Let us rephrase the question: can a morality suitable for the modern world be derived from the principles expressed in the Qur'an? Or are the principles found in the Qur'an antithetical to contemporary civilized values?
It is important to make a distinction between the original revelation, the Qur'an, and Shari`ah which comprises the various interpretations and applications of that revelation in terms of religious practice, personal morality, and societal law. For the general public in the West who have glimpsed Islam through the keyhole of mass media Shari`ah has come to mean the forceful application of an oppressive and rigid morality enforced by harsh punishments. But the Qur'an lends no support to such religious tyranny, and in the battle for the soul of Islam Muslims are confronting the injustices and oppression perpetuated by authoritarian and harsh interpretations of the religion.
At the time of the Prophet Muhammad, the people of the Arabian Peninsula were without a deep tradition of spirituality and were barely aware of the other great religious traditions. Before Islam, tribal vengeance was the common law in the Arabian Peninsula. The first legal pronouncements of Islam came at a time when there was neither a legal system nor prisons. Within 150 years Islam had developed into a civilization that spanned from Spain to India. It was especially under the first Abbasid Caliph, al Mansur, that the need for a more systematic approach to law was recognized. Beginning in the mid-700s the great formulators of Islamic law -- Abu Hanifa, Malik bin Anas, Al-Shafii, and Ibn Hanbal -- began the project of systematizing Islamic law from the Quran and the example of the Prophet Muhammad. Eventually Islamic Law grew into a highly developed system of justice whose stated aim was to secure the well-being and dignity of human beings.
While in a few cases punishment for crimes is specified in the Qur'an, these punishments represent the maximum penalty to be imposed, and considerable latitude is left for mercy, mitigating circumstances, and the uniqueness of each case.
For instance, during the reign of the Caliph Omar, in the earliest years of Islam, a man was brought up for judgment for having stolen food. The Caliph asked him, "Why don't you work and earn money for food rather than steal."
"I do work," the accused said, "but still I do not have enough money to feed my family." The truth of the statement having been verified, the Caliph sent a message to the man's employer telling him that he would be the one punished if his employee were caught stealing again.
Islamic Shari`ah has Three Major Goals:
Nurturing the righteous individual
The first goal of Islamic Law is nurturing the healthy and moral human being who is a source of good both for himself and for others.
Secondly, it came to establish justice between people within the community of believers, and with other communities and groups. Indeed, Allah commands justice ... (An-Nahl 16:90) as He said in the Qur'an and commands people to stand firmly for justice.} (An-Nisaa' 4:135) Shari`ah considers people to be equal, no one has superiority over another because of race, wealth, or family. Shari`ah even obligates Muslims to be just with their enemies during war. It establishes justice between men and women and makes women peers to men in terms of rights and responsibilities. And women shall have rights similar to the rights (their husbands have) upon them, according to what is equitable; although the men have a degree more ... (Al-Baqarah 2:228). [Issues of women's rights and responsibilities will be more thoroughly covered in a supplementary blog following this one.]
Realization of benefit (Maslahah)
Thirdly, Shari`ah never states anything except to achieve a real benefit (maslahah). Muslim scholars have traditionally agreed that the principles of Shari`ah aim at preserving and protecting five major benefits, namely, religion, life, intellect, progeny, and property. Those five benefits (or necessities as some call them) are essential to the honorable human life.
Islamic Law was never meant to be applied in a rigidly mechanical way. While the Western media has sometimes sensationalized certain cases in particular countries, if one looks at the history of Islamic justice, one will find a history of subtle reasoning aimed at fairness and mercy. (for more see: http://www.islamicity.org/8569/objectives-of-sharia/)
Islamic Law is, moreover, a system fully capable of adapting itself to contemporary circumstances. Islamic jurists, informed by the abiding values of Islam and exercising the power of their reason, may interpret Islamic law in ways they consider merciful, appropriate, and just.
Most importantly, Muslims living in pluralistic societies have no religious reasons to oppose the laws of their own societies as long as they are just, but rather are encouraged to uphold the duly constituted laws of their own societies.
Can Islam be reconciled with democracy?
The Constitution of the United States of America is based on universal values taught by most religions, including Christianity and Islam. The American Constitution is as much Islamic, as it is Christian, and Muslim Americans are proud of the Constitution and the democracy it is meant to enshrine. Islam and democracy are compatible and can coexist because Islam organizes humanity on the basis of human dignity and the rule of law. Consider the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." There is no need to quote from the Qur'an; any Muslim will recognize that these principles pervade the whole of the Qur'an.
The first four successors to the Prophet Muhammad were chosen by the community through consultation, i.e. a kind of representative democracy. The only principle of political governance expressed in the Qur'an is the principle of Consultation (Shura), which holds that communities will "rule themselves by means of mutual consultation" [Qur'an 42:38].
Then why is democracy so rare in the Middle East?
Whenever contemporary governments anywhere in the world, in order to remain in power and exercise absolute control over the financial and other resources of their respective countries, have abandoned the principles of democratic governance and accountability to law, this is a matter of politics, not religion. When such regimes claim to be Islamic, their claims can be disputed. These regimes may actually be driven by secular and even anti-Islamic ideologies.
Islam does not prescribe a form of government; but it does prescribe certain principles of justice and morality, as we have described.
Can Muslims cooperate with others to achieve common goals?
Following the principles of the Qur'an, Muslims are encouraged to cooperate for the well-being of all. The Qur'an emphasizes three qualities above all others: peace, compassion, and mercy. The standard greeting in Islam is "As-Salam alaykum (Peace be with you)." According to Muhammad Asad, a convert to Islam from Judaism and one of the greatest Muslim intellectuals of the Twentieth Century: "The 'peace' referred to in the above expression has a spiritual connotation comprising the concepts of ethical soundness, security from all that is evil and, therefore, freedom from all moral conflict and disquiet."
In the Qur'an it is said that God has prescribed mercy for Himself: "Your Sustainer has willed upon Himself the law of Compassion and Mercy - so that if any of you does a bad deed out of ignorance, and thereafter repents and lives righteously, He shall be [found] much-forgiving, a dispenser of grace." [Qur'an 6:54]
Muslims who observe the recommended prayers repeat the phrase "the Compassionate, the Merciful" at least seventeen times a day. If "compassion and mercy" cannot translate into love then they are but abstractions without meaning or application?
An American Muslim scholar, Abdul Aziz Sachedina, expresses it this way: "Muslims believe that they live under the God of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad. That God is a Trustworthy, Merciful, Compassionate and Loving God who cares for all human beings more than their own mother. Islam does not encourage turning God into a political statement since humans cannot possess God. They can simply relate themselves to God by emulating God's compassion and forgiveness."
Is there a contradiction between revelation and reason? Does Islam encourage or discourage the use of reason?
Faith and reason need not be in conflict with each other. Remarkably, there is nothing in the Qur'an that essentially contradicts reason or science-- it is remarkably free of elements of the limited scientific awareness of seventh century Arabia. In the sayings of the Prophet, himself, we may sometimes find remnants of the conventional beliefs and unscientific opinions of his day, but Muhammad advised his followers to heed his spiritual guidance and to remember that his opinions in worldly matters were not sacrosanct.
The Qur'an proposes no theology that runs counter to reason. Within the religion of Islam faith is not an irrational position; rather, faith is the conviction that we live in a spiritual universe characterized by purposefulness, meaning, and mercy. Furthermore divinely inspired Messengers and Prophets have been found in every human community. The Qur'an proposes in many ways that the person who reflects on "God's signs," both in nature and in one's own inner being [Qur'an 41:53], will find faith reasonable.
Repeatedly the Qur'an urges human beings to engage in "reflection" (tafakkur) and "use their intelligence" ('aqala). Altogether in nearly eighty instances it mentions the importance of reason and reflection [2:219; 3,191; 30,8; 45,5], one example of which is "are the blind and the seeing man equal? Will you not reflect?" [6:50].
Does Islam offer one fixed and unchanging truth for all time, or is it flexible and open to change?
It is important to distinguish timeless spiritual principles from certain verses in the Qur'an that may have a particular historic context.
The Qur'an takes a realistic view of human life and attempts to improve it. Slavery, for example, which existed at the time of the Qur'an's revelation was not immediately forbidden, but the rights of slaves were established: they must be fed, clothed, not overworked, or treated cruelly, and there must be a way for them to earn their freedom. The Prophet and his companions gave much of their own resources for buying the freedom of slaves. Through their own example they set in motion the process of mitigating the evils and gradually dismantling the institution of slavery.
Other seemingly harsh punishments that are mentioned in the Qur'an can be understood as maximum punishments and over time have been interpreted with a spirit of Mercy by the wiser Islamic judges. The foremost goal of Islamic Law is not to punish but to establish a fair and just social order and ultimately to further human dignity.
Most Muslims, even those who may not be observant, love their religion and want it to be respected, and, at the least, not despised or feared. If we have not answered all the questions that might be asked, we hope we have addressed some of the most urgent ones.
Hostility, violence, and aggression in the name of Islam cannot be justified, and the remedy for all of these can be found in the Quran itself.
Islam is not an alien religion, but a continuation of the prophetic line that began with Abraham. It does not claim a monopoly on virtue or truth. It follows in the Way of previous spiritual traditions that recognized One Spirit operating within nature and human life. It continues on the Way of the great Prophets and Messengers of all sacred traditions. Majority of Muslims in the West, and indeed in the world, are reaching out with hands of friendship. They wish to be seen as allies in attaining goals that are common to all humanity: Social justice, ecological sanity, peace, and human dignity.