Skip to content

Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook By Charles Kurzman

May 15, 2017

Muslim liberalism is a thriving tradition more than a century old and undergoing a revival within the last generation. This anthology presents the translated work of 32 Muslims who are concerned with the separation of church and state, democracy, the condiditon of women, the rights of minorities, freedom of thought, and the future of human progress. These liberal approaches face serious challenges, including accusations of treason and inauthenticity, and a Western ignorance about the existence and importance of this internal Islamic debate.

Although the West has largely ignored the liberal tradition within Islam, many of these authors are well-known in their own countries as advocates of democracy and tolerance. Among these are: Abdulkarim Soroush, a leading oppositional figure in Iran; Nurcholish Madjid, a prominent Indonesian intellectual; Mahmud Mohamed Taha, a religious reformer executed by the Sudanese government; and Ali Abd al-Raziq, an Egyptian religious scholar whose writings on the separation of church and state have been controversial since the 1920s. In an analytical introduction, editor Charles Kurzman discusses the history of the liberal tradition in Islam and identifies the main currents in liberal Islamic thought.

Widespread higher education has broken the traditional religious institutions’ monopoly on religious scholarship. Millions of autodidacts now have access to texts and commentaries, such as non-clerics with secular educations: engineers such as Muhammad Shahrour (Syria, born 1938) and Mehdi Bazargan (Iran, 1907-1995); philosophers such as Muhammad Arkoun (Algeria-France, born 1928) and Rachid Ghannoushi (Tunisia, born 1941); and sociologists such as `Ali Shari`ati (Iran, 1933-1977) and Chandra Muzaffar (Malaysia, born 1947).

For example, Fatima Mernissi (Morocco, born 1940), trained in sociology rather than theology, examined the hadith, “Those who entrust their affairs to a woman will never know prosperity!” Consulting a variety of ancient sources, she discovered that the hadith was attributed to Abu Bakra (died circa 671)-born a slave, liberated by the Prophet Muhammad, who rose to high social position in the city of Basra. He is the only source for this hadith, and he reported it 25 years after the Prophet’s death. Mernissi suggests that this hadith, though included in Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari’s collection of traditions, Al-Salih (The Authentic) and widely cited in the Islamic world, is suspect for two reasons.

First, when placed in context, Abu Bakra’s relation of the hadith seems self-serving. He was trying to save his life after the Battle of the Camel (December 656), when, to quote Mernissi, “all those who had not chosen to join `Ali’s clan had to justify their action. This can explain why a man like Abu Bakra needed to recall opportune traditions, his record being far from satisfactory, as he had refused to take part in the civil war. … [Although] many of the Companions and inhabitants of Basra chose neutrality in the conflict, only Abu Bakra justified it by the fact that one of the parties was a woman.”

Second, Abu Bakra had once been flogged for giving false testimony in an early court case. According to the rules of hadith scholarship laid out by Imam Malik ibn Anas (710-796 C.E.), one of the founders of the science of hadith studies, lying disqualifies a source from being counted as a reliable transmitter of hadith. “If one follows the principles of Malik for fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence], Abu Bakra must be rejected as a source of hadith by every good, well-informed Malikite Muslim.”

Sura 49, Verse 13: “O mankind! We created you from a single pair of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other, not that ye may despise each other.” Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia, born 1921) quotes Sura 5, Verse 48: “To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people.” Hostile and discriminatory forms of inter-religious relations, according to this trope, are un-Islamic. In the words of Subhi Mahmassani (Lebanon, born 1911): “There can be no discrimination based on religion in an Islamic system.”

The Iranian Revolution of 1979 raised tremendous hopes among Islamists in Malaysia, Africa, and throughout the Islamic world. Iran was to be the showpiece of the Islamist movement. For the first time since the seventh century, a truly Islamic society was to be constructed. It has been painful for these people to find that dream unfulfilled.

There are many examples of this painful disillusionment and the liberal outcome that resulted. Consider `Abdul-Karim Soroush, a man who wholeheartedly favored the Islamic Republic in the early years.  Soroush participated actively in the revolutionary reorganization of the universities in Iran, which involved getting rid of many fine professors in the name of ideological purity. Yet even this staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic eventually had his doubts. By the mid-1980s he had started to distance himself from official committees on which he had served. By the late 1980s he came to realize that the Islamic Republic was not ushering in a new era of justice and righteousness. Soroush started to criticize the government and began to call for a reinterpretation of Islamic law and for academic and intellectual freedoms that his university reorganization had disregarded in the early 1980s. These themes, along with his impressive erudition and his talent for public speaking, made Soroush one of the most popular public speakers in Iran in the early 1990s. He spoke at mosques and universities and on the radio, always to big audiences. Naturally the Iranian government found his words threatening, and Soroush has since been barred from speaking publicly in Iran. He now speaks outside of Iran, when he is allowed to travel, addressing international audiences, mainly in Europe and North America, stressing the commonality of his views with Western interpretations of religion. But the pain of Soroush’s break with the Islamic Republic and his disillusionment are apparently so great that he literally cannot deal with his own former hopes and aspirations. In interviews, Soroush denies that he was a supporter of the Cultural Revolution in Iran or that he was active in the reorganization of the universities.  The Islamic Republic in Iran appears not only to be generating liberal ideas, but may even be erasing the memory of Islamist ideals.

If what follows seems to be a nit-picking over texts, one should look at the way Liberal and Conservative Christians have debated the meaning of biblical texts or the way that some rabbis seem to turn parts of the Torah inside out to mean the exact opposite of their seemingly plain meaning. As for freedom, bear in mind that the Church opposed it for centuries.

Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia, born 1921) quotes Sura 5, Verse 48: “To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people.” Hostile and discriminatory forms of inter-religious relations, according to this trope, are un-Islamic. In the words of Subhi Mahmassani (Lebanon, born 1911): “There can be no discrimination based on religion in an Islamic system.”

Humayun Kabir (India, 1906-1969) argues that the precedent of the early period of Islam does not apply automatically to later periods: “The situation changed as the Muslim empire spread rapidly through large areas of Asia and many different peoples were brought within its fold. Many practical problems arose and Muslim political thinking had to find a place for non-Muslim subjects in a Muslim State. …[In India, today, for example,] Muslims have condemned compulsion in religion and admitted that different religions must be given due respect.”

“In a pluralistic and multi-religious society one cannot do better than to ponder on the Qur’anic vision of human conflicts: To every one of you we have appointed a right way and open path. If Allah had willed, He would have made you one community….” (Sura 5, Verse 48) But Vahiduddin interprets this verse within the context of the changing needs of an evolving Islamic community: the late 20th century, he writes, is a period, “When Muslims are tempted to take an extremely static view of religion. Their preoccupation with issues which are not of capital importance has made them uncompromising not only in inter-religious dialogue but also in inter-Islamic dialogue.”

 

Abdurrahman Wahid (Indonesia, born 1940), leader of the world’s largest Islamic organization, calls the 1945 Indonesian constitution better suited than an exclusively Islamic state for the particularly multi-cultural setting of contemporary Indonesia. “[T]here is a need for steps to be taken to resist the deterioration of relations between the different religions and faiths in Indonesia,” he writes, and the first of these steps is the defense of democratic freedoms: “First of all, efforts to restore the attitude of mutual respect among people from different faiths should be based on the fundamental legal principles of freedom of speech (even for very small minority groups), the rule of law and equality before the constitution.”

Hassan Hanafi (Egypt, born 1935) wrote: “There is no one interpretation of a text, but there are many interpretations given the difference in understanding between various interpreters. An interpretation of a text is essentially pluralistic. The text is only a vehicle for human interests and even passions. … The conflict of interpretation is essentially a socio-political conflict, not a theoretical one. Theory indeed is only an epistemological cover-up. Each interpretation expresses the socio-political commitment of the interpreter.”

Amina Wadud-Muhsin (United States, born 1952) argues in a similar vein that “when one individual reader with a particular world-view and specific prior text [the language and cultural context in which the text is read] asserts that his or her reading is the only possible or permissible one, it prevents readers in different contexts from coming to terms with their own relationship to the text.”

Abdullahi An-Na`im (Sudan, born 1946) said: “there is no such thing as the only possible or valid understanding of the Qur’an, or conception of Islam, since each is informed by the individual and collective orientation of Muslims….”

Although there are Muslims who find common ground with Western liberals, liberal Islam is not without its detractors.  Some claim that liberal Islam is inauthentic, that it is a creation of the West and does not reflect “true” Islamic traditions. “Authenticity movements” have been increasing globally over the past quarter-century, from religious authenticity movements such as Islamism or the B.J.P. Hindu nationalist party in India, to ethnic authenticity movements such as tribal hostilities that have resulted in gruesome massacres in central Africa. The emphasis on authenticity is not limited to the Islamic world.

One of the crucial characteristics of this renewed interest in authenticity is the idea that one can take a culture and draw a box around it; that a culture can be defined as a discrete entity, separate from other cultures, with well-defined boundaries. In reality, these boundaries are rarely so precise. In Uzbekistan, for example, the government insists that the Now Ruz New Year’s celebration was invented in Central Asia, not in Iran-as if cultural practices would be less valuable if they were imported from elsewhere.

The flip side of this increasing need for cultural ownership is a flurry of criticisms against things or people for not being authentic enough. Because liberal Islam shares concerns with Western liberalism, critics claim, it must not be a valid interpretation of the religion-if X is Western, it cannot be Islamic. This binary opposition ignores the tremendous history of cultural borrowings and influences that permeated the supposed border over the centuries.

If the first charge is that liberal Islam is inauthentic, and therefore somehow wrong, the second charge argues that liberal Islam should not be tolerated whether or not it is wrong. For example, Gai Eaton, a British Muslim, calls liberal Muslims “Uncle Toms.” In essence, Eaton is calling liberal concerns treasonous to the cause of Islam.  Not only are these concerns wrong, according to Eaton’s way of thinking, but right or wrong, raising these concerns publicly weakens the Islamic world in its struggle with the West. It is like a team sport, where each side demands loyalty from its members and sees any internal critique, any self-critique, as aiding and abetting the other team.

In Iran, for example, the feeling of being besieged by foreign, especially American, hostility is so strong that in order to survive, politicians must prove that they are not “soft” on the “Great Satan.” Iranian politicians who wish to negotiate with the West, or to raise concerns about democracy, human rights, or other issues, are immediately labeled by their political opponents as “soft on Satan.” This pattern is so common and so damaging to liberal concerns, that even Iran’s moderate president, Muhammad Khatami, engaged in liberal-bashing during his campaign in 1997, perhaps in order to ward off similar criticism of himself. In one speech, on May 4 at Tehran University, Khatami sounded liberal themes such as: “The government should provide a safe environment for the people so that they may express their opinions on internal issues and economic affairs,” and “We should study the West, a fountain of all transformations.” At the same time, he accused some liberal oppositionists of having “fallen in the lap of foreigners,” of not being a legitimate political party, and of not coming “from inside society.”

Western ignorance poses yet another challenge for liberal Islam.  For centuries, the West has constructed an image of Islam as “the Other,” identifying Islam with its most exotic elements. Islamic faith has been equated with fanaticism, as in Voltaire’s Mahomet, or Fanaticism (1745). Islamic political authority has been equated with despotism, as in Montesquieu’s intentionally redundant phrase “Oriental despotism.” And, Islamic tradition has been equated with backwardness and primitiveness, as in Ernest Renan’s inaugural lecture at the College de France (1862}: “Islam is the complete negation of Europe; … Islam is the disdain of science, the suppression of civil society; it is the appalling simplicity of the Semitic spirit, restricting the human mind, closing it to all delicate ideas, to all refined sentiment, to all rational research, in order to keep it facing an eternal tautology: God is God.”

Aside from bias, Western policy must better understand the distinctions within Islamic movements. An example  is the recent history of Algeria. The Front de Salvation Islamique (FIS), was divided into liberal and radical factions. During the elections of late 1991 and early 1992, the liberal wing was in the ascendant; its leaders were setting the group’s policy, its candidates were running for office, and it stood a great chance of actually coming to power.

Abbasi Madani, the leader of the liberal faction, made a number of statements aimed at calming the fears of Algerians and Westerners about the intentions of the FIS, such as: “Pluralism is a guarantee of cultural wealth, and diversity is needed for development. We are Muslims, but we are not Islam itself. …We do not monopolize religion. Democracy as we understand it means pluralism, choice, and freedom.”  The FIS had won 81 percent of the first-round elections in December 1991 and was poised to do equally well in the second round in early January 1992 when the Algerian military, supported by France and the United States, canceled the elections, banned the FIS, and arrested its leaders. The result was that the liberals within the Islamic movement were thoroughly discredited for having proposed an effort to win within the rules of democracy. The radical wing prevailed and even murdered liberal Islamic activists who objected to terrorism, such as Mohammad Sa`id and Abderrazak Redjam who were killed in 1995. The Western inability to believe that there might be such a thing as liberal Islam proved a self-fulfilling prophecy.

There has been some criticism of his choice of authors: Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of the Tunisian Islamists and a man excluded from the United States for his role in fomenting violence against the government of his home country? ‘Ali Shari’ati, the theorist of the Islamic revolution in Iran? Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Islamist who told an audience in Kansas City in 1989, “On the hour of judgment, Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them” and whose book, The Permitted and the Prohibited in Islam, was banned in France?

Quotations:

Islamic political authority has been equated with despotism, as in Montesquieu’s intentionally redundant phrase “Oriental despotism.” And, Islamic tradition has been equated with backwardness and primitiveness, as in Ernest Renan’s inaugural lecture at the College de France (1862}: “Islam is the complete negation of Europe; … Islam is the disdain of science, the suppression of civil society; it is the appalling simplicity of the Semitic spirit, restricting the human mind, closing it to all delicate ideas, to all refined sentiment, to all rational research, in order to keep it facing an eternal tautology: God is God.”

“Religion is divine, but its  interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldly.” (Abdul-Karim Soroush, Iran, born 1945):  “The text does not stand alone, it does not carry its own meaning on its shoulders, it needs to be situated in a context, it is theory-laden, its interpretation is in flux, and presuppositions are as actively at work here as elsewhere in the field of understanding. Religious texts are no exception. Therefore their interpretation is subject to expansion and contraction according to the assumptions preceding them and/or the questions enquiring them ….We look at revelation in the mirror of interpretation, much as a devout scientist looks at creation in the mirror of nature … [so that] the way for religious democracy and the transcendental unity of religions, which are predicated on religious pluralism, will have been paved.”

“Every interpreter enters the process of interpretation with some preunderstanding of the questions addressed by the text-even of its silences-and brings with him or her certain conceptions as presuppositions of his or her exegesis.”

Return to the home page

Advertisements

From → Inter Faith

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: