Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward Question #8 – Does Islam Need a Reformation?

answering jihad

This is the eighth in a 17-week series from Answering Jihad: A Better Way Forward by Nabeel Qureshi, author of Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. Weeks one through sixteen will cover sixteen questions people most commonly ask Qureshi about jihad and Islam. These questions explore the origins of jihad, the nature of jihad today, and the phenomenon of jihad in Judeo-Christian context. After answering these questions, Qureshi will conclude by proposing a response to jihad, in his view the best way forward. His concluding remarks will be presented in week seventeen.

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QURESHI HAS HEARD MANY PEOPLE, frustrated by the increasing frequency and scale of Islamic terrorism, suggest that Islam needs a reformation. What they may not realize is that radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.

This might sound shocking, but consider: Just as the Protestant Reformation was an attempt to raze centuries of Catholic tradition and return to the canonical texts, so radical Islam is an attempt to raze centuries of traditions of various schools of Islamic thought and return to the canonical texts of the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life. This desire to return to the original form of Islam can be seen not only in the words of Sayyid Qutb, but also in his method. He focused almost entirely on references to the Qur’an. It is true also of the Muslim Brotherhood and ISIS today, whose publications and proclamations are punctuated by references to the Qur’an and hadith literature. Radical Muslim organizations are explicit in their aim to reform Islam.


This reality hit Qureshi when he read an open letter written by 120 Muslim scholars rebuking ISIS for their version of Islam (see The letter starts with twenty-four points of “Executive Summary,” the very first point of which emphasizes that “fatwas must follow Islamic legal theory as defined in the Classical texts.” But ISIS does not grant authority to the legal theory of classical texts, the thoughts of the great Islamic jurists. They are returning to the foundational texts, the Qur’an, and the hadith. The same is true for virtually all radical Muslim groups. This letter was therefore impotent in bringing about any change within ISIS, as Qureshi was inclined to think its writers must have known before issuing it.

Yet one of the points of the letter shot so wide of the mark that Qureshi was surprised it was included. In the writers’ condemnation of sex slavery, unable to provide a single reference that Islam forbade the practice, they instead appealed to a modern consensus: “After a century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery, you have violated this; you have taken women as concubines and thus revived strife and sedition (fitnah), and corruption and lewdness on the earth. You have resuscitated something that the Shari’ah has worked tirelessly to undo and has been considered forbidden by consensus for over a century.” Imagine ISIS leaders laughing as they read this. Their whole purpose is to work against any consensus of modern Muslim scholars, especially if it contravenes the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad.

The Qur’an and hadith  contain many references to sex slavery. The Qur’an explicitly allows Muslim men to use their captive women for sex (23:6; 33:50; 70.30). The canonical hadith collections corroborate the practice, going so far as allowing it even if captive women are already married and their husbands remain alive, or if the women are about to be sold and could be impregnated (Sadith Bukhari 4138; Sahih Muslim 3371 and 3384; Sunan Abu Daud 2150). The Qur’an also explicitly confirms the former practice, teaching that captive women can be used as sex slaves even if they are married (4:24). The “century of Muslim consensus on the prohibition of slavery” is a departure from the foundations of Islam, and radical Islam is against such bidah, innovations in Islam.

Qureshi said, “To be clear, I am not arguing here against the legitimacy of an Islam that departs from its roots, but as long as Muslims try to return to the foundations of Islam, such modern consensuses will hold little authority over the teachings of the Qur’an and the example of Muhammad’s life. It is clear why ISIS does what it is doing; they are a part of the Islamic reformation.”


The notion that reformation should lead to peaceful expressions of a religion is predicated on the assumption that the origins of that religion are peaceful. As Qureshi has demonstrated, that is not the case with Islam. Since violence is built into the very origins of Islam, the religion would need to be re-envisioned in order to produce a peaceful religion that is internally consistent. Emphasis would have to be drawn away from the Qur’an and Muhammad’s life, or the records of their contexts would need to be disavowed. This would not be a reformation but a progression of Islam.

Some Muslim thinkers have aimed to do just this. Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani theologian of the mid-twentieth century, tried to impose humanist thought upon an Islamic framework, focusing on ethics and freedom. His method was to reconsider the historical authenticity of hadith, an essential component of the traditional foundations of Islam. He argued that hadith were formalized in the context of a living oral tradition; therefore, behavioral norms of Muslims of the time were formulated into the words and teachings of Muhammad. In other words, according to Rahman what we know as hadith are often simply the practices of ninth-century Muslims that have been petrified into an unchanging set of rules for all Muslims. Dispensing with the traditional foundations of Islam, Rahman offers novel understandings of the Qur’anic text, attempting to revolutionize the application of Islam.

Although this method might work in theory, Muslim culture tends to be too loyal to its heritage to allow for such a radical departure from tradition. Rahman was effectively exiled from Pakistan as an enemy of Islam. He continued his work in a context more amenable to progressive Islam, the United States. Rahman has passed away, and other Muslim scholars have taken up his mantle. One of his champions is Professor Ebrahim Moosa at Duke University, under whom Qureshi had the privilege to study Sharia for a short time. He and other Muslim scholars like him do not hesitate to denounce Islamic terrorism and to explore how Islam can be shaped to speak to our twenty-first-century context.

In Islam and the Modern World, coedited with Jeffrey Kenney, Moosa asks questions like, “What happens when the sacred book and the world seem to contradict one another?” He proposed an answer to this question in one of his lectures. Even early authorities of Sunni Islam altered the practice of Islam to fit their contexts. Umar, the companion of Muhammad and the second caliph of Islam, did not apply the Qur’anic mandate of giving his soldiers a percentage of the spoils of war booty. He decided to give them a salary instead, reshaping the practice of Islam to fit the needs of his context. If Umar was appointed by Allah, as Sunnis believe, and he could reframe a direct injunction of the Qur’an to fit his context, can we not do the same today as responsible Muslims.

In like manner, some Muslim thought leaders are attempting to progress Islam beyond its origins. Yet the fact remains unfortunately true that they are working against the current Muslim zeitgeist, which is focused on the vindication of Islam by return to its roots. Progressive Muslims have yet to obtain much of a foothold even in the West, let alone in Muslim-majority nations.

Qureshi said, “I hope I am wrong, but I doubt progressive Islam will ever have much sway among Muslims. Islam has always been grounded on obedience to Muhammad; that is the crux of the religion. Its cultural identity and religions practices are subsidiary to the commands of Muhammad, so the accounts of his life and teachings will always be foremost. Past successes of various schools of thought in progressing Islam away from Muhammad’s example were partly indebted to the inaccessibility of Islamic traditions to the average Muslims. On account of the Internet, that can no longer be the case, as the traditions are a click away (see, for example, Progressive Muslim scholars aim to redefine Islam in its essence, to redirect its focus from the example of Muhammad to religious principles. Such a redefinition is far more difficult to accomplish than a reformation, which is why it is the latter that currently dominates the global scene.


As we reviewed in Question #5, the reason Muslims can be both devout and peaceful in spite of violent teachings in the Qur’an and hadith is that Muslim authorities have interpreted Islam in this manner for them, often in accordance with various schools of thought and centuries of accreted Islamic tradition. When Muslims wish to circumvent these authorities and return to the roots of their faith, whether due to disillusionment with current expressions of Islam or a desire to please Allah and win his favor, violent expressions of Islam are often the result.

It was this line of reasoning that let Sayyid Qutb to lay the foundations for radical Islam, and it was the same line of reasoning that led Abd al-Salam Faraj to intensify his view of jihad such that it became the cure for the ails of the Islamic world. The common denominator between these two founders of radical Islam was their zeal to follow Islam to their utmost, not as it was being practiced in the twentieth century but as it was established in the seventh century. Radical Islam is the Islamic reformation.

The endeavor to modernize Islam and make it relevant to the twenty-first century is called progressive Islam. Progressive Muslim thought leaders, thought few in number and limited in influence, are present and are working to recreate Islam’s religious framework from within. Indeed, that is what it would take for Islam to become devoted to peace – not a reformation but a re-imagination.

Thanks for reading.

Sorry this got posted after midnight, making it a day late. Please join me next Friday for Qureshi’s Question #9 –Who Are Al-Qaida, ISIS, and Boko Haram? It is important for me to state that I do not support the religion of Islam ideologically or theologically. I am a Christian, who is a novice scholar of comparative religious study and an apologist. Indeed, Nabeel Qureshi is no longer a Muslim, having converted to Christianity after his exhausting study on the question of violence and jihad in Islam.


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