Islamic Relief 2013 Qurban

The Fallacy of Islamic Reform

May 12, 2011 by  


By Dr. Macksood A. Aftab

In recent times many individuals are advocating for an Islamic reform along the lines of the reforms which occurred in Christian Europe and brought Christianity out of the dark ages and into the modern one.   The advocates of such reform appear unaware of Islamic intellectual and cultural history.  Their assertion lies on the mistaken assumption that like medieval Christianity, medieval Islam must also have been similarly backward and barbaric.    However, the exact opposite is true in the case of Islam.

Medieval Islam gave rise to a beautiful civilization filled with culture, tolerance and diversity.   It nourished a whole array of scientists and sciences in the fields of philosophy, astronomy, medicine, history and others.   As an example of the culture of learning the main library in Cordoba (Islamic Spain) contained between 400,000 and 600,000 books, and was one of 70 libraries in the city.

Art, architecture and poetry flourished in medieval Islam.  Some of the most beautiful world landmarks such as the Alhamra, the Taj Mahal, and the Blue Mosque are from this era.   Bernard Lewis states,  “The civilization of Islam was by far the most advanced and the most creative in the world. Muslims led the world in science.”   Fischer adds, “ The brilliance of Perso-Turko-Islamic civilization provided architectural, painting and music forms to a world stretching from Andalusia to India to Central Asia.”

Islam during this time embodied a liberal worldview which embodied religious tolerance not only towards non-muslim minorities but also amongst the various schools of thought within Islam.

Contrast the progressive city of Venice with the Islamic capital of Istanbul.    Goffman narrates the experience of a Muslim merchant who visits Venice in 1567 CE and notices that Muslim were not allowed to build mosques and were even denied water for ablution.   Whereas, “In his beloved city of Istanbul, the large and thriving communities of Christians and Jews fraternized with Muslims on the streets and in the work places of the city.”   Classical Islamic civilization celebrated and preserved religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity amongst its population.

Women enjoyed privileges in society and status unthinkable in Europe.  Ruth Roded has documented that that the proportion of female lecturers in many classical Islamic colleges was higher than in modern Western universities.  She writes,   ‘If U.S. and European historians feel a need to reconstruct women’s history because women are invisible in the traditional sources, Islamic scholars are faced with a plethora of source material that has only begun to be studied. [ . . . ] In reading the biographies of thousands of Muslim women scholars, one is amazed at the evidence that contradicts the view of Muslim women as marginal, secluded, and restricted.’ 

Reform movements did take place in Islam in the 19th and 20th century.   However, unlike in the case of Europe when reform brought it out of the dark ages into enlightenment.   This reform took Islam from enlightenment into the dark ages.     These movements form the basis for the ideology of today’s Islamists, extremists and “puritans.”

Professor Fadl summarizes , “Puritans render the humanistic legacy of the Islamic civilization irrelevant as they ignore the accomplishments of past generations of Muslims in fields such as philosophy, the arts, architecture, poetry and music, moral and ethical theory, and even romanticism and love.” 

These reform movements revolted against traditional and progressive Islamic civilization and were largely reactionary to Western colonialism, ironically adopting western organizational structures at the expense of traditional Islamic institutions.  “Indeed, today’s Islamist militants reject the heritage of traditions in their endeavor to politicize Islam. Ironically, they contribute to the process of detraditionalization of society.” 

Therefore, the traditional Muslims of today are wary of a call towards Islamic reform.   This call is a result of the imposition of a western worldview on Islamic history.   Rather, the traditional Muslims are calling for a Revival of Islam.    A restoration of what were a great religion, and a great civilization begun in Madina by the Prophet (s) of Islam and which flourished for the following millennium.  Not for reform which had derailed the success story of Islam.

Dr. Macksood A. Aftab is Clinical Instructer at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.  He is also a candidate for Masters in History of Science at Harvard University’s Extension School.  He is a Neuroradiologist having completed his fellowship training at the Harvard Medical School.  He is also editor of the Journal of Islamic Philosophy.

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