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Mission reforming Islam

 Al-Jazeerah, April 22, 2004

By Abid Ullah Jan

 A specter haunts the world, and that specter is Islam. This is not the Islam discoverable in the pages of the Qur’an and life of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), but a mythical Islam that is the product of the new form of anti-Islamism that Yossi Klein Halevi, writing in the Los Angeles Times (December 4, 2002), says is “outdated domination theology” and that forms the subject of a Ayan Rand Institute’s study by Robert Tracinski significantly entitled “A War Against Islam” (2001). [1] It is an Islam that the New York Times assured us, way back on January 21, 1996, is nothing less than a “menace” to the world and itself. [2]

But above all it is the Islam that is responsible for the evils of the rest of the world. As Huntington puts it in his Clash of Civilisations: “Islam is the only civilisation which has put the survival of the West in doubt…. Statesmen can constructively alter reality only if they recognise and understand it.”

It is this sort of Islam that is the source of terrorism. Long before 9/11, Amos Perlmutter declared it “a plague” which has “infected the entire Islamic world and whose goal is to topple secularist military regimes in Egypt, Syria and Algeria and replace them with Islamic states.” To him, “distinctions between ‘moderate’ and ‘radical’ fundamentalists are meaningless, since the goals of both are radical.” [3]

Islam-bashing is anti-Islamism at its most radical and totalizing. Its goal is not to advise, but to condemn; not to fix, but to dilute and destroy. It repudiates every thought of reform in any normal sense; it sees no difference between Osama bin Laden and a person sitting in Washington calling himself “moderate Muslims.” To it both are radicals; it views every Muslim action, both present and past, either opportunistic — in waiting to strike at the right time — or an act of deliberate aggression. It is not that Muslims went wrong here or there; it is that Islam is wrong root and branch. The conviction at the heart of those who engage in it is really quite simple: that Islam is an unmitigated evil, an irredeemable enormity.

This is the specter that is haunting the world today for two reasons: a) asking irrelevant question and b) avoiding the right question. The irrelevant question is: Why has Islam, unlike its close cousins Christianity and Judaism, not undergone a reformation? The right question is: What reformation do the Islam-bashers want and why Islam cannot go through it?

Reformation to Islam is not impossible because in the Christian case it was a painfully long procedure and Muslims do not want to repeat the gory episodes, and the intricate debates about religious doctrine.

Actually the basic premise and condition set for reformation of Islam negates the core of Islam. Contrary to what Abdou Filali-Ansary from Morocco may look forward to in the Muslim world — 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"[4] — there is no dogma in Islam.

The choice is open to individuals as long as they have not come to the fold of Islam. The choice ends when one surrenders himself to Allah with heart and soul. Islam is not imposed on individuals. Once one submits his will to the Will of Allah, he has no choice but to obey the divine laws to the utmost and live fully by the prescribed way of life.

The Qur’an enlightens. One does not come to the fold of Islam to enlighten and reform it. Instead, it is the individuals who enlightens and reforms himself by embracing Islam in real sense.

Those who claim to know Islamic history and consider splintering of Muslims in myriad sects and sub-sects as reformation are ignorant of the true message of Islam whereby Allah and the Last Prophet (PBUH) has warned against division among Muslims. Considering the main schools of thought with reference to jurisprudence in Islam as various attempts at reformation is a delusion of those who are on the mission of “rebuilding” Islam out of the prescribed limits in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

The basic principle is that that who submit themselves to Islam reform themselves to liven within the prescribed limits by the Qur’an and Sunnah. Any attempt to break free of these limits through “reinterpreting” in search of a presumed essence that may be more appropriate to temporal needs takes one out of the fold of Islam. The resultant mixture can be anything but Islam.

Many such attempts at reform 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 Qur’an within its historical context were ultimately rejected.

Appealing more to the Western sympathizers than to the masses, and lacking credibility, reason and logic, such reformist currents never captured the political initiative that would have enabled them to sustain themselves. Their skepticism could never challenge or change the core message of Islam.

The enlightened manners of Muslim Spain or the tolerance shown to non-Muslim subjects by the Ottoman Turks was not due to some “enlightened” variant of Islam but the result of the main virtues of Islam itself. , or in the playful, ribald subversiveness that characterizes much of medieval Islamic literature.

Max Rodenbeck writes in his recent book review that what we witness in the “major cities of the Middle East” is “the more relaxed and eclectic variants of the faith” which bears “the stamp of a more outward-looking take on the faith.”[5]

Let us take Dubai as an example. Being a place that is the hub of prostitution; where one can find active and passive homosexuals available for service in Nasir Square; where prostitutes are lined up in a ground like the historical slave-markets just a block from Dubai Palm and Marco polo Hotels and being a place where one finds women wearing bikini and headscarf at the same time, does not represent relaxed or modern take on faith in any way.

This is simply un-Islamic. Labeling it as a modern form of Islam or calling it reformation makes no sense at all. A city lost in drinks and discos and oblivious to the mass murders just across the Gulf in Iraq can never be considered a multi-cultural and tolerant society of Muslims.

Lack of reformation in Islam is blamed on the closed doors of Ijtihâd," or speculative reasoning. Is the culture in Dubai the result of re-opened doors of Ijtihâd or the open practice of homosexuality, for instance, has marched the faith out of the philosophical cul-de-sac? This is neither reformation, nor has it anything to do with faith, Ijtihâd or enlightenment. This is not progress.

The advocates of war argue that Islamic faith “is again in a state of unusual ferment” because “humanists and literalists” are pushing for “reforms” in opposite directions. The Dutch historian Rudolph Peters defines it as a struggle between those who would subordinate Islam to "progress" and those who would subordinate progress to "Islam."[6]

What hurts the promoters of reformation in Islam is the “primacy” of the Qur’an, which they consider out of date “founding texts.” Any reference to the Qur’an or living by it is presented as “atavistic literalism,” which turns Islam into “an aggressive, expansionary force.”[7] These are the misconceptions that are far more dangerous than the Bush administration lies about WMD in Iraq.

Such scare mongers lump together Saladin’s struggle against Crusaders with the US initiated Taliban movement in Afghanistan and the US protected House of Saud in Saudi Arabia without any reference to parallels and commonalities. They present these geographically disparate and centuries apart events as movements which have reduced “Sunni canon to a narrow range of sources and interpretations.”

All these are conjectures to hide the untold fear in Western circles. The world looks rather threatening as seen from the neo-cons perspective. It is not merely a question of their never ending colonial adventures, or the resistance they are facing on, what Samuel Huntington calls, the "bloody borders" of Islam — what most Westerners have made to believe the struggle to democratize and humanize Muslims. Like many smaller religious communities that have turned inward, they expect the 1.3 billion adherents to the faith of Islam to submit to the dominant western culture regardless of any constructive discussion on its merits and demerits and irrespective of the facts that some of its values may clearly contradict the limits sets in the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Fear being a fertile theme for politicians, Western politics has grown to be dominated by the language of transformation, whose physical manifestations range from disturbingly romanticized genocidal sanctions to the barbaric wars and defiant insistence to make Muslim women remove their headscarves. Western education systems now tend to present West as irreducibly opposed to anything religious — whether that is self-identification or social and political organization — when it come to Islam alone. Western civilization has become a kind of ism that has to be defended and imposed on the Muslim world at any cost.

Yet much of the new, exclusivist Western discourse rests on tenuous grounds. The struggle or any reference to an Islamic state, for instance, has become something of a touchstone for movements that oppose Islam. Writers such as Carl Ernst adds fuel to the ever growing confusion in Following Muhammad, his biased take on Islam, that 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. This debate is irrelevant. It is up to Muslims to decide. But the first thing is to let them free from the never ending colonial bondage and interference in their internal affairs.

Similarly, opponents of Islam as a way of life commonly assert that the application of Islamic law, or Shari’ah, should not be the defining characteristic of an Islamic state. The reason they put forward is that there is disagreement about what Shari’ah actually means. This, again, is an irrelevant argument. It is naïve to assume that many Muslims are influenced by European models of law and now want to have the same in Islam. It is a historical fact that when Europe was groping in the dark ages, Islam not only presented, but also implemented a comprehensive code of life — including practice of the law within the limits prescribed by the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Shari’ah alone is not seen as a blanket solution to modern problems. Ignoring the encompassing message of Islam as a code f life that covers all socio-politico and economic aspects of life involves a dangerous measure of forgetfulness. If Tunisia and Egypt freely chose to adopt Western-style statutes before colonization, it does not mean that they were doing so on the basis of some injunction of the Qur’an that recognized the modern world's essential need for the application of Western law.

If most Muslims do not have the will to avoid Riba (interest) or drinking, for instance, it doesn’t mean Riba and Alcohol are permissible or no more prohibited by the Qur’an. Similarly, if most Muslim countries now limit the scope of Shari’ah to a few matters, such as laws regarding inheritance, it does not mean that it has become redundant. The Egyptian judge Said Ashmawi, is not wrong in his assertion that Shari’ah should simply be understood as any law made by Muslims. The condition is that it does not cross the limits set by the Qur’an and Sunnah.

Jihad has been similarly turned into a vexed concept. By declaring all resistance against occupations as terrorism, the intellectual terrorists in the West have, inevitably, made western public fearful to the word Jihad. The same Mujahideen, who were brought on to the White House lawn with so much reverence, suddenly became abominable terrorists when after the Soviet Union’s collapse, their struggle shifted towards liberating their lands from Western domination.

To make the matter simple, we can say that no non-Muslim country is occupied by Muslim these days. Nowhere Muslims are imposing their faith and way of life on non-Muslims through the language of daisey cutters. The idea of Jihad, even in the most convoluted form, is better than the US “war on terrorism,” which has infected not only Muslim understanding but also some strains of Western thought. Muslim web sites with titles such as “Azf al Rusas (“The Music of the Bullet”) are not as evocative as the US title such as “Shock and Awe” and “Infinite Justice” for practical mass murder of Muslims in the name of freedom and democracy.

Militant web sites promote the notion that fighting Muslims is a primal duty of every Westerner. The reason as given by a letter in National Post (Canada) is to humanize them, just as the nuclear bombs humanized the Japanese after the World War 2. And leaders such as Bush and Blair have turned this understanding of war into a furious passion play.

Obviously, there is much more to the neo-crusader’s lexicon than these few words, but the selection offers a glimpse of the complexities involved in trying to identify and counter it. This complexity is something of which ordinary Westerners, convinced only that their way of life is good and right, remain but dimly aware. The idea, popular in the oppressed and among aware Westerners, that the US and its allies suffer currently from a hyper-power syndrome and that it is in need of reviewing their policies of injustice and discrimination, simply does not occur to the neo-con faithful.

The fact is that, stripped of its unimaginable military power, the moral and civilizational superiority complex, which is sweeping the Western world in general and its leaders in particular, might not last so long. The death and destruction they rain down on Muslims might not appear so very different from the barbarism they associate with Islam.

Islamic “fundamentalism” is a curse today, but the US policy is hardly divorced from religious influence. America's Second Great Awakening in the early nineteenth century, for example, generated fervid revival meetings not unlike the prayers Condoleezza Rice offer now to Bush during the flight or that are common in the White House. Celebrity evangelists, lushly bearded fellows with quavering voices and piercing eyes, were only different in appearance from the “scholars” of Islam, such as Pipes and Bernard Lewis whose sermonizing takes up most of the US airtime. Ostentatious piety became the norm in much of the US. Just as Bush and Company has put new life in opposition to abortion and same sex marriages. Christian missionary societies were not so different from Saudi charities that profess to sponsor the Call.

The Muslim struggle against occupation and western domination is not similar to the misbegotten ventures of some American revivalists, such as John Brown's brief but bloody holy war. Of course, The Scarlet Letter propelled many Christian to question their faith. However, the expectation that associating Muslims with the mass-murder on 9/11 or the mass campaigns for dividing Muslims will generate doubts among Muslims about their faith is highly misplaced.

Allies for “reformation”

Such, then, is the background to undermining Islam through so-called reformation after paving the ground with Islam bashing for so many years. Now is the search for more trusted allies for “reforming” and “rebuilding” Islam.

Interestingly, the issues that expose the fundamental flaws in the Western approach are presented as “the malady” of Islam. For instance, Osama never discussed reformation of Islam. He never gets into debate about Islam. His agenda is straight forward. He demands occupation forces to get out of the Muslim lands and bring an end to the injustice against Muslims. Graham Fuller, an ex-CIA analyst, however, claims to have surveyed the spectrum of “political Islam” and finds Osama on one end of the “reformist spectrum.”

This is an attempt to show that Al-Qaeda also wants to reform Islam in the opposite direction to the opportunist Muslims who question, and in some cases reject, the fundamental tenets of belief. Actually, these rejectionists of the basic principles need to tailor Islam to fit their conjecture. The great mass of Muslims stands with increasing discomfort on the other side of the divide. They believe if there is any reform to happen, it should be to Muslims, not Islam. They are shocked by the way some of the so-called Muslims have chosen to sell their faith for a few days of basking in the Western glory.

A vast majority of Muslims is really fearful because the so-called war on terrorism has gradually turned into war for democracy, then nation building, and now to the preconceived target of “religion building” for Muslims.

Classifying Osama as a reformist is part of the grand scheme to finally classify all Muslims who live or struggle to live by Islam as terrorists. Pipes has already started calling all Muslims radicals, including those who never stop promoting themselves as moderate Muslims.[8] The only good, “forward looking” Muslims from now on are the secularists, who reject all the basic principles of Islam.[9] Too sad for "moderate" Muslims.

Promoting a clash of civilizations in the 90’s was merely stage one. The more difficult part, as the American neo-cons see it, is convincing fellow Westerners to reject Islam’s way of life altogether, topple the dictators who have outlived their utility and install “forward looking dictators” where there is a chance that people will take power, or places where there is a chance that Muslims can freely think and work on establishing an Islamic state. It is this latter part of this project that the neo-cons share with a wider radical trend, referring to itself as defenders of “our [western] way of life.”

The imagined political destination of this path is the reformation Islam in a way to make living by Western standards for social, political, and economic affairs of life acceptable to all Muslims. Reaching this goal necessitates elimination of the impurities called “Islamists,” “radicals,” “fundamentalists” and what they stand for: establishment of Islamic state, living by Shari’ah and the Qur’an as a guide for human beings. It will lead to the imposition of a global “secular” order and a standard civilization by default.

This "reform" agenda has met with a certain amount of success. Like-minded dictators and groups, often of an opportunistic and exploitative bent, have sprouted from Washington to Islamabad. They have proved particularly ambitious in the West where they constantly demand for Washington’s backing of their agenda. Yet in places that bear the brunt of the physical war on Islam, their fighting message has run its course. Recruitment of “forward looking” Muslims has fallen off rapidly in response to the ugliness of their methods and to the radical utopianism of their bottomless “moderation” and vagueness of the ultimate goal.

Countries such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria, and Egypt are passing, with varying degrees of humiliation, through the historical gauntlet of extremist “moderation” through the “enlightened” puppets on top, who are bent upon perpetuating themselves in power through embracing neo-cons agenda of “moderating” Islam through all possible means, from changing school curricula to tightening the noose around the neck of religious institutions and gradually making non-permissible (e.g. Riba) as permissible.

The experience has been humiliating, but although some resistance persists there, the neo-cons no longer consider it a mortal threat to their agenda. Even Saudi Arabia, where Islam is claimed to be practiced to the utmost degree possible, is inclining toward the so-called reform and discussions on changing school curriculum to please Washington. The more enduring influence of “moderate” and “liberal” radicals can be seen, perhaps, in the shift to more malicious styles of rhetoric and more strident ways of marking numerous Muslim identities. Most have crossed the limits in challenging the core of Islamic faith. Yet these things, too, may prove to be passing fashions like the Muslims who took to raising different anti-Islam slogans after jumping on the communist band wagon.

Closer to the Western capitols are those who make use of fundamentalist rhetoric (the separation of Church and State is inevitable and Shari’ah has no place in modern day world) in pursuit of their personal goals. This is a very broad trend, and one that has succeeded in mobilizing support among university students and professors. Duped by the neo-cons’ Islam bashing, they consider the Qur’an’s call for living by Islam as a vehicle, which the clergy use for regaining lost prestige.

It is interesting to note that no matter how Muslims may try to present themselves peaceful, tolerant, moderate and living by a particular brand of Islam that is totally innocuous, they will remain objectionable as long as they do not out rightly reject Islam as a way of life.

Those who simply try to super impose Islamic forms upon the existing structures are also rejected as centrist-fundamentalists. Although these groups vows that they are not out to overthrow governments, but they are rejected simply because they speak of "Islamizing" economics, governance, education, culture, and so on. What is unacceptable is the segregation of sexes in the national university in Kuwait and the financial institutions offering a range of alternatives for saving, lending and investment. It is unacceptable because “underlying all this is a vague notion that Islam is not merely a faith but an all-embracing social system.”[10] That is what hurts.

Although some Western observers, such as Raymond Baker, credit the jacket-and-tie-wearing, "capital-friendly" figureheads and followers of this trend with being modernizers and consider them the wave of Muslim future. However, the radical Islam-bashers reject these groups stand on women education and jobs because in the neo-cons view these groups do not ascribe to what they call “universal precepts and fashions.” This is, thus, another precondition. One has to accept “universal precepts” regardless of how contradictory these might be to the Qur’an and Sunnah.

The radical Islam-bashers reject even what their co-Islam-bashers, such as Baker, describe as “clear and compelling answers” put forward by “moderate Islamists.” When there is a discussion of the application of Islam "rightly understood," along with democracy "within an Islamic civilizational framework" for long term social and cultural transformation, they quickly ask: “But who and what are to define this understanding, and this ‘framework’ —hallowed Islamic texts, or modern-day Muslims?”[11] It means, Islamic texts are redundant and modern-day Muslims are incapable of rightly understanding and applying Islam. So it is now on the shoulders of the Western “scholars” of Islam to guide 1.3 billion people towards living a civilized life.

The “New Islamists” are rejected because they “squirm at the mention of Darwin” — yet another pre-condition. It shows how the bottom line never arrives for the so-called modernism of Islam and moderation of Muslims.

Muslims, called progressive, are acceptable to some extent because they take “a more critical view of the Koran's text.”[12] Nasr Abu Zeid, a linguistics professor who applies his discipline to the Qur’an, and suggests that some parts of the Holy book might better be understood as allegories, rather than literal fact, is a welcome member of the progressive group.

Putting Osama on one end of the Islam’s reformation spectrum is to give some validity to the hypothetical spectrum of reformers for Islam and also to globally promote members of this league to be used as tools. It includes Harun Nasution, an Indonesian scholar who has tried to reintroduce Mu'tazelite ideas of eighth- and ninth-century Iraq; Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle, who teaches at Swarthmore, that traditional Islam's disapproval of homosexuality is largely the result of erroneous exegesis; and the Franco-Tunisian writer Abdelwahab Meddeb who brought forward his book The Malady of Islam to please the masters of his destiny.

The list goes on with the Iranian Abdel Karim Soroush, the Moroccan Muhammad Abed al-Jabri, and the Tunisian historian Abdelmajid Charfi.[13] All have put forward critiques of the Qur’anic text and the core principles of faith, which they call “ahistorical dogmatism.” The Islam-bashers in the West promote them as Muslims who have embraced “the full range of modern paths to philosophical inquiry.” Their acceptance of homosexuality, for example, is “life-affirming interpretation of faith” for their Western sponsors.


The crux of Islam bashing lies in the fact that no amount of “moderation,” “tolerance” and the west-pleasing labels are acceptable as long as Muslims do not proclaim like Abdou Filali-Ansary that Islam “is not a system of social and political regulation.” In his highly praised contributions to Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, Abdou Filali-Ansary concludes that rejecting Islam as a system of social and political regulation “frees up space” and lays “the foundations of collective identity.” Furthermore, to the satisfaction of neo-cons, he believes, “this opens the way, in turn, to acceptance of a convergence with other religious traditions and universalistic moralities.”

So this is the bottom line. Unless Muslims allow Islam’s convergence with other religious tradition and universalistic moralities, no amount of concession, moderation and tolerance is acceptable from them. If convergence with other religious traditions does not mean dilution of Islam, what else does it mean? What else is there left to scare Muslims away from the agenda embraced by the administrations in Washington, London and elsewhere in the West?

There is a growing competition among self-proclaimed Muslim “liberals” for establishing themselves as the best lot for addressing the neo-cons concerns with Islam and repeatedly ask for Washington’s backing. The pre-conditions to be accepted as “forward looking Muslims,” however, are gradually unfolding before their eyes. Let us see how far they can go in pleasing Islam bashers.

Keeping the main objective of the war on Islam under different banners in mind, one comes to the conclusion that the main question is not that instead of Muslims, Islam is to be reformed, or which of these groups is ready to do the job of converging Islam with other religions and merging its values with universalistic moralities.

The question is: Is it possible to rebuild or dissolve the faith of 1.3 billion people as envisaged by the die-hard Islam-bashers?

If those, who believe in perpetual war to achieve these objectives, insist on going ahead with the project “rebuilding Islam,” how many out of this 1.3 billion are they willing to annihilate before calling an end to their misadventure?

Abid Ullah Jan is the author of A war on Islam? His latest book, The End of Democracy, was released in Canada in 2003.



[1] Robert Tracinski clearly states: "Politicians, the press, and academics have rushed to declare that this is not a war between Islam and the West. Islam, we have been told again and again, is really 'a religion of peace.' Perhaps the reason we have to be told this so many times is because it so obviously contradicts the facts"?

[2] “The Red Menace Is Gone. But Here’s Islam,” New York Times, Headline, January 21st, 1996 edition, section 4.

[3] Amos Perlmutter, “Islamic Threat is Clear and Present,” Insight in the News, February 15, 1993, pp. 22-23

[4] See Abdou Filali-Ansary, "Muslims and Democracy," in Islam and Democracy in the Middle East, edited by Larry Diamond, Marc F. Plattner, and Daniel Brumberg.

[5] Max Rodenbeck, “Islam confronts its demons,” The New York Review, Volume 51, Number 7 · April 29, 2004.

[6] "From Jurists' Law to Statute Law or What Happens When Shari'a Is Codified," in Shaping the Current Islamic Reformation, edited by B.A. Roberson.

[7] Ibid. Max Rodenbeck.

[8] Daniel Pipes, “The U.S. Institute of Peace Stumbles,” New York Sun, March 23, 2004

[9] Daniel Pipes, “Fixing Islam,” New York Sun, April 6, 2004

[10] Max Rodenbeck, “Islam confronts its demons,” The New York Review, Volume 51, Number 7 · April 29, 2004.

[11] Ibid. Max Rodenbeck

[12] Ibid. Max Rodenbeck

[13] A fuller listing of so-promoted “liberal” Muslim thinkers can be found at www.etudes-musulmanes.com



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