Liberal Islam

From: Lev Lafayette (
Subject: Liberal Islam
Original Format
Newsgroups: soc.religion.unitarian-univ
Date: 2002-07-11 19:18:05 PST

I've recently been given the opportunity to read "Plurality in Proximity:
The Gospel of Unitarian Universalism for Contemporary Culture" a Masters
thesis by by Adrian Worsfold. It is supposed to be an examination of how a
Unitarian 'metatheology' may develop from a pluralistic mysticism that
incorporates the reformation, the renaissance and modernity. Even if these
objectives are considered worthwhile (and I suppose that they are) I've
found the ignorance and bigotry within the thesis somewhat disturbing.

To begin with, the category 'Easternism' is used to describe primarily
Buddhism, but is also supposed to incorporate (at least in part) the Hindu
faith. The difficult questions of where Taoism, Shinto, Chinese paganism
and Austronesian animism are supposed to fit in are ignored. The chosen
category 'Easternism' is, in my opinion, a somewhat racist and extremely
ignorant statement that attempts to combine highly diverse religious
philosophies as a single category.

It is not uncommon for ignorant people to place all that they don't
understand in the category of 'Other' (or in this case 'Eastern').
Worsfold, at the very least, didn't embark too far in this direction
concentrating on Buddhism of which he seems to know at least a little
about. However, his bigotry (remember, this is supposed to be about
Unitarianism as pluralism) continues;

"My argument is that Christianity, Humanism, Paganism and Easternism
covers the field as generalised narratives. It is hard to believe that any
Muslim would be a Unitarian Universalist...."

The text then goes on to acknowledge one one revisionist, Abdul Karim
Saroush, who at the very least acknowledges infallibility and thus may be
acceptable to our author.

This is religious bigotry at its ignorant worst. According to Worsfold,
with a few contemporary exceptions, Islam is apparently such a
fundamentalist religion which it is "hard to believe" that a Muslim would
agree to the basic Unitarian Universalist propositions, that is:

- The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
- Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
- Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our
- A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
- The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our
congregations and in society at large;
- The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
- Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a

To say the least, such a proposition is ill-founded at best. Whatever the
ideas of some of its leaders (and all religions suffer from
fundamentalists - apparently even our own), there is a long liberal,
reflexive and secular tradition in Islam which one can find among the
Sufi, the Mu'tazilites, the Al-Andalus regime in Spain, and of course,
the marvellous simple and sensate philosophies of Rubaiyat by Omar
Khayyam ("A jug of wine, a loaf of bread and thou!") and Sheik Nefzaoui's
"The Perfumed Garden".

Today there are liberal Islamic organisations all over the world doing
their very best to counter fundamentalism within their own nations and
among the norms of their own religion. The following are but a sample;

Al-Qalam, South Africa:
An-Nahdha, Tunisia:
Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, USA:
Claremont Main Road Mosque, South Africa:
Ikatan Cendekiawan Muslim Se-Indonesia (ICMI), Indonesia:
International Institute for Islamic Thought, USA and Malaysia:
Islam21, England:
Islamic Intellectual Forum, USA:
Jaringan Islam Liberal, Indonesia:
Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, USA:
Liberation Movement of Iran:
Liberty for Muslim World, England:
Minaret of Freedom, USA:
Ministry of W. Deen Muhammad, USA:
Muslim Public Affairs Council, USA:
Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia:
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, Canada:
Parti Keadilan, Malaysia:
Progressive Dawoodi Bohras, India:
Qalandar: Islam and Interfaith Relations in South Asia:
Sisterhood Is Global Institute, Canada:
Umma Party, Sudan:
Women Living Under Muslim Laws, England-Pakistan-Nigeria,

In closing, I'd like to present two articles on liberal Islam as
examples; "Islam and the Limits of Rational Religion" by Zeeshan Hasan and
"Liberal Islam: Prospects and Challenges" by Charles Kurzam. Hopefully
they will serve to balance against those who make such ridiculous
assertions such as that is is hard to believe that a Muslim (or
anyone else for that matter) could hold to Unitarian principles.


Lev Lafayette.

Islam and the Limits of Rational Religion

1997 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in the Jan. 10, 1997 issue of the
Star Weekend Magazine.

Religious people cherish their beliefs, and naturally like to think that
their faith is perfectly reasonable; Muslims are no exception. Hence
religions tend to work themselves out into rationalized dogma and develop
their own philosophical traditions. For Muslims, the fields of Qur'anic
interpretation and Islamic law also incorporate logical argument as the
basis of their methodology. Thus it may seem natural for believers to
assume that their religious outlook is completely rationalist. However, a
purely logical framework causes problems within the context of a religion
as monotheist as Islam. The glaring example of the unreasonability of
monotheism is referred to by Western philosophers as "the problem of
evil"; examining it can help us see what the real place of reason in Islam
must be. The fact is that religious belief is more than rationalist dogma.
For believers, it constitutes an existential assertion which helps them to
live well. But "living well" is a subjective experience, not a logical
one; hence, faith acquires irrationality. The results of this enquiry will
naturally have important implications for the fields of Islamic philosophy
and law.

That there is a degree of reason at work in Islam is beyond question. At a
basic level, any textually-based religion requires logic. Muslims must by
definition extract Islam from the Qur'an, their revealed source. The
process of extraction, whether it be for the definition of Islamic
theology or law, must be logical. Logic is the only methodology that
ensures that the resulting laws and theologies will "make sense", being
consistent with their roots in the Qur'an and with each other. So it is
difficult to imagine that Muslims would be willing to forsake logic
entirely in their religious practice. Suffice to say, then, that much of
Islam as we know it is contingent upon the use of reason.

However, the importance of rationalism in Islam ultimately causes
problems. The fact is that there are several concepts associated with
monotheist religions which cannot be conclusively reconciled with logic.
Prominent among these is the classic paradox that Western philosophy
refers to as the "problem of evil". The problem is as follows; if God
exists and is wholly good and omnipotent, then evil (in the sense of both
"moral evil" i.e. human wickedness, and "natural evil" i.e.. innocent
suffering due to disease, hunger, death and other generally unsavory facts
of the natural world) should not exist. In the case of moral evil, humans
should not be able to act immorally in spite of God's will that they be
moral. Likewise, if it is wrong to cause suffering, then the
divinely-decreed facts of life should not cause people such suffering. And
yet in our experience, all these evils very much exist. So far from being
an unavoidable rational or scientific conclusion, the existence of God
seems to contradict our experience of the world.

From a purely rationalist standpoint, it is impossible to come to terms
with the problem of evil without somehow limiting the goodness or
omnipotence of God. Such a compromise would allow for evil and suffering,
as God could be rendered unwilling or unable to eliminate them. However,
such a compromise in the divine attributes is impossible in an Islamic
context. The Qur'anic concept of God, as expressed in the "divine names",
emphasize repeatedly the divine attributes of goodness and power.
Presumably, if God was not entirely good and omnipotent, then the divine
names which we associate with those qualities would appear with some
qualification. But in names such as al-Barr (the Beneficent) and al-Qadir
(the Powerful) and many others of similar effect, there is no apparent
dilution of goodness or power. So the divine attributes maynot be
compromised; this cripples any attempt to resolve the problem of evil.

Things would be most convenient for believing monotheists if the problem
of evil could be simply and finally worked out rationally. Unfortunately,
this is not easily done.

The only way that one can hope to resolve the problem of evil is to claim
that evil is necessary for our perception of good. According to this
argument, we can only comprehend qualities such as good and evil through
contrast between opposites; hence evil and suffering are necessary if we
are to experience goodness and pleasure. But even if our current mental
state is such that we would not appreciate good without evil or happiness
without suffering, the fact is that our current mental state was itself
the work of the divine creator. Could not an all-powerful God enable
humanity to appreciate good without ever having to experience bad? If so,
then God's refusal to do so indicates an indifference to evil and
suffering. So we are stuck again with an Islamically unacceptable God
whose goodness is compromised.

A second objection to "solving" the problem of evil through asserting the
importance of good-evil contrast is more telling. Even if we allow that
evil creates a "higher-order good" (for example, an increased awareness of
good through the presence of evil) which would otherwise not be possible,
we still have not conclusively shown that the overall good is increased.
This is because the combination of good and evil which allows for a
greater good similarly allows for a greater evil. To be more precise, the
presence of both evil and good may enable a "higher-order good", namely
good amidst evil. It may be that this "higher-order good" is better than
the "first-order good" which would be possible without evil. However, once
we allow for higher-order good, we also open up the possibility of
higher-order evil. If good is better in the presence of evil, then evil
should also be worse in the presence of good. If we examine the idea of
moral choice, this becomes apparent. A decision to do good may be more
laudable if there is a possibility to do evil; but likewise an evil
decision is more reprehensible if there was the possibility of doing good
instead. So we are left with no conclusive way to say that evil has
enabled some greater good. The problem of evil is still unsolved.

The above objection is very broad in the sense that the precise nature of
the first and second-order goods and evils are very flexible. In fact, it
is hard to even imagine how one could try to solve the problem of evil
without somehow running afoul of higher-order evils in the process.

So there is no argument known to us which will resolve the problem of evil
completely. As a result, we must accept that for monotheist frameworks
generally, and Islam in particular, logic can give us only a limited
understanding of reality. Once we accept this, our inability to resolve
the problem of evil becomes a failure in the logical methodology available
to us rather than a refutation of our religious beliefs.

So monotheist faith requires us to ultimately give up on rationality as a
means of understanding reality. This may seem like a high price to pay,
but the only thing that we actually lose is metaphysical speculation;
metaphysics being the philosophical investigation of reality through pure
logic. However, the fact is that metaphysics never had a strong basis to
begin with. All that can be said of any rational system is that its
definitions are internally consistent. This says nothing about its "truth"
or "reality" or lack thereof, since there is no necessary connection
between reality and reason. Logic could very well be a human construct
with no bearing on any aspect of ultimate reality; since we can only
analyze problems logically, the logical method itself becomes axiomatic
for us and we can never prove or disprove it. The only purpose in assuming
that there is anything rational about reality is that one is then left
with a comprehensible universe.But this is an assumption made for our
convenience, and nothing more.

Certainly in the Islamic context, metaphysics has been somewhat less than
worthwhile. The Mu'tazilites, a "rationalist" branch of Islamic philosophy
which was prominent during the Abbasid Caliphate, were of course very fond
of metaphysics. As a result, they concluded that though humans must have
free will if they are to be morally responsible, God cannot have free will
as the divine will has no choice but to be good. This is only one
illustration of how unproductive logic and metaphysics are in a monotheist

But the problems of religious faith are more immediate and existential
than metaphysical speculation. It may well be that many Muslims would be
greatly relieved to put the interminable arguments of speculative theology
behind them. This was essentially admitted by medieval Muslim philosophers
and embodied in the Ash'arite idea of accepting certain beliefs as being
true bi la kaifa, (without asking 'how?'); there is the same concept of
aspects of reality being beyond the scope of rational enquiry.
Historically, the Ash'arite position became the mainstream view precisely
because of the inability of philosophers to reach any acceptable
conclusions regarding metaphysics, which in the context of Islamic
philosophy often took the form of a determinism versus free will debate.
In a real sense, the loss of metaphysics implies the end of traditional
Islamic philosophy; we can not speculate on the nature of God, free will,
etc. without speaking metaphysically. All that is left to us is a plain
faith in a Qur'anic monotheism, which was the important thing anyway.
Mercifully, metaphysics has little to do with everyday life; so believers
can conveniently continue acting as if the world of our everyday life is
logical, even if religious belief says that reasonability is only skin

Philosophy aside, Muslims also need to know what the Qur'anic position on
the problem of evil is. Of course the Qur'anic text does not explicitly
deal with philosophical questions, but it is quite easy to interpret the
sacred text to support a limited role for reason. The verses which
probably contain the closest parallel to our discussion are in Surah 2
(given below). They occur before the sin of Adam and the expulsion from
the Garden, in the form of a dialogue between God and the angels.

And when thy Lord said to the angels,
'I am setting in the earth a viceroy.'
They said 'What, wilt Thou set therein one
who will do corruption there, and shed blood,
while We proclaim Thy praise and call Thee Holy?'
He said, 'Assuredly I know
that you know not.'
{Surah 2 (al-Baqara), verse 28}

While the above talks only of moral evil (corruption and bloodshed), the
fact is that this particular verse raises the question of evil and deals
with it in an exceptionally direct manner. The answer given,
significantly, is not an exercise of metaphysical sophistication. It is
essentially just the assertion that God's knowledge is greater than ours,
with the implication that humans cannot fully understand the divine will.
This practically admits to non-rationalism. And once we admit to a
non-rational framework, neither moral nor natural evil remains
problematic. The non-rational solution to the problem of evil is simply to
assert that evil ultimately allows a greater good, and that the human tool
of logical understanding cannot explain this fact of reality. It hinges
upon the incapability of comprehending absolute/divine truths on the part
of the non-divine, which is at the core of the Qur'anic response above.

Although rationalist Qur'anic interpreters would disagree with the above
interpretation, the fact is that it is quite in keeping with other vague
Qur'anic positions on metaphysical problems. The fact is that the Qur'an
does not seem primarily interested in discussing philosophy, but in
showing people how to live. It is only by realizing this that we can
understand the core of the Qur'anic teaching. For while evil and suffering
are a logical problem for believers, they present an existential
difficulty which applies to non-believers as well. The problem of evil is
really only the monotheist version of a basic question which people face;
namely, how does one live when life contains such cruelty and unhappiness?
The only means available is hoping that happiness is within reach and
goodness is still possible. In the monotheist context, this hope
crystallizes as faith in God, a divine-centered morality and a sense of
ultimate purpose. For non-monotheists, it simply remains a more diffuse
optimism. Unfortunately this basic commonality is often overlooked, in no
small part due to the antagonism which is commonplace between religious
and irreligious people and their beliefs. Of modern philosophers, Soren
Kierkegaard was one of the few to acknowledge the religious "leap of
faith" as a fundamentally existentialist phenomenon.

In the modern context, one often comes across much more extravagant claims
regarding the place of logic in Islam. Muslims often like to believe that
their religion is "logical" and "scientific", and that they are therefore
led conclusively to Islamic faith. But this view is untenable even in
classical Islamic philosophy, as even Ash'arite theology admitted to an
underlying irrationality. It is in many ways a very modern view, dating
from 19th and 20th century thinkers such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani who
tried to "rationalize" Islam to defend it from the onslaught of
post-Renaissance European anti-religious skepticism. However, monotheism
is not defended by excessive rationalization; it is only made unworkable.
Likewise, the claim that Islam is a "complete system of life" with its own
laws, social structures, etc. derive largely from the defensive
rationalizing of people like Mawlana Maududi in their attempts to protect
Islamic culture from pro-European "modernizing" tendencies. But once we
acknowledge that the truths of Islam are primarily existential and
personal, law becomes less and less relevant. Law is by nature not an
individual activity, but part of a social system. The personal equivalent
of law is the individual's code of ethics, which along with belief in one
God constitutes a fundamental part of Muslim faith. And like faith,
ethical impulses are never based upon logic. Rather, ethics and faith are
the means by which humans make livable a world which is painfully lacking
in goodness. For religious purposes the deciding factor is not reason, but
what helps the individual to live.


Middle Eastern Review of International Affairs Journal, Volume 3, No. 3
September 1999


By Charles Kurzman

Editor's Summary: The author suggests that there is an important and
growing group in Middle Eastern Islam which advocates liberal solutions to
the problems of religion and society. Professor Kurzman outlines the
different approaches of these thinkers and the reasons for the rise of
this school of thought in recent years. For other articles on the
political debate within Islam, see Emanuel Sivan, "Why Radical Muslims
Aren't Taking Over Governments," MERIA Journal, Vol. 2 No. 2 (March 1998)
and also Ali R. Abootalebi, "Islam, Islamists, and Democracy," MERIA
Journal, Vol. 3, No. 1 (March 1999).

Although the focus of research and public perception in the West has been
on radical Islamic thought and movements, many Muslims adhere to
principles which could be described collectively as "Liberal Islam."
This refers to interpretations of Islam that have a special concern
regarding such issues as democracy, separating religion from political
involvement, women's rights, freedom of thought, and promoting human
progress. In each case, the argument is that both Muslims and religious
piety itself would benefit from reforms and a more open society. (1) These
attitudes parallel those of liberalism in other cultures and also of
liberal movements in various religious faiths.

It is quite possible that these tendencies will grow more important in the
future, perhaps even coming to be the dominant orientation in the years to
come. Such a trend could happen because of local factors, modernization
and development in Islamic societies, and reasons similar to those that
brought about such an evolution in the West.


Liberalism in the Islamic world and liberalism in the West may share
common elements, but they are not exactly the same thing. They may both
support multi-religious co-existence, for example, but go about it in
different ways. Within the Islamic discourse, there are three main tropes
that I call:

(a) the "liberal shari`a"

(b) the "silent shari`a"

(c) the "interpreted shari`a"

Shari`a is the body of Islamic guidance and precedent that has been
handed down from the time of the Prophet Muhammad in 7th-century Arabia.

The "liberal shari`a" argues that the revelations of the Qur'an and the
practices of the Prophet command Muslims to follow liberal positions. For
example, in the case of Ali Bula (Turkey, born 1951) quotes Sura 109,
Verse 6 of the Qur'an: "To you your religion, to me my religion." He goes
into great detail describing the "Medina Document," a treaty signed by the
Prophet Muhammad with the Jewish tribes of Medina in the first moments of
the Islamic era: "The urgent problem of the day was to end the conflicts
and to find a formulation for the co-existence of all sides according to
the principles of justice and righteousness. In this respect, the Document
is epochal....A righteous and just, law-respecting ideal project aiming
for true peace and stability among people cannot but be based on a
contract among different groups (religious, legal, philosophical,
political etc.).This is a rich diversity within unity, or a real
pluralism." (pages 170-174)

Chandra Muzaffar (Malaysia, born 1947) quotes 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." (page 157) 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." (page 164) 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." (page 23)

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." (page 164) 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." (page 23)

The second trope, the "silent shari`a," holds that coexistence is not
required by the shari`a, but is allowed. This trope argues that the
shari`a is silent on certain topics-not because divine revelation was
incomplete or faulty, but because the revelation intentionally left
certain issues for humans to choose.

For example, 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." (pages 148, 152)

Syed Vahiduddin (India, born 1909) quotes the same Qur'anic verse as
Mohamed Talbi: "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." (pages 22-23)

Similarly, 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." (3)

The first trope of liberal Islam holds that the shari`a requires
democracy, and the second trope holds that the shari`a allows democracy.
But there is a third trope that takes issue with each of the first two.
This trope is "interpreted Islam." According to this view, "Religion is
divine, but its interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldly."
(Abdul-Karim Soroush, Iran, born 1945) (page 246):

"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." (pages 245, 251)

Farid Esack (South Africa, born 1959), cites the words of `Ali ibn Abi
Talib, fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet: "this is the Qur'an,
written in straight lines, between two boards [of its binding]; it does
not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters and interpreters are
people." Esack translates this into contemporary terms: "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." Esack's pre-understandings emerge from the
multi-religious struggle against apartheid in South Africa. He argues that
this commitment resonates with the spirit of early Islam, when an
"emerging theology of religious pluralism was intrinsically wedded to one
of liberation." (4)

Similarly, 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." (page 26)

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." (page 130)

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...." (5)

This third trope suggests that religious diversity is inevitable, not just
among religious communities but within Islam itself.


Few if any of the authors quoted above have read one another's work. These
liberal positions appear to be emerging independently throughout the
Islamic world. This simultaneous appearance is due to three historic
shifts of the past several decades.


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 (tradition of the Prophet),
"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." (pages 116-117)

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 A.D.), 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." (page 119)

Thus, in the world of CD-ROMs and global internet access, anyone literate
in Arabic with a personal computer, like Mernissi, can investigate the
sources of Islamic law and question the reigning interpretations.


International technologies of communication-newspapers, telegraph lines,
and international trade-as well as radio, television, telephones, and the
internet, are bringing educated people from around in the world into
ever-closer contact. The ideals of Western liberalism, like other Western
notions such as nationalism, have entered people's homes around the world.
People in Gabon, West Africa, for example, watched the fall of Communism
in eastern Europe and started demanding democracy themselves, prompting
that country's dictator to comment derisively on the "wind from the east
[i.e., the Communist Eastern bloc] that is shaking the coconut trees." (6)

Another example: Nurcholish Madjid (Indonesia, born 1939) defends freedom
of thought by quoting the famous U.S. judge Oliver Wendell Holmes
(1809-1894): "The ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in
ideas-that the best test of truth is the power of thought to get itself
accepted [in the] competition of the market ..." Madjid goes on to say:
"Among the freedoms of the individual, the freedom to think and to express
opinions are the most valuable. We must have a firm conviction that all
ideas and forms of thought, however strange they may sound, should be
accorded means of expression. It is by no means rare that such ideas and
thoughts, initially regarded as generally wrong, are [later] found to be
right. ... Furthermore, in the confrontation of ideas and thoughts, even
error can be of considerable benefit, because it will induce truth to
express itself and grow as a strong force. Perhaps it was not entirely
small talk when our Prophet said that differences of opinion among his
umma [community] were a mercy [from God]." (page 287)

A further example of how technology is inducing change in the Islamic
world is the tremendous Internet activity surrounding the arrest of former
Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim (born 1947), whose
trajectory from youthful Islamist militant to liberal reformist coincided
with his increasing use of quotations from William Shakespeare and other
cross-cultural sources. Ibrahim's political career began with a
communalist Islamism that scapegoated Chinese Malaysians. In recent
years, Ibrahim had become an outspoken proponent of multi-religious
co-existence, both in Malaysia and at the global level: "The experience of
contemporary Islam in Southeast Asia has much to contribute not only to
Muslims in other regions but possibly also to the world at large. This is
due to the fact that the devout Southeast Asian Muslim practices his
religion in the context of a truly multicultural world. Especially in
Malaysia, a Muslim is never unaware of the presence of people of other
faiths; as friends, colleagues, collaborators, partners or even
competitors." (7)

Supporters of Ibrahim's reform movement contributed to international
communication through Web sites such as Anwar Online
(, Anwar Ibrahim One
(, Gerakan Reformasi
(, Reformasi Dot Com
(, quoting poetry by Rabindranath Tagore), and
Ibrahim's wife's official web site,

Some of these sites registered hundreds of thousands of visitors in two or
three months. As one flashing pro-Ibrahim Web site noted in halting
English: "Welcome to J's Reformasi Online, the site of the oppressed and
depressed!! In the name of Allah, most gracious, most merciful."

Some countries, like Saudi Arabia and Iran, have tried to block foreign
ideas from entering their countries precisely because they fear these
sorts of inter-cultural interactions. But blocking foreign ideas, to
quote U.S. President Woodrow Wilson out of context, "is like using a broom
to stop a vast flood." (8) Few countries will be able to keep up this
level of sweeping for long.


A third factor in the rise of liberal Islam is the failure of alternative
ideologies. In particular, there appears to be a growing sense that
Islamic regimes have not lived up to their promise. The Sudan and
Pakistan, for example, have proved to be no less corrupt after the
Islamization of the government than before. Taliban rule in Afghanistan
horrifies most Muslims. (9)

The number one disappointment for "fundamentalist" Muslims, however, is
Iran. 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. (10) The Islamic
Republic in Iran appears not only to be generating liberal ideas, but may
even be erasing the memory of Islamist ideals.


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." (11) ("Uncle Tom" is a
derisive term used by African-Americans to describe a Black person who is
grotesquely servile to whites.) 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." (12) 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." (13)

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." (14)

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." (16) 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 is a growing number of Muslims who share common concerns with
Western liberalism, one of which is peaceful multi-religious co-existence.
There are three Islamic approaches in this context which, while still very
much minority views, seem to be growing. In the "liberal shari`a" school,
Islamic scholars base their arguments on injunctions in the Qur`an and on
precedents from the early years of Islam.

Using an argument that might be called the "silent shari`a," Islamic
scholars argue that the shari`a does not speak about certain topics-not
because the revelation is incomplete or imperfect, but because these
matters have been intentionally left to human invention.

The third approach is the "interpreted shari`a," where Islamic scholars
argue that the revelation is divine, but interpretation is human and
fallible and inevitably plural.

These liberal approaches to multi-religious co-existence have been
stimulated by three historic shifts of the past quarter century: the rise
of secular higher education in the Islamic world, which has broken the
monopoly of the seminaries over religious discourse; the growth of
international communications, which has made educated Muslims more aware
than ever of the norms and institutions of the West; and the failure of
Islamic regimes to deliver an attractive alternative.

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.


This paper draws and expands on my anthology, Liberal Islam: A Source-Book
(New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1988). All citations refer
to this work, unless otherwise noted.

Ali Asghar Engineer, "The Hindu-Muslim Problem," in Islam and Liberation
Theology (New Delhi, India: Sterling Publishers, 1990), page 209.

Abdurrahman Wahid, "Religious Tolerance in a Plural Society," in Damien
Kingsbury and Greg Barton, eds., Difference and Tolerance: Human Rights
Issues in Southeast Asia (Geelong, Australia: Deakin University Press,
1994), page 42.

Farid Esack, Qur'an, Liberation, and Pluralism (Oxford, England: Oneworld,
1997), pages 50, 179.

Abdullahi An-Na'im, "Toward an Islamic Hermeneutics for Human Rights," in
Abdullahi A. Na'im, Jerald D. Gort, Henry M. Vroom, editors, Human Rights
and Religious Values: An Uneasy Relationship? (Amsterdam, Netherlands:
Editions Rodopi; Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing
Company, 1995), page 233.

Samuel Decalo, "The Process, Prospects, and Constraints of Democratization
in Africa," African Affairs, Vol. 91, 1992, page 7.

Anwar Ibrahim, "The Need for Civilizational Dialogue" (Washington, DC:
Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, Georgetown University,
Occasional Papers Series, 1995), page 4.

Arno J. Mayer, Politics and Diplomacy of Peacemaking: Containment and
Counterrevolution at Versailles, 1918-1919 (New York, New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1967), page 602.

Aslam Abdullah, "Shaving Is His Protest Against Coercion," Los Angeles
Times, May 10, 1997.

See the internet website devoted to Soroush's thought
(, and "Intellectual Autobiography: An Interview," in
Reason, Freedom, and Democracy in Islam: Essential Writings of Abdolkarim
Soroush, translated by Mahmoud Sadri and Ahmad Sadri (forthcoming).

Gai Eaton, Islam and the Destiny of Man (Albany, New York: State
University of New York, New York, 1985), page 12.

Charles Kurzman, "Soft on Satan: Challenges for Iranian-U.S.
Rapprochement," Middle East Policy, Vol. 6, No. 1, June 1998, pages 63-72

Salaam (Tehran, Iran), May 6, 1997.

Ernest Renan, Oeuvres Completes, (Paris, France: Calmann-Livy, 1947), Vol.
2, page 333.

Daniel Brumberg, "Islam, Elections, and Reform in Algeria," Journal of
Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 1, Winter 1991, page 64.


Charles Kurzman teaches sociology at the University of North Carolina at
Chapel Hill. He is editor of Liberal Islam: A Source-Book (Oxford
University Press, 1998).