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June 4, 2004
A Muslim Calls For Rational Thought In Islam

Captain's Quarters reader Roger Crossland pointed me to an article in today's Arab News by Suraya al-Shehry, a Saudi woman, who argues for intellectual curiosity and openness to individual interpretations of Islam. Because of the decentralized nature of Islam, al-Shehry's essay doesn't equate to Martin Luther's theses nailed to the church door, but it does infer that the Saudi government may be rethinking radical Wahhabi philosophy in light of its targeting by radical Islamists. Regarding the closed-mindedness of current Islamic scholarship, al-Shehry protests:

The Quran, in fact, censures those who merely unthinkingly follow others. And they would say: Our Lord! We obeyed our chiefs and our great ones, and they misled us as to the (right) Path.

Reflection in Islam is an essential requirement. Without it the very basis of Islamic thought will begin to crumble. It is that painful reality that is behind our backwardness. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said: The best of centuries is mine, and acknowledging the greatness of jurists, scholars and legislators who preceded us does not mean that the knowledge handed down by them is inherently sacred.

In the end they are the words of men who labored within the context of their age and their understanding of it. If changing reality makes it clear that they are inflexible or prove unsuited to new developments then we are not required to abide by them. What we take from their work and what we leave aside may be subject to qiyas (reasoning by analogy) and ijtihad (the effort of ones own judgment) as required by the interests of the Muslim Ummah.

In a very discreet manner, al-Shehry attacks the common practice amongst Muslims to blindly follow the fatwas of their local clerics without engaging in any critical thinking on their own. Once can imagine how fundamentalist clerics will receive this challenge, especially from a woman. Her argument undermines the spiritual authority of the imams in exactly the same manner as early Protestant thought -- it makes individual interpretation of sacred texts supreme, instead of the interpretations of the authorities. al-Shehry argues for the personal relationship with Allah instead of filtered through the mosque, although she's smart enough not to come out and say it explicitly.

Of course, as Roger pointed out in his e-mail to me, we have no sure way of determining whether this article even appeared in an Arabic-language newspaper or website, but the Saudis can read English. Either al-Shehry is brave to the point of foolishness or the Saudis want to promote moderation in their own self-defense, or at least promote that image abroad. Either would be a welcome development. In the same vein, Roger also points to another of al-Shehry's articles calling for increased and independent polling in order to govern closer to the will of the people, without calling for the elected, representative government that would be anathema to the Saudi royal family:

Here, in order to openly or secretly measure public opinion in our country, conferences are convened and conventions publish their results. If they surprise us or their interests override ours, then we dismiss them or consider them conspiracies. But we should admit that as long as we dont have institutions that carry out surveys and make realistic plans, and so long as our regimes keep banning research and free expression of opinion, we will never raise the level of political awareness and the danger of brainwashing will remain. That the US is interested in trends in our region is a reality. By contrast, our own governments lack of interest in what citizens think, coupled with the efforts of a few plotting to turn public opinion against the current regimes, is dangerous and must change.

The absence in Arab countries of a public opinion database, and the fact that journalists in the region are too often closely associated with the government which directly or indirectly employs them, do little to engender confidence in the surveys and statistics they publish. Decisions are often miles away from what the people want and need. After decades of this, it is no wonder that people here no longer feel that their opinions matter and have become demoralized.

Again, this is heady stuff for any Saudi to publish, the more so because of her gender. She comes just to the edge of calling for the elections that would both explicitly demonstrate the will of the people and put in place the mechanisms with which to convert it to public policy. If Suraya al-Shehry isn't quite the Martin Luther of modern-day Islam, she may well be the counterpart of Sabine Herold in Arabia.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at June 4, 2004 12:01 PM

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