What Do Muslim Reformists Want?


Thijs Wester

Religious reformists, such as Martin Luther and John Calvin in the Christian
tradition, have been on the rise in Islam ever since the eighteenth century. Much
like their christian cousins, Muslim reformists often claim that Islam has gone
astray, or that it is otherwise no-longer fitting to modern times. These so-called
“Muslim reformists” tend to call for a number of quite disparate reforms and modi-
fications which are at times incompatible with one another. This essay will primar-
ily focus on the reforms called for by Nasr Abu Zayd while also pointing out more
general themes in Muslim reformative practices.

In his 2006 work “Reformation of Islamic Thought”, Abu Zayd makes various

attempts to minimize the ontological footprint of religious Islam (as we see with
many other religious reformists, both within Islam and elsewhere). His main
method for doing so is by establishing Muslim practices as non-Islamic usually by
establishing the origins of these practices somewhere outside of the Quran. In his
project of minimization, Abu Zayd shapes Islam into a religion capable of fitting
within modern societies.

Muslim Political and Legal practices are critiqued with particular rigor and are

dammed as pre-Islamic-, Roman- and Jewish-leftovers. In both cases, Abu Zayd
makes the case that these practices (which are often held as incompatible with
modern- and post-modern-values such as democracy, civil rights, rationality and
equality) are not essential to Islam, thereby making Islam more-compatible with
modern (liberal) societies than traditionally thought. The removal of traditional
practices from Islam is something done by many reformists in Islamic circles,
though Abu Zayd's method is slightly less conventional. Aside from establishing
Muslim traditions as non-Islamic, Abu Zayd also voices is disapproval of certain
practices separately. Indicating, for instance, that the mutilation of the bodies of
thieves could never be divinely sanctioned. This rationalist appraisal of Sharia and
other Muslim traditions is practiced more broadly within Islamic reformism.

In Abu Zayd's process of reformation, large parts of the Muslim tradition are

lost. I believe this to be intentional, as it allows for a “mere” belief in Allah to fit
with more lifestyles, locations and political systems. Thereby opening Islam up to
further globalization. Take for instance the five daily prayers or the famed pilgrim-
age to Mecca, both of these practices have changed in value over the years. The
value of pilgrimage changed with motorized travel and the prayers changed as peo-
ple spread across timezones. With this change in value comes a call for a change in
practice by Abu Zayd and other reformists. Ultimately, this is a rationalist approach



Thijs Wester


wherein the sense behind Quranic verses is analyzed and critiqued. It is for this
reason that these sorts of reforms are often rejected and attacked by Muslim fun-
damentalists who hold the Quran to be the literal word of Allah. For Abu Zayd,
viewing the Quran as a literal work is meaningless, since almost any viewpoint can
be defended with equally plausible readings of the Quran.

Trough Abu Zayd's altering of Muslim Practice, and abandonment of non-

Quranic tradition, so much is deislamified that any sense of a Muslim-identity
becomes difficult to find. Further questions are raised as concerning the part of
Islam Abu Zayd wants to preserve, as he does not often mention this “core” explic-
itly. To establish this essential core to Islam, we need look no further than the clos-
ing paragraph of his aforementioned work. Here, Abu Zayd outlines his wish to
“reconnect the Quran [...] to the meaning of Life” (Zayd, 2006, 99). In earlier para-
graphs he states more broadly that the philosophical core behind Islam and the
Quran should be what is focused on by Muslims as this core is immutable and
applicable across time and space (in contrast to legal practices and rituals as Abu
Zayd has already shown). This core is so-important to Abu Zayd, that nearly all-else
may be discarded in its service. Among the sacrificed, we find a unifying Muslim
identity. The system of practices, traditions and rituals which not only connects
Muslims to each other in there here-and-now, but also connects them to their

Here one may note an important distinction for Abu Zayd, that between Mus-

lims and followers-of-Islam. While all Muslims are follower of Islam, this relation-
ship is one-directional and it seems that follower-of-Islam- Abu Zayd frowns upon
the behaviour of Muslims altogether. It seems to me therefore that discarding of a
shared Muslim identity is intentional for retrofitting Islam to modern society. Even
more so when one considers that Abu Zayd spends much of his work distancing
himself from Muslims altogether. Despite this seeming distancing, Abu Zayd can be
heard calling himself a Muslim in various talks that he has give in the years follow-
ing his “Reformation of Islamic thought”. Ultimately, Abu Zayd emphasises the
hope he holds for the future of Islam and indicates that Islam has undergone many
changes since its inception. I believe this hope to be the basis for his reformism (as
opposed to a form of abolitionism which would be more suitable for someone with
such an obvious distaste for Muslim practices).

In his works, we see Abu Zayd separating the philosophical core of Islam from

the divine and traditional sides of the religion. The behaviours of (contemporary)
Muslims are condemned and established as non-Islamic. Ultimately, Abu Zayd
seems to want to vindicate Islam from the bad connotations it has in the west.
Thereby paving the way for a new Islamic tradition which fits within liberal demo-
cratic society and which is capable of recognizing certain practices as relative to
the time in which they were introduced. For Abu Zayd, Islam deserves this



Thijs Wester


vindication because of the answers it can provide for life's greatest (philosophical)
questions and he seems to hold out hope for Islam and for Muslims, that they
might one day be willing to change.



Thijs Wester



Zayd, Naṣr Ḥāmid Abū. 2006. Reformation of Islamic thought: A critical historical

analysis. Amsterdam University Press.