I cried; I haven’t been crying for a really long time. I cried, because I bickered with my parents on Mother’s Day firstly because of the differences between Christianity and Islam, and secondly because I thought my parents would limit my freedom to do what I like when I go back home for summer holiday. The next day, I got my mom’s email about her complex mood. She said I was not grateful. I broke into tears when I read this sentence by the end of her email: “You’re doing religious reform, so why aren’t you changing yourself?! You’re still complaining about your mother’s discipline, while I never complain about others; I always reflect on how I didn’t educate you well.” True, I don’t understand that my parents are busy all the day to help students and children (although this has an evangelical nature) and find opportunities to earn money, so they can give me a better life. They feel so guilty that they’re not able to give me a better life. While they’re busy all the day, saving money by not having meat for dinners and not buying new clothes, I still sleep late so often and I urged my parents to spend more time swimming with me. Meanwhile, I realized that we Quranists are not doing well; we need a second wave of Islamic reform. In Part I, I’m attempting to summarize the current scenario of the first wave of Islamic reform, and then I’m suggesting reasons why we’re not doing well in this first wave, and in Part II, which is in the category “Exegesis and Theory,” I’m proposing the second wave of Islamic reform.
The First Wave of Islamic Reform
My religious studies textbook from last quarter talked about the modern movements within Islam, but mostly about secularization and Westernization on the one hand, and revivalism and fundamentalism on the other hand—not even one word about us Quranists. But the image of secularization and Westernization is not completely inaccurate; to reform, first of all, the old doctrines must be questioned. And this is the main characteristics of the First Wave of Islamic reform.
In the First Wave, we made a great progress by rejecting Hadith, and dealing with the aftermath of Hadith rejection. Without Hadith, many verses in the Quran have to be reinterpreted, especially the verses which non-Muslims like to cite to attack Islam, like those on women’s rights, hijab (which is related to women’s rights), Jihad, and freedom of religious belief. Also, without Hadith, the rituals that are so central to Muslim life suddenly lack scriptural support. Thus, many Quranists are working hard to find Quranic verses to support rituals of prayers, fasting, and pilgrimage; some of them try to support the traditional practice to some extent, such as claiming that the Quran teaches 5 prayers a day at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk, and night, while some of them challenge the traditional practices while retaining the importance of rituals, such as claiming that there’re 3 prayers a day and 2 rakat in each prayer. Also in the aftermath of Hadith rejection is the response from traditional Muslims (mainly Sunni), so lot of Quranist literature is devoted to argue against traditionalists. In sum, correcting misunderstandings is the hallmark of the First Wave of Islamic reform.
While it appears that the First Wave is very successful, it has severe limitations. It appears that there’re more and more Quranist groups on Facebook; some of them have more than 10000 members. It appears that this is a success, but I don’t think it is. The majority of writing, either on Quranist websites or in Facebook groups, is devoted to correcting misunderstandings about Islam. But what about our own development? Many Quranists are not going beyond rejecting Hadith; they either think like traditionalists in spite of their arguments against Hadith, or uphold the modernist teachings such as democracy and human rights like dogmas. They’re using the same atomistic approach to the Quran as traditionalists, not paying enough attention to the contexts. The same clichéd topics including but not limited to those addressed in the previous paragraph are posted over and over again, while few new discoveries are made about the Quran, which they know has been distorted and whose signs need to be rediscovered.
Because of what happened in the previous paragraph, I founded Quran De Novo, to rediscover the Quran. I handpicked the smartest Quranists who do think on their own as the earliest members, and some of them are now writing the majority of posts in this group. It seems that the purpose of this group has been fulfilled to some extent, as the majority of posts in this group are significantly different from most other—especially the really large—Quranist groups, and almost all posts consist of original work. However, in the approximately 2 months in which I run the Facebook group, I observed another problem—and the major problem—of the First Wave of Islamic reform: Not putting the Quranic teachings into practice. Posts in Quran De Novo are too theory-centered. A large portion of posts are about the relationship between Quran and science. Other major topics are exegesis, theology-related issues, spirituality, and social system (including charity). The “clichéd” topics still frequent Quran De Novo, but in a much smaller proportion than in most other groups. OK, good, we’ve got new theories, so what?
Now come back to the opening paragraph, about me crying. My parents are Christians, and Christians did a much better job in application than we did. I’m not talking about some bad Christians whose examples are often used by Muslims to attack Christianity. Probably Quran De Novo has made some progress by going beyond rejecting Hadith. Now I’m talking about Quranists in general. If you visit a Christian (Protestant) church, you don’t find people arguing against Catholics all the time. Some of them do so occasionally, while some of them are not hostile towards Catholics. You also don’t find them correcting misunderstandings about Christianity such as all those evil things the medieval Church did all the time; they only do so in introductions to Christianity for other faith groups like atheists. And they’re not always showing “scientific” signs in the Bible; they only do so in introductions to Christianity. They’ve already outgrown those topics, while we’re soaked in them. Those clichéd topics don’t contribute to spiritual growth, do they? Furthermore, if you don’t go beyond those topics, you will not have strong enough theoretical background to further explore those topics.
And we don’t have good sermons; our online posts are mostly detached from our everyday life, in which we apply the Quranic principles. I’ve been to Christian services (I’ve been to more Christian services than Muslim services); for most of the times, they’re talking about applying the Biblical principles in everyday life, on small everyday topics such as the relationship between a husband and a wife and among colleagues during work, and the pastors always use many real life examples along with Bible passages. They also talk quite a lot about spiritual growth. The topics of Christian sermons are also well adapted to a local audience, such as in China, during holidays, pastors focus on theological issues of Spring Festivals and other traditional Chinese festivals and what a Christians should do during those festivals. Even traditional Muslims talk more about application than we do, although much of what they talk about is highly ritualized. In contrast, we’re often soaked in our dreams of abstract exegesis not significantly contributing to spiritual growth, or those clichés, and our posts are too centered on big issues in the Muslim world if not on dreams, while we’re living all around the world facing all kinds of local issues that may arouse theological problems. I don’t mean abstract exegesis should stop, for it provides us to theoretical background, but we missed the main point of the Quran, which is a guide for us. Remember, you’re living YOUR life. Why are we enjoying criticizing others while not improving ourselves?
And why are we not talking about application? Is it because we’re not applying the Quranic principles, so naturally issues related to application don’t interest us very much? Christians have done lots of charity works. I visited a national homeless shelter in the US, called Salvation Army, which is run by Christians. They have several centers just in Los Angeles. Also, most organizations which provide food for homeless people are associated to churches. In China, many of the best universities and hospitals started as Christian institutions before Communism dominated China. Also, I personally know an American Christian couple who built an orphanage for girls from north western China who are not allowed into school due to the local Tibetan Buddhist beliefs. Those good Christians are living in the way of Jesus. Again, I’m not talking about some bad Christians whose examples are often used by Muslims to attack Christianity. Just stop criticizing others while you yourselves are doing much worse. In contrast, what are we doing? Again, what are we doing, while the Quran starts off with an emphasis on application? Are we merely shouting on the mouth while doing nothing on the hand? So sick of the people arguing about how many prayers a day while not caring about others in real life! So sick of the people arguing against Hadith while having PORNs on their timelines!
Possible Causes of Problems with the First Wave of Islamic Reform
I’m not blaming anyone; the stagnation in the First Wave is not entirely their fault, but our current location in the flow of history caused much of the trouble.
- Phenomenon: Too much writing about correcting misconceptions. I think the major cause is that, we’re too few, and too new. My religious studies professor and TA, both from the Near Eastern Studies department, don’t know anything about us. Also, the “few” and “new” are relative; the Sunni and Shia are just so dominant that those misconceptions are very widespread in the West. And some of them are simply way too corrupt, in the name of God and Islam, while they have nothing to do with God and Islam. They give a wrong and bad picture of Islam and God. Much of the English Islamic literature is written for a Western audience, because it’s English; I haven’t read Arabic or Urdu literature on those issues. The misconceptions are so widespread that Quranist scholars feel a more stringent need to correct misconception than to help other Quranists.
- Phenomenon: Stuck in the mindset of traditionalists. I think the major cause is the inertia of Sunni culture on most Quranists. The vast majority of Quranists have Sunni backgrounds. And because of point 1, even converts like to associate real Islam with Sunni culture. We’re still relatively new; there might have been an explosion of Quranist population since 1974 and the use of internet. Not living in a Muslim environment, I got to know Islam via the internet, and got to know Quranists via the internet. The Quranist movement may also have been accelerated by globalization, as many citizens from the Muslim world immigrated to the West, influenced by modernism and multiculturalism. The Sunni inertia makes many Quranists consider rituals and atomism important. Fortunately I don’t really have a Sunni background, so I’m not seriously impacted by the cultural inertia.
- Not applying Quranic principles in real life. Probably the main cause is still that we’re too new. We ourselves don’t even have comprehensive knowledge of what Quran is really about, and we will not be able to do so until the cultural inertia fades away. The very culture that hijacked the Quran must fade away to set our perceptions about the Quran free. Also, we need time to explore; we just don’t have the 500 years of heritage of Protestant Christianity. Furthermore, we’re much more different from Sunnis than Protestants are different from Catholics; the Quran has a different philosophy from Sunni teachings, while the creeds established in 4th Century CE are still central to Christian philosophy. This means that it will be harder and will take longer for the cultural inertia to fade away. Another equally major cause is that we’re too few and too geographically dispersed. I’ve never met another Quranist in person. Because we can’t even meet each other, it will be hard for us to fight for the same cause together or to establish charity institutions. We just can’t get organized. And there’s another major cause—cultural inertia. Traditional Islam puts too much emphasis on rituals, while not enough emphasis on the flexible application of principles in everyday life based on understanding the principles from their roots. Even if there is application, the application is ritualized, which makes it lose meaning. Also, in 10th Century CE, there’s the “Gate of Jurisprudence,” in which the Sunni Jurisprudence are fixed into the four major schools; no new thoughts are introduced. Of course those jurisprudences had to be redacted, since they have such immense volumes that no ordinary people can systematically study them during their free time. Since then, people rely on scholars instead of think on their own, contending that only scholars have the ability to make right judgments, which is not the case. The small volume of the Quran is consistent with its own initiative that we should think on our own, not blind following others.
All the above mentioned causes and even more factors made us stagnate. But the presence of problems with our current historical background doesn’t mean that we’re not responsible at all. Remember that all the messengers who got rejected mentioned in the Quran lived in an environment much hostile than ours. Their people reject what they preach, or distort the message. Nevertheless, they upheld God’s principles. Remember the magicians who followed Moses even if Pharaoh threatened to execute them, and remember how Children of Israel stagnated after the Exodus. Upholding God’s principles is not done by a simple declaration of belief; it’s far more than that, and it requires the application of those principles. So how shall we go above and beyond? See Part II.
Justification of rituals based on some Quranic verses is one of the most common arguments that Quran has sufficient details, against the assertion that we need Hadith for details of the rituals. Some people, like me and Aidid Safar, simply dismiss the rituals as unnecessary, while putting more emphasis on spirituality, but it seems that this kind of people is a minority.