IN COMMON with all faiths, all complexions of Islam call for reform or ‘renewal’. However, contemporary Islam wrestles with disagreement on what form such a renewal is to take. This disagreement is compounded with a strong instinct to distrust any new thinking (as may be implied in the term ‘renewal’) as destructive to what is opaquely conceived as a perfect and divinely delineated model. The grassroots fear among many Muslims is that a reformed Islam must in some way no longer be true Islam. For this reason the concepts of ‘innovation’ and ‘heresy’ rub shoulders closely in the word bid‘a (the dictionary explains the Arabic word with both terms). This ambiguity underpins the reason for the three terms commonly used to denote ‘reform’: islāh (‘repair’, ‘restoration’), tajdīd (‘renewal’) and ihyā’ (‘revivification’). None of them suggest a major re-configuration or an assimilation of the new, and so the adaptive reach of these terms must always remain circumscribed.

But the dynamic of the modern age and the sheer pace of the changes it provokes calls for a new approach to reform that cannot be answered by ever stronger calls to asāla, and its implications of ‘authenticity’ or ‘purity of pedigree’ – as expressed in a lengthening list of negative stipulations of what a Muslim cannot do or cannot think. The question for contemporary Muslims is: who decides what constitutes the ‘genuine’ from the extraneous, or where do the frontiers lie that separate off the ‘untouchable’ elements of Islam? For some it is the Text of the Qur’ān, for others the Text and the Hadīth, for still others, the Text, the Hadīth and the Sharī‘a. Islamic reform is balanced between the interaction between scholars of the text and scholars of the context.

Progressive Muslim thinkers recognise the instinct to preserve as having become too dominant, inhibiting the energy to adapt and keep pace with the changes that are being forced upon them. This instinct dismisses the concept of a Muslim mind that has changed in step with a changed environment, and instead posits the Quixotic response of promoting old solutions to new problems, which are less and less capable of being related to them by ever more elaborate exercises in analogy. For those who are less beguiled by the argument for absolute literalism in the understanding of the Text, might not contemporary orthodoxy actually be betraying the essence of the Qur’ānic message?

This is the approach taken by the authors to this theme, who are mounting a challenge to the centre of gravity of authority in contemporary Islam, and are placing a question-mark against the methodologies of an overly ring-fenced, exclusively juridical approach to Islamic reform. Their challenge is ultimately to widen the discourse of Islam, re-activate creativity at its deeper (and not least theological) levels, to reject the polarities of assimilation or isolation, and instead push for participation, so that the Muslim world can once again contribute to the advancement of knowledge, culture, social harmony and the dignity of Man.

Abdulkhaliq Hussein

It is a great sadness to report that on January 14th 2014, following a long illness, one of the pivotal Arab liberal thinkers, our great friend Dr. Shaker al-Nabulsi, passed away in the United States. Indeed he was the foremost representative of Arab liberal thinkers and, at the age of 72, was still at the peak of his powers of intellect and enlightenment. Our late friend was a shining star at intellectual conferences and symposia convened across all five continents for the purpose of promoting modernity and liberal thought, and countering ignorance and backwardness in the Arab world.

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Shaker al-Nabulsi, 1940-2014

It is with profound sadness and regret that we announce the passing of Shaker al-Nabulsi, who passed away the morning of 14 January 2014.

The news of his death has come as a grievous blow. Shaker was a prodigious and indefatigable author (over 60 books) and a courageous voice of reform. He was a founder signatory of the 2007 St Petersburg Declaration that called for Islamic societies to oppose Sharīʻa law and was a conspicuous figure in the media promoting the cause of religious freedom and tolerance.

Shaker was instrumental in helping the Almuslih site get off the ground, and was always a vital source of advice and information, while his constant recommendations for authors and themes helped maintained the site’s focus and originality. We will always remember his enthusiasm for our first Conference at Rome and his personal commitment to our work. This loss only spurs us on to redouble our efforts to promote the work of progressive Arab thinkers and increase the influence of their voice of enlightenment in a fast darkening age.

Director, Almuslih

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Abdulkhaliq Hussein

The name ‘Lafif’ (‘chaste, sober’) is very apt, for he was sober in his life, his behaviour, his thought, his frankness and in his relations with people, friend or foe. He was sober and bold in his long drawn-out fight against oppression, backwardness, ignorance and intolerance – particularly religious intolerance. It is perhaps not appropriate to philosophize when writing a memorial, particularly of someone dear. But when the one who has been lost is a great thinker and philosopher, I see no harm in it.

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