Can Islam be reformed? 8

The term “Islamist” is an invention by non-Muslims who want to differentiate between what they insist is the ”the vast majority of peace-loving law-abiding Muslims” from the “radicals”, or “extremists”, or “Islamofascists” for whom they think “Islamist” is a politer word. Islamists are, in the eyes of the well-meaning tolerant non-Muslims who coined the term, a minority with whom the vast majority of “moderate” Muslims do not agree and of whom they do not approve. Even though few of them actually express disapproval, the well-meaning, respectful, tolerant non-Muslims assume it to be strongly felt, and wish the wider public would believe and appreciate this.

For convenience, let’s call the well-meaning, respectful, tolerant non-Muslims who advance this view the Defense. The Defense hopes to persuade non-Muslim public opinion that the law and values of Islam are compatible with the laws and values of what is generally called the West.

The question then arises, what do “moderate” Muslims believe that is different from what the Islamists believe? For both moderates and Islamists the Koran is the holy word of Allah. The holy word of Allah cannot be changed. So what does the Defense say to that? It is, the Defense argues, a matter of interpretation. (For a thoughtful and wide-ranging discussion of this idea in connection with the Ground Zero mosque dispute, see an article by Ron Radosh at PajamasMedia. We usually find much to agree with in his writing, but in this article we find much to criticize. Rather than do so, because we think a point-by-point exegesis would be boring for us and our readers, we’ve chosen to make our own statement on the issue.)

What interpretation can be put on commandments to beat wives (sura 4.32), amputate limbs (eg sura 5.38), treat women unequally (eg sura 4.11), kill apostates (eg 4.89) – to take just a few instances of Allah’s writ? They are laid down in the Koran, from which Sharia derives. It is hard to read them and think of an interpretation that cancels, contradicts, or even merely softens their meaning. Even by the most liberal definitions imaginable by the most elastic of legal minds – one that could find, for instance, gradations of meaning in the word “is” – the words of the commandments cannot be made to mean their opposites. But some have tried to make them less apodictic, and the Defense depends on the possibility.

The Defense maintains that if the Koran is interpreted as meaning in many essential instances something different from what it says, it can be made compatible with American Constitutional Law. But wouldn’t that require deeply radical change, even complete reversal? And if such a radical change were to be made (by whom?), how, or to what extent, would it still be Sharia? Wouldn’t such a profound alteration mean, in effect, the obliteration of Islam?  And if so, how likely is it that it will be accepted by (at least a large enough part of) Islam?

One point often made by the Defense that needs to be answered: The Bible also orders cruel punishments, including, for instance, stoning adulterers. True, but there is no country on earth that declares Biblical law to be its constitution, or makes the commandments of Jehovah, or God the Father, or Jesus Christ, the law of the land, even though some laws agree with some of the ten commandments. Israel decidedly rejected the idea of basing its state laws on Jewish religious law (though for political expediency governments have made some concessions to the religious political parties, causing more nuisance than oppression – such as that marriage must be by religious rite).

But every state in which Islam is the religion of the majority – even including Iraq when it was ruled by the ostensibly secular socialist Ba’athists – has Sharia as the basis of its law. Turkey was an exception that is now changing under an Islamist government to conform with the rest.

Islam wants the world to be Muslim. It declares that every Muslim must help achieve its goal. It prescribes violence as the chief if not exclusive means. Clearly by this alone Islam has set itself up as the enemy of all non-Muslims. In pursuit of its supreme goal and in obedience to the word of Allah, millions of Muslims, including the 19 who perpetrated the crimes of 9/11 in the name of Islam, have dedicated themselves to waging war on the rest of the world, and more will do so in the years to come.

They need to be stopped; by peaceful means if possible, by force whenever necessary. If “reinterpretation” of Islam’s holy writ is a way that can work peacefully, it should be pursued. But can it be done? Our answer is – almost certainly not.

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  • Andrew M

    As someone who has traveled to the Middle East and regularly works with Muslims in a secular setting, this issue is near and dear to my heart.

    The question is as difficult as juggling live grenades. While there can be no question that Islam whips up a disturbing number of its practitioners to deadly violence and specious demands for “respect”, there are nonetheless vast numbers of modernized Muslims who love liberty and are an indelible part of our cultural fabric yet still feel castigated by images of Muhammad and American/Israeli foreign policy. Neither the West nor these peaceful cultural Muslims are at fault, but rather it is the binary nature of purely ideological Islam placing them on the fence between the two cultures. For anyone with an inkling of Quranic knowledge, it should be self-evident how this dichotomy so sufficiently splits their sympathies.

    However, the solution should be just as obvious: Westerners and Westernized Muslims should be able to work together and generate an Islam 2.0 which salvages whatever good may abound in the Quran and integrates it with modern values. For all of his horrendous vices, Muhammad still remains an venerated figure who transformed the Arabs from a backwater desert tribe to the fastest-growing civilization in the world. A new revelation which acknowledges his historical legacy yet condemns the great bulk of his destructive teachings is the least requirement to advance the tradition into the 21st century. Muslims may still frown on citizen idolatry and national policy, but that should not be a problem if they are not seditious. As conservatives, we must maintain a strong stance against the barbaric, hateful ideologies of both Islam and xenophobia – that's the only way we are going to win.

    • Jillian Becker

      Andrew M, thank you for your interesting comment. Please tell us more about what you have learned from your travels in the Middle East and from working with Muslims. Has any Muslim suggested to you what aspects or parts of Islamic teaching and tradition might be changed with the acquiescence of enough authoritative Muslim scholars or other leading figures for the changes to be widely accepted? Or what do you yourself think might be changed, how, by whom, and to what?

      Can Islam itself, considered separately from specific countries and periods, be considered a civilization?

      What specific improvements did Muhammad bring to the desert tribes?

      Isn't xenophobia pretty rare in fact nowadays – in the First World, I mean. (With the exception always, of course, of anti-Semitism.)

      What I have pondered is – how could Islam be changed, or how much of it could be changed, without it ceasing to be Islam? I would like Islam to go away – not the people, just the ideology – but it seems to me it would have to be all or nothing.

      • Andrew M

        The Muslims I have come to know and love all share a genuine sense of humanity which manages to shine through the barbaric ideology they claim ancestry to. We still disagree on plenty of matters both trivial (alcohol and pork consumption) and substantial (Darwinian evolution and politics), but I know from their actions and deeds they reciprocate the kindness and interest in their way of life that I have given them. Curiously enough, most of them feel motivated to act charitably towards others on the basis of Islam itself. Clearly they are deriving (or more likely ascribing) something positive to the faith in which they were born.

        But the Islam they espouse is a far deviant from the literal Quranic interpretation flaunted by the militant mujahideen. My trip to the Middle East took me to Tunisia, whose first post-independence president Habib Bourguiba modernized the country by establishing full legal equality and the right to education for both men and women. From my stay in the country and living with a fairly traditional Muslim family, I can tell that his attitude changed the country for the better. What strikes me most about the attitudes of my Muslim friends is that like Bourguiba, their vehicle of reform is Islam itself – or rather the personal form of Islam which they find agreeable to their adopted Western values.

        As to why they do not condemn terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in the strongest possible terms, my guess is that it would compromise their honor in a society which banks heavily on maintaining it at all costs. Whatever their beliefs may be about these groups, the mere fear of being rejected by the larger ummah for not sharing in their groupthink is a price none of them are willing to pay. I can explain this by way of a more benign example: one of my Muslim friends occasionally drinks alcohol but seldom acknowledges it within the traditional atmosphere of public life, where beliefs about the devilish nature of khamr still persist. By the same token, I imagine that challenging the worth of causes which “support Islamic interests” would be tantamout to apostasy (and we all know the troubles that can brew).

        A solemn irony emerges from these competing desires to be both Western and Muslim: opposing acts of violent jihad would be not only in their best interests, but also those of the form of Islam they have come to love and appreciate. I almost pity the position they occupy – they have lived in America for several years by this point and are proud defenders of real tolerance, but at the same time they don't want to forgo their traditions. The tribalism of pure Islam divides these people enough, but when I hear remarks which suggest all Muslims are disloyal scum and need to be deported or converted to something besides Islam simply because they are Muslims, I empathize with their sticky situation. As far as they are concerned, violent jihad is indeed a perversion of Islam – *their* Islam. Many of those Muslims came to the West to escape the horrors of that hateful ideology only to be greeted with more of the same in their adopted homes. Yes, they are used as talking points by the genuinely evil to defend their illogical metaphysics, but when we implicate these well-meaning people of a crime they never committed, our free speech becomes all the less precious. Our actions, not our rhetoric, define who we are – but take away the knowledge of either, and an informed citizenry becomes a fancy hallucination.

        Owing to the length of this post I will answer your questions about Muhammad at a later point, but to very briefly summarize my argument, he brought marked internal stability to the Arabs through the rule of his novel legal code. However terrible it may be now and in spite of his awful motivations which are being frightfully rendered in the 21st century, it was still miles better than the savagery which predated it.

        • Jillian Becker

          We're very grateful for all that you tell us, Andrew M. It's good to know that there are Muslims who are “proud defenders of real tolerance”. At the same time it is disheartening to hear – though you make it fully understandable so that we can sympathize with their predicament – that people of that opinion are too intimidated by the ummah to speak out clearly or stand up publicly for the values they hold. Doesn't that fact in itself discourage any hope of reform?

          We look forward to your answers about Muhammad and how his legal code was an improvement on what went before it.

  • Ty3114

    Sorry to say, but “moderate” Muslims are pseudo Muslims…Muslim-lite at best. As Hawk said, Islam is War… is Violence …is Death… is Subjugation… is domination – remove these from the equation, and we are tlaking about something other than Islam

  • Historyscoper

    The only meaningful reform in Islam would be to get Muslims to drop their insane irrational belief in their idol Allah 🙂 In the meantime, atheists shouldn't be like Pres. Bush and be history ignoramuses sans knowledge of Islam's history, ideology and terminology else they are giving Islam apologists the field. The best place to master it all free online is the Historyscoper's free online course at
    The best place to keep up on daily news and opinion articles is

  • Hawk

    Yes, what is Islam if not the Koran, Sharia, the subjugation of women, jihad for world domination?