“If this book [Quran] came from God and it’s divine and perfect, then the Jihadis are justified,” states Islam reformer Shireen Qudosi in The Challenge of Modernizing Islam: Reformers Speak Out and the Obstacles They Face. Her sober conclusion amidst an illuminating collection of interviews with her like-minded colleagues in Christine Douglass-Williams’ indispensable recent book indicates the daunting obstacles facing any Islamic doctrinal reform.
Analogous to the recent thinking of the Muslim apostate Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Douglass-Williams’ interviewees distinguish between Islam and Islamism. For Salim Mansur, Islam is a “personal faith, just as to Christians” while Zuhdi Jasser, a “Jeffersonian type of Muslim” who believes “society should be run by reason,” equates Islamism as “interchangeable with the term ‘political Islam.’” Islamists, elaborates Islam scholar Daniel Pipes in a book forward, are “advocates of applying Islamic law in its entirety and severity as a means to regain the medieval glory of Islam.”
Douglass-Williams herself concedes that “normative Islam is Islamism” and notes the standard objection to any Islam/Islamism dichotomy. “It is often argued that there is no distinction between the words ‘Islamism’ and ‘Islam,’ because Islam is inherently political” as a comprehensive, even totalitarian, belief system encompassing both piety and politics. As Pipes stated to her, an “aggressive Jihadi sentiment, an Islamic supremacist ambition” forms the “hallmark of Muslim life over 1,400 years,” while the Egyptian-American Tawfik Hamid notes that “reformists were killed throughout history.”
Normative Islam’s history is no accident, as Robert Spencer in his own forward reveals in Quran 5:3 a seemingly insurmountable hurdle for Douglass-Williams et al. “Traditional and mainstream Islamic theology holds that Islam is perfect, bestowed from above by the supreme being, and hence not only is reform unnecessary, it is heresy that makes the reformer worthy of death.” As Pipes notes, within and without Islam, reformers “are threatened, marginalized, and dismissed as frauds,” like Mansur in Canada; “I cannot even go to mosque. The leaders of the mosques in my own city have publicly declared me an apostate.”
Ahmed Subhy Mansour, now living in the United States after imprisonment in Egypt, offers a striking contrast between himself and Cairo’s Al Azhar University, where he was once a professor before his dismissal. Sunni Islam’s “leading seminary for more than one billion Muslims…Al-Azhar is like the Vatican for the Catholics,” but “is a stagnant bog of ignorance and traditional ideas that belong to the Dark Ages.” Alternatively, Mansour’s “International Quranic Center, in spite of its role in reforming Muslims overseas, is just one room in my house in Virginia. Our powerful website was destroyed several times by the fanatics.”
Accordingly, Spencer notes that “tension between high hopes and harsh realities runs through these interviews” in Douglass-Williams’ book. Indeed, “not every attentive and informed reader will come away from these pages convinced that every person here interviewed is being in every instance entirely forthright.” Such concerns become evident precisely because the book interviews are “unique in their probing honesty.”
Douglass-Williams’ honesty is part of a critical inquiry into Islam that strives to relativize dangerous Islamic canons on the basis of human reason. “Thinking has to be above and superior to the text to a reformer,” states Hamid. Influenced by Robert Reilly’s study of reason and faith in Islam, Qudosi similarly concludes that “we need to look at natural law and man’s law to understand what God wants for us.”
Jasser seeks Islamic reform “without divorcing Muslims from scripture and without divorcing yourself from the example of the prophet Muhammad,” but various Quran passages make this project difficult. Qudosi first reading of Allah’s supposedly perfect Quran made her “extremely depressed,” while Jasser’s reinterpretation of Quran 4:34, cited throughout Islamic history to justify wife beating, remains novel. Even his reform hermeneutics leave a “passage that is difficult for me,” namely Quran 5:38’s injunction to amputate thieves’ hands, “because that is pretty clear. I prefer to see it as a metaphor, because I can’t believe God can say that.”
Koran reformists are not changing the words of the Koran, because Muslims believe it is the word of God. They are instead giving options of other ways it could be translated and interpreted to be more compassionate, humane, and merciful. If you understand the persona of God to have these attributes, then you will translate his words the same way.
Douglass-Williams goes beyond reinterpretation of Islamic sacred texts and examines the “strong case against the Muslim holy book’s infallibility” as part of the Quran’s “desanctification.” Likewise Hamid and Mansour’s Koranic Movement challenges the authenticity of the hadith, canonical narratives that supposedly relate the seventh-century life of Islam’s prophet Muhammad. Because the hadith emerged centuries after his life, Douglas-Williams writes, the “Koranic movement holds that the Hadith is an unreliable source, and that the Koran is comprehensive and sufficient in itself.”
Rejection of the hadith is central for Hamid’s understanding of oft-noted controversies over Islamic teachings that Muhammad consummated a child marriage with his nine-year old bride Aisha. “Muhammad has nothing to do with this story, because it is not mentioned in the Koran,” Hamid states, although some observers have noted that Quran 65:4 implies consummation of prepubescent child marriage. “If I believed it, I would have never followed this faith. You can’t follow someone who is described in this way of having sex with a nine-year-old child and asking the world to become followers, and see him as a role model.”
“You cannot reform a faith by saying its founder was an immoral person,” Jasser similarly argues and offers his own understanding of Muhammad and Aisha:
It is definitely part of history that he was married to Aisha when she was nine. Many Muslims believe that marriage was not consummated for many years after that, and we could debate that it was 15, 18, but I just do not believe it was consummated at the age of nine. Am I deluded? All I can tell you is that is what I was taught.
By contrast, Qanta Ahmed examines the Aisha controversy in a cultural context; for seventh-century Arabia, “it’s conceivable that marrying Aisha was appropriate for that era.” Likewise Muhammad’s polygamy “was for tribal and political reasons as a means to unite various tribes in Arabia.” As Raza states, a “reformed Muslim essentially understands that there are issues and practices in the glory days of Islam that are not suitable for this time and place.”
Such views of Muhammad and other Muslim founding fathers as historically-limited justify Muslim reformer rejection of the Islamic doctrine of Muhammad as a “good example” of conduct. Rather than seeing a “perfect man” whose role model should eternally guide all people, Mansour declares that the “prophet Muhammad was not infallible.” “Islam sees Muhammad as infallible, but I don’t,” agrees Qudosi.
Muhammad’s fallibility sounds more credible than some of the questionable claims by Douglas-Williams’ interviewees such as Mansur, who asserts that “Muhammad fought because he was attacked.” Jalal Zuberi similarly argues that Muhammad “never took any personal insult to those people who opposed him,” notwithstanding various Islamic accounts of individuals assassinated on his orders. Zuberi also claims that “although the verses of the Koran contain the punishing of women, Muhammad himself never raised his hand,” despite a reputedly sound hadith recounting his striking of Aisha.
Douglass-Williams’ book demonstrates the struggle of various Muslims to redeem their personal piety amidst unconscionable faith-based political doctrines. As Raza states, the “history of Islam is based on conquests and violence, but there is the spiritual message also which is important to me.” Douglass-Williams similarly references Islamic civilization’s past “Golden Age” achievements and optimistically claims that the “primitive and rigid nature of Islamist theology is a perversion of an ancient pluralistic faith.”
Raza’s theological selectivity reflects Douglass-Williams’ questionable dogma: “In all faiths, humans are the instruments of religious practice and can choose what they accept and what they reject regarding the letter of their faith.” Her oft-made analogy that “Islam needs to have its own reformation similar to the Catholic Reformation” ignores that reason rejects relativism among Catholics such as Reilly and Spencer within a Church that is flawed like all human institutions. The Catholic Church’s papal infallibility doctrine corresponds to the belief, famously advocated by Pope Benedict XVI’s 2006 Regensburg address, that an ordered God’s all-encompassing truth regulates both body and soul.
Such objectivity includes the Biblical doctrine that all of humanity is made in the image of a loving God, with universal spiritual and material needs. Despite the “current Islamist hegemony,” Pipes writes with realistic optimism, Islamists “know their movement is doomed because Muslims will opt for the benefits of modern life.” To what extent Muslims can find such modernity within Islam remains an open question illuminatingly posed by Douglass-Williams.