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Islam's Reformist Tradition

The "clash of civilizations" supposedly underway between the West and the Muslim world, which many see as manifested in Iraq, as well as in Saudi Arabia's growing violence, in fact masks other conflicts - disputes that will probably prove to be far more significant in the long term. One of these struggles is taking place among Muslims themselves over the shape of reform within their own societies.

The Muslim reformist tradition - the search for an authentic path that links Islam's traditions to the modern world - has deep roots, stretching back to the middle of the 19th century. Back then, Muslim thinkers contrasted the decline of their own societies with Europe's dynamism, a particularly painful distinction in light of European successes in colonizing large parts of the Muslim world. Then, too, Muslim intellectuals focused on the "decadence" of Muslim societies, their debilitating political and social corruption.

Many early Muslim reformists were clerics or senior bureaucrats, who had seen first hand how diminished their societies had become. More importantly, they were members of a tiny minority that had been educated in the written heritage of Islam. Far beyond Koranic recitation, these men aspired to participate in the centuries-long discussions among Muslim scholars about the proper ordering of Muslim life. This training enabled them to compare the debased state of affairs of their time with the norms and aspirations of earlier generations of clerics and thinkers.

Their judgment was clear: Muslims had sunk far below what their religion required them to be, and lagged far behind the accomplishments of their ancestors. For the reformers, normality meant the progressive development of Muslim societies, and they tied this to the interaction of Islamic teaching with relevant, worldly ideas of the time. So these first reformers sought to engage with the ideas that they saw emerging from Europe: rationality, tolerance and ethically determined behavior.