At the risk of over-simplifying, I want to ask you guys whether you think the basic problem between traditionalist Muslims and reformist Muslims is one of approach to the Qur’an?
The debate about the timelessness of the Qur’an is a very old one. The ‘ulama in general seem to believe that the Qur’anic injunctions can and should be applied as stated in the Qur’an, regardless of time and place. This is generally the traditionalist view in Islam. The reformist, modernist, and Islamic feminist position, however, is that the Qur’an contains injunctions that are particular to the context of seventh-century Arabia. Because of this, it is not possible to apply everything in the Qur’an in a literal and direct manner, without taking context into account. Instead one must re-interpret the Qur’an constantly.
One approach that has been developed to achieve this aim is that of Fazlur Rahman. Rahman suggested looking for the principles behind each verse in the Qur’an, and then re-applying them to each particular context. For example, the Qur’an states that women should receive half the inheritance of their brothers. At the time of the revelation, the logic behind this was that since women rarely worked, and their husbands usually had to provide for them, it made sense that brothers would inherit more since they had the responsibility to provide for their wives (the money a woman makes is hers to spend as she likes). Furthermore, the fact that women even inherited anything was truly progressive for that time and place. Instead of continuing to apply this specific injunction today, we should instead look for the principle behind it. I would argue that the principle is that whoever must provide for the family could inherit more, since their responsibility is bigger. When we look at the modern context, it is clear that in most cases, both men and women provide for the family. It is besides the point that this is not the Qur’anic ideal (where the man is responsible for his family economically). The fact is that we live in a world where in most cases, both husband and wife must spend on their families in order to live comfortably or in many cases to survive. Thus we would apply the principle: if it is likely that both brother and sister will have to provide economically for their families, then both should inherit equally. It no longer makes sense to give the sister half of the brother is she will have to contribute economically to her own family.
While this approach has its logic, many traditionalists and orthodox ‘ulama argue that something stated in the Qur’an can never be changed. If the Qur’an commands Muslims to give their sons twice than their daughters, then that is what Muslims should do, regardless of time and place. Thus the process of contextualizing the Qur’an has no place in orthodox Islam. This is a position that is also often heard from the ‘ulama. As the progressive Muslim movement grows, more voices are calling for the process of contextualization, and since many ‘ulama do not support this process, they are seen as obstacles in the road to modernizing and/or reforming Islam.
What do you guys think? About the debate over contextualizing the Qur’an in general and the call for changing things like inheritance laws?