Reformability of Islam?

Earlier in the month Hugh Hewitt interviewed Father Joseph Fessio on the topic of what Pope Benedict XVI has said about Islam. Here’s what Fessio said:

Well, the thesis that was proposed by this scholar was that Islam can enter into the modern world if the Koran is reinterpreted by taking the specific legislation, and going back to the principles, and then adapting it to our times, especially with the dignity that we ascribe to women, which has come through Christianity, of course. And immediately, the Holy Father, in his beautiful calm but clear way, said well, there’s a fundamental problem with that, because he said in the Islamic tradition, God has given His word to Mohammed, but it’s an eternal word. It’s not Mohammed’s word. It’s there for eternity the way it is. There’s no possibility of adapting it or interpreting it, whereas in Christianity, and Judaism, the dynamism’s completely different, that God has worked through His creatures. And so, it is not just the word of God, it’s the word of Isaiah, not just the word of God, but the word of Mark. He’s used His human creatures, and inspired them to speak His word to the world, and therefore by establishing a Church in which he gives authority to His followers to carry on the tradition and interpret it, there’s an inner logic to the Christian Bible, which permits it and requires it to be adapted and applied to new situations. I was…I mean, Hugh, I wish I could say it as clearly and as beautifully as he did, but that’s why he’s Pope and I’m not, okay? That’s one of the reasons. One of others, but his seeing that distinction when the Koran, which is seen as something dropped out of Heaven, which cannot be adapted or applied, even, and the Bible, which is a word of God that comes through a human community, it was stunning.

Spengler, at Asia Times notes that the Pope’s position “refute[s] the fundamental premise of US policy” [i.e., that Islam is capable of reform and need not be violent toward outsiders]. Today at Townhall, Diana West comments on how little anyone has taken up what the pope said.

My take on the reformability of Islam vis-a-vis Fessio’s report of the pope’s comments, is that while Islam may not have reforming logic built into its tradition – and may have non-reforming logic at its core, change in tradition is driven by more than internal logic. As a tradition interacts with other traditions (something Islam has been doing from Day 1 – Mohammed was not well-received in Mecca when he began), opportunities for change come about.

Alasdair MacIntyre’s three works After Virtue, Whose Justice? Which Rationality and Three Rival Verions of Moral Enquiry have developed the notion of a tradition as

[A]n argument extended through time in which certain fundamental agreements are defined and redefined in terms of two kinds of conflict: those with critics and enemies external to the tradition who reject all or at least key parts of those fundamental agreements, and those internal, interpretative debates through which the meaning and rationale of the fundamental agreements come to be expressed and by whose progress a tradition is constituted.

A wide variety of scholars (including myself) have used this concept of a “tradition” in our effort to defend Christianity against the acids of modernity. Interestingly, Muslim scholars interested in reform are also turning to MacIntyre. One example is an extended review of Whose Justice? Which Rationality? at the al-Islam website. A different kind of use is found in Samira Haj’s essay on Muhammad ibn ‘Abdul Wahhab [sign-in codes required] (we Westerners know him as the founder of the strict sect of Islam defended by Osama bin Laden and the traditionalists in Saudi Arabia). Clearly there are – and have been at least since the death of Mohammed – “interpretive debates” going on within Islam. There have also always been external conflicts – and not merely the warlike version of jihad we hear so much about. Therefore the conditions certainly exist for change to happen within Islam – even, I would suggest, change that can be seen by outsiders as “reform.”

Do we now see any signs of reform? As a non-Muslim, the best I can go on is my reading and my interaction with individual Muslims. A few years ago when I was living in Houston, I had a time of dialogue with some Muslims. They came to my Sunday School class and spoke about Islam and I visited their Mosque and talked about Christianity. They are participants in the Islamic sub-tradition led by Fethullah Gulen. If we in the West are looking for a “reformed” version of Islam, Gulen’s certainly fits the bill.

Is Gulen faithful to the internal logic of Islam? He and his followers certainly think he is. I’d guess that folks like Presdident Ahmadinejad, OBL, & Moqtada Al Sadr might not think so, but as the pope notes – Islam has no central authority. With no central authority – and a widely divergent history of interpretation – a deductive approach to the “internal logic of Islam” seems to be a capitulation to the loudest speakers. Instead, the variety we see – the interpretive debates internal to the Muslim community – suggests that an inductive approach – attentive to what we actually see in variants of Islam – is the best approach for identifying the “internal logic of Islam.” If we use the inductive approach, the opportunity for reform is as large as Muslims want it to be.

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