What Would ‘Good’ Islamic Reform Look Like?

Exclusive new article by Adil on a burning issue facing Muslims 

Does Islam need reform or not? Is the affirmative a self evident truth or is ‘reform’ something antithetical to Islam? If the latter, is this because Islam is so prefect or so intrinsically flawed that the notion of reforming it is absurd? If Islam does need reforming what does it need to reform into? In this essay I will discuss perspectives on the hotly debated reform question, and what principles might reform be expected to consist of.

With many, this discussion fails to depart from the starting blocks because the term ‘reform’ carries different connotations. The definition we shall use here is:

”An improvement or amendment to something which is currently unsatisfactory.”

Thus in the context of Islam, reform would entail significant changes in the way that Islam is understood and practiced for a significant proportion of its followers.

It could be argued that all religions change in their paradigms over time and thus ‘reform’ is a ceaseless and inescapable process anyway. Fashionable amongst politically active Muslims is to argue that Islam has already largely been reformed by colonial powers to become a redundant and irrelevant apolitical doctrine, and that the much vilified ‘Islamism’ is simply Islam being practiced as it should be; with a political dimension as well as a spiritual one. Another view in circulation is that the ultraconservative Wahabbi school of thought itself is a reform movement, analogous to hard-line Protestantism, and that secular liberals who are anxious to see Islam ‘reformed,’ should be careful what they wish for.

In contemporary debate however, reform usually means something different. Reform carries connotations of changing what is considered orthodox into something, for want of a better term ‘nicer.’ Advocates of Islamic reform generally claim that Muslims need to relook at issues including but not limited to: attitudes to women’s rights, dress codes, literalism of scripture, credence given to hadiths, Islamic law, and salvation and claims of exclusivity. Typically, such advocates will claim that the above need to be changed in order to provide more scope for autonomy of interpretation and freedom from religious authority.

So what stances on reform generally do the rounds, whether from mainstream media, social media or lay people? Below I have paraphrased some common perspectives on whether Islam does or does not require a reformation.

Hardline Islamophobe: No. Islam is fundamentally incompatible with any functional human society and only absolute eradication is politically and intellectually acceptable.

Any attempts to make Islam tolerable would clearly and obviously be incompatible with the fundamental principles of Islam. Therefore, any peaceful, tolerant and intellectual Muslims are either not true Muslims, or secret ‘stealth jihadists’ masquerading as being peaceful whilst in a point of weakness, only to become belligerent when stronger as per the actions of their Prophet.

Pragmatic Islamophobe: Yes, Islam needs reform. However this reform must entail admission from Muslims that Islam contains numerous central doctrines that need removing. Therefore, Muslims who claim that Islam is inherently intellectually, politically and spiritually compatible with humanity are ‘part of the problem.’ The mark of a ‘moderate’ Muslim is not whether they are violent or peaceful but rather the extent to which they admit to and then denounce the belligerence or traditional Islamic teachings. 

Muslim reformists usually cited in Western media: Yes, Islam needs reform. However, we must first acknowledge that extremists have a reasonably plausible and consistent understanding of Islam, and are motivated by that understanding. Any claims from Western academics that other factors such as Western foreign policy are a central cause of extremism are examples of ‘regressive leftism,’ and being apologists for extremists.

Most Muslims: No. Islam does not need reform.  Muslims need to change but Islam does not. We have many problems but most of these are cultural and nothing to do with Islam. Most of our problems arise because Muslims have not received a suitable Islamic education and because of other issues such as Western foreign policy.

Fundamentalist Muslims: No. Reform is synonymous with apostasy. Reforming Islam means saying that God and his messenger are wrong. There is nothing wrong with the way the classical scholars understood Islam. Our ‘Islamic’ problems are only due to colonialism, the disbelieving media, modernism and Muslims becoming westernised.

Not all ideologues fit discretely into one category. Some hard-line Islamophobes will demand that Muslims reform Islam to sound broadly pragmatic, though on closer inspection, a mass apostasy is the only acceptable solution to them. Some popularist Muslim reformists will edge towards the stance of the pragmatic Islamophobe, and say provocateur statements that non Muslim Islamophobes would struggle to get away with without being labelled racist. Other Muslim reformists will by more sympathetic to the view that Islam has been hijacked, rather than sincerely practiced by extremists.

I believe that the common perspectives paraphrased above are deficient. True, there are many obscene behaviours common in Muslim societies which genuinely have nothing to do with Islam. Vicious and Machiavellian family politics, the insatiable obsession with materialistic growth of the gulf Arab states, racism towards other communities, and the slovenly attitude that is commonly embodied in ‘Asian timing,’ have nothing to do with Islam. I would even include oft cited honour killings and forced marriages which Islamophobes cite as being ‘Islamic’ as having nothing to do with Islam, but being cultural phenomenon.

But can we say that same for punishments for women who dress immodestly? Or blasphemy laws (so what if they were originally British laws? No one forced Pakistan to keep theirs)? Or vigilantism against people who ‘commit blasphemy’ and the mass support for such degenerates? To say this is ‘nothing’ to do with Islam is delusional. If an idea has some theological acceptance or justification from figures in religious authority, it has something to do with Islam whether we like it or not. If Daesh cite classical scholars and hadith when executing defenceless prisoners and taking female sex slaves, we cannot claim this is ‘nothing’ to do with Islam. We need not join the popular charlatans who style themselves as reformists by suggesting that Islam is the initial motivator, or even that such interpretations are reasonable. We do however have to accept that such ideas have made their way into parts of Islamic tradition, and that it is inevitable that classical scholars and Hadith collectors (like all humans) made critical or even malicious ‘mistakes.’

Of course, most Muslims do not condone the aforementioned crimes against humanity, so even with such crimes being defended or perpetrated in the name of Islam, where is the necessity to reform religion practiced by a fifth of the people in the world? A few (proportionally speaking) criminal acts, even if Islamically defended are not grounds for the reform of a world religion. However, there exist other ‘Islamic’ traditions which pose intellectual and spiritual problems and are not so niche as the barbarities already mentioned. Below are ten common paradigms which are not held by marginal clique of extremists or illiterate vigilantes, but a large body of scholars across different denominations and a very large portion of lay Muslims. 

1.) Part of the Qur’an are abrogated by the Hadith and now no longer ‘count.’ (Positive verses about Jews and Christians are often cited as examples here)

2.) The Qur’an was not created by God, but is a completely uncreated and co-eternal entity, down to the very contingent Arabic verses which detail issues such as manners in the Prophets home. (Though this raises problems such as the eternality of the Holy Trinity; how can we now argue that this is logically incoherent)

3.) Islam says people who commit adultery should be stoned to death. When the Qur’an says that the punishment for adultery is corporal punishment, it doesn’t really mean adultery but rather fornication. Therefore, the Qur’an only mentions the lesser crime but God decides to omit what to do with people who commit the greater crime and let us be confused with debatable secondary sources.

4.) People who leave Islam should be killed, even though the Qur’an never mentions this. When the Qur’an says ‘There is no compulsion in religion,’ (2:256) and many similar verses which clearly advocate religious freedom (18:29, 3:20, 10:99, 13:40), this only refers to people converting to Islam, not from it.

5.) Music is not allowed, even though the Qur’an never mentions this. This is a clear cut issue with no debate (the only exceptions are from ‘Sufi grave worshipers’ and ‘modernists’).

6.) There is no secondary causation or indeterminacy in the Universe. God makes people believers or disbelievers and then arbitrarily punishes them accordingly.

7.) When determining an Islamic issue, you have to go with the ‘majority’ opinion aka ‘Ijma,’ or rather, what people tell you is ‘Ijma,’ devoid of any statistical data or reference to the specialism’s of scholars with given viewpoints. When the Qur’an says that the majority of people can be, and are often wrong, it must only be talking about non Muslims. 

8.) There are many conditions not mentioned or even hinted in the Qur’an which invalidate your declaration of faith and make your salvation impossible.

9.) Interaction between men and women should be kept to an absolute minimum and preferably nonexistent. If men and women are allowed to ‘free mix’ this will invariably lead to fornication. The inevitable lack of social development and resultant inability to interact with the opposite sex in most social settings can’t be helped.

10.) Most, if not all non Muslims will be punished eternally in hell with the exception of those who never heard of Islam at all. Despite the now insurmountable problem that spreading Islam will actually result in more damnation then salvation, Muslims still have a duty to tell others about Islam.

Whilst these views are not terroristic per se (even the scholars who advocate apostasy killing usually assert that this is only permissible in an Islamic state following a trial and the chance to repent), they raise moral and intellectual problems to say the least. Indicative of the fact that these viewpoints are tough to reconcile with human conscience and intellect is how cagey Dawah carriers are with these ideas with non Muslim audiences; even when they themselves hold these views. Such apologists will happily emphasise Islamic values of kindness and charity, but when confronted with issues like apostasy killing will usually put up a smokescreen. A typical reply will be that ‘they don’t want to kill anyone’, or see anyone in Britain (or wherever) killed for leaving their faith. Sure, they do not believe in vigilantism, but they still believe that in the ‘right’ circumstances, killing people who cease to be Muslim is a good idea (even if unaccompanied by high treason in any material way). The same is observable when it comes to difficult questions of reason, intellect and philosophical problems. Salafist daies, will try to win over their non Muslim audience using the same philosophical arguments (like the Kalaam cosmological argument) that the founding fathers of their tradition believed utterly heretical.

So what happens to lay Muslims under intellectual and spiritual pressure, whether from higher education, or popular media or secular literature? They usually start to depart from the listed paradigms. Some investigate further and deduce that Islam does not necessarily condone what is often touted, and practice Islam with renewed fulfilment. Others simply apostasise, believing that the self proclaimed orthodox views they know, are the most feasible interpretations of Islam, and that those interpretations are not consistent with human nature and the world around them.

Due to the widespread and problematic nature of the views I have mentioned and others, I have agreement and sympathy with some (not all) ‘pro reform’ voices, and believe that we seriously need to re-evaluate some of the allegedly mainstream teachings of our faith. Any successful interpretation of Islam must remain consistent with the nature of the texts, lest it be Islam ‘in name’ only. It would also have to provide spiritual fulfilment to its adherents, be intellectually defensible, and provide purpose as well as meaning in the lives of its followers.

So what would successful reform look like in practice? As a complete non scholar, rather than focus on specific rulings, fatwas, hadiths and verses which need re-examination, I have outlined principles which I believe a successful Islamic movement (whether consciously done collectively or on an individual level)  would utilise in order to make Islam more relevant and fulfilling to its followers, relatable for followers of other traditions (or none) and consistent to the texts and what we believe our creator wants for us.

1.)A successful movement would not be lead by many celebrity ‘reformists’

Whilst I believe that we need to scrutinise the way in which we approach Islam, and thus favour some sort of reform/revitalisation/renaissance or whichever term sounds the least loaded, many of the popularist ‘reform’ voices are simply famous and well paid provocateurs who have little or no substance.

Take Ayaan Hirsi Ali for instance, author of ‘Why Islam needs a reformation now.‘ In her book she gives ‘pointers’ for reforming Islam which essentially constitute leaving the faith, perhaps retaining the title of ‘Muslim’ in a cultural and irrelevant sense. Her position as a New Atheist and Islamic reformer is also somewhat inconsistent as a matter of logic; who gives guidelines about reforming a system idea which they loathe and have personally left? This is rather like Richard Dawkins claiming to be a reformer for Christianity. In an excellent article entitled What Really Radicalises Muslims, a colleague very articulately points out that:

”An entirely consistent rejoinder to Ayan Hirsan Ali would be finding a young English girl who was horribly sexually abused by her family and then ran away to Pakistan, embraced Fundamentalist Islam, studied at a Russian university (where Vladimir Putin personally paid her tuition and gave her Judo lessons) and then married an Afghan mullah at a ceremony officiated by Kim Jong Un. In Iran. And then getting her to do the speaking circuit around the world, lecturing about how hard Western Civilization sucked because she was abused by her uncle and did not get over it until she accepted Islam and ran away from the civilization that was indifferent to her suffering, in fact facilitated it, in fact facilitated the suffering of all women, and then saying offensive stuff about the Holocaust to offend Europeans as much as possible (as Hirsan Ali and her supporters go out of their way to do with Islam, the Prophet SAW and the Quran).

We would be rightly incandescent with rage at such a performance. But yet this is exactly what we expect young European Muslims to put up with.”

(A critique of Hirsi Ali’s latest book can be found here)

Perhaps Hirsi Ali, who also considers General Sisi a hero and Benjamin Netanyahu a Nobel Peace Prize candidate is too easy a target. Slightly less belligerent, in the UK is Maajid Nawaz, the chairman of the ‘anti extremism’ Quilliam foundation. Unlike Hirsi Ali who flaunts her apostasy, Nawaz instead asserts his ‘non devout’ status almost as often as his urgency for a reformed Islam. Nawaz frequently gives cynical implications that he is not a believer himself (such as ‘liking’ statuses of people proclaiming their apostasy, referring to the importance of his Muslim identity being a thing of the past, and equating deradicalision of extremists with either liberalism or apostasy), and then complains that he is not considered Muslim enough for the extremists. Whilst I do not believe it appropriate to comment on Nawaz’ faith status as we cannot read anyone’s heart; many who ‘accuse’ Nawaz of being a fake Muslim are not extremists but rather Nawaz’ own fanbase, though they give such ‘allegations’ as compliments! The typical response by Nawaz is that he cannot leave Islam because he has the burden of carrying people with him, though he always insists that there is no real Islam, but ISIS have a plausible interpretation of it.

On the other side of the pond, popular Muslim ‘reformers’ include Asra Nomani who supports spying programs specifically directed against Muslims, states that Muslims should tear some pages out of the Qur’an (which she says include verses about apostasy killing; though none actually exist in the Qur’an), and has vehemently defended anti Muslim bigots who advocate profiling Muslims. Then there’s fellow American Muslim reformist Zudhi Jasser, the republican who supported the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, Israeli apartheid policies, the NYPD spying program to profile Muslims, and banning Muslims in the military from having beards (whilst insisting that Sikhs should still be allowed to).

These reformists and several others share the common view that violence, extremism and intolerance from Muslims are primarily motivated by interpretations of Islam, and that genuine academics (like Noam Choamsky, Scott Atran and Robert Pape) who argue otherwise, are essentially sympathetic to ‘Islamism,’ and part of the problem. Meanwhile, outright Islamophobes will be vehemently defended; Jasser and Nomani for instance are regularly given airtime on fox news, and held in great esteem by figures on the American far right, who can vindicate their bigotry by claiming that: ‘Even Muslims say Islam condones violence and oppression.’   

Moral and informed voices for change do exist, some of them are associated with reform movements, while others are considered fairly mainstream. My point here is simply that while we need to scrutinise what we are told our faith teaches, we should not be lulled into the world view of provocateurs and popularisers.

2.) It would put justice over Muslim identity politics

Where does the common dislike of dislike Israel from Muslims come from? Is it because apartheid politics are inherently wrong? Is it because of the discrimination that Arabs and Blacks in Israel face? It is because they are sticklers for international law and cannot tolerate its repeated violations? Is it because they are pacifists who morally disagree with a militarised state? Or is it simply because the people on the receiving end of Israel’s misdemeanours are predominantly Muslim? I suggest that amongst otherwise apolitical Muslims, the case is the almost always the latter, and that whilst Israel is guilty of the behaviours above and more, the absence of even handed condemnation of barbaric and belligerent states who don’t match the ‘non Muslim oppressing Muslim’ profile, only suggests inconsistency motivated by identity politics. Why do we (generally) dislike Israel over Saudi Arabia? Both states indiscriminately murder civilians, both states are guilty of discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and both states are at least partially extensions of Western foreign policy.

Whilst the right wing generally exaggerates and sometimes outright lies about the ‘victim mentality’ displayed by Muslims (whilst ironically claiming that the West is under siege by Muslims and that the most Muslim communities are brimming with extremists and fanatics) it is true, that like most groups of people, the ‘identity’ of people involved in a given conflict largely shapes our conclusions. Whilst Muslims are happy to complain about the obnoxious neoconservative foreign policies of America and Britain, vitriol for Muslim despots (apart from obviously secular politicians like Cisi and Asad), is conspicuously absent by comparison. For instance, the ‘Muslim lives matter’ slogans are surprisingly sparse in light of the bombings of Yemen at the hands of Saudi Arabia, or the rejection of refugees from the gulf states. 

A fundamental teaching of the Qur’an is justice as opposed to tribalism and identity politics. Therefore any successful Islamic movement would have to have justice at its core. We could start by using Islam to (metaphorically) demolish some of our own cultural practices  instead of being indifferent to them (see point 7). Let us join Malcolm X in agreeing that we should be:

”For truth, no matter who tells it. I’m for justice, no matter who it’s for or against”

3.) It would accept that some of the classical scholars made grave and serious mistakes

A problematic paradigm in current Muslim discourse is the near impossibility of critiquing the work of classical scholars, and some ultraconservative contemporary ones. Why have any scholars over said that there is to be a token or nonexistant punishment for a Muslim who kills a non Muslim? Why did Ibn Taymiyya give a fatwa that seemed to indicate the permissibility of burning people alive? Why did Ibn Baz say that people who did not believe in his fantasy cosmology were disbelievers? Why do some contemporary ‘scholars’ say that as female slaves have no sexual agencies over their body, their owners can have non consensual sex with them without it being? We can toe the line with some mumbo jumbo about the applicability of these fatwas or that the ‘conditions’ for them aren’t currently being met, or we could just concede that it is at least possible that they colossally messed up. As it stands, there is more chance of circumnavigating the rings of Saturn on a space hopper then hearing a most Daies considering the latter. An anonymous Imam expresses this problem quite well:

”I have been teaching in mosques in and around the Northwest for nearly twenty years now and I often find students asking me (or worse, discussing amongst themselves) hadith and fatwas which are problematic. I confront the problems head on. Why did Imam Bukhari narrate that hadith? Because he messed up. He made a serious error. And why did Imams follow suit? They likewise messed up. God never promised that any of these people are protected from gaffes and even the most serious errors.

In issues as serious as rape or killing it is already alarming that some of our youth lack the moral compass to tell them what is right and wrong and instead have to be guided by ‘scholars opinions’ or ‘ijma’ (consensus) rather than by glaringly obvious moral imperatives and the Quran. But it is even more alarming that for the sake of sparing the reputations of these Imams we are unwilling to say ‘Yes, the scholars did narrate what ISIS claim they did but it is rejected because it is wrong. Those scholars are not infallible and Islam is not a personality cult but a religion’. For that is what actually works. But Muslim scholars are too busy worrying about being labelled modernists or ‘soft’ on the West to say what needs to be said.

We never hear this: in convoluted and weakly constructed glosses and apologia for quite frankly nonsensical opinions attributed to the scholars, the strong denial that is needed is lost and the Islamophobes are left empowered and the children confused.”

Intra Muslim criticism today generally consists of either criticising outright murderous terrorists (a good start) or, at least as frequently, Muslims deemed to be ‘modernists.’ I have no problem with critiques of modernist interpretations of Islam, but how often do the Muslim Debate Initiative, iERA et al also critique ultraconservatives who believe that any woman who shows an inch of skin will burn in hell? Or that female genital mutilation is a virtue? Or that men and women even being in the same room is a first order sin? Or that Muslims who simply become ‘non practicing’ should be killed for apostasy? Some of them believe this anyway, but even the ones who don’t, will refuse to give even the mildest critiques. Muslims deemed to be too modern or liberal however, will receive criticism in the most scathing and vicious terms, usually with at least the implication that they are not Muslim at all.

Whilst I consider reformists who think we should ‘bin everything because its outdated’ are childish, we have to concede that some of what they said (and that includes the ‘four Imams,’ they weren’t all as cosy a bunch as some Muslims seem to think; nor are they promised paradise or immunity from errors) is mistaken, and in some cases unethical.

4.) The Mu’tazila had some good points

Already I can anticipate the thinly veiled takfirs and accusations of heresy and deviance, but at least I am consistent; unlike certain Salafist apologists will use philosophical arguments used by the Mu’tazila when the going gets tough, whilst ironically maintaining that the Mu’tazila are all deviants and heretics.

I suggest that the rationalist school of thought known as the Mu’tazila actually had many ideas which many Muslims (particularly philosophically literate ones) would sympathise with, if not already believe. For instance: Which perspective is more defensible? That God is a large ‘chap’ with actual hands and digits like anthropomorphists claim? Or that God is timeless and spaceless like the ‘heretical’ Mu’tazila say? Is the Qur’an created by God or is the Qur’an a co eternal and timeless entity that exists alongside God. If you prefer the ‘orthodox’ latter, instead of the ‘heretical’ former, on what grounds can we claim that the Holy Trinity is incoherent? Should reason be used when approaching scripture? For many Muslims, the answer is obvious: ”No. Unless you aren’t a Muslim, in which case you deserve to go to hell for not using your intellect to come to the conclusion that Islam is true. Once you’re a Muslim, though reason should go out of the window.” According to the Mu’tazila, reason should continue to be used, which addresses tricky problems like ‘does God forget things?’ A completely literal reading of scripture would say yes (and thus deprive God of omniscience), God actually forgets people who forget him, but a reasonable view, and the spirit of the text suggests that ‘forget’ is simply a metaphor for ‘ignore.’

Now, I am not saying the Mu’tazila got everything right, or that a successful movement of Islamic though has to be a neo Mu’tazila movement either. Rather, that there are certain doctrines associated with the rationalist Mu’tazila which many educated Muslims would be sympathetic to anyway, (especially if unaware of their origins), and that when put under enough intellectual pressure, will probably subscribe to anyway. Over and over again the Qur’an exhorts its followers to use their intellect, a God given gift which many Muslims seem bent on replacing with blind obedience to authority.

5.) It wouldn’t be theocratic or militantly secular in its political outlook

A common argument from ‘muscular liberals,’ is that any form of Islamic governance is a theocracy (where God rules the society through an elect of humans), and that Muslims who have any sympathy with the concept of say, a Caliphate are one step away from joining ISIS. Whilst this is technically false (a caliph is an elected leader who is not infallible and can be removed from office), the fear is not wholly invalid. A close inspection of the utopia envisioned by Hizb ut Tahir (HT), iERA and other dawah carriers is clearly a de facto theocracy and apartheid state with very little religious freedom whatsoever, though it may have some social justice in terms of welfare and resources. Muslims from groups like HT can be very cagey with the ‘freedom’ point; saying that Islam promotes discussion and debate and that anyone is permitted to debate. However, as they don’t believe other religions should be allowed to publically proselytise, these ‘debates’ would be no more than academic exchanges with a limited audience. Furthermore, the leadership of HT believe that apostasy killing is an Islamic necessity. Associates of HT such as Haitham Haddad clarify their position that even ‘secret’ apostates should be killed; you do not have to be treasonous or even ostentatious in your apostasy to deserve a death sentence! But of course, the French banning of the face veil is an unprecedented and brutal oppression.

Just as idealising previous Muslim societies as complete utopias, the militant secularism of many modern liberals is likewise self defeating. Muslims should continue to oppose the secular demand of making religious perspectives irrelevant to life’s affairs. This is consistency, not extremism; a worldview which does not influence a persons life’s affairs is pointless and impotent. Whilst I believe many politically active Muslims greatly neglect the spiritual aspects of Islam, Islam is not merely a spiritual doctrine (nor are the other religions for that matter but many of their followers in the West have been secularised enough to believe such), and to render it as one is to make it devoid of point and purpose.

I believe that Islam is more descriptive then prescriptive in terms of how its followers should live (hence the low proportion of legalistic verses in the Qur’an), and that Muslims should engage with the political process of their country regardless of the model of government. If the Prophet Joseph could work in the government of the Pharaoh who considered himself a God, Muslims today should be able to work for non Islamic governments without allegations of ‘disbelief.’

By applying Islamic values to worldly affairs i.e. politics, Muslims can work against issues such as climate change, water injustice, food insecurity and wealth disparity. Many Muslims will respond to this with fatalistic apathy disguised by the claim that ‘you can’t change the system so there’s no point trying,’ but how many Muslims have really tried beyond being keyboard warriors? Would two hundred Muslim Members of Parliament all of whom were devoted to mitigating the above problems really make literally zero difference? Whilst I believe that Muslims should not serve in a role that necessarily entails going against a clear cut Islamic ruling, we can engage with, and improve whatever systems are in our country of residence without compromising our values. This is not some covert stealth jihad Islamofascist Sharia law smuggling mission, nor is it a way to just look after Muslim interests, but to leave the world in a better place than it was when we arrived as per what Islam actually says. Just about every Muslim ‘knows’ that Islam says this (by way of enjoining charity, fairness, social justice, even animal welfare etc), but how many of us really believe it and how many of us genuinely think it warrants significant attention? In practice, for most Muslims, the whole ‘improving the world’ bit is rather like a sprinkle of cinnamon on the apple crumble; a nice little touch, but not necessary by any means. This needs to change, for Islam to become meaningful and relevant for both Muslims and non Muslims.

6.) It would successfully engage with culture

Currently, there is little suitable engagement in Muslim circles with cultural issues whether ‘Muslim’ culture or ‘Western culture.’

It is undeniable that there are many vile cultural practices carried out by Muslims which receive little resistance from religious leaders. How many khutbas (sermons) does one hear saying ‘yes it’s okay for your Pakistani daughter to marry a black man,’ or that sons are no more valuable then daughters, or that contemporary marriage culture is vile and should be utterly disregarded? What about the permissibility or the desirability of pursuing helpful but non ‘Asian friendly’ careers like teaching, social work, academia or environmentalism? How about a talk on the harm that continuous cousin marriage causes, or honour based violence, or the ‘my family right or wrong’ nationalism that many Muslims embody today?

Whilst even the most redneck Imams don’t necessarily condone the above, there is a disproportionately small amount of attention given to counteracting it. Khutbas in mosques will usually consist of far more irrelevant and pointless topics and fail to address cultural problems, either because of tacit approval, fear of shaking up the apple cart or being completely out of touch.

Muslims can be equally dire when it comes to engaging in Western culture. Muslims often either secularise themselves with a ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’ approach, embodying the worst stereotypes associated with Western culture, or do the polar opposite; becoming isolated from their non Muslim neighbours and holding the society in contempt.

Many Islamic spokespeople embody, and often advocate the latter, spreading paranoia to their flock about ‘mimicking the kuffar,’ often characterised by grave warnings about ‘kuffar festivals’ and the hideous sins of phrases like ‘merry Christmas,’ which apparently means that you have asserted a belief that Jesus is God. Other western customs such as shaking hands are likewise condemned if done with a member of the opposite sex. The fact that by refusing to shake someone’s hand might alienate them from you and Islam, tends to be brushed under the carpet or used as evidence for how depraved the kuffar are and how we cannot mimic them.

Different cultures have different things to offer. Sure, it could be argued that Western secular liberal culture takes individualism to an extreme (and thus creates a society where people think of fewer goals beyond their individual rights and pleasures). Meanwhile, the culture of many Muslim majority countries represses most forms of individual wellbeing which is evident looking at miserable marriages (don’t let the comparatively low divorce rate fool you; there is far more pressure to stay married then in Western culture, despite the Islamic permissibility of divorce) and unhappy family politics. I have yet to see a large and interdependent Muslim family which is not dysfunctional on some level and is not devoid of abuse, Machiavellian politics or resentment. Islam provides us with the approach to be rid of our cultural baggage, but the Islam most of us are raised with has been gut filleted to make it compatible with the unjust, dogmatic, even racist ‘Muslim culture,’ which we see from Muslims in the East and West. Hence, in this respect, Islam as many of us know it needs whatever ‘r’ word sounds most comfortable.

7.) It wouldn’t regard Salafism as the ‘default’ position, nor consider Puritanism as a mark of authenticity

Many, perhaps most practicing Muslims in the West, and virtually all institutions, have knowingly or unknowingly embraced many Salafist paradigms, mostly as a result of Saudi ‘petro dollar’ influence. Go to almost any mosque or Islamic bookshop and virtually all the literature will be overtly Salafist. Even the most ‘regular’ books giving advice on how to pray and how families should function will be ultraconservative at best, and often downright misogynistic and intolerant.

We are now following a very puritanical hadith centric Islam masquerading as orthodoxy. Whilst drafting this part of the essay I was at a meeting which began with a short session of hadith spamming…and nothing whatsoever from the Qur’an. Hadith spamming (or carpet bombing) essentially entails arbitrarily reciting hadiths and putting whatever spin on them you want in order to illustrate just about anything. Complementing our hadith centricity, we have anti intellectualism and implicit anthropomorphism. Even reasonably educated Muslims will often think of God as terms of a contingent being with parts, who actually ‘sits’ on a throne, and has eyes and hands etc. Unfortunately, scientific or philosophical education, combined with the conception of God as a contingent being with a body usually leads to one place: atheism. After all, if God is any sort of ‘chap,’ why is he any more plausible then the idols worshipped prior to Muhammad (pbuh).

Unfortunately, anti intellectualism is not the extent of our current problems. We also have a widespread belief that the harder or less forgiving any sort of Islamic ruling is, the more authentic it actually is. To quote a more articulate colleague then myself from an excellent article on fasting:

”I am not of course suggesting that most lay Muslims are puritans – they obviously are not. Rather, the idea that something which is ‘easy’ or lenient, cannot be at the same time genuinely Islamic, is very widespread amongst practising Muslims. This extends to matters far beyond just prayer, to issues such as dress code, gender segregation, listening to music, keeping the beard and interacting with non-Muslims or voting in elections. In each case, those presenting a ‘lenient’ view, albeit from the Salaf (early generations of Muslims) and classical Islam, are presented as ‘sell-outs’, modernists or simply licentious liberals. Nothing could be further from the truth. But the ease with which these accusations stick is an indication of the extent to which the modern Muslim mind has been conditioned to believe that the hardest way is the most ‘Islamic’ – and that is a very good definition of puritanism, which at its heart is nothing more than the suspicion of ease, a mind-set shared by many Muslims today.”

I ask Muslim readers how you would automatically perceive a ruling making say, fasting times shorter, as opposed to one making fasting times longer. I suggest that we will virtually always give the latter more credence, and demand a much higher level of evidence before coming close to considering the former. Unfortunately, Qur’anic verses emphasising the ease that God intends for us (2:185, 5:06, 2:286) are forgotten or used as hollow disclaimers that Islam is easy, despite all the efforts to make the contrary true.


In this essay I have outlined some general ideals that would be conducive to successful practice of Islam. Unlike the staunch modernist I have not claimed that we need to delete bits of the Qur’an and change Islam according to the desires of secular liberals; and though I also refuse to be satisfied by claims of our problems being simply products of culture or solely the fault of the Western world.

We live in an age of war, cruelty, environmental destruction, climate change, inequality and religion both secular and religious. Islam has solutions and principles, which can change the sorry state that humanity finds itself in today. Sadly, Islam as many of us know it is almost silent on such issues, and is even used to justify the worst aspects of humanity.   

Therefore, however we dress it up, the way we approach Islam has to change in order to become, as stated earlier: spiritually fulfilling, intellectually defensible, and providing purpose as well as meaning in the lives of its followers.

Whether you want to call that reformation, restoration, renaissance, re-enlightenment, re-interpretation, re-invigoration or any other synonyms, the conclusion remains the same. Things have to change. I hope this article raises important questions to readers and as always I anticipate constructive criticism and discussion.

As-salamu alaykum to all.

Categories: Islam

2 replies

  1. السلام عليكم

    With regards to the ten issues you listed above (and while I agree with much of what was written) I’d like to comment on points of disagreement. Namely 2,6, and 10.

    2. First and foremost, the view that the Quran was created is not just a Mu’tazili opinion as you’ve implied later on. In fact the view that the Quran is uncreated is solely limited to Sunni Islam. All other sects- including the Imami Shia, the Zaidiyah and the Ibadiyah- believe the Quran is created.

    Be it as it may, I do not believe it is at all comparable to the trinity (we don’t worship the Quran, or claim it’s a different eternal “person” from God). Nor do I see how this is at all relevant to the reformation project.

    6. I do not see this is an accurate representation of the orthodox position. The overwhelming majority of Sunnis believe that the human being is Mukhai’ar (free to choose) not Musai’ar (controlled by Allah).

    While Allah possesses complete knowledge about the individual’s actions during their life, this does not equate to controlling that individual’s actions. In the same way you might know that the sun will rise tomorrow, but do not control its rising.

    10. Not only is there no agreement about a general future of all non-Muslims in hell, there is also no agreement about the eternality of this hell. I believe (not sure) the great Abu-Mansur Al-Maturidi has some excellent work with regards to the former, in his famous “Kitab Al-Tawhid”. And Ibn Qayyim Al-Jauziyah raises some interesting arguments with regards to the latter issue pertaining the eternality of hell, in his book “Hadi Al-Arwah Ila Bilad Al-Afrah” (this opinion is also attributed to his teacher, Sheikh Ibn Taymiyyah).

    I’m not very good at writing Arabic in English letters, so here are the names of the two classical works I referenced above, in Arabic:
    1. Kitab Al-Tawhid: كتاب التوحيد
    2. Hadi Al-Arwah Ila Bilad Al-Afrah: حادي الأرواح إلى بلاد الأفراح

    Watch out, because there is another (unfortunately more famous) ‘Kitab Al-Tawhid’ by Sheik Muhammed Ibn Abdul-Wahab.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Which perspective is more defensible? That God is a large ‘chap’ with actual hands and digits like anthropomorphists claim? Or that God is timeless and spaceless like the ‘heretical’ Mu’tazila say?”


    What a nonsensical false dichotomy.

    You make it seem like if you aren’t a Mutazilite, you are a anthropromorphist sunni when in fact Sunni orthodoxy is Asharis and Maturidis.

    “Is the Qur’an created by God or is the Qur’an a co eternal and timeless entity that exists alongside God. If you prefer the ‘orthodox’ latter, instead of the ‘heretical’ former, on what grounds can we claim that the Holy Trinity is incoherent?”


    I like how you put ‘orthodox’ in quote. This doctrine is affirmed by Abu Hanifa himself in Al-Fiqh Al Akbar. Not to mention that the Qur’an is not a person that is distinct from other persons like in the trinity. Also in the trinity each person is god. “jesus is god, the father is god the holy spirit is god, but jesus is not the father, the father is not the holy spirit, ect… but there is still one god.”

    Whereas the Qur’an is *not* God.

    Also by “qur’an here” obviously we aren’t talking about our speech or the paper books.

    From Al-Fiqh Al-Akbar:

    “He has eternally been attributed with Power, by His Power, and His power is an eternal attribute. ”

    “He has eternally been attributed with Al-Kalam, by His Speech and His Speech is an eternal attribute.”

    “Allah Ta’ala is attributed with Kalam which is unlike our speech, as it is neither by means of organs , parts, limbs, sounds, nor letters (alphabets).”


    “His attributes existed in eternity; they did not exist after being non – existent, nor were they created. Whoever says that they are created, existed after being non – existent, or is uncertain about the attributes and doubts them, is a dis believer in Allah Ta’ala.

    The Qur’an is the Kalam of Allah Ta’ala , written on books (masahif), preserved in the hearts, recited on the tongues, and revealed to the Prophet, sallal lahu alahi wa aalihi wa sallam. Our utter ance of the Qur’an is created, and our recitation of the Qur’an is created, but the Qur’an (as the attribute of Kalam of Allah) is not created.”

    By Qur’an, we are talking about the attribute of God, his speech. The Qur’an is God’s word no? Then his attributes cannot be created. God’s mercy or justice was not created, it is eternally a part of God and cannot exist separated from him.


    You seem to think to be a rationalist, you need to go look at Mutazilites. When in fact Sunni Islam has its own tradition of rationalism. See: Imam Maturidi and his school

    Liked by 1 person

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