A True Islamic Reformation
By Ibn Warraq

Danish translation: En sand islamisk reformation
Source: FrontPageMagazine.com
Published on myIslam.dk: March 12, 2012

If Islamic society is to become prosperous, free and democratic, a true reformation must take place within the Arab nations. The Arab governments of the Middle East must remove theocratic Islam as the most dynamic, element within their borders. Gradually secular education, respect for other faiths and the reflective gift of self-criticism must blossom to produce a harvest of individual liberty. How likely is such a reformation in today’s Islamic societies? And can Islam institute such reforms without betraying its very nature?

There are some (I believe, misguided) liberal Muslims who deny any such transformation is necessary, that Islam need not be marginalized for liberty to flourish. These liberals often argue that the real Islam is compatible with liberal democracy, that the real Islam is feminist, that the real Islam is egalitarian, that the real Islam tolerates other religions and beliefs, and so on. They then proceed to some truly creative re-interpretation of the embarrassing, intolerant and misogynist verses of the Koran. But intellectual honesty demands that we reject just such dishonest tinkering with the Koran’s text, which, while it may be open to some re-interpretation, is not infinitely elastic. The truth is there is no real difference between Islam and Islamic fundamentalism - at most there is a difference of degree, but not of kind. There are moderate Muslims, but Islam itself is not moderate. All the tenets of so-called Islamic fundamentalism are derived from the Koran, the Sunna, and the Hadith - the defining texts of Islam - and elaborated in intimate detail by the classical Muslim jurists from all four schools of Sunni Islamic jurisprudence, as well as by Shi’ite jurists.

The only solution is to bring the questions of human rights out of the religious sphere and into the sphere of the civil state, in other words to separate religion from the state and promote a secular state where Islam is relegated to the personal. Here, Islam would continue to provide consolation, comfort, and meaning, as it has to millions of individuals for centuries, yet it would not decree the mundane affairs of state.

Are Islamic societies capable of being secularized? Yes, there are many reasons for optimism. Unfortunately there are also stumbling blocks that could easily sideline the process. On the positive side:

1. Secularism has a long history in Islamic societies. Since September 11, every journalist has been eager to point out Islam knows of no separation between mosque and state. Indeed in classical Arabic there is no pair of words corresponding to ‘lay’ and ‘ecclesiastical,’ ‘spiritual’ and ‘temporal,’ or ‘secular’ and ‘religious.’ But what these same journalists fail to add is that the doctrinal lack of a separation of mosque and state did not mean that Islamic history was a chronicle of a series of relentless Muslim theocracies. On the contrary, as Carl Brown demonstrated recently, Muslim history has been marked by a de facto separation of state and religious community. [1] Civil rule was mainly by a ruler’s decree, which was given ex post facto religious sanction by the jurists.

2. Many of the modern leaders of culturally Islamic countries were secular in their outlook and approach to the problems of modern industrial society. The name just a few such leaders: Muhmmad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, Habid Bourguiba of Tunisia, Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, Reza Shah and his son Muhammad Reza Shah plus Muhammad Mossadegh in Iran, and so on. Habib Bourguiba, for example, barely five months after Tunisian independence, pushed through a radical legal reform (August 1956) that outlawed polygamy and made judgment for divorce a prerogative of the court, withdrawing the husband’s exclusive right to divorce his wife. Although fourteen Tunisian religious scholars issued a fatwa denouncing the new law, it was received with enthusiasm by the modernists and met with practically no resistance. Bourguiba had taken on the Muslim official religious class and won. Modernization and secularization of education followed, including the downgrading of the venerable Zaytuna Mosque University, which ultimately became a faculté of religious studies in the University of Tunis. [2] Unfortunately, corruption, nepotism, incompetence, pandering to the mullahs, the obscurantist religious scholars, led to the rising influence of the Islamic fundamentalists, who, sensing that their time had come, demanded ever more introduction of Islam into public life.

3. Other indications that Islamic societies are capable of secularization come from the Islamic Republic of Iran, of all places! Iran has adopted many institutions from the Western democracies, which have nothing to do with Islam historically or doctrinally, institutions such as popular elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament, even a constitution inspired by the 1958 French Constitution.

Iran is also the theatre of very optimistic developments. Hashem Aghajari is an Islamic revolutionary-turned-history-professor. He was one of the student activists of 1979, who later fully participated in the brutal repression after Khomeini’s coming to power. He is now challenging the infallibility of the ruling mullahs and calls upon Iranians to think for themselves instead of blindly accepting whatever is preached in Friday sermons, a piece of advice for which he has been sentenced to death. But he is now supported by the students and professors at most of the country's universities, and thousands of ordinary citizens, workers, and cultural leaders.

Where Aghajari wants to reform Islam, many students want a total separation between mosque and state. He wants an Islamic Reformation, but the demonstrators are interested in the creation of a secular civil society. He is a reformer, but they are revolutionaries. Why is the press silent on these developments? More important still, why is the Bush Administration not supporting these courageous students, workers, intellectuals and soldiers in their fight for freedom? [3]

With these factors in mind, there are also strong factors that caution pessimism:

1. With the partial exception of Turkey, there is not a single stable democracy in the Islamic world. It is not surprising that Muslims living under repressive regimes turn to Islamists for support, both morally and economically.

2. The situation in the Middle East, as described by Human Rights Watch in a report published 2003, is disheartening. One of its conclusions: "Independent civil society institutions were fragile or nonexistent in most countries. Throughout the region, political parties, human rights organizations, and other entities came under attack from the state or were hampered because laws did not permit them to exist legally. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, conservative clerical establishments remained entrenched and powerful, retarding progress and hampering the development of independent and effective national institutions."

3. Free and fair elections will not necessarily lead to secular governments as victories of the Islamists in Algeria, Pakistan and Turkey have shown.

4. On July 2, 2002, The United Nations Development Program released the Arab Human Development Report 2002, which covers not only economic matters but such issues as the lack of freedom and democracy in the Arab world, the high rate of illiteracy and the position of women. Because it was written by Arab intellectuals and academics, it is a just cause for celebration, since it manifests one of the pre-requisites of reforming Islamic society, i.e., self-criticism. Unfortunately, the report’s contents make for depressing reading.

In the words of the Middle East Quarterly, "with uncommon candor and a battery of statistics, the report tells a sorry story of two decades of failed planning and developmental decline. One inescapable conclusion emerges from its sober pages of tables and charts: the Arab world is in decline, even relative to the developing world. ‘The report was written by Arabs for Arabs,’ announced a U.N. official. Arabs did read it (it was also released in Arabic), and Arab authorship made its arguments more palatable to Arab intellectuals and policy makers. A columnist in Al-Ahram Weekly urged ‘a serious deep reading’ of the report, since ‘no changes will occur without Arabs facing the facts, however unpalatable they may be.'" [4]

Learning from how secularization took place in the West, secularization in Islamic societies can be promoted by:

- Scholarly Criticism of the Koran;
- Secular education encouraging critical thought;
- Encouraging religious pluralism by defending non-Muslims in Islamic societies;
- Encouraging secular democracies not tyrannies; and
- The practice of self-criticism.

Many of these factors played a role in the secularization of the Christian West: advances in knowledge in general and the sciences in particular meant that the criteria of rationality could be applied to religious dogma with devastating effect; Biblical Criticism which led to the abandonment of a literal reading of the Bible and an undermining of the Age of Faith; religious tolerance and religious pluralism that eventually led to tolerance and pluralism tout court. As scholar Owen Chadwick put it, "once concede equality to a distinctive group, you could not confine it to that group. You could not confine it to Protestants; nor, later, to Christians; nor, at last, to believers in God. A free market in some opinions became a free market in all opinions ... Christian conscience was the force which began to make Europe ‘secular’; that is, to allow many religions or no religion in a state, and repudiate any kind of pressure upon the man who rejected the accepted and inherited axioms of society ... My conscience is my own." [5]

What lessons can we learn from this process of secularization of the West? First, we who live in the free West and enjoy freedom of expression and scientific inquiry should encourage a rational look at Islam, should encourage Koranic criticism. Only Koranic criticism can help Muslims to look at their Holy Scripture in a more rational and objective way, and prevent young Muslims from being fanaticized by the Koran’s less tolerant verses. It does not make sense to lament the lack of a reformation in Islam, and at the same time boycott books like "Why I am Not A Muslim," nor to cry "Islamophobia" (or fatwah!) every time a critique of Islam is offered. Instead, political leaders, journalists and even scholars are bent on protecting the tender sensibilities of the Muslims. We are not doing Islam any favors by protecting it from Enlightenment values.

Second, simply by protecting non-Muslims in Islamic societies we are encouraging religious pluralism, which in turn can lead to pluralism in political affairs. By insisting that "my conscience is my own," we are encouraging, in the words of Owen Chadwick, a free market in all opinions, which is one of the chief cornerstones of any liberal democracy.

We can encourage rationality by secular education. This will mean the closing of religious madrassas where young children from poor families learn only the Koran by heart, learn the doctrine of Jihad - learn, in short, to be fanatics. The failure of the central government in Pakistan for example, to provide free schools and economic prosperity for all its citizens has led to the rise of madrassas where poor children are given some schooling and food that their poor parents cannot provide. In Pakistan, it is clear that many of these religious schools are funded by Saudi Arabia. The West must do its utmost to reduce the ideological and financial influence of the Saudi Wahhabism, and instead encourage Pakistan to provide free secular education for all children, boys and girls. The West can give aid with strings attached to this end.

What kind of education? My priority would be the wholesale rewriting of school texts, which at present preach intolerance of non-Muslims, particularly Jews. One hopes that education will encourage critical thinking and rationality. Again to encourage pluralism, I should like to see the glories of pre-Islamic history taught to all children.

The banning of all religious education in state schools, as is the case in France where there is a clear constitutional separation of state and religion is not realistic for the moment in Islamic countries. The best we can hope for is the teaching of Comparative Religion, which we hope will eventually lead to a lessening of fanatical fevers, as Islam is seen as but another set of beliefs amongst a host of faiths.

It may surprise some to learn that the Islamic fundamentalists fear the humanities, especially History and Sociology, more than the natural sciences. Many of the leaders of the various Islamist groups are by training engineers. They do not fear Physics, in fact most of them are convinced that all the modern discoveries of modern nuclear physics are predicted in the Koran. They are wary of History and the social sciences, for it seems these disciplines have a tendency to relativize human knowledge. Certainly, a course in the methodology of History and Historical Research should teach methodological skepticism; as R. G. Collingwood said, the fundamental attribute of the critical historian is skepticism regarding testimony about the past. This skepticism can of course be extended to the early history of Islam.

But education alone cannot solve the problems. Several million young educated people enter the job market only to learn that their education has not opened the doors to economic prosperity they had imagined. Education without economic opportunity leads to social frustrations which can serve as a recruiting ground for the fundamentalists.

Islamic countries will never make any progress if they continue to blame all their ills on the West. Muslim intellectuals who spew forth hatred of the West, and indulge in such self-pity are not leading their people to assume responsibility for their own actions. Islamic countries need charismatic leaders capable of self-criticism, who can say to their people, "the fault is not in [the] stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings." [6] Neither does the fault lie with the Stars and Stripes, nor some putative "Crusader - Zionist" conspiracy. These leaders must direct their people to democracy, institute a civil state with a uniform code of civil laws separate from and independent of religious institutions, and allow free choice of religious belief and practice. Such leaders must pass legislation to enshrine the rights of all citizens, men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim. Finally, these leaders must institute secular education. These building blocks can create a stable democracy by driving the necessary wedge between mosque and state, reducing the former to a more circumscribed sphere of influence.


[1] L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

[2] L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics, New York: Columbia University Press, 2000, pp. 120-121

[3] Michael Ledeen, December 6, 2002, National Review Online

[4] Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2002, Vol. IX: Number 4, p. 59

[5] O. Chadwick, The Secularization of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, Cambridge, 1975, pp. 21-23

[6] Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1.2, lines 139-140