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The subject of Islamic reform is old, even as it has emerged in recent years as one of urgency. Since 9-11, the subject has become even more pressing. It would be more proper, however, to speak about the reform of Muslims. For whatever is Islam and

The subject of Islamic reform is old, even as it has emerged in recent years as one of urgency. Since 9-11, the subject has become even more pressing. It would be more proper, however, to speak about the reform of Muslims. For whatever is Islam and however Islam is received, understood, practiced, and made the template of cultures and civilization, it is at the human level a reflection of the conduct of Muslims.

The reform of Muslims, as was that of Christians, is neither an event nor an instant in time but a process deeply frustrating, ugly, and, at its end, not entirely predictable. This is true of any reform process but even more so of reform driven by the ideals of a religion.

It is the human condition to persist, to push on the boulder of reform like Sisyphus, and to strive despite disappointments and defeats to improve upon the existing situation. The Qur'an sets an imperative tone on the need for reform by insisting that it must come from within people themselves. A well-known Qur'anic verse reads, "Verily God does not change the state of a people till they change themselves"[1]

The subject of reform (islah) and renewal (tajdid) within Islam is as old as the history of Muslims. There exists a vast number of Muslim writings and reflections on this matter, and much of the effort behind this cumulative labor of the mind has been driven on the assumption that reform may be brought about by a better textual understanding of Islam. No matter that such an assumption is contrary to Qur'anic instruction and that reform of the mind and the heart must precede a better reading of the sacred text.

The concern for reform from the late nineteenth century to the present has been driven in part by the objective of reconciling Islam and Muslims with the requirements of modernity and democracy, both products of European history and most compellingly manifest in the United States.

The Growing Cry for Reform

The six lectures which Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), the poet-philosopher of India-Pakistan, gave in Madras in the late 1920s, subsequently published as The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam,[2] remains one of the most thoughtful and provocative attempts by a Muslim to reconcile Islam and the modern world. In the opinion of the late historian Hamilton Gibb (1895-1971), this attempt reflected an approach almost bordering on heresy.[3] But Iqbal's efforts were not the work of a recluse; he was deeply involved as a spokesman for Muslims in the politics of undivided India and an active supporter of Muslims across Asia and Africa in their effort to gain independence from European rule. His efforts were also part of a nineteenth century Muslim intellectual movement questioning the traditional formulation and representation of Islam as Muslims became increasingly aware of the gap between civilization of their world and that of Europe.

Iqbal is important because the effort he expended in rethinking Islam exemplifies the modernist approach of Muslims—to name just a few such as Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (Iranian, 1838-97), Sayyid Ahmed Khan (Indian, 1817-98), Muhammad Abduh (Egyptian, 1845-1905), and Ali Abd ar-Raziq (Egyptian, 1888-1966)—before Iqbal, and those after him such as Adonis[4] (Syrian, b. 1930), Ghulam Ahmad Pervez[5] (Indian/Pakistani, b. 1903), Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd (Egyptian, b. 1943), Abdolkarim Soroush (Iranian, b. 1945) and Mohammed Arkoun (Algerian, b. 1928). They contended that closing the gap between Europe and the Muslim world requires preeminently an interpretation of Islam taking into account the philosophical and scientific foundation of the modern world. The foundational assumption of the modernist approach is that by demonstrating reason and revelation to be in harmony, then such a reading, understanding, and application of the Qur'an by Muslims to their lives will also be harmonious with the requirements of the modern world. Hence to speak about Islam and Modernity[6] as Fazlur Rahman (1919-88) did, or about Islam and Democracy[7] as Fatima Mernissi (b. 1940) does, is to suggest that if the Qur'an is properly read and rightly understood in keeping with the spirit of the age in which Muslims reside, then Islam may be reconciled with modernity and democracy respectively. This is the faith and optimism of the modernist approach; the reality, however, is sobering about a civilization that may well be irreparably broken.

Iqbal anticipated the argument for partitioning India and the making of a Muslim majority state within the subcontinent. He died in 1938, some nine years prior to the formation of Pakistan. At the end of the twentieth century, Pakistan, in light of Iqbal's dream of a Muslim majority state coming to terms with the modern world economically, politically, and socially, has turned out to be a nightmare of failed expectations. But Pakistan is not alone, nor is its political and economic failure unique—the country broke apart in 1971 when East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh after a bloody civil war. Neither is its continuing internal sectarian violence exceptional within the larger Muslim world. From Algeria to Indonesia, from the Central Asian republics to Sudan, the entire Muslim world has retreated from meeting the challenge of modernity and has turned its back on modernity. Writing in the 1930s, Hamilton Gibb observed that the "most remarkable feature of the Moslem world in these early decades of the twentieth century is not that it is becoming Westernized, but that it desires to be Westernized."[8] Without injury to Gibb's choice of words, readers can assume that "to be Westernized" means "to be modern." In contrast to Gibb's observation Yale historian Paul Kennedy, writing at the end of the twentieth century, wrote, "Far from preparing for the twenty-first century, much of the Arab and Muslim world appears to have difficulty in coming to terms with the nineteenth century, with its composite legacy of secularization, democracy, laissez-faire economics, transnational industrial and commercial linkages, social change, and intellectual questioning."[9]

The difference between the observations of Gibb and Kennedy is the distance between the restlessness of Muslim elites exposed to the Western world under colonialism and a civilization constrained by its cultural system in the post-colonial age. Kennedy astutely stated, "If one needed an example of the importance of cultural attitudes in explaining a society's response to change, contemporary Islam provides it."[10] The weakness in the modernist approach is the assumption and expectation that a new textual interpretation or modern hermeneutics applied to the reading of the Qur'an will enable the Muslim world to be reconciled culturally and politically with the relentlessly revolutionary process of change that Marshall Hodgson in The Venture of Islam termed the "great Western transmutation."[11]

The problem and challenge for Muslims in coming to terms with the modern world, shaped by the social power of the West, resides in the cultural resistance of their societies taken individually and together as the Muslim world. Textual interpretations are part of a cultural enterprise and for any interpretation, whether modern, traditional, or something other, to become absorbed into majority thinking requires that society is receptive to new ideas. The failure of modernist thinkers in Islam such as Iqbal to find majority support among Muslims suggests that culturally they remain averse, if not entirely hostile, to the values of the contemporary world associated with the West. British sociologist Anthony Giddens described modernity as "modes of social life or organization which emerged in Europe from about the seventeenth century onwards and which subsequently became more or less worldwide in their influence."[12] The problem of the Muslim world in terms of being open to modernity is not with Islam awaiting "reconstruction" in the sense Iqbal used the term but that Muslims in their majority culture are resistant both to the change demanded by the modern democratic age and to the need for self-reformation.

How Did Orthodoxy Become Orthodox?

To focus on Muslims and their culture, and not on Islam, requires acknowledgment that Islam as a lived reality is a human construction in historical time. From the earliest accounts of Islamic historians Ibn Ishaq (d. 761), Al-Waqidi (d. 823), and At-Tabari (d. 923) among others, it is clear that the founding of Islam was neither a peaceful affair nor did the new religion eliminate tribal and familial conflicts. Blood readily flowed. Muslims in the first age of Islam were not simply moved to accept the new faith as taught by Muhammad and by the wonder of the sublime majesty of divine revelation that descended upon him. They had to be subdued forcibly. The Qur'an itself provides testimony to the obduracy and violent resistance of those among whom Muhammad was born, lived, and preached. Islam prevailed, but the cultural predisposition of the desert Arabs remained sufficiently strong in shaping the message of Islam for posterity.

What became consecrated as orthodox Islam of the Muslim majority from its beginning in the eighth century was initially arbitrary. It was the opinions of those who succeeded in holding the centers of power against dissidents that became the dominant cultural value of the Arab-Muslim society. It was the political views of Mu'awiya and his chosen successors who defeated 'Ali ibn Abi Talib and his sons. It was the Umayyads over the Hashemites. Contests between claims and counterclaims over time and place slowly shaped orthodoxy. In that moment of great plasticity in Islam's infant history, when the Prophet died and all could have been lost in the succession dispute that followed, those who seized power and legitimated it in the Prophet's name set the tone of what came to be defined as orthodoxy. Within a few short decades, that orthodoxy provided legitimacy for those in authority even though they did not possess the virtues exhibited by the Prophet and by his family and close companions. Ever since then, it is that orthodoxy—more a product of the cultural markings of the desert Arabs and tribal manners—that has had an immeasurable influence on what later Muslims made of their religious inheritance.

Should anyone depart from orthodoxy, for example, by adhering to Sufi ethics and mysticism, they would need to reconcile their private or minority views with the public face of orthodoxy or suffer the consequences. In time, this orthodoxy became idealized as the norm of Muslim culture. The merits this cultural system once possessed in premodern history became incongruent with the values—secular, rational, democratic—of the modern age.

To use Western terms, this culture became authoritarian, due both to deference to rulers and the unaccountability of authorities to their subjects. The sulta (those in authority) were always right, for the sulta held both the Qur'an and the sword. The orthodox ulema (religious scholars) provided the key judgment for all time within this cultural system: since order is preferable to anarchy, the tyranny of the sulta is preferable to the consequences of resistance and rebellion. In South Asia, the word for sulta is sarkar, meaning that all rights emanate from those in power and all obligations are due to them. This is the culture of deference which in Pakistan resulted in Supreme Court judgments on the basis of the "doctrine of necessity" legitimizing the right of men in uniform to seize power.[13]

The success of the orthodoxy in this cultural system of deference is not entirely a function of coercion; rather, it reflects the values of the people, which in turn reinforce those values as norms and ideals. Indicative of this phenomenon is the manner in which the orthodoxy uses hadith (accounts of the Prophet's words and deeds) to constrain the reading of the Qur'an according to the interests of the orthodox. The use of hadith—a human product of a certain time and, therefore, of questionable authenticity in contrast to the Qur'an, the Word of God—to fix the meaning of the Qur'an has reinforced the conservatism of the sulta and the culture of deference.

The symptoms of this cultural system can be seen in the prevalent attitude of Muslims toward women, minorities, and dissidents. The microcosm of this cultural universe is the family and the mosque. Within the family, patriarchal values dominate; women are the property of men, beholden to their opinions and their needs. The violence done to women reflects the reaction of men when women are unwilling to submit to those values. A culture of deference is also one in which the collective consensus takes precedence over individual thinking, where an individual is suspected of being misguided and subversive unless he remains beholden to the collective. Minorities are tolerated so long as they acknowledge the rights and privileges of the majority and recognize their appropriate place in society. Dissidents are punished for not submitting to the sulta.

In the mosque, the cultural rhythm of Muslim societies finds routine expression. The place of the imam (prayer leader) in the congregation, the authority he wields when he ascends the minbar (pulpit) and delivers the Friday khutba (sermon) is unmistakable and amplified by the chain of authority leading ultimately to the person of the sulta. The imam cannot be questioned on what he preaches on the pulpit, and what he preaches is sanctioned by the wisdom residing in the consensus of the orthodoxy. He protects the values by which Muslims live, sanctifying and validating them by referring to the hadith and reading the Qur'an through the perspective of that literature, irrespective of the vast changes in time and place from the context of the age in which the hadith was compiled.

It is through the family and the mosque that the Muslim cultural system is reproduced daily and maintained in all its complexity. While this cultural system has been challenged by the modern world, it has also resisted it by maintaining the autonomy of its culture from the economic linkages it has with the West. Moreover, the dominance of fundamentalism in the discourse and practice of Muslims since the 1970s represents the stern resistance of a traditional-conservative cultural system against the forces of modernity.

The face of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a particular variant of this cultural system, as is the Saudi Wahhabi variant, the Iranian Shi'ite variant, and the Malay Indonesian within the larger complex of the Muslim world. The autonomy of the cultural system has assisted each of these variants to maintain its authenticity in the midst of global changes. This autonomy also provides Muslim immigrants in the West, protected by the Western liberal values of pluralism and multiculturalism, with the ability to maintain in their personal lives and within their private domains the norms of the Muslim cultural system. So long as by choice and conviction the Muslim majority adheres to, approves of, and reinforces this cultural system, the Muslim world will recede further from the modern world. The consequences of a fifth of humanity being resistant to the West and the occasional eruption of this resistance into reactionary violence will remain one of the more difficult and troubling challenges for global politics in the twenty-first century.

Is Islamic Culture Compatible with Democracy?

Democracy is a political-cultural system describing the norms of a society rather than just the workings of a government. Such a reference to democracy indicates how great the cultural distance is between the Muslim world and democracy, and how profound reform will be if democracy is to become reality among Muslims beyond periodic elections to give a façade of legitimacy to those in power. Anthony Arblaster, a political philosopher, defined democracy as "the idea of popular power, of a situation in which power, and perhaps authority too, rests with the people."[14] This idea of popular sovereignty resting with the people is an anathema to Islamists.

Democracy is in a cultural sense an expression of the liberal modern world that situates the individual as the moral center of politics and society. The mechanics of democracy rest on an electoral system that provides for contested elections among individuals and parties. It is in the regular functioning of the electoral system, its provisions established in constitutional documents, that a culture of democracy will emerge. When sovereign individuals embrace inalienable rights that no authority may abridge or revoke, non-democracies evaporate. The idea of democracy as a culture is found in the work of Tocqueville and in recent times has been given the most subtle renderings in the writings of the American political philosopher George Kateb.[15]

It is the idea of the inalienable rights located in the individual, rights that need to be protected, nurtured, and allowed the fullest unhindered expression that makes democracy so morally distinctive from other cultural systems. From this liberal perspective, the common error about democracy is to view it as a majority system of governance. In a democracy based on individual rights, on the contrary, it is the protection of the rights of minorities and dissidents that reflect the different nature of politics within the larger context of democratic culture. Democracy produces a citizenry distinctively different than those in the culture of deference. The cluster of values distinguishing democratic culture from non-democratic culture is qualitative. According to Kateb, "In its distinctive way of forming political authority, representative democracy cultivates distinctive ways of acting in nonpolitical life—of seeking and giving, of making claims for oneself and one's group and acknowledging the claims of others."[16]

There is an urgent need when discussing reform of Islam or Muslims to keep in perspective the culture of democracy as found in the United States and the notion of democracy simply as the mechanics of government. Political essayist Fareed Zakaria suggested the need to distinguish between "liberal" democracy and the "illiberal" democracy found in many developing countries.[17] Such a distinction suggests an eventual evolution from illiberal to liberal democracy. For such an evolution to be successful, however, a sufficient number of people in an illiberal democracy who believe in the culture of democracy and all of its freedoms must coalesce. The reality in the Muslim world remains different. Zakaria's illiberal democracy is similar to what Samuel E. Finer, a professor of politics and government, wrote about in Comparative Government as "façade democracy,"[18] a bowing of the head to the idea of democracy by the tiny elite of those in power as a means to enhance their legitimacy and perpetuate their authority. The October 1999 military coup in Pakistan and the apathetic manner in which the public greeted the ouster of an elected government, or the commonality of authoritarian governments in Arab states, are not anomalies but reflections of a cultural system operating on assumptions different from the democratic cultural system of the West.

What Can the American Experience Provide?

The U.S. involvement with the Muslim world since 1945, and the resulting Muslim perception of the United States, has been difficult for a number of reasons. The Cold War in the Muslim world, U.S. support for Israel, and historic U.S. preference for stability in the Persian Gulf has led Washington to support governments that lack popular approval by Muslims. All of this has less to do with American democratic culture than with U.S. foreign policy during a period of global politics when the United States assumed responsibility for maintaining freedom, democracy, and market economy in its confrontation with international communism. That America made mistakes during this period, that it overreached, and that there were negative consequences to some actions that could have been mitigated if not avoided are all part of the internal American debate.

The majority public opinion in the Muslim world has been shaped by the power of the United States abroad rather than by the nature of American democracy at home. The result is a grossly distorted image of the United States among Muslims, even among those who reside in America. Edward Said, for instance, observed that despite the fact of the United States looming large in the lives of Arabs and Muslims, there was no serious institutional effort to be found in the Arab-Muslim world to study the United States, and that not "even the celebrated American universities of Beirut and Cairo teach American culture, society, and history in any systematic way."[19] When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, denounced America as the "Great Satan," he gave voice to a popular opinion among a great many Muslims worldwide—an opinion frequently expressed in flag burnings, attacks on American assets and citizens abroad, and a readiness to believe both the worst about decadence and corruption in American society and that the United States, as Israel's patron, is an enemy of Islam and Muslims.

For Muslims, the requirement of seriously studying America carries the risk of undermining the cultural assumptions by which they live. Their study of American democracy and of the lives and contributions of American men and women of diverse ethnic origins who make its democracy immensely rich, would force Muslims to discover how the core values of American society are profoundly moral, indeed religious, and how at critical moments of American history, as Seymour Martin Lipset, dean of American sociologists, wrote, "the hand of providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him."[20] Poets possess an inward eye with which to gaze upon the world. Intuitively they give voice to the spirit of their age. Kateb noted, "Walt Whitman is a great philosopher of democracy. Indeed, he may be the greatest." [21] The Muslim world has not produced any poet like Whitman, and this absence, when poets and poetry have traditionally been an exalted facet of Islamic culture, reflects the absence of the democratic ethos among Muslims and by which the West is distinguished from the East.

It is urgent that Muslims set aside their blinkers, their self-perpetuating resentments, their anger and complaints against the United States, which reflect their own weaknesses and failures and ultimately erupted in the events of 9-11. They need to carefully, earnestly, and with humility begin to explore and understand what America represents as a democracy. There is some difficulty in this enterprise of exploration and comprehension due to the range of contradictory images that Americans float about their country through mass media, which is the only way most Muslims learn anything about the United States. The difficulties in sifting through the contradictory images only make it more urgent to engage in an effort of discovery as a corrective to those selective images and stories which fuel the existing resentment and anger of the vast majority of Muslims.

The irony is that it is not Islam as transcendent truth about the unity of God but rather the historical-cultural system associated with Islam that now encloses Muslims and prevents them from hearing ever fresh the Word of God when they read the Qur'an. It is this cultural system, once proven to be remarkable for the achievements of its civilization, that now weighs upon Muslims, and its inertia prevents them from once again being progressive and in harmony with the world around them. Textual interpretations may help individuals to reorient themselves to their world, but there is insufficient evidence from Muslim history to suggest that textual interpretation may bring about a reform of Muslims collectively as a people.

In concluding, the Qur'an informs that without reform of belief, civilizations in the past vanished, and warns, "O people, it is you that have need of God, and God is the Self-Sufficient, the Praised One. If He please, He will remove you and bring a new creation (in your place)."[22] In the democratic age, God's message resonates through the voice of sovereign people. Muslims are standing at a fork of history in the early years of the twenty-first century. Their choice for reform will lead them on the path of Islam as democracy. Their refusal to embrace reform, however, will leave them stagnant within a cultural system incongruent with the spirit of the modern age of democracy while they indulge in identity politics, nostalgia, grievances, and resentment against a West they do not understand.

Salim Mansur is an associate professor in the department of political science at the University of Western Ontario.

[1] Qur: 13:11.
[2] London: Oxford University Press, 1934.
[3] Hamilton A.R. Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam (New York: Octagon Books, 1978), p. 81.
[4] Adonis is the penname of Ali Ahmad Said.
[5] See Aziz Ahmad, Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan 1857-1964 (London: Oxford University Press, 1967) pp. 224-36.
[6] Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982.
[7] New York: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1992.
[8] Hamilton A.R. Gibb, Whither Islam: A Survey of Modern Movements in the Moslem World (London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1932), p. 319.
[9] Paul Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century (Toronto: HarperPerennial, 1994), p. 208.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, vol. 3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 176.
[12] Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 1.
[13] "Introduction," in William I. Jennings, ed, Constitutional Problems in Pakistan (London: Cambridge University Press, 1957), also see reference to Pakistan's supreme court judgment, pp. 298-9, 307.
[14] Anthony Arblaster, Democracy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987), p. 8.
[15] See the collection of his essays in George Kateb, The Inner Ocean: Individualism and Democratic Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992).
[16] George Kateb, "Moral Distinctiveness of Representative Democracy," in Inner Ocean, p. 43.
[17] Fareed Zakaria, "The Rise of Illiberal Democracy," Foreign Affairs, Nov./Dec. 1997, pp. 22-43.
[18] Samuel Edward Finer, Comparative Government (London: Allen Lane The Penguin Press, 1970), chap. 9.
[19] Edward Said, Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on Palestine in the Middle East Process (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), p. 89.
[20] Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1996), p. 14.
[21] George Kateb, "Whitman and the Culture of Democracy," in Inner Ocean, p. 240.
[22] Qur: 35:15-16.