01/30/2013 05:36 EST | Updated 03/31/2013 05:12 EDT

Ideas About Modernizing Islam

A lively discussion on Islamic faith and practice took place on Saturday, January 26th at the launch of my new book "Unveiled: A Canadian Muslim woman's struggle against Misogyny, Sharia and Jihad." The event was hosted by the Muslim Canadian Congress at the Promenade Gallery in Mississauga, Ontario.

Members of the audience exchanged ideas on modernizing or "moderating" Islam. Was there indeed a window of opportunity to interpret Islam's precepts in line with modern sensibilities on women's rights? Was there potential to change people's attitudes on the status of minorities in Muslim countries? Was Islam in its most orthodox manifestations at all compatible with modern faiths, philosophies, ideologies and worldviews?

It was heartening to note that even Muslim members of the audience entertained the questions unreservedly. They appeared calm in the face of what was obvious criticism of mainstream Islam's prescriptions for women and minorities.

For example, a candid discussion followed on the Quran's punishment for adultery: One hundred lashes for both men and women convicted of adultery -- a crime under Sharia law. I pointed out to attendees that equal punishment in light of unequal sexual opportunities between men and women appears unjust. Under sharia law, men can contract up to four marriages. Women on the other hand have no such opportunity. With such disparate opportunities, awarding a punishment equal in severity to both men and women does not seem right. Most members of the audience agreed with my conclusions.

The doctrine of militant jihad also came up during the discussions. I suggested that the terrorists were in gross violation of the Quran's retributive law of equality on which they justify their actions. Such eye-for-eye retribution is untenable in the modern world. Terrorists disregard the fact that civilians are never intentionally killed by countries that abide by the Geneva conventions.

Other issues such as the predominance of honour killings in patriarchal Eastern societies, the incidence of child marriage, the segregation and veiling of women and the unfair sharia statutory laws were also discussed at length.

One Muslim even suggested we need not discuss the legislative aspects of the Quran, as religious law has become irrelevant in this day and age.

I agreed but also noted that one could not escape such discussions because fundamentalist Muslims subscribe to an extremely virulent form of Islam that has had lethal consequences for innocent people including women and minorities in Muslim majority countries. I stated that it was imperative to provide an alternative narrative to such radical discourse.

Toward the end, the audience also discussed ways to "modernize" Islam. Was Islam going through a reformation similar to that of Christianity's 400 years ago? I am of the opinion that these "reformations" cannot be compared. Whereas the Christian Reformation involved a revolt against the Papacy, Islamic reformation would have to include challenges to doctrine and dogma. I noted that it is easier to challenge institutions rather than entrenched religious beliefs.

I nonetheless offered the following solutions from Islam's own philosophical framework. First, the principle of "istihsaan" or "juristic preference" must be revived and deemed an overarching exegetical principle. This would result in the most equitable religious rulings. All else must be subordinated to this supreme Islamic principle.

For example, I have often argued that the Quran's injunctions on social issues such as polygamy have now come into conflict with its own normative principle of creating a just society. In today's world, therefore, it is more important to uphold the Quran's over arching principles of justice and fairness rather than its specific seventh century manifestations.

Timeline of Sharia