The Question of Islamic Reform
By David Solway
Danish translation: Spørgsmålet om islamisk reform
Source:, July 12, 2013
Published on December 19, 2013

Perhaps the major theological problem confronting the revisionist Muslim community today—i.e., those whom we call “moderates” or “secular-oriented intellectuals”—is the canonical scriptures which define their faith and without which Islam would cease to exist. The dilemma for these “enlightened Muslims” is the Koran itself, with its ubiquitous summons to warfare, conquest, enslavement and social and economic persecution of vanquished peoples, which is why they are preoccupied, to the brink of obsession, with the twin concepts of re-interpretation and contextualization.

These meliorists are convinced that Islam is diametrically opposed to something called “Islamism,” that Islam is essentially a “religion of peace” rather than a bellicose imperial movement and that its founding texts therefore invite reinterpretation. This belief can be readily demolished by anyone with a cursory acquaintance with the Islamic literature and a modicum of common sense. For once the incendiary and violent passages are expurgated from the Koran and the Hadith, and the philosophical and political curriculum appropriately bowdlerized, there is far too little left over on which to base a credible and authoritative, world-historical faith. Indeed, as I have argued before, the result would resemble a version of Baha’i’ and could no longer legitimately be called Islam. Re-interpretation is effectively a dead end, a theological placebo swallowed by the naïve or the willfully ignorant who find the strong medicine of reality unpalatable or even abhorrent.

The notion of contextualization fares no better. Here the thesis is that one must adopt a historical or dialectical perspective on the progressive evolution of belief systems. The repugnant portions of the scriptures are understood to apply only to the times in which they were conceived and written. Of course, there is some truth to this contention. The Bible also contains offensive passages which have been despumated with the passing of time. But the difference between the Bible and the Koran is categorical. The former is largely narrative and parabolic in structure and the parts we would regard as objectionable are comparatively few. The Koran, on the contrary—especially the longer, Medinan section—is almost unrelentingly belligerent and exhortative, commanding the believer to slay, conquer, oppress and impose draconian taxes on those who have been subjugated.

To say, as did reformer Salim Mansur, an apostle of contextualization, that Jesus should not be held responsible for the actions of his followers and therefore, by implication, neither should Mohammed is to miss the point entirely. Jesus commanded the faithful to turn the other cheek, not to “slay the unbelievers wherever you find them” (Koran 9:5). Jesus is in no need of contextualization. Judaism differs inasmuch as the messiah has not yet arrived and the fundamental commandments are both few and benign. In Christianity, as we have noted, Jesus is a harbinger of peace and love, and his exegetes, like Saint Paul, are fallible human beings whose utterances are seen to be open to debate. In Islam, however, the word of the Prophet, transmitted by Allah via the angel Gabriel, is set in theological stone; it cannot be reinterpreted or contextualized, only abrogated by Mohammed himself. Its directives are neither locally nor temporally specific. They are meant to be understood as having general and timeless application, constituting the default position of Islamic belief. Efforts to neuter such clearly unmistakable and bloody imperatives, which ramify throughout the Koran—as, for example, in the Muslim Access website which strenuously labors to sanitize the intractable—are embarrassingly disingenuous.

The abiding, if not insoluble, problem with the seductive hypothesis of contextualization is a kind of prolepsis, an anticipation of change before it happens—which in this case would then render the original event tolerable. Are we to assume, in other words, that the beheading of 600-900 Jewish males of the Banu Qurayza and the enslavement of their women and children at the Battle of the Trench is perfectly understandable because it occurred in 627? That the annihilation of 60-80 million Hindus during the conquest of India is historically unexceptionable because it occurred between the 11th and 16th centuries? Need we merely contextualize such atrocities—without apology—in order not to be unduly disturbed by them? Were Islamic warriors more primitive in the unenlightened past but are now well on the way toward civilized behavior and international standards of just conduct?

In that case, how are we to process the myriad commands and injunctions to kill, brutalize and devastate that remain “on the books,” are reckoned as mandatory, and are regarded as perennially valid by the majority of the world’s practicing Muslims. How are these rules and ukases to be contextualized in the present, let alone re-interpreted? How does one reinterpret and contextualize the manifold orders to slaughter, mutilate, enslave and exploit the infidel that are rife throughout what is considered a holy and eternal text coeval with the Creator? To agree that such recalibration is possible without expunging the Islamic faith from the ledger of the world’s major religions or turning it into something unrecognizable is a delusion that flies in the face of reality.

A corollary argument we often come across is that Islam, like Judaism and Christianity, only needs time in which to reform itself. I have contended that Islam cannot be reformed and yet perdure as Islam. But even were renovation possible, the issue is that, in a nuclear age in which terrorist organizations diligently seek the acquisition of WMDs and will, most likely, eventually get them, we no longer have the time to wait upon an Islamic “higher criticism” to disarm an aggressively militant faith—which is also a political ideology. Ayaan Hirsi Ali believes that Islam will undergo a positive transformation, a necessary “cultural change,” in another hundred years or so. Were this even remotely possible, the predicament would persist: we do not have another hundred years in which to exercise our patience. I doubt if we even have a decade before a widespread conflagration is ignited and casualties reach astronomic proportions, a consequence that follows in the wake of Islamic virulence.

Roger Kimball, parsing Charles Hill’s new book, Trial of a Thousand Years: World Order and Islamism, suggests that “there are millions upon millions of Muslims outside the Mideast who have made their peace with modernity.” But such a metamorphosis strictly implies that these moderates are not really Muslims any longer, and certainly not Muslims in good standing. They are nominal Muslims, dissembling members of the faith, Stanislavsky Muslims engaged in a species of method acting, imagining themselves to be what they are not, for Islam as such is not amenable to assimilation into the Western, post-Westphalian world order. Re-interpretation is predicated on deliberate negligence just as contextualization is a sop to the intellectual conscience, and both are instances of theological fraud and the desire to retain a venerable designation or a cultural habitus (French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s term) to which they are neither logically nor honestly entitled.

“Islam’s borders are bloody and so are its innards,” wrote Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations, and events appear to have proven him right. But it is even worse than that. The blood has spilled copiously from the borders of Islam across the borders of the West and into the very nexus of our private and public lives. If Islam were reformable, I would be in the vanguard of those encouraging the anti-jihadist activists and the sparse handful of moderates who have attempted to establish a new synthesis. But it is not reformable. It cannot be re-interpreted, contextualized and transformed while still remaining the religion of Allah and his Prophet.

We need to know and name what we are dealing with and devise an appropriate strategy to contest and defeat a determined adversary if we intend to ensure our survival. It is as simple—and uncompromising—as that. Otherwise we will sink into the Spenglerian abyss as merely one more civilization that has grown weary of conflict and the requisites of perpetuation, and has wished itself, as Spengler wrote in The Decline of the West, into the featureless dark.