“Enlightenment” comes to Australian Mosques?

Is Islam able to modernise? Does it need to do so?

  “IN MOSQUES across Australia Muslims are accustomed to men and women sitting separately. This physical division might change now that the Mufti of Australia, Sheikh Fehmi Naji El-Imam, has taken the enlightened step of calling for desegregation in mosques.”  The Age, Nov 24, 2008.   

A paper presented at the first conference run by the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies1  recently reported that many Muslim women in Australia feel they receive second-class treatment by local Imams and mosques. This produced a varied response from Muslim leaders, and soon led to the call from the Mufti of Australia for the desegregation of mosques during prayer. The issue has been presented as one where local imams originate predominantly from non-Western backgrounds and are failing to adapt to the modern Australian context. The Age newspaper then has read this to be a step towards enlightenment, the issue being cultural rather than religious, with Islam perfectly able to adopt modern practices. But is this the case? This very question was raised in an interview posted on this website by noted Christian thinker Os Guinness when he asked: “will Islam modernise peacefully”?

However is it the right question? The question carries two underlying assumptions that are worth examining: first that Islam desires modernising, and second that Islam is even able to modernise.2

Does Islam value modernity as something worth seeking?

Traditional Islam has had an uneasy history of relating to Western modernist thinking. Most well known is the Islamic modernist movement in 19th century Egypt. Its great leader Muhammad Abduh is famously quoted as noting that when he visited the West he found Islam but no Muslims. While Abduh saw himself as an Islamic reformer, returning Islam to its salafi (the first three generations of Islam) roots, ultimately his movement was rejected by traditional Islam as “modernist” rather than salafi. This history is instructive both as an example of the practical failure of Islam to adopt modernism but also due to the basis upon which the issue was settled. What settled the debate was the question of which theology best reflected the faith of the salifiyya (the forefathers)? Modernism itself was not seen as something necessarily worth seeking. Indeed significant Muslim thinkers, such as Seyyed Hossein Nasr, suggest that the Western enlightment, rather than being desirable as a model for Islam is rather a backward step towards the loss of a sacred worldview.

Does Islam have the worldview paradigm that will allow modernisation?

The Egyptian experience highlights a significant obstacle to Islamic modernism. The hermeneutic paradigm for dealing with societal change is simply different in Islam from that of the Christian faith. When faced with a community issue Christians largely ask the hermeneutical question: “What would Jesus do?” In contrast, Muslims rather ask: “What did Mohammed do?” This second question is inherently resistant to modernism in that it idealises the intellectual and societal situation of the Muslim community at the time of Mohammed. Any issue – such as the position of men and women in the mosque – is measured against the practice of these salafi. Thus, contrary to The Age editorial, what allows Australian Muslims to desegregate in the mosque is not a step towards enlightenment but instead the practice of Mohammed. In the words of Sheikh Fehmi “No imams should stop women coming into the mosque to pray, but the practice should be exactly as it was in the Prophet’s time, no more, no less.”

This hermeneutical principle governs scholarship as well as practice. Again we might contrast the Christian/Muslim situation. Christian theological scholarship is characterised by original, principled thought that allows for a degree of enlightenment rationalism. Traditional Sunni Islamic theological scholarship on the other hand is characterised by depth of knowledge of Qur’an/Sunna and maintains that “ijtihad” (theological interpretation) was “closed” in the 10th Century. Thus traditional Islam cannot adopt modernism without a theological “fight”.            

“Enlightenment” and a multi-faith society.

The above observations are not made to condemn Islam, but to call Westerners to better understand the dynamic of living in an increasingly multi-faith society. It is important to avoid worldview imperialism in our relations to other faiths. We must not assume that Islam values all that is valued in the West, or that Islam will inevitably move towards a modernist framework. We must recognise the inherent tensions in a multi-faith society in which faiths have exclusivist truth claims that extend to the shaping of the public community.

Moreover, on this issue at least, I suspect there are lessons to be learnt from the Muslim community. I am not sure that Christianity should be quick to abandon the public sphere to a secular modernism while retreating to a privatised individualised faith. Certainly the public arena is complicated in a multi-faith community, and while Christianity does not seek the legislative link between the political and the religious found in Islam, Nasr’s call for Muslims to remain profoundly “sacred” in their worldview may well be instructive to those of Christian faith.

Richard Shumack is a postgraduate student at Melbourne University connected to the National Centre for Excellence in Islamic Studies. He is a CPX fellow.

1. The paper was presented by the Islamic Women’s Welfare Council of Victoria at the first National Centre of Excellence for Islamic Studies Australia (NCEIS) conference, Melbourne, 19-20 November 2008: “Challenges to Social Inclusion in Australia: The Muslim Experience”. http://www.nceis.unimelb.edu.au
2. For the sake of this article the Islam I am describing is the Traditional Sunni Islam practiced by the vast majority of Muslims worldwide, (as opposed to radical Islam, or liberal Islam).
3. Nasr was the Professor of Islamic Studies at George Washington Univerity, Washington DC. His major work is the book “Knowledge and the Sacred”.