On The Concept of Reform
The debate over the question of the renewal, revival and reform of Islamic sciences, and more particularly of law and jurisprudence (fiqh), has been running for a long time among Muslim scholars. Since the first schools of law (madhâhib, sing. madhhab) were constituted between the 8th and 10th centuries, intense legal discussions have opposed those who favour strict attachment to the historically constituted schools and those who call for a constant return to the primary scriptural sources, the Quran and the Prophet’s tradition (Sunnah). As early as the 12th century, Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî referred to the necessary “revival” (ihyâ’) of “religious sciences”, in a masterly, seminal work that precisely bears that title. The deep intuition that faithfulness to Islam through history required a permanent effort of research, renewal and reform of thought (and of methodologies) has been present in the world of Islamic sciences from their early days to the present, with highly flourishing periods and other utterly hostile ones. Closer to our own times, in the late 19th century, with the Nahda and Salâfiyya movements, and the critical output of Jamâl ad-Dîn al-Afghânî and Muhammad `Abduh, those concepts spread and became constant in contemporary discourse, of course entailing many disputes, from the outright refusal of the idea of reform to the monopolising of its contents and objectives by some thinkers. For the past twenty years, the actors (whether scholars or thinkers), critics, commentators and observers of those debates have been expressing different, and sometimes radically opposed, views about the meaning of concepts – that of “reform” in particular – and about whether such or such a scholar or thinker could be labelled a “reformist” or a “reformer”.
We are in a kind of terminological haze in which the meaning of words is so variable that one no longer knows exactly what the discourse about “reform” refers to. It therefore seems important to first of all clarify the meaning of the concepts I shall be using in this study and the aim I have set myself when using them, in order to make it clear in which direction my reflection is heading.
Many scholars (`ulamâ’) as well as thinkers or ordinary Muslims, oppose the use of the word “reform” because they think it represents a threefold danger as far as faithfulness to the Islamic tradition is concerned. For some, “reforming” Islam thus means – or sounds as if it meant – changing Islam, altering it in order to adapt it to modern times, which is not acceptable to a believing conscience. The second criticism comes from those who see in “reform” something foreign, an approach imported from the Christian tradition to cause Islam to undergo the same evolution as Christianity and thereby make it lose its substance and its soul. The third criticism is based on the universal and “timeless” character of Islam’s teachings, which therefore, the argument goes, are in no need of “reform” and can be implemented in all places and times.
Those criticisms, which are often set forth in very general terms, raise serious questions and require precise answers. The laudable and clearly stated intention of protecting Islam from deviation and betrayal cannot, however, express nor impose itself through refusing any critical approach as to the nature of the necessary faithfulness to the universal message of Islam. While refusing alienation – such as, for instance, thinking about oneself through the categories of the Christian tradition – some people come to promote even deeper alienation, when they identify as “foreign” what nevertheless pertains to the Islamic tradition itself : such self-ignorance, nurtured by fear of changing, of losing oneself or more generally by “fear of the other”, is one of the major dangers that threaten the contemporary Muslim conscience.
· Tajdîd and islâh
In addition to the notion of “ihyâ’” (revival) I have referred to with al-Ghazâlî’s work, the vocabulary of Islamic sciences contains two concepts directly drawn from scriptural sources and directly referring to the idea of “reform” and “renewal”. The term “tajdîd” is highly frequent in contemporary Islamic literature (and has been so most particularly for the past 150 years) : it literally means “renewal”, or even “rebirth” and “regeneration”. The verb root of this noun can be found in a famous hadîth of the Prophet : “God will send this [Muslim] community, every hundred years, [someone/some people] who will renew [yujaddidu] their religion.”
This Prophetic tradition is highly significant and it has given rise, through the ages, to numerous comments as to its meaning and impact. What is unanimously established in the Islamic creed (al-`aqîdah) is that the Prophet of Islam is the last of the Messengers and that he represents the final stage in the cycle of Prophethood. What the hadîth tells us is that the Muslim community will nevertheless be accompanied and guided through the centuries by scholars and/or thinkers who will help it, every hundred years or so, “regenerate” or “renew” the religion of Islam. This renewal of religion (tajdîd ad-dîn) does not, of course, entail a change in the sources, principles and fundamentals of Islam, but only in the way the religion is understood, implemented and lived in different times or places. This is precisely the point : scriptural sources (the Quran and Sunnah) remain the primary references and the fundamentals of faith and practice are left as they are, but our reading and our understanding of the texts will be “renewed” by the contribution of those scholars and thinkers, who will point to new perspectives by reviving timeless faith in our hearts while stimulating our minds so as to enable us to face the challenges of our respective times.
“Tajdîd”, as it was understood by the classical tradition of scholars and schools of law, is thus a renewal of the reading, understanding, and, consequently, implementation of texts in the light of the various historical and cultural contexts in which Muslim communities or societies stand. The latter must, at a particular time in History, be able to rediscover the essence, ethical substance and superior aims of Islam’s message in order to implement them faithfully and adequately in sociocultural contexts that are by essence changing, in constant mutation. It is a matter of recapturing the original essence and “form” of the message, through renewed understanding, in order to remain faithful to it while lucidly facing the evolution of human beings and societies. The meaning of tajdîd, as expressed in this Prophetic tradition, is indeed to “re-form” constantly, to reform in the name of faithfulness. In short, there can be no faithfulness to Islamic principles through the ages without evolution, without reform, without a renewal of intelligence and understanding.
This is also the meaning of the concept of “islâh” which appears several times in the Quran and in some Prophetic traditions (ahâdîth) and which conveys the idea of improving, purifying, reconciling, repairing and reforming. This is the meaning the prophet Shu`ayb conveys to his people when he says in the Quran : “I do not desire, in opposition to you, to do that which I forbid you to do. I desire nothing but reform [betterment, purification] (al-islâh) as far as I am able.” Thus, divine messages through the centuries came to reform human understanding, and messengers are “muslihûn” who bring good, reconcile human beings with the divine and reform their societies for the better. The notion of islâh implies bringing the object (whether a heart, an intelligence or a society) back to its original state, when the said object was considered to be pure and good : it is indeed a matter of improving, of curing, through re-forming, through reform.
It can be understood, then, that the two notions of tajdîd and islâh convey the same idea of reform and are at the same time complementary since the former primarily (but not exclusively) refers to the relationship to texts, while the latter mainly has to do with reforming the human, spiritual, social, or political context. This revival of faith and religion through a constantly reformed approach of the understanding of texts (tajdidiyyah) and of the understanding of contexts (islâhiyyah) is essential to the Islamic tradition and has been so since its early days. The first scholars who categorised the various spheres and manifold tools of Islamic sciences, particularly in the areas of law and jurisprudence, integrated those dimensions, for example when they referred to ijtihâd (the critical approach of texts) or to maslaha (general interest). These latter notions will be discussed in more detail later on ; however, it is important to state at this point that the use of the word “reform” is not at all foreign to the classical Islamic tradition, but that it is essential, from the outset, to define the aim, contents and limits of the said reform.
 See our book Aux sources du renouveau musulman, Paris : Bayard, 1998. 2nd ed.,
 A verb of the same form, whose root is “ja-da-da”, is sometimes used to convey the idea of “innovating”, “modernising”.
 The Arabic word “man” used in the original can mean either an individual or a group.
 Hadîth reported by Abû Dawûd.
 Quran, 11:88.