Monday, September 13, 2004

Why modern moderate muslims should study the Talmud

According to this article new moderate muslims are fighting to change the shariah, or code of Islamic law. There are many things in Islamic law that need reform. Some things are doctrinal, such as the preaching of hate against infidels, and other things are legal, such as divorce law.

The doctrinal stuff are fairly unimportant. Anyone can preach anything, and call it anything. You can preach tolerance and call it Islam, or you can preach hate and call it Islam. Religions are like that. So some mosques will get more fanatical, some less, and others will stay the same. Any of those can happen, and the moderate enlightened Muslims can feel relatively free to do what they want.

The legal stuff is trickier. Judaism has had a ton of legal stuff that were very unpopular. Some legal requirements were not just unpopular, but burdensome and dangerous. Jews have dealt with this in two different ways, neither has been picked up by Islam, with dangerous results.

Here is how Jews have dealt with it. Jews have done two things. First, There have been demonational rifts, where some people develop a new theology within Judaism, but different. This should ideally keep everyone inside Judaism, but barely. But when you have a Jewish theology, it is hard to deny their Jewishness even if it is radically different than xorthodox theology. The second way Jews have dealt with the problems of modernity was through legal innovation. Jews have been doing this for over two thousand years. There is an old expression that goes something like "where there is a rabbinic will, there is a halachic way". This is true, usually. When the Rabbis needed social change they looked right in to Jewish law, and found the loopholes they needed. As any lawyer will tell you, there is no such thing as a contract without a loophole. Neither is there a Jewish law that can't be bent or molded or gotten around.

Jewish law has countless examples. One of the oldest and most famous is the pruzbul, a document that allowed Jews to collect debts even after the sabbatical year passed. The collection of private debt after the sabbatical year, is prohibited by the bible. However at some point the rabbis saw an economic problem arise from people who were simply not loaning money out of fear that the debt will be dragged out until the sabbatical year and then be absolved. The rabbis found a legal way around it by developing a contract that transfers debts to the public sphere. Public debt were not absolved during the sabbatical year, and with this contract society benefitted in a much needed way.

Islam apparently, has two other ways of dealing with problems. 1) Ignore the problems and revert to a reactionary fundamentalism. 2) Those who want to change will change, and simply stop being accepted as real muslims.

There is unfortunately no middle ground. Again, middle ground is not compromise, but rather working within a system to show how it can be molded to suit today's needs. Moderate muslims need to learn how to use the legal system, instead of being used by it. The law of God should be taken precisely, and so should the exceptions. There must be clever enough Muslims out there to find some.

A process like this should be by people who have authority within the Islamic world. Many authors are calling for reform. Some are simply advocating for something akin to a protestant reformation. That is, chuch the old, and simply change. This might work for some, but it will just make a further rift in Islam. This is fine, but not enough. What Muslims need to do are find people who are respected in the community of Islamic law and justify and explain how some new reforms are within the confines of the will of Allah.

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