One final excursus: An interpretation of Islamic reformism

Islamic reformism has been analysed by Hamadi Redissi from a very different perspective than that of Tariq Ramadan. Reformism (Islah), Redissi observes, designates a movement that from the nineteenth century to the 1930s sought to renew Islam and improve the lot of Muslims by going back to the true sources of the faith; that is, it sought to reform Islam so as toc/o back to Islam (Redissi 2020,43; my translation, italics added).[1] In this sense reformism reveals itself to be a form of fundamentalism, insofar as it consists in “returning to the sources of the faith, purging it of all the residue and deformations that, according the proponents of this movement, derive from centuries of decadence; the original truths, once found, make possible a dialogue with the new times” (Abdel-Malek 1973, XV; my translation).

Reformism, as Redissi explains it, bears a strong resemblance to salafiyya, and so with the qualities associated with the “righteous ancestors.” Accordingly, the words usuliyya (fundamentalism), isldh (reformism), and salafiyya (allegiance to the ancestors) can be considered as belonging to the same semantic family (Redissi 2020, 43).

The concept of reformism takes a broad meaning, for it used in reference to thinkers whose doctrines are marked by profound differences. The idea is associated, for example, with the founder of Wahhabism, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), and the spiritual father of all fundamentalisms, Jamal ad-DTn al-AfghanT (1839-1897), as well as with secular modernist statesmen open to the West, like Khayr al-DTn (1810-1879) and Muhammad Abduh, the founder of modern reformism (Redissi 2020, 41).

Reformism is antitraditionalist insofar as it is opposed to imitation (taqlld), relying instead on ijtihad, that is, interpretation, and in such a way as not to fall under the sway of the established schools. Particularly significant in this sense is the previously introduced position espoused by Muhammad Abduh, who on an Averroistic rationalist approach argues for the need to take account of the solution that reason points to in cases where a conflict arises with tradition. Abduh’s programme was aimed at reforming justice, education, and “political institutions by looking to modern notions of parliament, public opinion, utility, and separation of powers as standards in light of which to rethink Islamic concepts like shiird (consultation), ra’y (personal judgment), maslah’a (general interest), and ijmd' (unanimous agreement)” (Arkoun 1975, 99).

As far as method and outlook are concerned, the proponents of reformism practiced “ijtihad and not jihad. Their rationalistic rereading of the Qur’an was aimed not at revolution but at reforming the institutions” (Redissi 2003b, 48).

As for the politics of reformism, the stance it took was against despotism. We can see this, for example, in the thought of Khayr al-DTn, as well as in the work of al-Afgham, even if in his analysis of tyranny he conceded the possibility of a “just tyrant.”

Sunni reformism has a decadent reading of history, seeing it on a course that from the righteous caliphate has backslid to forms of unjust monarchy, and a great many reformists have equated shiird (consultation) with the parliamentary representative system.

Finally, in the reformist thesis Redissi sees the founding moment of modern Islam, imbuing it with the principles of humanism, with its embrace of a jihad solely concerned with promoting tolerance and ensuring respect for international humanitarian law.

Reformism, or first-wave fundamentalism, developed in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century. This was the period known as nahdha (rebirth), when the Muslim world reexamined itself in an effort to pinpoint the reasons why it had fallen behind the West. The explanation that found most favour was that “the West owed its power to the fact that it had felicitously wrested itself from the baneful dominance of the church, while Islam—as a synthesis of religions, a totality without remainders, the cradle of civilization, an engine of progress—owed its decline to the fact that Muslims strayed away from the church!” (Redissi 2003b, 47).

The rebirth made it possible for the Arab world in the nineteenth century to overcome its own sense of inferiority in the face of Western supremacy, and to develop the ideas with which it sought to reform Arab society. Khayr al-DTn and Muhammad Abduh called on Muslims to fight their adversaries with their own weapons, but they were not referring to material weapons. According to Abduh anything that is used in a violent or peaceful competition is a weapon, including science, commerce, industry, justice, and religion (Husry 1980, 118).

In the 1930s there emerged second-wave fundamentalism, conventionally referred to as radical Islam. Its origins trace back to the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 1928 and the Jama'at al-islamT (Islamic society)

Democracy in Islam and Western democracy 137 party founded in 1941 by al-Mawdudl, whose political thought was previously described as placing him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Western conceptions of democracy.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s motto was forthright and direct: “Allah is our objective. The Prophet is our leader. Qur’an is our law. Jihad is our way. Dying in the way of Allah is our highest hope.” The Muslim Brotherhood radicalized the religious themes of those who advocated allegiance to the “righteous ancestors,” nor did the movement make any concession to modernism. “Islam,” al-Banna states, “is dogma and cult, homeland and nationality, religion and state, spirituality and action, Qur’an and sabre” (Arkoun 1975, 100; my translation).

The rise of these movements can essentially be attributed to the failure of the postcolonial states, which undertook modernization processes authoritatively managed from the top down, all the while bureaucratizing the economy (ibid., 51). In response to such failures, this brand of fundamentalism asked a specific question, namely, how is it possible for Muslims to live in modernity without forsaking tradition. The answer it found was to put revelation at the service of revolution. As Redissi reminds us, MawdudT was the first public figure to congratulate Ayatollah Khomeini on his success in taking over as supreme leader in the Iranian Revolution of 1979 (ibid., 52).

Just how problematic the relation is between these movements and democratic parliamentary systems became apparent under Muhammad Mursi’s short-lived presidency in Egypt, which, as we will see shortly, was marked by an effort to Islamize Egyptian society and by a difficulty in coming to terms with the pluralism of democracy.

Finally, in Al-Qa’ida Redissi (2003b, 64) sees a third type of fundamentalism: not a movement, not a party, but an international terrorist network intent on waging an unrelenting total war on the West (global Islamic jihad).

  • [1] On the concept of Islah, Mohammed Arkoun writes: “The Word of God cannot be gainsaid by history; Muslims have certainly lost touch with its meaning: we need to determine when, how, and why. And so new lite is breathed into the reformist attitude, this Islalf, or return to the true, original form of the Islamic teaching” ( Arkoun 1975, 97; my translation). 2 In his political action, al-Afghani sought to develop constitutional institutions in the Arab world and to free Egypt from European domination. He also sought to regenerate the Muslim religion with an infusion of philosophy and science and a return to Sufism, taking a stance against all forms of dogmatism. For a discussion see Laoust 2002, 306.
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