Many Muslims today ask: How do we reconcile Islam with our lives in the modern world? Can we uphold women’s rights and be true to our faith? Can we be Muslims in a secular society?
These questions, though simple, become complicated by the larger questions they do not ask. One answer is that the Qur’an taught an ethical system that allowed believers to live anywhere, anytime, and be Muslim.
Islam, at its core, is a system of ethics. The Qur’an never advocated any particular political system. It realised that the world is in constant flux, and that humans must continuously change and update their laws in order to keep up with the times. Laws change all the time, but ethics remain eternal. For this reason, Islam can be practiced no matter where or when a believer lives, because to be a Muslim means simply to uphold the ethics of the Qur’an.
The Qur’an’s most overarching ethical concern is social justice. The Qur’an has always advocated equality, justice, pluralism, and human rights. Luckily, we now live in a world in which the majority of people believe in these things also. So, modern Muslims can ask themselves: What are the tools that we have today that will help us achieve the Qur’an’s goal of social justice?
Today, we tend to adopt liberal democracy as the framework that best allows us to implement human rights, equality between the sexes, and freedom – the ingredients that make up social justice.
Can you be a Muslim and a feminist at the same time? Yes, you can. One famous example is Shirin Ebadi, the Iranian human rights lawyer and Nobel-prize winner.
But, to ask if “Islam” and “feminism” are compatible is not a fair question. Islam is an old, ideological system, while feminism is a modern social philosophy. We cannot ask if a pre-modern, ideological system advocates a modern philosophy.
The more illuminating question would be: Does Islam advocate the same ethics and values that feminism advocates? Yes, Islam supports women’s rights. The Qur’an is adamant about the equal value of men and women.
Islam has always been a fervent supporter of women’s rights. At the time of its revelation, Islam instituted revolutionary reforms for women. It was the most progressive rights-based system in the world. That example of progressive reform was an ethical standard established by the Qur’an, which became the responsibility of later generations to strive towards until achieving the ultimate goal of complete social justice.
One barrier to social justice is humankind itself. While Islam as a religion is adamant about the need for social justice, which includes women’s rights, certain societies around the world – from Asia to America – have not supported the equality of women. This has less to do with religion, which tends to support the equal worth of all humans, and more to do with culture.
The Qu’ran’s overarching concern has always been social justice. This was an ethic that medieval Muslim civilisations took seriously. Considering the times, life in medieval Muslim civilisations – like Cordoba, Cairo, Baghdad, Istanbul, or Delhi – was far more egalitarian than living under the rule of aristocratic privilege in Europe, or the caste system in India. For example, Jews in Muslim polities lived side-by-side with Muslims and occupied high posts, unlike Jews in Europe, who lived in ghettos.
The Qur’an conceived of a human community that struggled together to create a just society. In this conception, part of being a responsible Muslim is ensuring justice in the community. This, however, is also the responsibility of every citizen living in a liberal democracy. So, for Muslims living in liberal states, it becomes a doubly-sworn responsibility to help create a just society in which maltreatment of any human being does not occur.
Islam has always been a secular religion. It has always separated religion from state.
“Secularity” is the practice of separating the powers of authority in a state. In this sense, mediaeval Muslim civilisations were secular: The Caliph was simply the enforcer of the law; he was not involved in how the jurists made the law.
“Secularism” is the idea that religion has no place in the public sphere. This has never been concordant with Islam. There is a movement in many European countries today to remove all elements of religion from the public sphere. Some might argue that this goes against human rights because it would limit the identities and the expression of a large part of the population.
Religion certainly has much to offer the liberal state, most importantly – ethics. Religion teaches the ethics that make up the basis for how citizens interact peacefully in the liberal state. In fact, the values that make up the liberal state – tolerance, justice, equality – come directly from religion. Liberalism is the child of Christian political theorists who studied Muslim philosophers.
But, by the same token, modern Islam can learn from the modern liberal state. There is a movement in modern Islamic thought that argues that believers can only be Muslims in a Muslim state. But, if we are to believe the Qur’anic promise, Muslims can be Muslims anywhere as long as they are free to live ethically. Today, that place is the liberal democratic state, which separates powers of authority, ensuring that citizens are not coerced by religious authority, and that they have the freedom to believe and live however they choose.
The Ethical Muslim
Islam has always been applied in different ways in different places. The Qur’an recognised that humankind is diverse, and that different human beings have different psychological constitutions. For this reason, it taught an eternal system of ethics, so that no matter how the world changed or where a believer lived, the definition of being a Muslim would always remain the same – one who lives ethically.