On Islam and Reform

A question that I am asked to engage with often, by non-Muslims but even by Muslims, is about Islam and reform, with various iterations of the question asking whether Islam is reforming, if it needs reform, or even if it can reform. The questioners are usually genuinely curious as opposed to malicious, but it nonetheless always discomforts me, not because I think it isn’t worth exploring, but because it carries implicit assumptions about religion and religious development as a whole and perpetuates simplistic characterizations of the Islamic tradition and of Muslim societies more specifically.

To start, the question assumes that Christianity is the normative religion and that all other religions must be viewed through its lens; that Islam is inherently backward until it develops a counter-current to serve it in the same way Protestantism served Christianity; that the problems Islam and Muslim societies encounter today mirror those that were encountered by Christianity in the 16th century; and that the wide array of cultures, beliefs, practices, histories, and politics of dozens of Muslim societies around the world can be exclusively attributed to, or even reduced to, an essentialized “Islam.”

Signature recently interviewed Professor Moustafa Bayoumi, a Professor of English at Brooklyn College, about his thoughts on Trump, Islam in America, and the ‘War on Terror,’ and one of the questions the interviewer posed was about this very topic.

I was first exposed to Bayoumi when I entered college as a freshman and was required to read his book ‘How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?: Being Young and Arab in America.’ It was an incredibly illuminating reading for me because it chronicled the everyday experiences of Muslim and Arab youth who were only a few years older than me (I later learned that I actually know one of the seven stories!) and how they grappled with their identities in post-9/11 America. It should be read by anyone interesting in gaining a glimpse into the real lives of young Muslims and Arabs.

In one of the chapters of his new book, ‘This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror’, Bayoumi critiques a theory put forth by Reza Aslan (though the theory itself is not exclusively Aslan’s) that Islam, like Christianity, is going through a reformation. Bayoumi was asked to expand a little bit on his thoughts as they pertained to his critique of Aslan and this theory.

The exchange is worth reading here:

SIG: In the chapter titled “The God That Failed,” you address one of the theories that Reza Aslan puts forth in his book No god but God: Islam is going through a reformation much in the same way that Christianity is. That book was published in 2005. Your commentary appears in your book This Muslim American Life, published ten years after that. Now, a year-plus later, do you think that there are still very definite parallels between these two reformations happening?

MB: I was (and remain) critical of this idea that Aslan and many others have put forth that Islam is going – or must go – through a “reformation.” For one thing, this idea places the history of Protestant Christianity as the model of all religions. Then it assumes that Islam (or any other religion) will or must follow suit, but none of that is intellectually tenable. The history of Islam is different from the history of Protestantism, which is different from the history of Hinduism, etc. Religions are born, develop, and change in our world due to a series of reasons that have to do with human society, and they won’t all travel down the same linear path.

Yes, parts of the Muslim world are in crisis today. But we would be better served by looking at the specific histories of nations and regions, understanding the legacies of colonialism and foreign interventions, examining the roles of resources and their allocations or misallocations, and more. Thinking that the problem today is that Muslims lag behind Christians in their development is much easier to do, but I think it’s just wrong.

In fact, there are so many different versions of Islam in the world, and Islam has no single central authority (such as the pope for the Roman Catholic Church) to define doctrine, so it’s also very difficult to talk about Islam as one single thing, which leads me to my other reservation with Aslan’s way of thinking in his book. It assumes that Islam is the main or sole reason Muslims act in the world, but that’s also ludicrous. When we are looking to understand other people’s motivations for their actions, we will consider politics, history, economics, psychology, and the whole panoply that makes up human behavior. But when we talk about Muslims, we reduce everything to Islam. The concept that Islam is the sole motivator of Muslim behavior is not only wrongheaded but is also simplistic, leading us to bigoted ways of thinking and not providing us with any useful answers to our questions.

Bayoumi acknowledges that parts of the Muslim world have some soul-searching to do, but that in order to find the answer to their crises, we need to take a multidisciplinary approach that sees Muslim societies through their own unique circumstances, as opposed to trying to understand them by  situating their situation(s) in relation to Christianity. His incisive answer does not only aptly elaborate as to why Aslan’s theory is problematic, but also goes further by demanding of us to be more critical of our approach.

I would still suggest reading Aslan’s ‘No god but God’ nonetheless. I think it is an important contribution to the conversation and serves the purpose of enriching the dialogue around this issue. A final additional reading which explores the nexus between religion and violence (or lack thereof) is Karen Armstrong’s ‘Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence.’ I haven’t finished this one because it is quite dense, but because it dramatically transformed the way in which I viewed religion in relation to the modern world, I think it’s also worth delving into.


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