“This day I have perfected for you your religion and completed my favor upon you and have approved for you Islam as religion.”
So says Allah in the Qur’an (5:3), in words that have vexed Islamic reformers and would-be reformers throughout the history of the religion. Traditional and mainstream Islamic theology holds that Islam is perfect, bestowed from above by the supreme being, and hence not only is reform unnecessary, it is heresy that makes the reformer worthy of death if he departs from anything Islamic authorities believe to be divinely revealed.
On the other hand, the cognitive dissonance created by having to believe that the one and only God mandates death for apostasy (Bukhari 6922), stoning for adultery (Bukhari 6829), and amputation of the hand for theft (Qur’an 5:38), and sanctions the sexual enslavement of infidel women (Qur’an 4:3, 4:24, 23:1-6, 33:50, 70:30), the devaluation of a woman’s testimony (Qur’an 2:282) and inheritance rights (Qur’an 4:11), and above all, warfare against and the subjugation of non-Muslims (Qur’an 9:29), has led, particularly in modern times, to attempts by believing Muslims to reconcile Islamic morality with contemporary perspectives and mores.
These attempts are fraught with peril. As Christine Douglass-Williams notes in this book, “Mahmoud Muhammad Taha, a Sudanese Muslim theologian who argued that the Meccan passages,” which are generally more peaceful, “should take precedence over the Medinan,” which call for warfare against non-Muslims, “instead of the reverse, was executed in 1985 by the Sudanese government for heresy and apostasy.” Some of those profiled in this book know these perils firsthand: “Sheik Subhy Mansour recounted: ‘If these Muslim Brotherhood people had the chance, they would have killed me according to their punishment for apostasy plus they claim I’ll go to hell.’ Tawfik Hamid noted: ‘The reformists were killed throughout history, including those who rejected the Sunnah.’”
Death threats aren’t the only dangers either. Europe and North America are full of Muslim spokesmen who present themselves as moderate, Westernized reformers, but are actually just the opposite. Foremost among these is Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hasan al-Banna, who has been widely hailed as the “Muslim Martin Luther” but has likewise been accused by French journalist Caroline Fourest, who has published a book-length study of Ramadan’s sly duplicity, Brother Tariq, of “remaining scrupulously faithful to the strategy mapped out by his grandfather, a strategy of advance stage by stage” toward the imposition of Islamic law in the West.
Douglass-Williams notes this duplicity: “In a an example of the distinction to be made between moderates and crypto-moderates, after the brutal riots following the release of the Danish cartoons insulting to Muhammad in 2006, Tariq Ramadan, the Swiss-born theologian and grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Ramadan explained that the reaction of his co-religionists was a ‘a principle of faith…that God and the prophets never be represented.’” One of her interview subjects, Salim Mansur, observes drily that “non-Muslims went to the wrong Muslim for an understanding of the faith.”
The dominant presence of duplicitous pseudo-reformers such as Ramadan considerably muddies the waters. This confusion couldn’t possibly come at a worse time, when the governments of the West are doing nothing less than staking the very futures of their nations not only upon the existence of Muslim moderates and reformers, but upon their eventual victory within the Islamic community. This gamble has been made despite the fact that there is no general agreement, either inside the Muslim community or outside it, of what “Islamic moderation” actually means, and what “Islamic reform” would really look like.
Against this backdrop, The Challenge of Modernizing Islam is extraordinary, refreshing, and much needed in numerous ways. The interviews that Christine Douglass-Williams conducts with some of the leading moderate Muslim spokesmen in the United States and Canada are unique in their probing honesty. While most interviewers from all points of the political spectrum generally are so happy and honored to be in the presence of a Muslim who repudiates jihad terror that they serve up only softball questions and are content with vague generalities in response, in this book Douglass-Williams asks the questions that need to be asked, and yet are asked only infrequently: How do you explain the various Qur’an verses that call for violence, or are misogynistic or problematic in other ways? How do you propose to convince the vast majority of your coreligionists of the correctness of your position? How is reform possible when the mainstream schools of Islamic jurisprudence mandate death for heresy and apostasy?
The answers vary from thought provoking and searchingly honest to cagey and deflective. And that in itself is illuminating. Not every person interviewed in this book is in agreement with every other, and not every attentive and informed reader will come away from these pages convinced that every person here interviewed is being in every instance entirely forthright. Many believe that the resistance to the global jihad in all its forms has no legitimacy, or cannot be successful, if Muslim reformers are not on board with it. I do not share that view, but the need for Islamic reform is undeniable, and the people here interviewed are among its foremost exponents in the West. We owe them a fair hearing as much as they owe us honest answers to the questions here posed.
In the second half of the book, Douglass-Williams offers a probing analysis of what her interview subjects told her, and provides illuminating ways for readers to navigate through the thickets and avoid hazards that have captured and misled numerous analysts of Islam and its prospects for reform. One of the cardinal services she provides here is the drawing of distinctions in numerous areas where crucial differences and delineations have long been obscured, often deliberately. Her discussions of Islam versus Islamism and Islamic moderation versus Islamic reform are a welcome antidote to the sloppy thinking and cant that dominate the public discourse today. Her examination of problematic Islamic texts is all the more welcome for being even rarer. Her discussions of the controversial and manipulative concept of “Islamophobia” and its relationship to the problems of genuine Islamic reform, and to the role of Israel and how it can help distinguish genuine Islamic reformers from pretenders, are the crown and centerpiece of the book, and examples of the kind of searching analysis that is all too often absent from the public square today, and for that all the more needed.
The Challenge of Modernizing Islam is, therefore, an extremely illuminating book, and not always in the ways that its interview subjects may have intended. That is, as is said these days, not a bug, but a feature. It’s crucial today that genuine reformers be distinguished from insincere deceivers, and naïve idealists from those with genuine plans. Here is a solid beginning in that effort. This book should be read while bearing in mind how the governments of the West are assuming that their newly-accepted Muslim refugees will sooner or later accept the values and mores of the secular West and settle down to become loyal and productive citizens, and how the recent experience of European countries, particularly Sweden, Germany, and France, as well as the United Kingdom, offers abundant reason for concern that this may not be the case.
That same tension between high hopes and harsh realities runs through these interviews, and doubtless through the souls of many of the interviewees. For better or worse, however, any chance for Western countries, as well as non-Muslim countries in the Far East and elsewhere, to enjoy a peaceful future now depends, courtesy of a series of decisions our political leaders have made, upon the victory of Islamic reform. The Challenge of Modernizing Islam uniquely equips readers to make an informed and intelligent evaluation of how peaceful the future of non-Muslim countries is likely to be.