Hurgronje on Reforming Islam

“…most Muslims are absolutely ignorant of the details of the doctrine of jihad.  But so long as not one single Muslim teacher of consideration dreams of regarding these laws of the middle ages as abrogated, while a great proportion of the people exhibit the strongest inclination to restore the conditions which prevailed some centuries ago, so long does it remain impossible, however anxious we may be to do so, to omit the jihad from our calculations when forming a judgment on the relation of Islam to other religions.” (from C. Snouck Hurgronje’s “The Achehnese,” 1906, Vol. 2, p. 348)


Christaan Snouck Hurgronje was born Feb. 8, 1857, Oosterhout, Netherlands, and died June 26, 1936, in Leiden


A professor and Dutch colonial official, Snouck Hurgronje was also a pioneering and prolific Western scholar of Islam.


He visited Arabia (1884–85), including a stop at Mecca, while serving as a lecturer at the University of Leiden (1880–89). Hurgronje’s 2 vol. classic work “Mekka” (188889), describes the history of the city, and expounds upon Islam’s origins, and the traditions and rituals of the earliest Islamic communities. Translated into English as “Mekka in the Latter Part of the 19th Century” (1931), the second volume includes many details of daily life in an Islamic culture, and also discusses the Indonesian Muslim colony at Mecca.


From 1890 to 1906 Snouck Hurgronje was professor of Arabic at Batavia, Java. He also served as an advisor to the Dutch Colonial Government for Arabian Affairs, and in 1891 he was sent for a year to Sumatra to study the Acheh uprising—the subject of “De Atjèhers”, 2 vol. (1893–94; published in English translation in 1906 as “The Achehnese”), his ethnographic account of the people of northern Sumatra, a standard reference work.


Snouck Hurgronje remained a colonial adviser until 1933, but returned in 1906 to The Netherlands, where he was professor of Arabic and Islamic institutions at the University of Leiden until his death, in 1936. An explorer, scholar, politician, and jurist, Hurgronje wrote extensively on a range of Islamic topics, and also served as a visiting professor in Egypt (1911), and the United States (1914).


Although deeply respectful of Islamic religious life, as an authoritative scholar of Islamic doctrine and history, and Dutch colonial official, Hurgronje vigorously opposed Islamic jihadism.


Here are Hurgronje’s sobering views on the prospects for fundamental reforms of Islam itself from “The Achehnese,” (i.e., the English translation version published in 1906, Vol. 2 p. 340):


…European ideas and sympathies have gained as yet but little ground in Muslim countries. But the same cannot be said of European customs. He was a wise man who placed in the mouth of the Prophet the declaration that he who imitates another nation or another community in externals is fairly on the way to join their ranks for good and all. With good reason does the Mohammedan law ever impress upon the faithful the necessity of distinguishing themselves from the unbelievers in dress and in their manner of eating and drinking, standing and sitting. Many of these distinctive rules were till a short time since treated as a matter of ordinary discipline in Muslim countries.


In their political and to a great extent in their social life, Mohammedans have been compelled to sail with the stream of the time or take the risk of being left halting behind; the course of that stream, however, is shaped by other hands than theirs.

It need not, however, be imagined, that as a result of this change, the Mohammedan will be compelled to embrace another creed, or to sacrifice that innate allegiance to the name of Islam which he esteems his highest honor. There is no ground even for the supposition that he will gradually reform his religion. The necessity for such a reform is not felt, and even did such a tendency exist in some few cases its fulfillment would be thwarted by insurmountable obstacles.


Earlier, in Vol. 1, p. 170, Hurgronje offers this blunt assessment of the consequences of such irredentism:


For we must always recollect that reason, education and other similar influences gain no hold upon the self-esteem of Mohammedans until they find themselves opposed by irresistible force. Such is the tendency of their doctrine and their practice accords therewith.

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