A Muslim woman is praying at a mosque. Image: Beth Rankin In the last several decades, the dominant intellectual and political trend in most Muslim majority countries has been that of political radicalism and intellectual conservatism, often referred to as fundamentalism.

This has not been, however, the only such trend in the Islamic world. On the contrary, in the last two decades, there has also been a reformist tendency within many Muslim countries, albeit to varying degrees. The goal of this reformist tendency has been to reinterpret many accepted Islamic axioms in light of new conditions in order to bring them closer to modern standards of rights, responsibilities, and behavior. In fact, the objective of reformist Muslims is to reconcile Islam and modernity or, as some have maintained, to nativize modernity in Muslims societies.

The first phase of Islamic reformist discourse resulted from the encounter of Muslim societies with modernity after European colonial expansion into the Islamic world. Muslim intellectuals at the time realized that, without reforms, Islam would not be able to resist Europe’s intellectual challenge.

Principal Features of Reformist Islam

The most salient features of reformist Islam include the following:

  1. Emphasizing a contextual as opposed to a literalist interpretation of the sacred texts;
  1. Distinguishing between fundamental principles of Islam, such as belief in the unity of God, the Prophecy of Muhammad, and the Day of Judgment, as well as required duties such as prayer, fasting, etc., and secondary rules and regulations of the faith. Reformists consider fundamental principles to be unchanging and unchangeable, and to be secondary rules and duties that are bound by time and space. This distinction is made by giving differing levels of importance to Islamic rules as laid out in the Quran and other foundational sources as compared to later interpretations of these sources by various jurists: reformists consider the foundational sources, but not their interpretations, as sacred. They thus believe that secondary Islamic rules and principles are changing and changeable. This is of great relevance since these secondary elements of Islam include prescriptions on the rights and duties of women, the Islamic penal code including the punishment of stoning, and more;
  1. Underscoring the ultimate goals of Islamic Sharia, which are those of justice and human dignity, rather than the ritual aspects of Sharia;
  1. Favoring Islam’s spiritual aspects over its ritual dimensions;
  1. Privileging the more liberal Quranic verses over the more restrictive ones. For example, on the highly controversial issue of apostasy, which some Muslims claim is punishable by death, the reformists believe that the Quranic verse stipulating that there should be “no coercion in faith” should be the guiding principle on this question;
  1. Highlighting the rights of believers, rather than focusing merely on their duties, by pointing out frequent references in the Holy Quran on Haq ul Nas, or Peoples’ Rights. Reformists maintain that these rights include those of freedom of conscience, speech, and participation in political life;
  1. Emphasizing acceptance of other faiths, rather than simply tolerating them, and believing in multiple roads to the divine truth. This promotes an Islamic version of religious pluralism;
  1. The belief that Islam’s future prospects depend on its ability to remain vital, responsive, and relevant to the emerging needs of Muslims and their societies. They maintain that stagnation or, worse, reversion to restrictive and literalist interpretations of Islam ultimately would undermine its influence; and
  1. Rejecting defensive and isolating approaches toward other cultures and peoples and promoting constructive interaction with them.

Performance of Reformist Islam and Its Prospects

Thus far, reformist Islam has made the strongest inroads in Iran, where it has done so both within the clerical establishment, where there are many reformist clerics, especially among the younger clerics, and has affected national politics. Reformist ideas are also present in some Arab countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, and, in an underground fashion, even Saudi Arabia. They are not very influential, however, largely because these ideas are often limited to lay intellectuals or former Islamists and do not enjoy large popular support.

This lack of support provides evidence for many of the reasons asserted for why the current prospects for Reformist Islam are not very bright, including: the opposition of established governments, which see it as a serious political challenge; opposition from the traditional clergy and conservative populace that see it as disguised secularism; mistrust of secular Muslims who see it as far too Islamic; and the complicated nature of reformist discourse which tries to reconcile faith and reason. Additionally, the unsettled nature of politics in most Muslim states, frequent wars, and foreign interventions are not conducive to the development and spread of reformist ideas. Rather, they tend to encourage the spread of Jihadist and extremist versions of Islam, as evidenced in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere.

There is reason for hope, however, in the context provided by Iran. For example, Iran’s reformist president, Muhammad Khatami (1997-2004), was a major proponent of reformist Islam. His advocating of human rights as Islamic had a major impact in strengthening such ideas in the country, especially among the more religious population. Their influence has also led to stopping certain punishments, although not yet legally abolishing them.

Khatami’s reformist interpretation of Islam also led to his proposing the Dialogue of Civilization in 1998 and an easing of Iran’s relations with the West. Reformist Islam has had such a strong impact on Iran since the country has been ruled by a version of Islam that is simultaneously radical, regarding foreign policy, and conservative, regarding issues such as women’s rights.

However, even in Iran, reformist Islam has been resisted by the more conservative Muslims. These conservatives succeeded in bringing Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power in 2005, an event which set back many of Khatami's reforms, especially in Iran's foreign relations. However, President Hassan Rouhani is now trying to revive some of the reformist policies of Khatami as he too adheres to the tenets of reformist Islam. Clearly, if reformist Islam continues to build stronger roots in Iran’s politics, it will contribute both to the well being of its citizens and better relations with the outside world. Nevertheless, because discourse and power are intimately related, competition between the two different readings of Islam will most likely continue in Iran and in the rest of the Muslim World.