Can Islam Be Reformed? History and human nature say yes.

Commentary requested an internet supplement for this article and I chose the key passage on the Medieval Synthesis from my 1983 book, In the Path of God; Islam and Political Power. To read it, click here.

Islam currently represents a backward, aggressive, and violent force. Must it remain this way, or can it be reformed and become moderate, modern, and good-neighborly? Can Islamic authorities formulate an understanding of their religion that grants full rights to women and non-Muslims as well as freedom of conscience to Muslims, that accepts the basic principles of modern finance and jurisprudence, and that does not seek to impose Sharia law or establish a caliphate?


A growing body of analysts believe that no, the Muslim faith cannot do these things, that these features are inherent to Islam and immutably part of its makeup. Asked if she agrees with my formulation that “radical Islam is the problem, but moderate Islam is the solution,” the writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali replied, “He’s wrong. Sorry about that.” She and I stand in the same trench, fighting for the same goals and against the same opponents, but we disagree on this vital point.

越来越多的分析家认为不会,穆斯林信仰不能够做这些事情,这些特征内化在伊斯兰当中,成为其不可变结构的一部分。作家Ayaan Hirsi Ali【译注:一位索马里裔荷兰籍女权分子、无神论者、作家及政治人物,以批评伊斯兰教、反对割礼及女性生殖器切割而知名】一书的作者被问到是否同意我的说法“激进伊斯兰是问题,温和伊斯兰是解药”时,她说:“他是错的。对这点我感到遗憾。”她和我站在同一战壕,追求同一目标,和相同的敌人战斗,但是我们在这一要点上存在分歧。

My argument has two parts. First, the essentialist position of many analysts is wrong; and second, a reformed Islam can emerge.

我的论述有两部分。第一,很多分析家的本质主义立场是错误的;第二,革新的伊斯兰可以涌现 。

Arguing Against Essentialism

To state that Islam can never change is to assert that the Koran and Hadith, which constitute the religion’s core, must always be understood in the same way. But to articulate this position is to reveal its error, for nothing human abides forever. Everything, including the reading of sacred texts, changes over time. Everything has a history. And everything has a future that will be unlike its past.


Only by failing to account for human nature and by ignoring more than a millennium of actual changes in the Koran’s interpretation can one claim that the Koran has been understood identically over time. Changes have applied in such matters as jihad, slavery, usury, the principle of “no compulsion in religion,” and the role of women. Moreover, the many important interpreters of Islam over the past 1,400 years—ash-Shafi’i, al-Ghazali, Ibn Taymiya, Rumi, Shah Waliullah, and Ruhollah Khomeini come to mind—disagreed deeply among themselves about the content of the message of Islam.

只有不考虑人类本性,无视长达千年对可兰经阐释的变迁,一个人才能够宣称对可兰经的理解始终一成不变。 很多事都曾改变,像圣战,奴隶,高利贷,“宗教的非强制原则以及妇女的角色。而且,我们容易想到过去的1400年,很多重要的伊斯兰诠释者—— ash-Shafi’i,al-Ghazali,Ibn Taymiya,Rumi,Shah Waliullah和Ruhollah Khomeini彼此对伊斯兰教导的内容有很大分歧。

However central the Koran and Hadith may be, they are not the totality of the Muslim experience; the accumulated experience of Muslim peoples from Morocco to Indonesia and beyond matters no less. To dwell on Islam’s scriptures is akin to interpreting the United States solely through the lens of the Constitution; ignoring the country’s history would lead to a distorted understanding.


Put differently, medieval Muslim civilization excelled and today’s Muslims lag behind in nearly every index of achievement. But if things can get worse, they can also get better. Likewise, in my own career, I witnessed Islamism rise from minimal beginnings when I entered the field in 1969 to the great powers it enjoys today; if Islamism can thus grow, it can also decline.


How might that happen?


The Medieval Synthesis

Key to Islam’s role in public life is Sharia and the many untenable demands it makes on Muslims. Running a government with the minimal taxes permitted by Sharia has proved to be unsustainable; and how can one run a financial system without charging interest? A penal system that requires four men to view an adulterous act in flagrante delicto is impractical. Sharia’s prohibition on warfare against fellow Muslims is impossible for all to live up to; indeed, roughly three-quarters of all warfare waged by Muslims has been directed against other Muslims. Likewise, the insistence on perpetual jihad against non-Muslims demands too much.


To get around these and other unrealistic demands, premodern Muslims developed certain legal fig leaves that allowed for the relaxation of Islamic provisions without directly violating them. Jurists came up with hiyal (tricks) and other means by which the letter of the law could be fulfilled while negating its spirit. For example, various mechanisms were developed to live in harmony with non-Muslim states. There is also the double sale (bai al-inah) of an item, which permits the purchaser to pay a disguised form of interest. Wars against fellow Muslims were renamed jihad.

为了回避这些或者其他一些不现实的要求,前现代的穆斯林发展了一些合理化的做法,允许放松一些伊斯兰法条,而不直接违背它们。法务人员使用hiyal(花招)和其他方式,遵循法律的形式,同时否定其实质。比如,为了和谐的生活在非穆斯林国家,很多技巧被发展出来。还有重复售卖(bai al-inah)意味着允许购买者支付隐性利息。对穆斯林同胞的战争则被重新命名为吉哈德。

This compromise between Sharia and reality amounted to what I dubbed Islam’s “medieval synthesis” in my book In the Path of God (1983). This synthesis translated Islam from a body of abstract, infeasible demands into a workable system. In practical terms, it toned down Sharia and made the code of law operational. Sharia could now be sufficiently applied without Muslims being subjected to its more stringent demands. Kecia Ali, of Boston University, notes the dramatic contrast between formal and applied law in Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam, quoting other specialists:

沙利亚和现实之间的妥协契合了我的著作《在神的道路上》(1983)中的伊斯兰“中世纪整合”的概念。这一整合把伊斯兰从一套抽象,不切实际的要求,翻译成可以被实行的体系。在实际中,它减低了沙利亚的力度,使得法条可以操作。沙利亚现在能够充分被实行,同时穆斯林不会被其更加严苛的要求束缚。波士顿大学的Kecia Ali,在《Marriage and Slavery in Early Islam》一书中指出了正式和实用法律之间鲜明的对照。他引用了其他专家的话:

One major way in which studies of law have proceeded has been to “compare doctrine with the actual practice of the court.” As one scholar discussing scriptural and legal texts notes, “Social patterns were in great contrast to the ‘official’ picture presented by these ‘formal’ sources.” Studies often juxtapose flexible and relatively fair court outcomes with an undifferentiated and sometimes harshly patriarchal textual tradition of jurisprudence. We are shown proof of “the flexibility within Islamic law that is often portrayed as stagnant and draconian.”


While the medieval synthesis worked over the centuries, it never overcame a fundamental weakness: It is not comprehensively rooted in or derived from the foundational, constitutional texts of Islam. Based on compromises and half measures, it always remained vulnerable to challenge by purists. Indeed, premodern Muslim history featured many such challenges, including the Almohad movement in 12th-century North Africa and the Wahhabi movement in 18th-century Arabia. In each case, purist efforts eventually subsided and the medieval synthesis reasserted itself, only to be challenged anew by purists. This alternation between pragmatism and purism characterizes Muslim history, contributing to its instability.


The Challenge of Modernity

The de facto solution offered by the medieval synthesis broke down with the arrival of modernity imposed by the Europeans, conventionally dated to Napoleon’s attack on Egypt in 1798. This challenge pulled most Muslims in opposite directions over the next two centuries, to Westernization or to Islamization.


Muslims impressed with Western achievements sought to minimize Sharia and replace it with Western ways in such areas as the nonestablishment of religion and equality of rights for women and non-Muslims. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), symbolizes this effort. Until about 1970, it appeared to be the inevitable Muslim destiny, with resistance to Westernization looking rearguard and futile.

西方的成就给一些穆斯林留下了深刻印象,他们试图削弱伊斯兰教法,代之以同类领域的西方做法,比如不利用法律确立宗教,妇女和非穆斯林拥有平等权利。现代土耳其的缔造者——凯末尔·阿塔图尔克 (1881-1938)代表了这种努力。在1970年前,这似乎是穆斯林不可避免的命运,对抗西方化的努力看起来被动无力。

But that resistance proved deep and ultimately triumphant. Atatürk had few successors and his Republic of Turkey is moving back toward Sharia. Westernization, it turned out, looked stronger than it really was because it tended to attract visible and vocal elites while the masses generally held back.


Starting around 1930, the reluctant elements began organizing themselves and developing their own positive program, especially in Algeria, Egypt, Iran, and India. Rejecting Westernization and all its works, they argued for the full and robust application of Sharia such as they imagined had been the case in the earliest days of Islam.


Though rejecting the West, these movements—which are called Islamist—modeled themselves on the surging totalitarian ideologies of their time, Fascism and Communism. Islamists borrowed many assumptions from these ideologies, such as the superiority of the state over the individual, the acceptability of brute force, and the need for a cosmic confrontation with Western civilization. They also quietly borrowed technology, especially military and medical, from the West.


Through creative, hard work, Islamist forces quietly gained strength over the next half century, finally bursting into power and prominence with the Iranian revolution of 1978–79 led by the anti-Atatürk, Ayatollah Khomeini (1902-89). This dramatic event, and its achieved goal of creating an Islamic order, widely inspired Islamists, who in the subsequent 35 years have made great progress, transforming societies and applying Sharia in novel and extreme ways.

通过创造性的努力,伊斯兰主义者的力量在接下来的半个世纪静静增长,最终在1978-79年由阿塔图尔克的反对者,霍梅尼 (1902-89) 领导的伊朗革命中,显出了爆发性的能力和优势。这个戏剧性的事件,和其达到的目标——创造一种伊斯兰的秩序,在伊斯兰主义者中影响广泛。他们在接下来35年中有了巨大进步,用各种创新且极端的方式,变革社会,实行伊斯兰教法。

For example, in Iran, the Shiite regime has hanged homosexuals from cranes and forced Iranians in Western dress to drink from latrine cans, and in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime has torched girls’ schools and music stores. The Islamists’ influence has reached the West itself, where one finds an increasing number of women wearing hijabs, niqabs, and burqas.


Although spawned as a totalitarian model, Islamism has shown much greater tactical adaptability than either Fascism or Communism. The latter two ideologies rarely managed to go beyond violence and coercion. But Islamism, led by figures such as Turkey’s Premier Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (1954-) and his Justice and Development Party (AKP), has explored nonrevolutionary forms of Islamism. Since it was legitimately voted into office in 2002, the AKP gradually has undermined Turkish secularism with remarkable deftness by working within the country’s established democratic structures, practicing good government, and not provoking the wrath of the military, long the guardian of Turkish secularism.

虽然脱胎于一个极权主义模型,相比法西斯和共产主义,伊斯兰主义表现出远为优越的战术灵活性。前两者很少试图超越暴力和强制手段。而伊斯兰运动,被诸如土耳其总理埃尔多安 (1954-) 之类的人物和他的正义发展党(AKP)领导着,已经探索出了伊斯兰主义的非革命形式。自从它在2002年合法地通过选举上台,AKP就用十分纯熟的手腕,借助该国已经建立的民主制度,和良好的施政表现,逐渐削弱土耳其的世俗化力量,而且没有激起土耳其世俗主义的长期守护者——军队的强力反弹。

The Islamists are on the march today, but their ascendance is recent and offers no guarantees of longevity. Indeed, like other radical utopian ideologies, Islamism will lose its appeal and decline in power. Certainly the 2009 and 2013 revolts against Islamist regimes in Iran and Egypt, respectively, point in that direction.


Toward a Modern Synthesis

If Islamism is to be defeated, anti-Islamist Muslims must develop an alternative vision of Islam and explanation for what it means to be a Muslim. In doing so, they can draw on the past, especially the reform efforts from the span of 1850 to 1950, to develop a “modern synthesis” comparable to the medieval model. This synthesis would choose among Shari precepts and render Islam compatible with modern values. It would accept gender equality, coexist peacefully with unbelievers, and reject the aspiration of a universal caliphate, among other steps.


Here, Islam can profitably be compared with the two other major monotheistic religions. A half millennium ago, Jews, Christians, and Muslims all broadly agreed that enforced labor was acceptable and that paying interest on borrowed money was not. Eventually, after bitter and protracted debates, Jews and Christians changed their minds on these two issues; today, no Jewish or Christian voices endorse slavery or condemn the payment of reasonable interest on loans.


Among Muslims, however, these debates have only begun. Even if formally banned in Qatar in 1952, Saudi Arabia in 1962, and Mauritania in 1980, slavery still exists in these and other majority-Muslim countries (especially Sudan and Pakistan). Some Islamic authorities even claim that a pious Muslim must endorse slavery. Vast financial institutions worth possibly as much as $1 trillion have developed over the past 40 years to enable observant Muslims to pretend to avoid either paying or receiving interest on money, (“pretend” because the Islamic banks merely disguise interest with subterfuges such as service fees.)


Reformist Muslims must do better than their medieval predecessors and ground their interpretation in both scripture and the sensibilities of the age. For Muslims to modernize their religion they must emulate their fellow monotheists and adapt their religion with regard to slavery and interest, the treatment of women, the right to leave Islam, legal procedure, and much else.


When a reformed, modern Islam emerges it will no longer endorse unequal female rights, the dhimmi status, jihad, or suicide terrorism, nor will it require the death penalty for adultery, breaches of family honor, blasphemy, and apostasy.


Already in this young century, a few positive signs in this direction can be discerned. Note some developments concerning women:


  • Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council has responded to rising public outrage over child marriagesby setting the age of majority at 18. Though this doesn’t end child marriages, it moves toward abolishing the practice.
  • 沙特阿拉伯的协商会议回应了公众对童婚的愤怒,把成年的年龄定为18岁。虽然这没有终结童婚,但向着禁止这一行为迈进了一步。
  • Turkish clerics have agreed to let menstruating women attend mosque and pray next to men.
  • 土耳其神职人员已经同意,让经期的妇女参加清真寺礼拜,并且和男人一起祷告。
  • The Iranian government has nearly banned the stoning of convicted adulterers.
  • 伊朗政府已接近于禁止对通奸罪施以石刑。
  • Women in Iran have won broader rights to sue their husbands for divorce.
  • 伊朗妇女在诉讼离婚方面赢得了更广泛的权利。
  • A conference of Muslim scholars in Egypt deemed clitoridectomies contrary to Islam and, in fact, punishable.
  • 穆斯林学者在埃及召开了一个会议,认为阴蒂割除违背伊斯兰,事实上应该被惩罚。
  • A key Indian Muslim institution, Darul Uloom Deoband, issued a fatwa against polygamy.
  • 一个著名的印度穆斯林机构 Darul Uloom Deoband发表了一项伊斯兰释法,反对多妻制。 Other notable developments, not specifically about women, include:


  • The Saudi government abolished jizya (the practice of enforcing a poll tax on non-Muslims).
  • 沙特政府终止了Jizya(向非穆斯林征收人头税)。
  • An Iranian court ordered the family of a murdered Christian to receive the same compensation as that of a Muslim victim.
  • 一个伊朗法庭,判决被谋杀的基督徒的亲属得到和穆斯林受害者一样多的赔偿。
  • Scholars meeting at the International Islamic Fiqh Academy in Sharjah have started to debate and challenge the call for apostates to be executed.
  • 学者们在位于沙迦的国际伊斯兰教律学院开会,开始就处决背教者展开辩论。 All the while, individual reformers churn out ideas, if not yet for adoption then to stimulate thought. For example, Nadin al-Badir, a Saudi female journalist, provocatively suggested that Muslim women have the same right as men to marry up to four spouses. She prompted a thunderstorm, including threats of lawsuits and angry denunciations, but she spurred a needed debate, one unimaginable in prior times.

同时,倾向于改革的人士不断推出新的想法,如果不是着眼于改进,那就是从模仿着手。比如Nadine al-Badir,一个沙特女记者,大胆建议穆斯林妇女和男人拥有相同的权利,和四个配偶结婚。她引发了一场风暴,包括诉讼威胁和愤怒谴责,但她的确引发了一场亟需的辩论,在以前时代这是无法想象的。

Like its medieval precursor, the modern synthesis will remain vulnerable to attack by purists, who can point to Muhammad’s example and insist on no deviation from it. But, having witnessed what Islamism, whether violent or not, has wrought, there is reason to hope that Muslims will reject the dream of reestablishing a medieval order and be open to compromise with modern ways. Islam need not be a fossilized medieval mentality; it is what today’s Muslims make of it.


Policy Implications

What can those, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, who oppose Sharia, the caliphate, and the horrors of jihad, do to advance their aims?


For anti-Islamist Muslims, the great burden is to develop not just an alternative vision to the Islamist one but an alternative movement to Islamism. The Islamists reached their position of power and influence through dedication and hard work, through generosity and selflessness. Anti-Islamists must also labor, probably for decades, to develop an ideology as coherent and compelling as that of the Islamists, and then spread it. Scholars interpreting sacred scriptures and leaders mobilizing followers have central roles in this process.


Non-Muslims can help a modern Islam move forward in two ways: first, by resisting all forms of Islamism—not just the brutal extremism of an Osama bin Laden, but also the stealthy, lawful, political movements such as Turkey’s AKP. Erdoğan is less ferocious than Bin Laden, but he is more effective and no less dangerous. Whoever values free speech, equality before the law, and other human rights denied or diminished by Sharia must consistently oppose any hint of Islamism.


Second, non-Muslims should support moderate and Westernizing anti-Islamists. Such figures are weak and fractured today and face a daunting task, but they do exist, and they represent the only hope for defeating the menace of global jihad and Islamic supremacism, then replacing it with an Islam that does not threaten civilization.


Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.
Daniel Pipes是中东论坛的总裁。

July 7, 2013 update: Jeff Jacoby does an excellent job of summarizing this article in his Boston Globe column today under the title “What Is Islam?
2013年7月7日更新: Jeff Jacoby在他的《波士顿环球》专栏上很好的总结了这篇文章,标题为“什么是伊斯兰”。

Oct. 1, 2013 update: Six Commentary readers reply to this article and I then respond to them at “Islam’s Future.”

Apr. 10, 2014 update: Despite her 2007 statement quoted in the 2nd paragraph above, about the impossibility of a moderate Islam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali today wrote that “Both Christianity and Judaism have had their eras of reform. I would argue that the time has come for a Muslim Reformation.” So, perhaps she is coming around to agree with me after all.
2014年4月10日更新:虽然她在2007年的评论中引用了上述文章的第二段,并说温和伊斯兰是不可能的。但是Ayaan Hirsi Ali 今天写道,“基督教和犹太教也有它们的改革时代。我能够说伊斯兰教宗教改革的年代已经到来。”所以,她也许开始接受我的观点了。

Feb, 4, 2016 update: I tweeted today that “When it comes to #Islam, amateurs talk texts, pros talk history.”

Feb. 24, 2016 update: Perhaps symbolic of Islamic banking’s illusory promise, here is the reality of the Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank’s headquarters (as photographed by me). It’s a pale and desultory version of the plans shown above.



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