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What Is Islamic Enlightenment?

MUCH OF THE Islamic world is experiencing revolution. From Morocco to Oman, recent protests and new elections have brought hope for a less despotic and more open future. Assuming that one tyrant is not perpetually replaced by another, nations across the Islamic world may begin to resemble the genuinely open societies that so many of their citizens seem to desire.  

Yet amid the oscillations between turmoil and elation, it is easy to get caught up in merely the loudest elements of these social changes, rather than the deeper set of intellectual questions beneath them. These concern Islamic philosophy and theology, and their relation to the modern world. In recent elections in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, Islamist parties have dominated. Thus the crucial question is whether the conservative traditions and norms that dominate much of the Muslim world—and their philosophical, theological, and scientific premises—are rich enough to evolve and accommodate the aspirations of new generations. Specifically, can such traditions yield increased political and personal freedom, democracy, and rights for all, including women and minorities?

One answer—in the affirmative—comes from the journalist Irshad Manji in her brave new book. It is an intimate and optimistic apologia for a future with more liberal and open interpretations of Islam. In the end, the book fails to grapple with some of the more substantial questions that would make this future a reality; but still Manji’s work will serve as an important consciousness-raiser.

Manji’s God resembles an extremely affectionate and powerful high school guidance counselor: a loving person who looks over you and wants you to be your freest and most socially responsible self. This God gave humans powerful minds that they should cultivate. This God wants humans to use reason and empathy to reinterpret traditions in light of modern knowledge and ethical necessities. Manji claims that through the often overlooked Islamic tradition of ijtihad (i.e independent, effortful, and educated reasoning on religious matters), Muslims can think for themselves, and overcome a fearful, passive, conformist religiosity. In its first centuries, over a hundred schools of Islamic interpretation flourished. Muslims can reclaim their right to use reason to dissent conscientiously from prevailing religious opinion, connect with God in a deeper manner through personalized faith, and avoid stagnation and backwardness by redefining and reinvigorating themselves and their communities based on modern needs.

To Manji, blasting ossified traditions with progressive and humane ideas will allow Muslims to break taboos against the equal treatment of non-Muslims, and killing those who decide to leave Islam or who cannot help but feel as though their creator has made them homosexual. This ethical progress would allow women to lead prayer and take positions of religious leadership more generally, eliminate practices such as forced marriage, and give the legal testimony of women equal value.

This is the vision that one would expect from a classical liberal notion of religion. Manji emphasizes individuality and an ethic of authenticity, self-respect, fairness, and the prevention of harm over mindless conformity to group norms, respect for arbitrary authority, and deference toward murderous family honor and identity politics. She claims that although they are often mistaken for each other, religion and culture are not the same; culture is not sacred, it is constructed by humans. Manji believes that in diverse modern societies, we have a right to be offended rather than muzzled, or killed, by those with whom we disagree.

In addition to her classical liberal views, Manji adds religious flair. She articulates ideals from the perspective of a believer within the tradition who wants to give others the chance for an authentically personal and loving relationship with God. She is perhaps at her most persuasive when calling out both wooly relativists and religious moderates for their weaseling in the face of clear moral hypocrisy. As Manji notes, some Western feminists especially taken in by relativist interpretations of cultural anthropology defend the exploitation of women who just happen to be in other cultures. And many non-Muslims remain silent because they respect oppressive traditions more than the people subjected to them. “Moderate” Muslims rightfully castigate Western nations for human rights violations, but then such Muslims do not condemn the stoning of women (see Tariq Ramadan), or suicide bombing of civilians (see Yusuf al-Qaradawi). Finally Manji shows how labeling criticism of Muslims as “Islamophobia” can excuse the oppression of the powerless within Muslim societies, and perpetuate cultural stagnation and communal dysfunction.

Yet any book that attempts to reconcile traditional Islam with liberal values must engage relevant and quite substantial religious debates in a systematic, fair, and detailed manner. This is how people ultimately produce a reliable intellectual synthesis for the future of a tradition. It is how Judaism and Christianity produced their liberal and reform movements over hundreds of years. Unfortunately, Manji’s book is not of this kind. Her solutions are much too glossy and slick.

The book does allow one to see spaces of ambiguity in factual and ethical claims within the liberal Islamic tradition that need further attention. One example is the relationship between “culture” and “religion” in Islamic hermeneutics. Liberal reformers—including Manji—are happy to note the many innovations (mere reflections of “culture,” “politics,” or “social forces”) that have occurred in beliefs and practices since the origin of Islam. This context then becomes the basis of a liberal argument for why those aspects are somehow non-essential or accidental to the tradition and can be reformed. Manji argues, for example, that the Koran exhorts believers to pray but does not prescribe a specific method in detail. Why not pray to God—as Manji does—in English rather than Arabic, and using one’s own words rather than reciting scripture, and in a spontaneous and unstructured manner without formal rituals and prostrations? Such a move, and others like it, presumes that the Koran is all you need for Islam, and the rest of the vast tradition of law and commentary is optional or accidental.

The weaknesses of this view are numerous. First, understanding the rest of the sacred tradition (the sayings and acts of Muhammad) can greatly illuminate the meanings of the Koran. Devaluing everything post-Koranic also prevents modern interpreters from connecting themselves to the history of Koranic commentary, in which they might find some insights. Such a move would be akin to a Jew disregarding the Talmud (there were such deviants from Rabbinic Judaism and they were called Karaites) and dismissing it as just iterations of bias and ignorance piled upon itself. The reformer may have good reasons for relegating most of tradition, but she must have much more to say on why this is a justified move. In addition, everything scholars know about the social and intellectual history, linguistics, and philology of the Koran suggests that it emerged in a multi-religious Arab context some 1,400 years ago. So what specifically about the Koran is “religious,” but not “cultural,” “political,” “historical” etc.? No clear distinction exists.

Even assuming that such a clear distinction did exist, and that the Koran is primarily what matters today, one is still confronted with the problem of how non-arbitrarily to interpret the Koran. Specifically, why should the liberal re-interpreter claim greater authority for the verses of the Koran that she prefers over others that are unambiguously more conservative? Just as the Bible seems to be in different places both for slavery and against it, so also the Koran has both liberal-friendly and conservative-friendly verses. The Muslim liberal reformer must have a principled means by which to select among verses. What will not suffice is a post-hoc attraction to the sprinkling of verses that directly support modern liberal sensibilities, coupled with a revulsion against anything that sniffs of meanings that are anti-freedom, anti-democratic, pro-violence, xenophobic, patriarchal, homophobic, or intolerant of outsiders, or minority insiders. Lacking such a method, reformers can only cherry-pick their favorite liberal verses, and ignore or deny the relevance of the rest. When confronted with methodological contradictions, reformers must resort to mystery-mongering, and note continuously, as Manji does, that only God knows the real meaning of the Koran. If that is the case, and in the end practically anything goes, then what is the point of the liberal Muslim appealing to the Koran at all?

At the heart of these confusions is a deeper question, which Manji artfully avoids: what is the ontological status of the Koran? In the history of Islamic philosophy, debates have raged over whether the Koran was created and a part of history, or is somehow eternal. One early school of Islamic thought, the Mu’tazila, argued that only God was eternal and perfect, and scripture should not be confused with God himself. Thinking that there were two eternal, perfect entities in the universe would seem to threaten God’s oneness and unity. The Mu’tazilites thus inferred that the Koran had to be understood as created in time so as not to threaten pure monotheism. Taking a neo-Mu’tazila view allows the Islamic liberal to see the Koran as divinely inspired and containing many timeless truths, but also as a created product of this world of time and history—both a result of, and subject to, human interpretation. The Koran and its ethos therefore become continuous with the rest of human history, linguistics, psychology, and social life. A neo-Mu’tazilite view allows one to think of revelation in a more expansive and less bifurcated and intellectually implausible manner. It does not require the strong demarcation of religion as something wholly other than culture and politics, nor would it require cutting oneself off from potential insights within the rest of tradition. In this way, the Islamic tradition as a whole—Sunni, Shia, Sufi, and all variety of other sub-traditions—can be appreciated as sources of edification without implausible hermeneutical gymnastics. This more progressive view of scripture is the way many contemporary theologians and scholars of religion have come to understand the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Why not also the Koran?

Elsewhere, Manji is surprisingly unperceptive about the motives and practical needs of Muslims. One example concerns the hijab. Despite her belief that a woman’s choice about wearing the hijab should be respected, she accuses hijab wearers of a kind of self-deception, of using the hijab as “an emblem of faux modesty.” Manji claims that, “far from protecting herself against the ‘Western’ disease of sexualizing breasts and other bodily bits, she’s fetishizing her entire body as genitalia.” Manji is skeptical that women choose the hijab out of modesty because she believes men still “gawk at women who cover.” Yet she overlooks the most apparent answer: that this is all a matter of degree, of more or less gawking based on more or less exposure. Moreover, interviews with Muslim women reveal that modesty is indeed a robust psychological concern in their choices to cover themselves. To understand why these choices are not forms of self-deception, we need to know why the freedom and the opportunity to wear less—for instance in the West and in less repressive Muslim societies—does not automatically lead to Muslim women throwing off their hijabs.

We may gain insight into the answer to this question by stepping back from either feminist or Islamist interpretations of the hijab to consider it within a larger social scientific perspective on the contextual nature of heterosexual mating strategies. What function might the hijab—and other forms of modest dress—serve in the overall romantic life of a heterosexual woman? Human males as well as females across many cultures employ, to different degrees in different contexts, both long-term (courtship and marriage) and short-term (sexual activity without commitment) mating strategies. In a heterosexual community in which short-term mating is taboo, and only long-term mating strategies are allowed (no sexual activity before or outside of marriage), women are rewarded for advertising their sexual modesty, and find it important to dress conservatively in order to win competitions against other women for long-term male commitment. If only long-term mating is an option, signals of modesty in general, including hijab, will thus be sexy. In a community of women playing the long-term mating game, a woman who decides to play the short-term game will be vilified by other women for making readily available various kinds of erotic satisfaction that men normally can get only by investing in commitment within a long-term relationship.

Muslim women will voluntarily drop the hijab only when they coordinate in a different way and agree to a more varied set of long-term mating competition rules. Muslim women in a given community could, for instance, agree to allow a larger repertoire of still relatively modest sexual signals in the long-term mating game, such as non-ostentatious advertisements of hair. This is of course difficult to accomplish when men have historically controlled interpretations of the rules. But the point here is that at present the modesty practices among Muslim women are not a kind of false-consciousness, but an important strategy that many choose because it benefits them within strictly policed long-term mating contexts. The same essential strategies are at work in modesty norms and practices among women across conservative societies, such as in Evangelical Christian and Orthodox Jewish communities, and to a lesser degree in more liberal communities.

Manji’s case for a more free, fair, humane, responsive, tolerant, pluralistic, and loving Islam remains a set of bald assertions rather than arguments. They need to be much more intellectually systematic, fair, and detailed. Articulating such a vision in the first place nonetheless remains a very important political accomplishment amidst the general famine of intellectual daring in contemporary Islamic Studies. If rigorously developed and sensitively implemented, Manji’s vision would nourish the millions of Muslims and non-Muslims hungry for new ways of thinking about the Islamic tradition, and also would diminish an incredible amount of unnecessary suffering and bondage in the world.

Omar Sultan Haque is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Psychology and the Program in Psychiatry and Law at Harvard University.