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Islam’s Path to Modernity

UPPSALA – Many in the Muslim community have long taken issue with the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The declaration, these critics attest, was created by colonial powers with a long history of gross human-rights violations, and amounts to yet another attempt by a few Western players to impose their will upon Muslim countries. Islamic conservatives and fundamentalists go a step further, as they declare that no human invention can equal – much less supersede – sharia law, which amounts to the word of God.

This clash between the UN’s secular human-rights standards and Muslim religious doctrine mirrors the broader conflict between Islam and modernity – a conflict that has left some citizens of Muslim countries, including women and non-Muslims, highly vulnerable. Fortunately, an emerging school of Muslim thought addresses the question in a new way, emphasizing that the Quran, like any religious text, must be interpreted – and that those interpretations can change over time.

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In fact, the Quran does defend principles like liberty, impartiality, and righteousness, which indicates a fundamental respect for justice and human dignity. The problem, as emphasized by the Iranian theologian Mohsen Kadivar, is that many parts of sharia law are linked to pre-modern social structures, which deny women or non-Muslims the same protections as Muslim men receive.

It does not help that, as George Mason University’s Abdulaziz Sachedina points out, men have been the ones to interpret Islam’s holy texts. This, rather than those texts’ true content, is the root cause of legal discrimination against women in Muslim countries.

The theologian Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi points out that Islamic law regarding punishment – which includes brutal practices like stoning and amputation – originates from the Old Testament. Islam did not invent these punishments; they were simply the prevailing practices of the time.

As societies progress and evolve, so must the rules and standards that govern them. As the Iranian theologian Mohammad Mojtahed Shabestari of the University of Tehran emphasizes, many of the ideas associated with justice and human rights, as we understand them today, were completely “un-thought” in the pre-modern era. But Muslims cannot simply disregard such ideas on the grounds that humans had not developed them at the time the Quran was written.

With the abandonment of outdated notions of tiered justice and the recognition of the liberty and dignity of all individuals, Shabestari believes that it will become possible to realize the Quran’s message that there should be no compulsion in religion. People’s religious decisions should be driven by their sense of faith, rather than their desire to retain their civil rights.

According to the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush, this distinction between religious beliefs and civil rights should be obvious. But interpretations of Islamic law have traditionally been so focused on questions about mankind’s various duties that they have failed to recognize it. For Soroush, however, the denial of human rights based on “a person’s beliefs or absence of belief” is undeniably a “crime.”

The school of Muslim thought promoted by these scholars, who come from both Sunni and Shia backgrounds, offers a way forward for Islam. Its adherents know that key Islamic concepts, beliefs, norms, and values can be harmonized with modern social structures and understandings of justice and human rights. By recommending ways to do so, they are reaffirming the durability of the core Islamic tradition. To use the language of the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, they are creating “saving translations,” whereby a language, conceptual apparatus, and social system is updated to reflect progress in human reason.

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Such saving translations in Islam have been emerging for a considerable period of time. Indeed, the late Iranian writer and philosopher Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri fell out with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, after being designated his successor, over policies that he believed infringed on people’s fundamental rights and freedoms. In defending freedom of speech, Montazeri referred to a Quranic verse stating that God taught humans how to express themselves. “How can God, on the one hand, teach humans the ability of expression and, on the other hand, limit it?”, he asked. The obvious conclusion, he declared, was that “no one should be condemned for heresy, libel, or insult just for expressing his or her opinion.”

Montazeri, like today’s innovative Muslim thinkers, chose to remain open to alternate interpretations of the Quran, rather than becoming trapped by accepted tradition. The saving translations that these figures have offered demonstrate that modern global norms like the UDHR are not only compatible with Islam; they are deeply embedded within it. Reinterpreting – or even abandoning – antiquated rules rooted in outdated social structures does not amount to subverting the word of God. On the contrary, it proves the true depth of Islam’s sacred texts.