Reforming Islam for the 21st century – A battle for rationalism

By Maryam Marrouch, Islamic Scholar

Photo credits: dpa / picture alliance / Roos Koole


​​The 21st century has often been associated with a religious “Renaissance”. In terms of Islam, however, it would be better to speak of a fractionalization. There are courageous reformers who wish to interpret religious sources not on a literal basis, but rather true to the spirit of the text. Then there are the conservatives who have on hand detailed instructions from historical sources on how to react to every situation in life. And then there are the hot-heads who prefer an activist interpretation of Islam and also enjoy criticizing other Muslims. They all have very particular ideas on what a Muslim should do, think, and, above all, reject.

At one end of the spectrum one sees a general metaphysics with a practically complete absence of specific Islamic attributes, while at the other end stands a rigid and intolerant dogma differentiating friend and foe. The consequences, first and foremost, affect minority confessions and apostates. This is because the “true Islam” is primarily defended on the outskirts of the faith.

One main internal Islamic debate, between scholars who want to reform Islam as a religious source for the 21st century on the one hand and the conservative faction on the other, is focusing on topics related to a modern theological interpretation of the Muslim holy books, their relevance and perception in a modern world. One protagonist, who is trying to define an enlightened Islam, is the Islamic scholar Mustafa Akyol together with his books[1] and the discussion about his main thesis.

The criticism by the conservative groups against the reform debate started by Akyol is focusing mainly on Asharism[2] The critics, not only supported by Islamic scholars in the MENA region, but also used by protectors of religious conservatism in Western countries repeat the theory that no “reopening” of Muslim minds is needed among Asharis, because their minds have not been closed.

Dogma of Sunni theology

The standard dogma of Sunni theology rested on a patent denial of faith in the intellectual and moral powers of man, the Islamic reformer Fazlur Rahman wrote. [3] Humans were considered “incapable of knowing anything true or doing anything good without being commanded on authority.” The consequence was an insular worldview and a literalist jurisprudence that “did not allow further growth and development.”

The most troubling view is certainly the Khawarij militancy, revived by violent takfiri-jihadists of the modern era, which threaten us all. Also, the ahl al-Hadith movement, from early Hanbalism to modern-day Salafism, is the most rigid, intolerant and anti-rational strain in Sunni Islam. But Asharism turned the doctrines of this iron core into the more articulated, refined, respected, and established mainstream. A mainstream that, especially within modernity, does not “allow further growth and development, Rahman wrote.

To see the problems in these doctrines, one does not even have to abandon Asharism in toto, but simply allow some room for self-criticism within, as Ahmad al-Raysuni, a Maliki scholar from Morocco, notably did. On the issue of husn and qubh, or “good” and “bad,” he wrote: If the truth be told, the Asharites who have denied ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ as rationally discernible properties which inhere in things and actions have been carried along by the force of the longstanding, contentious debate between them and their Mutazilite opponents. Abu al-Hassan al-Ashari, who was the first person to declare this perspective, had once been a member of Mutazilite circles, after which he had broken with them. Consequently, it may be said that the Asharite theory first emerged out of struggle and thrived by virtue of this same struggle. As the days, years and, indeed centuries passed, this struggle only grew fiercer and more intractable, while ‘reaction’ against the Mutazilite was such a dominant feature of Asharite thought that opposition to the Mutazilite became a kind of ‘personal obligation’ for every Ashari thinker.

No Islamic theology should have ever been suppressed. “We Muslims should have rather preserved a plurality of ideas,” Akyol writes, “so these different strains could keep debating, to learn from each other and also to refine themselves.”[4]

The “decline thesis” in Islamic theology

The conservative scholars often compare the reform wing with the well-known, and much-discredited, old European Orientalist theory about the 11th century Sunni scholar Imam Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, with his assault on philosophy paralyzing Islamic civilization. In fact, reformers like Akyol also oppose the popular response to the “Ghazali decline thesis” — that there was no decline at all, which makes many Muslims feel good about Islamic tradition, but only blinds them to real problems within it. A reform theology could suggest “a third view,” which is free of the obsession on al-Ghazali, but does argue that the overall Ashari worldview led to the decline of “independent reason,” both in the form of Mutazila theology and Greek-inspired philosophy.

Such a worldview, “obfuscated the more scientific worldview of the philosophers, by ending ‘the open-ended rational investigation of all reality,’ and reducing philosophy to the defense of ‘one pre-determined thesis.’”[5] The scholar Dimitri Gutas gave up on his longtime opposition to the decline thesis, probably thanks to a more mature phase in his academic life. He observed that, “before about 1050, science [in the Muslim world] was understood to be common to all humanity… After about 1050, the process is set into motion which culminates in the creation of … an alternative science which belongs not to all humanity but to Muslims alone: ‘Islamic’ philosophy, ‘Prophetic’ medicine, ‘Islamic’ astronomy.”[6] The result in the long run was intellectual stagnation. Sheikh Hamza Yusuf also argued that there was indeed an intellectual stagnation in the late medieval Islamic civilization, and precisely because, besides other aspects, “Greek thought all but died in the Muslim world.” This “divorce between Athena and Medina” the scholar claimed, “explains much of what went wrong with Muslim civilization.”[7]

From the conservatives, Hamza received the usual intra-Muslim accusation: “painting a bleak picture of Islam’s intellectual heritage” by paddling “orientalist and modernist narratives.” Even harsher accusations always come up — such as embracing “cultural Darwinian viewpoint and uncritical embrace of Western civilizational superiority” — sounds too similar, and are similarly unfair. In fact, it is only to address the roots of the unmistakable problem of “authoritarianism and underdevelopment” in the Islamic civilization.[8]

The case of Slavery

Slavery in Islam: The belated abolition of slavery in the Muslim world was only discussed in the past two centuries, the reformists asked why it took place mostly via Western influence, if not pressure, and why traditionalist religious authorities have often resisted abolition efforts — believing that slavery was sanctified by the Sharia. They could have taken the Qur’an’s praise of manumission, or ‘freeing a neck,’ as an inspiration for universal emancipation.

In fact the Qur’an didn’t abolish slavery — or give equal rights to women — because the Qur’an’s objective was not establishing a political-legal order that would be valid for all times and places. The Qur’an’s objective was bringing its addressees from polytheism to monotheism — “to warn the Mother of Cities [Mecca] and all around it” (6:92) and establishing the pillars of Islam, while also guiding the first Muslims’ struggle for survival and legislating their affairs within the norms of that time and milieu. But Qur’anic legislation clearly improved the conditions of women or slaves in that context, in which a trajectory can be seen.

Yet to be able to accept this view, one must accept ethical values whose applications are not confined to the rulings of the Qur’an — so that you can trace a “trajectory” from the rulings to the maturation of those values in history — while also accepting that the Qur’anic revelation engaged with its historical context “interactively.” Still, conservative scholars take a different view on slavery. Representatives suggest God may have considered enslavement a fitting recompense for a crime committed against Muslim populations. They continue by arguing that there is no objective basis for judging slavery to be intrinsically evil. Rather, Asharis only judge it to be evil because of how savagely European slavers treated slaves and the fact that its most familiar and most recent form restricted slavery to one race of people.

Traditional Islamic law justified enslavement not just against aggressors, but also non-Muslim populations who simply resisted being conquered by Muslim armies. Accordingly, unless they converted to Islam, or accepted “submission” by paying the jizya and living with lesser rights, non-Muslims could be fought and enslaved. The latter included enslavement of females as concubines, with the explicit right of what the Ottomans called istifrash, or “bedding,” meaning sexual use. Conservative Muslims often do not engage in emphatic considerations about Islamic slavery. Because, the argument is right that the West restricted slavery to one race of people, the Islamic tradition had restricted it to another group of people: non-Muslims. But one wonders why enslavement on the basis of race would be “intrinsically evil,” while enslavement on the basis or religion would be fine.

Ratio in Sunni schools

Very often, conservative Islamic scholars defend the divine command theory and other aspects of the Ashari tradition, blaming reform movements for mischaracterizing the rationalist strains of the Islamic tradition, namely the Mutazila[9] and falasifa, or “philosophers.” In their view, it presents the Mutazila on the reformer’s side, in fact they do not corroborate that corporal punishments or unequal inheritance laws were or would be different today if the Mutazila had prevailed over the Asharis. Rather, they find no major difference in understanding of the sharia between Asharis and the Mutazila, namely, slavery, women’s rights, apostasy laws, blasphemy laws, or corporal punishment.

In fact, the Mutazila largely overlapped with ahl al-Ray (as opposed to ahl al-Hadith), which was largely identified with the early Hanafi school, which, despite losing much of its early rationalism over time, remained as the most flexible of the four Sunni schools.” This had an impact on the three of the issues mentioned above: women’s rights, apostasy laws, blasphemy laws. Hanafis gave more rights to women in marriage (that they could contract their own marriage without a male guardian), limited the death penalty for apostasy only to males, and many of them ruled against the killing of non-Muslims for blasphemy. Hanafis considered the lives of Muslims and non-Muslims as of equal value, unlike the “communalist school”. It is true that none of the pre-modern Muslim schools or scholars espoused something like modern-day liberalism based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, the rationalism of the Mutazila and falasifa were better trajectories, out of which more liberal views could have arisen. The Mutazila’s caution about Hadith, employing “content criticism” based on the Quran and human reason, regardless of chains of transmission, could have made huge differences in jurisprudence, as they can still do today.

This rationalist trajectory can also be found in the thought of the great Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd, who – with a sense of human nature akin to that of the Mutazila – argued that there are “unwritten laws” of humanity, in addition to the “written laws” such as the Islamic jurisprudence, and the former should be used to check and update the latter — because no one can enact written laws valid for all people of all times and all places.

The women

Ibn Rushd had “progressive” views on women. This included his remarkable critique of the downgrading of women in mediaeval Muslim society in his Commentary on Plato’s Republic. Traditionalists argue that Ibn Rushd had simply quoted different views within different schools of law, saying that progressive scholars were uninformed enough to think that the mere mention of an opinion… means that Ibn Rushd believed it to be strong, valid, and preferred.

In fact, scientists specialized on Ibn Rushd say that “he prefers the views that give women more power and independence, both in the Commentary on Plato’s Republic and in the Bidaya.” In the latter, “he does not advocate a kind of equality that would contravene basic principles of Islamic law but a tendency to favour women is observable.”[10] They continue by saying that Ibn Rushd’s points of view show a progressive thinker in favour of women rights […] He approves the opinion which requires that the bridegroom fulfil the demand imposed by the wife, such as not marrying another woman. It is noteworthy that this opinion is contrary to that stipulated by Maliki law… With regard to the veil, Ibn Rush recommends modesty, but does not stipulate that women cover their faces. That in which our philosopher appears more liberal is the chapter on judgements. He cites the opinion of the eastern imam al-Tabari; which seems revolutionary in medieval Islamic society: he does not object to a woman becoming a judge.


[1] His recent one, published last year: Reopening Muslim Minds – A Return to Reason, Freedom, and Tolerance

[2] Asharism is one of the main Sunni schools of Islamic theology, founded by the Arab Muslim scholar, jurist, reformer, and scholastic theologian Abu al-Ḥasan al-Ashari in the 9th–10th century.It established an orthodox guideline based on scriptural authority, rationality, and theological rationalism. He established a middle way between the doctrines of the Athari and Mutazila schools of Islamic theology, based both on reliance on the sacred scriptures of Islam and theological rationalism concerning the agency and attributes of God. Asharism eventually became the predominant school of theological thought within Sunni Islam, and is regarded as the single most important school of Islamic theology in the history of Islam and the dominant Sunni theology.

[3] Fazlur Rahman: Islamic Methodology in History, Islamabad; Islamic Research Institute, 3 rd Reprint 1995, pp. 141, 154

[4] Reopening Muslim Minds, p. 231

[5] Reopening Muslim Minds, p. 96

[6] Dimitri Gutas, “Avicenna and After: The Development of Paraphilosophy: A History of Science Approach,” in Islamic Philosophy from the 12th to the 14th Century, ed. Abdelkader Al Ghouz (Göttingen, Germany: V&R Unipress, 2018), p.58

[7] Hamza Yusuf: Medina and Athena: Restoring a Lost Legacy; in Renovatio, Jun 10, 2019

[8] Ahmet Kuru: Islam, Authoritarianism, and Underdevelopment: A Global and Historical Comparison, Cambridge University Press, 2019

[9] The Mutazila school developed an Islamic type of rationalism, partly influenced by Ancient Greek philosophy, based around three fundamental principles: the oneness (Tawhid) and justice (Al-adl) of God, human freedom of action, and the creation of the Quran. The Mutazilites are best known for rejecting the doctrine of the Quran as uncreated and co-eternal with God, asserting that if the Quran is the literal word of God, he logically “must have preceded his own speech”. This went against the orthodox Sunni position (followed by the Ashari, Maturidi and the Traditionalist (Athari) schools) which argued that with God being all knowing, his knowledge of the Quran must have been eternal, hence uncreated just like him.

[10] Catarina Belo: “Some Considerations on Averroes’ Views Regarding Women and Their Role in Society,” Journal of Islamic Studies, Volume 20, Issue 1, January 2009

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