Islam’s Long War Within

Is ‘reformation’ the appropriate word? Yes.

By Reza Aslan

After the events of September 11, 2001, I spent some months traveling through the Middle East and North Africa trying to get a sense of how Muslims in the region felt about the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., for a book I was writing on Islam. Most of the people I spoke with were wary of expressing their opinions. They had heard the fiery rhetoric pouring from the White House and were naturally concerned about how deep into the Muslim world President Bush’s “crusade against evil-doers” would extend. But one sentiment in particular arose in nearly every conversation.

“America is an island,” said an Arabic instructor in Cairo. “It is completely unaware of what is happening here. Bush thinks he is starting a war. He is only entering a war that we have been fighting for years.”

I heard a similar statement from an old cloth merchant in Amman. “For so long, America has ignored the world, but now,” he raised his trembling finger to the wide, blue sky, pointing at some invisible presence above us, “the world is coming to you.” He said this with neither anger nor spite; it wasn’t a threat but a fact.

Over and over again, Muslims throughout the region, whether sympathetic to the United States or not, stressed that the true conflict in the region is not between Islam and the West, but within Islam itself. There is a battle raging in the Muslim world, a fitnah, or civil war, between the vast majority of moderate Muslims who seek to reconcile their faith and values with the realities of the modern world and those small groups of extremists and puritans who react to those realities by reverting, sometimes violently, to the “fundamentals” of their faith. The attacks of September 11 were, in the eyes of many in the region, a means for extremists to drag the West into this internal conflict and thus galvanize support for their cause. But the West is merely a secondary target for these extremists: “the far-away enemy” as it is sometimes called. The “close enemy” is other Muslims. The real jihad is against those who do not share their puritanical ideology. The real war is being fought over nothing less than the future of the faith. The real conflict is over the outcome of the “Islamic Reformation” that is taking place throughout the Muslim world.

In truth, this Islamic Reformation has been underway for more than a century and a half, ever since the colonial era, when some 90 percent of the Muslim world lived under oppressive colonial rule and was forced for the first time to confront a rapidly modernizing, aggressively secularizing, and repressively westernizing world. The experience of colonialism fractured the Muslim community into competing ideologies of modernism. While some Muslims pushed for the creation of an indigenous Islamic Enlightenment by eagerly developing Islamic alternatives to European Enlightenment values, others advocated total separation from Western cultural ideals in favor of the complete “Islamization” of society.

I call these two broad responses to colonialism “competing ide-ologies of modernism” because while we tend to refer to the constituents of one faction as “modernists” or “reformers” and those of the other as “traditionalists” or “fundamentalists,” it is important to recognize both projects as attempts to define a distinctly Islamic modernism. While the latter groups often present their movement as an alternative to modernization (particularly Western modernization)—thus their futile attempts to return Muslim society to some imaginary ideal of “original” or “pure” Islam that in fact never existed—their intellectual roots are nevertheless firmly rooted in the same Enlightenment principles that were so hypocritically preached by European colonialists. Indeed, it has been noted that the traditionalist argument against rationalism and reform is rooted not in Islam—which is and has always been an eminently rational faith—but in the so-called Counter-Enlightenment movements that arose in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and which saw the Enlightenment, particularly its emphasis on “natural theology,” as aggressively and unnecessarily anti-religious.1

Obviously, the term “reformation” has Western and Christian connotations that may not be applicable to the complex socio-economic and political conflicts taking place in the Arab and Muslim world. Muslims in particular may bristle at the term because it seems to imply a deficiency within Islam itself. But I use the term Islamic Reformation deliberately, not just as a pedagogical tool (considering that most of my audience is Western and Christian) but also to emphasize that the struggles currently taking place in Islam are those with which all major religions grapple, some more fiercely than others. One need only recall Europe’s massively destructive Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648) between the forces of the Protestant Union and those of the Catholic League—in which a third of the population of Germany perished—to recognize the ferocity with which interreligious conflicts have been fought within Christianity. But while the reformation of Christianity is often presented, particularly in the United States, as a collision between Protestant reform and Catholic intransigence, the Christian Reformation was above all else a battle (an apocalyptic war, really) over who would decide the meaning of the faith: the individual or the Church. This same battle is taking place in Islam today.

Of course, there is no such thing as an orthodox “Church” in Islam (some, like Wilfred Cantwell Smith, would say there is no such thing as “Islamic orthodoxy” at all). Authority in Islam is not bestowed upon an ordained clergy but on a learned class of men—the ‘ulama—who function as something akin to the faculty of a prestigious seminary. Their authority is self-conferred; their judgments the result of scholarship, not divine decree. Their opinions on the Qur’an and Islamic Law, or shari‘a are just that, opinions; they are not binding on anyone. Indeed, it is precisely because there has never been anything like a “Muslim Pope” or a “Muslim Vatican” that Islam has appeared throughout history as such a widely diverse and eclectic faith.

Yet while the ‘ulama in no way constitute a single, monolithic body they have nonetheless established themselves as the guardians of tradition through the institutionalization of their legal and theological schools of thought. The result is that for 14 centuries, the meaning and message of Islam has been almost exclusively defined by an extremely small, cloistered, and mostly traditionalist group of men who, for better or worse, have established themselves as the unyielding pillars upon which the religious, social, and political foundations of the religion rest. With the end of colonialism in the twentieth century and the birth of the Islamic state, the ‘ulama’s influence has spread into the political realm, so that their legal pronouncements have in many cases become civil law.

The principal concern of the Islamic Reformation is to transfer exegetical authority out of the hands of the ‘ulama and into the hands of the individual believer. Perhaps the most obvious example of this “individualization” within Islam is taking place among Muslim women, many of whom are, for the first time, approaching the scriptures unhampered by traditional exegesis. A new generation of female activists and textual scholars around the world—women such as Shirin Ebadi, Leila Ahmed, Amina Wadud, Asra Nomani, and Fatima Mernissi (to name just a few)—is re-engaging the Qur’an from a feminist perspective that has been sorely lacking in Islamic scholarship. Beginning with the notion that it is not the moral teachings of Islam but the social conditions of seventh-century Arabia and the history of misogyny within the ‘ulama that have been responsible for their inferior status in Muslim society, these women are approaching the Qur’an free from the confines of traditional gender boundaries. As such, they represent the most vibrant and vital voices in the battle for the Islamic Reformation.

It is only natural that this move toward greater individualization in Islam would take place primarily (though far from exclusively) in the West, among first- and second-generation Muslim immigrants, the generation Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born intellectual and grandson of Hasan al-Banna, has called the “mobilizing force” for the Islamic Reformation. But it would be a mistake to conclude, as so many have, that because the language of reform is being shaped in the West it cannot speak to those Muslims living in traditional centers of the Muslim world. The reformation of Christianity did not take place in Rome, but in Western Europe, far from the iron grip of the Church. And let us not forget that the language of Islamic modernism—which, again, is employed by both traditionalists and modernists—was developed not in the colonized lands of the Middle East and North Africa, but in the heart of the Ottoman Empire, by a passionate group of Turkish reformers (dubbed the Young Ottomans) who developed an intriguing reformist agenda based on fusing Western democratic ideals with traditional Islamic principles.

This is not to suggest that there is no reform taking place in the Middle East. On the contrary, as with the reformation of Christianity, it is principally within the framework of political reform that the Islamic Reformation is being formulated by Muslim teachers, philosophers, theologians, journalists, activists, and politicians—from Tariq al-Bishri, Fathi Osman, and Fahmi Howeidi in Egypt, to Abdulkarim Soroush and the Ayatollah Montazeri in Iran, and Abdelwahab El-Affendi in Sudan. By actively working to reconcile traditional Islamic values with modern notions of constitutionalism, human rights, pluralism, and popular sovereignty these reformers are at the forefront in the struggle to establish an indigenous Islamic democracy in the Middle East.

Just as the Christian Reformation opened the door to multiple, often conflicting, and sometimes baffling interpretations of Christianity, however, so has the reformation of Islam created a number of competing ideologies, with the unfortunate result that it is often only those with the loudest voice who are heard. It is no wonder that, since the publication of my book, everywhere I go I am asked, “Where is the voice of moderate Islam?” as if the question were rhetorical; as if the very asking is proof of the glaring absence of a rational Islamic discourse (never mind that the question is being addressed to a moderate Muslim). The problem is that over the last decade the debate over the meaning and message of Islam has been framed almost exclusively at the margins of the faith, which means the voice of the moderate majority is too often drowned out by the voices of extremism and fundamentalism.

Yet, fundamentalism, in all religions, is principally a reaction to modernism and reform. What many see as a surge in militancy and extremism in Islam can also be viewed as an indication of desperation and defeat. After all, terrorism is the tactic of the weak. Often, its primary purpose is not to fulfill some political or economic goal but to provide the illusion of power. That is precisely why religious terrorists are forced to frame their agendas in eschatological terms, so as to give their followers the impression that they are participating in a supernatural drama—a “cosmic war,” to use Mark Juergensmeyer’s terminology—which provides hope of victory when their struggle cannot possibly be won in any “real terms.”2 And this is a struggle that the forces of counter-reform have no hope of winning. For it is an undeniable historical fact that from the moment the Prophet Muhammad spoke the first words of revelation to this very day, Islam has been in a state of evolution, constantly adapting to the social, cultural, and political needs of the changing Muslim community. Now, that community is changing once more, casting off the dominance of traditional-ism and rigid legalism in Islam and embarking upon the inevitable road toward reform.

When 14 centuries ago the Prophet Muhammad launched a revolution in Mecca to replace the archaic, rigid, and inequitable strictures of tribal society with a radically new vision of divine morality and social egalitarianism, he tore apart the fabric of traditional Arab society. It took many years to cleanse Arabia of its “false idols.” It will take many more to cleanse Islam of its new false idols—bigotry and fanaticism—worshiped by those who have replaced the Prophet’s original vision of tolerance and unity with their own ideals of hatred and discord. But the cleansing is inevitable, and the tide of reform cannot be stopped. The Islamic Reformation is already here. We are all living in it.


  1. See John Gray, Al-Qaeda and What It Means to Be Modern (W. W. Norton, 2003).
  2. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God (University of California Press, 2001).

Reza Aslan is the author of No god but God:  The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (Random House). He holds a master of theological studies degree from Harvard Divinity School and a master of fine arts degree from the University of Iowa, where he was the Truman Capote Fellow in Fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and is a doctoral candidate in history of religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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