The Voices of Muslim Reformers
by Charles Strohmer
In July 2005, most Muslims leaders in England responded to the terrorist bombings in London with unequivocal condemnation. Yet the Muslim community in England and elsewhere is often pulled in conflicting directions. On one side of the street, voices can be heard calling for Muslim separation from, if not overthrow of, Western liberal democracy. On the other side, one hears Muslim scholars and academics arguing for reform. Although the notion of “Muslim reform” may seem like an oxymoron to Americans who see Islam only through the lens of graphic violence, Muslim reformers have been quietly working away behind the scene for years, and the events of 9/11, in particular, became a catalyst for their increasingly public stance.
The growing literature of the Muslim reform movement plays an especially significant role since 9/11 shifted the earth’s geopolitical axis and the metrics for understanding the Muslim world underwent a radical reorientation in Washington and European capitals. Western governments were bewildered about what efforts Islam would initiate to help prevent another 9/11 or worse from happening. The urgency of Muslim reform has become central to this concern, especially given the uptick of democracy in the Middle East.“Ours is not a project of developing a ‘Protestant’ Islam distinct from a ‘Catholic’ Islam…
Use of the words Muslim reform and Islamic reform, however, arouse mixed feelings even among scholars. In his Introduction to Progressive Muslims, a book of essays by fifteen Muslim scholars and activists, Omid Safi notes the essayists ambivalence toward using the words reform or reformation to describe what they envision. Because “serious economic, social, and political issues in the Muslim world … need urgent remedying,” Safi writes, and “these changes will take time,” so “if one is talking about a reformation that would address all of those levels, then I would suspect that the most progressive Muslims would readily support the usage of the term.” Yet the words Islamic reformation carry baggage about “the Protestant reformation initiated by Martin Luther, which makes the essayists uneasy, according to Safi, who is assistant professor of philosophy and religion at Colgate University. “Ours is not a project of developing a ‘Protestant’ Islam distinct from a ‘Catholic’ Islam… Many of us insist that we are not looking to create a further split within the Muslim community so much as to heal it. Furthermore, embedded in the very language of ‘Reformation’ is the notion of a significant spilt with the past…. It might be an easier task to start with a tabula rasa, but that would not be an Islamic project. Being a progressive Muslim, at least in the view of this group, mandates a difficult, onerous, critical, and uneasy engagement with the tradition.”
It is with these apt admonitions in mind that this essay proceeds. Writing as someone who has been personally affected by the historic division within Christianity and who also recognizes the need for dialogue between Muslims and Christians, I get Safi’s point.
From within what Safi would prefer to call “the progressive Muslim project,” voices of reform in North America and Europe address constituencies and concerns relevant to their own national contexts. In America, scholar Muqtedar Khan emphasizes the need for Muslim citizens to become more liberally democratic without losing their basic faith. Working out of his small, cluttered office at the University of Delaware (political science and international relations), the seemingly indefatigable Khan stepped into the role of a public intellectual for the American Muslim community after 9/11, when many of his incisive articles were picked up by dozens of news agencies around the world. His website carries his prolific writings and is a much visited resource for the media and for Muslims seeking a philosophically oriented approach toward Muslim life.We are seeking change, not only in how the U.S. deals with Muslims overseas but also how American society evolves at home
An Indian Muslim who is also a non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Khan believes that his flexible, liberal voice offers an alternative to those of traditionalist Islamic theologians who furnish conservative fatwas. Muslims must become more involved in the American political process, locally, regionally, and nationally, Kahn argues in American Muslims, and his use of “American” as an adjective before “Muslims” is instructive. “Muslims cannot be just another ethnic group [i.e., Muslim Americans] with special interests particularly in foreign policy,” he writes. “We are seeking change, not only in how the U.S. deals with Muslims overseas but also how American society evolves at home… We must work as hard as possible to make it morally safe and materially satisfying.”
Whereas Khan stresses increasing Muslim involvement in the American political process, imam Feisal Abdul Rauf believes that American Muslims must play a central role in the bigger picture, healing the rift between America and the larger Muslim world. This vigorous relationship was on the table at the second annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum held in Qatar in April, sponsored by the Emir of Qatar and the Brookings Institution. In his opening remarks at the conference, the Emir admonished attendees from both the United States and Islamic countries “to arrive through dialogue at a point of transparency” where political transformation, now begun, can be completed, “so that Muslim peoples, who are the prime persons concerned with reform, can be assured” of their hopes.
Rauf spent more than three decades in universities, mosques, synagogues, and churches explaining Islam but generally resisting discussion of political issues, which, he said, he saw as no-win situations. The events of September 11, however, pulled him from the mahogany pulpit of his mosque 12 blocks from the World Trade Center into the media spotlight, where he says he struggled to provide sound bite political answers. His book, What’s Right with Islam, explains in-depth what he could only explain in sound bites after 9/11.American Muslims and the U.S. government may become forces of healing toward the larger Muslim world.
Drawing on his long history in interfaith dialogue, Rauf takes Abrahamic monotheism as his foundational starting point, insisting that it is both theologically and socially radical because it offers a “common roots” understanding for Jews, Muslims, and Christians. From the Islamic imperative that “God is one” and from the Quran’s teaching about Adam and Eve, Rauf derives two essential principles to support his view: that all humans are equal “because we are born of one man and woman,” and “because we are equal … we have certain inalienable liberties,” such as to accept or reject God, to think for ourselves (ijtihad), and to make individual choices without coercion. A “cluster of monotheism’s core ideas,” which Rauf shorthands as the “Abrahamic ethic,” drives the book’s thesis, showing what’s right with both Islam and America and offering suggestions about how American Muslims and the U.S. government may become forces of healing toward the larger Muslim world.