Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss



There are several positions with regard to Islamic politics and religion. Violent. fundamentalists, Scriptualists (or literalists, who are non violent fundamentalists), Conservative Traditionalists, Reforming Traditionalists, Modernists and Secularists. 1

Secularism as a culture is friendly to the culture of the West. However not all secularists are friendly to the West; the Palestinian Liberation Organziation is not as was equally true of Marxists. Turkey is the outstanding Secular state made up of a great majority populace of Muslims.

Fundamentalists (whether violent or not) are hostile (whether openly or not) to the West since it is democratic. The hostility is based on the West’s democracy.  As stated by Hizl-ut-Tahiri, ‘The republican system is based on the democratic system, which is considered a system of ‘kafr’ [unbelief].

2 Afghanistan is hostile to the West while Saudi Arabia a scripturalist country is not openly hostile. But that is due to its insecurity and need for protection and not to its culture.

Conservative Traditionalists are not inherently hostile to the West but they also do not favor western values. They are not usually violent. They share many values with the Fundamentalists: the importance of sharia law, opposition to women’s rights, the use of the Mosque as a form for ‘political’ discussion, the sharing of charitable organizations and the inability to condemn terrorism.

Reforming Traditionalists are both In part traditionalists and in part Modernists.

There are few Modernists in Islam; they are almost exclusively academics and largely live in the West. Those you live in Islamic countries are like Professor Aghajari sentenced to death for blasphemy in Iran and Dr. Nawal as-Saadai threatened with death in Egypt. One of the few exceptions to both situations is the grand Mufti of Bosnia Sheik Mustafa Ceric. He has stated that he agreed with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's statement that the social contract incorporates four basic rights: to the protection of life, religion, property and dignity. A just and equitable Muslim would respect other individuals' rights in respect to each of these. ..  Everybody should stick to their faith and practise it and not attempt to deny others the right to do the same. 3 We will discuss some current modernists later on in this chapter.

If there are not many Modernists in Islam there are fewer Secularists. They live primarily in Europe, the United States, Canada and Australia. Aside from the few academic secularists it is difficult to know how many others hold those views.  

Islamic Reformers attempted to modernize Islam; Radical Islam wishes to Islamitize modernity. 4 It is the age old conflict between ‘ta’a’ – obedience to the leader – the Imam- versus individual freedom.  The Imam leads by occupying the ‘leading place’; he differs from the caliph who is considered to be the successor to the Prophet. 5 It is interesting to note that the successor to the Prophet is a political leader and not a spiritual leader.

Reformers in Islam recognized the importance of freedom of thought and the freedom to differ; however because of a perceived need for unity – for the community- the ‘umma’, individualism was sacrificed. Freedom is seen as disorder. As we noted before ‘Al-hurriyya’ freedom is connected in Arabic to ‘jahiliyya’ anarchy (or ignorance).

The Arab world never accepted ‘the legacy of the Enlightenment, an ideological revolution that led to the debunking of the medieval cosmologies’. 6 Instead of thinking about the progress and the future, they think of renewing the past.  


Twentieth century Islam was influenced by several important reform figures: Jamal al-Din ‘al-Afghani’ (1838-1897), and his disciple Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian. Islamic Fundamentalism has been described as ‘both a significant political and social protest movement and a cultural trend in many Arab and other Muslim countries. 7

Afghani was probably the most important reformist thinker as well an activist, influencing Islamic thinking. During his lifetime he was Prime Minister of Afghanistan (before he was 27 years of age), a member of the Educational Council in Egypt, Grand Mufti of Egypt, Minister of War and Prime Minister of Persia and a Professor at the University of Dar-al-Funun in Constantinople. While his birth was a secret he was likely an Iranian Shia by birth. 8 He lived in London, Paris, Moscow and St. Petersburg, created an important Islamic Journal published in Paris all before his death at the age of 60th.

He was against superstition and believed that people should read the Qur’an and use their reason and not simply accept tradition. He emphasized the Qur’an verse ‘God will not change the state of a people until they change their own state’ (Sura 13:12). He referred to himself as the Martin Luther of Islam. 9  He believed that the Reformation allowed Europe to develop a scientific and technological base. ‘Those who forbid science and knowledge are really the enemies of religion.’ 10 He attempted to re-interpret Islam. This differs from fundamentalists who wish to re-apply what they consider Islam’s original ideology.  Despite some of his followers becoming fundamentalists it is clear Afghani was not.

According to Elie Kedourie and Sylvia Haim he was actually a skeptic on religion and thought it was ‘ a force for evil’. Ernest Renan, a friend during his Paris days, called him an ‘enlightened Asiatic’.  He however understood the power of Islam in the Muslim world. He believed it was ‘a solidarity-producing force’ and was the only power to resurrect the Muslim world. 11  He believed in a national culture defined through language more than religion. Interestingly he wrote this in Persian and according to Sylvia Haim despite it being written in the 19TH century (as of 1962) it was never translated into Arabic. 12


Abduh was Afghani designated successor when he left Egypt. He believed that Western thought was compatible with Islam. After living in Paris we went back to Egypt and brought western legal codes and Islamic law into harmony. General principles were Qur’an ordained, specifics needed to be interpreted. In 1899 he became Mufti of Egypt, the highest position in Islamic law. Like his teacher Afghani he was an activist. He led an uprising and was expelled from Egypt, several years after his teacher was expelled. He joined Afghani in Paris. He was pardoned, returned to Egypt became a Judge and then attempted to reform Al Azhar University, the oldest Islamic University and still its most prestigious, but he failed. During his time as Mufti he made two revolutionary ruling; that meat slaughtered by Jews or Christians could be eaten and putting money into interest bearing banks was allowable.

His principle position as Mufti was that human reasoning was the only tool for applying the laws of the Qur’an. He intended to make Islam adaptable to modern civilization. Like his teacher Afghani he spend most of his life actively changing Islamic life, but his longer term influence was his attempts at reformation and religious awakening. He connected the two aspects of his life consistently.

Abdul believed that Islam should be unified as it was at the beginning. And leaders should be scholars. Muslim governments should have no need to hire non-Muslim advisors.  Kedourie believed that Afghani was a secularist and Abdul was an atheist or at least an agnostic. 13  

Another disciple of Afghani and Abdul was Sa’d Zaghlul (1857-1927). He  declared that ‘religion was between man and God, whereas the state was between man and man’. 14 These theorists were considered secular Egyptian nationalists.  Another disciple of al-Afghani and of Abduh was Ali Abd Raziq Rida (1865-1935)..15 Raziq was more puritanical and therefore closer to the Wahhabis, than Abdul.  He later defended the Ibn Sa’ud conquest of the holy cities. He was not the secularist Abduh was. He believed that Islam was a spiritual, political and social religion. He followed Abdul in thinking that the general principals of life were defined by the Qur’an and the hadith. But interpretation must be made by the clergy using modern day scholarship and independent minds. He believed in the Qur’anic principle of religious freedom and was against coercive conversion. But as opposed to Abdul he believed Muslim states should be ruled Islamic law although modernized.

Raziq later became a fundamentalist. He distinguished between the spiritual or religious law and the secular or social and economic law. 16 In the former religious freedom was to be guaranteed, in the latter the equality of men and women. He appears to believe in two separate authorities – a religious and secular – the relationship between the two being unclear. In his commentary on the Qur’an he recognized the importance of history on theology. He notes that in the times of Muhammad the Jews of Medina had their political and religious authority. They competed with Muhammad and his new Abrahamic religion; thus the conflicts in the Qur’an. Later during the Crusader period and the conflicts in Spain ‘the hostility which arose between [the Christians and Muslims] was stronger that that which the Jews had felt . . . in the earliest days of Islam.’ . . . However this may be, nothing like this [hostility] exists today [1915] between the Jews and the Muslims’.  17 Raziq later rejected his youthful ideas became more conservative and believed that westernization was a major threat to Egypt and Islam’ and became a major thinker behind the Muslim Brotherhood. 18 Raziq re-discovered Ibn Tayiyya a medieval scholar (1263-1328) who became the spiritual father of the Fundamentalists. (We will discuss Ibn Tayiyya separately.)

The position taken by Avicenna and Averroes as well as by Maimonides was that Reason and Revelation do not conflict. Some Islamic and Judaic traditionalists reject this position. Of the reformers it was clearly the position of Afghiani and Abduh 19.  A well known quote from the Qur’an is ‘God does not change a people’s heart unless they change what is in their hearts’ (13:11) is often used by the reformers.

The basis of the reformers philosophy is living in this world and correcting it. The basis for fundamentalism is that the other world is the ‘true’ world and only salvation (to use a Christian word) matters. Thus dying as a martyr takes one directly to the ‘true world’.

Late twentieth century Reformers include Mahmud Muhammad Taha of the Sudan, Muhammad Abed Jabri from Egypt, Muhammad Talbi of Tunisia, Abdul Karim Soroush and Abdulaziz Sachedina

Mahmoud Muhammad Taha

Taha, believes in the principle of ‘naskh’ (the abrogation or repeal of certain texts of Qur’an and Sunna for legal purposes in favor of other texts of the Qur’an and Sunna). This is crucial to the theoretical validity and practical viability of the evolutionary approach to the Qur’an.  20 Naskh has a highly complex exegesis by which abrogation of the wording of the text or alternatively of the ruling of the Sunna are possible. This type of exegesis has been accepted, in principle by ‘the vast majority of Muslim jurists’. 21

The Qur’an was written over many years and referred to specific situations. Sura 16:126-127 asks for patience towards infidels while Sura 5:9 calls for killing them. As a long term strategy both cannot be correct. When discussing polygamy a verse requires equality among wives (4:3) while another concedes that as an impossible goal (4:129). (That difficulty also was one the reasons Judaic law, in the Middle Ages, outlawed polygamy.)  One difficulty is that the order of the placing of the Qur’anic chapters in the canonized is not chronological. Earlier chapters must be reconciled with later ones. Much of the Shari’a was written in the immediate aftermath of Muhammad’s demise and reflected the positions of those days. (This is not dissimilar to the Talmud written in the aftermath of the second Temple’s destruction and the growth of Christianity.)

Taha called for the establishment of a secular system with the Shari’a as personal law for Muslims. Albert Hourani has quoted Abduh’s example as one member of Islam who ‘had intended to build a wall against secularism, [but] had in fact provided an easy bridge by which it could capture one position after another’. 22  Raziq stated at one point that the Prophet (Muhammad) religious authority ‘was terminated at his death’.  The successive Caliph’s only inherited his political authority.23  

Taha was executed for apostasy in the Sudan in 1985 for his reformist ideas.

Muhammad Abed Jabri

Jabri believed that Democracy and Human Rights are not only compatible with Islam but that these aspects of modernity should have a positive impact on Islam. Islam is based on the oneness of God, but we human beings have multiple needs and identities. The Qur’an and the ‘Sunna’ do not legislate on matters of authority and politics, but offer ‘a foundation an ethics of political power in Islam’ - consultation, justice providing for the poor and deprived. 24

Muhammad who was both a religious and political leader died suddenly without a system of succession. The companions instead of developing a system chose a person. The system became the practice of the followers and not based on the text of the Qur’an. Trust was given to the new Caliph and no institutional protection. As a result no connection was made between ethical principles and the organization of real life.

‘A separation of Church and State was indeed necessary at some time within the Christian milieu. Since there is no Church in Islam, there is no need for such a separation. Muslim societies require that Islam be maintained and implemented as an ethical reference as a ground and principle for social and political life, within the scope of an updated knowledge of the past.’ 25

Jabri while disregarding separation of Church and State proposed separating religious practice from political practice. Since religion is based on the unity of God, its objective is to unite men. Politics is the management of differences it leads to conflict and should be ruled by ‘profane’ rationality.  ‘Practical politics should not be placed within religion nor should we defend our political ideas and interests through concepts and representations extracted from religion’. 26

Muhammad Talbi of Tunisia.

Talbi considers himself an historian of Islam and the Islamic Religion. The Qur’an must be read historically. It was referring to events in a context.  One cannot generalize from particular events. Talbi places Sura 4:34-35 referring to ‘disciplining women’ in a cultural context and not as a universal ethic. Justice on the other hand is a universal ethic. 27

 The problem according to Talbi is that everyone assumes that ‘his’ position, his interpretation is true and final and all other views must be excluded. His view is quite pluralistic, all interpretations and even other religious belief systems may be valid and part of ‘Gods tapestry’…‘The religious organizations are numerous and they promote different interpretations. Each thinks it is the foundation of Islam, its basis, and its source, and that anyone who disagrees with it is in error.  .  .  . [each individual should be ‘equipped with modesty and respect for the other.  . .  . all the Islamic movements which call for fanaticism are in some form connected to this great civil strife’ which began with the succession to the Prophet and continues to this day. 28

The Qur’an is not intended as a political document, but of personal observance and a universal system of ethics. It is not a political constitution. Rulers, according to the Qur’an are required to consult with the ruled. This is a universal value. It applies to the political power as well as relations between a husband and wife. The Prophet consulted with his companions. He and the Qur’an reject tyranny and dictatorship.

He points out that 40% of the Muslims of the world live as minorities. The idea of an Islamic unity is a fantasy as is the idea of universal ‘shari’a’. Part of the Qur’an’s ‘shari’a’ is cultural and some historical based. ‘The Islamic movements . . . employing ‘shari’a in a way not cognizant of reality or history, as an edifice characterized by ‘retrospectiveness’, imaginary and chimerical and is incompatible with reality’.

Democracy is one way of achieving consultation. ‘This democracy means the voice of many determining who rules and how they rule, with the associated notions of universal human rights, freedom of expression, religious pluralism and equality before the law’. 29 While modern democracy did not exist in the early Islamic age, it represents the modern version of the Qur’an’s consulting of the ruled by the ruler.

While many Muslims claim that sovereignty belongs to God, someone has to appoint God’s vice-regent for this world. In the Qur’an it is the ruled who choose the ruler. Even the Ayatollah Khomeini, not thought of as a democratic ruler stated in his Last Will and Testament that ‘in all elections . . . all of you, from the Maraje’ [religious authorities] and great ulama to the bazaar, farmers, workers and government employees, are responsible for the destiny of the country and Islam’. 30 This is a definition of Islamic democracy.

Abdul Karim Soroush

An Iranian philosopher, not trained as a cleric, but part of the original revolution was educated in Teheran University in Islamic Law, Mathematics and Pharmacy and then went to London to study the Philosophy of Science. He was appointed by Khomeini as a member of the seven body Cultural Revolution Council whose task was to Islamicize Higher Education. He resigned and began teaching philosophy at Teheran University.  

He claimed that freedom is required to be true believer. Coercive religion ‘is not true belief. . . . Islam is flexible.’ 31 As a result he claims that religious piety is more protected in a secular democratic than in a state enforced theocracy. In secular countries religion is a choice not an obligation.

‘[The Qur’an] is immutable and changeable at the same time. . . .the interpretation of the text . . .is changeable. No interpretation is without presuppositions. These presuppositions are changeable once the whole of knowledge of mankind is in flux. . . . the text is silent. We have to hear its voice. In order to hear, we need presuppositions. In order to have presuppositions we need the knowledge of the age. In order to have the knowledge of the age, we need to surrender to change. So we have here the miraculous entity that is changing but as the same time is immutable.’ 32

He was assaulted in Isfahan University in 1995 and prevented from lecturing at Tehran University in the same year. Soroush said that no one is infallible. As he stated ‘there is no official interpretation of Islam’. His statements are similar to many found among a certain class of Jewish commentators. He expounds the idea of natural law found in Immanuel Kant. ‘We do not draw [our conception of] justice from religion but rather we accept religion because it is just’. 33

He has criticized Clerics in Iran as being government civil servants. He believed in separating Church and State. ‘In the modern age secularism has been presented as a conscious discarding of religion from the affairs of life and politics. A secular government is not opposed to religion, but neither does it make religion the foundation of its legitimacy or the basis of its actions.’ Governments are required to be base their actions and decisions based on scientific knowledge and social management. In this they are indifferent to religion, not opposed to it. The question of religious truth has no bearing on the responsibilities of the government.     

Soroush’s political philosophy is close to the liberal tradition and he has championed the basic values of reason, liberty, freedom and democracy. Robin Wright called him the modern Martin Luther of Islam.

Abdulazziz Sachedina

According to Abdulaziz Sachedina, a devout Muslim Shiite scholar ‘[T]he categorization of religiously ordained God-human and inter-human relationships in Islamic sacred law, the Shari’a, is an explicit expression of the distinct realms of religious and temporal on earth.’  34 For his writing a ‘fatwa’, an interdict was issued to stop Muslims from hearing or reading him.  

The Qur’an states ‘there is no compulsion in religion’ (2:257) and ‘I have my religion, and you have your religion (109:6). And ‘if God had wished, He would have made all humankind one community’ (5:48; 11:118; 16:93; 42:8). ‘And if thy Lord had willed, whoever is in the earth would have believed, all of them, all together. Would you (O Muhammad) then constrain the people, until they are believers’? (10:99 35) “The people were one community (umma) then God sent forth the Prophets, good tidings to bear and warnings, and He sent down with them the Book with the truth, that He might decide the people touching their differences. (2:213). 36 Does this not imply the people of the world as one community, prophets coming from the different religions and books with truth? 37 ‘For every one of you [Jews, Christians, Muslims], We have appointed a path and a way. If God had willed, He would have made you but one community; but that [He has not done in order that] He may try you in what has come to you. So compete with one another in good works’ (5:48). Does this not imply tolerance and pluralism?


We have only given a short history of late nineteenth and twentieth century reformers. The bibliography contains greater detail. It is difficult to know how much influence the reformers have on Islam, or whether they are minor compared to the Radical fundamentalists. The Islamists certainly receive a great deal more publicity mainly as of result of their terrorist activity. Which group has more adherents in Islam is difficult to determine. Clearly if the people of Islam are going to succeed into the modern world the Radical Fundamentalists must be defeated.

1 Bernard, Cheryl, Civil Democratic Islam, (Rand Corporation, California, 2003)

2 Hizb-ut-Tahiri, quoted in Bernrard, Civil, pg. 28.

3 Interview with Nadeem Azam in London 2003, quoted in

4 Kepel, G., The Revenge of god, (Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1994) pg. 2.

5 Mernisis, Islam, pg. 23.

6 Mernisis, Islam, pg. 47.

7 Quoted in an article by Andrea Nusse, in Nettelr, R.L., ed., Studies in Muslim-Jewish Ralations, Vol. 1, (Harwood Academic Publishers, Oxford, 1993, pg. 97.

8 KEDDIE, Nikki, Sayyid Jamel al-Din al Afghani: A Political Biography, (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971)

9 Rejwin, N., Arabs Face the Modern World, (University Press of Florida Miami, 1998) pg. 12.

10 Voll, Islamic Fundamentalism, pg. 355.

11 Kedouri Elie, Politics in the Middle East, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992) pg. 274-275. Haim, Sylvia, ed. Arab Nationalism UCLA, Los Angeles, 1976) pg. 10.

12 Haim, pg. 14.

13 Quoted in Ayubi, pg. 58

14 Mortimer, pg. 242.

15 Mortimer, pg. 249

16 Enayat, H., Modern Islamic Political Thought, (University of Texas, Austin, 1982)

pg. 79-83 and Mortimer, pg. 243-251.

17 Jansen, Dual, pg. 120.

18 Esposito, J., Islam and Politics, (Syracuse University Press, 1984) pg. 131.

19 Adams, C.,C., Islam and Modernism in Egypt (N.Y., 1968) pgs. 128-135.

20 Based on the writing of ‘Ustadh’ Mahmoud.  An-Naim, Ab. Ah., Towards an Islamic Reformation, (Syracuse University Press, Syracuse, 1990) pg. 35.

21 An-Naim, pg. 57.

22 An_naim, pg. 42-43.

23 An-Naim, pg. 43.

24 Cooper, Islam and Modernity, by Abou, Filali Ansari, pg. 162.

25 Cooper, Islam, by Abou, Filali Ansari, pg. 165.

26 Cooper, pg. 165

27 Cooper, by R.L.Nettler, pg. 132-133.

28 Cooper, pg. 145,147.

29 R.L. Nettler , Mohamed Tilbi and Islamic Modernism, in Marquand, D., and Nettler, R.L., Religion and Democracy, eds. (Blackwell Publishers, Oxford, 2000) pg. 55.

30 Quoted in Esposito, J., and Voll, J.O., Islam and Democracy, (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1996) pg. 24.

31 Wright, pg. 284

32 Shadid, pg. 227.

33 Shadid, pg. 229-230, also brumberg, pg. 233.

34 Sachedina, Islamic Roots, pg. 5.

35 Translated by Sachedina, Islamic Roots, pg. 3.

36 Translated by Sachedina, Islamic Roots, pg. 22..

37 See also 21:92; 49:14.