Contemporary Muslim Thought: An Overview

The effects on Muslim societies of 19th– and 20th-century European imperialism and of continued political and economic pressures by the West have presented a great challenge to Muslim thought. Many 20th-century and contemporary Muslim scholars have focused on the need for reform and renewal in Islam, as did their predecessors when faced with challengers in political, economic, or theological spheres. Reform-minded scholars split into modernists who seek to recharge Islam in the context of the modern world and Islamists who reject modern values and instead seek to  strengthen Islamic values and project them to populations outside the umma, or Muslim community. Fazlur Rahman, Tariq Ramadan, Mohsen Kadivar, and Sayyid Qutb are four prominent reformers, recent or living. They differ on how Muslims individually and Islam as a movement should regulate itself and interact with the West; but they share the goal of strengthening Muslim ethics rather than accommodating “licentious” and “superficial” Western norms and support doing so through individual transformation and grassroots political action rather than autocratic fatwas

Fazlur Rahman, a major interpreter of the Qur’an of the ulamic tradition who died in 1988, emphasized the social and ethical values imparted in the Qur’an as an integral part of Muslim life and Muslim society. He viewed the Qur’an as an expression of a moral ideal towards which a Muslim society should move. “The Qur’an is a document that primarily exhorts to virtue and a strong sense of moral responsibility,” he wrote.

Rahman believed that virtue and moral responsibility are the most important lessons of the Qur’an. Man has a choice whether or not to listen to and follow God’s truth as expressed in the Qur’an, in the sunna (example) of Muhammad, and as observed in God’s creation. He who is focused solely on worldly affairs “not only cannot listen [to the voice of God] but is irritated by being constantly reminded of the truth; this irritation, when accompanied by false honor and pride… changes into positive resistance and rejection of truth.”

A proper understanding of Qur’anic ethics enables individuals to accept and follow God’s message, becoming a proper Muslim in their relationship towards God and society.

As Muslim ethics are the foundation for the virtuous life of the individual, they are also the foundation of a just and dynamic society. Rahman believed that “a comprehensive sense of [moral] responsibility can very well take care of all human rights.” Rahman supported rights and freedoms that support this personal responsibility and virtue, but not as a license to permissiveness and lawlessness.

One who does not listen to God’s message will not have a proper understanding of the implications of rights and responsibilities and will live in a misguided, unvirtuous manner. Individual moral self-deception has a broader societal impact: “Special victims of self-deception are human institutions, organizations, and more particularly religious communities.”

It is in the interest of civil and religious institutions and the state to foster Muslim ethics to ensure a healthy polity and society. However, this must not be expressed through oppressive and strict enforcement of man-made laws even in the name of Islam or the common good: man is special among God’s creatures precisely because he is “endowed with free choice in order to fulfill his mission as God’s vicegerent” to create a moral society.

While the state may encourage and lay the framework for Muslim ethics, man must choose to listen to God and follow the virtuous life.

Tariq Ramadan, a Western-educated scholar, also seeks a reform and renewal of Islam in the modern world, emphasizing that there is no inherent clash between Islam and the Western way of life. Ramadan encourages a peaceful coexistence with Western paradigms as both necessary and desirable in the globalized modern world, “integrating all the dimensions of life that are not in opposition to our own terms of reference and to consider them completely our own.”

Ramadan understands essential Western values of freedom, democracy, and egalitarianism as in line with Islamic values and the goals of shari’a: protection of life, property, progeny, intellect (protection of both intellectual abilities and fulfillment), and religious practice. The Western polity also resembles the Muslim model of an egalitarian community run by respected members of that community with a strong emphasis on social justice through both institutional welfare (similar to the endowments, awaqf, managed by traditional Muslim institutions) and personal charity (zakat in Islamic practice). Although for many Westerners, Western freedoms engender irresponsibility and a distorted, decidedly non-Muslim ethic, they also allow freedom of religious practice and and the choice of Muslim ethics.

Ramadan shares Rahman’s emphasis on Muslim ethics, arguing that Western Muslims can remain true to their religious beliefs and actively participate in Western society.  “In Europe and North America, as soon as one pronounces the shahada, as soon as one ‘is Muslim’ and tries to remain so by practicing the daily prayers… or even simply by trying to respect Muslim ethics, one is already in the process of applying the shari’a, not in any peripheral way but in its most essential aspects.”

Whether or not they live in ‘Muslim’ societies, Muslims can remain true to shari’a and to their faith. Western Muslims can also influence neighbors, institutions, and elected representatives to a more ethical society in the model of Islam through active participation in civil society and full integration into Western norms. Ramadan disagrees with the strict-constructionist approach to Islamic law. Although “Islamic teaching certainly has ‘a comprehensive quality’… it is the work of human intellect” and must be understood as such.

He emphasized the importance of scholarship to distinguish between universal principles of Islam and applications. “The concern should not be to dress as the Prophet dressed,” he noted, “but to dress according to the principles… that underlay his choice of clothes.”

There is no need to follow the letter of Islamic law, wherever Muslims live; the spirit of Islam and of shari’a are of greater importance.

Mohsen Kadivar also emphasizes the importance and applicability of Western values of freedom of belief and practice and the free flow of information, drawing on rational analysis, the Qur’an, and the juristic tradition for resources to understand and embrace modernity. He believes that “freedom of religion and belief is inherently and rationally good and is accepted by those with superior wisdom and knowledge.”

Kadivar argues against enforcing Muslim practices even within an Islamic society. “It is often assumed that denying free choice in religion prevents unwanted views and values from polluting the popular mind, and guards people against the potential of becoming corrupted by deviant ideas. A second assumption revolves around the supposedly positive effects of heavy punishment in ensuring a morally upright society.”

The availability of information on many lifestyles and schools of ethics allows individuals to make rational decisions about their own beliefs and lifestyle – hopefully the ‘right’ choice of Islam. Enforcing a given set of ethics and practices, even Muslim ethics and practices, is un-Islamic; the Qur’an “endorses the plurality of religions and beliefs. It recognizes people’s rights to freely choose their own religions while forcefully renouncing the compulsion to impose a specific religion on others.”

Harsh punishment by the state for violating the rules of Islam – the rules of that polity – not only violates the Qur’anic warning against compulsion to religion; it is also a deterrent to any loyalty to the state and by proxy to Islam.

While Rahman, Ramadan, and Kadivar use a rationalist approach and emphasize ethics, Sayyid Qutb has a decidedly religious approach. Qutb’s Islamist reformist beliefs came from witnessing political abuses, poverty, and oppression in Egypt and superficiality, moral, and spiritual impoverishment in America. Qutb emphasizes shirk, a lack of acceptance of the sole sovereignty of God, as the root of these injustices around the world, labeling the world jahili, in a state of pagan ignorance. He condemns states and societies which “ascribe to men Allah’s hakimiyya (sovereignty) and makes some men masters over others.”

Qutb condemns states of any political form which assume that mere human beings have the authority to create the laws of society. He also condemns authorities, especially religious authorities, who pretend to hand down the truth. Only God may give law and guidance – and God’s law and guidance is already present in the Qur’an and in Islam.

Qutb blames both improper education – betraying his background as an educator – and the spread of Western (pagan) materialism, rationalism, and superficiality for the diversion of Muslims and the world from the path of God. “Humanity today is standing at the brink of an abyss,” he wrote, “because humanity is bankrupt in the realm of values.”

Qutb’s conclusion is that political action by pious and sincere Muslims is needed to force political reform in order to pull nations away from jahiliyya and back towards the Muslim path. Qutb does not specify what form of political action or what type of political institution he thinks most fitting to the Muslim path; he is more interested in inspiring action and salvation than theorizing and openly criticizes Islamic scholarship as a distraction from more pressing affairs. Qutb believes that this political action and attempt to change the world does not violate the principle of “no compulsion in religion”

and sincere acceptance of the sovereignty of God. Instituting an Islamic polity liberates individuals to choose Islam and the path of God. Qutb contends that “after people are liberated from the lordship of men and the sole authority of Allah is established, then there is no compulsion to adopt the faith.”

Like his modernist contemporaries, Qutb assumes that Islam is the natural choice. Kadivar finds the source of this belief in the Qur’an: “Islam is the just and correct religion and has warned people of the fallacies of beliefs that are null and void.”

Qutb’s main agenda, the creation of an Islamic polity, makes the personal adoption of the faith – or at least its ethics and principles – simple and obvious to both lapsed Muslims and jahilis.

Qutb’s work has inspired both violently militant Islamists and gradual, nonviolent political mobilization and reform.

Although Qutb gives a clear imperative for militant action, he never suggests violence. Qutb’s writings can be read as supporting democratic action by pious Muslims to reform an existing polity. Acting upon divine inspiration rather than egoistic personal beliefs will move democratic reformers towards an Islamic polity and an Islamic society. Although he detests the excesses enabled by Western freedoms, Qutb accepts, however grudgingly, the realities of the modern world. The influence of western forms of democracy and freedom of choice as well as models of political involvement are central to Qutb’s work, as they are to his contemporary Islamic scholars, philosophers, and theologians. Although Qutb demands a movement towards Islamic values as they were lived among Muhammad’s contemporaries, this is not incompatible with modern political and societal realities. The values at the core of Islam and at the heart of the Western political system are not dissimilar. As Rahman, Ramadan, and Kadivar propose, one can be devout, ethical, and of egalitarian mindset while working a Western job in a Western country with a car and a house and a white picket fence.


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