There was a very interesting Channel 4 programme by an Islamic scholar called Tariq Ramadan a couple of weeks ago (see http://www.channel4.com/culture/microsites/C/can_you_believe_it/debates/reformation.html). I’d heard Ramadan mentioned before, but this was the first time I’d seen an extended piece about his views. Ramadan is a Swiss Muslim, much concerned with working out how Muslims should live in the West. His main argument was that Europe’s Muslims were the ones most likely to be at the vanguard of leading an Islamic Reformation. Most current Muslim theology presupposes an Islamic state in which it will be expressed. European Muslims, in contrast, because they are living as religious minorities, are having to face much more directly questions about how Islam faces modernity and other cultures. Ramadan is particularly impressive because he (and some of the study groups he helps arrange) are going beyond simply rejecting some traditions as not contained in the Koran. He is actually discussing some of the more objectionable bits of the Koran and arguing whether they are still applicable today, in a very different world. (Among the passages he discussed were injunctions to kill non-Muslims, the use of amputation as a punishment for theft and whether the Koran justifies beating wives).
It was clear from the programme that Ramadan’s approach wasn’t appreciated by more conservative/hardline scholars. Whether it will have any impact is hard to say, but it’s a potentially valuable development for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The one question I had was with his statement about this being a reformation. If you want to try and put it into these Christian-centred terms, then I’d say that arguably some of the more fundamentalist strains of Islam (Wahabism or Deobandism) are more like the Protestant developments of the sixteenth century and later. This is the theology that argues that cultural accretions must be removed from religion and that the pure original doctrines of the first centuries AD/AH should be the eternal norm of behaviour. Ramadan’s views seem in some ways more like nineteenth and twentieth century liberal Christian theology, with an emphasis on context and an implicit willingness to abandon a literal reading/application of the sacred text. Which raises the question: can a more liberal Islam survive as a religion in a pluralistic world? Liberal Christianity is now doing noticeably badly in terms of adherents: it is in more conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist churches that the growth in numbers is largely seen. If a more liberal Islam develops, can it survive, or will it tend simply be submerged into the secular world?