Is it possible to renew the Islamic orthodoxy?

Various troubling practices of Islamic actors in different countries including Turkey have created a noticeable reaction to religiosity, even religion itself.

Deism is on the increase; people are becoming more interested in reformist ideas on Islam.

Observing social and intellectual voices demanding an Islamic renewal, many have become optimistic about the possibility of such a prospect.

But, is it realistic to expect a renewal in the Islamic tradition?

Before the discussion, a point needs to be clarified: What we observe as the failure of Islamic actors in countries like Turkey in the form of corruption or authoritarianism is nothing but the concrete reflections of the Islamic recipe that they follow.

Indeed, Islamic actors deserve a harsh critique for their failures, however; on a broader framework, those problems are natural reflection of the Islamic theory, metaphorically the Islamic software that the actors put into practice.

Therefore, beyond the personal responsibilities of the Islamic actors, what mostly counts is the set of problems caused by the mainstream interpretation of Islam. Thus, one may easily argue that no matter which Islamic actors rule, Islamic orthodoxy is likely to result in the same problems.

No matter what we pick up, a simple canonical book in a mosque, or listen to a leader of an Islamic movement, we will surely encounter is the Islamic orthodoxy that has its origins in the 12th century.

It is a religious orthodoxy where philosophy and autonomous reason are no longer legitimate agents in interpreting religion. Worse, Islamic orthodoxy is in close cooperation with state. Ghazali (1051-1111), the key scholar whose ideas mostly shaped Islamic orthodoxy who also played an influential role in renouncing philosophy within the Islamic tradition, wrote in one of his books that state and religion are twins.

The idea of defining state and religion as twins is also repeated in Nizam al-Mulk’s Siyasatname. Since then, the model transformed into a blueprint of Muslim societies where the Islamic clergy is put under state patronage and control.

As a matter of fact, continuing the same tradition, the Islamic clergy, for instance an imam in the mosque in today’s Turkey, still works both for state and religion. Thus, the main mechanism that shapes an imam’s understanding of religion is the alliance between the state and Islam.

Reflecting the typical features of Islamic orthodoxy, the modern mosque practically continues its mission depending on the historical alliance between state and religion. Practically, therefore, the mosque is a space where state speaks through a religious discourse.

In a wider perspective, dialogues in the mosque are not only between Muslims and God, but also between Muslims and the state.

Owing its configuration to a highly hierarchical system, the most unwanted phenomenon for Islamic orthodoxy is autonomous space. As a result, the Muslim world has incessantly become a tough geography for artists, merchants, scientists, and journalists whose professional survival depends on autonomy.

In the meantime, the Islamic clergy – who now simultaneously report to religion and state – have successfully transformed Islam into religion of law rather than of morality. Reflecting their double identity, Islamic clergy have picked up several safe areas such as the woman’s body. Writing and speaking for centuries on such safe areas, rather than for example on corrupted or authoritarian state elites, the Muslim clergy transformed Islam into a perfect narrative of anti-individualism and submission.

As a result, today, any ordinary canonical book that is suggested to Muslims for daily needs is likely to have more discussions on women’s bodies than any disturbing crimes committed by the agents of state.

However, one point should be carefully underlined here: Islamic orthodoxy has never been a matter of intellectual choice. Instead, it has been a natural reflection of social, political and economic dynamics that prevail in the Muslim world.

Logically, so long as Muslim communities continue to be organised in the same social, political and economic forms, there is no chance of challenging Islamic orthodoxy.

Therefore, singularly expecting a renewal in the Islamic tradition as a reaction to the many failures of Islamic actors is not realistic.

It should be remembered here that, from time to time, such reformist hopes and moments have precipitated the Muslim world creating huge enthusiasm. However, they then faded with no significant effect unto the Islamic orthodoxy.

For example, Hasan al-Attar (1766-1835), an Egyptian reformist, voiced many renewalist ideas on Islam that might surprise us even after almost two centuries. However, his impact faded and Islamic orthodoxy reigned once again with no toleration of any contending approach.

The case of al-Attar, like many other reformists, demonstrates that the hope for a renewal in the Islamic tradition merely by an intellectual intervention is wishful thinking.

Steven Ozment, in lectures at Harvard University on the Christian Reformation in the late 1970s, underlined that the ability of intellectual methods to renew a religious tradition are limited. Accordingly, what changed people’s attitude towards religion in the West was mostly their fatigue with religion, not the intellectual intervention of reformists.

Put it differently, Western societies – indeed after revolutionary changes in politics and society – went through secularisation rather than renewing Christianity.

So, on this account, what is happening in the Muslim world?

For ages, few Islamic actors raised in religious milieu have usually adopted a reformist stance in their forties after personally witnessing the quandaries of the Islamic tradition. However, their reformist efforts failed in making a progressive change unto the religious orthodoxy.

Today, we are witnessing the same social phenomenon in Turkey: An Islamic generation mostly living in their forties are giving a reformist response after having observed the problems that were caused by mainstream interpretation of Islam.

However, like the previous generations, this generation is likely to fail and be forgotten.

So long as Muslim societies continue operating according to hierarchical regimes where there is no tolerance of alternative social and political models allowing autonomous spaces, the mainstream interpretation of Islam will keep reflecting the features of those hierarchical paradigms.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.