Islam, Reform and the Stakeholders: Toward a Common-Ground Seeking Approach


I have been following discussions about the Secular Islam Summit before it took place as well as afterward. The Summit was attended mostly by non-Muslims, ex-Muslims and only 2-3 avowed Muslims who appeared to have no connection with the mainstream Muslim community. There was a public declaration when the Summit ended. The mainstream Muslim community ignored the Summit for the most part, considering it an Islam-bashing propaganda sand-castled on Islamophobia. Some mainstream Muslim communities and organizations that condemned or dismissed this Summit as irrelevant or even malicious. I also read the exchange between Mr. Robert Spencer, one of the patrons of the Summit who needs little introduction, and Mr. Mike Ghouse, an American Muslim committed to engage the Muslim community in upholding and promoting the ideals of pluralism, justice and peace.

Regardless of the way mainstream Muslims may view this Summit and might even dismiss it some serious underlying issues and problems might be glossed over, which is the focus of this write-up. Relevant also is that it seeks a common-ground, to identify the points of tangency and convergence and collectively build consensus toward common good.

First, it is important to identify and acknowledge non-Muslims as stakeholders in a broader sense in issues pertaining to Islam. All stakeholders may not formulate or implement a decision or agenda, but an entity should consider their concerns because of both moral and self-interest factors. Muslims often contend Islam is purely an internal matter; they are willing to listen to only insiders or who are uncritical of Islam, let alone Islam-bashers, Islamophobes or abusers of Islam and the Prophet. It is a common tendency to think worst of those who are critical. However, while effective reforms are internally-driven, critics may offer pertinent input that many devotees may not.  Indeed this reality is often ignored.

Stakeholding goes beyond traditional notion of shareholding. Why should non-Muslims be regarded as stakeholders in Islamic discourse? The general principle should be that if something affects me, I am a stakeholder and my opinion ought to be considered. Therefore, if there are issues and challenges that affect non-Muslims, they do have reason to be concerned. Indeed, some Islamic laws dealing with non-Muslims contradict essential principles and pristine values of Islam. [Qiyas (Analogical Reasoning) and Some Problematic Issues in Islamic law, see the segment on Treaties with Non-Muslims].

Second, the situation has become more complicated and compelling for at least two reasons. (a) Some Muslims, albeit on the fringes, believe their ideology justifies it to target both innocent and combatants. Let alone the events of 9/11, what is unfolding in Iraq - thanks to GW Bush and the neocons - is evidence that a sense of proportion is lost.  To thwart foreign power (viewed as invader as well as former bedmate, patron and cohort of the late butcher of Baghdad), the Iraqi insurgency makes no distinction when taking lives, as long as they feel it contributes to undermining/thwarting invader's plan and ambitions. (b) There are individuals claiming to be apostates or ex-Muslims. Of course, most of these ex-Muslims exit Islam with deep antipathy toward Islam and some of them want to agitate others with their anti-Islamic stance. By evidence Muslims have a legal issue with apostasy. In reality there is no Islamic punishment for it. Yet the traditional or orthodox Islam can't move past this unislamic position. [see Apostasy. Freedom and Dawah: Full Disclosure in a Business-like Manner]. In several well-publicized cases, fatwas have been issued with bounty on the head of some of these ex-Muslims. As unfortunate as it is, Muslims must take responsibility for unislamicity of the orthodox position about apostasy. Of course, these ex-Muslims and their new found anti-Islamic patrons are of no help, as many of them have joined hands to provoke/agitate the street-level sentiments of Muslims to kill many birds with one stone. Quite interestingly, many writers have attempted to provoke (and, if unsuccessful, concoct) fatwa to earn fast notoriety toward birthing a best-seller. [see The Warped Economics of Fatwa: Demand Creates Its OWN Supply]

Regardless, any legal punishment for apostasy, sanctioned in orthodox Islamic law, is not just unislamic, but also counter-productive. As Kazi Nazrul Islam [d.1975], a unique voice and beacon of Global-belonging and popularly known as the Rebel Poet of Bengal enlightened us in a poem "Don't Be Afraid, O Human Soul":

"Don't be hard on those who, in ignorance, go astray!
They might return to the truth, if you show love, and pray."

Unfortunately, Muslims routinely yield to provocateurs; they have to take responsibility for getting provoked. Even on the Day of Judgment we won't be able to get away with any misdeeds by claiming that the Satan caused us to deviate. [14:22] Insults from the provocateurs, as exemplified in the Danish-cartoons, are painful and agonizing. Yet, Muslims don't seem to understand the rules of the game and are suckered in, quite predictably. The provocateurs might not realize that fanning the flame or touching raw nerves of believers is counter-productive but, if Muslims don't substantively and decisively deal with issues such as apostasy, non-Muslims, and particularly ex-Muslims, have reasons to be concerned and call for reform.

Third, there are some genuine issues related to the Muslim world in general with which the non-Muslim world is intertwined. Since the period of colonialism the devastating and uncivilized role that colonial powers played ravaging and dismembering the Muslim world, and later placing subservient autocrats in many Muslim-majority countries, have inextricably linked the West to contemporary maladies, tensions and conflicts. Call for reform, both from within and outside, has merit. However, the way some Western powers and their interests are entangled in the Muslim world also must be disentangled.

Yet, the real challenges to which Muslims must rise up are primarily internal. Was there Islam-bashing at the Secular Islam Summit? Well, there are avowed "professional Islam bashers" like Ibn Warraq, and people like him were visibly present at the Summit.  Do these people really care about reforms in the Muslim world? Maybe or maybe not. However, these questions are not really pertinent. Muslim societies are in a dysfunctional state due to both internal AND external factors. However, if we can't take charge of the internal aspects while paving the way for changes consistent with the Qur'anic vision and the Prophetic legacy, then we have very little chance to affect the external factors. Some anti-Islamic personalities at the Summit concluded that no reform is possible because the problem is not with Muslims, but with Islam. People are entitled to their opinions. Just like any agenda of reform should not be merely in reaction to what others "demand" [as in the Public Declaration of the Summit], Muslims don't need to be disheartened by such position that Islam is unreformable. Indeed, Islam does not need reform. However, Muslims need to come to grips with the reality that their understanding and practices do need reform. It is an Islamic imperative.

Therefore, to be effective and principled, my call is primarily to my fellow Muslims. First, regardless of what others do or say, let us be self-critical in an Islamic spirit. For instance, let us clear up any confusion that apostasy from the Islamic viewpoint is not subject to any worldly punishment. [See link above about my essay on Apostasy] Let us go further. (a) Let us galvanize the base among Muslims to establish this position on a clear and firm Islamic footing. (b) Let us take a public and concerted position against any such fatwa of apostasy. (c) Even when we are offended, insulted and agonized by the Islam-bashing of the ex-Muslims, let us stand for the pristine Islamic principle of freedom of faith and expression and defend the right of those who engage in such vile ways. This would not be defending them, but defending the principle and freedom, even if the beneficiary of such defense would be people whose conduct we dislike, or even despise.

Second, let us not summarily dismiss and discredit the Summit. This is what they think they can do best. Imbued with Islamic spirit and principles, let us proactively identify and address those issues to which even non-Muslims are also taken into consideration as stakeholders, and let us do so in a common-ground-seeking manner. This is important because Islam fundamentally has a humanity-orientation. [see Freedom and Choice: The First-Order Condition of Islam

It bothers me a great deal to notice the flash of insensitivities by some ex-Muslims and anti-Islam personalities. Yet, the principle of freedom of faith and expression is a fundamental human and Islamic right, and therefore to me as a Muslim, hurling of fatwas to persecute apostates is indeed painful and unacceptable. The issue of apostasy and a few other issues should not be approached with a sentiment affected by the Secular Islam Summit. Rather, the approach should be self-critical and proactive. We can begin with the issue of apostasy and gradually address other issues. Muslims need to understand that they are supposed to be engaged in a constant process of Islah [effort to bring about positive change]. Regardless of who makes the call for reform or their motivation/background/agenda, Islah is an internally driven and inspired effort that is a must from the Islamic viewpoint.  I do believe that if we begin focusing on those common principles that are precious to all regarding the life, honor and property of ALL people, we can move past the baggage of mutual bashing and grievances and forge a strong foundation for a better future.

Self-critical approach entails that we allocate a bigger portion of our criticism onto ourselves. It is in that spirit that others have to find their own points of convergence from a common-ground-seeking, principled, self-critical perspective. In an Islamic self-critical perspective may I remind my fellow Muslims that they must uphold that Islamic humanity-orientation, rising up to which should mean safety for the People/Mankind, not just the believers?

A person asked, O Prophet of God (p), whose Islam is excellent or the best (afdal)? He replied: "From whose tongue and hands the people/mankind (an-nas: irrespective of Muslims or non-Muslims) are safe." [Musnad-i-Ahmad, #6762]

The author is a faculty at Upper Iowa University. He maintains a personal website, archiving his writing on many pertinent issues (shariah, hadith, Islamic law, apostasy, slavery, gender-relationship, etc). email: [email protected]


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  15 Comments   Comment

  1. Romesh Chander from USA

    Note to Mohammed from Sudan (#Ref: 43876);

    Mohammed, I agree with your description of Islam (especially Sunni Islam). I wish I had said so eloquently as you did.

    Now, wait a minute. I am an infidel. I am not allowed to criticise Islam, even if, you and me are saying exactly the same things. I am considered an Islamophobe; you being a muslim, how one should describe you?

  2. Mohamed from sudan

    I was very pleased with the article however judging from many other discussions about reform from groups like ISNA and MPAC I have noticed that maintaining a balance as per the Sunni definition of Islam and reform is very difficult. This is because Sunni Islam is structured to counter the very idea of reform or progrerssiveness as it does not recognize the historicity of the Islam and does not recognize Islam as a religion but also as a political, economical, legal and social concept with the model of the 1st Muslim community in Medina as an absolute framework of what Islam is and does not seperate between the religion(prayers, fasting, beliefs, haj etc) and the type of governance and laws that was established by the 1st community.

    Thus since the concept of freedom, women rights and minority rights is not taken by Sunni Islam except how it was practiced and understood by the 1st Muslim community in medina.

    The compilation and analysis of hadiths during the Abassid era was in fact an attempt to do exactly that, to emphasis not only Islam is a religion and a state but to acquire the necessarily details and framework to establish exactly that using all the details from the 1st Muslim community as a basis of laws and regulations for all Muslim community irrespective of time and place.

  3. Zinedine from Morocco

    Why shall we if you and others wont reform yourselves. The whole world needs to be reformed starting with the leaders in America. Besides, you are dead wrong when you said "polygammy in the Bible is unthinkable"

    The Bible in both the Old Testament and the New Testament does allow polygamy. Jesus peace be upon him never prohibited polygamy. Jesus lived for 33 years of his life on earth among a nation who practiced polygamy. He never even once denounced it! In fact, in Jesus' parable in Matthew 25:1-13, he clearly allowed polygamy, and also he seems to allow all wives to be naked in the same room with their one husband!

    The Bible does allow men to marry an infinite amount of women. Women in Christianity can be treated and considered as nothing but sex objects because the Bible doesn't have any rules or controls over men in this issue. Also, women in the Bible are forced to marry men in special cases such as forcing childless widows to marry their brothers in law. It doesn't matter whether the widow wants to marry her brother in law or not, she will still have to do it anyway without any choice!.

    Another case where women in the Bible are forced to marry men is when a man rapes a single woman, then she must marry him and she can't get a divorce from him (no matter how bad he is) for the rest of her life according to Deuteronomy 22:28-30. Only death can separate her from him! See how the Bible punishes to death the men who rape married women, but forces the single raped women to marry their rapists.

  4. Romesh Chander from USA

    As usual, most of the people who posted so far forgot the difference between principles and practises; they are not one and the same things.

    Koran is a set of Principles; muslims practice those principles (though some muslims may not practice exactly as required by Koran).

    Bible is also a set of principles; Christians use those principles (though most christians don't ncessarily adhere to them, either).

    The subject is "Reforming Islam", not reforming muslims. If Islam is reformed, muslim practises will (or may) change (and hence reformed).

    Polygamy is a principle in the Koran; are we ready to reform it to monogamy? Unthinkable; though no muslim may practice it, and hence the need to reform this principle will become moot.

    Monogamy is a biblical principle. Are we ready to change the bible to allow Polygamy. Unthinkable, though 'polyfriendship' is widely practised and hence making the change unnecessary.

    Again, the subject is Reforming Islam, not reforming muslims.

  5. Kris from Malaysia

    Assalamualaikum wrbt and greetings to all.

    I express concurrence with Brother Zinedine's comments, and in addition Brother Roger Smith was very articulate and hammered the points in replies to Romesh right to the very end. And not to forget Brother Marzinger was also hawkish in his approach but sometimes that's the way it has got to be. I'll write more when I'm free.

  6. zinedine from Morocco

    No Romesh, you actually can but you are too blind to see it & too venomous to be pure; in the West you can easily practise polygirlfriendship & polyboyfriendship. It is worse than polygamy because the children inherit nothing according to Western laws & their parents are sexually lax to the point that the children don't even know their parents; in France there is a law called la Loi de l'anonyma preventing orphans from knowing their parents. Re: unequal rights between men and women; they are the order of the day including lower salaries for women compared to men doing to the same jobs in the same companies. Maternity leave in the US is the worse in the G8 if not in the world. Women are the pawn of capitalism & are its most exploited commodity. Child marriage still takes place in Western countries especially in the Bible Belt. It's the Amish & Mormon paradise!

    In India the caste system, well you should know your Hindu origin better than I, child marriage; bride's family pays the dowry & wedding costs; animal worship etc ... Widow suicide; filth & ablution in pollution (the gange river) and btw; Do proper research & you will find out that the caste system is 100 times worse than Islam's Dhimmi system. Re: Reform, the whole world system needs to be reformed from its head to toe not just the Muslims. We must start first with the cause not the effect, if we wish to save mother earth from its inhabitants !

  7. Roger Smith from Canada

    Peace to you all. Romesh, it is not Islam that needs reform but the followers of Islam - the Muslims need reform. Perhaps like you the Hindus need reform not Hinduism as religion. If you can read the original text of Hindu scriptures it says there is one God and ask all followers to worship one God but the early followers of Hindusim who controlled the scripture for a few born in so called high cast not even touch and forget about reading changed and today Hindus are worshippers of billion gods. So when you talk about reforming a religion specially a religion that has been documented in such a detail and the great impact on our civilization in such a short period of time comparing to Hinduism, there is none which comparable with this way of life - Islam, more than a religion. So please Romesh stop prescribing reform Islam within or outside of Muslim countries but the followers where ever they are, old Hinduism still asks for one God worshipping but todays Hindus (the learned one) knows it does not follow keep on worshipping all those million idols - built by men - so who needs reform you Romesh as a Hindu or the religion you subscribe Hinduism? Peace and hope you will think. May God help you.

  8. Romesh Chander from USA

    As usual, there is too much intellectualization where there should not be any. We live in 21st century, not in the 7th. Hence changes are needed. And most of those changes can be based simply on need, pragmatism, and common sense, even though they may be theologically unsound (any conflicting theology is simply ignored). E.G., equal rights for all (muslims and non-muslims), equal rights for sexes, religious freedom (including need to change religion), no dictation of religion (e.g., you must pray 5 times a day, etc), Separation of Mosque and State. Unfortunately, the author does not take the simple approach and come right out in favour of them; but, as usual, makes an academic discussion (usually, academics discuss trivia to death).

    Everybody knows, there was no separation of Church and State for over 1600 years of Christian history. But, they decided to separate it based on need and pragmatism; they got tired of killing each other in the name of God. Why can't the muslim authors come out in favour of separation without any reservations?.

    To be blunt, in my opinion, the author is a "Stealth Islamist". He immesiately criticises the messenger (the organizers of the summit) rather than the message (to which he devotes very little space., except to apostasy, a relatively unimportant issue -- very few muslims in muslim countries change their religion).

  9. Mazinger Z from UK

    I think Chander is confusing the practices of his primitive hinduism(child marriages and mistreatment of woman) with Islam. Only an idiot would use a bizarre term like "dhimmitude."

  10. Goffrey from UK

    I make it a point to read Romesh Chander's views and comments. From his writings I finds him a very knowledgeable person, insightful and also witty. His points are so cutting and direct that many who take offence to realities and facts have but to attack the person in him and not the issues in question. Keep it up, Romesh!

  11. AbdulAziz Abbas Quraishi from Edmonton, Canada

    I agree whole heartedly with this article and I appreciate the way the writer has put the issue in perspective, as the great philosopher of the 20th century George Bernard Shaw has said "Islam is the best religion there is but with the worst followers". The issue sits with the silent majority, where they want to sit in the comfort zone without any consequences and if they come out of this zone and take part in the political arena maybe we have a different image of the great religion of Islam. The silent majority is to wakee up and see what is happening to their community, the Muslims need Islam not the other way around. Ask not what the world can do for you but what you can offer to the World. They have to start believing in the life here after and not immediate gain at hand and then you will see a true change which has to come from within not with out.

  12. DR.Asad U Khan from CANADA

    Good article, intresting points discussed But this will go over the head of average MO.Reason that very few Muslim understand the message of Quran or practice its teaching only 18% of Muslim can read Arabic. The Muslim Ummah is lost and confused in the rituals like Halal meat lenght of pants or head cover etc. Islam is a religion not ideology, if you course the faith it becomes the tyrany!

  13. Romesh Chander from US

    Where do you 'reform' islam? In the west or in muslim countries.

    In the west, like it or not, you cannot practice polygamy, unequal rights of women and wealth distribution, child marriages, easy divorce, 'dhimminess', Sharia; you must submit to 'infidel laws' which are man made, and must succumb to infidel courts. So, in one sense, Islam is being forced to be 'reformed' by simply not allowing them to practice what is commonly practiced in muslim countries.

    So, if reform has to take place, it must be in the muslim countries. And you cannot bring reform there by Declarations in non-muslim countries. The debate has to be there, not here.

    So, relax; don't get uptight.

    The article is quite mild in its tone. Will the author get it translated in local languages like Urdu, Bengali, Arabic, etc and publish them in Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Bangladesh, etc.?(I doubt it). Will he be allowed to make speeches regarding reform in muslim countries? I doubt it.

    The authors spends lot of space on apostasy; is this the only issue in Islam which needs to be tackled / 'discarded'/ 'reformed' (and found offensive in St Peterburg Declaration)? I think, the author feels uncomfortable discussing critical issues, lest some mullah issue a fatwa on his head. Relax, this is USA, not Saudi Arabia.

  14. Mukhlis from India

    Dear Brother.

    I fully agree that any punishment for apostacy is wrong. If we say that leaving one's own religion (in this case Islam) and adopting another one (which ever) is punishable by death, then all new Mulims should be killed by the followers of their last religion because they are committing the same sin !! "Leaving their own religions and adopting Islam".

    So far so good. Then comes your long advice.

    " Even when we are offended, insulted and agonized by the Islam-bashing of the ex-Muslims, let us stand for the pristine Islamic principle of freedom of faith and expression and defend the right of those who engage in such vile ways. This would not be defending them, but defending the principle and freedom, even if the beneficiary of such defense would be people whose conduct we dislike, or even despise ".

    This will be hard to swallow for any one - Muslim or not. Can I laugh a bit "Ha Ha" to make every one happy ???

    Seriously speaking, every one has a right to persue a faith that his soul is happy with. No one has a right to ridicule the faith of other man.

    Allah Haafiz,

    Mukhlis

    Mumbai 21-3-07

  15. Riel from USA

    Assalaamu Alaikum,

    The author of this article brought up some very important points that we all should seriously consider.

    The idea that non-Muslims are a stakeholder in issues regarding Islam is valid. Are there not non-Muslims who support Muslims? If we can accept support then why can't their criticism either positive or other be taken into consideration? Outside opinion is important because it helps us to understand how the world views Islam. It can also help us improve ourselves and our relationships with others. After all, the nature of Islam is to deal kindly with all people, to talk with people in a way that they understand, and to debate.

    Did I say debate? Yes, we are supposed to have spirited debates even within the Islamic community. This is how we grow and learn. This is how we can re-think our postion to either strengthen it or adjust it. In the end we can agree or agree to disagree but continue to keep ties with each other.

    Finally, I believe that a Muslim response to antipathy should be tampered. I work as a school teacher. I always tell my kids that if someone calls you a name, you should either tell them you don't like it or ignore them. If the problem gets out of hand you can ask for assistance from an adult. Why do I say this? Because Allah will judge the other person for thier harsh words. However, Allah will also judge your response to those harsh words.

    Peace be upon everyone,