In the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, political leaders have lined up to denounce the acts as inhuman and uncivilized, unworthy of our day and age.
Unfortunately, the horrific actions of ISIS—done in the name of Islam—often get attributed to Muslims as a whole. There is the underlying assumption that there must be some core aspect of the religion that is at fault, that the religion is incompatible with modernity.
It hasn’t helped that some non-Muslim thinkers have conflated ISIS with mainstream Islam. They’ll often point to ISIS’ desire to return civilization to the seventh century as further proof that Islam—and its followers—are backwards.
Yet many leading Muslim thinkers are going to some of Islam’s earliest texts to actually promote reform. Contained within these texts are ideas many consider progressive: peaceful coexistence, the acceptance of other religions, democratic governance, and women’s rights.
Indeed, Islam and modernization need not be at odds with one another. And in the aftermath of tragedy, it’s important to not lose sight of this.
A single model of modernity?
The question is posed, time and again: will Muslims ever be able to reform, modernize, and join the 21st century?
Yet the subtext is almost always that the Western paradigm of modernity—the one that developed in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, that firmly embraced secularism and the (sometimes ferocious) marginalization of religion—is the only one worthy of emulation. Muslims, the thinking goes, have no choice but to adopt it themselves.
However some scholars have increasingly challenged the notion of a single model of modernity. According to them, there’s no reason that religion and modernization must inevitably be at odds with one another for all societies and for all time.
In 16th-century Europe, the priesthood had achieved considerable wealth and political power by often allying themselves with local kings and rulers. The Protestant reformers, therefore, regarded the Church as an impediment to political empowerment.
But Muslims, due to their unique religious history, continue to view their religion as an ally in their attempts to come to terms with the changed circumstances of the modern world.
Muslim religious scholars (ulama) never enjoyed the kind of centralized and institutionalized authority that the medieval European church and its elders did. The ulama—from the eighth century’s al-Hasan al-Basri to the 20th century’s Ayatullah Khomeini—traditionally distanced themselves from political rulers, intervening on behalf of the populace to ensure social and political justice.
Such an oppositional role to government prevented the emergence of a general popular animosity directed at them, and by extension, toward Islam.
For this reason, today’s Muslim thinkers feel no imperative to distance themselves from their religious tradition. On the contrary, they are plumbing it to find resources therein to not only adapt to the modern world, but also to shape it.
Islam turned on its head
Yet 21st-century Muslim religious scholars have a challenging task. How can they exhume and popularize principles and practices that allowed Muslims in the past to coexist with others, in peace and on equal terms, regardless of religious affiliation?
Such a project is made more urgent by the fact that extremists in Muslim-majority societies (ISIS leaders currently foremost among them) vociferously reject this as impossible. Islam, they declare, posits the superiority of Muslims over everyone else. Muslims must convert non-Muslims or politically subjugate them.
As a result, many have accused these extremists of trying to return Muslim-majority societies to the seventh century.
If only that were true!
If these extremists could actually be transported miraculously back to the seventh century, they would learn a thing or two about the religion they claim to be their own.
For starters, they would learn to their chagrin that seventh-century Medina accepted Jews as equal members of the community (umma) under the Constitution of Medina drawn up by the prophet Muhammad in 622 AD. They would also learn that seventh-century Muslims took seriously the Qur’anic injunction (2:256) that there is to be no compulsion in religion, and that specific Qur’anic verses—2:62 and 5:69—recognize goodness in righteous Christians and Jews.
Most importantly, fire-breathing extremists would learn that peaceful non-Muslim communities cannot be militarily attacked simply because they are not Muslim. They would be reminded that only after 12 years of nonviolent resistance would the Prophet Muhammad and his companions resort to armed combat or the military jihad. And even then it would only be to defend themselves against aggression.
The Qur’an, after all, unambiguously forbids Muslims from initiating combat. Qur’an 2:190 states, “Do not commit aggression,” while Qur’an 60:8 specifically asserts:
God does not forbid you from being kind and equitable to those who have neither made war on you on account of your religion nor driven you from your homes; indeed God loves those who are equitable.
Extremist groups like ISIS are often accused of being scriptural literalists and therefore prone to intolerance and violence. But when it comes to specific Qur’anic verses like 2:256; 60:8 and others, it’s clear that they cherry-pick which passages to “strictly” interpret.
Going to the source
Not surprisingly, Muslim reformers are returning to their earliest religious sources and history—the Qur’an and its commentaries, reliable sayings of Muhammad, early historical chronicles—for valuable guidance during these troubled times.
And much of what we regard as “modern, progressive values”—among them religious tolerance, the empowerment of women, and accountable, consultative modes of governance—can actually be found in this strand of Muslims’ collective history.
Like 16th-century Christian reformers, Muslim reformers are returning to their foundational texts and mining them for certain moral guidelines and ethical prescriptions. For one reason or another—political upheaval, war, ideological movements—many had been cast aside. But today they retain particular relevance.
As a result, the reformers are distinguishing between “normative Islam” and “historical Islam,” as the famous Islam scholar Fazlur Rahman has phrased it.
But unlike the earlier Christian reformers, Muslim reformers are hardly ever left alone to conduct their project of reform. Their efforts are constantly stymied by intrusive outsiders, particularly non-Muslim Western cultural warriors who encroach on the Muslim heartlands—militarily, culturally and, above all, intellectually.
Such a multipronged assault was particularly evident during George W. Bush’s presidency, during which the neoconservatives championed a “clash of civilizations” between the West and the Islamic world, a theory popularized by political scientist Samuel Huntington.
Western Muslim reformers are not immune to this onslaught, either. They are frequently derided by self-styled “expert” outsiders for subscribing to what they characterize as newfangled beliefs like democracy, religious tolerance, and women’s rights. According to these “experts,” there is supposedly no grounding or room for these beliefs in their religious texts and tradition.
One wonders how effective Martin Luther would have been in 16th-century Europe if he had to constantly deal with non-Christian “experts” lecturing him about Christianity’s true nature.
Meanwhile, there are a number of pundits who are eager to tie the actions of Islamist terrorists to mainstream religious doctrine.
Journalist Graeme Wood’s alarmist article in The Atlantic is a most recent example of such intrusive punditry.
“The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic,” he wrote. “…the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.”
Caner Dagli, a well-known scholar of Islam, rejected Woods’ argument:
All of this puts Muslims in a double bind: If they just go about their lives, they stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims “speak out.” But if they do speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us.
Despite such formidable challenges, reformist efforts continue unabated in learned Muslim circles. Sometimes crises and the subsequent marshaling of moral and intellectual resources can bring out the best in an individual and in a community.
The Qur’an (94:6) promises that “Indeed with hardship comes ease.” Committed Muslim reformers who take the Qur’an’s injunctions seriously (unlike the extremists) are working toward the easing of current circumstances of hardship—and calling on others to help, not impede, them in this global human endeavor.