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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

Society, Politics, and Economy >
What are the major obstacles to Islamic reform?

While in the past Muslims looked to the ulama (religious scholars) and muftis (legal scholars) in Muslim countries for authoritative answers, today questions about the relationship of faith to politics and culture, the status and rights of minorities, pluralism, and tolerance are addressed by Muslim intellectuals, religious and lay scholars, men and women. These Muslim reformers are a vanguard, facing resistance from conservative and fundamentalist factions as they challenge long-held traditions to articulate a progressive, constructive Islamic framework that meets the needs of society today.

A lively debate exists on issues as diverse as the extent and limits of reform, the role of tradition and its relationship to change, women's empowerment, legitimate and illegitimate forms of resistance and violence, suicide bombing and martyrdom, the dangers of fundamentalism, the question of Islam's compatibility with democracy and religious pluralism, and the role of Muslims in the West. The reformers debunk entrenched perceptions: that Islam is medieval, static, and incapable of change; that Islam is a violent religion that also degrades women; that Islam and democracy are incompatible; that Muslims do not speak out against religious extremism and terrorism; that they reject religious pluralism and interfaith dialogue, and they certainly cannot be loyal citizens of non-Muslim countries.

Reform-minded Muslims are informed by a deep knowledge of their religious tradition coupled with modern educations in law, history, politics, medicine, economics, and the sciences. They are equipped to reinterpret Islamic sources and traditions to meet the challenges of modernization and development, leadership and ideology, democratization, pluralism, and foreign policy.

However, reformers are still a minority that faces formidable obstacles. Repressive authoritarian regimes see all reform, any real power-sharing and rule of law, as threatening to their power and privilege. Thus reformers struggle in weak civil societies that do not support creative or independent thought or action. Other obstacles come from religious extremists who believe they have a mandate from God to impose “their Islam” and to destroy anyone who disagrees with them. Finally, intransigent religious conservatives, who are well-meaning but wedded to medieval paradigms, are often co-opted by governments to use their authority to delegitimate reforms as deviant or “heresies.”

Opponents of reform are often the religious establishment that controls the major vehicles through which many learn about Islam. They run the madrasas or seminaries that train religious leaders as well as local imams for their mosques. In many countries, they influence the religion curriculum and teach courses on Islam in schools and universities. Thus, they remain powerful determiners of the understanding of Islam both officially and among Muslim populations and families.

Despite powerful forces restraining reform efforts, in the twenty-first century other influences are driving the implementation of new ideas. These include neo-traditionalists and more liberal, modern, educated, and Islamically oriented Muslim reformers and organizations, an increasingly educated sector of the population who are critical of those who cling uncritically to past and now outdated practices, religious leaders, scholars, and telepreachers. Those who espouse these new ideas apply Islamic principles in ways that more directly relate to modern-day problems and a two-way information superhighway by means of which Western Muslims, who are able to think and write more freely, exchange their reformist ideas with those in many Muslim countries who are more constrained in their research, writing, and speaking.

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