Reform is the realization of a radical upheaval. It means the change of mindsets and the cultural frames through which the world is perceived. A transformation has to take place, from ancient scholasticism to a theory of world liberation, from a theory of God to a theory of Man, from the axis of Prophecy and the afterlife to a historical axis that starts posing the question of the present.


REFORM IS A QUR’ĀNIC TERM, where it appears ten times mostly in the sense of ‘reparation’ between men, or ‘restoration’ of the land (its least frequent meaning). It is a term accepted in common culture and, unlike the term ‘secular,’ is not a western import.

It is superior to the term salafi, which also appears eight times in the Qur’ān, but with a negative connotation: that is, something that is past and over with and no longer valid. In modern Islamic thought it spans three centuries from the time of Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhāb in the 18th, to Sayyid Qutb in the 20th, century. It is employed interchangeably with the more comprehensively used term Nahda (‘resurgence’). At that time reform was directed towards religious reform – basically the school of al-Afghānī and Muhammad ‘Abduh – in a period when the term Nahda combined with other liberal currents as represented by such figures as al-Tahtāwi and Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnisī, or with the scientific current as represented by personalities such as Shiblī Shumayyil and Farah Antūn.

The reformist discourse constitutes a third form of discourse situating itself between the Salafist and secular discourses. The Salafist discourse concerns itself with how something is expressed and employs the language of the traditional heritage, of religious expressions and the terminology of Islam. The secular discourse concerns itself with why something is expressed and speaks of liberation and resurgence, of progress, science and justice and does not concern itself with ‘how’ something is expressed.

This secular discourse tends to transmute into liberalism, socialism or nationalism or secular modernizing ideologies which the broad public has difficulty understanding. Reform discourse, on the other hand, concerns itself not only with how something is expressed (duly employing the language of Islam, its terminology and phraseology), but also with why something is expressed – and speaks exclusively on matters related to the public interest: poverty, oppression, unemployment, education and medical health. At the same time it acts to reduce the polarization of the other two discourses and mitigate their mutual antipathy. For in reality this is not an intellectual polarity at all but a competition for power under the guise of a discourse.

No real change can take place without a change in the mindset first

The reformist discourse effects social change through maintaining a continuity between the old and the new, as opposed to allowing the kind of rupture between tradition and modernity that is promoted by a secular discourse on the western pattern. For Christianity is a spiritual reading of Judaism, while Islam is a social reading of both Judaism and Christianity, and fuses Judaic legalism with Christian charity (If ye punish, then punish with the like of that wherewith ye were afflicted. But if ye endure patiently, verily it is better for the patient [Qur’ān XVI,126]). The reformist discourse is a path of ijtihad, of making analogies between what is contained in the Text with analogous issues not contained therein, on the grounds of their causal similarity. It is an embodiment of the reformers’ Hadīth: “At the start of every 100 years God sends down one who will restore the Faith.”

Reform is the realization of a radical upheaval, because this upheaval does not signify solely a military insurrection, as happened in the 1950s, nor the current popular intifada of the Arab Spring. Rather, it means the change of mindsets and the cultural frames through which the world is perceived. No real change can take place if there is not a change in the mindset first. Perhaps one of the reasons for the constant faltering of the modern nahda project is that it started with social, political and economic structures rather than with inherited intellectual substructures, which remained unchanged even as a liberal, western enlightenment-derived structure was superimposed over them. The imported freedom therefore perches on an infrastructure of an inherited fatalism, while the imported Rights of Man sit atop a substructure of the inherited Rights of God, in the same way that the imported sciences are superimposed over an infrastructural legacy of miracles.

The relative level of reform which has occurred over the last three centuries up to now itself requires a radical reformation, so that it may form the underpinning of any movement of social change or political activism. For there is a transformation taking place, from ancient scholasticism and its theory of the divine essence, attributes, deeds and names, to a theory of world liberation, as is the case with ‘Freedom Theology’, that is, from a theory of God to a theory of Man, from the axis of Prophecy and the afterlife – that is, the past and the future – into a historical axis that starts posing the question of the present: that is, in what moment of history are we now living? Is it to be reform, or uprising, or resurgence or revolution or bankruptcy? And there is also a transformation from the ‘single Saved Denomination’ to a recognition of intellectual pluralism, that is, a reconsideration of the ancient view of ‘destructive sects’ characterised by the Hadīth (which al-Ghazālī made a part of Islamic doctrine): “my Nation will be split into seventy three sects, all but one destined for Hellfire” – incidentally a narration whose soundness was questioned by Ibn Hazm and al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salām. In the same way, the Sufi stations and mystical states which are still dominant in the popular culture, such as patience, passivity, acceptance, contentment or fear, timidity and the dissolving of individuality, are transforming into positive values that are useful for effecting social change, such as protest, agitation, anger, rebellion, refusal and resistance.

Reform is the preamble to individual cultural creativity, to the development and rebuilding of the ancient sciences to meet the conditions of the present age.

The ancient Islamic heritage and the humanistic sciences that it fostered developed in historical conditions that differ from the conditions which the Islamic world has been passing through in the modern period. For the conditions are now the inverse of what they were: defeat in place of victory, backwardness in place of progress, rote-learning in place of science, static repetition in place of creativity. All of which make necessary the rebuilding of these sciences so as to meet the conditions and requirements of the modern age.

In the same way, radical reform demands that there be a change from theory to method, so that it becomes a permanent rather than a temporary process, a continuous rather than an intermittent reform. Most of the decisive moments in the history of thought come about from changes in method rather than changes in subject. This process is made up of three stages:

1.The renewal of language:

the language of heritage is still an ancient language linked to the conditions of its origin, expressed in a scholastic language of ‘the self, ‘attributes’, ‘creation’ and ‘sempiternity,’ of ‘essence’ and ‘accident.’ Or in the language of philosophy such as ‘existence’ and ‘the essential nature’, of ‘quantity’ and ‘quality’, or ‘time’ and ‘place,’ of ‘subject’ and ‘attribute’, of ‘soul’ and ‘body’. Or again, in the language of jurisprudence such as ‘permissible’ and ‘forbidden’, and ‘legal punishments’ and ‘retaliatory punishment,’ of ‘stoning’ and ‘flogging’ and ‘the cutting of hands’ – which may contravene Human Rights. Or it may be in the language of society, such as ‘dhimmī communities’ and ‘the People of the Book’ – which may contravene the universal right to citizenship, or alternatively in the language of war such as ‘jihad’ and ‘spoils’ and ‘captives’ and ‘enslavement.’ Contemporary language, it should be said, has its own vocabulary such as ‘freedom’, ‘liberation’, ‘justice’, ‘progress’, ‘equality’ and ‘rights.’

2. Changing the level of analysis:

from that of the divine – such as creation, fate and divine decree, the angels and their counterparts the jinn, devils and Satan, to the human level of freedom, responsibility and Human Rights. For this level is the one that is the centre or the core. Western thought continues to flourish since it has gifted the world the two concepts of Man and History, while eastern thought – Islam included – remains fixated on God and Eternity.

3. Changing the methodology of textual interpretation:

from the interpretation of the Text to the analysis of living experience, both individual and collective. For the Text is subject to historical accuracy, to the quality of the recording process, to interpretative methods and the use of language – whether it be a statement of fact or a metaphor – between the overt and the covert, the general and the specific, the definitive and the ambiguous, the absolute and the modified. The meaning is not within [the Text] but outside of it, in the mind of the reader or the commentator. Human experience is intuitive, in which the experience of one individual corresponds with the experience of another.

Reform is the preamble to individual cultural creativity, to the development and rebuilding of the ancient sciences to meet the conditions of the present age. It means taking a view vis-à-vis the spreading among us of the western heritage, so that we see it as a subject of study and not merely as a source of science. It means initiating a new discipline of Occidentalism – as a complement to Orientalism. It means undertaking an unfiltered investigation of reality, viewing it and analyzing it directly without recourse to the mediatory role of the Text, so that reform turns the culture of interpretation into a culture of the direct examination of the world as it is.