Can Islam Be Reformed?
There has been a push under the Biden administration to work with reformed Muslims in order to combat Islamic radicalism. The dilemma here, as C. Holland Taylor, the chairman and CEO of the LibForAll Foundation, stated some years ago is the Islamist ideology, which is another type of totalitarianism.
This has created a difficulty, both for Muslims and non-Muslims, because of the particular strategy that continues to be employed by the elite fundamentalists, who are masters of manipulation of those verses found in the Quran and the hadiths that call for violence.
We can see this, for example, in the Gaza Strip, where it is simply not possible for Muslims to oppose Hamas; those who do so are killed. Another example is Pakistan, where moderates are liable to find themselves with a suicide bomber showing up at their madrasas during Friday prayers to kill those imams who condemn the Taliban and other like-minded jihadists.
How then can the West assist in promoting a reformed Islam? Before engaging into this, it is important to understand what type of ideology Muslims fall into.
Different Classes of Muslims
The first group is the most problematic — the fundamentalists who envision a regime based on sharia, Islamic religious law. They argue for an Islam largely or completely unchanged from its original seventh-century version and take it as a requirement of their faith that they impose it on everyone else. She classifies them “Medina Muslims,” in that they see the forcible imposition of sharia as their religious duty, following the example of the Prophet Muhammed when he was based in Medina beginning in 622 AD.
They exploit their fellow Muslims’ respect for sharia law as a divine code that takes precedence over civil laws. It is only after they have laid this foundation that they are able to persuade their recruits to engage in jihad.
The second group — and the clear majority throughout the Muslim world — consists of Muslims who are loyal to the core creed and worship devoutly but are not inclined to practice violence or even intolerance towards non-Muslims. Hirsi calls this group “Mecca Muslims.”
The fundamental problem is that the majority of otherwise peaceful and law-abiding Muslims are unwilling to acknowledge, much less to repudiate, the theological warrant for intolerance and violence embedded in their own religious texts.
More recently, and corresponding with the rise of Islamic terrorism, a third group is emerging within Islam — Muslim reformers or, as Hirsi call them, “modifying Muslims.”
These Muslims promote the separation of religion from politics. Although some are apostates, such as Hirsi, the majority of dissidents are believers, among them clerics who have come to realize that their religion must change if its followers are not to be condemned to an interminable cycle of political violence.
The future of Islam and the world’s relationship with Muslims will be decided by which of the two minority groups — the Medina Muslims and the reformers — wins the support of the Meccan majority. That is why focusing on “violent extremism” is to focus on a symptom of a much more profound ideological epidemic that has its root causes in Islamic doctrine.
The Reality of Reforming Islam
One can then argue that the fundamentalists and other Islamists may wrongly be justifying their positions. All this being said, there is confusion as to who speaks for Islam and how Islamic law (the sharia) is to be employed, especially in light of the Sunni-Shi’ite division. Nevertheless, the manner in which both physical and cultural jihadists invoke their legal tenets in order to justify their jihad leads one to confirm that their indiscriminate acts are sanctioned by the Islamic texts:
[Remember] when you asked help of your Lord, and He answered you, “Indeed, I will reinforce you with a thousand from the angels, following one another … I will cast terror into the hearts of those who disbelieved, so strike [them] upon the necks and strike from them every fingertip. That is because they opposed Allah and His Messenger. And whoever opposes Allah and His Messenger — indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.” — Sura 8, 9; 12–13
Former U.S. Assistant Secretary for Human Rights and Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams stated in his book Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring:
“Statements from American presidents [or church leaders] that ‘Islam is a religion of peace’ will never have any impact, nor should they: who is an American politician [or churchman] to define the true meaning of any religion, much less one he or she does not practice [let alone studied]? Persuading Muslims to embrace an Islam that insists on respect for human rights and political democracy and rejects extremism and violence is critical — but only Muslims can enter that debate with other Muslims and hope to win it.”
It Comes Down to the Prophet
As I explain in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up, Islam and how it is observed by Muslims is almost exclusively based on the Prophet Muhammad’s life. All Muslims are conditioned by him because in both the Quran and Islamic tradition, he is the example par excellence of behavior for everyone to follow. His words and deeds are agreed upon by all Muslims as identifying Islam, since he was faithful to Allah’s will as dictated in the Quran: And “[h]e who obeys the Messenger [Muhammad], obeys Allah.” —Sura 4, 80
Allah established in the life of the Prophet Muhammad general, eternal, and all-inclusive characteristics, and he gave every human being the possibility to imitate him and take his life as a model.
Imitating the Prophet, however, could be as innocuous as wearing a full beard or entering a mosque with the right foot, as recorded by the hadiths. The dilemma is that the adherents of Islam cannot subjectively pick and choose, for once they declare that Muhammad is the messenger of God — as per the profession of faith contained in the shahada: “I bear witness that there is no deity but Allah, and I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.”
They affirm that everything he did was good because it was in furtherance of Allah’s cause. While some of the deeds of the Prophet are considered criminal in the West, they are presented in Islamic biographical works as pious.
Incidents in the life of an Arab conqueror, in this case Muhammad, the tales of raiding, private assassinations and public executions, perpetual enlargements of the harem and so forth, might be historically explicable and therefore pardonable. It is another matter that they should be taken as a setting forth of the moral ideal for all time.
Muslim apologists have become defensive at the accusations from the West that Islam is to blame for terror acts carried out by Islamists as well as labeling Islam as an evil religion and Muhammad as a Prophet of violence and sexual promiscuity. However, they have not been able to fully explain otherwise, partly because there have not been any profound studies on Muhammad sufficient enough to exonerate him as a promoter of violence, misogyny, or even the pedophilia:
“Aisha reported that Allah’s Apostle married her when she was seven years old, and she was taken to his house as a bride when she was nine, and her dolls were with her; and when he [the Holy Prophet] died she was eighteen years old.” — Sahih Muslim, Book 8, hadith 3311
As stated before, it would be beneficial if the Biden administration begins to work with genuine Muslim reformers and establish a commission on radical Islam. What type of progress can be made depends on how the Islamic texts are put into historical and allegorical context.
Not to be a cynic, but it would be much easier doing so in the West than in the Islamic countries, like Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia where there is no will or desire from the theocratic elites to reform Islam, especially when doing so would mean losing their grip on those Muslims who are the least bit inclined to violence.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University. He is also author of Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.