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Voices of a New Ijtihad

In contrast to the Islamists, a new group of Muslim thinkers, which has emerged during the past several decades, seeks to apply contemporary intellectual methods to the task of reforming Islam. These thinkers, whom we might loosely term the proponents of a New Ijtihad, are both a response to and a product of the modernization of Muslim societies. They belong to a reformist tradition stretching back to the mid–19th century, initiated by Muslim intellectuals including Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan in India, Syed Jamaluddin Al–Afghani across the Middle East and Central and South Asia, and Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, who, influenced by the European Enlightenment, applied positivist and rationalist thought to reconcile Islamic turath (tradition) with the challenges of modernity.

Although Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan relied almost exclusively on the Qur’an for his interpretation of Islam, he was not a scriptural literalist. As political scientist Carl Brown has pointed out, Sir Sayyid insisted that Islam was “completely compatible with reason and with ‘nature’. This meant that any supernatural events in religion, even the Qu’ran, could properly be interpreted allegorically or psychologically. In short, he was very much a 19th– century advocate of science and positivism.”44 Sir Sayyid’s ideas ran afoul of the traditional ulama, but he made a foundational contribution to the spread of modern education and rationalist thought among the Muslim elite in India, especially by setting up the modern educational institution that eventually became the Aligarh Muslim University.45

Considered to be one of the founders of Islamic modernism, Syed Jamaluddin Al–Afghani was a vocal critic of Western imperialism who called for a revival of Islamic civilization to counteract European domination. Afghani traveled widely throughout Muslim lands in the Middle East and Central and South Asia, attempting to mobilize the masses in a pan–Islamic movement against the imperial threat. Afghani was deeply concerned about the intellectual decay within the Muslim world, and he attributed the decline of Islamic civilization to neglect of the basic sciences and a lack of interest in the pursuit of knowledge. Afghani believed that the only way to restore Islamic civilization to its former grandeur was to return to the “true core” of Islam. In his famous refutation of French philosopher Ernest Renan’s denunciation of Islam as an obstacle to philosophy and science, Afghani concluded

If the Islamic world is as you say, then why are the Muslims in such a sad condition? I will answer: When they were [truly] Muslims, they were what they were and the world bears witness to their excellence. As for the present, I will content myself with this holy text: “Verily, God does not change the state of a people until they change themselves inwardly.”46

Like his mentor Afghani, the Egyptian thinker Muhammad Abduh advocated the reform of Islam by returning to the religion’s “pure state” and casting off what he viewed as its contemporary decadence and divisions. For Abduh, revelation and reason in Islam were complementary and not antithetical. Islam, therefore, had the innate capacity to reform and adapt to changing circumstances by the exercise of reason or ijtihad. Abduh’s ideas influenced not only much of the modernist thinking in the Arab world, they also inspired what came to be known as the salafi (purist) movements in the early decades of the 20th century. Exponents of salafi thought borrowed from Abduh’s ideas about jettisoning much of the accumulated “baggage” that they held responsible for Islam’s decline. However, rather than looking to Islam’s early period for a model of compatibility of faith with reason, the salafis prescribed a more literal return to the golden age of early Islam, in that way prefiguring Islamist movements of the second half of the 20th century.47

Across the Muslim world as well as in Muslim communities in the West, recent decades have witnessed renewed calls for ijtihad based on rationalist interpretations of Islam. As the scholar of contemporary Muslim thought Suha Taji–Farouki points out, while present–day proponents of ijtihad share a motivation with the “modernist” reformers of the late 19th century, they differ in the scope of their intellectual horizons.48 Whereas the early modernists worked exclusively within an Islamic frame of reference, today’s thinkers avail themselves of multiple critical and interpretive frameworks. Most of these thinkers combine knowledge of Islamic learning and scripture with secular training (often undertaken in the West) in the social sciences, including anthropology, sociology, philology, philosophy, and hermeneutics. Their roots in Islamic and Western intellectual processes offer them a unique critical perspective on Islamic scripture and heritage.

The postmodernist discourse of “contextuality” has proven especially influential, as many of these thinkers hold that the Qur’an is situated in a specific time and place—namely, the community of the Prophet in the Hijaz. They believe that the message—the Qur’an’s core ethical principles—can and must be separated from its history, both at the time of revelation and over the nearly 14 centuries since. Diverse thinkers such as the late Pakistani reformer Fazlur Rahman; his student, the late Indonesian public intellectual Nurcholish Madjid; the Tunisian scholars Mohamed Talbi, Abdelmajid Charfi, and Mohamed Charfi; the Algerian Mohammed Arkoun; the Sudanese Abdullahi Ahmed An–Naim; and the American Amina Wadud have all emphasized the importance of the sociohistorical context of the Qur’anic revelation and the necessity to differentiate between the Qur’anic message and intervening history.49 Their critical rereadings of the Qur’an have admitted interpretations and innovations that prize reason, pluralism, universal human rights, gender equality, and other “heterodox” positions.

The Egyptian–born and Switzerland–based scholar Tariq Ramadan applies similar methods in his work on the place of Islam in modern Europe—an issue of growing importance as the Muslim population in the West continues to expand. Ramadan suggests that the only way to arrive at a European Islamic identity is to separate Islam from the cultures of the countries of origin. Recently denied entry to the United States by American authorities and prohibited from taking up his chair at the University of Notre Dame, Ramadan has pointed out that “when you are trying to create bridges you are in the middle. . . you are too Western for the Muslims, and too Muslim for the Westerners. Controversy is natural.”50 Other proponents of a New ijtihad often face similar dilemmas. Although the ideas represented by these progressive voices have yet to find widespread resonance among ordinary Muslims, they do offer an alternative to more radical and revivalist interpretations of Islam and a source of hope to those who support greater dialogue between Islam and the West.


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