jump to navigation

‘Islam needs a reformation’ 22, May 2010

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Islam, Saudi Arabia.
Tags: , , , ,

You must read this article in the LA Times. It is written by a Saudi former jihadi and is unusually good. Sultan Al Qasseimi, one of the Emirate’s best known public intellectuals (to whom I own a hat tip for this nukta), describes it as ‘the most important contemporary article written by a Muslim’.

Islam needs a Reformation. It needs someone with the courage of Martin Luther.

This is the belief I’ve arrived at after a long and painful spiritual journey. It’s not a popular conviction — it has attracted angry criticism, including death threats, from many sides. But it was reinforced by Sept. 11, 2001, and in the years since, I’ve only become more convinced that it is critical to Islam’s future.

Muslims are too rigid in our adherence to old, literal interpretations of the Koran. It’s time for many verses — especially those having to do with relations between Islam and other religions — to be reinterpreted in favor of a more modern Islam. It’s time to accept that God loves the faithful of all religions. It’s time for Muslims to question our leaders and their strict teachings, to reach our own understanding of the prophet’s words and to call for a bold renewal of our faith as a faith of goodwill, of peace and of light.

I didn’t always think this way. Once, I was one of the extremists who clung to literal interpretations of Islam and tried to force them on others. I was a jihadist.

I grew up in Saudi Arabia. When I was 16, I found myself assailed by doubts about the existence of God. I prayed to God to give me the strength to overcome them. I made a deal with Him: I would give up everything, devote myself to Him and live the way the prophet Muhammad and his companions had lived 1,400 years ago if He would rid me of my doubts.

I joined a hard-line Salafi group. I abandoned modern life and lived in a mud hut, apart from my family. Viewing modern education as corrupt and immoral, I joined a circle of scholars who taught the Islamic sciences in the classical way, just as they had been taught 1,200 years ago. My involvement with this group led me to violence, and landed me in prison. In 1991, I took part in firebombing video stores in Riyadh and a women’s center in my home town of Buraidah, seeing them as symbols of sin in a society that was marching rapidly toward modernization.

Yet all the while, my doubts remained. Was the Koran really the word of God? Had it really been revealed to Muhammad, or did he create it himself? But I never shared these doubts with anyone, because doubting Islam or the prophet is not tolerated in the Muslim society of my country.

By the time I turned 26, much of the turmoil in me had abated, and I made my peace with God. At the same time, my eyes were opened to the hypocrisy of so many who held themselves out as Muslim role models. I saw Islamic judges ignoring the marks of torture borne by my prison comrades. I learned of Islamic teachers who molested their students. I heard devout Muslims who never missed the five daily prayers lying with ease to people who did not share their extremist beliefs.

In 1999, when I was working as an imam at a Riyadh mosque, I happened upon two books that had a profound influence on me. One, written by a Palestinian scholar, was about the struggle between those who deal pragmatically with the Koran and those who take it and the hadith literally. The other was a book by a Moroccan philosopher about the formation of the Arab Muslim way of thinking.

The books inspired me to write an article for a Saudi newspaper arguing that Muslims have the right to question and criticize our religious leaders and not to take everything they tell us for granted. We owe it to ourselves, I wrote, to think pragmatically if our religion is to survive and thrive.

That article landed me in the center of a storm. Some men in my mosque refused to greet me. Others would no longer pray behind me. Under this pressure, I left the mosque.

I moved to the southern city of Abha, where I took a job as a writer and editor with a newly established newspaper. I went back to leading prayers at the paper’s small mosque and to writing about my evolving philosophy. After I wrote articles stressing our right as Muslims to question our Saudi clerics and their interpretations and to come up with our own, officials from the kingdom’s powerful religious establishment complained, and I was banned from writing.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, gave new life to what I had been saying. I went back to criticizing the rote manner in which we Muslims are fed our religion. I criticized al-Qaeda’s school of thought, which considers everyone who isn’t a Salafi Muslim the enemy. I pointed to examples from Islamic history that stressed the need to get along with other religions. I tried to give a new interpretation to the verses that call for enmity between Muslims and Christians and Jews. I wrote that they do not apply to us today and that Islam calls for friendship among all faiths.

I lost a lot of friends after that. My old companions from the jihad felt obliged to declare themselves either with me or against me. Some preferred to cut their links to me silently, but others fought me publicly, issuing statements filled with curses and lies. Once again, the paper came under great pressure to ban my writing. And I became a favorite target on the Internet, where my writings were lambasted and labeled blasphemous.

Eventually I was fired. But by then, I had started to develop a different relationship with God. I felt that He was moving me toward another kind of belief, where all that matters is that we pray to God from the heart. I continued to pray, but I started to avoid the verses that contain violence or enmity and only used the ones that speak of God’s mercy and grace and greatness. I remembered an incident in the Koran when the prophet told a Bedouin who did not know how to pray to let go of the verses and get closer to God by repeating, “God is good, God is great.” Don’t sweat the details, the prophet said.

I felt at peace, and no longer doubted His existence.

In December 2002, in a Web site interview, I criticized al-Qaeda and declared that some of the Friday sermons were loathsome because of their attacks against non-Muslims. Within days, a fatwa was posted online, calling me an infidel and saying that I should be killed. Once again, I felt despair at the ways of the Muslim world. Two years later, I told al-Arabiya television that I thought God loves all faithful people of different religions. That earned me a fatwa from the mufti of Saudi Arabia declaring my infidelity.

But one evening not long after that, I heard a radio broadcast of the verse of light. Even though I had memorized the Koran at 15, I felt as though I was hearing this verse for the first time. God is light, it says, the universe is illuminated by His light. I felt the verse was speaking directly to me, sending me a message. This God of light, I thought, how could He be against any human? The God of light would not be happy to see people suffer, even if they had sinned and made mistakes along the way.

I had found my Islam. And I believe that others can find it, too. But first we need a Reformation similar to the Protestant Reformation that Martin Luther led against the Roman Catholic Church.

In the late 14th century, Islam had its own sort of Martin Luther. Ibn Taymiyya was an Islamic scholar from a hard-line Salafi sect who went through a spiritual crisis and came to believe that in time, God would close the gates of hell and grant all humans, regardless of their religion, entry to his everlasting paradise. Unlike Luther, however, Ibn Taymiyya never openly declared this revolutionary belief; he shared it only with a small, trusted circle of students.

Nevertheless, I find myself inspired by Luther’s courageous uprising. I see what Islam needs — a strong, charismatic personality who will lead us toward reform, and scholars who can convince Islamic communities of the need for a bold new interpretation of Islamic texts, to reconcile us with the wider world.


1. Abu Arqala - 23, May 2010

An interesting article.

As usual a contrary view.

Part 1

There was a Reformation in Christianity. In fact one may argue that there have been many as there were reactions/splits from the teachings of Martin Luther.

And what is the result?

One can still find those who claim to be Christians holding the most extreme of views. There is one self-proclaimed US pastor and his flock who make a practice of demonstrating at the funeral services of dead servicemen against gay people. It was the teaching of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa and is the teaching of the Church of Jesus Christ Christian that black people are inferior to white people. Or that Jesus is telling us to wipe out this or that imagined national, ethnic or religious group. And one doesn’t have to look too far to find armed groups in the US claiming to be Christians and preparing for war. I don’t hear many calls for another Reformation in Christianity.

What’s needed is not another Reformation in Christianity or one in Islam – but rather the simple calling out of those with serious unresolved psychological problems, the manifestly ignorant, and charlatans for what they are.

I’d also disagree on the great man theory. What Islam needs or Christianity for that matter is for the average Abdullah or Joe to take responsibility for his belief and laugh the purveyors of idiocy off the stage. That will be the most effective. And the most lasting.

2. Abu Arqala - 23, May 2010

Part 2

One can debate of course whether Brother Manour’s article is soundly reasoned and has reached the proper conclusion. Whether indeed he has even framed the question properly.

What’s more important is that there is a profound danger with articles of this sort: the impact they have.

Calls for Reformation by their very nature imply a widespread fundamental problem. If it’s only a minority holding a view, then one sends in the missionaries to preach the faith.

In the West articles like and particularly the use of a highly charged term like Reformation reinforce convenient stereotypes that Islam is bad. Backward. That it must be fundamentally fixed. And thus feed feelings of imagined superiority in the West – which provide the pretext for certain political agendas.

“Back home”, they support the jihadi view that they represent the mainstream in Islam. They don’t. Let’s not say they do. That’s highly unhelpful.

The correct message is that bad or misinformed men are using Islam for their own purposes. As bad men elsewhere use other religions or nationalism. And very importantly what all these individuals teach is not “Islam”, Christianity, true patriotism, etc. That they are misleading the people.

Where I think Brother Mansour got off track is a common mistake of drawing a conclusion from insufficient data.

He grew up in a socially backward country where tribal taqlid has been conflated with Islam.

Growing up there it’s perhaps understandable that he thought the two were the same. It is hard to see beyond one’s immediate milieu.

If one were to grow up in Plaquemines Parish in Louisiana in the 60’s, one would have some rather unique and manque views about Christianity, democracy, basic human decency. But that doesn’t make those views the right ones about those subjects.

So one has to look beyond one’s small circle of experience.

If one looks to the larger Muslim world, what proportion of Muslims do we find who adhere to or support in some way the teachings of the jihadi or even the salafi groups?

A relatively small percentage.

In many cases the adherence is more social / political than religious. These groups are seen as striking back against political and economic oppressors – whether the near or the far enemy. Or for upholding folk traditions that are mistakenly believed to be integral parts of the religion. These groups are for a variety of reasons (an interesting story how that came about) seen as the only viable alternatives. And when there is fundamental societal change or challenge, it’s quite a normal tendency to look to talismans to hold back the unwelcome tide. That’s not only a ME phenomenon, we see it in “advanced” cultures like the USA.

If we reflect a bit on history, we find a strong confirmation
that what is portrayed as a primordial fundamental “clash of civilizations” between “East” and “West” or “Islam” and “Christianity” is a clash of interests – political and economic.

As late as the 70’s we were told (or our parents were) that those dangerous Arabs (or many of them) were Communists – busily forging their hammers and sickles and getting ready to spring to the side of the Russkis in the Great Proletarian World Revolution.

davidbroberts - 24, May 2010

As usual some excellent points. The idea that ‘Islam needs a reformation’ always seemed to make some kind of intrinsic sense to me, but you raise some very good arguments indeed. In conclusion…I dunno anymore…

3. jj - 24, May 2010

Very interesting comments AA.

Where is the moderate voice of Islam counteracting the madness of these bad men? Why does poll after poll show significant support for these activities from within supposedly moderate communities? Perhaps reformation is too charged a term but surely Islam has some significant house cleaning to attend to?

Yes you will find pockets of looney Christians around the world but these are marginalised groups with no mainstream support whatsoever and are rightly condemned within mainstream Christianity. Christianity of course has plenty of questions of its own to answer but at least at the moment it is not inspiring Jihadis and suicide bombers.

4. Abu Arqala - 25, May 2010

Thanks for your comments.

Here’s an attempt at a response in several parts.

Moderate Voices of Islam and Housecleaning:

Some examples. You can find others here. http://www.muhajabah.com/otherscondemn.php

On 15 September 2001, Shaykh Abdul Aziz Al Shaykh of Saudi is reported to have said: ““Hijacking planes, terrorizing innocent people and shedding blood constitute a form of injustice that can not be tolerated by Islam, which views them as gross crimes and sinful acts”

On 27 September 2001, Shaykh Yusuf al Qaradawi among others signed a fatwa which included the sentence: “The terrorists acts, from the perspective of Islamic law, constitute the crime of hirabah (waging war against society)”

Even the “Great Satan” condemned the attacks. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/1549573.stm

In April this year there was a multi-national conference of Islamic scholars in Mardin Turkey which issued an important fatwa on Ibn Tamiyya’s “Mardin” fatwa. In a nutshell saying it could not be used to justify terrorism. http://www.fanawatch.com/index.php?do=news_view&id=1448

And there is ample house cleaning going on.

To pick on one country that is a focus of a lot of attention. As one who reads the Saudi press, I see fairly frequent condemnations of terrorism by senior religious figures in Saudi Arabia. The Government there is taking steps to control the issuance of fatwas – and limit them to senior clergy. Not so long ago the Supreme Religious Council in the country was expanded to include representatives of all four of the recognized Sunni mathabs. The King is “reforming” the judiciary. But one doesn’t turn Plaquemines Parish into Manhattan overnight.

5. David lepeska - 25, May 2010

For Saudis, Salafis, the key point may be snuck in there at the end, when he highlights Ibn Taymiyya. Taymiyya’s theories are the bedrock of the Islam of Abdul Wahab, the same Islam that dominates Saudi Arabia today, the same Islam that inspired a generation or two of jihadis — including the younger al-Nogaidan.

Wahab used the medieval scholars books to expand and strengthen his own ideas and in doing so revived interest in Taymiyya, who had by most accounts been long forgotten. He has in recent decades become somewhat venerated. So for al-Nogaidan to cite him in support of his call for a more modern, progressive Islam, to say with apparent certainty that the old boy was a sheep in wolf’s clothing, is bold. He could be seen as saying “Our religion, so-called Wahhabism, the Salafi Islam of Sheikh Abdul Wahab and the House of Saud, is founded on a lie.”

That’s provocative stuff.

6. Abu Arqala - 25, May 2010

Part 2

Indeed there is support.

The question is why? And what is the support for?

I think at heart it’s political and economic. The West (primarily the USA) is believed to be imposing a political and economic order on the area that is at variance with the aspirations of the populace. Whether that is propping up what are considered oppressive corrupt local regimes. Or larger political/economic issues. The Palestinian / Israeli dispute. Imposing its culture.

I’ve been around the block more than once in the ME. I tend to be painfully blunt with my contacts. And they return the favor. One agnostic chap with a very decidedly un Muslim life style used to delight in recounting the latest set backs to the USA in Afghanistan or Iraq. Not because he was looking for the imposition of Shari’ah but because he felt it was payback time. I know another guy who one might describe as very religious. He thinks the jihadis are an abomination.

Another factor at work is the phenomenon of seeking refuge and consolation when confronted by unhappy events or societal changes. And a bulwark to hold back and reverse these changes. A large part of the motivation for Family Values in the USA has to do with profound societal upheaval which began in the late 1950’s– blacks, then women, then gays demanding their human rights.

One can date the beginnings of the current rise (there were previous similar cycles) of political Islam to the 1967 defeat. If one looks closely at the foreign policy of the West and Israel in the period prior to the 1967 War, one can see that there was a conscious decision to use Islam as a counterweight to secular movements like Nasserism. Something that continued until fairly recently. Encouragement to Hamas as a counter weight to the PLO. The recruiting of Arab jihadis for Reagan’s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

7. Abu Arqala - 25, May 2010

Part 3

Use of Terrorism and Religion

Terrorism is a tactic to overcome military weakness. S. Colin Gray has some very interesting observations on why this tactic might be highly successful against the USA in particular.

Getting people to go and kill others and risk their lives requires that some strong form of motivation be provided. First is fear. One’s enemies are demonized. Great Satans. Less than human. Coming to violate the women folk and kids.

On the “positive” side resort is made to patriotism or religion.

That doesn’t mean that appeals to either are true.

During WW2, as the Nazis advanced, Stalin (the atheist internationalist) suddenly discovered nationalism and religion were highly effective. Some were ready to die for scientific socialism. Many more for Mother Russia. And the Holy Orthodox Church.
If you look at Soviet WW2 posters you’ll see many that draw on national symbols – Russians versus the Teutonic Knights. And I’ve seen more than one film where religious symbols were directly used.

After Gulf War 2 (Bush Pere’s war), Saddam Hussein added a religious slogan to the Iraqi flag and was reported to have written a Quran in his own blood. Quite a remarkable “conversion” given his career.

And lest you think I’m picking only bad examples. I’ve got some Allied WW2 posters which have decidedly Christian themes. And some Nazi ones showing how they were defending Christian civilization from the Bolshies.

8. Nicholas - 19, August 2010

Islam is not united. Different teachers say different things, and many average Muslims often lack an understanding of the right application of Islam to daily living. I once attended a masjid at a New England university. One man in discussion said that the Koran gave him the right to kill gays on campus. Another man told him he was wrong, and a third man intervened and told both of them that “only a scholar can decide”. Only a scholar? That an “expert” had to be consulted as to whether or not a Muslim could kill people for whatever reason is absurd.

300 years or more ago, Christianity in the west was much as Islam is today. But it changed and adapted and – despite problems – exists in a pluralistic society. In many parts of the world, Muslims still live as they did in the Middle Ages, and often conflate bad local or social customs and norms with Islam, when it is not always the case. Muslims coming to the west bring their good and bad social and religious values with them, some of which conflict with host country values (killing a daughter because she flirts, or a son because he’s gay) and often create parallel societies in their host countries (which they seem to view as inferior) instead of adapting. For example, New York City is not Cairo. It’s possible to wear western dress and still be a good Muslim in NYC.

Until Islam drags itself into the modern world, it will be viewed in the west with dislike and suspicion. Muslims can’t demand equality in the west, while denying equality to various groups in their homelands. There are fanatics in every religion of course, but there are entire Muslim nations – not just individuals – which sanction beatings, torture and death for infractions against Islam. Good Muslims must speak out when bad Muslims do horrific things in the name of God. All too often they are silent, and silence implies consent.

davidbroberts - 19, August 2010

Well written. Thanks for taking the time.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: