Can Islam change?

Beslan and 9/11 are leading millions of Muslims to search their souls. Even clerics now question the

The Muslim world is changing. Three years after the atrocity of 9/11, it may be in the early stages of a reformation, albeit with a small "r". From Morocco to Indonesia, people are trying to develop a more contemporary and humane interpretation of Islam, and some countries are undergoing major transformations.

Much of the attention is focused on reformulating the sharia, the centuries-old body of Islamic law deeply embedded in a medieval psychology. The sharia is state law in many Muslim countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and the Sudan. For many conservative and radical Muslims, the sharia is Islam: it cannot be changed, and must be imposed in exactly the shape it was first formulated in the ninth century. Since 9/11, there has been a seismic shift in this perception. More and more Muslims now perceive Islamic law to be dangerously obsolete. And these include the ulema, the religious scholars and clerics, who have a tremendous hold on the minds of the Muslim masses.

In India, for example, where the secular state allows Muslims to regulate their communal affairs according to their own law, the "triple talaq" is being changed. Triple talaq gives a man the absolute right to divorce his wife by uttering "I divorce thee" three times. He can do it by letter, telegram, telephone, fax, even by text message. Quite apart from denying women's rights, the law has inherent absurdities. For example, as one critic has explained, "The moment a Muslim male utters 'talaq, talaq, talaq', his wife becomes unlawful to him, even if he has uttered those words under coercion, in a fit of rage or a drunken state, and regrets his utterance the very next moment." The only way out is for the woman to marry someone else, consummate the marriage, get the second husband to divorce her and then remarry the first husband.

But in July, the All India Muslim Personal Law Board declared that triple talaq was wrong, promised to prepare a model marriage contract (which would require both husband and wife not to seek divorce without due legal process) and asked Muslim men to ensure that women get a share in agricultural property.

These may look like minor changes, but there are enormous implications to the board's implicit admission that Islamic law is not immutable. Certainly, it has set defenders of the pure faith at the throats of members of Muslims for Secular Democracy (MSD), who are campaigning for root-and-branch reform. "Remain in your senses," the conservative Urdu Times warned Javed Akhtar, the poet and Bollywood screenwriter who is MSD president. "The day is not far when you too will be counted among the infamous blasphemers such as Salman Rushdie."

Yet in India, at least, the purists - both the conservatives and the more aggressive radicals - are on the retreat. Uzma Naheed, an activist for women's rights and Personal Law Board member, says that even the religious scholars are changing. "It is not just that a person like me is invited to address large gatherings of the ulema in different parts of the country, where I am given a very patient and sincere hearing. It is what the ulema themselves have started saying in public meetings that is more significant."

In Pakistan, however, the mullahs are still predominantly hardline and are locked in a virtual civil war with reformers. The contentious issue here is the Hudood Ordinance, which states the maximum punishments for adultery (stoning), false accusation of adultery (80 lashes of the whip), theft (cutting off the right hand), drinking alcohol (80 lashes) and apostasy (death). The ordinance was imposed on Pakistan in 1979 by the military ruler Muhammad Zia ul-Haq, under pressure from Islamic parties. It makes no distinction between rape and adultery; thus women who are raped often end up being whipped while the rapists are exonerated. Girls who have reached the age of puberty are treated as adults. Worse, women are not allowed to give evidence on their own behalf. Among the high-profile injustices was the case in 1983 of 15-year-old Jehan Mina, raped by an uncle and his son. She was sentenced to ten years in prison and 100 lashes, reduced to three years and 15 lashes in view of her age. In 1985, a blind maidservant, Safia Bibi, was sentenced to a similar punishment. In both cases, the girl's pregnancy was used as proof that the sex act had been committed but the men were acquitted on the benefit of the doubt. Several women have been sentenced to death by stoning, the most recent being Zafran Bibi in Kohat in 2002, although that sentence was quickly overturned on appeal.

In the past three years, protests against the Hudood Ordinance, which was never popular, have reached a crescendo. The Joint Action Committee, a network of NGOs which has held a string of demonstrations across Pakistan, says that these "laws have not only given a bad name to our religion, but defamed Pakistan in the world". Though he has often promised to repeal the laws, the country's military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, always caves in under pressure from puritan Islamist parties. "No one can deny," he told a recent meeting in Karachi, "that we have to adhere to the Koran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad. The question is of correct interpretation." He wants the Council of Islamic Ideology to decide on the issue. And the mullahs who dominate it have never previously voted for justice and women's rights.

However, they cannot be left out of the equation. For the vast majority of Muslims, changes to Islamic law have to be made within the boundaries of the Koran's teachings if they are to be legitimate. Without the co-operation of the religious scholars, who bestow this legitimacy, the masses will not embrace change.

This is where Morocco has provided an essential lead. Its new Islamic family law, introduced in February, sweeps away centuries of bigotry and bias against women. It was produced with the full co-operation of religious scholars as well as the active participation of women.

Morocco retained much of the colonial legal system that France left behind, but, in family law, followed what is known locally as the Moudawana - the traditional Islamic rules on marriage, divorce, inheritance, polygamy and child custody. At first, King Mohammed VI had to abandon plans for change because, protesters claimed, he was trying to impose secular law and western culture on Morocco. In spring 2001, however, he set up a commission, which included women and was given the specific task of coming up with fresh legislation based on the principles of Islam. Given enormous impetus by 9/11 and its aftermath, it produced a report that many see as a revolutionary document. The resulting family code establishes that women are equal partners in marriage and family life. It throws out the notion that the husband is head of the family and that women are mere underlings in need of guidance and protection. It raises the minimum age for women's marriage from 15 to 18, the same as for men.

The new Moudawana allows a woman to contract a marriage without the legal approval of a guardian. Verbal divorce has been outlawed: men now require prior authorisation from a court, and women have exactly the same rights. Women can claim alimony and can be granted custody of their children even if they remarry. Husbands and wives must share property acquired during the marriage. The old custom of favouring male heirs in the sharing of inherited land has also been dropped, making it possible for grandchildren on the daughter's side to inherit from their grandfather, just like grandchildren on the son's side. As for polygamy, it has been all but abolished. Men can take second wives only with the full consent of the first wife and only if they can prove, in a court of law, that they can treat them both with absolute justice - an impossible condition.

Every change in the law is justified - chapter and verse - from the Koran, and from the examples and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad. And every change acquired the consent of the religious scholars. Even the Islamist political organisations have welcomed the change. The Party of Justice and Development described the law as "a pioneering reform" which is "in line with the prescriptions of Islam and with the aims of our religion".

Elsewhere, the focus is not so much on Islamic law as on Islam as a whole. In a general election last March, the Malaysian prime minister, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, argued that Islam was almost totally associated with violence and extremism and needed to be formulated anew. He called his new concept "Islam Hadhari", or progressive Islam. It was pitted against the "conservative Islam" of the main opposition party, the Islamic Pas. For the first time, the governing coalition won more than 90 per cent of federal parliamentary seats. Pas, and its version of Islam (full implementation of the sharia, without modification; a leading role in the state for religious scholars; and so on), were routed.

Badawi, who is a trained religious scholar, took the term "hadhari" from Ibn Khaldun, the 14th-century Muslim historian and founder of sociology. The term signifies urban civilisation; and Islam Hadhari emphasises economic development, civic life and cultural progress. When Muslims talk about Islam, says Abdullah Mohd Zain, a minister in the prime minister's department, "there is always the tendency to link it to the past, to the Prophet's time". Islam Hadhari gives equal emphasis to the present and the future. "It emphasises wisdom, practicality and harmony," says Zain. "It encourages moderation or a balanced approach to life. Yet it does not stray from the fundamentals of the Koran and the example and sayings of the Prophet."

Islam Hadhari - fully explained in a 60-page document published by Badawi last month - emphasises the central role of knowledge in Islam; preaches hard work, honesty, good administration and efficiency; and appeals to Muslims to be "inclusive", tolerant and outward-looking. It advocates that Muslims should attend secular and not religious schools. Committees have been set up to spread the message throughout Malaysia, and mullahs have been instructed to preach it during Friday sermons.

Nik Abdul Aziz, the spiritual leader of Pas, dismisses Islam Hadhari as "nonsense". But Muslim writers and thinkers, at an international conference in Kuala Lumpur in August, responded warmly. "It is certainly time," said one participant, "to change gear and concentrate on the humanistic and progressive aspects of Islam." As critics at the conference pointed out, however, Islam Hadhari stops short of changes to Islamic law. And Badawi himself is hardly a good advertisement for the concept. Government-controlled television and newspapers in Malaysia are full of crude propaganda. The repressive Internal Security Act, a legacy of British colonialism, is still in force. But Badawi's image will improve following the release this month of the former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim, who was framed on homosexuality charges for which he was sentenced to nine years in prison.

While Malaysia has a top-down model, Indonesia has opted for the bottom-up route. The reformist agenda is being promoted by Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the two largest and most influential Muslim organisations. Established at the dawn of the 20th century, they command between 60 and 80 million followers in mosques, schools and universities throughout Indonesia.

NU, essentially an organisation of religious scholars, is usually described as traditionalist, while Muhammadiyah, dominated by intellectuals, is seen as modernist. Since 9/11, however, the two organisations have acted, in some respects, as one. Both are committed to promoting civic society and reformulating sharia. They are campaigning jointly against corruption in public life and in favour of accountable, open democracy. The newly formed Liberal Islam Network - intended to resist radical groups such as Laskar Jihad (Army of Jihad) and Jemaah Islamiyah, which was implicated in the October 2002 Bali bombings - follows a similar programme. Its membership consists largely of young Muslims.

All three organisations promote a model of Islamic reform that they call "deformalisation". "The overemphasis on formality and symbolism has drained Islam of its ethical and humane dimension," says Abdul Mukti, chairman of Muhammadiyah's influential youth wing. "The first mission of deformalisation is to recover this missing dimension." Its second mission, he says, is "to separate the sharia from political realms". Islamic law, Mukti explains, cannot be imposed from the top - as it has been in Pakistan - but has to evolve from below. Indeed, the overwhelming view of scholars and thinkers I met recently in Indonesia - including teachers at a state religious university - was that the formal links between Islam and politics must be severed.

Both Malaysia's Islam Hadhari and Indonesia's deformalisation emphasise tolerance and pluralism, civic society and open democracy. Both are likely to spread. Malaysia is trying to export Islam Hadhari to Muslim communities in Thailand and the Philippines. Meanwhile, Morocco is trying to persuade Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates to adopt its model of family law.

Muslims worldwide are acknowledging the need for fundamental change in their perception of Islam. They are making conscious efforts to move away from medieval notions of Islamic law and to implement the vision of justice, equality and beauty that is rooted in the Koran. If such changes continue, the future will not repeat the recent past.

Ziauddin Sardar's Desperately Seeking Paradise: journeys of a sceptical Muslim is published by Granta Books (£16.99)