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ISLAM RISING : Ideology : Muslims Open Up to Modern World : The faith's activists draw the headlines, but even in theocratic Iran the broader movement is engaged in less visible efforts to meld religion with secular life.

April 06, 1993|ROBIN WRIGHT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TEHRAN — It could have been a couple anywhere in the world. Married in 1979, they discovered their differences within the first year. She felt wronged by his negligence and greed. He felt betrayed when she went home to mother and refused to return.

A reconciliation eight years ago produced a son, but it only complicated a dysfunctional marriage. Now she wanted out forever.

But this divorce case was unusual because it played out in Islamic Iran. It also illustrated a new but little-noticed effort throughout the international Muslim community to find an accommodation between Islam and a modern, secular world.

The setting for the family drama was an informal court in downtown Tehran. In a drab little office decorated with a faded city planner's map, a male judge with a snowy beard and a female assistant judge garbed in the all-enveloping black chador presided from two old desks. The bickering couple and a rotating stream of family witnesses sat on four chairs against the wall as each told a tale of marital misery. A phone on the judge's desk regularly interrupted the morning proceedings.

In the end, despite the husband's protests, the court granted Sedeigh her divorce from Davoud. But because of a law passed by Iran's Parliament last year, the case broke from Islamic tradition.

First, the judges promised Sedeigh compensation for her housework during the marriage. In a historically male-dominated country and political system, the law now allows divorced women payment for everything from cooking to nursing children.

Second, a female judge sat on an Iranian family court, a reversal of clerical rulings after the 1979 revolution barring women from the judiciary.

Third, the divorce was decreed by a civil court--as the law now requires--not by the common Muslim practice allowing men to divorce their wives by verbal declaration, whether or not the wives want it.

More fundamentally, the case reflected an evolution within the world's only modern theocracy almost as important as the 1979 revolution that produced it.

And for the faith in general, the changes symbolize the opening stage of Islam's equivalent of the Reformation. Although Muslim activism draws headlines mainly for violence by its extremist wing, the broader movement has become engaged in peaceful but less visible efforts to change Islam and the political order.

"Islam is going through a process of dynamic change, a process of intellectual re-examination," said John Esposito, author of "The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality?"

"Islamic reformists are now trying to move beyond general goals and slogans to provide intellectual structures for institutional change within Islam."

Added Abdullahi Ahmed an-Naim, a Sudanese Islamist and intellectual: "There are voices within Islam that identify with international voices of human rights, democratization and economic development, not just issues like the veil, amputations and flogging."

Iran's new divorce law contains many implicit precedents that fuel a new spirit of reform addressing some of the same issues--such as the relationship between church and state--central to the 16th-Century Christian Reformation.

The most significant precedent is recognition that the state is superior to Islam--because a divorce must be processed through the state, and according to civil statutes adapted from European law, not Sharia, for it to be binding.

The new statute also hints at separation of powers between mosque and state, at least on some issues--a radical departure for the only monotheistic religion that offers rules by which to govern a state as well as a set of spiritual beliefs.

It also implicitly accepts that laws governing society should be adapted to the times--such as giving women a say in both receiving and dispensing justice.

The changes apply only in Iran. But they are part of a process of questioning, interpretation and change--the formal aspect of which is known as ijtihad-- sweeping Muslim societies from Tunisia in North Africa to Tajikistan in Central Asia.

"Rampant corruption, disregard for fundamental human rights, denial of educational and employment opportunities to women, illiteracy, economic disparities and tolerance of tyrannical regimes are not the symptoms but the causes of our decay," wrote Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's finance minister, in an article for the International Herald Tribune's editorial page.

"In my view, as a Muslim, it would be a helpful beginning if the umma, the world Muslim community, looked critically at itself and its problems."

The process now under way reflects the fact that most Islamists are not fundamentalist. Rather than returning to the 7th Century, these activists are instead future-oriented, using the faith's original values to improve contemporary life.

"Islam must and can innovate. It is not static. But to achieve our goals, we must be contemporaneous and live in our time, not be mired in the past," Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of Tunisia's Renaissance Party, said.

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