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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.

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Are there any modern Muslim thinkers or reformers?

Because acts of violence and terrorism grab the headlines, most of us know much more about advocates of a “clash,” militant jihadists, than about those who are working toward a peaceful revolution and civilizational dialogue. Nevertheless, today intellectuals, religious leaders, and activists all over the world are addressing Islam's encounter with the West.

Like Islamic modernist movements in the early twentieth century and, later, the Islamic (“fundamentalist”) movements of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan, today's Islamically oriented intellectuals and activists are continuing the process of Islamic modernization and reform. They represent a creative new stage, a minority who are not only reformulating Islam but also implementing their ideas through their work in government and other public arenas.

Reformist and modernist Muslim Abdurrahman Wahid (d. 2009), former leader of Indonesia's Nahdatul Ulama (Renaissance of Religious Scholars) movement with thirty million members, became the first democratically elected president of Indonesia; Dr. Amien Rais, the University of Chicago-trained political scientist and former leader of Indonesia's Muhamaddiyya movement, became speaker of Indonesia's national assembly; Anwar Ibrahim, founder of ABIM, Malaysia's Islamic Youth Movement, went on to become the deputy prime minister of Malaysia; Dr. Necmettin Erbakan, a trained engineer, became Turkey's prime minister; and Mohammad Khatami, a religious scholar, was president of Iran. Many Islamically motivated professionals have served as presidents or prime ministers, in parliaments, or as mayors of major cities and are leaders in their professions (lawyers, physicians, engineers, and scientists).

Reformist thought is especially prevalent in America and Europe, where there is a free and open environment absent in many Muslim countries. In Europe we find Muslim scholars and activists like Dr. Tariq Ramadan, grandson of Hasan al-Banna, founder of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, a Swiss academic and activist; and Dr. Mohammed Arkoun (d. 2010) of the Sorbonne university in Paris. In America, they include Prof. Sayyid Hossein Nasr of George Washington University, an expert on Sufism and on Islam and science; Prof. Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia, who has written extensively on Islam and democratization and human rights; Prof. Sulayman Nyang of Howard University, who is a prolific author who writes about Islam in America and Africa; Dr. Fathi Osman (d. 2010), who has written extensively on the Quran, pluralism, and Islamic reform; Prof. Amina Wadud, retired from Virginia Commonwealth University, who is author of Quran and Woman; and Prof. Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA Law School, who addresses issues of Islam, law, pluralism, gender, and violent extremism. These scholars formulate and debate new ideas, develop rationales and strategies for reform, and train the next generation in a more dynamic, progressive vision. Increasingly, their influence and impact are felt not only in the West but also in Muslim countries, as their ideas are exported through translations of their works.

Today, a two-way information superhighway spans the world. Ideas come not only from the traditional centers of Islamic scholarship in Muslim countries but also from religious scholars, leaders, and institutions in the West and from their students, who return to become professionals and leaders in their home countries. The Internet plays host to debates between progressive Muslims and more conservative voices globally, providing a venue for heated discussion of Islam's relationship to the state, Islamic banking, democracy, religious and political pluralism, family values, and gay rights, among many other topics.

Just as they were in the process of modern reform in Judaism and Christianity, questions of leadership and the authority of the past (tradition) are critical in Islamic reform. “Whose Islam?” is a major question. Who reinterprets, decides, leads, and implements change? Is it rulers and regimes, the vast majority of whom are unelected kings, military, and former military, or should it be elected parliaments? Is it the ulama (religious scholars) or clergy, who continue to see themselves as the primary interpreters of Islam, although many are ill prepared to respond creatively to modern realities? Or are Islamically oriented intellectuals and activists with a modern education most qualified? Too often in authoritarian societies that restrict freedom of thought and expression, and thus effective leadership, extremists like Osama bin Laden with their theology of confrontation and hate fill the vacuum.

The second major question is “What Islam?” Is Islamic reform simply a restoration of past doctrines and laws, or is it a reformation through a reinterpretation and reformulation of Islam to meet the demands of modern life? While some call for an Islamic state based upon the reimplementation of classical formulations of Islamic laws, others argue the need to reinterpret and reformulate that law in light of the new realities of contemporary society.

The process of Islamic reform is difficult. As in all religions, tradition—centuries-old beliefs and practices—is a powerful force, rooted in the claim of being based upon the teachings of the Quran or the practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet. The vast majority of religious scholars and local mosque leaders (imams) and preachers, who wield significant influence over the religious education and worldview of the majority of Muslims, are products of a more traditional religious education. The ideas of a vanguard of reformers will never have broad appeal and acceptance unless they are incorporated within the curricula of seminaries and schools and universities where religion is taught. A twofold process of reform, intellectual and institutional, will be required in the face of powerful conservative forces, limited human and financial resources, and a culture of authoritarianism that limits or controls freedom of thought in many countries.

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