change, but I was disappointed. Soon I realised that most Muslims do not read books, and those that do, avoid any book that criticises Islam or Muslims. They like anti-American and anti-Western books, particularly those that blame the West for every ill in the Muslim societies, but not the Muslim themselves or their culture. If you ask why Muslim science declined, the automatic reply is that it is the fault of the Mongols, even though science declined drastically in the Baghdad Caliphate after the death of the great mathematician Umar Khayyam of the Rubayyat fame in 1123 CE – exactly 135 years before the Mongol invasion of Bagdad in 1258 CE. Ironically it was the Mongols who saved the Arabic astronomy and gave it a fillip in the 13th/14th century such that it became the precursor of the Copernicus’s helio-centric planetary system, but astronomy research was buried completely under the mighty Ottomans. 

For some of these Muslims, obviously 9/11 is a US and Israeli conspiracy. Osama Bin-Laden’s TV footage describing how he planned it was an American trickery to tarnish the good name of Osama.  Once one respectable, well-educated and liberal Arab friend (whose mother is a scholar of English literature) was confiding to me: Abu Rami (father of Rami, as Arab friends call me), I tell you, one day it will be proved that 9/11 was a US/Jewish conspiracy.  He is not even anti-American – he just could not bring himself to accept that a Muslim had committed that heinous crime. I gave him a complimentary copy of my book as he wanted, but I do not think he has bothered to read it beyond the blurb and perhaps the introduction, as he had never mentioned the book again to me. Once inside the Dome of the Rock (mosque) in Jerusalem, I was trying to ascertain the origins of various miracles, which are mentioned neither in the Quran nor in the hadiths, such as the giant footprint on a stone, which is claimed to be of the Prophet, even though it did not exist when Khalifa Umar saw the rock in 638 CE after his conquest of Jerusalem and after his clearing of the rubbish-dump created over it by the Jerusalem Christians.  At that point I met a young Arab scientist, PhD from Cambridge. I thought he could perhaps help me by translating my query to the supervisor in Arabic on how and when this stone, with the footprint, was placed there.  When I explained the query to him, he declared very proudly: “I am a good Muslim, I never ask such irreligious questions”. Given this level of curiosity even among young Western educated Arab scientists, what hope is there of a scientific renaissance in the Arab (or Muslim) world in the near future? I felt very sad. I shall end my experience on Muslim thirst for knowledge with one more story, an encounter with someone whom I considered a friend and a liberal Muslim. When I showed him my book Science Under Islam, he immediately asked: Abu Rami, have you got a fatwa in favour this book? Taken aback, I responded: why a fatwa? He explained: your book is critical of some Muslim scholars on science, and therefore you need a fatwa permitting the reading of this book. I was struck dumb. 

I have cited Arab Muslims, but non-Arab Muslims are not any different. Only a few Muslims will read, if they read at all, any book critical of orthodox Islam. A society where the thirst for critical knowledge and new thinking is so poor, who is there to listen to the advocacy of Muslim reform?  I know there are some perhaps only a few thousand, if not only a few hundred, among 1.3 B Muslims in the world, who would be actively interested in genuine reform and in the Ferdh values advocated earlier. I am also aware that there are a growing number of young educated Muslims, in the UK and perhaps in some other Western countries, who do not care for Islam except for cultural reason.  Perhaps some of them, when older, will read reformist books like mine for cultural reasons, if not also for religious reasons.


Muslim Reformist Organisations

There are many Muslim reformist organisations in the UK, in Europe and in the USA, but it is not easy to find and contact them. Most of them seem to be one-person outfits, without having the time or inclination to respond. They would not respond even to my request to register with them for their email circulation.  I tried to contact some so-called reformist groups by email (taken from their websites) in India, Malaysia and Indonesia, but without any success. I also tried, in vain, Prof Tariq Ramadan’s (see below) European Muslim group. Some of these groups have given telephone numbers in their websites.  The telephone rings, but nobody picks up as I tried over many days and at different times.  One US group had a well-argued and impressive article on its website on the difference between usury and interest by Abdul Hakim Murad of Cambridge (who appears on the Radio4 Thought for Today sometimes). When I congratulated him (I met him in Cambridge) on this article he said he had never heard of this group and also that he never ever written such an article. So I returned to the group and asked the group by email about this article, but I got no answer.  The same group also described their new (and quite interesting) method of praying. When I emailed again asking if they could send me some information on the theological discussion or opinion that led to this interesting new way of praying (which I said I liked), again I got no response.

;Prof Tariq Ramadan (of Oxford) is, according to the BBC, one of the ten most influential Muslim theology scholars in the world. His maternal grand-father was Hassan Al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and his parents were exiled from Egypt before his birth by President Gamal AbdunNasser for their heavy involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood activities.  He writes in English, but he is probably more fluent in Arabic and French. I met him several times, and even sent him a copy of my book at his request. When I congratulated him (over a dinner) on his declaration that the British law is his Sharia, he just nodded without saying anything. When I pressed him for elaboration, he avoided my question skilfully. He is a skilful man. Read his books and you will find that he never criticises any ancient theologians, not even those who are responsible for our present backward-looking orthodoxy, a cause of Muslim decline. In his writing, he just skirts round the opinions of these theologians, without directly criticising them for anything, and then he expresses his own idea of reform in a low-key way, but not strongly enough to antagonise the orthodox. This must be his magic, why he is invited for keynote speeches even by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), an orthodox organisation, of largely Pakistani Muslims, which does not believe in the concept of British Muslim, and hence calls itself Muslim Council of Britain, not Council of British Muslims. The MCB is very active everywhere in the UK, and according to the reports that I have read, it is successfully spreading orthodoxy even among the relatively liberal-minded Bangladeshi Muslims in East London, to the horror of the secular Bangladeshi groups there. In general Bangladeshis are more liberal, very proud of their secular Bengali culture, a reason why Bangladesh is not declared an Islamic state in its Constitution.

The first reformist organisation from which I got a good response is MECO (Muslim Education Centre of Oxford) run by Dr Taj Hargey. I went to its conferences in several successive years and there I spoke on CAMSAM, when many people bought my book. Dr Hargey preaches and practices an enlightened version of Islam, which I like and admire.  He has some devout followers, who attend his Friday Jummah prayer and whose children attend his Sunday school of enlightened Islam.  His Jummah prayers are sometimes led by woman Imams, to the fury of the local orthodox Muslims. 

>Dr Hargey, a South African by birth, is a real scholar of Islam, and his view that most hadiths are unreliable coincides with mine. He works incredibly hard, giving religious discourse in the weekends, in the Friday Jummah prayers and in the Sunday schools for the children of his followers. He appears on TV as well, presenting the viewpoint of liberal Islam. But if his congregation grows (which seems to have been largely static over the last five years I know of), I wonder if he would be able to manage it, unless he can recruit some more people to work with him at the top level. His wife, a medical doctor and a Christian, is his greatest helper    she is wonderful.  However, it is not easy for someone from outside to assist him. I once contemplated the idea of joining him, more correctly, of helping him, but it has not been possible, partly because of my distance (about 100 miles) from Oxford which prevents frequent face-to-face discussions, but more importantly because of the absence of a clear role that I can play from Keele. I guess it is a general problem with all Muslim reformers, that they are loners, and cannot agree with others on a common platform of a set of objectives and principles, so essential for working in cooperation for greater impact. Looking back at the history and observing the current trends, I do not foresee a common reformist belief system for all reformers – I think the reform journey will be individualistic, but we nevertheless need reformists like Dr Taj Hargey to preach. I am looking forward to reading the book he said he was writing.

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