2016-06-30

First came the shock of the terrorist attacks. Then came an avalanche of Muslim leaders denying Islam has anything to do with terrorism. Then a queasy silence. Now, two months later, something potentially historic: the beginnings of an Islamic Reformation movement in the West.


Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Nonliteral Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the arts
    Read more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

    An assortment of moderate and liberal Muslims--scholars, writers, artists and poets, men and women, many of them young--have begun organizing, writing and speaking about "modernizing" or "reforming" Islam.

    "Something major is happening," says Farid Esack, a top liberal Muslim scholar and activist.

    Ingrid Mattson, a Muslim who is professor of Islamic Studies and Christian-Muslim Relations at Hartford Seminary, argues that this movement may some day even become as powerful as the Iranian Revolution in 1970 that toppled the Shah of Iran and brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power.

    What is the movement trying to accomplish? While it's hard to generalize, these activists mostly want Muslims to embrace modern scientific and social changes. They argue for greater equality between men and women; peaceful coexistence with people of other faiths; an end to anti-Jewish rhetoric; a less literal reading of the Qur'an; and acceptance of American ideals of freedom and tolerance.

    It's impossible to say how many of the nation's 2 million to 6 million Muslims sympathize with reformist ideas, but there are many small signs that a broad movement is underway.

  • Last week, Salman Rushdie wrote a piece that ran in The Guardian and the New York Times describing "the need for a reformation in the Muslim world." In the article, he claimed that a groundswell of reformers is demanding Muslims take responsibility for their own problems.
  • Mattson, vice-president of the Islamic Society of North America, the oldest and largest group of American Muslims with about 40,000 members, in September published a piece on Beliefnet saying that Muslims have a "special obligation" to fight extremist Islam.

  • Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Nonliteral Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the arts
    Read more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

  • In upstate New York, Qur'anic scholar Omid Safi started a web page compiling articles and links of interest to moderate Muslims in the wake of the terrorist attacks. About 7,000 people from 75 different countries have visited the site so far.
  • Just after Sept. 11, about 70 young Muslims in New York City organized Muslims Against Terrorism. Its website reads: "In this defining moment, we are defining Islam." In its eight weeks of existence, the group has branched out to six cities around the country.
  • In St. Louis, Sheila Musaji became irate after Sept. 11--and went to work. In the late 1980s she edited a glossy magazine called The American Muslim that promoted reformist ideas. The magazine died in the mid-1990s, partly because the people involved felt beaten down by ultra-conservatives. Two weeks ago, Musaji tracked down some of her old colleagues and created a newsletter begging them to get back in the reformist saddle.
  • In San Francisco, an advocacy group of progressive Muslims called AMILA (Americans Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism), at the urging of Muslims nationwide, is putting together kits to help other progressives start AMILA chapters.
  • On the Beliefnet discussion boards, dozens of Muslims have weighed in on a debate called Defining an American Islam. "The U.S. is a lot more 'Islamic' in beliefs and ideologies than many of the so-called 'Muslim' countries," AbrarAlsayed wrote. "We have a democratic form of government, we have women's rights, we have the 'innocent until proven guilty' thing, we have freedom of speech and freedom to worship any way we choose."
  • These may seem like small steps, but they are dramatic nonetheless because they are so unprecedented. Liberals and moderates generally have shied away from confronting conservative Muslims--partly because they've felt intimidated by the conservatives' confident, steel-trap knowedge of the Qur'an, and partly because they haven't wanted to cause a rift among Muslims.


    Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Nonliteral Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the arts
    Read more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

    Of course, not everyone in a huge faith like Islam thinks alike--even other relatively moderate American Muslims. Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, one of the most high-profile of the American Islamic organization, is a case in point. Hooper says Islam doesn't need a "reform" movement--because it is "the original reform movement." Further, he says, he is suspicious of any movement that purports to get hold of "modernity."

    "Islam establishes basic principles, and the society is built around those basic principles," he says. "What's modern today is outmoded tomorrow. Are we to change our faith each day to conform to society? And what are the limits?

    "Often we hear from these quarters that we need to reform, but they're never able to establish the limit. Is wearing a bikini at the beach OK, as long as you have modesty in your heart?"

    Still, many liberal and moderate Muslims are willing to wade into a fight. They say they've stood on the sidelines for too long, watching as a rigidly conservative brand of Islam has taken root here. This strain of Islam--called Wahhabism--is dominant in Saudi Arabia. Wahhabism enjoys enormous influence here because of Saudi Arabia's oil money and the fact that Mecca and Medina, the Muslim holy cities, are in Saudi Arabia. In the last decade, its influence has spread to the United States, as Saudi money has helped build mosques and schools.

    On the other hand, the moderates--whose basic ideals are supported at some level by most American Muslims--have little money or organization with which to fight back. They are now in a period of soul-searching and, to some extent, blaming themselves for not speaking up.

    "We just can't keep on going to the same conferences and teaching the same information to the same people," says Omid Safi, a Qur'anic scholar at Colgate University. "The sad fact of the matter is there are genuine voices of fanaticism in the Muslim community. How do these hateful voices function in our community? Why are we silent when they talk right next to us?"

    Safi says he is frustrated by Muslims' lack of "active wrestling" with the faith. "On one hand, you have reformers who want to throw out the entire thing, and on the other hand, you have people who feel completely bound by it because one jurist said one particular thing in the 14th century," Safi said.


    Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Non-literal Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the arts
    Read more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

    Mostly, average Muslims are exposed to what Safi calls "testosterone Islam"--run by men, many of them engineers and physicians, who are drawn to spare Wahhabi theology. Safi says their line of thinking goes like this: "Islam is sick. We need to heal it. We need to do this and this and this." Or: "The circuit of Islam is broken. If we attach this and fix this, it will work."

    Sheila Musaji is typical of the ranks of frustrated moderates. She says she has grown angry in the last decade as new immigrants, often fundamentalists, take over local mosques. "The immigrants may have a narrower outlook. A lot of time gets wasted on what kind of hijab (head covering) someone is wearing," she says.

    A few years ago, she said, she made copies of an article by an important Muslim scholar explaining why interfaith dialogue is Islamically correct. When she tried to pass them out at the mosque, a leader there said the writer was wrong-and simply threw the papers away.

    After a while, Musaji says, she got tired of fighting. But when the terrorist attacks happened, she couldn't stand by anymore. First, she watched moderate Muslims speak out against the terrorists. But then she noticed that many of them were attacked by conservative Muslims. So she started her newsletter. "I personally wanted to offer support for those in the forefront of what hopefully appears to be a movement to recapture traditional, moderate Islam," she wrote in the first issue.

    If we are in the beginnings of an Islamic "reformation" in the West, it wouldn't be the first time American immigrants have taken the religion of their ancestors and put a distinctly American stamp on it. When Catholics came to the United States in 150 years ago, they had the freedom to start their own organizations and build their own churches. Eventually, they began questioning the Vatican's hierarchical power and conservative moral stance--a struggle that continues to this day.

    When Jews immigrated to America, they, too, experimented with theology and social organization. They built Jewish Community Centers and all manner of synagogues for different kinds of Jews. American Jews invented Bat Mitzvah ceremonies for girls and Reconstructionist theology.

    In both cases, they sought to join the American religious mainstream. First, Catholics united with Protestants in ecumenical groups. By the 1950s, Jews had joined the interfaith scene to create what we now think of as the "Judeo-Christian" ethic.

    Reform-minded Muslims are pushing for the same story line.

    "There have been two responses to this thing," says Esack. "One is to sweep all our theological garbage under the carpet and say, 'It's not us.' Another position is to say 'It's not us' but at the same time say secretly, 'We did it! Brilliant!'"


    Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Nonliteral Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the arts
    Read more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

    What Muslim leaders must do, Esack says, is replace both those responses with a new line of thinking that helps Muslims coexist peacefully with others--without conversion tactics or violence. "Muslims in general cannot live with people of another religion in a state of what I call 'coolness,'" Esack says.

    That is because, he says, right now they have only two models for understanding their place in the world. The first is that of the oppressed--as Muslims were in their early days in Mecca. The second is that of rulers--the way Muslims eventually lived in Medina.

    Esack says, however, that embedded in the Qur'an is a story about a group of Muslims who lived in Abyssinia, a Christian kingdom. There they lived peacefully--neither trying to convert Christians, nor being proselytized by Christians.

    "That's the way for Muslims to go," says Esack.

    But the shape of an alternative movement is not yet clear, either. Among the moderate voices is that of Ingrid Mattson. She is the first woman to hold a position on the board of ISNA, the oldest and largest of the official--and generally quite conservative--Muslim organizations in the United States. She believes Muslim countries shouldn't enforce Muslim religious law on their citizens.

    At the same time, Mattson wears a head covering and considers her faith the "primal religion" and the "right way." What's more, she likes the spare, simple Wahhabi theology--and she is not sure Islam even needs a "reformation," since Wahhabism, which emerged in the 18th century, is considered a reform movement.

    And Mattson understands why Muslims have shied away from theological brawls in the United States.

    "There's been this feeling for so long that Muslims have been under siege from external threats so there's been no time or energy left for internal examination," Mattson says. "But also there is this feeling that if we're criticizing our own structures we'll give more ammunition to those people who are attacking our community from the outside."

    It's a tricky balance, says Amir Hussain, a religion professor at California State University-Northridge. He is quite critical, for instance, of some aspects of U.S. foreign policy (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the sanctions against Iraq, and now the continued bombing in Afghanistan), but he is also unabashedly pro-Western. "There's no question we're Americans, and as Americans, we may well dissent with our country's internal policies," he says.


    Six Tenets of Reformist Islam
  • Gender equality
  • Mosque-state separation
  • Nonliteral Qur'anic interpretation
  • Interfaith dialogue
  • Embracing modernity
  • Emphasis on the arts
    Read more about the tenets.


  • How to Be a Progressive Muslim
    How Islam relates to our here and now.
    By Farid Esack

    But that's a distinction lost on some of the newer arrivals in the United States, Hussain says. One of his targets for "reform" is foreign-born Muslim students. He is trying to become more involved in Muslim Student Association groups to give foreign exchange students, and the children of recent immigrants, a sense of Islam's diversity--and also to let them see that Muslims in this country love both their faith and their nation.

    "There are a whole lot of us," he says. "And it's important for us to come out of the woodwork and say this is who we are."

    Mattson sees this as a critical juncture that could shape Islam in America for decades.

    "We as Muslims have an obligation to care about justice issues wherever we live," she says. "It's not enough to simply collect funds and send them overseas, or agitate for political rights of Palestinians and other Muslims. We have to care equally about bad public schools and the lack of health care for poor people.

    "If we're going to live in this country," she says, "we have an obligation to care about the welfare of the people in this country."

    And the irony is: While much of the Muslim world professes to hate the United States and its liberated, Western ways, it is Muslims here--among the freest, best-educated and richest in the world--who ultimately may hold the real key to empowering Islam.

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