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September 21, 2014 / 26 Elul, 5774
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Can Islam Be Reformed?

History and human nature say yes.
flag of reformed islam

Although spawned as a totalitarian model, Islamism has shown much greater tactical adaptability than either Fascism or Communism. The latter two ideologies rarely managed to go beyond violence and coercion. But Islamism, led by figures such as Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (1954-) and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), has explored nonrevolutionary forms of Islamism. Since it was legitimately voted into office in 2002, the AKP gradually has undermined Turkish secularism with remarkable deftness by working within the country’s established democratic structures, practicing good government, and not provoking the wrath of the military, long the guardian of Turkish secularism.

The Islamists are on the march today, but their ascendance is recent and offers no guarantees of longevity. Indeed, like other radical utopian ideologies, Islamism will lose its appeal and decline in power. Certainly the 2009 and 2013 revolts against Islamist regimes in Iran and Egypt, respectively, point in that direction.

Toward a Modern Synthesis

If Islamism is to be defeated, anti-Islamist Muslims must develop an alternative vision of Islam and explanation for what it means to be a Muslim. In doing so, they can draw on the past, especially the reform efforts from the span of 1850 to1950, to develop a “modern synthesis” comparable to the medieval model. This synthesis would choose among Shari precepts and render Islam compatible with modern values. It would accept gender equality, coexist peacefully with unbelievers, and reject the aspiration of a universal caliphate, among other steps.

Here, Islam can profitably be compared with the two other major monotheistic religions. A half millennium ago, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all broadly agreed that enforced labor was acceptable and that paying interest on borrowed money was not. Eventually, after bitter and protracted debates, Jews and Christians changed their minds on these two issues; today, no Jewish or Christian voices endorse slavery or condemn the payment of reasonable interest on loans.

The planned building for the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, one of the world's largest no-interest financial institutions.

The planned building for the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank, one of the world’s largest no-interest financial institutions.

Among Muslims, however, these debates have only begun. Even if formally banned in Qatar in 1952, Saudi Arabia in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980, slavery still exists in these and other majority-Muslim countries (especially Sudan and Pakistan). Some Islamic authorities even claim that a pious Muslim must endorse slavery. Vast financial institutions worth possibly as much as $1 trillion have developed over the past 40 years to enable observant Muslims to pretend to avoid either paying or receiving interest on money, (“pretend” because the Islamic banks merely disguise interest with subterfuges such as service fees.)

Reformist Muslims must do better than their medieval predecessors and ground their interpretation in both scripture and the sensibilities of the age. For Muslims to modernize their religion they must emulate their fellow monotheists and adapt their religion with regard to slavery and interest, the treatment of women, the right to leave Islam, legal procedure, and much else. When a reformed, modern Islam emerges it will no longer endorse unequal female rights, the dhimmi status, jihad, or suicide terrorism, nor will it require the death penalty for adultery, breaches of family honor, blasphemy, and apostasy.

Darul Uloom Deoband, a bastion of Islamist thinking in India.

Darul Uloom Deoband, a bastion of Islamist thinking in India.

Already in this young century, a few positive signs in this direction can be discerned. Note some developments concerning women:

  • Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has responded to rising public outrage over child marriages by setting the age of majority at 18. Though this doesn’t end child marriages, it moves toward abolishing the practice.
  • Turkish clerics have agreed to let menstruating women attend mosque and pray next to men.
  • The Iranian government has nearly banned the stoning of convicted adulterers.
  • Women in Iran have won broader rights to sue their husbands for divorce.
  • A conference of Muslim scholars in Egypt deemed clitoridectomies contrary to Islam and, in fact, punishable.
  • A key Indian Muslim institution, Darul Uloom Deoband, issued a fatwa against polygamy.

Other notable developments, not specifically about women, include:

  • The Saudi government abolished jizya (the practice of enforcing a poll tax on non-Muslims).
  • An Iranian court ordered the family of a murdered Christian to receive the same compensation as that of a Muslim victim.
  • Scholars meeting at the International Islamic Fiqh Academy in Sharjah have started to debate and challenge the call for apostates to be executed.
Nadin al-Badir and the first lines of her 2009 call for polyandry.

Nadin al-Badir and the first lines of her 2009 call for polyandry.

About the Author: Daniel Pipes is a world-renowned Middle East and Islam expert. He is President of the Middle East Forum. His articles appear in many newspapers. He received his A.B. (1971) and Ph.D. (1978) from Harvard University and has taught at Harvard, Pepperdine, the U.S. Naval War College, and the University of Chicago. He is a board member of the U.S. Institute of Peace and other institutions. His website is DanielPipes.org.


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7 Responses to “Can Islam Be Reformed?”

  1. Jim Layes says:

    That’s a BIG NO!

  2. The religion which has been most dangerous and confrontational to Judaism has historically been Christianity and all Jews are threatened. In a distant second has been Islam.

  3. Talal Itani says:

    The Quran 2:62. Those who believe, and those who are Jewish, and the Christians, and the Sabeans—any who believe in God and the Last Day, and act righteously—will have their reward with their Lord; they have nothing to fear, nor will they grieve.
    quoted from http://www.ClearQuran.com.

  4. Pamela Kafir Farm Liner says:

    Daniel knows Islam can not and will never change..follow the Islamic trilogy as moslems do..there will never be peace…

  5. Ricky Martinez says:

    Islam, as evidenced by the likes of "Pamela Kafir Farm Liner" is sorely needed by Westerners, at least for the purposes of strengthening their own identities and self-definitions. If there is no "green menace" or "beast from the east," many Westerners lose meaning and purpose in their lives.

  6. Ricky Martinez says:

    A problem with your analysis Daniel is that while you make some intriguing points in your thesis it reeks of paternalism and condescension. Basic concepts such as Shariah need not be "opposed," for a believing Muslim that is anathema. One can be in fidelity with the spirit and values brought to the world by the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and flourish in the modern world. You also suffer from the weakness of giving too much weight to such weak minded individuals as Ayaan H. Ali who have no real impact on the discussions going on in the Muslim world. She is basically eye candy to assuage the fragile egos of anti-Islam/Muslim activists.

  7. Quran (9:29) – "Fight those who believe not in Allah nor the Last Day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by Allah and His Messenger, nor acknowledge the religion of Truth, (even if they are) of the People of the Book, until they pay the Jizya with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued." "People of the Book" refers to Christians and Jews.

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