There has been a lot of talk recently about whether reform of Islam is possible. I will try to describe below what would take to do it, in my opinion, and accordingly why I believe it is highly unlikely to happen.
Religion is, for the most part, derived from the scripture, for it is the manifesto of the religious ideology. It contains the “divine message of god” and that of his prophet, and the instructions of what is right and what is wrong, and how its adherents should be leading their life. Hence to reform religion, you either need to reform the scripture or reform your relationship with it.
To do that one would have to start with the holiest book in Islam, the Quran.
The majority of Muslims should be persuaded that Quran is not the literal speech of God, but merely a divine inspiration invoked in a simple man which he interpreted it in his own imperfect understanding and the understanding of his time and place.
To that will come the insurmountable obstacle that it is very much believed by the absolute majority of Muslims to be the literal speech of an omniscient god . The angel Gabriel coming down to Muhammad with the quranic verses is too much a part of the faith and the scripture for it be omitted or altered, and any talk of the quran not being the literal word of God has never and will never gain the support of the majority. (yes not even the Mu’tazila managed to do it, look up ‘Mihna’)
Alternatively, the majority of Muslims would have to be persuaded that Quran was sent only for a specific time and place and the actions of Muhammad were valid only for that time. But Quran is believed to be the final and perfect message to humanity, that being another inherent aspect of Islamic faith and the scripture,it has never changed and very unlikely to ever do.
Failing the above two, the majority of Muslims would have to be persuaded that parts of the scripture are morally wrong, and should be rejected. which would follow that either the omniscient, omnibenevolent god was wrong. An utterly blasphemous idea, that again, is very far from likely to gain foothold among the majority of Muslims.
Another way would be to say that while god is perfect, the quran was tampered with and some parts were introduced by men later on. However Allah asserted in the quran that he will protect it from tampering (very convenient, I know), hence it is believed that that omniscient, omnipotent god guaranteed it will be preserved in its genuine form.
Then there will be the dilemma that if parts are wrong, then why not all is wrong? who gets to decide which parts are wrong and which are not. If the source lost credibility and integrity then everything from the source is questionable and should be discarded that goes for both the quran and sahih hadith.
ALL hadith will have to be discarded. Yes even ‘Sahih Hadith’. This is importat due to how explicit hadith is and hardly open for any varying interpretation, and how hadith contains explicit incitement to violence, among a host of other horrors. If the source is deemed acceptable then all of the sahih hadith could be equally acceptable. You cannot simply condemn people for following some sahih hadith from the same source and the same book you do. Just because you find some morally objectionable but do not want to renounce their source nevertheless.
Again, a difficult obstacle since hadith is too important for the majority of Muslims and I do not see a total rejection of the hadith a possibility for the vast majority.
Even if some of the extreme parts in the scripture were neutralized, it’s impossible to get rid of the hate embedded in the scripture against disbelievers. If you believe God hates them to the extent of burning them in hell for eternity merely for their disbelief, then why would you not follow his example in hate? And if you carry that hate around, then is it a surprise that some could be tempted to translate that hate into action?
It’s true that there are contradictions in the quran, and some people say you can simply cherry pick what you want. However people who claim so are ignorant of two things. The concept of abrogation in Islam, and the early history of Islam.
The later verses,chronologically, overrule previous verses in case of contradiction and generally speaking the later the verse the more important it is.
After Muhammad migrated from Mecca to Medina, the quran shifted from the more benign tone to the more violent tone to reflect the increasingly militaristic and forceful nature Islam evolved into. This is reflected also in the actions of Muhammad at the time and demonstrates how the ideology developed. This is further substantiated by how the last detailed surah (chapter) of quran ‘at-Tawbah’ is the one of the most, if not the most violent surah in Quran and is held by many, if not the majority of the scholars to abrogate all the verses of peace and forgivness of disbelievers that came before it.
This is further reflected in the actions of the Rashidun caliphs who came after Muhammad, waging unprovoked wars and embarking on conquests of nations and empires. Further cementing the principle of jihad in the ideology of Islam.
If a version of reform would choose not to reject parts of the scripture but instead aim for a mere reinterpretation, it will be too challenging. First of all this is not new, there have been attempts in the past to do so and there are still some who try today, but they have always been a minority and no reason to believe they would ever be a majority. Words do have meaning, and there are limits to how malleable text can be and how much you can reinterpret it. “Kill the infidels” cannot equally mean “give the infidels flowers”, “beat your wife” cannot equally mean “kiss your wife”, and in the end the person with the most honest ,straightforward and plausible interpretation will have the majority on their side. The salafis, the scholars, the imams, the islamists are ultra conservative not because they are “mean people”, they are so because the religious scripture is ultra conservative, and consequently so is the islamic ideology.
During relatively liberal periods of muslim majority countries, the scripture was ignored, Islam was ignored, they did not “reinterpret” it. It has always been that the further muslim societies moved away from Islam the more freedom they enjoyed, and the more they moved towards Islamic theocracy the worse things became.
An attempt to reform would have to destroy the god like status of Muhammad and convince the majority that he was merely nomadic tribesman of an ancient time who evolved into a warlord and some of his actions should be condemned, violence, genocide, taking sex slaves, marrying a child, murdering some of the people who satirized him, etc… However it is too difficult a task since the majority has always regarded Muhammad as infallible and should be emulated as the perfect model of human being, as instructed in the quran .
Reform would also have to renounce sahaba (companions of Muhammad) for their acts of violence, their wars and conquests and the atrocities they have committed, otherwise among other things, you won’t be able to tackle the Jihad problem. Again too difficult a task because of the reverence the majority of Muslims have for sahaba and their belief that the sahaba have been promised paradise, hence they too are role models worthy of emulation.
It’s myth that there is no mainstream Islam and that Islam is too diverse beyond uniform objective recognition. The vast majority of Muslims are Sunni (about 87-90%) subscribing to one of the four schools of jurisprudence which are ultra conservative/orthodox, reflecting an ideology that is oppressive, violent, totalitarian, homophobic and sexist. One glance at the statistics on the views of the majority of Muslims in muslim majority countries would easily highlight that, whether the support of sharia, killing of apostates, views on homosexuality and women etc.. Shia make up almost the entire remainder of Muslims, and their core views do not vary widely from that of Sunnis. As to the rest, like Ahmadiyya for example, while they do exist, they are a tiny minority that they are statistically negligible with regard to the overall effect they have on the Muslim world.
Another difficult obstacle is the tradition of “ijma” (consensus of scholars) which upholds the mainstream orthodox version of Islam, derived from scripture and early history of Islam. That tradition isolates any voice of a scholar or an aspiring muslim reformer, who strays away from mainstream and conventional thought, and simply renders that voice insignificant.
While I do respect muslim progressives who attempt reform, like Maajid Nawaz, but you can examine the evidence, they are more popular among non muslims and atheists than they are among muslims and they are not as welcome to speak in mosques as Salafis are.
Finally, if we believe the Islamic ideology is incompatible with the values of human rights and secular liberal values. If we do not believe it is the truth, then we should focus our energy into the battle of ideas to challenge and counter this bad ideology in its entirety. We should not infantilize muslim individuals, and think that even if we are able to see the invalidity of the Islamic ideology, that they would be incapable of grasping this and arriving at the same conclusion using reason and abandoning Islam accordingly.
Best case scenario, pushing for reform could possibly get people to meet you half way, leading to conservatism, while pushing for apostatizing might indirectly lead to a further pull along the spectrum towards a more liberal/ progressive approach, in addition to the intended effect of people switching out from Islam. After all getting rid of an ultra conservative ideology is better than watering it down to a very conservative ideology.
We should not forget that countless past religions have gone extinct. It is currently happening with Christianity in the west, and the rate of switching out from Islam is also on the rise. Orthodox Islam always comes back no matter how long it is ignored, and only after invalidating the entirety of ideology, will orthodox Islam finally be put to rest.
If you have an apple that is rotten to the core, it’s pointless to put in the fridge and keep hoping against hope that the rot will disappear, you just discard the rotten apple and pick a good one.