Culture & Society

NON-FICTION: Aligning faith with universal rights

Muslims Today: Changes within, challenges without

Author: Chandra Muzaffar | ISBN: 969-9556-00-5 | Format: Hardcover | Pages: 282 | Pub. Date: 2011 | Publisher: Emel Publications, Islamabad

Ahmad Ali Khalid

The discourse of double-critique, which is an attempt to carve out a critical space for dissenting against religious authoritarianism as well as American imperialism, is becoming widespread in contemporary Muslim thinking. Tariq Ramadan and Sheikh Hamza Yusuf are two prominent examples. Chandra Muzaffar’s work, Muslims Today: Changes within, challenges without, is part of the reformist tradition of Islamic thinking with a staunch emphasis on human rights, democracy, gender equality, tolerance and freedom. What is also remarkable is Muzaffar’s analytical and stinging critique of American-led globalisation and its eco-nomic and political hegemony over certain regions of the Muslim World.

Muzaffar’s work is a lucid example of Islamic liberalism — searching the Quranic text and religious scriptures as well as using contemporary political moral philosophy to find the moral foundations for a democratic order. For Muzaffar, faith should be a source of inspiration and provide the moral substance for democratic initiatives. Theocracy is not a path for spiritual renewal and the contemporary failures of self-styled Islamic governments is discussed throughout the book. The so called “Islamic states’’ have failed to come up with economic solutions and political ideas and have seen their living standards fall as their populations sink into deeper and deeper poverty. Muzaffar’s critiques of the Islamic world have a certain socialist edge about them, lambasting the excesses of neo-liberal economic frameworks which erode the traditional lifestyles of Muslim communities. The economic ideas underpinning Muzaffar’s work are critical of globalisation in its economic and cultural manifestations.

Muzaffar’s vision of a just world is compromised of a core set of virtues and universal values which he says can bridge the differences of faiths and doctrinal sectarianism. Clearly, the empty moral discourse of procedural secularism does not do enough to provide a source of ethical reflection, so instead Muzaffar looks back to the spiritual wellsprings of faith traditions. He articulates an alternative narrative, where faith as a transformative force can guide people to a consensus about a transcendent moral ideal. It is an inclusive message grounded in Islamic theology, but there is a gap in Muzaffar’s work.

Like all other Islamic modernists, Muzaffar takes the phrase “the spirit of Islam’’ for granted, and rather than elaborate an alternative legal philosophy to base his theological project, he simply resorts to quoting religious scripture. This is classical Islamic modernism at its best — plenty of free-flowing rhetoric about the “spirit of Islam” peppered with references to religious scripture and history. But there is a deeper more fundamental question which plagues all attempts of Islamic modernity.

Why should we interpret the Quran historically? Why should we interpret the Quran in its historical context? Why do we have to question religious authority and religious tradition? Why can we not stick with the traditional framework of Islamic law? Muzaffar’s justification is based solely on the classic appeal that we must change our conceptions of religious knowledge to follow “the spirit of Islam’’. Just exactly what this “spirit’’ is and why we should agree with Muzaffar’s views on critical issues of human rights and democracy (which are eminently sensible) is a theological question which he does not answer. How and where we locate the “spirit of Islam’’ in Muzaffar’s theology is really left up to the moral intuition of the reader who is already assumed to believe in the core moral message of his work.

And here is where all attempts at Islamic modernity collapse. There is no systematic legal methodology to Muzaffar’s ethical project. There is no interpretive scheme that justifies Muzaffar’s progressive interpretation of the Quran. What is lacking is a legal methodology and hermeneutical scheme which give theological rigour to his progressive and pluralistic positions. The way Muzaffar tackles the dogmatism of conservative jurists is not to directly challenge their philosophical foundations, but rather reframe the whole debate. Instead of focusing on rituals and laws, Muzaffar urges us to focus on the more pressing priorities of social injustice, poverty, education and development. This shift can be seen in Muzaffar’s incredibly rigorous analysis on economic structures and economic inequality which is a rarity among Muslim intellectuals who instead get bogged down in technical debates.

Though Muzaffar has no alternative legal methodology to offer, he does ask us to reconsider the very nature and purpose of faith. Is faith meant to be a strict set of rules, regulations and laws, or is it meant to inspire us to seek a higher moral ideal in cooperation with other human beings? This work offers us a theology of humanity, which grounds the dignity of all men and women into the fundamentally egalitarian message of the Quran.

If there is an alternative, it is less of a methodology and more of an attitude and means of moral reasoning. The “Maqasid al Sharia’’ approach has been very popular with contemporary Islamic modernists and has been given serious treatment by eminent authors like Mohammad Hashim Kamali and Jasser Auda. This methodology focuses on the “aims’’ and “priorities’’ of an Islamic applied ethics rather than the rules and regulations.

The Sharia is no longer a rigid set of rules and injunctions, but is rather transformed as a guiding moral force which shapes and cultivates virtues of love and tolerance. The Sharia is a path which fosters dignity and prevents injustice. The powerful combination of dignity with Muzaffar’s brand of passionate liberation theology makes for an animated and dynamic challenge to defenders of American globalisation and religious orthodoxy.

But there is still the massive edifice and theology that provides the foundations for classical legal theory and theology that Muzaffar leaves untouched. This is clearly in line with a decisive shift in the way reformists and modernists deal with questions of religious reform. The new emphasis is on shaping a new vision of “post-legal’’ ethics, where Muslims shed their fiqh based moralisms and embrace a wider more universal narrative for ethical reflection in partnership with other faiths. The emphasis on inter-faith relations and working towards an ideal of ecumenical cooperation is reminiscent of the Catholic theologian Hans Kung’s declaration, “No world peace without peace among religions;  no peace among religions without dialogue between religions’’.

This collection of essays released by the Iqbal Research Institute demonstrates the impressive depth and sophistication of Chandra Muzaffar’s learning, philosophical sophistication and concern for justice. It is a powerful selection designed to make us think about the gross injustice and inequality that we see and experience in the world around us. What Muzaffar offers is a powerful spiritual antidote premised on the sacred notion of human dignity with the aim of forming a powerful coalition of faiths and peoples united on a core set of virtues.

(The writer is a student at the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle Upon Tyne, England.  He can be reached at


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