Western political and military dominance over Muslim lands, coupled with the relatively new phenomenon of Islamic militancy as a response to Western hegemony have once again put Islam into focus as an ideology all across the world. This has also forced Muslims to look inward, so as to re-evaluate fundamental precepts of their faith with respect to its ideological, social and legalistic framework, and how it interacts with modern social dynamics as a seminal force.

Originally published on Islam Today at and reprinted with permission of the author.

Against such a backdrop of political and ideological turmoil, the centuries old tussle between fundamentalist and modernist approaches to understanding Islam has resurfaced with full gusto and vigor. Fierce debates within academic circles, drawing rooms, and public forums, have brought certain controversies to the forefront of the religious arena. The Islamic purists represented by the likes of Sheikh Qardawi among men, and Dr. Farhat Hashmi among women, insist on a literalist approach to understanding Qur’anic dictates. Modernist scholars such as Dr. Amina Wadud-Mohsin and Asghar Ali Engineer on the other hand, adopt a hermeneutical approach to understanding the Qur’an and by so doing, attempt to divorce the contextual from the normative in Islam.

Reformists seek to explain certain legislative injunctions of the Qur’an, as time-specific regulations with exclusive applicability in the context of seventh century Arabian society. This would automatically reduce their scope and applicability in any other society or era which may be vastly different form seventh century social structures.  Injunctions pertaining to polygamy, minority rights, apostasy, women’s testimony, and gender relations would fall under this category of time-specific societal regulations. Modernists believe that although such legislative measures were perhaps necessary to regulate early Islamic society, it is largely the principles behind the specific injunctions that are universal and eternal, not the specific applications. These universal principles, they assert can be expressed in a number of ways suited to the changing demands of evolving Islamic communities.

It is primarily around these issues that fierce and unrelenting positions are taken on either side of the debate, creating an ideological impasse for which there seems to be no end in sight. This impasse is further strengthened by both sides resorting to platitudes which tend to obfuscate the real issues.

At the crux of this ideological stalemate, for example is the blatant contradiction which has emerged between the afore-mentioned contextual injunctions of the Qur’an and its normative principles of justice and benevolence. Needless to say, this has happened due to social conditions that are drastically different from those prevalent in seventh century Arabia. The Qur’an’s contextual verses primarily sought to regulate conditions already in existence then. While these were effective in establishing social justice at that time, the same injunctions expressed as literalist applications in the form of laws such as the Qanooon-Shahadat Ordinance, or the Hadood and Blasphemy Laws have created gross imbalances and injustices in contemporary Muslim societies. They have thus violated normative Qur’anic principles of egalitarianism, pluralism and respect for human life.  Unfortunately, such literalist applications continue to enjoy ascendancy in the Muslim world and the Qur’an’s primary objective of delivering justice to all, has been sacrificed at their altar. Where, for example is the Qur’an’s normative principle of justice being upheld when rape victims are barred from testifying in Hadood cases? Are the Qanoon Shahadat Ordinance and the Zina Ordinance consistent with Islam’s holistic approach to solving societal problems? Quite the contrary, such applications of the sacred texts have created an environment of hostility, a gross inequity in gender relations and an antipathy towards religious minorities—conditions that are completely antithetical to the spirit of the Qur’an. This begs the question: if indeed a conflict has arisen between normative and contextual Islam creating the above cited inequities, which of the two should be upheld?

Regardless of whether Muslims acknowledge the contradiction between Islam’s normative principles and its literalist interpretations, the effort to bring about much needed social reform in Muslim countries must continue unwavering. An earnest review of the Qanoon-Shahadat Ordinance, Zina Ordinance, Blasphemy Laws, or any other discriminatory laws is urgently required in order to eradicate the oppression of the weak that is so prevalent in Muslim countries such as Pakistan.  Nothing short of repealing these unjust laws will suffice, if Muslims are to practice and uphold the Qur’an’s overriding, normative principles, both in their personal lives as well as at the societal level.