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Does Islam Need A Reformation?

Does Islam Need A Reformation?

Does Islam Need A Reformation?

“These people that say Islam needs a reformation have never read Christian history, this [ISIS] is the reformation. What we need is a Council of Trent, we need a counter-reformation. These [ISIS] are the reformists; this is the fruits of reformation.” [1]

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When something no longer works, or ceases to be relevant, it needs to be changed or discarded. Take the existing prison system in the UK. It is archaic, no longer works, and is based on a thinking that is now considered baseless and irrational. [2]

Hence, the British Prime Minister has called for a reform of the prison system; to change the philosophy that underpins the current model, to rework its rules and to alter its structure so it can adapt to the needs and requirements of modern society. [3]

Reform, therefore, can be a good thing. It takes something that was once working and fruitful, but now dysfunctional and unproductive, and transforms it into something relevant, efficient and beneficial. However, reform can be extremely negative and can lead to disastrous consequences, particularly if there is no need for reform. Consider a company with happy and productive staff with increasing profits every year. A new CEO arrives and instead of ensuring the company continues its path of success, they radically restructure the organisation by removing the performing staff from their roles, replacing management and adopting new and unproven strategies. The consequences of the CEO’s changes could destroy the company.

Now imagine this CEO lost their job and was replaced. What do you think the new CEO should do? Continue with the company’s reformation? Or go back to the existing productive and successful regime? The answer is obvious.

The aforementioned examples provide general principles when dealing with the idea of reform:

• Need for reform: Reform is positive if something is no longer applicable, does not work and is unproductive.

• No need for reform: Reform is not required if something is relevant, working and fruitful.

• Reform is negative: When reform does not work, and derails the path of progress, the best strategy is to return to the state of affairs when the matter in question was relevant, working and productive.

This essay will use these principles and apply them to the modern neo-liberal idea of “Islamic reform”. It will argue that reform is not required and the ethical, social and political issues relating to Islam and Muslims can only be solved by re-establishing the intellectual authority of orthodox scholarship. This essay will highlight how the main arguments for reforming Islam are baseless and incoherent:

• The comparisons of Islamic reform to the Christian reformation of the sixteenth century commit the fallacy of faulty comparison because the Christian reformation aimed to change the authority of the Church, while the problems relating to Islam and Muslims are about a crisis of a lack authority, namely the intellectual orthodox scholarly tradition.

• The argument that Islam is “archaic” and unable to adapt to the requirements of modern society is misplaced because classical scholarship was always able to take the timeless values and principles of Islam, and apply them to unprecedented contexts via the use ijtihad, as mandated by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).

• The assertion that Islam needs to be reformed so it can conform to the liberal conception of human rights and values is based on the false assumption that this conception of rights and values is absolute and true. The liberal conception of human rights, also known as universal human rights, is premised on atomism or individualism. Although there are common grounds between the Islamic and liberal conception of human rights, there are profound differences. One key reason for these differences is due to liberalism’s false premise of individualism, and Islam’s anti-individualistic view of the society and the individual.

• The perspective that Islam must adhere to, and be understood, via the prism of rational ethics begs the question: what does one mean by “rational ethics”? This opens the door to a broad range of ethical theories that claim to use reason. Simply arguing that Islam is not in line with rational ethics implies that there is one ethical standard that one must abide by, and that rational ethics are free from moral, philosophical and conceptual problems. This is simply misleading and false.


Due to the ever-increasing liberalisation and secularisation of global culture, coupled with post 9/11 narratives and political strategies, the emergence of Daesh (also known as ‘Islamic State’), some thinkers and commentators have called for a reform of Islam. The main calls for reform take the shape of the following arguments:

1 Islam is archaic and cannot adapt to modern societies.

2 Liberalism’s values and its conception of human rights are true; therefore Islam must conform to them.

3 Islamic teachings are immoral and unethical; therefore it must conform to rational ethics.

These arguments lead their proponents to conclude that Islam needs a reformation, because when Christianity – in the form of the Catholic Church – faced similar problems, the inevitable result was a reformation of the entire religion. However, this conclusion is a gross misunderstanding of history, Islamic tradition and fundamental causes that led to the reformation.

Before addressing the reformists’ arguments, this essay will firstly address the fallacious comparison between the causes that led to the sixteenth-century Christian reformation and the causes for the social, ethical and political problems related to Islam and Muslims in the twenty-first century.


The Christian reformation of the sixteenth century was essentially motivated by the Catholic Church’s misuse of political power. The church was entrenched in political life and it used the coercive arm of the state to engage in corruption, coercion and the stifling of thinking that was antithetical to church doctrine. However, the sixteenth-century reformation was not a unique event. Calls for reform emerged prior to the reformation. For example, St. Francis of Assisi, Erasmus of Rotterdam and John Wycliffe were notable figures in this regard. These personalities, and their work to reform the church, strongly indicated a desire for renewal within the church years before the main events that started the reformation.

One key event that sparked the reformation was the theses that aimed to address the theological root of the church’s problems. Written by Martin Luther, the theses, known as the Ninety-Five Theses, was pegged on a church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Luther, who was a pastor and professor at the University of Wittenberg, attacked the main theological cause of the church’s corruption. His work was based on the following arguments:

• Scripture alone is authoritative (sola sciptura)

• Justification is by faith (sola fide), not by works

• The church requires ethical reform

• Many of the church’s doctrines have no scriptural justification

Although Luther did not renege from the Catholic Church, he was excommunicated in 1521. Luther’s work sparked the beginning of the reform movement in western Christendom.

The reformation was a process of the massive split of the Christian Church. The new Protestant version of Christianity gained popularity in northern Europe, and rulers of the area adopted this new form of Christianity. One of the main reasons for this is that they desired political autonomy from the Pope, and by extension the Catholic Church. This was motivated by the Catholic Church’s inability to recognise religious conscience. According to Professor John Charvet and the academic writer Elisa Kaczynska-Nay, they argue that the church “had regularly persecuted heretical beliefs through the coercive arm of the state, not so much to compel belief but rather to stop the propagation of false doctrine and the corruption of weak minds.” [4]

The Catholic Church had clear objectives to suppress the Protestant reformation in northern Europe, as a consequence, this caused years of bloodshed and war. Europe was in a state of chaos, blood was being spilt, and both Catholics and Protestants were massacred. Some of the key wars and revolts included:

• The massacre of St Bartholomew’s day in 1572 saw the bloodshed of 30,000 people. This massacre was made up of assassinations and violence, directed against Protestants during the French Wars of Religion.

• The Protestants in the Netherlands revolted. This war ended after 80 years, which led to an independent state in 1648.

• The finale of this brutality was achieved in 1618 during the Thirty Years War fought in Germany, but involved various other nations including Denmark, Sweden, Spain and France. This war was the most destructive and destroyed entire lands with famine and illness.

The end of the Thirty Years War saw the treaties of Osnabrück and Münster, part of the wider Peace of Westphalia. These treaties created a form of peace and a new balance of power in Europe.


The Catholic Church did not immediately respond to the theological arguments and the public awareness of Luther’s ideas. However, the Church did eventually respond with the Council of Trent, which expressed the Church’s answer to the issues raised by the reformation movement. The council met occasionally from 1545 to 1563, and the Church transformed into a more spiritual, literate and educated institution. One of the main consequences of the council was that the Church is the ultimate interpretive authority of the Bible.

The Origins of Liberalism

The reformation had an immense impact on the concept of religious toleration. According to Professor John Charvet this provided a template for “liberal social freedom generally”. [5]

The principles that emerged from the Reformation, and the subsequent treaties that were formed, allowed religious groups who opposed each other to agree to live together despite their disagreements. Various theorists were focussed on addressing the issue of tolerance between believers of different faiths. For example, Samuel Pufendorf and John Locke articulated various arguments in the form of written works that were premised on the concept of “natural liberty”. Locke wrote a famous and influential letter, ‘Letter Concerning Toleration’, in 1689. This letter argued that the state should not interfere with people’s’ beliefs but it should facilitate liberty in matters of faith. This letter, as well as many other works from the likes of Pufendorf and Thomas Hobbes, contained the “basic strategies that have come to be called liberalism.” [6]

These theorists argued for an individualist doctrine of natural rights. They viewed the rights of the human being as independent to that of society, and therefore based their conception of rights on the premise of individualism. This was perfectly consistent with preventing any further religiously inspired atrocities because this individualist outlook viewed the rights of a human as separate to God’s perceived will for society. This meant that the rights of a human being were independent of any authority, whether Divine or state. The connection with the seventeenth-century theorists and modern liberalism is understood via the concept of individualism because liberalism is premised on this idea.

This individualistic perspective was temporarily sufficient in providing a relatively quick solution to the problems faced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. However, when these problems ceased to exist, this individualist doctrine was not reviewed in order to ensure that it was philosophically and practically sound. It was just taken for granted because it solved the problems of historical violence and intolerance. This was problematic because individualism, as a premise for an entire political outlook, has been found to be philosophically shallow. Professor Ian Hunter from the University of Queensland describes the foundations of liberalism as “philosophically shallow”. He states in his essay, The shallow legitimacy of secular liberal orders: the case of early modern Brandenburg-Prussia,

“…that liberal government…arose in response to particular historical circumstances to which it remains tied. Modern liberalism continues to bear the marks of its historical emergence not because of the purity of its origins or the universality of its foundations, but because of the exigency to which it was an improvised solution…the philosophical shallowness of liberal orders is a direct outcome of their historical emergence…” [7]

Faulty Comparison

The Christian Reformation was based on Church-State relations. The problem of the Church was essentially a problem of authority. The church had become oppressive, unethical, and according to the reformers, it misused its authority to express doctrines that were unbiblical. In this light, can a call for a reformation of Islam be made with reference to what happened in sixteenth century Western Europe? This is where the fallacy of faulty comparison is exposed. The Christian Reformation was based on specific historical, theological and political circumstances of the sixteenth century. To take these circumstances and apply them in a general way to another religion that has had different experiences, and is based on a different understanding of society and politics, is problematic.

The main problem of the church was its misuse of authority. However, Islam does not have a concept of the church or papacy. The role of the church was to act as an authority for Christian doctrine, ethics and the interpretation of the Bible. Hence, calls for reform were, in reality, calls to change or dismantle the authority of the church. Islam does not have such an authority. Therefore, calls for reform are misplaced. Conversely, it can be argued that the problems of political violence, sectarianism and lack of progress in the Muslim world, are not problems related to Islam, but a problem with authority. The Muslim majority nations have lost their adherence to the authority of the Islamic intellectual tradition; the reference to the Qur’an and prophetic traditions via the understanding of the classical Islamic scholars.

Calls for renovation and a restoration (known as tajdeed) of traditional Islam would be apter, because if any problems exist in the Muslim world or communities, it is because the source texts of Islam have not been understood, and its ethical tradition ignored. It has nothing to do with the tradition itself. In actual fact, if there is a crisis in the Muslim world, it is due to the lack of Islamic authority, not because of its existence.


The thinkers and commentators that call to reformation seem to be ignorant of Islamic history. The current chaotic situation in the Muslim world is commonly compared to the coercive nature of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. This is a nonsensical and unsubstantiated argument because the Catholic Church cannot be compared to Islam. The Catholic Church required reform because as an authority, it was unethical, oppressive and unbiblical. However, the problems that the Muslim world faces today is not due to Islam (and there is not a papacy or Church authority in Islam), because Islamic teachings promote justice, accountability, tolerance and the preservation of rights. These teachings are taken directly from the Islamic source texts. Therefore, reformation of Islam is not the solution, but a revival of its basic principles.

Those who call for an “Islamic reformation” appear to have forgotten Islam’s long and well-documented track record of social, ethical and political manifestations. When Muslims were in tune with the Islamic scholarly tradition, justice, tolerance, accountability and rights prevailed. This is why a connection to this tradition must be re-established and not reformed. This does not mean that Islamic history never had periods of oppression and moral decay, it did. To paint a picture of a historical utopia is just an attempt to over glamorise Islamic history. However, the general principles is that whenever there were periods of light, the Islamic scholarly tradition was adopted, referred to, and taken seriously, and when there were periods of darkness, the Islamic scholarly tradition was misused, misapplied and at times ignored.

Take into consideration the Islamic teachings relating to justice and mutual respect:

Islamic scripture and texts resonate with justice. The Qur’an provides timeless and profound advice on treating others with justice (‘adl) and equality (qist) across all communities. The Divine book commands that justice must be maintained and implemented regardless of whom it supports:

“O You who believe! Be upholders of justice, bearing witness for God alone, even against yourselves or your parents and relatives. Whether they are rich or poor, God is well able to look after them. Do not follow your own desires and deviate from the truth. If you twist or turn away, God is aware of what you do.” [8]

“…and that when you judge between men, you judge with justice. Verily, how excellent is the teaching, which He gives you! Truly, Allah is ever all- Hearer, all-Seer.” [9]

In the Islamic spiritual tradition, obtaining God’s love and mercy is the ultimate goal. The Qur’an provides deep spiritual motivations to adhere to justice by saying that, “… God loves the just.” [10]

Islam teaches that justice must be meted out irrespective of friend and foe:

“O You who believe! Show integrity for the sake of God, bearing witness with justice. Do not let hatred for a people incite you into not being just. Be just. That is closer to faith. Heed God [alone]. God is aware of what you do.” [11]

The ninth century exegete and historian, At-Tabarī, wrote that justice in an Islamic context means: “that towards all peoples and religions you must treat them justly and equitably.” [12]

Communities across the Muslim world once implemented these timeless teachings. They created justice and impartial societies where even minorities who were persecuted in Europe fled to the Muslim world to find justice. The Jewish historian, Amnon Cohen, describes the historical manifestation of justice under Islamic values. Cohen states that the Jewish minorities sought justice from the Islamic courts rather than their own:

“The Jews went to the Muslim court for a variety of reasons, but the overwhelming fact was their ongoing and almost permanent presence there. This indicates that they went there not only in search of justice, but did so hoping, or rather knowing, that more often than not they would attain redress when wronged…” [13]

Islam teaches mutual respect and tolerance of people with different faiths and beliefs. This is exhibited in the unprecedented treaty between the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and the Christians of Najran. The Prophet (peace be upon him) offered the people of Najran unprecedented tolerance, freedom of religion and protection, which they never experienced under the Byzantines. The Islamic historian, Al Baladhuri narrates the text of the treaty in these words in his book Futuh ul Buldan:

“The lives of the people of Najran and its surrounding area, their religion, their land, their property, cattle, and those of them who are present or absent, their messengers and their places of worship are under the protection of God and guardianship of his prophet. Their present states shall neither be interfered with, nor their rights meddled with, nor their idols deformed. No bishop shall be removed from his office. The intention being that no change in whatever state everyone is, shall be made (status quo shall be maintained). Neither the people shall be punished for any past crime or murder, nor shall they be compelled to do military service. Neither shall ‘ushr (the tax on grain) be imposed on them, nor shall any army enter their area. If anyone of the people of Najran demands the rights, justice shall be done between the plaintiff and the respondent. Neither oppression shall be allowed to be perpetuated on them, nor shall they be permitted to oppress anyone. Whatever has been written in this pact, God and Muhammad, his Prophet, are guarantors for it, unless there is an order from Allah, in this connection, and as long as the people of Najran remain faithful and adhere to the conditions, which have been made for them, except that someone compels them to do otherwise.” [14]

The Islamic teachings of respect towards other people and their beliefs are echoed by Associate Professor Andrew F. March’s study on liberal and Islamic values. He opines that the Islamic scholarly tradition supported the idea of recognised religious differences and the contribution to non-Muslim welfare:

“…there was surprisingly strong support from classical, conservative jurisprudence, particularly on questions relating to the terms of residence, loyalty to a state of residence, recognition of religious difference, and contribution to non-Muslim welfare.” [15]

This toleration and respect is not just for other religions, but also for people with no religious beliefs. The Qur’an teaches that we must share our beliefs and values with “wisdom and good instruction” while discussing “in a way that is best.” [16]

The Islamic scholar and grammarian al-Zamakhshari said that “in a way that is best” meant:

“using the best method of argumentation which is the method of kindness and gentleness without gruffness and harshness.” [17]

Hence, Islamic teachings advocate mutual respect and kindness for all. These values are manifested in early Islamic history. By around the eighth century a group of people known as the “Dahrīyya” emerged. They were the modern equivalent of what we now call atheists. For example, Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, in his Kitāb al-Aghānī, mentions an intellectual amongst the Dahrīyya to have engaged in a public debate with the famous jurist, Abū Ḥanīfa. Details concerning the Dahrīs can be found in the works of various classical Muslim scholars, such as al-Jāḥiẓ, Muḥammad b. Shabīb, Ibn Qutayba, and Abū ʿĪsā al-Warrāq. This is evidence that there was an environment of intellectual discussion and debate, which could only have been facilitated by mutual respect and tolerance. [18]


As previously mentioned the main arguments for a reformation of Islam are as follows:

• Islam is archaic and cannot adapt to modern societies.

• Liberalism’s value and its conception of human rights are true; therefore, Islam must conform to them.

• Islamic teachings are immoral and unethical; therefore, it must conform to rational ethics.

Under scrutiny, these arguments do not hold water. The specific arguments that are used to call for reformation are based on false assumptions. Below are responses to the main arguments that reformists adopt to push for a reformation of Islam.

1. Islam is archaic and cannot adapt to modern societies

This argument conflates the apparent social and political regression of Muslim countries with Islam itself. Just because societies that have a majority population of Muslims display aspects of social and political regression, it does not follow that it is due to Islam. Even if some of these states claim to have an “Islamic constitution”, it would be grossly incorrect to conclude that Islam has a role to play in the socio-political malaise that has infected these societies.

Islam has always had the ability to adapt to modern realities. Islamic history has shown the religion’s ability to adapt to new circumstances. Islamic theology with its tool of ijtihad has been able to provide spiritual, social and progressive solutions for unprecedented problems. Ijtihad linguistically refers to hard work, or effort, however, it literally means exertion. Hence, the one who performs ijtihad, known as a mujtahid, is someone who refers to the Islamic source texts and exerts himself to derive solutions, verdicts and answers to new problems not directly addressed by the Qur’an or the prophetic teachings (Sunnah). The mujtahid must be a qualified person who has a deep understanding of Arabic grammar, morphology, and rhetoric, as well as a whole list of other specialities and sciences. Ijtihad is a practice mandated by the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). For example, the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said,

“If a judge passes judgement and makes ijtihad and he is right then he will have two rewards. And if he makes a mistake he will have one.” [19]

Ijtihad has a vital role to play in understanding Islam and being able to apply it timelessly. If Islam seems to not be able to adapt to the needs and problems of modernity it means that ijtihad is not being used, in other words, Islam is not being applied properly, because ijtihad is an Islamic principle. The central role of ijtihad in Islam is evident in the lives of the companions of the Prophet. They resorted to ijtihad when there was no clear text from the Qur’an or Prophetic traditions on a particular matter.[20]

The problem, therefore, is not Islam but it is due to a lack – or a rejection – of valid ijtihad and a dismissal of scholarly authority. The Prophet Muhammad said that the “scholars are the inheritors of the Prophets”.[21]

This clearly indicates that the Islamic tradition is one based on scholarship and not the ignorant musings of the unqualified laymen.

The Islamic intellectual tradition has shown its depth and richness by solving unprecedented problems with its use of ijtihad.

2. Liberalism’s values and its conception of human rights are true; therefore, Islam must conform to them

The main hidden assumption in this argument is that liberalism’s conception of human rights and values are absolute and true. This, however, is another false assumption. The liberal conception of human rights, also known as universal human rights, is premised on atomism or individualism. Although there are common grounds between the Islamic and liberal conception of human rights, there are profound differences. One key reason for these differences is due to liberalism’s premise of individualism.

Individualism – A False Premise

According to Professor of Philosophy Will Kymlicka, the bedrock of liberal thought is the “notions of individual rights and personal freedom.” [22] 

These values are premised on atomism or individualism. Political Philosopher Marilyn Friedman asserts that, “…individualism…underlies some important versions of liberal political theory.” [23]

Individualism can be best explained as the consideration that individual human beings are social atoms abstracted from their social contexts, attachments and obligations. [24] In light of this, is individualism a correct premise to base a political outlook or philosophy? Similar questioning is expressed by Political Philosopher Charles Taylor. He states,

“The very idea of starting an argument whose foundation was the rights of the individual would have been strange and puzzling…why do we begin to find it reasonable to start a political theory with an assertion of individual rights and to give thee primacy?…the answer to this question lies in the hold on us of what I have called atomism.” [25]

If it can be shown that individualism is ontologically false – which refers to whether this viewpoint has a basis in reality – this should raise fundamental questions about the validity of liberalism’s conception of human rights. Philosopher Professor Michael Sandel also concludes that the problem with individualism is with its faulty foundations. [26]

Individualism is a false premise for a range of reasons, some of them include:

• There are social and communal attachments that determine the individual. [27] For example, during the cognitive development of a child, developmental psychology has moved away from emphasising the child as the “independent constructor” [28] of his or her own development. According to research cognitive development is not so abstract but is more closely tied to social attachments including socially prescribed routines and tasks. [29]

• Individuality is dependent on aims and values. The human being is a vessel of aims and values. Aims and values must be considered when determining the individual, and aims and values can only be truly understood within a social context.

Shlomo Avineri and Avner deShalit argue this point,

“We cannot analyse their behaviour as if they were abstract entities, as if their values existed somewhere in the distance, ‘outside’, so to speak. This is a critique of the image of the person put forward by the individualists, who tend to distinguish between who one is and the values one has.”  [30]

• There are dynamic links between society’s values and behaviour. Social constructionist Vivien Burr concludes that key features – or values – of a specific society will affect an individual’s personality, she uses competition as an example,

“For example, in a capitalist society competition is fundamental; society is structured around individuals and organisations that compete with each other for jobs markets etc…so that where competition is a fundamental feature of social economic life, what you will get is competitive people.” [31]

Charles Taylor argues the incoherence of individualism. He contends that human beings have capacities and the affirmation of human capacities, defined as the presence of characteristics and traits of individuals that ensure the possession of rights, has normative consequences in that it cultivates these capacities in a society. Liberalism’s core political value of the primacy of rights, affirms the capacities that were nurtured in a society, therefore the obligation to belong to a society should be as fundamental as the assertion of rights. However by asserting the primacy of rights, one cannot always claim an equally fundamental obligation because at times the assertion of an individual right is achieved at the expense of the society. To assert the rights to the point of destroying a society deprives the environment for nurturing the required human capacities, as well as prevents future individuals in exercising the same capacity. Therefore, rights cannot be ensured if individual rights are taken as a priority (primacy) at the expense of society.

It can be concluded that the premise of liberalism – individualism – is a false one. Its attempt to understand the individual or the self is incorrect, as it seeks to dissociate the human being from its social reality. In other words, it argues that the individual is shaped, influenced and developed without any reference to social links. It logically follows that if an entire political outlook is based on a false premise, its results will also be incorrect. The emphasis of individual rights at the expense of society leads to a vicious downward spiral. Professor Daniel Bell, lecturer in Political Science states,

“Liberalism, it is claimed, contributes to, or, at least, does not sufficiently take account of, the negative social and psychological effects related to the atomistic tendencies of modern liberal societies. There is undoubtedly a worrying trend in contemporary societies towards a callous individualism that ignores community and social obligations, and liberal theory does not seem up to the task of dealing with this problem.” [32]

Liberalism and Human Rights

Since the premise of liberalism is false, then it follows that its conception of human rights cannot be accepted as truth or absolute. This does not mean that the entire liberal project for human rights is to be dismissed. Many of the rights reflect an essential part of who we are and how we should treat each other. However, the absoluteness or universality must be questioned and discussed. Professor Syed Nasr raises an interesting point that human rights are also determined by culture, and the claim to “universality” is incoherent because the “Western understanding of the term has itself changed over time.” [33]

There are similarities between the Islamic understanding of rights and the liberalist one. However Islamic perspectives can differ in subtle and profound ways due to its unique philosophy on society and the individual. Islam is not premised on individualism, it views the individual and society through the primacy of God’s revelation, which views them as an interconnected whole. The individual affects society and society affects the individual. This perspective is an accurate representation of reality; many studies in social psychology have shown the relationship between the two. The following Prophetic tradition provides an apt example that highlights Islam’s anti-individualistic view:

“God’s Messenger gave an example of people sailing on a boat having an upper deck and a lower deck. The people from the lower deck require water and request water from the people of the upper deck. The people from the upper deck refuse water, so the people from the lower deck decide to make a hole in the floor of the ship and get water from the sea. God’s Messenger said, ‘If the people from the upper deck don’t stop the people at the bottom from making a hole, the ship will sink and all the people travelling will drown.’” [34]

This Prophetic statement gives a clear view that individuals are part of society, and the society is part of the individual. It highlights the need for a symbiotic relationship between society and the individual. Certain actions, values and behaviour of individuals in a society can affect it and society – not just being a mere collection of individuals – can also have an impact on the individual. Hence, Islam views human rights from this point of view, and develops its own hierarchy of rights, via the balancing of rights of both the individual and society. Professor Nasr comments that “from a Quranic perspective the rights of the individual and those of society are not in tension or opposition with each other”. [35]

Since liberalism views human rights via the lens of individualism, and Islam views human rights via the lens of anti-individualism, then it would not be surprising that there will be some differences in how they understand and prioritise them. Professor Nasr provides a hypothetical discussion that reflects the similarities, but also the differences in the liberal and Islamic conception of human rights,

“If a debate were to be carried out today on the question of the understanding of human rights and the hierarchy presumed within it, one of the Westerners on the panel might say that Muslim women have few rights. A Muslim mother might answer that Western children have few rights; their most basic right, that of having a full-time mother, has been taken away by a new economic system in which many mothers are forced to spend, at best, a couple of hours each day of so-called quality time with their children after a full day’s work and in a state of fatigue. The Muslim might add that, after the need for a mother, the most basic right of a child is to have two parents, and that this right is taken away from nearly half of the children in many sectors of Western society by complex socioeconomic factors and the prevalent “morality,” which places the desires of the individual above responsibility in marriage to one’s spouse and children.” [36]

This hypothetical scenario highlights the fact that human rights are seen through cultural and philosophical lenses. Liberalism will view human rights through the primacy of the individual and Islam will view human rights through the primacy of God’s revelation, which is anti-individualistic. This nuanced approach to human rights is reflected in academia amongst mainstream Muslim academics. For example, Associate Professor Maria Massi Dakkake appreciates the similarities between liberal and Islamic views on human rights, but also highlights that their differences emerge from adopting different philosophies,

“Finally and most important, Islamic ethics and social norms are often judged in relation to modern Western notions of ethics and human rights, which in recent centuries have been dominated philosophically by secular and individualistic perspectives and have come, in the last century, to be seen in the West are synonymous with “universal” ethical norms or “universal” standards of human rights. Although Islamic ethical norms have much in common with those of Christianity and other traditional cultures, they also differ profoundly in certain aspects from the secular formulation of these norms in the contemporary West.” [37]

Liberalism’s perspective on human rights is not absolute or true because its premise is false. The Islamic conception of human rights is not based on the false premise of individualism, it is based on the accurate understanding that the individual affects society and society affects the individual.

3. Islamic teachings are immoral and unethical; therefore, it must conform to rational ethics

This argument assumes that a rational ethical framework leads to ethical truths and that Islam is “unethical”. A critical study of western philosophy will show that there are competing rational ethical theories, and they are infected with a whole host of moral, philosophical and conceptual problems. To argue that Islam needs to be reformed because some of its teachings may be deemed unethical via the lenses of a rational ethical theory begs the question: what do you mean by rational ethics?

This opens the door to a broad range of ethical theories. There is a number of competing approaches to morality that claims to use reason. Simply arguing that Islam is not in line with rational ethics implies that there is one ethical standard that everyone must abide by. It also assumes that these rational ethical theories are free from moral inconsistencies, absurdities and false assumptions. This is simply misleading and false. Take the theory known as utilitarianism as an example.

Utilitarianism: An example of rational ethics

Philosophers such as John Stuart Mill postulated that ethics should always consider the happiness or pleasure, and suffering or pain experienced by people by a particular action. This approach to ethics should not be confused with the immediate short-term pleasure or pain of an individual. Some things involve a level of pain but are morally sound due to their long-term positive consequences. Labour and childbirth are good examples. Therefore, for the utilitarian, something is ethical or good if it increased the overall pleasure for the community. Conversely, an action is wrong if it increases the pain or pleasure for the community.

There are a number of conceptual and philosophical problems with utilitarianism:

• Firstly, how can we calculate the pain or pleasure caused by our actions? Since this approach to morality is an empirical one, we have to rely on inductive reasoning. This strongly indicates that our understanding of what leads to pain or pleasure for the community will always be limited because it will be based on limited empirical data. We do not have knowledge of all of the effects of our actions. Therefore, we will never be able to form decisive conclusions about the effects of our moral actions.

• Secondly, utilitarian ethics can contradict our ethical intuitions and instincts. Dostoyevsky in his book, The Brothers Karamzov highlights the moral absurdities that utilitarianism can lead to. He presents an example where the peace and happiness of mankind can be achieved on the basis that a small baby would be tortured. Under utilitarianism, the happiness for majority of people will outweigh the suffering of the tortured child. Another extension of this criticism is the concept of rights, justice and obligation. We must never torture the child regardless of the benefits it could bring to the wider society; it is unjust and a child never deserves such affliction of pain.

• Thirdly, the approach that pleasure or happiness should be the basis for our moral actions should be questioned. For example, if a drug was found to provide us with a constant state of bliss, would that be justified under utilitarianism?

• Fourthly, utilitarianism implies that we have similar definitions of happiness.

There are utilitarian responses to these criticisms, however, this section was not meant to provide a full thesis on moral theory. Rather, its aim was to highlight that rational ethical views such as utilitarianism have their own conceptual problems and philosophical issues. In light of the above, arguing that Islam must be understood through the lens of rational ethics is incorrect, because rational ethical theories do not always lead to morally good actions. On this basis, why should Islam conform to such ethical world views?

The argument about ethics usually shifts to an argument about modern society and its view of what is morally acceptable. The argument that modern society has progressed and moved on from archaic moral paradigms is not a valid argument. Playing the social pressure card does not in any way validate one’s moral position. This is where many reformists face some inevitable difficulties. If social pressure or consensus is argued to form a yardstick for morals, then the proponents of this assertion face a huge issue.

Firstly, it renders morals as relative, as they are subject to inevitable social changes. Secondly, it leads to moral absurdities. If someone accepts social consensus as a basis for morals, then how can we justify our moral position towards what the Nazis did in World War Two? How can we claim that what they did was “morally wrong”? Even if you were to claim that there were people in Germany who fought against the Nazis, the point is that there was an overwhelming consensus or social pressure supporting the evil. This is why it would be accurate to describe reformers as intellectual-sheep, as they age for a moral position in line with social pressure. The question they should answer is: would you have been articulating such a position 200 years ago? Such irrational positions are simply herd-like moral positions, in reality, a moral view devoid of thinking and depth.


Contrastingly, Islamic ethics is based on a robust moral philosophy. Islam’s moral philosophy is based on the commands of God. These commands are in line with His nature. God is The-Wise, The-Knowing and The-Merciful, and since His commands are derivatives of His will, and His will is in line with His nature, it follows that what He commands is based on a boundless wisdom, knowledge and mercy. Therefore, our limited understanding of what is “moral”, via the use of our rational faculties, with all their limitations, cannot be compared to God’s commands.

In essence, God has the “picture” and we just have the “pixel”, therefore, once we comprehend what His commands are and what they imply, we must understand that they are good. God’s commands can never be compared to our limited understanding of the rightness or wrongness of an action. To claim otherwise would be the height of arrogance, because God has the totality of wisdom and knowledge, and we do not. It must be noted that this whole discussion is predicated on the fact that God exists and His commands are expressed in the Islamic source texts, however, it is not the scope of this essay to delve into this specific matter.

Notwithstanding this, Islamic ethics does not entirely negate the role reason does not. The Islamic view is that we must use our rational faculties to assess the meaning, application, context and scope of a particular command of God. In the Islamic intellectual tradition, there is a careful interplay between obedience to a command and using our cognitive faculties to understand what the command is, its implication, and context. This can result in differences of opinion about the understanding of God’s command, however, it still necessitates that if a valid opinion is established, obedience must follow. The Islamic intellectual tradition provides us with volumes of ethical treatises all based on God’s commands and moral guidance. Some of these treatises differ in some areas; however these differences are respected and tolerated, particularly if they are based on a sound methodology. Professor Nasr in his introduction to The Study Qur’an aptly summarises Islamic ethics,

“The Quran is also a book of ethics. It provides criteria for discernment between not only truth and falsehood, beauty and ugliness, but also good and evil. Although it emphasizes that human beings should use their God-given gift of intelligence (al-‘Aql) to discern what is true, beautiful, and good, it also insists that it is necessary to have faith in the revelation that provides the final judgment as to what is true and good and, in fact, allows human intelligence to be fully operative rather than becoming atrophied by human passions.” [38]


Islam does not need a reformation. What it needs is tajdeed, a renewal. This renewal is the reestablishment of the authority of the classical intellectual tradition. The neo-liberal calls to reformation are fundamentally baseless. They commit the fallacy of the faulty comparison because the problems relating to Islam and Muslims are about a lack of authority, whereas the Catholic Church was the centre of reform because of its misuse of authority.

The reformists falsely argue that Islam is archaic and unable to meet the needs of modernity because they ignore or misunderstand the tool of ijtihad. Their argument that Islam needs to conform to the liberal conception of human rights and values is incoherent because liberalism’s premise of individualism is false.

Finally, their assertion that Islam must adhere to rational ethics is based on the flawed assumption that rational ethical theories lead to good action, and that they are free from conceptual, ethical and philosophical problems.


[1] Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, UpFront, Al Jazeera, November 2015
[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/prison-reform-prime-ministers-speech
[4] The Liberal Project and Human Rights, p. 28
[5] The Liberal Project and Human Rights, p. 28
[6] The Liberal Project and Human Rights, p. 30
[7] Ian Hunter. ‘The shallow legitimacy of secular liberal orders: the case of early modern Brandenburg-Prussia’ in Geoffrey Brahm Levey and Tariq Modood. Secularism, Religion and Multicultural Citizenship. Cambridge University Press. 2009. p. 27 – 28
[8] The Qur’an, Chapter 4, Verse 135
[9] Ibid Chapter 4, Verse 58
[10] Ibid, Chapter 60, Verse 8
[11] Ibid, Chapter 5, Verse 8
[12] Jāmi’ al-Bayān, commenting on chapter 60 verse 8
[13] A World Within: Jewish Life as Reflected in Muslim Court Documents from the Sijill of Jerusalem (XVIth Century). Part One, 1994, Pennsylvania.
[14] Al-Baladhuri, Futuh al-Buldan, translated by Philip. K. Hitti, New Jeresy, 2002 (Reprint), p. 100-1
[15] Andrew F. March. Islam and Liberal Citizenship: The Search for an Overlapping Consensus. Oxford University Press. 2009, p.263
[16] The Qur’an, Chapter 16, Verse 125
[17] Al-Kashshaf, commenting on chapter 16 verse 125
[18] Encyclopaedia of Islam, THREE. Edited by: Gudrun Krämer, Denis Matringe, John Nawas, and Everett Rowson. Brill Online , 2012
[19] Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim
[20] Ghazali, Mustasfa, II, 106; Ibn al-Qayyim, I’lam, I, 176; Kassab, Adwa’, p. 19
[21] Tirmidhi, Abu Dawud, Nasa’i, Ibn Majah, Ahmad, Ibn Hibban, and others
[22] Will Kymlicka. Contemporary Political Philosophy. Oxford University Press. 2002. p 212
[23] Marilyn Friedman ‘Feminism and Modern Friendship: Dislocating the Community’ in Shlomo Avineri and Avner de- Shalit. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. 1992. p 101
[24] Ibid
[25] Charles Taylor. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. p 31
[26] Michael Sandel. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press, 1982. p 64 – 5, 168 – 73
[27] Charles Taylor. Communitarianism and Individualism. Oxford University Press. p 31
[28] Peter E. Bryant and Andrew M. Colman (Eds). 1995. Developmental Psychology. Longman Group Limited. 1995. p. 20
[29] R. Hinde, A-N. Perret-Clermont & J. Stevenson-Hinde (Eds).1985. Social Relationships and Cognitive Development. Oxford University Press
[30] Communitarianism and Individualism, p 3
[31] Vivien Burr. Social Constructionism. Routledge. 2003. p 33
[32] Daniel Bell. Communitarianism and its Critics. Oxford University Press. 1993. p 7
[33] The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, p. 287
[34] Sahih Bukhari
[35] The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, p. xxvii
[36] The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, pp. 288-289
[37] Associate Professor of Religious Studies, Maria Massi Dakkake, Quranic Ethics, Human Rights, and Society in The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, p. 1785
[38] The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary, p. xxvi