The Theological Struggle within Islam

by Mohamad K. Yusuff

Generally speaking, the Muslims of North America can be classified (for purposes of analysis) into two primary groups: indigenous Muslims (modern day ansars) and immigrant Muslims (present day muhajirun). The first group is made up of adherents predominantly from the African-American community and, of late, a growing number of "Anglo reverts." The second group consists of immigrant Muslims from practically every country in the world. They comprise lay Muslims, semi-literate mullahs, half-educated "imams", self-proclaimed "scholars" of every shade of the theological spectrum, and a minority of formally trained jurist-theologians.

The immigrant population also reflects the political, ideological, and geographical differences of the countries of their origin. These muhajirun have brought with them their distinctive identity and attributes of their national personality, to North America. It is clear that the multi-cultural make-up of immigrant Muslims varies widely in terms of their theological orientation, as well as the extent of their conformity to Islamic law (shari`a). Most of these immigrants have migrated to the West for a multiplicity of reasons, including better educational and economic opportunities, homegrown tyranny and repression, and as refugees due to military conflicts.

The theological struggle that has engulfed the world of Islam in the domain of interpretation and application of the shari`a, human rights and social welfare, education and literacy, economic development, misogyny against women, and legitimacy of rulers, among others, has now reached the shores of North America. At first glance it may appear that this debate is an exercise in futility, since it is universally agreed that there is no legitimate "Islamic" government anywhere in the known Muslim world; and since only a legally instituted government (sanctioned by the will of the people) can implement Islamic law, what good can come of this "big debate?" Such a reading, however, is shortsighted, because the fate of many captive Muslim nations hang in the balance, at the whim and fancy of despotic and ruthless "believing" rulers. Hence, the ensuing ideological struggle that has just begun here is but a microcosm of the rift enveloping the rest of the Muslim world.  

In this paper, I will briefly attempt to present (one aspect) of this intense philosophical polemic - a test of will between two advocacy groups: the "reformists" and the "literalists," for primacy in Islam, over age old questions, such as, the relationship between man and God, man and man, and the application of Godís Laws for manís eventual salvation. This theological divide is being played out in mosques, Islamic centers, lecture halls, and convention podia all across the North American continent by adherents of the faith. Many native Muslims have now been drawn into this religious quagmire.

The immigrant Muslim population of North America can also be divided roughly into two theological camps. First, there are those who regard themselves as "reformists" (so-called "liberals" and "modernists" included). This group is generally secularized and governed more by collective consensus and rational thinking, rather than by affiliation to a particular school of Islamic law. The reformists generally operate independently of mosques, Islamic centers, or external religious allegiance.

And then there are the "literalists" representing traditional medieval orthodoxy. This group includes those who subscribe to the tabligh orientation, a subgroup noted for its "evangelical" zeal to proselytize the initiated and the uninitiated. These are generally independent of mainstream Muslims, place strong emphasis on personal piety and righteous living, and are governed by a devotion to bring back backsliders and new members into the fold. Also included among the literalists are the "conservatives" or so-called "purists", who are highly organized, with international connections and a clear vision of what constitutes correct and authoritative practice. This subgroup, whose philosophical outlook is dictated almost entirely by medieval orthodoxy, is committed to an Islamic order and an ecclesiastical protocol that essentially border on extremism.

An evaluation of the position espoused by adherents of these two schools of theological thinking is quite revealing. The current fracture between the "reformists" and the "literalists" is nothing new; in fact, it is the classic polemic between what is "moderate and easy" versus what is "severe and extreme." From the earliest days of the establishment of the Islamic community, there has been a tension among the faithful between those who believe that strict adherence to the shari`a is paramount for one to be considered a "true" Muslim, and those who subscribe to a more flexible interpretation. This stress, which sometimes can be creative and healthy, essentially gravitates around the primary issue of what constitutes a "moral life of a believer."

During the past two centuries and more, scholar-reformers have attempted to redefine what they believe to be "pristine" Islam. Toward this end, they decoded the layered religious dogma and simplified the faith into its core and essential elements. Moreover, they have steadily pealed away the accretions of centuries of ecclesiastical encrustation and emphasized what they understood to be the rational nature of man, who essentially is Godís agent on earth, as symbolized in the figure of the first man, Adam.

According to the reformists, man is personally accountable and responsible for his conduct (words and deeds), an interpretation posited to counter the centuries-old position of the literalists that man is completely at the mercy of the divine will, and as a consequence, exercises no freedom of choice and action. The reformist formulation does not say that mankind is totally independent of the ultimate authority of God; rather, man has the obligation to choose and implement a moral and spiritual life in conformity with Godís Laws.

In the simplest terms, the reformists are duty bound to liberate Islam from the shackles of the rigid ritualism and blind following (taqlid) that have so long characterized its predominant interpretation, as well as from mystical (sufi) influences and practices prevalent in the nineteenth century, and steadily on the rise again today. Reformists maintain that the staunch belief in predestination, as advocated by the evangelical literalists, combined with what is seen as undue dependence on mythical formulations common in many of the sufi orders, have often led to physical indolence and spiritual bankruptcy, born out of feelings of individual powerlessness in the believer.

Hence, absolute trust in God, as espoused by the literalists, became synonymous with raw dependency and the absence of personal initiative. Individual piety thus deteriorated into inertia, followed by what is tantamount to renunciation of the world, a mind set which has given birth to the notion--travel light in this world. The reality is that those who subscribe to the travel-light syndrome cannot fully implement Godís Commands to improve the lot of mankind, including compliance with Islamís divine tax stipulation (the law of zakat). Faqirs (beggars) generally are not expected to be prolific donors for Godís causes. And mendicants will certainly not fill the donation boxes; instead, the ascetics may be eligible for the (divine) tax exemption on account of penury, even though some may legitimately argue that contrived poverty is a form of alms evasion! As would be expected, the reformists have repudiated this medieval worldview.

The reformists, under the dual canonical dicta: Give me good in this world and good in the hereafter and God will not change the condition of a people until they change themselves, have thus reformulated the equation of the relationship between man and God, and between man and man. Pushing aside the notion of passive dependence on divine favors, the reformists have essentially re-established the Muslim work ethic, a thinking emphasizing the obligation of the believer to create and to build the Islamic community; that is, to improve the physical condition of the ordinary man and woman in particular, and the world at large in general.

Pursuant to this prescription, the believerís commitment to a devotional life is not discounted in any way on account of his responsibility to construct and establish the infrastructure of a modern civilizational system, thus demonstrating in a concrete way the relevance of Islam in this twenty first century global village. Under this approach, intricate details and superfluous rituals of what is considered "proper action or practice" by the literalists, are de-emphasized under the canonical wisdom that God wants things to be easy and not difficult for the believing individual.

The literalists, however, would not be denied. They severely challenged the revised perception of the world, as envisioned by the reformists. With a formidable membership, abundant funding from allied external patrons, the literalists articulate a punitive, doom and gloom Islamic doctrine, built entirely on pessimism. They are committed to the proposition that only through a rigid and essentially regressive theological interpretation can man truly live and prosper in accordance with Godís Injunctions. Regrettably, the evidence shows that the literalists have failed successfully in their effort to chart their errant Islamic worldview, and instead have bequeathed us a legacy of chaos, repression, intellectual sterility, civilizational stagnation, and downright backwardness, as manifested in the failed Taliban experiment in Afghanistan. And now they have resorted to preaching a gospel of empty "slogans" and "mottoes."

In this context, we find that they have fully exploited the finding by Western demographers that Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today. This phenomenon (which is not disputed here) has been elevated by them to the status of a "religious axiom," Ė a motto, which has reinforced their evangelical zeal. Another slogan, of recent coinage, seized upon by the literalists is: Islam is the Solution (Islam huwa al hal). Purists of every shade, Friday preachers of every school, and convention lecturers of every brand parrot this mantra at every opportunity. They earnestly spit out "solutions" for every Western ill, despite the prevailing chaos, dislocation and failures (political, social, economic and technical) manifest in most Muslim lands, a reality which effectively renders their so-called "solutions" empty and meaningless--not because the axiom is inherently defective, but because its advocates have failed to produce any evidence to support its success anywhere in the known Muslim world during the past several centuries.

In conclusion, the theological struggle between the reformists and the literalists will undoubtedly continue unabated for all time to come. The debate will be long and hard, and in my estimation, will not be won by either side. Nonetheless, for the reformists, the tension ahead will certainly make life interesting and exciting. For in their eyes, promoting what is good and proscribing what is false, to improve the human condition (physical and spiritual), are actions that are meritorious and divinely sanctioned; ideas, which the literalists themselves claim to promulgate. 

Posted August 18, 1998. This article was published in the September 1998 issue of "The Guyana Journal"