Lonely Modernist Muslims

By Scott C. LucasFebruary 6, 2016

Lonely Modernist Muslims

Contemporary Issues in Islam by Asma Afsaruddin

ISLAM has issues. Just what those issues are depends significantly on one’s own identity and commitments. For many westerners, Islam appears peculiarly resistant to democracy, freedom, and women’s rights, while simultaneously prone to violence and oppression. While numerous Muslims can critique and challenge these stereotypes through personal contacts and dialogue, few of them write books in English that are up to this task. Fortunately, we now have Asma Afsaruddin’s new book, Contemporary Issues in Islam, which presents an openly liberal Muslim argument that Islam is (or should be) democratic, peaceful, empowering to women, and a collegial participant in interfaith dialogue.

How does she do this? In chapters devoted to Islam and politics, Islam and gender, Islam and war/peacemaking, and Islam and interfaith dialogue, Afsaruddin applies the hermeneutic of her liberal predecessors of granting paramount authority to select Qur’anic passages. According to the explanation of Islam that she, along with an interesting array of mainly Muslim intellectuals, offers, most Muslims, past and present, have not read the Qur’an properly; they have downplayed, misinterpreted, or abrogated the most significant verses and failed to appreciate the overarching teachings of the Qur’an. By restoring the Qur’an to its proper place, and selecting classical exegetes whose views are harmonious with broadly recognizable liberal norms, Afsaruddin shows how many issues in Islam can be resolved or at least ameliorated.

One clear example of this approach is Afsaruddin’s explanation of the following Qur’anic verse (Q. 9:71):

(Male) believers and (female) believers are the natural partners (awliya’) of one another; they command the good and forbid wrong and they perform prayer, give the obligatory alms, and obey God and His messenger. They are those upon whom God has mercy; indeed God is Almighty, Wise.

According to Afsaruddin (who credits this interpretation to the American law professor Azizah al-Hibri), the “obvious intent of the verse is to establish complete parity between men and women as partners in the common venture to promote the good, righteous society on earth and in their individual and communal obligations towards God.”

Another example is the Qur’anic verse 4:59, which reads, according to Afsaruddin, “O those who believe, obey God and the Messenger, and those who possess authority among you.” This verse has been used for a long time to justify obedience to authoritarian rulers, but Afsaruddin shows how several early, classical, and modernist exegetes interpreted it to include religious and other authorities, rather than exclusively political rulers. In her view, Islamist efforts to appropriate this verse to argue for the necessity of an Islamic state are invalid because its original meaning had little to do with political authority.

In general, Contemporary Issues in Islam provides the reader with a helpful guide to an array of modernist Muslim scholars and intellectuals who are Middle Eastern Sunnis. (Shi‘i thinkers are largely absent from this book.) Afsaruddin defines modernists as:

observant Muslims […] [who] typically argue that reinterpreted Islamic principles can reveal their congruence with modern liberal principles of democratic government, civil society, gender equality, and so on, without necessarily being identical to their formulations in the Western context.

She introduces readers to the liberal legal hermeneutics of Jamal al-Banna (d. 2013), the political thought of ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (d. 1966), the gender-sensitive Qur’anic hermeneutics of Amina Wadud, and three contemporary scholars who promote the idea that jihad in fact means peacemaking.

Afsaruddin is one of the latest of a distinguished line of Muslim intellectuals to call for the elevation of the Qur’an over all other traditional Islamic disciplines and books. Over a century ago, the famous Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) made a similar call, which was then amplified by his loyal student Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935), whose largest scholarly composition was an unfinished multivolume Qur’an commentary. More recently, the Pakistani-American scholar Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988), about whom Afsaruddin is effusive in her praise, made a similar call through his books Major Themes of the Qur’an and Islam and Modernity. Amina Wadud’s groundbreaking book Qur’an and Woman also has an explicit focus on the Qur’an, to the exclusion of all other Muslim texts. Despite this century-long effort of rethinking Islam through a fresh reading of the Qur’an, Afsaruddin soberly informs the reader that the modernist project to reinterpret Islam “is still very much a work in progress” whose results are “probably not about to be widely accepted any time soon.”

Why is it the case that the results of this Qur’an-centric method are unlikely to find mass acceptance in the near future? Given that this important question is not really addressed by Afsaruddin in her book, I would like to suggest three factors that may limit the appeal of these liberal modernists’ articulations of Islam to practicing Muslims today.

First, what about those verses of the Qur’an that are illiberal or encourage violence? One need only to visit Islamophobic or extremist Muslim websites to see that an entirely different vision of Islam, based solely on the Qur’an, is possible. Afsaruddin addresses some of these challenging verses, but many more are left unmentioned in her book. Fortunately, most Muslims don’t read the Qur’an as an exhortation to violence, despite little exposure, in most cases, to liberal Muslim thought. In fact, the most explicit prohibitions against killing noncombatants or committing suicide are found in the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings (the hadiths) and not in the Qur’an. Although Afsaruddin stresses that modernist Muslims do not reject the vast corpus of hadith wholesale, the glaring imbalance between citations of the Qur’an and those of prophetic hadith in Contemporary Issues in Islam suggests that many liberal modernists still remain unsure of what to do with the prophet’s numerous extra-Qur’anic teachings.

Secondly, this Qur’an-centric approach largely ignores the vast Islamic legal tradition (the fiqh). Most of the contemporary issues Afsaruddin discusses regarding politics, warfare, and gender inequality are legal issues. The body of literature in which Muslims debated and defended positions concerning these issues is the enormous library of legal manuals and their commentaries that religious scholars have composed over the past millennium. Islamic law consists, among other things, of a variety of instruction manuals detailing how a Muslim should practice Islam. Muslim jurists always recognized a plurality of schools of law, and generally respected the schools that fell within their sect. Today this legal tradition frequently is called Shari‘a in order to emphasize the divine element of Islamic law and to deflect attention from the significant human role in its articulation. Properly speaking, Shari‘a is God’s law, but most Muslim jurists traditionally believed that God revealed indicators of this law (the Qur’an and the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings preserved in thousands of hadiths) and left it to humans to develop their jurisprudence based both directly and analogously on these indicators.

What is striking about the hermeneutics of many liberal modernist Muslims is its reluctance to critique books in the legal tradition or replace them with something else. But then again, this may not be accidental because, as Afsaruddin states in a revealing passage, Shari‘a should not be thought of as merely law:

In the view of modernists […] the revitalisation of the Sharia, understood holistically as a collectivity of broad moral guidelines and ethical prescriptions that shape the Islamic way of life rather than more narrowly as law, depends on recovering this hermeneutic dynamism and interpretative pluralism by Muslims who critically engage the sources of their religious tradition.

A few sentences later, Afsaruddin describes “the modernist project of revisiting the Sharia” as:

a return to the Qur’an as the most authoritative arbiter of ethical and legal matters; and, second, subjecting the hadith corpus to a renewed scrutiny and evaluating the legal prescriptions that have emanated from the hadith in light of what the Qur’an pronounces.

Notice that there is not a word here about the Sunni or Shi‘i legal schools of law and their many manuals that guide the practice of Muslim scholars and observant Muslims. It is true that there have been some significant Muslim reformers who proposed new articulations of Islamic law based exclusively on the Qur’an and hadith — the Andalusi jurist Ibn Hazm (d. 1064) and the Yemeni jurist al-Shawkani (d. 1834) come to mind — but there is little evidence that any liberal modernists over the past century have made much progress on this venture.

The only Muslim jurisprudence that receives any sustained attention in Contemporary Issues in Islam is the controversial modernist field of “Minority jurisprudence” (fiqh al-aqalliyyat). This jurisprudence applies solely to Muslim communities living in non–Muslim majority countries and provides a justification for relaxing the rules on, for example, the Qur’anic prohibition of usury, so a Muslim can obtain a mortgage in good conscience. This section of the book should be read by anyone who is anxious about the trumped-up “creeping Shari‘a” threat, as it reveals a pragmatic, human side of Muslim jurisprudence, at least as it’s practiced by its more creative jurists.

The third serious weakness of modernist Muslim hermeneutics, embraced throughout Contemporary Issues in Islam and elsewhere, is its disregard for the rich ethical-mystical tradition called Sufism. (The only mention of Sufism in the book occurs during a brief discussion of the Turkish spiritual leader, Fethullah Gülen.) The Qur’an frequently refers to people as “lost in darkness,” in need of a light or a firm handle to pull themselves together. It also states that humans were created weak and anxious. No other aspect of the Islamic tradition is as concerned with the psychological and spiritual well-being of human beings as Sufism. In an age of tremendous alienation, political upheaval, economic uncertainty, and cultural confusion, Sufism, at its best, offers people a path for connecting with God and developing tranquility within themselves.

For much of the 20th century, Sufism received a pummeling from secularist, liberal, Salafi, and Islamist Muslims, many of whom regarded it as superstitious, old-fashioned, authoritarian, or as a series of unlawful innovations. Some of these criticisms, at least with regard to the more extreme Sufi practices, may have been valid. And yet I cannot help but wonder if one of the more important contemporary issues in Islam that Afsaruddin neglected to explore in her book is the disastrous result of this prolonged assault on Sufism. Many Muslims, especially adolescents and young adults, are in need of inspiring religious leaders (imams, shaykhs) who can address their most intimate spiritual needs and fears, while helping them advance along their individual spiritual journeys. To whom can they turn? The imam with a degree in Shari‘a or Islamic Studies from a Middle Eastern Islamic university who insists that Sufism isn’t “real Islam?” The Deobandi imam from South Asia who teaches that Sufism is a part of Islam, but that one must follow every ruling of their traditional law school, including those which are discriminatory toward women and non-Muslims? Or the Islamist activist, who values “spiritual purification” but remains more concerned about his or her group securing political power than the spiritual crises in the community?

I hope that liberal Muslims, whose views, according to public surveys, enjoy broad support across the Muslim world, will build upon the scholarly efforts of the thinkers Afsaruddin discusses in Contemporary Issues in Islam. They will need to move beyond a strictly Qur’an-centric hermeneutics and engage systematically the vast libraries of Islamic law and Sufism if they wish to be serious contenders with conservative traditionalist and Salafi expressions of Islam that reign supreme in mosques and on satellite television. They will also need to develop creative ways for reducing sectarian violence, another significant contemporary issue that is absent from Afsaruddin’s book. It is a daunting project, though I remain optimistic that a new generation of Muslims will rise to the occasion, God willing.


Scott C. Lucas is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona.

LARB Contributor

Scott C. Lucas is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona. He has published on hadith, Islamic law, and Qur’anic commentary. His research is accessible at https://arizona.academia.edu/ScottLucas/Papers.


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