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Islamic Reform


Contemporary Islamic reform movements often trace their roots to the founding era of Islam. Several verses of the Koran encourage reform (islah), and a statement of the prophet Muhammad predicts that a renewer (mujaddid) will arise in each century to reform the community of Muslims. Among the scholars cited by various reform movements as fulfilling this prediction are Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (Iran-Baghdad, 1058–1111), Taqi al-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiyya (Anatolia-Damascus, 1263–1328), Shah Wali Allah al-Dihlawi (India, 1703–1762), Muhammad Ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (Arabia, 1703–1792), and 'Uthman dan Fodio (West Africa, 1754–1817). These and other prominent reformers shared a scripturalist desire to return Islam to the tenets of the sacred texts, as well as a corresponding distaste for popular practices and contemporary religious hierarchies that they viewed as deviating from these tenets. These recurrent movements for reform had varying impacts on Islamic thought. Some reformers, such as al-Ghazali, were incorporated into the orthodoxy of Islamic scholarship; others, such as Ibn Taymiyya, were largely ignored for centuries.

During the nineteenth century, a new wave of reform movements emerged as part of the resistance to European imperial expansion, on the proposition that this domination was due to Muslims' religious laxity. Prominent movements and individuals included Hajji Shariat Allah and the Fara idi movement in Bengal, Ahmad Brelwi in India, Imam Shamil in the Caucasus, 'Abd al-Qadir in Algeria, and Muhammad Ahmad in the Sudan.

The nineteenth century also witnessed the rise of a new strain of Islamic reform, one that appealed to European models. Like earlier reformers, these modernists called Muslims to return to the sacred texts of Islam; unlike other reformers, however, they identified a happy coincidence between the spirit of these texts and contemporary European values and institutions. This coincidence accounted for Europeans' power, and the adoption of these ways would restore the glory of Islam. For example, Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Iran, c. 1838–1897), one of the most influential figures in this movement, famously wrote, "I cannot keep from hoping that Muhammadan society will succeed someday in breaking its bonds and marching resolutely in the path of civilization after the manner of Western society" (Kurzman, 2002, p. 108).

One aspect of contemporary Western civilization that modernist Islamic reformers particularly appreciated was the Protestant Reformation, which they interpreted as a move toward the ideals of Islam. Muhammad 'Abduh (Egypt, 1849–1905), Afghani's student and another major figure in the movement, described Protestantism as "calling for reform and a return to the simplicities of the faith—a reformation which included elements by no means unlike Islam" (Browers and Kurzman, p. 3). Similarly, the most prominent South Asian Islamic modernist, Muhammad Iqbal (India, c. 1877–1938), suggested that Protestantism emancipated Europe from religious and political absolutism and embraced human goodness as opposed to original sin—"the basic propositions of Islam, as of modern European civilization" (Browers and Kurzman, p. 3).

In the middle of the twentieth century, the analogy was reversed: instead of measuring the Reformation by the yardstick of Islamic ideals, Muslim reformers measured Islam by the yardstick of the Reformation. Iqbal came to feel that Muslims "are today passing through a period similar to that of the Protestant revolution in Europe" (Browers and Kurzman, p. 5) Abduh's influential disciple, Muhammad Rashid Rida (Syria-Egypt, 1865–1935), phrased the analogy in exhortatory terms, citing the need for Muslims to combine "religious renewal and earthly renewal, the same way Europe has done with religious reformation and modernization" (Kurzman, 2002, p. 80).

Also in the mid-twentieth century, Islamic reformism split into two strands: one that upheld the equation of certain Western and early Islamic ideals, and one that rejected Western precedents. The liberal Islamic movement defended Western values such as democracy, human rights, and gender equality, using Islamic justifications—either specific injunctions from sacred texts on behalf of these positions, or silences in the texts that leave these matters to human invention, or the necessity and desirability of reinterpreting the texts within changing social contexts. A leading representative of this final approach, 'Abd al-Karim Sorush (Iran, b. 1945), has argued that religious interpretation must take account of intellectual developments outside of the sacred sources: "No reform can take place without re-shuffling the traditional suppositions, and no re-shuffling can emerge unless one is masterfully acquainted with both traditions and the newly developed ideas outside the sphere of revelation" (Kurzman, 1998, p. 250).

The second strand adopted certain modern values and practices but denounced their European provenance. For example, Hasan al-Banna (Egypt, 1906–1949), founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the first and largest revivalist organization of the twentieth century, called for modern-style "social reform" including mass education, a war on poverty, and public health measures, yet his definition of reform associated all ills in Muslim societies with the rise of Western influence (al-Bana, pp. 14–17 and 126–129). More recently, Usama bin Ladin's Advice and Reform Committee, the Saudi Arabian opposition group that he founded while in exile in the Sudan in the mid-1990s, railed against political oppression and espoused the doctrines of human equality, rule of law, freedom of the press, human rights, and economic development, using the latest technologies to spread its message—while rejecting the notion that anything positive could be learned from the West.

Both strands of contemporary Islamic reform emerged largely from modern state school systems—Soroush was trained in pharmacology and philosophy, al-Banna in modern education, bin Ladin in engineering. With the expansion of secular education, the traditional seminary (madrasa) scholarship has lost the near-monopoly over religious interpretation that it attempted to enforce in earlier eras.

Among the beneficiaries of educational expansion have been women, who were almost entirely excluded in earlier eras from advanced training in religious matters. As more Muslim women have gained secular education, small Islamic feminist movements have emerged in numerous countries. These movements criticize patriarchal cultural practices that they consider to be foreign to the original message of Islam, as well as patriarchal interpretations of the message that they consider to be a product of ongoing efforts by men to monopolize religious scholarship.

One of the common themes of Islamic reform movements, in the early twenty-first century as in past centuries, remains the denunciation of the seminaries' obscurantism and subservience to state authorities. This subservience has only been enhanced by the seminary reform projects of numerous colonial and postcolonial states.

At the same time, the proliferation of Islamic authorities beyond the seminary has generated such a large variety of liberal and radical Islamic movements, all of them espousing "reform," that the word has been rendered almost meaningless. The term is so elastic, and so positively charged, that it is difficult in the early 2000s to find Muslim statements that reject reform in principle—even as criticisms of any particular reform are legion.

Charles Kurzman

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