Reforming Islam

Noteworthy Speeches of 2015 

As the new year begins, I intend to comment from time to time on speeches that focus attention on topics that attract attention. The first in this series was delivered by Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, president of Egypt, to Muslim clerics at a meeting held to honor the Prophet Mohammad’s birthday.  I have not yet found a link to the speech itself and am depending upon a report by Sarah el Deeb and Lee Keath, distributed by the Associated press and published January 9 in the Vancouver, Washington, newspaper The Columbian. 

Because of the terrorist events in Paris during the early days of 2015, it is easy to overlook the speech on January 1 by Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. The reporters write that this speech was President el-Sissi’s “boldest effort yet to position himself as a modernizer of Islam.” He hopes “to purge the religion of extremist ideas of intolerance and violence that fuel groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State,” and inspire events like those in Paris.

According to Mohie Eddin Affifi, a religious leader in Egypt, the president’s intention is to promote “a contemporary reading of religious texts to deal with our contemporary reality.” The sacred texts themselves would remain unchanged. Instead, the focus of attention would be the textbooks used in the large network of grade schools and universities” operated across Egypt by al-Azhar, a 1,000-year-old center of Sunni Muslim thought and teaching. “Texts on slavery and refusing to greet Christians and Jews” are examples cited in the Associated Press report.

This speech is one more example of el-Sissi’s effort to present himself “as a pious proponent of a moderate, mainstream Islam.”

An important criticism of el-Sissi’s approach to reform is that he “is clearly seeking to impose change through the state, using government religious institutions like al-Azhar.” Although this organization “has always claimed to be the bastion of ‘moderate’ Islam,…it has moved to silence progressive and liberal re-interpretations just as often as radical ones.”

A contrasting approach to the challenge facing Islam was featured in “The Saturday Profile” published by the New York Times on January 10. Written by Alison Smale, it features Mouhanad Khorchide, a Palestinian scholar now professor of Islamic pedagogy at the University of Münster. He is described as being “part of Germany’s effort to offer an alternative both to those who criticize and fear Islam and to Muslims seeking to practice their religion without extremes.”

His work is important because it is helping to “groom some of the thousands of teachers needed as Germany’s 16 states gradually shift to teaching Islam in primary and secondary schools, putting it on par with the Christian and Jewish faiths.”

The reporters offer only one example of Khorchide’s interpretation of Islam, and it is drawn from his book entitled God Is Mercy, which is available in English only as an e-book. Since the ninth century, he teaches, “the spirit of the Muslim world has been restrictive”—and that “the relationship between God and the individual is a loving one.” This idea comes as a shock to Muslims “raised only to fear God.”

Khorchide’s method of teaching differs sharply from the approach advocated by el-Sissi in his New Year’s Day speech. While the dominant method in Islamic countries is for students to learn to repeat back opinions and ideas that their teachers have delivered, Khorchide wants students to ask questions and develop answers. He hopes that they will experience what he refers to as an “aha!” moment while practicing their faith.

Commenting on the recent shootings in Paris, Khorchide told the reporters that “Such events force us to discuss openly about theological positions. . .It is too simple to say, ‘No, no, that has nothing to do with Islam.’ These people [referring to jihadists] are referring to the Quran, and we must confront these passages in the Quran.”

Some of the people who justify their violent actions carry this sacred book in their backpacks and have said “With the Quran, I am strong.” Yet when asked if they have read it or know what it says they answer “No.” Khorchide then said that he calls this “a hollow religiosity,” like “the thin and fragile peel of a fruit.”

Smale says very little about Khorchide’s approach to interpreting the Quran, nor does she indicate whether he discusses his principles of interpretation in his book. My preliminary online search did not bring up a listing for his e-book, but it gave links to reviews of the book and interviews with the author, one of which was reported in with the title “God Is Not a Dictator.”

He also is listed as one of three editors of a book that has been published in English with the title Religious Plurality and the Public Space: Joint Christian-Muslim Theological Reflections.



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