RECOMMENDED READING: “Can Islam Be Reformed?: History And Human Nature Say Yes”


Scholar Daniel Pipes has posted a reprint of his article for Commentary titled  “Can Islam Be Reformed?: History And Human Nature Say Yes” which looks at the questions surrounding the “reform” of Islam. We should first state clearly that the Global Muslim Brotherhood Daily Watch strongly takes issue with Dr. Pipes’ opening sentence characterizing an entire religion and its over 2 billion adherents in such sweepingly derogatory terms. We find those words quite surprising given that Dr. Pipes just recently posted another article where he did make the  critically important distinction between the religion of Islam and Islamism  which Dr. Pipes aptly defined in a 1998 article as ‘an effort to turn Islam, a religion and civilization, into an ideology.” We want to repeat once again that the GMBDW does make the distinction between Islam the religion and Islamism which we characterize as the ideology behind the threat posed by the Global Muslim Brotherhood. Along those lines, we are repeating what we expressed in a previous post:

In these times of growing polarization and hatred, it is important to remember that much of what is now so problematic in the Islamic world was of modern creation and therefore need not represent the future of Islam. GMBDW also feels strongly that everybody who who wants to follow the Global Muslim Brotherhood seriously needs to understand how profoundly important the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, its founder Hassan el-Banna, and perhaps most significantly Brotherhood ideology Sayyid Qutb were in the origins of Islamism, sometimes referred to as “political Islam.” 

For the best and most profound analysis on Islamism to date, we recommend the book “Islam and Islamism” written by Syrian-born scholar Bassam Tibi. 

That said, we feel that Dr. Pipes does make some important points in the article, particularly regarding what he calls “Essentialism.” The article begins:

Daniel Pipes Commentary July/August 2013 Islam currently represents a backward, aggressive, and violent force. Must it remain this way, or can it be reformed and become moderate, modern, and good-neighborly? Can Islamic authorities formulate an understanding of their religion that grants full rights to women and non-Muslims as well as freedom of conscience to Muslims, that accepts the basic principles of modern finance and jurisprudence, and that does not seek to impose Sharia law or establish a caliphate?

A growing body of analysts believe that no, the Muslim faith cannot do these things, that these features are inherent to Islam and immutably part of its makeup. Asked if she agrees with my formulation that ‘radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution,’ the writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali replied, ‘He’s wrong. Sorry about that.’ She and I stand in the same trench, fighting for the same goals and against the same opponents, but we disagree on this vital point.

My argument has two parts. First, the essentialist position of many analysts is wrong; and second, a reformed Islam can emerge.

Arguing Against Essentialism

Rumi (1207-73), a leading mystic of Islam. To state that Islam can never change is to assert that the Koran and Hadith, which constitute the religion’s core, must always be understood in the same way. But to articulate this position is to reveal its error, for nothing human abides forever. Everything, including the reading of sacred texts, changes over time. Everything has a history. And everything has a future that will be unlike its past. Only by failing to account for human nature and by ignoring more than a millennium of actual changes in the Koran’s interpretation can one claim that the Koran has been understood identically over time. Changes have applied in such matters as jihad, slavery, usury, the principle of ‘no compulsion in religion,’ and the role of women. Moreover, the many important interpreters of Islam over the past 1,400 years—ash-Shafi’i, al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, Rumi, Shah Waliullah, and Ruhollah Khomeini come to mind—disagreed deeply among themselves about the content of the message of Islam.

However central the Koran and Hadith may be, they are not the totality of the Muslim experience; the accumulated experience of Muslim peoples from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond matters no less. To dwell on Islam’s scriptures is akin to interpreting the United States solely through the lens of the Constitution; ignoring the country’s history would lead to a distorted understanding.

Put differently, medieval Muslim civilization excelled and today’s Muslims lag behind in nearly every index of achievement. But if things can get worse, they can also get better. Likewise, in my own career, I witnessed Islamism rise from minimal beginnings when I entered the field in 1969 to the great powers it enjoys today; if Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline.

How might that happen?

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