On Reforming Islam

Yesterday was an interesting day when I voiced my displeasure with Bill Maher and Sam Harris’s clip circulating on Twitter in which they talk about the Muslim Ban and the need for reform in Islam. Both of them declare that the Muslim Ban is a “dumb idea.” Then they talked about how secular, liberal and former Muslims had to be the people fighting the war of ideas against “radical Islam.” Sam Harris named reformers Asra Nomani, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Maajid Nawaz, and Raheel Raza as some of those people fighting this fight. You can watch the clip below.

Here was my eloquent and heartfelt tweet in reaction to this clip:

I found it hilariously galling that here were two white, non-Muslim men were sitting around discussing Islam when to the best of my knowledge neither of them have true knowledge, experience, or expertise of the huge, diverse, and complex Muslim world – just opinions. I see no evidence of their understanding of the depth and complexity of Muslim cultures, countries & social systems.

Bill Maher himself has made his disdain for Islam clear over and over again; Sam Harris has tried to be more conciliatory since writing his book with Maajid Nawaz, Islam and the Future of Tolerance, but has yet to evolve to the point where I’d consider his viewpoint with the same respect and credibility I’d give to someone speaking on the same subject who has lived, traveled, or come from any Muslim country and has direct rather than indirect knowledge of the issues at hand.

Naturally I was criticized for making this about race and religion (?), told that anybody had the right to have an opinion about Islam, or even critique it or be hostile to it — and that didn’t make that person a bigot or an Islamophobe or racist. I was told, Don’t you understand that Bill and Sam are saying what you believe – that reform has to come from within Muslim communities, societies, cultures and countries?  I was told that I was lucky to be able to speak up at all, because if I lived in a Muslim country, I’d be beheaded, stoned, or honor-killed. Or should be, because I was voicing dissent against the idea of Islamic reform.


Let me just say that I firmly believe that reform must come to Muslim countries and people. But it has to come in the shape of many things: social, economic, education, cultural and political; reforming a religion without any of those other changes taking place would be an academic exercise in futility. We are looking at changing attitudes and practices, many of which are entrenched in Muslim societies and will take decades, if not centuries, to alter.

I want to say that I have tremendous respect for ex-Muslims and atheists living or from Muslim countries, communities and cultures. They have chosen a lonely path, a dangerous one given that many Muslim countries seek to punish apostasy severely. But they are true to themselves and their principles. They suffer from ostracization and excommunication in their communities and even from their families. I crave more dialogue between Muslims and ex-Muslims, because they are the ones who truly understand what happens in Muslim communities and cultures, good and bad.

It also has to be noted that reform has been happening in Islam over centuries, just not in the way that Harris and Maher and others like them know about or understand. Even Wahabbism and Salafism are seen as reformist movements, although not in the direction that may be deemed beneficial to the Muslim world or the world at large.

Of course the change has to be led by Muslims. But I wouldn’t look to Harris and Maher for their recommendations about who those reformists should be. They are familiar with one subset of reformists, and they are promoting them on their platforms, which is their right. But if only they were interested in looking at many people who have been working on Islamic reform from many different aspects, academic and otherwise.

Many of these scholars, writers, thinkers and activists have made the study of Islam their life’s work, have traveled and researched and lived in the countries, and so understand that “reform” is not about changing the pages of a Holy Book or making clerics say nice, palatable things (and they have been saying those nice, palatable things to the West while saying not so nice, nasty things to their own followers; anyone can talk a good talk).

Anyway, in the interest of knowledge, here are some of the reformers that I am familiar with, whose works I have read, and whose expertise I value. They aren’t seen on national television, they don’t make the news, and they don’t take visible political stands on the current issues of the day. I don’t think any of them is an apologist for Islam or Muslims, and they challenge, critique the doctrine, and push back with the best of the skeptics and critical thinkers. But they understand and feel deeply for the Muslims of the world, infusing their work with a true spirit of scholarship that is fascinated with its subject and comes to it with an openness and honesty that seeks to learn as much as it does to inform.

Ziauddin Sardar, author of the fantastic book Mecca the Sacred City and Islam Beyond the Violent Jihadis and editor of Critical Muslim.

Tariq Ramadan, author of Radical Reform: Islamic Ethics and Liberation

Kecia Ali, expert on feminism, ethics, Muslim law, and author of Sexual Ethics in Islam

Amina Wadud, scholar who led a mixed-gender prayer and is an expert on feminism and Islam

Asma Barlas, scholar and expert on Islamic hermeneutics, feminism, and Muslim sexual politics

Fatima Mernissi, Moroccan sociologist and thinker extraordinaire, known as the founder of Islamic feminism and author of the seminal work Beyond the Veil

Nawal el Sadawi, Egyptian radical feminist

Javed Ghamdi, Pakistani progressive Islamic scholar who lives in exile

Deeyah Khan, Norweigian Pakistani filmmaker and women’s rights advocate, whose web site Sisterhood showcases the voices of women – Muslim, non-Muslim, ex-Muslim.

This is just a starter. There are many more. They are out there, working, writing, talking, listening. The Muslim world(s) are alive, fomenting with change, living through the push-pull of modernity versus tradition. Don’t believe for one minute that it isn’t happening, or that Muslims are resistant to change, or don’t seek it out and want a different world for themselves and their children.


4 thoughts on “On Reforming Islam”

  1. I have watched the video and am very familiar with Sam Harris’s views on Islam and I have read your post. I see little that you disagree with him except his skin colour. If you look past identity politics I think you will find in Harris a very well-informed, well-travelled and engaged ally. I hope you give him the benefit of the doubt because he truly is very concerned about ethics and wellbeing around the world and is a true champion of liberal values.


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