Interview with the Islamic scholar Ebrahim Moosa

The reinvention of Islam

Concepts like apostasy or blasphemy reveal that Islamic theology is caught in a mode of imperial Islamic political thinking, says US-based scholar Ebrahim Moosa. What is needed is a process of critical appraisal. Moosa asks that Muslims rediscover the great lessons of diversity in their history rather than following the reductionist versions that masquerade as Muslim theology today. Interview by Claudia Mende

Professor Moosa, in traditional Islam issues such as apostasy or blasphemy are considered a crime. How do you deal with these questions as a theologian?

Ebrahim Moosa: We need to think about these issues on two levels. One level is to grasp that what we call apostasy is actually part of imperial theology. Even in non-Muslim empires – think of the Christian imperial heritage – when someone left the faith, they were viewed as being disloyal to the empire. If you left your faith you were making a statement about the political. The situation was the same in both Islamic and Christian empires: apostasy was a political act of treason. Today too, we view political disloyalty as treason.

And the other level?

Moosa: The other level is to recognise that this imperial theology has expired with the emergence of the nation state: the idea of citizenship, new ideas of individual rights and a new way of understanding the role of the religious. These days Muslim theology adopts the following stance towards apostasy: if you change your faith then it is a matter between you and God; a change in faith is no longer regarded as an act of disloyalty to the political order.

In the modern nation state, religion is very much a personal and private affair, while state and civil society regulates the public sphere. We must not forget, however, that this idea is contested by some in West. Some Christians also expect certain Christian values to be adopted by the state. This would necessarily lead to a blurring of distinctions, creating a grey area between the public and the private.

Hijab window display in Jakarta, Indonesia (photo: dpa/Mast Irham)
How can one interpret religion in a modern society? Having abandoned the politics of empire, we no longer need a theology of empire. Such a theology feeds a hierarchy of preference, not to mention the supremacy of one religion over another, or the privileged status of one gender over another

But the idea of apostasy is still instrumentalised as a means of threatening or silencing intellectuals.

Moosa: There is no doubt that the theological literacy of many Muslim communities still views apostasy as a crime against the public order. A recent survey done by the Pew Research Center revealed that even in a society like Tunisia, many people still believe apostasy to be a crime. I believe theologians are failing in their task of educating communities to understand that making choices relating to religion should not be viewed as a crime. If you penalise people for that you are coercing them in matters of faith, which is the antithesis of what Islam teaches about belief.

What kind of theological re-think is required to overcome this problem?

Moosa: We need a new understanding of what is God and what Islam means in the political and economic conditions we face today. How can one interpret religion in a modern society? Having abandoned the politics of empire, we no longer need a theology of empire. Such a theology feeds a hierarchy of preference, not to mention the supremacy of one religion over another or the privileged status of one gender over another. The modern nation state needs to guarantee the rights of the individual. In my opinion, many Muslim countries have only adopted the superficial framework of a nation state, but the content and substance of their laws are not consistent with a modern discourse on human rights.

And Muslim theology is still stuck in what you would call this imperial concept?

Moosa: Yes, some of the religion-based legislation found in Muslim countries is largely an imprint of what I would term imperial Islamic political theology. As a throwback to former times, this imperial political theology needs to be excised from the political and religious imagination through critical appraisal, questioning,

ijtihad and education.

Iranian clerics leaving the Faizeh religious school in Ghom, Iran, a Shia place of pilgrimage (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Strangers to their own past: "We have to study the past to discover the great lessons of diversity, rather than relying on the monolithic, very reductionist and flimsy versions masquerading as Muslim theology today. That is the biggest challenge in both Muslim majority and minority contexts," asserts Moosa

How can it be re-worked when most of the ulema, the theologians, in Arab countries are more or less regime puppets?

Moosa: In societies where authoritarianism prevails, theologians either feel very submissive towards the political system, or they are completely disgusted by their rulers who lack legitimacy. The politicians may be secular in their political practices, but in their theology they are still very much wedded to an outdated theology. Many secular Muslim governments harass, imprison and target critical intellectuals and theologians to prove their Islamic credentials, in an attempt to demonstrate that they are more Islamic than their Islamist rivals.

Are they aiming to please their constituencies or is it just their mindset?

Moosa: They think of theology as a political football which they can use to placate the masses. In my opinion, the absence of a theology of dignity creates a huge vacuum in Muslim societies. A theology of dignity needs to become the benchmark and the standard for all values. Interpretations of scripture and other teachings that do not meet this standard should be marginalised. Considerable effort in the re-interpretation of Islamic law, theology and moral practices will be needed to realise this aim.

During your speech in Germany you said that Islamic theology is dead. What did you mean by that?

Moosa: Islamic theology is dead in so far as there are few normal societies where people can reflect on the nature of good in stable conditions. Large parts of the Muslim world are in political turmoil. Where states are stable, such as in Indonesia, Malaysia, Turkey or Tunisia, people are able to discover ways of understanding who they are, what is the meaning of God and how is God manifest in the world. Yet, there is another kind of theology that is very much alive, namely, a theology of abnormality that valorises violence and power at any cost, such as that of Islamic State or the theologies advanced by authoritarian regimes.

Graffiti bearing the Islamic State flag in Solo, Central Java, Indonesia(photo: picture-alliance/AP)
Imperial political theology needs to be excised from the political and religious imagination through critical appraisal, questioning, ijtihad and education... and replaced with a theology of dignity. Interpretations of scripture and other teachings that do not meet this standard should be marginalised

Do you see signs of a revival anywhere?

Moosa: You will find excellent Muslim theologians in places like Lebanon, where you have a multi-religious society based on mutual understanding, including Shia and Sunni Islam, varieties of Christianity and secular trends. Theologies which affirm human dignity breed hope and opportunity. In Lebanon, Indonesia, among the Muslim minorities in South Africa and in the U.S., for instance, new theologies are starting to emerge. Political space that allows the expression of new ideas is vital for experimenting with theology. You need freedom of speech to prevent theologians who disagree from mounting demagogic campaigns against their rivals and asking the government to throw their opponents in jail.

Historically Islamic theology was characterised by considerable diversity. Today this seems to have been lost.

Moosa: That′s one of the great tragedies of modern Islam! The diversity that was once evident in Muslim societies has been lost, yet it is urgently needed today. Part of the problem is that Muslims have become strangers to their own past. We have to study the past to discover the great lessons of diversity, rather than relying on the monolithic, very reductionist and flimsy versions masquerading as Muslim theology today. That is the biggest challenge in both Muslim majority and minority contexts.

So, what if the Egyptian President al-Sisi goes to al-Azhar and requests Islamic reform…

Moosa: Such requests for reform will not have any attraction in the long run. Some theologians might oblige, but it will remain superficial and not organic. Firstly, al-Sisi needs to be reformed himself because he is a dictator. But he is not the first leader to have behaved so. Nasser transformed al-Azhar and turned it into an instrument of the state. Al-Azhar is not guaranteed academic freedom. Anything that the scholars say in today′s Egypt could be used against them. Political freedom is pre-requisite for large scale religious reform, allowing debate on a range of ideas.

Hamtramck, Michigan: the first town in the U.S. with a Muslim majority local authority (photo: DW/I. Pohl)
An example worth taking to heart: "Give Muslims in Europe the space to make Europe their home first. If you take the violent acts by a few individual Muslims as a pretext to stigmatise all Muslims in Western Europe, then you put Muslims in a corner or against the wall," says Moosa

The two spheres of the private and the political are interlinked in Islam. Why is it so difficult to separate them? What is your stand on secularism?

Moosa: I don′t have a fixed position on this. I think that the idea of the separation of spheres into the secular and the religious is a useful cognitive fiction. It′s a political fiction that arose out of Europe′s particular struggle to separate church authority from governmental authority. That′s Europe′s history, but it′s not the history of North Africa or the Middle East. To insist on that kind of model for people all over the world would be coercion. The key issue is for societies to find ways in which government and governmental authority can function effectively without preventing society from flourishing. By separating the spheres of authority, secularism is just one such experiment. But of course other models are also possible.

Do you mean a separation of both spheres without using the word secularism?

Moosa: A number of Christian, Muslim and Jewish theologians are concerned about the runaway secular train that is going in one direction, propounding its own secular hubris and disregarding other ways of living. Saying this is not to advocate making Europe Christian again, Muslim or Jewish for that matter. But Europeans ought to accept some amount of critique of the secular. The secular has made religion rethink some of its positions. In the same way, religions can help secularists rethink some aspects of the secular. For instance, Jurgen Habermas in his early years advocated a strict secular rationality and no conversation with religion. Today he is saying that we need a deep conversation with religion, because these days he appreciates the importance of religion.

Why do we need this conversation with religion?

Moosa: It is important to foster a deeper conversation with Muslims in Europe, without saying that Islam must become secular as a pre-condition for such a conversation. People in Europe need to stop saying that. Give Muslims in Europe the space to make Europe their home first. If you take the violent acts by a few individual Muslims as a pretext to stigmatise all Muslims in Western Europe, then you put Muslims in a corner or against the wall. You force them to make a choice between their faith – Islam – and their political location, Europe. And they will choose Islam. Give Muslims breathing space in Europe so that they can develop their theology and allow them to engage with the secular, so that the secular can correct itself.

Interview by Claudia Mende

© Qantara.de 2016

Ebrahim Moosa is a leading scholar of contemporary Muslim thought. Born in 1957 in South Africa he focuses on modern Muslim ethics, Islamic law and issues involving tradition and modernity in Islam. Moosa is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Notre Dame in the United States.

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