“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 and short-lived. A good example is the Mu’tazelite movement of eighth- and ninth-century Iraq, whose ideas of free will, rationalism, and the need to understand the Koran within its historical context were ultimately rejected by the Muslim mainstream as too dangerous a departure. Their analytical methods remained influential, however, as did those of other Greek-inspired Muslim philosophers such as Avicenna and Averroes, whose liberalizing notions were, in the end, similarly dismissed by more powerful orthodox schools. Sufism, with its emphasis on spiritual content rather than ritual form, was an early but enduring application of such efforts to exalt individual appreciation of the faith over legalistic norms.

Appealing more to elites than to the masses, and lacking a defined program or coherent leadership, such reformist currents never captured the political initiative that would have enabled them to sustain themselves. Subtly, however, their skepticism has periodically challenged the rigidity of institutional Islam. That influence could be seen, for example, in the enlightened manners of Muslim Spain, in the relative tolerance shown to non-Muslim subjects by the Ottoman Turks, or in the playful, ribald subversiveness that characterizes much of medieval Islamic literature. The more relaxed and eclectic variants of the faith practiced today in places such as Indonesia, West Africa, and the major cities of the Middle East also bear the stamp of a more outward-looking take on the faith.

More often than not, though, “reform” in Islam has pushed in the other direction, toward the reassertion of the primacy of founding texts and early theologians over later accretions or interpretations. Such atavistic literalism derives particular power from the fact that the Koran itself is generally understood by Muslims to be the unaltered word of God. Charging others with having strayed from God’s evident commands is thus a potent political instrument. At the same time, reversion to the historical model of early Islam necessitates a recasting of the faith as an aggressive, expansionary force that must struggle for survival amid a sea of enemies, whether these be infidels or Muslim “hypocrites.” At times when the faith has seemed to be in peril, such as during the terrible Mongol invasions of the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, this worldview was adopted as a matter of instinct.


Puritan reformers have repeatedly used this double-barreled power—the sword and the book, so to speak—to launch jihad-minded movements, such as the Almoravid and Almohad dynasties that swept across Morocco and Spain from the eleventh to thirteenth centuries, or the dynasty founded by Saladin, which not only defeated the Christian Crusaders but also effectively stamped out Shia influence in Egypt and the Levant. Other examples include the Wahhabists, who rose in central Arabia in the late eighteenth century and still exercise power in Saudi Arabia today, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Although such movements have been geographically disparate, periodic purges by them have had the cumulative effect of reducing the accepted Sunni canon to a narrow range of sources and interpretations. As an Arabic phrase puts it, they have “closed the door of ijtihad,” or speculative reasoning, enabling traditionalist scholars to posit a utopian vision of Islam as a closed system that only awaits firm application by a just ruler. In other words, this type of “reform” has repeatedly marched the faith into a philosophical cul-de-sac.

Twenty-five years into Islam’s fifteenth century, the faith is again in a state of unusual ferment. Its many would-be reformers are again pushing in opposite directions. Across the extremely broad Islamic spectrum, the same essential split can be found between humanists and literalists, or, to frame the rivalry in a more modern way, between what the Dutch historian Rudolph Peters has categorized as those who would subordinate Islam to “progress” and those who would subordinate progress to “Islam.”2

Quotation marks are appropriate, because the very breadth of the Islamic spectrum renders difficult the adoption of a common vocabulary. In the wake of an imperialist age that saw nine in ten Muslims fall under non-Muslim rule, old meanings have strayed onto new territory, and new realities have subtly altered understandings of what many Muslims (and all too many Western scholars) still take to be fixed concepts. In particular, the frequent imposition of Western political ideas—of “democracy” and “republic,” for example—onto self-consciously Islamic terminology has created a species of verbiage that lends itself to easy distortion.

At the same time, the political setting of this Muslim century has lent itself to a certain overheating of the debate. To put the problem simply, the world looks rather threatening as seen from the Muslim perspective. It is not merely a question of the legacy of colonialism, or of the fighting taking place on what Samuel Huntington describes as the present “bloody borders” of Islam—what most Muslims view as liberation conflicts in places such as Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia, Palestine, and now, some would say, Iraq. Like many smaller religious communities that have turned inward, traditional Islam feels itself mortally challenged by a dominant global culture that is ebulliently hedonistic and irreverent.

Fear being a fertile theme for politicians, Muslim politics has grown to be dominated by the language of resistance, whose physical manifestations range from disturbingly romanticized “martyrdom operations” to the defiant wearing of the headscarf. In the words of Muhammad Charfi, a Tunisian liberal, Muslim educational systems now tend to present Islam as “irreducibly opposed to other kinds of self-identification or of social and political organization, and as commanding certain specific attitudes regarding political and social matters.” It has become as much an -ism as a religious faith.

Yet much of the new, exclusivist Islamist discourse rests on tenuous grounds. The notion of an Islamic state, for instance, has become something of a touchstone for movements that promote Islam as central to political identity, such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood or the Ayatollah Kho-meini’s adherents in Iran. But as Carl Ernst points out in Following Muhammad, his thoughtful and finely balanced primer on contemporary Islam, the simple use of a label does not resolve the question of whether it is Islam that is to define the state or the state that is to define Islam. Judging from the experience of revolutionary Iran, Ernst concludes that in effect, a small, unelected group of conservative scholars determines what is to be “Islamic” about the Iranian state.

Similarly, proponents of a politically powerful Islam commonly assert that the application of Islamic law, or sharia, should be the defining characteristic of an Islamic state. Yet there is disagreement about what sharia actually means. Many Islamists, influenced, perhaps unwittingly, by European models of law, seem to believe that it is a sort of all-embracing rulebook, not unlike France’s Napoleonic code. But sharia was never a comprehensive system. It simply implied a “way,” a path, a striving to apply God’s will, as interpreted by scholars following at least five different major schools of Islamic jurisprudence.


Seeing sharia as a blanket solution to modern problems also involves a dangerous measure of forgetfulness. Even before they were colonized by European powers, Muslim countries such as Tunisia and Egypt freely chose to adopt Western-style statutes, in recognition of the modern world’s essential need for predictability in the application of law. As do most Muslim countries now, they limited the scope of sharia to the few matters covered by specific Koranic injunctions, such as laws regarding inheritance. And then there are those, such as the Egyptian judge Said Ashmawi, who assert that sharia should simply be understood as any law made by Muslims.

Jihad has become a similarly vexed concept. In Professor Ernst’s apt definition, jihad simply means a quest for virtue, and it is certainly in this sense that all but a small minority of Muslims practice it. Terrorism in the name of Islam has, inevitably, made the word fearful to non-Muslims. Yet the idea that jihad should be synonymous with holy war has infected not only Western understanding but also some strains of Muslim thought. Militant Web sites with evocative names such as ‘Azf al Rusas (“The Music of the Bullet”) promote the notion that fighting the infidel is a primal duty of every Muslim, to the exclusion of virtually all else. And leaders such as Osama bin Laden have turned this understanding of jihad into a furious passion play.

Obviously, there is much more to the Islamist lexicon than these few words, but the selection offers a glimpse of the complexities involved in trying to modernize it. This complexity is something of which ordinary, practicing Muslims, convinced only that their faith is good and right, remain but dimly aware. The idea, popular in the West and among Westernized Muslims, that Islam suffers currently from a malady—to borrow a phrase from the Moroccan critic Abdelwahab Meddeb—or that it is in need of fixing, simply does not occur to the pious faithful.

The fact is that, stripped of its current, politically charged character, the religious populism that is sweeping the Muslim world might not appear so very different from kindred evolutions in Western history. America’s Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, for example, generated fervid revival meetings not unlike the mass prayers now common in the Muslim world. Celebrity evangelists, lushly bearded fellows with quavering voices and piercing eyes, were of a kind with the tele-sheikhs whose sermonizing takes up 40 percent of Saudi Arabia’s airtime. Ostentatious piety became the norm in much of the US. Just as Riyadh’s censors scour imported magazines today, the prim ladies of Cincinnati in the 1820s painted over an advertisement for the public rose garden that showed a girl holding a bouquet, because the bare flesh of her ankles showed. Christian missionary societies were not so different from Saudi charities that profess to sponsor the Call.

Even the misbegotten ventures of some American revivalists, such as John Brown’s brief but bloody holy war against slavery, suffered from the same doomed zeal as today’s jihadist extremism. And in the same way that the exposing of Christian moral excess—think of The Scarlet Letter, for example—propelled many to question their faith, the horror of what some Muslims do in the name of Islam is generating renewed doubts among their fellows.


Such, then, is the background to the current debate on reform, a debate which, as noted ominously by Graham Fuller, an ex-CIA analyst whose excellent survey of political Islam is notably free of either cant or apologetics, may only just be warming up. To clarify the reformist spectrum, we can identify, at one end, the blinkered frenzy of al- Qaeda, and at the far opposite end, a growing number of Muslims who question, and in some cases reject, the fundamental tenets of belief. The great mass of Muslims stand, with increasing discomfort, in the middle, repelled by the violence of some coreligionists, but also fearful that Islam risks dissolving—as it may be argued that the faith of many nominal Christians also dissolved—into a mix of vestigial folklore and personal belief.

It may sound odd to classify a terrorist group as reformist, but a radical remake of the faith is indeed the underlying intention of bin Laden and his followers. Attacking America and its allies is merely a tactic, intended to provoke a backlash strong enough to alert Muslims to the supposed truth of their predicament, and so rally them to purge the faith of all that is alien to its essence.3 Promoting a clash of civilizations is merely stage one. The more difficult part, as the radicals see it, is convincing fellow Muslims to reject the modern world absolutely (including such aberrations as democracy), topple their own insidiously secularizing quisling governments, and return to the pure path. It is this latter part of his project that bin Laden shares with a wider radical and reactionary trend, which is sometimes referred to as Salafist (derived from the Arabic salaf, meaning forebears, i.e., returning to the way of the founding fathers of Islam).

The imagined political destination of this path is the recreation of a pan-Islamic caliphate, such as existed for a few short years after the Prophet’s death. (The question of who is to fill the office of caliph has been left conveniently vague by bin Laden and the other extreme radicals.) Reaching this goal would necessitate the elimination of such impurities as Shiism, Sufism, and so on, and the imposition of a supranational, tribal identification with Islam. So far as personal behavior is concerned, the ultra-radicals would like to see the Salafist version of Islam applied in detailed, prescriptive form. There would be hand-chopping for theft, and death by stoning for adultery. But there would also be a thicket of lesser rules to regulate everything from how to greet an infidel (a Muslim may respond to but not initiate hellos)4 to how to bury the dead (in unmarked graves).

This “reform” agenda has met with a certain amount of success. Like-minded groups, often of a violent, jihadist bent, have sprouted from Algeria to the Philippines. They have proved particularly strong in regions of conflict, such as Iraq’s Sunni Triangle and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier. Yet in places where their fighting message has run its course, recruitment has fallen off rapidly, both in response to the ugliness of their methods and, ultimately, to the radical utopianism of their aims. Countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, and Egypt have already passed, with varying degrees of pain, through the historical gauntlet of extremist militancy. The experience was brutalizing, but although some violence persists there, it is no longer a mortal threat to the weary social order. Even Saudi Arabia, where members of the ruling establishment retain strong ties to Salafism, is experiencing a growing wave of public impatience with their excessive zeal. The more enduring influence of such radicals can be seen, perhaps, in the shift to more virulent styles of rhetoric and more strident ways of marking a distinct Islamic identity. Even government-salaried clerics in Saudi Arabia, for example, have taken to referring to America as “the enemy.” Yet these things, too, may prove to be passing fashions.5

Closer to the Muslim center are those who make use of fundamentalist rhetoric (the Islamic state, “resistance” to perceived Western hegemony) in pursuit of more realistic goals. This is a very broad trend, and one that has succeeded in mobilizing popular activism in many countries. It embraces much of the institutional clergy, who see it as a vehicle for regaining lost prestige, as well as intellectual flotsam from the left: professional oppositionists who have found a neoconservative refuge in Islamism. It also includes mainstream Islamist political parties such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, or the Islamist “Reform” parties of Morocco, Algeria, and Yemen.

In general, the centrist-fundamentalist idea of reform has less to do with stripping down religious doctrine, or overthrowing governments, than with superimposing “Islamic” forms upon existing structures. It is these groups that speak of “Islamizing” economics, governance, education, culture, and so on. Islamists in Kuwait, for example, have succeeded in segregating sexes in the national university. In less coercive fashion, Muslim financial institutions now offer a range of “Islamic” alternatives for saving, lending, and in- vestment. The centrist fundamentalists say they would like to have democracy, but within a frame that protects Islamic values. Underlying all this is a vague notion that Islam is not merely a faith but an all-embracing social system. What it lacks is simply a means of getting state power.

Some Western observers of Islam credit the followers of this trend with being modernizers. In the view of Raymond Baker, for example, the cultural authenticity of what he terms the New Islamists, combined with their relative political moderation, marks them as the wave of the Muslim future. Yet Baker’s own book, Islam Without Fear, which concentrates on the centrist trend in Egyptian Islamism, is largely a summary of ideas that are decades old. In some contexts, it is true, the view of the centrist fundamentalist on such issues as the right of women to education and jobs might look modern. More often, though, Egypt’s Islamist centrists seem to be engaged in an elaborate effort to ascribe a cultural particularism to what are really universal precepts and fashions.

This effort may well bear political fruit. In the Arab world, especially, the level of public disgust with existing governments is extremely high. The appropriation of Islamic symbols by opposition movements makes them very difficult for discredited state leaders to challenge. Moreover, the jacket-and-tie-wearing, “capital-friendly” figureheads of this trend have little animus against the West, so long as specific issues are excluded, namely, Palestine and the Bush administration’s perceived neo-imperialist intent. That said, the centrist fundamentalists also like to make use of the West as a construct against which to posit “Islamic” values: the West is materialist, aggressive, morally loose; we are spiritual, peaceful, chaste.

To be fair, however, this trend embraces a range of shades, including some, for example, who oppose the veiling or segregation of women, and some who assert that charging fixed interest on loans is not necessarily equivalent to usury, and therefore need not be abolished by “Islamic” states. It is also true that the centrist fundamentalists’ critique of more extreme radicals has been particularly effective at curtailing their influence. As Baker notes, long before September 11, Muhammad al-Ghazali, a widely revered Egyptian sheikh, was ridiculing extremists as “men in long beards…who would drive the country backwards by their preoccupation with issues irrelevant to life on earth.” Under the influence of such contempt, a slow tide of radicals has moved toward the Muslim mainstream, including the once-militant Gamaa Islamiya group in Egypt (whose members were responsible for a rash of terrorist attacks in the 1980s and 1990s), and, more recently, many Salafist intellectuals in Saudi Arabia. Malaysia’s ruling party trounced radical Islamist rivals in recent elections, by itself adopting a milder-mannered Islamist platform.

Yet what Baker describes as the “clear and compelling” answers that these more moderate Islamists offer to contemporary issues often prove, on closer inspection, to be fudges. The application of Islam “rightly understood,” along with democracy “within an Islamic civilizational framework,” he says, would “provide the twin engines of the long-term process of cultural and social transformation.” But who and what are to define this understanding, and this “framework”—hallowed Islamic texts, or modern-day Muslims? The New Islamists extol the value of empirical science, but squirm at the mention of Darwin. They favor freedom of expression, but only so long as it promotes “an aesthetic of belonging” to Islam.6 For all the veneer of liberalism, such reservations begin to echo the style of a traditional sheikh: yes, music is permissible, but on the condition that it does not make you want to dance (as was declared in a fatwa once issued by a senior Egyptian sheikh).

In other words, what this “centrist” trend represents is not modernism itself, but a transitional phase, a kind of regrouping in order to confront the implications of modernism. The more authentic Muslim modernists are those who have already taken a step across the historical threshold toward an enlightened skepticism of the whole Islamic tradition. There are many Muslim intellectuals who have done this, some of them contributors to the collection Islam and Democracy in the Middle East. They cannot yet be called a school, and they currently carry little political weight—excluding, perhaps, the reformist camp in Iran, which is, incidentally, the only Muslim country where core philosophical issues are loudly aired.

Yet this trend, which might be termed progressive, is intellectually far more dynamic than the centrist-fundamentalist or Salafist movements. It is particularly active on the peripheries of the Muslim world, in countries such as Morocco and Indonesia, and among the twenty-million-strong Muslim diaspora in the West—among them millions of Algerians in France, Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England, and Iranians and Palestinians in the US. This may reflect the fact that these are places with access to different ways of seeing and thinking, and also places where the traditional Islamic worldview is challenged by the simple fact of the religion’s minority status.

Different conceptions of science and methods of interpretation, and perhaps also a certain distance from the Arabic language, allow for a more critical view of the Koran’s text. It is not surprising that Nasr Abu Zeid, a linguistics professor who applies his discipline to the Koran, was hounded out of Egypt by Islamists, and now teaches in Holland. His crime was to have suggested that some parts of the holy book might better be understood as allegories, rather than literal fact. In the eyes of traditionalists, such ideas are not merely blasphemous, but represent a foot in the door for a potential fifth column of deconstructionists.7

The Egyptian thinker Gamal al-Banna may be a more typical example of the progressive trend. Ironically, he happens to be the brother of Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 and was assassinated in 1949. Though raised in the same traditional environment, the younger al-Banna has long been sharply critical of the Brotherhood, accusing it of intellectual poverty and political opportunism. Rather than shun secularism, as they and many of Raymond Baker’s New Islamists tend to do, he argues that the lack of a structured “church” in Sunni Islam should actually make the faith more capable of a flexible and pertinent understanding of the modern world. Among his dozens of published works is a three-volume study of fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence. He summed up his argument in a recent interview. “We are not here as Muslims to put ourselves in the service of fiqh, but to put fiqh in the service of life,” he said.8

Other leading intellectuals of this tendency include Harun Nasution, an Indonesian scholar who has tried to reintroduce relatively open-minded Mu’tazelite ideas of eighth- and ninth-century Iraq, the liberal Iranian thinker Abdel Karim Soroush, the Moroccan philosopher Muhammad Abed al-Jabri, and the Tunisian historian Abdelmajid Charfi.9 All have put forward critiques of present-day Islamism that derive their intellectual force from a firm grounding in traditional Islamic scholarship. Their prescription is essentially to strip Muslim thought of ahistorical dogmatism, and to embrace the full range of modern paths to philosophical inquiry. Instead of seeing such receptiveness to modern thought as submission or defeat, they argue that there is no reason why Islam should not provide an ethical basis for freedom.


Abdou Filali-Ansary’s three contributions to the collection Islam and Democracy in the Middle East are a particularly cogent and forceful exposition of such views. Concluding a survey of enlightened Muslim thought, he suggests a solution to Islam’s discomfort with modernism:

The realization that Islam…is not a system of social and political regulation frees up space for cultures and nations—in the modern sense of these words—to lay the foundations of collective identity. This opens the way, in turn, to acceptance of a convergence with other religious traditions and universalistic moralities.

As the experience of Nasr Abu Zeid and others has shown, progressive Muslims remain easy targets for the traditionalists who have gained power over educational and religious institutions. Yet the dissident strain in Islam appears to be growing. It may be a micro-phenomenon, but there have been notable cases in recent years of Salafist radicals crossing the full spectrum of Muslim doctrines toward liberalism. In his memoir Earth Is Prettier Than Heaven, Khaled al-Birri, a former member of Egypt’s Gama’at Islamiya, recounts his recruitment, violent activism, and subsequent disillusionment with radicalism.10 The Saudi columnist Mansour an-Nogaidan, who once torched a Riyadh video store in an act of youthful zeal, now professes admiration for Martin Luther rather than Osama bin Laden. “Religion has grown into a Frankenstein,” he told me in a recent interview. “Our current religious thought has nothing to offer without a complete rethinking.”11

Yet the full shock of progressivist argument has yet to be felt in the Muslim heartlands, largely because much of it appears in English and French, and has yet to be translated into Arabic, say, or Urdu. Even the most mild-mannered of Egypt’s New Islamists, for instance, would find it difficult to stomach the contention of Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who teaches at Swarthmore, that traditional Islam’s disapproval of homosexuality is largely the result of erroneous exegesis.

His essay is one of sixteen contributions, most from American Muslim academics, to the volume Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Taken together, these voices represent a sort of cri de coeur for more tolerant, life-affirming interpretations of the faith. The same passionate exasperation, topped with a tinge of nostalgia and a whiff of Gauloises, emerges from The Malady of Islam, by the Franco-Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb. Though packed with erudition, his howl at the perceived loss of beauty in Islamic civilization is marred by fashionable Gallic disdain for the supposedly equally dire plague of Americanization engulfing the earth.12

Which brings us full circle to an even rarer new species of Muslim, those who have abandoned the faith altogether. Leaving Islam: Apostates Speak Out is probably the first book of its kind—a compendium of testimonies from former Muslims about the reasons for their estrangement from the Islamic faith itself. This is, obviously, a dangerous venture. The agreed penalty for apostasy in sharia is death. Not surprisingly, the editor of this volume uses a pseudonym, and most of the contents were sent long-distance to the Internet site he runs, www.secularislam.org.

The personal stories recounted in Leaving Islam range from the tragic to the trite. More useful are sections that trace the long and illustrious history of Muslim doubt, including this verse by the tenth-century Syrian poet Abul ‘Ala al Ma’arri:

We mortals are composed of two great schools
Enlightened knaves or else religious fools.

The question is not whether Islam is to be reformed. The question is which of these schools will do the job.

This Issue

April 29, 2004