Faith: Can Islam be reformed?

By UWE SIEMON-NETTO, UPI Religion Correspondent
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WASHINGTON, Aug. 28 (UPI) -- The case of a northern Nigerian mother sentenced to be stoned for "adultery" begs a fascinating question -- can Islam ever be reformed in the way Christianity was in the 16th century? Or would such an attempt simply produce a different religion?

This did not occur in the Christian Reformation, for even though they have fought each other fiercely, Catholics and Protestants do acknowledge each other as fellow Christians.


With the exception of some evangelical groups, Protestants, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox recognize each other's baptisms. And three years ago, the Vatican embraced the Reformation statement by which "the Church stands or falls," as Protestants and especially Lutherans say -- the article in the Augsburg Confession, which states:

"We receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith." In other words, not by man's own merits.


The question if something analogous could happen in Islam came up in a fascinating exchange with an outstanding scholar who felt misunderstood by this writer in an article about Islamic law.

Azizah al-Hibri, a professor at the University of Richmond, Va., stated she did not say the "Shariah is a problem that must be addressed theologically." Such a remark, she added, would verge on heresy.

"We need to define what the Shariah is," she went on. "If we talk about the Shariah in the Koran itself, no Muslim should have a problem with it or else he or she is not a Muslim."

But then there are juristic interpretations and applications of the Shariah, according to al-Hibri: "I am troubled by the way the Nigerian court applied the Shariah," when it affirmed the sentence of death by stoning that a lower tribunal had meted out against 30-year old Amina Lawal.

The court might have misapplied the law based on tribal and patriarchal criteria. "If this has produced an unjust result, it's very serious because justice is a core principle of Islam, for God is just."

So far -- so good.

But does al-Hibri think it right to stone adulterers to death, as prescribed by the Shariah's penal code, which the Islamic states in northern Nigeria have adopted?


"I defy anybody to show me where the word, stoning, is mentioned in the Koran," she replied. She was right -- it is not there. But then, is it not true that where there is no specific reference in the Koran to a form of execution, then Judaic law applies?

The Hebrew Bible demands that adulterers -- the man and the woman -- be taken "to the gate of (the) city, and you shall stone them to death" (Deuteronomy 22:23).

Understandably, al-Hibri did not answer the question if this rule applied to the case at hand. "This is not to be argued on the pages of a newspaper but worth a long dissertation."

She was right -- and very much in line with a host of other impressive Muslim scholars this correspondent has interviewed recently, all sages who would doubtless not hesitate traveling to Nigeria to save a young mother from a particularly painful form of execution.

In fact, al-Hibri said she is prepared to organize and lead such a mission.

But this does not answer the thorniest religious problems of our time: Can there ever be an Islamic Luther or Calvin? Does not the current rise of Muslim extremism preclude any hope for a separation between church and state in all Islamic countries to the extent that harsh Scriptural demands will not be fulfilled by secular authority?


Moreover, is it even fair to expect Muslim scholars to put their lives on the line by questioning the Koran in public? Would it not to be better to challenge inhuman verdicts on the safer and perhaps more effective grounds of misapplication, as al-Hibri does?

Instead of exposing themselves to the potentially lethal charge of heresy, are these scholars not right in directing the leaders of places like northern Nigeria to something like the "Libyan solution" that does not execute its ghastly penalties?

Two recent studies -- one conducted on behalf of the European Commission and the other by Freedom House -- list horrendous forms of punishment practiced in the northern Nigerian states, even though they clearly violate that country's federal constitution and its international human rights commitments.

They include crucifixion, leaving it unclear whether the delinquent is to be killed beforehand or must die painfully on the cross.

Should Amina Lawal be executed in January 2004, she will be buried in the ground up to her chest in a public place; then the crowd will lob rocks at her, none larger than a fist.

If a woman reports to the police that she had been raped, "this can easily be construed as a confession to unlawful intercourse," writes Dutch Islamic Studies professor Ruud Peters in his report to the EC.


This would make her liable to be stoned to death for adultery, unless she can prove that intercourse took place without her consent."

"Moreover," Peters continues, "if her attacker does not confess, her accusations against him amount to defamation, for which she can be punished by an additional 80 lashes."

Reading this one wonders why some American commentators and politicians could have got so agitated when one of their own, a teenager, had his bottom spanked for graffiti vandalism four times in a Singapore prison.

Where is, by comparison, the outcry when we hear that in the northern part of Africa's largest country -- a democratic nation -- women get lashed 50 times for riding in the same bus with men, as the Freedom House report reveals? Or if a woman rides in one of the motorcycle taxis that are common in that part of the world?

Again, can the religion to which Muslim jurists refer in handing down such sentences be reformed at all? Can a country call itself truly Islamic without applying the Shariah?

Can there ever be a situation such as in the "Christian" West -- and in Israel -- where believers affirm the Bible as the inspired word of God but accept that it was written by fallible people? That is to say, leave Deuteronomy 22:23 in Scripture -- and nonetheless adulterers alive?


It is hardly likely that Islam will ever experience anything like the Christian Reformation, for that historic event reminded Christendom of the Gospel, the good news that man is justified before God by grace through faith in Christ, who does not punish but redeem.

There is no Gospel in Islam, no justification by grace through faith. But there is the teaching that about once every 100 years God sends a messenger to correct not the Koran, but the perspective from which it is to be seen at any given time in history.

A small but intellectually powerful group of Muslim scholars is endeavoring to correct this perspective for our time. Quietly, they are also engaged in dialogues with Jews and Christians, especially in Europe and the United States.

They should not be pressured. They should not be exposed. They should be kept protected to pursue their goal while others, like the valiant al-Hibri, see to it that fanatics in their exuberance remember what Allah is supposed to be like -- not arbitrary, but just.

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