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"Islam at the Crossroads" A Look at Internal Islamic Discourses
Islam can be reformed — this is the main thesis of the new book "Islam at the Crossroads". This collection brings together short portraits of leading Muslim figures, offering insights into the current debates within Islam. A review by Martina Sabra 
Friday, April 21,2006 00:00
by Martina Sabra, Qantara.de
Islam can be reformed — this is the main thesis of the new book "Islam at the Crossroads". This collection brings together short portraits of leading Muslim figures, offering insights into the current debates within Islam. A review by Martina Sabra


Islamic fashion show in Berlin, Germany (photo: DPA)

 How do Muslims reconcile their religious beliefs with modernity? How do they understand Islam in relation to democracy and human rights? A correct understanding of Islam is the subject of passionate debates in the Islamic world.

A new collection of 19 portraits of Islamic reformers demonstrates the wide range of discussions being carried out today from Indonesia to the United States, the historical roots of which reach back to the beginnings of Islam.

Liberal and conservative reformers

The editors of this volume have consciously stretched the meaning of the word "reformer" and — in the sense of the Latin word "reformare," "returning to an earlier state" — also included conservative positions alongside liberal ones. The spectrum thus spans from the progressive Iranian theologist Shabestari, a scholar influenced by Immanual Kant and modern hermeneutics, to the rather conservative Swiss intellectual Tariq Ramadan, all the way to the South African liberation theologist Farid Esack and the Egyptian Muslim sister Gihan Al Halafawi.

The portraits are divided into five chapters, the titles of which refer to the biggest challenges to contemporary reformers: Islam in non-Muslim societies, the relationship between Islam and democracy, the role of Islamic law (sharia) in the modern state, contemporary interpretations of the Koran, and the meaning of women’s and human rights in the Koran.

Tariq Ramadan "not a wolf in sheep’s clothing"

None of the reformers represented here argue from a secular perspective; their starting point is a religious conviction. Perhaps most interesting for non-Muslim European readers are the portraits of influential European protagonists, above all the philosopher and Islam scholar Tariq Ramadan, born in Geneva in 1962. Editor Ludwig Ammann, a Germany-based Islam expert, does not accept the often-heard reproach that Tariq Ramadan is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Ramadan may defend sharia as a legal source, but he also criticizes the monopoly on its interpretation held by the orthodox Muslim clergy. 

Cover ’Islam am Wendepunkt’ (’Islam at the Crossroads’)

 | According to Ammann, Ramadan is no liberal reformer, but he’s also not a reactionary: "He is a conservative addressing the people, who are overburdened with change, at their own level where they stand now."

One question that arises is why the editors chose reformers only from the Middle East, Turkey and Europe. Saudi Arabia and the Arabic Gulf region are entirely excluded. With just one exception (Nadia Yassine), voices from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are also missing. Presumably there was a reason for these choices, but the reader is not informed of what that reason may have been in the foreword or afterword.

One also wonders if the editors have appropriately weighted the individual issues addressed. The chapter on sharia reform seems rather thin given the social relevance of this issue and the current dynamics in Arabic countries. A portrait of the Moroccan legal scholar Farida Bennani, for example, would have fit in well here. As a scholar and expert on women’s rights in Islam, she has been influential in, among other things, the latest family law reforms in Morocco.

Female non-feminist activists

The chapter on "Islamic women’s and human rights activism" also seems rather short given the importance of this issue, and once again the selection criteria are not clear here. Nadia Yassine, a Moroccan woman portrayed in this chapter, is neither a women’s rights or human rights activist, but a speaker for a political movement spearheaded by men. The fact that Nadia Yassine was active in attaining a quota for women in the movement’s leadership does not necessarily make her a feminist.

Yassine’s interest in reform has so far been directed not at religion, but at the Moroccan monarchy, which she would like to replace with an Islamic republic. What might happen with democracy and women’s and human rights in this Islamic republic is as yet unclear.

Laicism is not an option

A retreat from the outside world, or openness toward global modernity–where is the Islamic world headed? The Swiss political scientist Patrick Haenni addresses this question in his afterword. For Haenni it is not a matter of whether Islam is compatible with modernity, given that Muslims live out modernity in their everyday lives—even if theology and ideology may be lagging behind. He asks instead to which model of modernity Muslim-influenced societies will tend in the long run.

Haenni thinks that a strict separation of religion and state after the French model is neither likely nor desirable. Rather, he predicts that the relationship between religion and the state will develop according to the Anglo-American model. That is, the state as such will not be religious, but religion will play an important role in public life and this will not be perceived as a contradiction to modernity.

Martina Sabra

Translated from the German by Christina White

Katajun Amirpur, Ludwig Ammann (Eds.), "Der Islam am Wendepunkt.
Liberale und konservative Reformer einer Weltreligion" ("Islam at the Crossroads. Liberal and Conservative Refomers of a World Religion"), Verlag Herder, Germany, ca. 192 pages, 9.90 Euro.

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