YES! Islam Can Be Reformed

Ibn Warraq

But It Will Also Be Transformed

To ask whether Islam can come into the twenty-­first century is to ask whether Islam can be divorced from Islamic fundamentalism. Yet the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism is Islam itself.

Poverty is not the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism.1 Modern Islamists are mostly middle­class young men who are highly motivated, upwardly mobile, and well­educated. Often they hold science or engineering degrees. Islamists them­selves rarely talk of poverty. Ayatollah Khomeini once said, “We did not create a revolution to lower the price of melon.” For Islamists, wealth is a means, not an end: if they yearn for money, it is for buying weapons, not for opulent living.

Nor is the existence of Israel the cause of Islamic terrorism. Even Benjamin Netanyahu admits, “The soldiers of militant Islam do not hate the West because of Israel, they hate Israel because of the West.”2 This is confirmed by Wagdi Ghuniem, a militant Islamic cleric from Egypt: “Suppose the Jews said ‘Palestine—you [Muslims] can take it.’ . . . What would we tell them? No! The problem is belief, it is not a problem of land.”3 Nor is Islamic terrorism caused by American foreign policy. If anything, U.S. policy toward the Arab and Muslim world prior to 2003 has been accommodating toward Muslim inter­ests: American arms protected Afghanistan from the Soviets, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait from Iraq, Bosnia and Kosovo from Yugoslavia, and (to some degree) Somalia from the warlord Muhammad Farah Aidid. And what had U.S. foreign policy to do with the deaths of 150,000 Algerians at the hands of Islamist fanatics? That’s 15,000 murders per year for a decade—a World Trade Center atrocity every two­and­a­half months for ten years—with no conceivable link to American conduct.

Ten years ago I wrote that the principal victims of Islamic fundamentalism are Muslims: men, women, children, writers, intellectuals, and journalists. That’s still true—as it is true that the theory and practice of jihad was not concocted in the Pentagon but derived directly from the Qur’an and Hadith, from Islamic tradition.

Unfortunately, Western liberals and humanists find this hard to accept. They are pathologically nice: they believe that everyone thinks as they do. They assume that all peo­ple, Islamists included, have the same desires and goals in life. Contrary to this naïve view, Islamic fundamentalists are theo­utopian visionaries. Their goal is to replace Western­style liberal democracy with an Islamic theocracy, a fascist system of thought that aims to control every single act of every single individual. Asked what lesson he had learned from his experience, one survivor of the Holocaust replied, “If someone tells you that he intends to kill you, believe him.”4 This is a harsh lesson that members of the humanist movement desper­ately need to learn.

Jihad And Its Qur’anic Roots

The four greatest influences on the rise of contemporary militant Islam have been Egypt’s Hassan al­Bana (1906–1949); Sayyid Qutb (1906–1966), found­er of the Muslim Brethren; Indo-­Pakistani scholar­activist Sayeed Abdul a’la Maududi (1903 –1979); and Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Kho meini (1900–1989). They all repeat the same message, derived from classical writers like Ibn Taymiyyah (1268 –1328) and ultimate­ly from the Qur’an and Hadith: it is the divinely ordained duty of all Muslims to fight non­-Mus­lims in the literal sense until man­made law has been replaced by God’s Law, the Sharia—until Islam has conquered the entire world. In Maududi’s words:

In reality Islam is a revolutionary ideology and programme which seeks to alter the social order of the whole world and rebuild it in conformity with its own tenets and ideals. . . . Islam wishes to destroy all states and governments anywhere on the face of the earth which are opposed to the ideology and pro­gramme of Islam regardless of the country or the nation which rules it. The purpose of Islam is to set up a state on the basis of its own ideology and programme, regardless of which nation assumes the role of the standard bearer of Islam or the rule of which nation is undermined in the process of the establishment of an ideological Islamic State.5

Here is Khomeini:

. . . Islam makes it incumbent on all adult males, provided they are not disabled and incapacitated, to prepare themselves for the conquest of [other] countries so that the writ of Islam is obeyed in every country in the world. But those who study Islamic Holy War will understand why Islam wants to conquer the whole world. . . . Those who know nothing of Islam pretend that Islam counsels against war. Those [who say this] are witless. Islam says: Kill all the unbelievers just as they would kill you all! . . . There are hundreds of other [Koranic] psalms and Hadiths [sayings of the Prophet] urging Muslims to value war and to fight. Does all that mean that Islam is a religion that prevents men from waging war? I spit upon those foolish souls who make such a claim.6

Instead of confronting these facts, too many humanists wal­low—better, choke, to use Howard Jacobson’s word—on the stink of their own self-­hatred. To quote Jacobson fully:

Utterly obscene, the narrative of guilty causation which now waits on every fresh atrocity—“What else are the dissatisfied to do but kill?” etc.—as though dissatisfaction were an auto­matic detonator. . . . Obscene in its self­-righteousness, mentally permitting others to pay the price of our self­loathing. Obscene in its ignorance . . . encouraging those who hate us only to hate us more, since we concur in their conviction of our detestable­ness. Here is our decadence: not the nightclubs, not the beach­es and the sex and the drugs, but our incapacity to believe we have been wronged. Our lack of self­worth.7

Self-­criticism is one of the glories of Western civilization; both democracy and progress in science depend on it. Self­-loathing in modern times is one of its weaknesses.

Dare We Hope For An Islamic Reformation?

Can Islam come into the twenty­-first century? How would we know if it did? In essence we are speaking of what amounts to a modern­-day Islamic Reformation, a Second Vatican Council for Islam. Can such a thing be a realistic hope?

First, we must define what an Islamic Reformation might consist of. It might be argued that since Islam has no pope or even, in principle, a centrally organized clergy, there is no sure way to verify that such a reformation had occurred. One Muslim’s reformation would be another Muslim’s decadence. I would suggest that the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (1948) provides a metric by which any Islamic Reformation might be measured. Granted, many Muslims do not accept the UDHR. Indeed, in 1981 sever­al Muslim countries issued their own Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, which denies many of the indi­vidual freedoms guaranteed under UDHR, especially the right of any individual to change his or her religion as established in UDHR’s Article 18.

Still, I think most observers who do accept UDHR would agree that a de facto reformation would take place in an Islamic society like that of Pakistan or Egypt if the UDHR’s major articles began to enjoy respect:

  1. The rights of women.
  2. The rights of non­-Muslims.
  3. The rights of individuals regarding freedom of thought, conscience, expression, and religion, including the right to change one’s religion and the right not to believe in any deity.
  4. The cessation of cruel punishments such as mutilation of limbs for theft and stoning to death for adultery.
  5. The freedom of inquiry, for which one measure might be whether copies of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and my own Why I Am Not a Muslim are freely available.

Is such a reform likely? Can Islam institute such reforms and still be Islam? At this point, some misguided liberal Muslims will offer a have-­your-­cake-­and­-eat-­it-­too argument. On their view, the real Islam is compatible with human rights; the real Islam is feminist, egalitarian, tolerant of other reli­gions and beliefs, and so on. They then proceed to re­-interpret the many embarrassing, intolerant, bellicose, and misogynist verses of the Qur’an in wildly creative ways. But intellectual honesty demands that we reject such dishonest tinkering. The holy text may be open to some re­-interpretation, but it is not infinitely elastic. Sooner or later we must come to terms with what the Qur’an actually says.

In any case, any strategy that ultimately reduces to trading verses with the fundamentalists does battle on the fanatics’ terms, on the fanatics’ ground. For every text liberal Muslims can produce, the mullahs will adduce dozens of counter­-examples of greater exegetical, philological, and historical legitimacy. Liberal reformists cannot escape the simple fact that orthodox Islam is incompatible with modern concepts of human rights. On the contrary, every tenet of Islamic funda­mentalism derives directly and altogether legitimately from the Qur’an, the Sunna, and the Hadith. Moderate Muslims there may be, but Islam itself is not—can never be—moderate.

Islam itself is an irreformably fascist ideology.If Islamic societies are to be reformed, this must occur in spite of Islam, not in harmony with it. Questions of human rights must be brought out of the sphere of religion and into the sphere of the civil state. In other words, religion and state must be separated. Unavoidably, any separation effort will at some point have to confront Sharia, the Islamic law. Why have a separation, Islamists will demand, when Islam is such a perfect religion that provides answers for even the most mundane of problems? If forced to concede that Islam does not provide answers for all possible problems, nonetheless they will ask, Why not keep Islamic law in all those arenas of life for which it claims to offer solutions? Why not maintain, for instance, stoning for adultery? At that point, someone in the reformist camp will have to assert that such punishments are barbaric and incompatible with human rights as envisaged in the UDHR. He or she will need to argue that the demands of reason and common humanity override the dictates of revela­tion. At that point the battle between Islam and modernity—a battle that could never be prevented, only delayed—will at last be joined in earnest.

When such a Reformation is complete, Islam would exist within a secular state, relegated to the realm of the personal where it would wield limited power but could nonetheless con­tinue to provide consolation, comfort, and meaning to millions of individuals.

Secularization: Difficult But Possible

Can any such reformation occur? In other words, can Islamic societies be secularized? There are many reasons to suppose they can.

Since September 11, 2001, it has become a commonplace that Islam knows no separation between mosque and state, indeed that classical Arabic contains no word pairs corre­sponding to lay and ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal, secular and religious. All of this is true, and yet Islamic histo­ry does not chronicle a series of relentless Muslim theocracies. On the contrary, as Carl Brown has recently demonstrated, Muslim history has been marked by a nondoctrinal, de facto separation of state and religious community.8 Rule was mainly by decree, those decrees being given ex post facto religious sanction by the jurists.

Most of today’s culturally Islamic countries were founded or sweepingly reformed by secularists. Consider Muhammad Ali Jinnah of Pakistan, Nasser of Egypt, Sukarno of Indonesia, Bourguiba of Tunisia, Sultan Muhammad V of Morocco, Riza Shah and his son Muhammad Riza Shah plus Muhammad Musaddiq in Iran, and so on. Only after the secularizers discredited themselves through corruption, nepotism, and incom­petence were the Islamists able to exploit popular discontent and compel the re­introduction of Islam into public life.

Finally, consider the Islamic Republic of Iran. Iran has adopted many Western democratic institutions such as popu­lar elections, a constituent assembly, a parliament, and even a constitution, inspired by France’s constitution of 1958. None of these have any doctrinal or historic link to Islam, yet a putatively hardcore Islamist regime has made no attempt to jettison them. Iran even has a student protest movement that even now is demonstrating to demand a secular republic.

Yet there are also good reasons to admit that, if Islamic secularization is possible, it will not be easy. With the partial exception of Turkey, the Islamic world contains not a single stable democracy. It is not surprising that Muslims living under repressive regimes turn to Islamists for support, both moral and economic. Even if free and fair elections occur, they will not necessarily lead to secular governments, as Islamist elec­toral victories in Algeria, Pakistan, and Turkey demonstrate.

Today’s Middle East offers a hostile environment in which to nurture democratic institutions. Studies by Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Development Program, and others document disheartening social stasis, institutional underde­velopment, and economic malaise. Across most of the region, such essential precursors of democracy as political parties and human rights organizations are hampered or banned outright, usually by governments in the thrall of conservative Islamic clergy.

A Difficult Blueprint For Reform

If secularizing reformation is to occur in the Muslim world, we in the West cannot escape the need to confront Islam openly. First, we who enjoy freedom of expression and scientific inqui­ry should encourage Muslims to take a rational look at Islam. We should especially encourage Qur’anic criticism, which can help Muslims to look at their scripture and ultimately their faith in a more rational and objective way. It makes no sense when the same persons who lament the lack of an Islamic Reformation disparage books like Why I Am Not a Muslim or cry “Islamophobia!” each time Islam is criticized. Western political leaders, journalists, and scholars need to overcome their fondness for protecting tender Muslim sensibilities. We do Islam no favors by delaying its encounter with Enlightenment values.

Second, simply by protecting non-­Muslims in Islamic soci­eties we are encouraging religious pluralism, from which can one day blossom pluralism in general. Just by insisting on article 18 of the UDHR, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief . . .” we loosen the grip of fanatics and encourage what Owen Chadwick called a free market in all opinions—in other words, democracy.

Third, we can encourage rationality by secularizing edu­cation across the Muslim world. Secular education will mean closing the religious madrassas where young children from poor families memorize the Qur’an and learn only jihad—in short, where they learn to be fanatics. There must be a wholesale rewriting of school texts, which at present preach intolerance of non­-Muslims, particularly Jews. Critical thinking and rationality must be encouraged, not denigrated. Pluralism would be further encouraged by teaching the glories of pre­-Is­lamic history to all children. Advances in education must be matched by genuine economic opportunity, lest schools create impossible expectations whose frustration feeds the Islamists’ agenda.

Fourth, there must be broader self-­criticism and a retreat from self­-pity. Islamic countries will never progress while they blame all their ills on the West; whining about U.S. imperialism or some putative Zionist conspiracy will only perpetuate the cur­rent stasis. Islamic countries need charismatic leaders capable of self­-criticism—leaders who can say to their peoples, at the risk of misquoting Shakespeare, that “the fault is not in [the] stars [and stripes], but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”9

I believe that a meaningful Islamic Reformation is possible. But it will be painful and difficult. It will require Muslim—not Islamist—leaders who can guide their peoples toward democ­racy, leaders willing to institute civil states and uniform codes of civil laws separate from and independent of religious insti­tutions. It will require legislation that establishes the rights of all citizens, male and female, Muslim and non­Muslim, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—including the right to free choice of religious belief and practice. And it will demand Western leaders who support this process whole­heartedly—or will at least get out of the way.

Is the West truly ready to encourage secularism in the Islamic world? One wonders in light of continuing U.S. support for the Saudi regime, which has largely bankrolled the spread of radical Islam. One wonders in light of the fact that George W. Bush and Tony Blair have done more than any Western leaders since 1945 to reinject religion into the public sphere. Perhaps they have forgotten the words of James Madison: “There


  1. My argument here leans heavily on the article by Daniel Pipes, “God and Mammon: Does Poverty Cause Militant Islam?” The National Interest, Winter 2002.
  2. Benjamin Netanyahu, “Today, We Are All Americans,” New York Post, September 21, 2001.
  3. Steven Emerson, “International Terrorism and Immigration Policy,” January 25, 2000, United States House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Claims Hearing on International Terrorism and Immigration Policy.
  4. Quoted by Eliot A. Cohen, “World War IV: Let’s Call This Conflict What It Is.” November 20, 2001. Opinion Journal (
  5. Sayeed Abul A’la Maududi, Jihad in Islam, 7th ed., (Lahore, Pakistan: 2001), pp. 8–9.
  6. Quoted in Amir Taheri, Holy Terror (London: Macdonald & Co., 1987), pp. 226–27.
  7. Guardian, October 19, 2002.
  8. L. Carl Brown, Religion and State: The Muslim Approach to Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).
  9. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1.2, lines 139–140.10. Robert S. Alley, ed., James Madison on Religious  Liberty (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985), p. 71.

Ibn Warraq is a Research Fellow in Islamic Secularism at the Center for Inquiry–International and a member of CFI’s Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. He is the author of Why I Am Not a Muslim (Prometheus Books, 1995).

Ibn Warraq

Ibn Warraq, Islamic scholar and a leading figure in Qur’anic criticism, was a senior research fellow at the Center for Inquiry. He is the author of many books, including What the Qur’an Really Says (Prometheus Books, 2002) and Which Koran? Variants, Manuscripts, Linguistics.

But It Will Also Be Transformed To ask whether Islam can come into the twenty-­first century is to ask whether Islam can be divorced from Islamic fundamentalism. Yet the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism is Islam itself. Poverty is not the root cause of Islamic fundamentalism.1 Modern Islamists are mostly middle­class young men who are …

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