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Book Review

Reformist Voices of Islam—Mediating Islam and Modernity

Thursday, December 03, 2009 09:25:21 PM, Yoginder Sikand

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‘Reformist Islam’, today an oft-heard slogan, is notoriously difficult to define, for it can mean different things to different people. Recent years have witnessed the sudden burgeoning of volumes on the subject, but this book is not just a repetition of what has already been written before.


Ambitiously global in its scope, it brings together writings by well-known Islamic scholars and activists, each of who provides a broad survey of ‘reformist’ Muslim voices in the part of the world that they are most familiar with—Shireen Hunter, editor of this book, on Iran, the noted Egyptian scholar Hasan Hanafi on North Africa, Riffat Hasan on South Asia, Martin van Bruinessen on Indonesia, Farish Noor on Malaysia, Recep Senturk on Turkey, Farhad Khosrokhavar on Europe, and Tamara Sonn on the United States.


These writers deal with a number of other contemporary Muslim scholars and scholar-activists, outlining their own and varied approaches to the question of reform in Islamic thought. These are simply too numerous to name, leave alone discuss, here, but they all share certain common methodologies and, to an extent, goals.


Firstly, these scholars all insist that what they are engaged in reforming is not Islam itself, but, rather, certain aspects of commonly-held human understandings of Islam. They see their task as seeking to revive what they regard as more authentic understandings on these issues.


Secondly, they are profoundly dissatisfied with the approach of the traditionalist ulema, wedded to the doctrine of taqlid or imitation of jurisprudential precedent, of the ulema allied with state authorities (who generally do their bidding) and of radical Islamists.


Thirdly, they all advocate ijtihad or creative reflection on the primary sources of the Islamic faith—the Quran and Hadith or Prophetic traditions, although they differ as to the extent they believe ijtihad is permissible and on the qualifications needed to engage in this exercise.


Fourthly, they stress the crucial distinction—often ignored by many traditionalist ulema as well as doctrinaire Islamists—between the shariah, as the divine path, which they regard as God-given and, therefore, perfect, and fiqh, human efforts to understand the shariah and express it in the form of rules, which, being a human effort, is fallible. Unlike the shariah, which is eternal, fiqh can, and indeed, should, change in response to new conditions as well as the expanding body of human knowledge, they unanimously insist.


Fifthly, many of them claim (an argument many other Muslims would differ with) that certain aspects of the Quran and the Hadith, mainly dealing with legal matters, are context-specific, and hence may not be applicable, at least in the same way, in today’s vastly different context. These include, for instance, certain injunctions related to women and non-Muslims or to criminals.


Sixthly, several of them argue for what could be called a ‘values-based’ reading of the Islamic scriptural tradition, stressing the relative importance of the spirit over the letter of these texts.


Using these methodological tools, these ‘reformist’ Muslim scholars revisit traditional Islamic as well as modern Islamist thought, dealing with a wide range of issues: women’s rights and status, relations between Muslims and people of other faiths, madrasa education, international relations, economic and political institutions, secularism, democracy, citizenship in a modern state, war and peace, and so on. In the process, they articulate alternate Islamic understandings on these subjects that depart considerably from traditionalist as well as Islamist positions, and that appear much more socially-engaged and contextually-relevant.


For those eager to hear ‘progressive’ Muslim voices on a whole host of issues of contemporary import (and strategic interest), this thoroughly engaging and immaculately-researched book simply cannot afford to be missed.


Name of the Book: Reformist Voices of Islam—Mediating Islam and Modernity

Edited by: Shireen Hunter

Publisher: Pentagon Press, New Delhi (

Year: 2009

Pages: 322

Price: Rs. 995

ISBN: 978-81-8274-3






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