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A growing dissonance within Islam

Muslims in the West want a reformation, but a return to the sources won’t help

The Hazrat Sultan Mosque in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan Associated Press/Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko

A growing dissonance within Islam
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The Protestant Reformation was a turning point in Christianity with a laser-focused appeal to Christians to ad fontes, meaning “to return to the sources.” The reformers insisted on adhering to Holy Scripture and forsaking traditions of man.

What about Islam? Does it need a reformation?

This question often arises after witnessing atrocities done under the banner of Islam, as many openly argue that Islam, as a religious system, does need a reformation.

But Islam is not like Catholicism. It does not elect a Pope, for there is no central Islamic authority. A reformation necessitates a rejection of a religious system or a status quo.

In our day there is a huge dissonance in the Muslim community worldwide—and it only keeps growing. This dissonance is important to note, as it may explain what an Islamic reformation might look like.

Consider important examples. Relying on Muhammad’s trusted sayings, most Muslims argue that believers who abandon Islam should be killed, because Muhammad’s words clearly instruct: “Whoever changed his Islamic religion, then kill him.” These Muslims are convinced of their arguments.

Conversely, some Muslims, particularly in the West, argue that Islam advocates for religious freedom, and that there is no compulsion in religion. Their arguments rely largely on cultural preferences, not on literal readings of Islamic sources. Similarly, there are Muslims who believe that Islam honors women and supports human rights, claiming that in Islam, men and women are equal. Some even insist that Muhammad was a feminist.

In response, other literalist Muslims might cite a Quranic verse that states that men are superior to women and can admonish their disobedient wives, refuse to share a bed with them, and even beat them. These Muslims could mention a statement attributed to Muhammad in which he speaks “of the deficiency of a woman’s mind” and states, “I have seen that the majority of the dwellers of Hell-fire were you,” speaking of women.

Can you hear the dissonance?

But there are other controversial topics: What does Islam say about apostasy, blasphemy, homosexuality, and slavery, for example? On these topics, you will encounter differing opinions, which clearly demonstrate the growing dissonance within Islam.

This dissonance stems primarily from how Muslims view their sacred texts.

Some revere the Quran and Muhammad’s sayings and view them as the solid foundation for life and practice. They follow the texts as written. These are the literalists. If the Quran says “slaughter,” they believe it means exactly that. These Muslims view the ancient texts as not only sacred, but also valid for all times and places.

In the West, Muslims avoid the letter of the text and advance Islam according to societal demands.

Others want to practice Islam in religiously pluralistic societies. They need an “Islam” that fits the social and cultural norms of the present day. These are the modernists and progressives. While they may claim to be devout, they distance themselves from any literal reading or application of Islamic texts. For them, if the Quran says “slaughter,” then it only referred to a specific incident within a particular context—it has no bearing today.

This Islamic dissonance, moreover, can be understood—though roughly—through the lens of the global East and West.

It is remarkable to follow how the discussions Muslims have in America—about their faith and practice—differ from the discussions of their fellow believers in the Middle East and the Arab World.

In the West, Muslims avoid the letter of the text and advance Islam according to societal demands. They articulate their “Islam” without taking Islamic texts too literally. Their “Islam” must support tolerance, human rights, women’s rights, homosexual rights, and so forth—regardless of the statements in Muslim texts. For them, Islam must be ever developing and progressing forward, leaving behind the interpretations and expressions of medieval Islam.

In the East, the conversation is drastically different, as Muslims are chiefly concerned with obedience to the words of the Quran and Muhammad’s commands. They want to follow Muhammad’s example as portrayed in trusted Islamic texts. Literalist Muslims do not concern themselves with what might be politically correct. They want to be theologically correct, which often results in the emergence of groups like ISIS and the like.

The dissonance in the house of Islam keeps widening, reflecting a growing tension among Muslims in the way they live and the manner in which they present Islam in our day. Should Muslims follow their sacred texts as written or forsake them to present a new Islam suitable for a modern era?

Muslims will have to decide for themselves whether a reformation in their religion is needed. However, in the absence of a central authority, there is arguably no higher power than those of Islamic ancient texts. They remain influential and thus a reformation is uncertain.

Still, one matter is certain: Unlike the Christian Reformation, a Muslim reformation will not call the believers to “return to the sources,” but rather to shift attention away from them.

A.S. Ibrahim

A.S. Ibrahim, born and raised in Egypt, holds two PhDs with an emphasis on Islam and its history. He is a professor of Islamic studies and director of the Jenkins Center for the Christian Understanding of Islam at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has taught at several schools in the United States and the Middle East, and authored A Concise Guide to the Life of Muhammad (Baker Academic, 2022), Conversion to Islam (Oxford University Press, 2021), Basics of Arabic (Zondervan 2021), A Concise Guide to the Quran (Baker Academic, 2020), and The Stated Motivations for the Early Islamic Expansion (Peter Lang, 2018), among others.

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