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Review - Reforming Islam

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reforming Islam’

Reforming Islam: Progressive Voices from the Arab Muslim World
Edited by Stephen Ulph and Patrick Sookhdeo.
McLean, VA.: Almuslih Publications, 2014. 513 pp. $20

Reviewed by Christine Williams on Middle East Forum
advisor to Muslims Facing Tomorrow

Middle East Quarterly
Summer 2015

Reforming Islam offers a cutting-edge compilation of viewpoints of progressive Arabic-speaking Muslim intellectuals derived from the website Almuslih.org. Its writers use historico-critical methods pioneered by Christians and Jews to examine their own scriptures, thereby defying traditional Islamic notions of a divine, infallible Qu'ranic text. The contributors also reject the non-negotiable status of the Qur'an, Hadith, and Sunna. Indeed, Reforming Islam's authors obliquely challenge Western critics who invoke the very same notion to refute any possibility of Muslim reform.

One contributor, Said Nachid, provides compelling historical evidence to refute notions of immutable textual authenticity and notes that the Qur'an has been distorted by both Sunnis and Shiites. Other authors examine the historical context of modern-day Islamism, identifying the fall of the Ottoman Empire and simultaneous European expansion as playing a significant role in fomenting the reactionary movement of pan-Islamism, which was intended to "shore up the ramparts [of the Muslim world] against economic and ideological penetration."

Almuslih.org scholars agree on an urgent need for intellectual reform of a "Bedouin culture that is fundamentally xenophobic" and accounts for many of the psychological problems of contemporary Arabs, which include a "predilection for the absolute," suspicions about external conspiracies, and the "exoneration of Muslims of any criminality." They conclude that any attempt at reforming Islam "requires a process of de-sanctification." Further, they suggest that cynical Muslim leaders and clerics exploit textual literalism for monetary gain and power.

These reformists challenge the strident voices of Islamism and give a measure of hope that the tyrannical supporters of Islamism will not be able to stifle truth and progress. Reforming Islam provides a valuable reference guide to all those who wish to "legitimize the discussion of Islamist political agitation and militant violence as manifestations of a religiously-defined problem with modernity."