From the excellent blog Atlas Shrugged
Fjordman August 21, 2008
I do not believe that there is such a thing as a moderate Islam, and have been quite clear about that since I started writing. I disagree with observers such as Dr. Daniel Pipes on this particular point. I’d like to say to Pipes that I enjoy much of his work. I have linked to it a number of times before and intend to do so in the future as well. However, I get increasingly disturbed by how many people keep repeating the mantra of reaching out to “moderate Islam” when I have yet to see a single piece of evidence that a moderate Islam actually exists.
When asked about where to find a moderate Islam, Daniel Pipes has repeatedly referred to the late Sudanese scholar Mahmud Muhammud Taha, whose ideas are available in English in the book The Second Message of Islam. Taha’s disciple and translator Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’Im, author of the book Toward an Islamic Reformation, has this to say about the ideas of his teacher:
“[T]he Medina message is not the fundamental, universal, eternal message of Islam. That founding message is from Mecca. So, the reformation of Islam must be based on a return to the Mecca message. In order to reconcile the Mecca and Medina messages into a single system, Muslim jurists have said that some of the Medina verses have abrogated the corresponding earlier verses from Mecca. Although the abrogation did take place, and it was logical and valid jurisprudence at one time, it was a postponement, not a permanent abrogation.”
Because of this, An-Na’Im thinks that “The Mecca verses should now be made the basis of the law and the Medina verses should be abrogated. This counter-abrogation will result in the total conciliation between Islamic law and the modern development of human rights and civil liberties. In this sense we reformers are superfundamentalists.”
I have read the books of both Taha and An-Na’Im closely. I find that their writing sounds better the first time you read it than it does the second time. For instance, Taha suggests that the reason why Muhammad and the early Muslims “had to” murder so many people was because these individuals didn’t accept Islam peacefully. Not only does Taha not indicate that he thinks this was wrong, he describes armed Jihad as a “surgical tool” which can be used to implement true Islam. He hints that this hopefully won’t be needed now because people are “mature” enough to know that Islam is good for them and will submit without coercion.
What happens to those who don’t like Islam and have no intention of submitting? Taha doesn’t say, but judging from his writings, he seems to believe that violence is justified against such people. It is hard to see in what way this is supposed to represent a “reformist” way of thinking. According to orthodox Islamic theology, Muslims are not allowed to physically attack non-Muslims unless these have first been invited to embrace Islam yet have failed to do so, in which case they are fair game. In other words, Muslims should try to convert people peacefully first and then start killing them afterwards if they refuse. Taha thus advocates a traditional concept of Jihad, one not qualitatively different from that espoused by Jihadist terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.
Although Taha resembles an apologist for Jihadist violence, he was still considered so unorthodox by traditional Muslims that he was executed as an apostate. Besides, his ideas are built on questionable “truths” about the Koran. Consider what the German professor Christoph Luxenberg claims in his pioneering work:
“In its origin, the Koran is a Syro-Aramaic liturgical book, with hymns and extracts from Scriptures which might have been used in sacred Christian services. In the second place, one may see in the Koran the beginning of a preaching directed toward transmitting the belief in the Sacred Scriptures to the pagans of Mecca, in the Arabic language. Its socio-political sections, which are not especially related to the original Koran, were added later in Medina. At its beginning, the Koran was not conceived as the foundation of a new religion. It presupposes belief in the Scriptures, and thus functioned merely as an inroad into Arabic society.”
In other words, if Mr. Luxenberg is correct, what we now call the Meccan chapters of the Koran are peaceful precisely because they aren’t “Islamic” at all, they are based on Christian texts. The “authentic” texts related to Muhammad and his companions, whoever the historical Muhammad really was, are the much more violent and aggressive chapters we classify as Medinan. This is precisely the opposite of what Taha and An-Na’Im suggest. From a secular point of view, their ideas are thus extremely vulnerable to historical criticism, and from an Islamic point of view, it’s difficult to see how their ideas can be implemented.
After reading through much of the literature on the subject, I would divide “Muslim reformers” into three categories. The first, and by far the largest category, consists of liars, opportunists and taqiyya artists; people who want to infiltrate our societies rather than reform Islam. The second category consists of people who may be well-meaning but simply don’t understand the issues involved. Irshad Manji, for instance, is not a bad person, but she just doesn’t know very much about Islamic history. The third and smallest category consists of people who are knowledgeable and genuinely desire reform. The German-Syrian scholar Bassam Tibi could be placed here. I find some of his work interesting, but even he is incoherent and unconvincing in presenting the case for how a moderate Islam should look like.
Where does Taha belong in this picture? Frankly, I suspect it’s among category 1. He is theologically unconvincing, and some of the passages he writes are outright disturbing if you read them closely and analyze what he’s actually saying. The following quotes, with page references, are from the book The Second Message of Islam by Mahmud Muhammud Taha.
“Reciprocity (al-mu’awadah) in the case of fornication is a fixed punishment (hadd) of either stoning to death or whipping. Since the fornicator sought easy pleasure without regard for Shari’a, he is made to suffer pain in order to recover his senses. An individual tends to lean more towards pleasure than towards pain. By pulling the self to pain, when it succumbs to prohibited pleasure, he reestablishes a certain equilibrium and avoids recklessness and folly. The fixed punishment for drinking alcohol is based on the same principle. A person who takes alcohol wishes to numb his mind, thereby trying to escape reality. The pain of whipping is intended to bring him back to face bitter reality, so that he may use his clear mind to improve this reality.”‘
“Islam, in its essence, is not a religion according to the common meaning of the word, but rather a science, its dogma being merely transitional to its scientific stage.”
“We have said that the Qur’an was divided between al-iman and al-islam, as well as being revealed in two parts as Meccan and Medinese. The Meccan Qur’an was revealed first. In other words, people were invited to adopt Islam [in the ultimate sense] first, and when they failed to do so, and it was practically demonstrated that they were below its standard, they were addressed in accordance with their abilities.”
My comment: What Taha means by this quote, as he makes clear in other passages, is that Muslims during the early Mecca phase invited people to accept Islam. When some of them refused to do so, Muslims had the right to start killing people and force them to accept Islam. Taha indicates that this principle should apply now, too. He also makes it perfectly clear that his definition of “freedom” is identical with sharia, and that those who abuse their freedom by not living according to sharia should face armed Jihad until they do. It’s for their own good.
“In this way, all the verses of persuasion, though they constitute the primary or original principle, were abrogated or repealed by the verses of compulsion (jihad). This exception was necessitated by the circumstances of the time and the inadequacy of the human capability to discharge properly the duty of freedom at that time.”
“Some Muslim scholars believe that Islamic wars were purely defensive wars, a mistaken belief prompted by their keenness to refute claims by the Orientalists that Islam spread by means of the sword. In fact, the sword was used to curtail the abuse of freedom. Islam used persuasion for thirteen years in propagating its clearly valid message for the individual and the community. When the addressees failed to discharge properly the duties of their freedom, they lost this freedom, and the Prophet was appointed as their guardian until they came of age. However, once they embraced the new religion and observed the sanctity of life and property, and the social claims of their kith and kin, as they had been instructed, the sword was suspended, and abuses of freedom were penalized according to new laws. Hence the development of Islamic Shari’a law, and the establishment of a new type of government. In justifying the use of the sword, we may describe it as a surgeon’s lancet and not a butcher’s knife. When used with sufficient wisdom, mercy, and knowledge, it uplifted the individual and purified society.”
“Suffering death by the sword in this life is really an aspect of suffering hell in the next life, since both are punishments for disbelief. Whoever adds to his own disbelief by inciting others to disbelief or to shun the path of God must be suppressed before he takes up arms in the cause of disbelief.”
“Islam’s original principle is freedom. But the Islamic religion was revealed to a society in which slavery was an integral part of the socioeconomic order. It was also a society that was shown in practice to be incapable of properly exercising its freedom, and therefore its individual members needed guidance; hence the consequent enactment of jihad. In Islamic jihad, the Muslims first had to offer to the unbelievers the new religion. If they refused to accept it, they had the second option of paying jizyah and living under Muslim government, while practicing their own religion and enjoying personal security. If they also refused the option of jizyah, the Muslims would fight them and if victorious take some of them as slaves, thereby adding to the number of those already in slavery.”
“If an individual is invited to become the slave of God but refuses, such refusal is symptomatic of ignorance that calls for a period of training. The individual prepares to submit voluntarily to the servitude of God by becoming the slave of another person, thereby learning obedience and humility, which are becoming of a slave. Reciprocity (al-mu’awadah) here rules that if a free person refuses to become the slave of God, he may be subjugated and made the slave of a slave of God, in fair and just retribution: ‘And whoso does an atom’s weight of evil will also see it.’ (99:8)”
My comment: The above passage is one of the most disturbing quotes from the entire book. Taha was from the Sudan, a country where chattel slavery is still being practiced today. If Taha had said that slavery once existed in most human societies, I could perhaps have accepted that. But he goes further than that. He indicates that slavery can in fact be morally good because it is a “training period” for becoming a slave of Allah, as all human beings should be. Let’s imagine for a moment that Mr. Taha had been a white Christian, not a black Muslim. What if, say, Robert Spencer in his next book stated that slavery in the United States was good because it taught the slaves obedience and humility. Does anybody believe he would then have been hailed as a great example of a moderate and tolerant Christianity? Somehow, I doubt it. But there is apparently nothing “extremist” about supporting slavery if you are a Muslim. Extremists are nasty Islamophobes such as Geert Wilders.
“Being so supreme, Islam has never been achieved by any nation up to the present day. The nation of muslimin has not yet come. It is expected to come, however, in the future of humanity.”
My comment: Apart from sharia, Taha likes Communism, but he thinks the road to perfect Communism goes through sharia. Sharia is the key to global equality, eternal peace and warm apple pie. Unless they have banned warm apple pie by then, I don’t know whether it’s halal or not. It could be part of a Zionist plot:
“The key here is that no one should be allowed to own anything that permits the exploitation of one citizen’s labor to increase the income of another. Individual ownership, even within such narrow boundaries, should not be ownership of property as such, but rather ownership of the benefits derived from property, and all property remains in the ownership of God and the community as a whole. As production from resources increases, the equity of distribution is perfected, and differences are reduced by raising both minimum and maximum incomes. But the gap between minimum and maximum incomes is gradually narrowed in order to achieve absolute equality. When such absolute equality is achieved through the grace of God, and as a result of abundant production, we shall achieve communism or a sharing of the earth’s wealth by all people. Communism thus differs from socialism in degree, in the sense that socialism is a stage in the development towards communism. The Prophet experienced ultimate communism”
“…as the Prophet said, ‘Justice shall fill the earth in the same way it was previously full of injustice.’ This is what Marx dreamed of, but failed to find the way to achieve. It can only be achieved by al-muslimin who are yet to come, and then the earth shall enjoy a degree of fulfillment of the verse: ‘The God-fearing are in gardens and springs. They will be told: Enter therein, in peace and security. We cleansed what was in their breasts of hatred, so they became brothers sitting together, never to feel hardship or be removed therefrom.’ (15:45-48) This is the degree of communism to be achieved by Islam with the coming of the nation of muslimin, whence the earth shall light up with the Light of its Lord, and God’s Grace is conferred upon its inhabitants, when there shall be peace, and love shall triumph.”
All things summed up, I agree with Daniel Pipes: Mahmud Muhammud Taha is indeed an interesting case, but for precisely the opposite reason of what Mr. Pipes claims. Taha supports the idea of slavery on a moral basis, not just as an historical fact. “Freedom” is identical with sharia and being a slave of Allah. Those who don’t want to accept Islam or Islamic rule should face armed Jihad, and the sword should be used as a “surgical tool” to cut them off from the body of society. And this is moderate…..how, exactly?
If Taha is the great hope for a moderate Islam, we can conclude that a moderate Islam supports slavery, stoning people to death for adultery, whipping those who enjoy a glass of wine or beer and massacring those who disagree with the above mentioned policies. Taha openly supported many of the most appalling aspects of sharia, yet was still considered so controversial that he was executed as an apostate.
The story of Mahmud Muhammud Taha is the ultimate, definitive and final proof that there is no moderate Islam. There never has been and there never will be. It’s a myth. We should not base our domestic or foreign policies on the existence of a moderate Islam just like we should not base them on the existence of other mythical creatures such as the yeti or the tooth fairy.
It is unpleasant to conclude that Islam cannot be reformed. I don’t like it either, and would much have preferred a different answer. But I see no practical indications that a tolerant Islam is emerging and have great difficulty in envisioning how such an entity could look like. There are several ways Islam could conceivably be reformed, yet none of them are very likely to succeed.
I have reviewed and criticized Irshad Manji’s work before. Although she never says so explicitly in her book, I get the impression that Manji largely agrees with the mantra that “Islam is whatever Muslims make of it.” I don’t share this view. Why do those who behead Buddhist teachers in Thailand, burn churches in Nigeria, persecute Hindus in Pakistan or blow bombs in the London subway always “misunderstand” Islamic texts? Why don’t they feel this urge to kill people after reading about, say, Winnie the Pooh?
If any text was infinitely elastic, we could replace the Koran with any other book and get the same result. That’s obviously not the case. If you have a text that repeatedly calls for killing, death and mayhem, more people are going to “interpret” this text in aggressive ways. Islam is the most aggressive and violent religion on earth in practice because its texts are more aggressive than those of any other major religion, and because the example of Muhammad is vastly more violent than that of any other religious founder. If you return to the original Islam, which Manji claims to seek, you get Jihad, since that’s what the original Islam was all about.
The dozens of explicit Jihad verses in the Koran won’t all magically disappear. As long as they exist, somebody is bound to take them seriously. And since any “reformed” Islam must ultimately be rooted in Islamic texts, this probably means that Islam cannot be reformed.
The process of change is anyway not our job. Muslims should do that themselves. They are adults and should take care of their own problems just like everybody else does. For this reason, I dislike Manji’s suggestion that infidels should spend money on sponsoring Muslims.
Muslims will not feel much gratitude if we fund their hospitals or schools. To them, everything good that happens is the will of Allah. Infidels are supposed to pay the jizya to Muslims anyway, so many of them will see payments from us as a sign of submission. They will thus become more arrogant and aggressive by such acts rather than feeling grateful.
As long as infidels keep bailing them out, Muslims have no incentives to change. They will only reform or abandon Islam once they are forced to deal with the backwardness brought by Islamic teachings. For this reason, we need a strategy for containment of the Islamic world. It’s the very minimum we can live with. If Muslims need money, let them ask their Saudi brothers for it. If the Saudis have to finance hospitals in Gaza or Pakistan, this means they have less of it to finance terrorism, which is good. I agree with Hugh Fitzgerald on this one.
It is possible that some schools or branches within Islam are more tolerant than others. Yes, there are theological differences between Sunnis and Shi’a Muslims. These can be significant enough for Muslims, but for non-Muslims they are usually not important. Shia Islam is not more peaceful than Sunni Islam, nor is it more tolerant, with the possible exception of the Ismaili branch, but they are far less numerous than the adherents of Twelver Shi`ism. Since the Shi’a constitute a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims, the Ismailis are a minority of a minority and quite marginal in the greater scheme of things.
My view is that as long as you start out with the texts used by orthodox Muslims – the Koran, the hadith and the sira – it is more or less impossible to come up with a peaceful and tolerant version of Islam. In principle it might be possible to change things by either adding more religious texts or ignoring some of those that already exist. Both options are problematic.
Since Muhammad was supposed to be final messenger of Allah, the “seal of the prophets,” any person later claiming to bring new revelations to mankind will invariably be viewed as a fraud and a heretic by orthodox Muslims. This is what happened to the Ahmadiyya movement, who are viewed as unbelievers by most others Muslims, including many in “moderate” Indonesia.
Another example is the Bahá’í faith, which is indeed more peaceful than mainstream Islam, but their view of history, where the Buddha is seen as a messenger alongside Muhammad, differs so radically from traditional Islam that it is usually classified as a separate religion. Bahá’ís are ruthlessly persecuted in the Islamic world, particularly in Iran where the movement originated. They are viewed as apostate Muslims since they challenge the concept of the finality of Muhammad’s prophethood. Ironically, their supreme governing institution is situated in Haifa, in the evil, racist apartheid state of Israel. So they get persecuted by “tolerant” Muslim, yet are treated with decency by the “intolerant” Israelis.
There are also the “Koran only” Muslims, who, from what I can gather, currently constitute a very small group of people. They advocate that Muslims should ignore the hadith and the sira and rely solely on the Koran for guidance. In order to achieve this, they will first have to defy mounting opposition from other Muslims who will have some rather powerful theological arguments in their favor. The Koran itself says repeatedly that you should obey both the Koran and the example of Muhammad. But the personal example of Muhammad and his companions, his Sunna, is mainly recorded in extra-Koranical material such as the hadith and the sira. If you remove them, you remove the main sources of information for how to conduct prayer, pilgrimage etc., which is usually not recorded in any great detail in the Koran.
“Koran only” reformers, and indeed all aspiring reformers, will have to face the possibility of being branded as heretics and apostates, a crime which potentially carries the death penalty according to traditional sharia law. On top of this, there are more than enough verses in the Koran itself advocating Jihad and intolerance for this alternative to remain problematic, too. For these reasons, it is unlikely that a “Koran only” version of Islam can ever constitute a viable long-term reform path.
A researcher from Denmark, Tina Magaard, has spent years analyzing the original texts of different religions, from Buddhism to Sikhism, and concludes that the Islamic texts are by far the most warlike among the major religions of the world. They encourage terror and fighting to a far larger degree than the original texts of other religions. “The texts in Islam distinguish themselves from the texts of other religions by encouraging violence and aggression against people with other religious beliefs to a larger degree. There are also straightforward calls for terror. This has long been a taboo in the research into Islam, but it is a fact that we need to deal with,” says Magaard. Moreover, there are hundreds of calls in the Koran for fighting against people of other faiths. “If it is correct that many Muslims view the Koran as the literal words of God, which cannot be interpreted or rephrased, then we have a problem. It is indisputable that the texts encourage terror and violence. Consequently, it must be reasonable to ask Muslims themselves how they relate to the text, if they read it as it is,” she says.
It has been suggested that some regional versions of Islam, for instance “Southeast Asian Islam,” are more peaceful than “Arab Islam.” First of all, in this age of globalization and international sponsorship of conservative theology by Saudi Arabia and others, regional interpretations are likely to diminish, not increase. And second of all, I’m not convinced that Southeast Asian Islam is more tolerant than other forms of the religion.
It is true that Muslims in some parts of Indonesia have perhaps been less strict than Muslims in, say, Egypt, but this was because Indonesia was Islamized at a later date and still contained living residues of its pre-Islamic culture. In such cases, we are dealing with “less Islam” or “diluted Islam,” which isn’t quite the same as “moderate Islam” even if some observers claim that it is. Moreover, numerous churches have been burnt down or destroyed in that country only during the last decade, which hardly indicates that Indonesia is a beacon of tolerance.
In Thailand and the Philippines, where Muslims constitute a minority, non-Muslims have been murdered or chased away from certain areas by Islamic groups who wage a constant Jihad against the authorities. The city-state of Singapore is surrounded by several hundred million Muslims and can only manage to avoid outside attacks by curtailing the freedom of speech of its citizens and banning public criticism of Islam.
Malaysia has been a moderate economic success story because it has had a large and dynamic non-Muslim population and only recently became majority Muslim. This corresponds to some extent to the early phases of Islamization in the Middle East. The Golden Age of Islam was in reality the twilight of the pre-Islamic cultures. The scientific achievements during this period are exaggerated, and those that did take place happened overwhelmingly during the early phases of Islamic rule when there were still large non-Muslim populations. When these communities declined due to Muslim harassment, the Middle East, home to some of the oldest civilizations on earth, slowly declined into a backwardness from which it has never recovered.
Lebanon was a reasonably successful and civilized country while it still had a slim Christian majority, but has rapidly declined into Jihad and sharia barbarism in recent decades due to higher Muslim birth rates and non-Muslims leaving the country. It is possible that something similar will happen to Malaysia, as Muslims become more confident and aggressive.
Lastly, you can try to constrain Islam and keep it down by brute force. This kind of muscular secularism, enforced with methods no Western country would even contemplate supporting at the present time, has been tried under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Republic of Turkey. Yet Turkey has never been a beacon of tolerance, and the very few non-Muslims who remain in the country still face harassment. Kemalism has kept Islam at bay but has never really reformed it. Even after almost a century, Islam is in the process of making a comeback. There are serious cracks in the façade of secularism, and some observers fear an Islamic revolution in the country.
The Turkish example is not altogether promising. We should remember that Iran, too, was perceived as a moderate and modern country until the revolution brought the Ayatollah Khomeini to power in 1979. The lesson we can draw from this is that Islam can lie dormant for generations, yet strike again with renewed vigour when the opportunity arises.
The debate about a “reformed” Islam is inappropriately colored by a Western historical perspective, with references to the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth century Europe. This indirectly implies that there is some form of equivalence between Christianity and Islam. I don’t think there is, even though I am not a Christian. Christianity with its concept of the Trinity is akin to soft-polytheism from an Islamic point of view. The religious texts are clearly different, not to mention the personal examples of the founders of the two religions, Jesus and Muhammad. Islam became a major world religion through armed conquest and the creation of an empire. Christianity became a major world religion by gradually taking over an already established empire, the Roman Empire.
Christianity’s slow growth within a Greco-Roman context made it possible for Christians to assimilate Greek philosophy and Roman law to an extent that never happened among Muslims, even in the Mediterranean world which had been dominated by the Romans. This had major consequences for further scientific and political developments in Europe and in the Middle East. Exposure to Greek and other scientific traditions did lead to some advances in the earliest centuries of Islamic rule, but Greek natural philosophy was never accepted into the core curriculum of Islamic madrasas as it was in European universities.
When the American Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century discussed how the shape of their young Republic should be, they were influenced by, in addition to modern thinkers and the British parliamentary system, descriptions of democratic Athens and the Roman Republic, through Aristotle’s political texts and Cicero’s writings. None of these texts were ever available in Arabic or Persian translations. They were rejected by Muslims, but preserved, translated, and studied with interest by Christians. The artistic legacy of the Greeks was also largely rejected by Muslims. In short, Westerners have no shared “Greco-Roman legacy” with Muslims. They cared mainly for one part of this great legacy, the scientific-philosophical part, and even that part they failed to assimilate.
The theological differences between Christianity and Judaism vs. Islam are huge. As Robert Spencer explains in his excellent little book Religion of Peace?: Why Christianity Is and Islam Isn’t, in Christianity the central tenet is that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). While acknowledging that any human being is capable of evil, the Koran says that Muslims are “the best of peoples” (3:110) while the unbelievers are the “vilest of creatures” (98:6). In such a worldview, it is easy to see evil in others but difficult to locate it in oneself. The Koran also says that the followers of Muhammad are “ruthless to the unbelievers but merciful to one another” (48:29), and that the unbelievers are the “worst of created beings” (98:6). One may exercise the Golden Rule in relation to a fellow Muslim, but according to the laws of Islam, the same courtesy is not to be extended to unbelievers.
Yes, you can find violent passages in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the book of Joshua regarding the conquest of Jericho, but “throughout history, rather than celebrating such biblical passages, Jews and Christians have regarded them as a problem to be solved. While interpretations of these passages differ widely among Jews and Christians, from the beginning of rabbinic Judaism and Christianity one understanding has remained dominant among virtually all believers: these passages are not commands for all generations to follow, and if they have any applicability, it is only in a spiritualized, parabolic sense.”
As Spencer says, “the consensus view among Jews and Christians for many centuries is that unless you happen to be a Hittite, Girgashite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, or Jebusite, these biblical passages simply do not apply to you. The scriptures record God’s commands to the Israelites to make war against particular people only. However this may be understood, and however jarring it may be to modern sensibilities, it does not amount to any kind of marching orders for believers. That’s one principal reason why Jews and Christians haven’t formed terror groups around the world that quote the Bible to justify killing non-combatants.”
The main problem with Islam isn’t that it is a stupid religion, as some people say, but that it is a violent and aggressive one. I consider Scientology to be an incredibly stupid creed, but I haven’t heard about many people living in fear that Tom Cruise will cut off their head while quoting poems of L. Ron Hubbard and then post a video of the deed on the Internet.
Yes, religions do evolve. Stoning people to death was once practiced by Jews, but they progressed and left this practice behind because they considered it to be cruel, which it is. The problem is that there are literally dozens – more than one hundred, depending on how you count – verses calling for Jihad in the Koran, and additional ones in the hadith. Any “tolerant” form of Islam would have to reject all of these verses, permanently, in addition to the personal example of Muhammad and his followers as well as a large body of secondary literature by more than a thousand years of sharia scholars. That’s a tall order. We should also remember that Jihad is not the end goal of Islam. Sharia is. Jihad is a tool used to achieve sharia and the rule of Islamic law extended to all of mankind.
As I have explained in my earlier essay Do we want an Islamic Reformation? and in the online booklet Is Islam Compatible With Democracy?, the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy largely hinges upon your definition of “democracy.” If this simply means voting, with no freedom of speech or safeguards for individual rights or minorities then yes, it can, as a vehicle for imposing sharia on society. But such a “pure” democracy isn’t necessarily a good system even without Islam, as critics from Plato to Thomas Jefferson have convincingly argued.
Likewise, the question of whether or not Islam can be reformed largely hinges upon your definition of “Reformation.” I usually say that Islam cannot be reformed, and by “reformed” I thus implicitly understand this as meaning something along the lines of “peaceful, non-sharia based with respect for individual choice and freedom of speech.” In other words: “Reform” is vaguely taken to mean less Islam.
However, Robert Spencer and others have argued that there are similarities between Martin Luther and the Christian Reformation in 16th century Europe and the reform movement started by Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. Wahhab’s alliance with regional ruler Muhammad bin Saud and his family later led to the creation of Saudi Arabia. There was another modern “reform” movement, the so-called Salafism of 19th century thinkers such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh. Whereas the former was an internal reform movement triggered by calls for removing “corruption” from society, the latter was clearly a response to external, Western pressures.
Although Abduh’s ideas were continued in a secular direction by individuals such as Egyptian writer Taha Hussein, clearly the most successful strands were those developed into what was later termed “Islamic fundamentalism” in the 20th century. Muhammad Abduh’s pupil Rashid Rida inspired Hassan al-Banna when he formed the Muslim Brotherhood. Rida urged Muslims not to imitate infidels, but return to the Golden Age of early Islam, as did Abduh. Rida also recommended reestablishing the Caliphate, and applauded when the Wahhabists conquered Mecca and Medina and established modern Saudi Arabia. The two reform movements thus partly merged in the 20th century, into organizations such as the Muslim Brotherhood.
The fact that two initially separate calls for reform, started under different circumstances and for different reasons, produced somewhat similar results is worth contemplating. Protestant reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin also called for returning to the Golden Age of early Christianity. Although the Reformation was a turbulent period while it lasted, it did pave the way for more tolerance and religious freedom in Christian Europe in the long run. This was, in my view, at least partly because Christians could return to the example, as contained in the Gospels, of an early age where the founder of their religion and his disciples led a largely peaceful movement separate from the state. Muslims, on the other hand, can find a similar example only in the Mecca period. As long as the writings from the violent Medina period are still in force, a return to the “early, Golden Age” of Islam will mean a return to intolerance and Jihad violence.
Some Western observers are searching for a “Muslim Martin Luther” who is expected to end the resurgent Islamic Jihad. But one could argue that we already have a Muslim Martin Luther: He’s called Osama bin Laden, deeply inspired by the teachings of Muslim Brotherhood thinker Sayyid Qutb. If “reform” is taken to mean a return to the historical period of the religious founder, Muhammad, and his followers, it will lead to an inevitable upsurge of Jihadist violence, since that was what Muhammad and his followers were all about.
The question of whether Islam is reformable is an important one. But perhaps an even more crucial one is whether an Islamic Reformation would be desirable from a non-Muslim point of view, and the likely answer to that is “no.”