Few Notes on Islamic Reformation

An intervention in an electronic forum

Hi all,

Let me take the opportunity to add a few notes to this discussion being, in part, a man of an Islamic background, though I currently do not profess to be a Muslim or a member in any faith.


The return of Muhammad and his followers (to Makkah) was NOT done in the spirit of revenge. Admittedly, there were a couple of acts of individual vengeance upon the conquest of Mecca (the practice of scholars in the Islamic fields now favors this spelling: Makkah), but, in general, the conquest was quite bloodless, and Muhammad showed much tact and diplomacy here by pardoning (forgiving) his enemies and encouraging them to convert to Islam, which they did over the few days following the conquest. Why? For political reasons, of course.

Muhammad’s war after his expulsion from Makkah had nothing to do with religions per se, as much as it was related to his political project of unifying the Arabian Peninsula under one centralized rule. This had been a dream in Muhammad’s tribe for generations. His very family in particular had played a very important role in breathing life into this dream and keeping it alive until he showed up. This does not mean that Muhammad was simply USING religion in an INTENTIONAL manner to achieve his goals, his faith in his own Prophet-hood seems to be quite genuine, but his faith in Allah seemed to imply a political as well as a religious significance almost from the very beginning of his message.

At one point, indeed, he seems to have been willing to grant a special status in his otherwise strictly monotheistic faith to three tribal goddesses in order to broker an agreement with the leadership of his tribe, Quraysh, in exchange for their acceptance of his prophet-hood AND his leadership. When he saw that, in practice, this agreement did not amount to much, Muhammad was willing to turn his back on it, and repudiate it completely saying it was inspired by Satan during a moment of weakness on his part, and not by God. This move was very controversial indeed, and it did manage to undermine the faith of some of his followers for a while. His willingness to take this risk, however, indicates how dedicated he was to the idea of One God and One state (in Arabia), always under his leadership.

To recap then, Muhammad’s acts of vengeance, and there were few before his return to Makkah – most of which were aimed at the Jewish tribes that inhabited Madinah (Medina) who were his real rivals there and did threaten his authority in many ways – were done for political reasons very much as his acts of mass forgiveness. That one act of pardon and forgiveness on his part in Makkah well-nigh doubled the number of his followers overnight.

On the moral-ethical level, Muhammad’s preached ideals that were no different than the Christian ones. He may not have articulated the Golden Rule or advocated in a clear manner the idea of turning the other cheek, but he said much in the Qur’an and the Hadith (sayings attributed to him but were not considered part of the Qur’an) that falls within these very lines.

But Muhammad’s political career made it difficult for him to maintain these values. Like all political leaders, before and after, he found himself at many occasions faced with a situation where The Practical Thing Was Not Moral Or Ethical.

This is the part of Muhammad’s personality that make him seem objectionable as A Moral Figure to Christians. He was not on par with Jesus, even before His Rise.

I was for a long time torn between Muhammad’s practicality and Jesus’ uncompromising idealism.  Muhammad’s practicality made much more sense to me and for a very long time, Jesus, on the other hand, seemed weak in comparison, perhaps even foolish. I did not want to be callously crucified for my ideals. I wanted to have a fighting man’s chance first. I wanted death to come in the middle of the battle field, not on top of a hill where a feeling of hopelessness might drive me to say: “Abba Abba Lima Shabaqtani (Father, Father, why Hast Thou Forsaken me?”

But as I matured, and of course that was not an easy process, I found more of myself in Jesus rather than Muhammad, I could never compromise my ideals. Or, to be more frank, I could not easily handle the feeling of guilt when I occasionally did. This made me realize that I did not need to become more practical, but more strong, so I can hold on to my ideals as much that I humanly can.

Being practical was/is often an excuse for doing what you want regardless of the consequences, especially to others. Being uncompromising (with regards to what to expect of yourself, not necessarily others, because the others have their own ideals) requires much more strength than being practical. Feeling guilty after you have compromised your ideals was not enough, you need to learn how to be strong and not compromise your ideals to begin with. You need Jihad, in its spiritual/psychological sense. This brings me to my second point.


What doctrinal difference that exists between Islam and Christianity, or between any one faith and another, is, to me, irrelevant. What is really relevant is the behavioral one.

Most religions, if not all, agree on certain notions such as the sanctity of life and property, and the need for justice, and so on. But, can one make an objective argument to the effect that the followers of Christianity, for example, were better than Muslims in expressing these notions? If you look at the here and now, you might be tempted to say yes.

But before you do, bear these two points in mind: It is the entirety of history that is relevant here, and not only a conveniently selected segment of it. Two: remember that the bloodiest wars that took place in the last century were championed by “Christians.” Even now, “Christians” are planning a war of revenge for September 11.

The use of quotation marks was not accidental here. A Christian is a Christian when he behaves in a manner that corresponds to the ideals of Christianity. The same goes for Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, etc. In the case of Islam, even the Prophet himself failed to live up to the ideals of the faith he advocated. This is something that is all too human, and this is what makes doctrinal differences and disputes so meaningless. The central problem in all this pertains to human failure, to human vulnerability, fragility, inadequacy, limitedness. This is where our focus should be. I say this while realizing that this is indeed what seems to be the case here.


It has been suggested by many scholars now that Islam is going through an experience similar to the Reformation.

Faced with the challenges of modernity and the inadequacy of the traditional culture to respond to them in an effective and satisfying manner, not to mention the failure of Arab Nationalism, and the creation of the state of Israel, Muslims around the world were forced to reexamine the nature of their identity and their belonging, with most admittedly developing an inferiority complex with regards to Western culture, but finding it difficult to embrace it, because this would entail relinquishing most of their traditional values. Islam puts its adherents at the center of the universe (“You were the best of nations brought forth among humankind, to enjoin what is right, forbid what is wrong and believe in God.” The Qur’an, 3:10), western civilization puts them at the margins.

The Western colonialist experience, the racist attitude inherent therein, and the sharp contradiction between the ideals the West advocated with regards to human values and rights and its behavior towards other peoples, which came in complete contravention to the avowed ideals, served only to encourage a rejectionist attitude not only towards the West per se, but also towards the ideals it attempted to champion. When people speak nowadays in term of human rights, women’s rights, freedom of choice and free market economics, the average Muslim would feel threatened, because in the very name of these ideals, his culture was trashed and homeland colonized. The ideals have lost their credibility somehow.

The only way for these ideals to regain their credibility is for term to be examined objectively, which means that the Muslims have to separate themselves from their past in all its parts, the distant and the recent. They have to examine these ideals, not in terms where they come from and whether they harmonize or not with the traditional understanding of Islam, but in terms of the logic inherent in them and in terms of their viability and their ability to unleash the creative powers of their adherents. Admittedly, this is an daunting task and not too tenable for many Muslims whose life is but a constant strife for the very modicum of human dignity, for mere survival: when day after day they are shaken to the roots by events at home and elsewhere in the world. When life seems to be out of your control, it becomes quite difficult for one to focus on objective analysis of the historical heritage and human values as such. One is more likely to react out of anger, out of frustration, and, at time, out of sheer and unbridled hate towards everything different, everything challenging and disquieting.

There will be no one Martin Luther in the Islamic Reformation, no one Calvin, no one “Here I Stand, but a sea of them, and they will seem mediocre, medieval and downright vile, at occasions, by contemporary standards. Islam is having its reformation in a practically united world and at a time when reformations make no sense anymore. Islam is a few centuries late in carrying out its reformation (but then, it is a few centuries younger than Christianity), as such, the ire, that necessary component or reformations, will be directed against the world, but it will appear incomprehensible and downright medievalistic, which it is.

Muslims do not need reformation, but a renewal, and though this last term has been used by several Muslim scholars in the early 20th century, very few of its very authors have understood the full implication of it, and fewer still have been the ones to have continued to advocate it. This is the nature of the failure of Muslim intellectuals so far in addressing the problems of their societies.

As for political leaders, medievalistic values suited most of them, because it put less check on their powers, and although, many of whom are anti-Islamists in doctrine, in practice, they are true inheritors of the Islamic political heritage which tends to be authoritarian.

Well, that’s enough I guess for one intervention. I hope it will not prove to be a turn off.