The Arab Rationalists’ Struggle to Modernize Islam

The Arab Rationalists’ Struggle to Modernize Islam

Jacob Thomas

In 2007, a group of Arab intellectuals founded the online journal, Alawan[i] As the 10th Anniversary for the launching of this bold initiative approached, a leading member of the group, Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm, passed away.

Al-Awan published the obituary of Dr. al-Adhm that detailed the role he played in the founding of the “Association of Arab Rationalists” in 1997.

“The goal of the Association was “to explain in a rational way, the causes that led to destruction of the Arab civilization; and to attempt to repair that devastation.”

Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm was born in Damascus in 1934. He belonged to an aristocratic Sunni family; some of its members held high government positions during the French Mandate (1920-1946) and in the early years of independence.

“Mr. al-Adhm studied philosophy at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and at Yale University. After graduation, he taught at the University of Damascus, at the University of Jordan, in Amman; at the AUB, at Princeton University, and in Germany.”

(While teaching at the AUB, Dr. al-Adhm published in 1969, “Naqd al-Fikr al-Deeni” (A Critique of Religious Thought). The book consisted of a critique of theistic religions, and especially of Islam. The Lebanese Government brought charges against him for defaming the religious beliefs of the citizens of Lebanon. He was acquitted by the Lebanese courts, but felt the need to pursue his career elsewhere.) Paragraph is mine.

“Mr. al-Adhm settled permanently in the US, and continued his literary activities. He became a respected leader of Arab intellectuals who sought to deliver the new Arab generation from the hegemony of irrationalism that had impacted the Arab world in politics, law, economics, and education. Freedoms had disappeared, giving way to backwardness, the expansion of political and religious authoritarianism.

“Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm was a great champion of liberty as a basic value, a foundation of modernity and secularism. Freedom is of the essence of citizenship; should it disappear, human rights would disappear as well.

“Rationalism has been besieged by a sacred past, and by “sacred” rulers. The Arab mind has been unable to free itself from the structures of the past. Religious thought was unable to engage in self-evaluation, or to explain the world. Thus, a critique of religious thought, which is a basic component of rational thinking, was forced to retreat, notwithstanding the efforts of Dr. Al-Adhm, a pioneer of this venture.”

There are several contributors to Al-Awan who have been active in dealing with the sad state of Arab civilization. For example, the Algerian intellectual Hamid Zanaz, published in 2014 a book (in French) under the title of L’islamisme raconté à ma fille”      (Islamism as Told (Explained) to My Daughter) He posted an Arabic summary of the book on Al-Awan, on 21 May, 2014.

Date de parution : 09/05/2014 200 pages – Prix : 15.00 €

In a dialogue with his daughter, Mr. Zanaz explains how difficult it is, to reform and modernize Islam.

Daughter: Aren’t there serious efforts of some Muslims in Europe to bring about reconciliation between ‘spiritual and secular’ Islam?

Father: Indeed, however these attempts remain formal and lead nowhere as in L’Islam sans soumission: Pour un existentialisme musulman,’ by Abdennour Bidar published in 2008. [Islam without Submission: Toward an Islamic Existentialism]

“In his attempt to expound the sacred texts, Abdennour goes to the length of abrogating some. He believes in the possibility of modernizing Islam, to make it compatible with the present age. He hopes to be able to liberate the Muslim from submitting to those texts he considers irrational. However, he forgets that Islam is above all a recognition of, and submission to the will of Allah.’ We cannot harmonize Islam and modernity without altering Islam itself. The Islamic mind is incapable of modernizing itself.

Daughter: Is there an explanation for that?

“Father: Muslims consider their religion as an intellectual system that must be applied in all areas of life, both social and personal. In other words, the religious belief-system must be incorporated within the very core of the governing political system. The Islamist parties have exploited this point of view in their struggle against the ruling regimes, promising people that they, and they alone, can govern Muslims in a peaceful and democratic way, as Islamists had failed to accomplish that through violence.

“Daughter: Well, wouldn’t that lead to a Reformation in Islam, and to the rise of a genuine democracy?

“Father: Let’s say that Islamists manage to save us from the old regimes; but who would then help us to get rid of the Islamists, should they fail to deliver on their promises? This is the real dilemma. Once Islamists arrive at power through democratic means, they consider democracy as the ships that Tariq Bin Ziyad set on fire upon landing in Spain, to prevent the invaders from returning to North Africa, as one critic put it.[ii]

Hamid Zanaz’s dialogue ended without much hope for a beneficial change in Islamic teachings that would foster the rise of a humane relationship among Muslims, and with the rest of mankind. His personal “jihad” against Islamism goes on unabated, as one may read any of the 622 articles and essays he had posted on Al-Awan. In his latest posting, he manifested his exasperation with the Muslims’ inconsistencies, in these words:

“Oh, why are Muslims so quick and eager to appropriate and use the latest models of cellular phones, while at the same time remain unwilling to ‘digest’ the simplest forms of human rights; just because they consider them as ‘Western’ inventions?!”

Another reformist contributor to Al-Awan, is the Moroccan, Sa’eed Nasheed, the author of “Modernity and the Qur’an.” It was published in Beirut, Lebanon, and reviewed in Al-Awan by Khaled Ghazal on 16 May, 2015. Five years earlier, Mr. Nasheed had posted What Is the Qur’an?” dealing with the same topic.

“In Modernity and the Qur’an’ Sa’eed Nasheed starts with the nature of the Qur’an, whether it is in fact Allah’s words, i.e., a text which was dictated by Heaven! In his answer, he doesn’t deny that God is the author of the “Wahy”[iii] (revelation); however, it was formulated or redacted by the Prophet. This was accomplished by Muhammad within the context of his culture, language, personality, and his time. Therefore, the Qur’an is, in a sense, a human text par excellence!

“On the other hand, as Islam spread, a rational view of the Qur’an changed to such an extent, that the Prophet became like a “Second Person” next to the Divine Being, sometimes even superseding Him. The (Arabic) text of the Qur’an became a closed text based solely on ‘Uthman’s Qur’an, which is regarded by the various Islamic communions, as the Authorized Version; while all other copies were forcefully destroyed.[iv]

“By juxtaposing the “Qur’an with Modernity,” the author set forth a very important thesis: ‘Unless a revised view of the nature of Revelation is adopted by Muslims, they would never be able to adapt to Modernity.’ Such a revised view requires nothing less than jettisoning the notion that every word in the original Arabic text is literally, a divine speech. On the other hand, if the belief in the ‘Uncreatedness of the Qur’an is maintained,’ one is left with the historical view of Orthodox Islam that the text is eternal and cannot be revised, or re-interpreted.”

Unlike Al-Adhm whose adherence to Marxist ideology remained much alive with its total rejection of theism, Mr. Nasheed, like many previous reformers, is pleading with his contemporaries to realize that maintaining the traditional view of the Qur’an, will hold Muslims captive to an irrational and obscurantist worldview. By allowing the human factor to play a role in Revelation, and limiting its scope, he would like his contemporaries to reflect on his modest proposal. His concern is very real, since the number of young Muslims leaving Islam, and adopting unbelief, is growing rapidly.

Sa’eed Nasheed’s book offers a radical concept of “Wahy,” (Revelation.) Other than stating that Muhammad’s original mission was to announce and defend the Oneness of Allah, Mr. Nasheed hardly dealt further with the doctrine of Allah. While one may not expect him to write an entire book on Theology, yet the importance of the concept of God cannot be overstated.

The official Muslim view of the Qur’an is its “Un-Createdness.” The only way Muslim theologians could maintain that it doesn’t conflict with the Oneness of Allah, was to discourage theologizing, and to adopt the concept of “Bila Shabah,” i.e. “No Similarity.” Allah is the “Wholly Other.” His attributes are incommunicable. Thus, the Biblical doctrine of Man being created in the image of God and after his likeness[v] is unthinkable to Muslims. On the other hand, it means that a Muslim can never know Allah; he or she, can know Allah’s will as revealed in the Qur’an. The relation between Allah and a believer is that of a Master to a slave (‘abd), which explains the multiplicity of Muslim names in which the term ‘abd forms the first part of a man’s name, such as ‘Abdul-Ilah, Abdallah, ‘Abdul-Karim, Abdul-Rahman, etc.

“Modernity and the Qur’an” has offered a solution for a serious problem that besets Islam, namely its inability to cope with Modernity. The Caliphate Movement, Da’esh (ISIS) and its success in occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq, the civil wars raging in Libya and Yemen, are just two concrete examples of this serious malaise in Daru’l Islam. Unfortunately, there is little hope that Mr. Nasheed’s proposal would find acceptance. The past, with all its unresolved doctrinal issues and schisms, still weighs heavy on a civilization that seems to be unable to break its shackles, and chart a new course, that will insure peace and prosperity for its peoples, as well as for the rest of mankind.

[i] Al-Awan signifies the right time, like the Greek term, Kairos. Another way of conveying the meaning of the Arabic word is “It’s High Time.”

[ii] In 710, the Arab Islamic armies crossed the narrow strait separating North Africa from Spain, under the command of Tariq Bin Ziyad. It is claimed by Muslim historians, that after the landing, Tariq told his soldiers, after burning the ships: “the enemy is before you, and the sea is behind you; there is no choice but to attack.” In European languages Gibraltar became the name of the Strait, based on the Arabic phrase: “Jebel Tariq,” Tariq’s Mountain, reference to the giant Rock on the Spanish side.

[iii] The Islamic doctrine of Wahy is quite different from the Biblical view of revelation. In Islam, the prophet is totally passive as he receives the divine message in the form of a Kitab (Book) that “descends” on him.  His unique role is to deliver message.

[iv] According to Islamic historiographers, it was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, (644-656) the third Caliph, who ordered that only one copy of the Qur’an be preserved and the rest be destroyed.  This explains why the Arabic text is usually known as ‘Uthman’s Qur’an.

Jacob Thomas

Consultant on Middle Eastern affair/ Columnist

6 Responses

  1. Face_The_Truth says:


    [] Headline of JACOB THOMAS: The Arab Rationalists’ Struggle to Modernize Islam []


    Modernization of Christianity came after the bloody, extremely violent French Revolution of 1789 A.D. to 1799 A.D.

    History tells us that, Christian rulers did not reform themselves out of mercy to non-believers!

    And, Christianity was not what it is today before the French Revolution.

    Even so-called Christian Protestant reformist Martin Luther did not actually revolt against the core falsehoods of any of the existing Christian beliefs, rather perpetuated all existing Christian core principles with renewed, fervent propagation of existing anti-Jew ideology!

    In Islam, there has not been a bloody, violent revolution to reform and replace existing Islamism with something similar to what Christianity has gone through.

    We often see in the past 1400 years of Islamic history, Christians wanted to preserve Islamism as Christians see their reflections in the mirrors of Muslims where a certain group of humans tend to act in accordance with “Divine Commands” based on blatantly as well as utterly false and fictitious stories of a “Son of God” or a “Messenger of Allah”.

    We know the reason behind medieval Christian leaders’ careful refusal to complete the “Crusades” to exterminate all Middle Eastern Muslims; because, medieval Christian leaders wanted medieval Muslims to obliterate all Pagan temples, all archives of hand-written Pagan histories, and Pagan people — that medieval Christian leaders could not obliterate on their own — either by converting to so-called Middle Eastern “monotheism” or by indiscriminate slaughtering of Pagan males — who refused to accept Middle Eastern falsehoods of so-called “monotheism” — as well as Islamic enslavement of all Pagan females of all ages and all Pagan children.

    Christianity stood on the pedestals of destroyed Pagan temples, Pagan literature, and Pagan arts by means of bloody Christian endeavors to devour everything of medieval Pagan people.

    Medieval Christian rulers wanted science to prove the existence of “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost”; but instead, science gave Christian rulers not only the alchemists, but also the most effective and technologically advanced war-tools of guns and bullets to start colonial exploitation of non-converted Pagans all over the world.

    But the fact remains that, Christians always wanted to preserve Muslims to subjugate non-believing Pagans wherever Christians themselves failed to subdue non-believers of “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost” with all of Christian guns, all of Christian bullets, and all of Christian battleships.

    Medieval Muslims used to capture and sell non-believers to medieval Christians while medieval Christians used to exploit non-believer human-slaves for financial gains and financial prosperity of all faithful Christians!

    So, here we are today.

    After losing the imperial power during French Revolution where ordinary Europeans rejected Christianism, Christianity wanted to revive itself again to rule entire Europe by means of Nazism 75 years ago where Christian Church colluded with the military machine of Nazi Germany.

    And now, Christians are inviting and importing Middle Eastern Muslims to Europe and America in order to create another forthcoming widespread mass disturbance in the lives of ordinary people of North America and Europe.

    Writings are on the walls.


  2. Truth Seeker says:

    Declaring Jesus son of God by Christians, Musa declared messenger of God by Jews gave idea Muhammad to declared himself final messenger of God. Partially Christians and Jews false beliefs were also responsible for breeding of Islam.

  3. Ulema or Islamic theology doesn’t have a mechanism to do the right thing.

    For a moral person ‘it is more about the right thing to do than the expedient thing to do.

  4. Face_The_Truth says:

    Islam’s founder Muhammad was a bastard by birth circumstance alone as Muhammad was born out of his mother being raped by an Arab bedouin long after his supposed father died and as his biological mother did not re-marry at or before the time of Muhammad’s birth.

    So, Muhammad the Arabian bastard followed old Jewish traditions of punishments for homosexuality, bi-sexuality, and cross-dressing.

    Today’s Jews have almost fully accepted homosexual, bi-sexual, and cross-dressing behaviors in their midst; but, world’s Muslims have not for the basic interest of preserving original Islamic ideology propagated by Muhammad the Arabian bastard.

  5. sammy says:

    Islam is a man made invention bourn within 7th century pagan Arabian culture, its founder was a deluded Arabian,as well as a false prophet, who just used everything familiar to him within this culture, and encased it within his invention he called Islam.
    Islam is nothing more than reconstituted Arabian paganism, entwined with the cultural heritage of tribal warfare of 7th century Arabia, made to look and feel like true religion, it cannot be reformed, or brought “up to date “because its own scriptures locks it within a time frame,i.e. the time of its invention,7th century Arabia.

    Anyone who has tried,(and will ever try, to reform this bogus faith) will be despatched heavenwards forthwith.

  6. A large part of the effort to “modernize Islam” is really an attempt to “reform Islam” Therefore , so on this subject the following essay does ,very much ,apply.
    On the topic of a reformation within Islam, a very different yet possible valid and true view on this had been explain by the Christian, Nabeel Qureshi ,who was in the past was a Muslim .He wrote in his book which is entitled ANSWERING JIHAD wrote about the suggestion “that Islam needs a reformation .What they may not realize is that radical Islam is the Islamic reformation. This might sound shocking, but consider: Just as the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to raze centuries of Catholic tradition and return to the canonical text, so radical Islam is an attempt to raze centuries of traditions of various schools of Islamic thought and return to the canonical text of the Quran and Muhammad’s life. This desire to return to the original form of Islam can be seen not only in the words of Sayyid Qutb, but also in his method. He focused almost entirely on references to the Quran. it is true also of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS today, whose publications and proclamations are punctuated by references to the Quran and hadith literature. Radical Muslim organizations are explicit in their aim to reform Islam.” page 75. Further on pages 79,80 the author makes his case clear by writing that “Radical Islam is the Islamic reformation . The endeavor to modernize Islam and make it relevant to the twenty -first century is called progressive Islam. Progressive Muslim thought leaders, though few in number and limited in influence are present and are working to recreate Islam’s religious framework from within. Indeed, that is what it would take for Islam to become devoted to peace – not reformation but reimagination. “

%d bloggers like this: