Islamic Voice
Ramadan/Shawwal 1422
December 2001
Volume 14-12 No:180

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Something Major is Happening

Something Major is Happening

Liberals and moderates have shied away from confronting conservative Muslims—partly because they have felt intimidated by the conservatives’ confident, steel-trap knowledge of the Qur’an

Deborah Caldwell

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 Non-literal Qur’anic interpretation, Interfaith dialogue, Embracing modernity, Emphasis on the arts. 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 co-existence 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 that 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.

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 September 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 St. Louis, Sheila Musaji became irate after September 11—and went to work. In the late 1980s, she edited a glossy magazine called The American Muslim. 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,” Abrar Alsayed wrote.

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 have felt intimidated by the conservatives’ confident, steel-trap knowledge of the Qur’an. Of course, not everyone with a huge faith like Islam thinks alike.

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 have 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 Makkah and Madinah, 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. “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.

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.

If we are in the beginnings of an Islamic “reformation” in the West, it wouldn’t be the first time that American immigrants have taken the religion of their ancestors and put a distinctly American stamp on it. When Catholics came to the United States 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. In both cases, they sought to join the American religious mainstream. What Muslim leaders must do, Farid 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 Makkah. The second is that of rulers—the way Muslims eventually lived in Madinah.

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.

Mattson wears a head scarf and is wary of interfaith dialogue because she considers her faith the “primal religion” and the “right way.” What’s more, she likes the 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.

It’s a tricky balance, says Amir Hussain, a religion professor at California State University-Northridge. “There’s no question we’re Americans, and as Americans, we may well dissent with our country’s internal policies,” he says. He is trying to become more involved in Muslim Student Association groups to give foreign 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.

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. The author is Beliefnet’s religion producer.


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