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The Prospects for Reform in Islam

Raza Rumi

The rise of global Islamism in the form of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) will pose a major challenge to the security of both Western and Muslim-majority nations for years to come. The threat is particularly acute in Muslim countries because of Islamism’s capacity to claim that it represents Islam in its most pure, truest form. Importantly, the Islamist movement’s power and appeal also derives from its ability to claim that it is advancing both justice and freedom—political ends that the majority of Muslims naturally want for themselves. Many Islamists are able to justify their struggle and their violence by presenting their agenda as the only legitimate pathway for social and political reform. Muslim societies thus face an ideological quagmire; they desperately need a reform agenda movement that is consistent with their deepest faith traditions, but they have yet to successfully formulate an alternative to Islamism that can sustain a pluralistic, participatory politics.

In recent years, the search for an alternative to Islamism has been thwarted by the widening sectarian conflict within Islam, which has increased tensions and driven violence across the Muslim world. In light of this emergency, the need to reform Islamic jurisprudence and social thought has become more urgent than ever. Islamism’s menace to Muslims, however, has been compounded by the weakened state of critical thinking within Islamic religious and political traditions. In developing a reformist alternative to Islamism, Muslims do in fact have a substantial body of both historical as well as contemporary thinking that they can draw upon to help improve their political and social structures and create more just, inclusive societies.

The Crisis Today

Islamism’s vitality and appeal derives in part from the modern revival of two broad tendencies that run throughout the history of Islamic thought and practice. These include, first of all, the literalist approach to Islamic scripture that is propagated by modern Salafism; and, secondly, the revitalization of centuries-old sectarian tensions – especially between Sunni Islam and Shia Islam. Today, the resurgence of literalist interpretations of Sharia and the worsening of sectarian cleavages within Islam has spawned a perpetual cycle of violence that directly endangers the lives of ordinary Muslims everywhere.

The general view propagated by Islamists of all varieties is that Sharia law is “divinely ordained” and cannot be questioned. Sharia, therefore, must be understood literally, and Islamists are driven by their belief that the Sharia represents a comprehensive political and belief system. Islamists view Sharia as the sole legitimate source of politics and government; consequently, they believe that Sharia must be enforced around the world by a powerful and expansive Islamic state. In achieving this end, Islamists have pursued transitional political goals through a variety of means, including proselytization and armed struggle. The immediate focus of their struggle is displacing Western-oriented elites and military forces in Muslim societies and, in effect, overthrowing what they view as oppressive enemy regimes occupying Muslim societies. They believe that by thus merging “mosque and state” their movement will pave the way for an Islamic state and, eventually, lead to the worldwide enforcement of Sharia.

The origins of modern day Islamic extremism may be traced to nineteenth century movements in the Arab world and South Asia that aimed to revive Islam as a political and social force. At the time, Islamism rose in response to apparent Muslim weakness relative to the British Empire and to the penetration of Western secular values into Muslim societies. Those associated with these revivalist movements preached what became an increasingly radical interpretation of the Islamic holy texts in order to advance their political objectives of pan-Islamic unity and the eventual adoption of Sharia law.1

What these nineteenth century revivers and their heirs failed to recognize is that most of the legal codes and strictures that comprises the Sharia were developed during the ninth and tenth centuries of the great Abbasid Empire (750 AD-1258 AD), and thus two centuries after the death of the Prophet Mohammad. This body of traditional jurisprudence comprises the legal opinions of jurists who interpreted the Quran and the traditions of the prophets. As with all other man-made legal and political systems, these principles and values and interpretations should not be viewed as static but as dynamic and evolutionary depending on their contexts.2 However, the literalist approach to the Sharia essentially froze its interpretation in time, with catastrophic results for Muslim jurisprudence and for Muslims themselves.3 As the scholar Ziauddin Sardar points out, the dominance of literalism made it so that believers became “passive receivers rather than active seekers of truth. In reality, the Sharia is nothing more than a set of principles, a framework of values, that provide Muslim societies with guidance.”4

This freezing of interpretation has falsely elevated Sharia to the status of divine text. Over centuries, this led to the legitimacy of – and demand for – a literalism that suspended human agency and sidestepped the requirements of a changing world.5 Concurrently, Islam also intermingled with state power as Muslim kingdoms sought to legitimize their rule with edicts from traditionalist clerics. For example, a hallmark of the legal codes is the concept of “apostasy,” which historically served to prevent rebellion against the imperial state. Modern Islamists, whether organized as states in the cases of Saudi Arabia, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Afghanistan under the Taliban, or as militias in the case of Boko Haram in West Africa, have exploited this antiquated aspect of traditional jurisprudence to enforce their own radical political agendas.

Throughout Islamic history, free Muslim thinkers raised their voices against the strict codification of Islamic thought and practice. But importantly, these alternative views faced stiff resistance and were frequently quashed. For example, the Islamic scholar and theologian Abu Ḥamid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111 AD) fiercely criticized the Mu’tazilite practice of subjecting Islamic theology to rationalism. Over time, the role of Muslim philosophers was significantly undercut. In 1017-18 and 1029, Abbasid Caliph al-Qadir (947-1031 AD) issued widely cited decrees that banned the Mu’tazilite.6 In order to snuff out dissent, the entire group was persecuted and their texts destroyed. Even today, centuries later, the works of Ibn al-Rawandi, Ibn Rushd, and al-Biruni – progressive and scientific Muslim thinkers in their times – are banned from the official curricula in Saudi Arabia and most Gulf states.7 Instead, only officially approved scholars and schools of jurisprudence are considered valid; their medieval writings and opinions constitute the core of twenty-first century Islamic studies curricula.

Of the various Islamic schools of thought, Salafism – and its more contemporary manifestation, Wahhabism – typifies the fossilized Sharia literalism that treats man-made laws as divine. The term Salafism is derived from al-salaf al-salih (the pious ancestors) and it invokes the mode of Islam as practiced by the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. Its primary focus is on what constitutes appropriate religious and social behavior. This behavior is deduced from the Sunna (the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad compiled in the Hadith). All other variants of belief and practice are deemed bida, or undesirable innovation.

Salafists view scripture as God’s last word; therefore, Muslims must implement it unflinchingly in this world. By contrast, other sects within Islam view scripture as a message from God requiring interpretation and understanding prior to their implementation in practice. Salafist scholars condemn local custom and the more mystical Muslim practices of such sects as the Sufis, since they purportedly undermine the Islamic identities of Muslims. This condemnation, known as takfir, is part of the doctrine of Salafi radicalism.8

In the eighteenth century, Muhammad bin Abd al-Wahhab managed to turn Salafi doctrines into a political framework. Crucially, his pact with Muhammad Ibn Saud, the emir of Dar’iyyah in northeastern Arabia, provided Salafist Wahhabism with the champion it needed for the establishment of a nineteenth century Salafist theocracy. By the twentieth century, vast discoveries of oil lubricated the Saudi commitment to spreading Wahhabism around the world, from West Africa to Southeast Asia. Today, Salafist literalism and the ideological puritanism espoused by Wahhabism have been embraced by many Islamists, including al-Qaeda and ISIS.9

The second major historical trend that has plagued the Muslim world by stifling political reform and driving violence has been Sunni and Shia sectarianism. The resurgence of sectarianism has gone hand-in-hand with the dominance of Sharia literalism. As is well-known, one target of Salafist takfiri ideology has been the Shia sect, which denotes the earliest schism in the religious tradition. Modern sectarianism has also been fueled by geopolitical rivalry. Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran for years have exploited sectarian division in their competition for leadership of the Islamic world. This sectarian contest plays out daily in the international headlines, but it is rooted in the political history of Islam.

Within a century of his death, Mohammed and his followers had built an empire that stretched from Spanish Europe to Central Asia. But a debate over succession split the early Muslims. The dominant group elected Abu Bakr, a companion of Mohammed, as the first caliph and sidelined the claims of another group that had proposed Ali ibn Abi Talib, Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law. The term Shia relates to shi’atu Ali, or the followers of Ali.

The caliphate migrated out of the Arabian Peninsula and across the modern Middle East, first to Damascus under the Umayyad dynasty, and later to Baghdad under the Abbasid dynasty. For centuries, Sunni rule mostly dominated the Muslim world until the great Safavid dynasty in Persia adopted Shia Islam as their religion of state. The Safavids battled the Ottoman caliphs for supremacy, broadly setting the geographic and political fault lines of today’s Middle East: Shias are in the majority in Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain; meanwhile, Sunnis predominate in more than forty countries from Morocco to Indonesia.10

Salafists and Wahhabis judge the practices of Shia Muslims and their belief system as apostate. This has been reinforced by the ethnic divide between the Arab (Sunni) world and the Persian (Shiite) lands. Moreover, while sectarian dehumanizing rhetoric is centuries old, new technologies and social-media have ratcheted the scope and scale of the Salafist critique. Sunni Islamists have invoked harsh, historic denunciations such as rafidha, rejecters of the faith, and majus, Zoroastrians or crypto-Persians, to describe Shias. Meanwhile, Shia leaders from Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, to Iranian officials routinely describe their Sunni opponents as takfiris (code for al-Qaeda terrorists) and Wahhabis. In 2015, fundamentalists no longer have to infiltrate mainstream mosques to attract recruits surreptitiously; instead, with the click of a blog post, they can disseminate their call to jihad. Today, tens of thousands of organized sectarian militants capable of triggering large-scale conflict exist across the Middle East.

Despite the efforts of many Sunni and Shia clerics, such as Mohammad Abduh in Egypt, Mohammad Iqbal in British India (modern-day Pakistan) and Ali Shariati in Iran, to reduce tensions through dialogue and understanding, many experts express concern that Islam’s major divide will lead to an escalation of violence. In the past, Sunni al-Qaeda and Shia Hezbollah may not have defined their movements in sectarian terms; instead, they traditionally have favored anti-imperialist, anti-Zionist and anti-American frameworks to describe their jihad and its pan-Islamic purpose. However, over the past decade both groups have shifted from a focus on the West and Israel to attacking other Muslims, such as al-Qaeda’s killing of Shia civilians in Iraq and Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war.

Today, as a descendant of al-Qaeda, ISIS is looking to unite the Muslim world and change the geographic boundaries of the Middle East before it turns its guns on the United States and Europe. ISIS believes that it must first weed out apostates and “fake” Muslims, a definition that covers anyone standing against them, not only Shias. Ordinary Muslims may not agree with ISIS’ methods and its interpretation of the caliphate, but the notion of a caliphate – the historical political entity governed by Islamic law and tradition – is powerful even among more secular-minded Muslims, especially the Sunnis, as it invokes the historical and cultural memory of early, “pure” Islam.11 The social and political ideals of Mecca and Medina continue to resonate in the religio-cultural memories of Muslims.

Toward a Critical-Progressive Jurisprudence

The greatest victims of the violence and social upheaval and backwardness caused by Sharia literalism and sectarian division have been Muslims. If they are to escape their fate, it is imperative that the Muslim world cultivates reformers at ease with modernity and its institutions.12 Across the centuries, such reformers and free thinkers—like the Mu’tazilites— have periodically surfaced, even though their voices have frequently been ignored and marginalized.13

In the South Asian context, perhaps the greatest champion of a modernist approach to jurisprudence was the Indian poet and thinker Mohammed Iqbal.14 According to Iqbal, the traditional aversion to legal innovation in Islam has been due to conservative fears of social fragmentation made worse by Islamic rationalism. This fear has caused Muslim conservatives to resort to an increasingly systematic and puritanical understanding of Sharia. By rejecting the use of reason to interpret Sharia according to changing contexts, Iqbal argued that the “unthinking masses” were left by Muslim elites in the “hands of intellectual mediocrities” and that this compelled them to adhere “blindly” to the most dominant schools of jurisprudence.15

Iqbal argued that Muslims needed to be freed from the grip of primitive theologians and jurists. “The whole community,” he wrote, “needs a complete overhauling of its present mentality in order that it may again become capable of feeling the urge of fresh desires and ideals.”16 According to Iqbal, the Quran was meant “to awaken in man the higher consciousness of his relation with God and the universe” and to lay out general legal principles and rules for human conduct (in particular, with respect to family life).17 Since a prophet’s teachings relate to the “habits, ways, and peculiarities of the people to whom he is specifically sent,” the best approach to politics is to select groups of people as a central nucleus for instituting a consensus-based “universal Sharia.”18 In other words, Islam’s laws and practices must reflect its universality and remain in harmony with the times by carrying forward the principle of evolutionary thought within the Quran. As a result, for Iqbal, “[t]he teaching of the Quran that life is a process of progressive creation necessitates that each generation, guided but unhampered by the work of its predecessors, should be permitted to solve its own problems.”19

Iqbal’s teachings were based on the Islamic principle of ijma, or consensus, which constitutes a major source of Quranic jurisprudence. Iqbal argues that historically this principle of consensus never took on institutional form as it would have undermined the imperial authority of the caliphs. With the emergence of nationalistic Muslim republics and the establishment of legislative institutions in Islamic countries, Iqbal argued that the time had come for the revival of ijma as a principle for modern Muslim politics.

Moreover, in Iqbal’s worldview, the Quran affirms both the undeniably eternal and the vibrantly temporal; within the “structure of Islam,” ijtihad, or independent reasoning, is the way of change.20 Ijtihad can be undertaken “with a view to form an independent judgment on a legal question” that is grounded in both the Quran and the Hadith.21 In the beginning, the spread of Islam and the establishment of Muslim political order necessitated a “systematic legal thought” and “early doctors of law,” manifested through various schools of Islamic jurisprudence. By the early twentieth century, however, Iqbal wondered whether within Islamic law there were prospects for a “fresh interpretation of its principles” since it is not inherently “stationary and incapable of development.”22

Iqbal’s ideas have had a major impact across the Islamic world; his work is cited wherever there is a movement for reforming legal edicts. It is a pity that Pakistan, which has often claimed and celebrated him, is currently under the stranglehold of radical clerics and state-sponsored jihadism. His ideas to date remain the ideal for seeking Islamic reformation in a democratic context and are an inspiration for modernist reformers in South Asia.

In addition to Iqbal, the influential Iranian scholar Ali Shariati also emphasized that Islam needed an enlightenment movement to guide people and bring new dynamism to the faith. Shariati’s view was that an “Islamic Protestantism” was required for the religion’s advancement and progress in its legal thought. Islamic Protestantism would enable the religion to shed the degenerating factors that had stultified its thinking.23 Shariati held that the religious messages offered by formal and traditional religious institutions were outdated. He maintained that the “relationship between [the clergy] and the people should be like the relationship between teacher and pupil – not between leader and follower, not between icon and imitator; the people are not monkeys who merely imitate.”24 His ideas inspired the Iranian revolution but the theocrats appropriated his ideas for their own purposes. Shariati’s essential message of liberating Islam from clerics and outdated forms of thought through reason was quite ironically bypassed and subverted.

The Egyptian nineteenth century reformer Muhammad Abduh also argued that Muslims had to challenge the interpretations of divine texts provided by medieval clerics and that reason had to be applied to re-interpret earlier edicts. Abduh argued that Islam shunned the slavish imitation of tradition and showed that independent thought was an essential precondition for the evolution of Muslim society and adherence to true Islamic principles. As Albert Hourani, a scholar of Arab liberal thought summarized, “Abduh was convinced that the Muslim nations could not become strong and prosperous again until they acquired from Europe the sciences which were the product of its activity of mind, and they could do this without abandoning Islam, for Islam taught the acceptance of all the products of reason.”25 Similar to liberation theologists in the Christian world, Abduh stressed that Islam rightly understood could free human beings from man-made enslavement and ensure equal rights for all, if only the monopoly on clerical exegesis were eliminated. Unsurprisingly, Abduh was branded an infidel by the traditionalists.

Over the last two decades, globalization has contributed to the establishment and increased activity of transnational Muslim networks that support reform of the Sharia. These networks have substantially advanced more inclusive, pluralistic and vibrant civil societies that reject false essentialisms and the inherited identities of the past. Thanks in part to these networks, it is becoming more difficult for the forces of radicalism to marginalize and suppress pious and free-thinking modern Muslims who are seeking reform for the good of their societies.

Indeed, while the champions of Islamist literalism and sectarianism have become dominant in many societies, new opportunities have begun to emerge for Muslims who are seeking modern reform of Sharia. It is widely believed that political struggles in the Muslim world have divided Muslim scholars into two camps: modern secularists and backward Islamists. This is a false dichotomy, since as the Malay scholar Adis Duderija notes, a third block has emerged in recent times that advances critical-progressive Muslim thought and which rejects both the uncritical emulation of the West and Islamist fundamentalism.26 This stream of thought focuses on re-interpreting normative Quranic teachings in line with a global outlook and in a manner that advances the wellbeing of peoples in accordance with their particular context.27

Specifically, Duderija argues that critical-progressive scholar-activists contest “both (1) ‘fundamentalist’ Muslim hegemonic discourses on issues related to modernity, human rights, gender, justice, and democracy, and (2) mainstream Western socio-political and legal theories, and certain secular Enlightenment assumptions.”28 Their focus instead is on empowering the individual, including Muslim women, and on maximizing the engagement and participation of the individual in Muslim religious and political life.

Scholars and activists belonging to this broad-based tendency in contemporary Islam are developing new concepts and paradigms in both domestic and international politics. The adherents of critical-progressive Muslim thought are based in both Muslim-majority and Muslim-minority nations. These thinkers and activists strive to remain faithful to Islam by freeing modern Muslims from the language, ideas, theoretical concepts and sources of the late-medieval Muslim traditions. For example, in his new book, Reasoning with God – Reclaiming Shari’ah in the Modern Age, UCLA Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl argues that Sharia is more like an evolving common law than a set of defined precepts and commandments. Fadl maintains that the early Islamic jurists, such as Imam al-Shafi’i (820 AD), changed their rulings for different contexts:

Contemporary fundamentalist and essentialistic orientations imagine Islamic law to be highly deterministic and casuistic, but this is in sharp contrast to the epistemology and institution of the Islamic legal tradition that supported the existence of multiple equally orthodox and authoritative legal schools of thought, all of which are valid representations of the divine will.29

A number of other critical-progressive thinkers have argued for a similar approach to Islamic tradition. These scholars range from Amina Wadud and Omid Safi in the United States to Farid Esack in South Africa, Hasan Hanafi in Egypt, Ali Ashgar Engineer in India, Enes Karic in Bosnia, F. A. Noor in Malaysia, and the late Nurcholish Majid in Indonesia.30

Many of these thinkers acknowledge that the early Muslim modernists ultimately failed to find mainstream acceptance. They observe that since early Islamic modernism did not advance a systematic methodology for interpreting Sharia, it has proven unsuccessful in displacing the prevalent pre-modern ontology of traditional Islam. Instead, early modernist Muslim thought became a scattered attempt of cultural revival motivated by the hardships of the colonial era and its socio-political, economic, and cultural aftershocks. The new generation of critical-progressive reformers seeks to avoid this. They consider the contributions of medieval-era scholars in an attempt to advance understanding between Islamic and Western values, thus putting forward a more systematic and integrated framework for understanding modernity and for advancing urgently needed reform.

Feminist Voices

The critical-progressive tendency in Islamic thought is characterized by its dedication to social justice, gender equality, religious non-discrimination, and a belief in the inherent dignity of every human being as a carrier of God’s creation or image. These principles comprise the worldview of the Quran. Another distinguishing characteristic for critical-progressives is spirituality and the nurturing of interpersonal relationships based on Sufi moral philosophy, known as Muslim humanism. This tendency also makes use of modern social thought to comprehend how contexts have changed and how Sharia can be updated in line with Islamic principles. One prominent voice of this tradition is the director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center, Omid Safi, who holds that critical-progressive analysis should take into account the politico-economic and social dynamics shaping the North-South divide in the world.31 As a whole, critical-progressive theorists reject such binaries as tradition vs. modernity, secularism vs. religion, and the West vs. Islam. For them, historical “progress” is not viewed as linear; these scholars may seek to learn from analyzing Western experiences, but they don’t insist on the application of foreign models to Muslim societies. Instead, their focus is on the realization of possible religious and political change within a particular cultural context.

While this approach to reform is fresh and promising, it has yet to translate into workable models of governance and institution building in Muslim societies. It has, however, made important intellectual contributions to addressing the contemporary challenges in the Muslim world and provided a means toward escaping ideological quagmire.

Muslim women struggle everyday against the patriarchal edicts and norms constructed by clerics ages ago and that Islamists continue to seek to enforce. However, new thinkers oppose this Islamism. Amina Wadud is an example of a Muslim scholar who has subtly advocated for Islamic equality and justice.32 In her first book Quran and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text from a Woman’s Perspective, Wadud addresses the tensions in certain Quranic passages pertaining to justice and its myriad interpretations. Wadud has put forward a comprehensive Quranic concept of gender equality that ranges from family and society to the entire Muslim Ummah. In her view, patriarchy is fundamentally un-Islamic.

Wadud inquired whether the Quran itself endorsed gender inequality; utilizing the hermeneutics of tawhid (the unity of God), she established that it did not. For her, God is above human beings, who were born as equals in the form of men and women. Thus, one person viewing themselves as superior to another, as in patriarchy, is like equating oneself with God while defying the principle of tawhid.33 Wadud highlights the Quranic conception of khilafa (trustee), whereby God created insaan (human) without any gender discrimination. Every human being should be considered a trustee on Earth.

Wadud also contends that the higher concepts revealed within the Quran supersede historical interpretations.34 For example, she cites the verse (4:3) allowing a man to marry up to four wives as an example. For Wadud, this verse has to be situated in the particular context in which it was revealed, that is, of seventh century Arabia when polygamy was commonplace. She argues that the Quran teaches that taking additional wives is directly contingent upon the non-discriminatory and fair treatment of all wives. Since this is not possible, she argues that the Quranic ideal remains monogamy and hence gender equality among spouses.

Perhaps the most poignant example of Wadud’s critical interpretation applies to the Quranic verse that seemingly approves wife beating (4:34). Wadud and other scholars utilize a linguistic analysis to identify multiple classical Arabic meanings that are no longer in use today. For example, the term daraba has been taken as an endorsement of beating/striking, but it could also mean “to leave” in the sense of striking out (on a journey, etc.).35 Through this, Wadud has expounded a Quranic view of gender equality.

In her 2005 book, Inside the Gender Jihad, Wadud stressed the importance of seeing the Quran not simply as a fixed text but “as an utterance or text in process.” In her view, one “important aspect of this challenge confronts the possibility of refuting the text, to talk back, to even say ‘no.’”36 Wadud added that some divine revelations pertaining to certain practices common in the seventh century are bounded by time. One such example is slavery, which was “condoned and regulated but became unacceptable in modern times, was declared as such and has since been eliminated.”37 In sum, Wadud argues that while Islamic texts provide the key spiritual and intellectual framework, their literal application is limiting and needs to be contextualised.38

Riffat Hasan, a Pakistani scholar based in the United States, has also been arguing for the use of rationality in addressing women’s rights in Islamic discourse.39 As she puts it, “Not only does the Quran emphasize that righteousness is identical in the case of men and women, but it affirms, clearly and consistently, women’s equality with men and their fundamental right to actualize the human potential that they share equally with men.”40 In this way, Hasan states that the Quran goes beyond egalitarianism as it displays special consideration for women and disadvantaged groups in society.41

In contemporary times, despite the pressure of anti-women laws which have been instituted under the garb of “Islamization” in several Muslim countries, educated women are gradually realizing that religion is being used as a tool of oppression instead of as a path toward greater rights and freedoms. Hassan contends that “God, who speaks through the Quran, is characterized by justice, and it is stated clearly in the Quran that God can never be guilty of ‘zulm‘ (unfairness, tyranny, oppression, or wrongdoing).”42 Thus, the Quran cannot be treated as the source of human injustice, and the discrimination to which Muslim women have been subjected cannot be viewed as God-ordained. The goal of the Quran is to usher in peace which can only exist within a just environment.

In Hassan’s view, “feminist theology” is needed within the framework of the Islamic belief system “to liberate not only Muslim women, but also Muslim men, from unjust social structures and systems of thought which make a peer relationship between men and women impossible.”43 Hassan joins those arguing that discriminatory laws enacted in the name of Islam “cannot be overturned by means of political action alone, but through the use of better religious arguments.”44 A recent example of such a modernist interpretation is Morocco, where women’s activism has led to a comprehensive revision of Islamic laws relating to family matters. A new Sharia more compatible with the imperatives of the twenty-first century has been designed and established.45

Challenging Jihadism

The modern Pakistani scholar Javed Ahmad Ghamidi has opined that the avenue for ijtihad is open.46 It is the duty of religious scholars to undertake ijtihad and explore new meanings of Quranic verses according to changing times. This is in line with Iqbal’s view that the revision of old opinions has opened new vistas of progress throughout history. The principles established by earlier jurists based on the Quran and the Hadith need to be revisited by modern jurists rewriting Muslim laws based on religious principles in line with the modern world.

The more pertinent ideas of Ghamidi relate to jihad.47 He argues that individuals, or groups of individuals, have not been given permission to declare war. Only a legitimate state with organized political power and authority can declare war. While living in Mecca, even Muhammad and his companions were not permitted to wage war. But after migration to Medina, they organized a political system that permitted warfare in self-defense. The fitna, or disruptive behavior, mentioned in the Quran is understood to be any violent effort that disturbs the social harmony and dissuades or pressures Muslims away from religion. Some even call it the “persecution” of Muslims.

In Ghamidi’s view, jihad actually means to put all your effort and resources toward achieving a particular goal. Similarly, to wage war for Islam, fighting non-believers, oppression, and injustice is allowed only under certain conditions. The prophets and their companions could only wage war for the faith; after them, no Muslim has been eligible to pursue this because they are not God’s messengers. Ghamidi also maintains that the Quran does not order capital punishment for apostasy. The death penalty is only applicable in the case of murder, or when social harmony is disturbed. Moreover, for Ghamidi, non-believers who perform good deeds and believe in God will be rewarded on the Day of Judgment. Relations between Muslims and non-Muslims are permitted, and Muslim states may interact with non-Muslim states in accordance with their shared interests.

There are many others calling for the rejection of narrow jihadist interpretations, including the compelling Pakistani reformist scholar Tahir ul Qadri, who authored a fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombings.48 Qadri stresses that the indiscriminate killing of Muslims is unlawful and that Islam does not sanction acts of terrorism against non-Muslims. His work uses traditional sources and has helped advance the scope of Sharia as a living interpretation of Islamic edicts derived from the scripture. In short, the fatwa bans suicide bombing “without any excuses, any pretexts, or exceptions.”49 As ISIS started to brutally seize territory, more than 120 Muslim scholars from around the globe issued an open letter rebutting ISIS’ interpretation of Islam.50 However, this viewpoint has limited popular traction in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world, mainly due to ISIS’ propaganda claim that it represents the original Islam and is opposed to Western diktat.

Is Reformation Possible?

In a recent essay, the Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol noted the example of the English philosopher John Locke, whose ideas brought liberalism to Christianity. Locke did not attack religion and derived his case for political and religious freedom from “both reason and the Bible.”51 Akyol argues for a “Lockean leap,” citing the late seventh century school of theologians called the Murjites, or postponers, who applied reason. They interpreted the faith in times of deep division amidst violence perpetrated by an extremist group called the Kharijites, or dissenters, who viewed other Muslims as apostates fit for death. Murjites held that no “Muslim had the right to judge others on matters of faith; only God had that ultimate authority. Thus, they reasoned, all doctrinal disputes should be postponed to the afterlife, to be resolved by God.”52

The same religious humility guided by dedication to the eternal and by reason is urgently needed to address the contemporary crisis in the Muslim world. Many mainstream theologians have indeed shown how this is possible. The works of such scholars as Muhammad Tahir-ul Qadri in Pakistan, Fethullah Gulen in Turkey and Habib Ali al-Jifri in Yemen require wider dissemination, especially in the Arab world and Africa where violent Islamists are carrying out their agendas.53 In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, the voice of Salman al-Awdah, who is preaching non-violence despite his Salafi credentials, needs to resonate and merge with other reformist movements. Al-Awdah has taken a public position that a theocracy is not “Islamic” and that a “democracy proves to be better than autocracy.”54

Perhaps one key obstacle for a full-scale reformation is that the Muslim world today lacks a unified, central religious authority capable of undertaking such a large-scale effort. This is truer for the dominant Sunni variant of Islam. Shiite Islam and its many sub-sects have something more approximate to centralized authority. Meanwhile, addressing the crisis within Sunni Islam will depend foremost on the advance of civil society and getting beyond the ideological quagmire that Muslim religious and political thought faces.

Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates have killed more Muslims than non-Muslims. This is an important message that still needs to be reinforced within the Muslim world. Moreover, a critical approach would show how popular animosity toward the West actually exacerbates the crisis by fueling Islamism’s appeal and simultaneously stifling alternative thinking about reform. In this, the invocation of reason and rationality as a basis of Islamic revival may have a promising future. However, this new thinking cannot achieve mainstream liftoff until a critical mass of Muslims address the ideological quagmire they face and reject, re-interpret, and modernize traditional decrees and edicts. Today, there are small but important efforts to challenge and develop alternatives to Islamism from within Muslim societies.55 It is incumbent on thinking Muslims to bend the course of Muslim history in a more positive and peaceful direction.

Raza Rumi is a Visiting Fellow at National Endowment for Democracy, an editor at The Friday Times and Senior Fellow at Jinnah Institute.

1 Jonathan Schanzer, "At War With Whom?" Doublethink (Spring 2002), available online; Quintan Wiktorowicz, "A Genealogy of Radical Islam," Studies in Conflict & Terrorism, Vol. 28 (2005), p. 75–97, PDF available.
2 Ziauddin Sardar, "Rethinking Islam," Journal of Futures Studies, Vol. 6, no. 4 (May 2002), p. 117-124, PDF available.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Mohammad Arkoun, The Unthought in Contemporary Islamic Thought (London: al-Saqi Books, 2002), p. 13, as discussed in Sardar, "Rethinking Islam."
7 Ziauddin Sardar, "Islamic history is full of free thinkers," The Independent, January 21, 2015, available online.
8 Mark Woodward et. al., "Salafi Violence and Sufi Tolerance? Rethinking Conventional Wisdom," Perspectives on Terrorism, Vol. 7, no. 6 (2013), available online.
9 Yousaf Butt, "How Saudi Wahhabism Is the Fountainhead of Islamist Terrorism," Huffington Post, January 20, 2015, available online; Scott Atran, "The Emir," Spotlight on Terror, Vol. 3, no. 9 (December 16, 2005), available online.
10 The Council on Foreign Relations, "The Sunni-Shia Divide," available online.
11 Charles Lister, "Profiling the Islamic State," Brookings Doha Center Analysis Paper, November 13, 2014, PDF available; Stanford University, "Mapping Militant Organizations: The Islamic State," Available online.
12 Unlike other Abrahamic faiths, Islam does not envision, let alone explicitly sanction, the institution of the clergy. There is no central authority defining what it means to be Muslim. Therefore, as the Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman argues, the Sunna and the Quran are "essentially an ever-expanding process." Moreover, the expansion of the Islamic faith across the globe has necessitated greater acceptance of plurality and diversity within Muslim thought and practice. Indeed, the earliest interpretations of Islam came about in political and cultural contexts that have little in common with today's world; therefore, these interpretations require revision and reformulation in light of contemporary circumstances. The challenge, as Sardar puts it, is to rediscover the "distinguished history of critical thinking in Islam." This critical approach means questioning orthodoxy and demanding evidence. Islam does not divide Muslims into groups or categorize them; instead, it embraces diverse social and political groups. Today's critical thinkers should continue to raise questions about all dominant interpretations of the religion as they search for answers to the challenges faced by Muslims across the world. This critique is not purely Islam-centric, but also applies to Western political thought and its conception of the Muslim social world. It attempts to contextualize current problems in their historical and cultural backdrop to understand their origins and complexities. Such an approach brings with it major political and social opportunities, as the legacy of rational Muslim thinkers has become of paramount importance in dealing with the sectarian fault lines that destabilize the Muslim world today. Re-focusing on the historical stream of thought that takes a critical eye to traditional interpretations can change our outlook toward Islam and also transform the narrative associated with the religion. (For Rahm, see Fazlur Rahman, Islamic Methodology in History, (Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 1995), p. 15, PDF available; for Sardar, see Ziauddin Sardar, "Critical Muslim," Oxford Islamic Studies Online, July 2013, available online; Ziauddin Sardar, "Islamic history is full of free thinkers," The Independent, January 21, 2015, available online.)
13 The collapse of the Abbasid dynasty and its capital of Baghdad – then the intellectual and social crown jewel of Muslim civilization – produced fears of social break-up. In turn, conservatives have emphasized the classical traditions and dismissed new ideas.
14 Ironically, Iqbal was declared the national poet of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
15 Mohammad Iqbal, "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam," (1930), p. 108, PDF available.
16 Hanif Lakadawala, "Muslim Intellectual Stagnation," Islamic Research Foundation International, available online; Mohammad Iqbal, "Separate Muslim Nationhood in India," Muslim Political Thought: a Reconstruction, ed. Fateh Mohammad Malik. (Islamabad: Alharma, 2002).
17 Mohammad Iqbal, "Separate Muslim Nationhood in India" in Muslim Political Thought: a Reconstruction, ed. Fateh Mohammad Malik. (Islamabad: Alharma, 2002), p. 165-166.
18 Ibid., p. 171-172.
19 Ibid., p. 168.
20 Mohammad Iqbal, "The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam," (1930), p. 106, PDF available.
21 Ibid., p.178.
22 Ibid., p.168.
23 Ali Shariati, "Where shall we begin?" available online.
24 Transcript of a speech given by Dr. Seyyed Hashem Aghajari on June 19, 2002 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the death of Ali Shariati.
25 Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1798–1939 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 151.
26 Adis Duderija, "Critical-Progressive Muslim Thought: Reflections on Its Political Ramifications," The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Vol. 11, no.3 (September 20, 2013), p. 69-79, available online.
27 Traditionally, the Islamic religious discourse has sought to collapse the Western distinction between the "religious" (private) and "secular" (public) domains. Muslims have historically and hermeneutically considered the early era of Islam as sacred, akin to a "prophetic revelatory event." The Salafi School illustrates this trend, incorporating the medieval epistemology that is commonly found in writings on Muslim jurisprudence, including Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam), Dar al-Kufr (Abode of Disbelief), and Dar al-Harb (Abode of War).
28 Adis Duderija, "Critical-Progressive Muslim Thought: Reflections on Its Political Ramifications," The Review of Faith & International Affairs, Vol. 11, no.3 (September 20, 2013), p. 69-79, available online.
29 Khaled Abou El Fadl, Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari'ah in the Modern Age (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014), p. xxxix.
30 Ibid.
31 Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender and Pluralism, ed. Omid Safi. (London: Oneworld, 2003).
32 Trisha Sertori, "Dr. Amina Wadud: For a Progressive Islam," The Jakarta Post, November 19 2009, available online.
33 Margot Badran, "Re/placing Islamic Feminism," Sciences Po, 2010, PDF available.
34 Amina Wadud, Quran and Woman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 10
35 Ibid., p. 76.
36 Amina Wadud, Inside Gender Jihad (London: Oneworld, 2006) p. 191.
37 Ibid., p. 192.
38 Ibid., p. 197.
39 Liv Tonnessen, "Islamic Feminism" (Chr. Michelsen Institute, University of Bergen, 2014), PDF available.
40 Åsne Halskau, "Between Tradition and Modernity: A Radical Muslim View on the Interpretation of Gender Roles in Islam" in Women and Religion in the Middle East and Mediterranean, ed. I.M. Okkenhaug and I. Mæhle. (Oslo: Oslo Academic Press, March 2003), p. 105.
41 Ibid.
42 Riffat Hassan, "Religious Conservatism," Islamic Research Foundation International, available online.
43 Ibid.
44 Ibid.
45 Ziauddin Sardar, "Reform is Islam's best kept secret," The Guardian, August 31, 2005, available online.
46 Mumtaz Ahmad et. al., "Who Speaks for Islam?" NBS Research Report #22, 2010, p.4, PDF available.
47 Javed Ghamidi, "Jihad o Qatal," August, 2009.
48 The Fatwa is available online.
49 Ibid.
50 The letter is available online.
51 Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, "Locke's Political Philosophy," July 29, 2010, available online.
52 Mustafa Akyol, "A Letter Concerning Muslim Toleration," New York Times, February 17, 2015, available online.
53 Ed Husain, "Countering al Qaeda's Message," New York Times, October 8, 2013, available online.
54 Madawi Al-Rasheed, "Salman al-Awdah: In the Shadow of Revolutions," Jadaliyya, April 27, 2013, available online.
55 For instance, groups like the Pakistan-based youth network Khudi are promoting messages that advocate for tolerance and challenge radicalism. In London, the Muslim organization Radical Middle Way holds public "question time" events with clerics from Egypt's prestigious al-Azhar seminary, who cite scripture to support democracy in an Islamic context and undermine the view that suicide bombers are martyrs.

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