Islam Confronts Its Demons

The Malady of Islam

by Abdelwahab Meddeb, translated from the French by Pierre Joris and Ann Reid
Basic, 241 pp., $24.00

Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism

edited by Omid Safi
Oneworld, 351 pp., $25.95 (paper)


“And once again wars of religions are ready to devastate Europe. Boheman, leader and agent of a new sect of “purified” Christianity, has just been arrested in Sweden, and the most disastrous plans were found among his papers. The sect to which he belonged is said to want nothing less than to render itself master of all the potentates of Europe and their subjects. In Arabia new sectarians are emerging and want to purify the religion of Mahomet. In China even worse troubles, still and always motivated by religion, are tearing apart the inside of that vast empire. As always it is gods that are the cause of all ills.”

—Diary of the Marquis de Sade, quoted by Abdelwahab Meddeb in The Malady of Islam

Why has Islam, unlike its close cousins Christianity and Judaism, not undergone a reformation? The question may sound reasonable. Yet often as not, those who pose it forget that in the Christian case, at least, reformation was a painfully long procedure. They tend to neglect the gory episodes, and the intricate debates about doctrine, and think instead of the end result that Westerners live with today, something that the Moroccan philosopher Abdou Filali-Ansary aptly calls a state of “disenchantment” with pure religious dogma in favor of the ethical principles that underlie it, such that “faith becomes a matter of individual choice and commitment, not an obligation imposed on the community.”1 And that, of course, is as much a product of the Enlightenment as of the Reformation.

Those who know Islamic history have even better reason to find the question puzzling. The fact is that since its inception fourteen centuries ago, Islam has undergone bursts of reformation. Like other religions, it has splintered into myriad sects and sub-sects, each claiming to be the properly “reformed” variant of the faith. The biggest division is that between Sunnis and Shias, which, although its origins lie in the conflict over succession to the Prophet Muhammad’s rule, soon took on doctrinal dimensions that grew increasingly hard to resolve. But while Shiism continued up until the nineteenth century to sprout esoteric offshoots (such as the Alawites in Syria or the Bahai in Iran), the much larger Sunni branch has maintained a surface unity, even as vying factions within it have periodically laid claim to being truer believers than their rivals.

Within Sunni Islam, reformers have always chosen one of two paths. Followers of the first trend might be described as literalists, meaning they have sought a return to the letter of Islam’s founding texts, namely, the Koran, the hadiths, or recorded sayings of the Prophet, and the sunna, or recorded doings of the Prophet. The other trend could be called proto-humanist, meaning that they have sought to break free of the texts, reinterpreting them or filtering them in search of a presumed essence that may be more appropriate to temporal or spiritual needs.

Such attempts at reform through more flexible interpretation have often proved shallow…

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