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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 September 2005, 08:03 GMT 09:03 UK
Viewpoint: The global voices reclaiming Islam
By Ziauddin Sardar
Presenter, BBC Two's Battle for Islam

Ziauddin Sardar, travelling around several Muslim countries, finds that thinkers, activists, political leaders and ordinary Muslims across the globe are refusing to be defined by the ideology of violence and intolerance, but their responses are diverse.

Ziauddin Sardar with President Pervez Musharraf
Pakistani-born Sardar discussed "enlightened moderation" with President Pervez Musharraf
This has been a terrible year to be a Muslim.

But, revolted by what is being perpetrated in the name of Islam, the Muslim world is bringing a whole range of new debates to the fore.

For decades the core debate in the Muslim world was about establishing an ideological "Islamic state" and returning to the Sharia, the historical body of Islamic law.

This debate, often led by so-called "Islamic movements", produced a narrow, intolerant, obscurantist, illiberal, brutal and confrontational interpretation of Islam. It is this interpretation that gave rise to what we now know as "Islamic fundamentalism".

But the fixed simplistics of fundamentalists never were the whole of the debate - even though the fundamentalists shout the loudest and dominate the globe through violent expression.

Sharia debate

Now, fundamentalism is being challenged by emerging and alternative visions of Islam, each taking shape in different ways in different countries.

Pakistan was founded as the first modern Islamic state. But it was only in 1978 under the military regime of General Zia ul Haq that Sharia was made the law of the land.

Ziauddin Sardar
Ziauddin Sardar presents a 90-minute documentary
Monday, 5 September, 2005
BBC Two, 2100 BST
What followed was a series of cases where the implementation of the law acquired a notorious reputation for practical injustice, especially towards women.

And it is women who are really standing up to this law.

The essence of the argument against the Sharia is much more than the fact that its interpretation and application is illiberal and contrary to contemporary ideas of human rights.

The fundamentalist position is that the Koran is the source of all legislation in Islam and therefore the Sharia is an immutable body of sacred law.

It is this concept itself that is now being challenged.

Sharia, it is being widely argued, is not divine but a "jurists' law", that was formulated and socially constructed during the early phase of Islamic history.

It can be changed, modified and reformulated - in its entirety.

Thus the Sharia, as an inherited body of rulings and precedent, is being reclaimed in Pakistan.

Muslim scholars are demanding the same right as their forebears to investigate the sources for alternative interpretations, new ways of framing and operating precepts and law.

Activists' agenda

We can see this activism not just in Pakistan but also in Morocco.

In Morocco an entirely recast family law aspect of Sharia has been produced by Islamic scholars.

It was promulgated by the King in response to widespread public demonstrations by women and, when published, became an instant best-seller.

Moroccan girls
What might the younger generation bring to Islam?
While it has its opponents, including women, its impeccable Islamic intellectual credentials - advancing the case for gender equality, poverty eradication, economic advancement and the development of free expression through civil society - are now the agenda of debate.

The irony is that neither Pakistan nor Morocco are democracies: one a thinly veiled military regime, the other a near-absolute monarchy.

But the activist proponents of this alternative interpretation of Islam are clear that it can never be fully realised without democracy; indeed that democracy is an essential hallmark of a genuine Islamic society.

Separation from state

Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population.

Eight years ago, it threw off 30 years of dictatorship backed by the military. Democracy has led to a great outpouring of new thinking.

Gardener Nawi and his family in Indonesia
The reality of the Muslim world is its immense diversity
Ziauddin Sardar
Established organisations such as Mohammadiyah and new civic society organisations such as the Liberal Islam Network - which have followings in the tens of millions - are revising the conventional views of Islam and the state.

In seeking an interpretation of Islam that is both authentic and moderate, liberal, tolerant, open and democratic, they stress the importance of separation between religion and state.

And thus they come to a vision of modernity for Muslims that is rooted in, and inspired by, Islam, yet does not lay claim to being an infallible expression of religion and therefore closed to debate.

It is these agents of civil society that are setting the pace of change.

Diverse solutions

The demands they make on governments are producing a response. But it is no longer a case of seeking one solution.

There is a diversity of responses according to the particular circumstances of different countries, with different histories and different experiences of modernising and modernity.

Countries visited for the documentary

The extremists have one all-embracing, all-constraining ideology.

But the reality of the Muslim world is its immense diversity.

The new ideas battling for the soul of Islam have a clear set of common principles but they are varied and must be heard in their own context and place.

A journey around the populous periphery of the Muslim world clearly demonstrates that the extremists are not only a minority but that the fossilised traditionalism from which they derive their legitimacy is also on the retreat.

There is a new air of optimism and confidence in many places that an Islam that is moderate, tolerant and democratic not only should - but will - actually be the future.

This new spirit, and the new ideas it is producing, is not tentative.

But it would be too soon to assert that the ideas are carrying all before them and have secured their dominance.

It is, however, beyond question that to understand the changes taking place in the Muslim world, and appreciate how Islam is being reformed, one has to listen to these voices from the edge.

Battle for Islam, presented by Ziauddin Sardar, was broadcast on BBC Two at 2100 BST on Monday, 5 September, 2005.


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