On Reforming Islam

As we all know Christianity has had its periods of reformation, including The Reformation at the end of the Middle Ages. When a Christian speaks of reform or renewal, he always means going back to Christ and the Gospels, and going back to the Apostles and the Book of Acts.

When Christianity goes off track, it needs to get back to Christ and his teachings. The question is, what about Islam? Does it make sense to talk about reforming Islam? And what would that entail? Islam as such has never had a major reform movement as Christianity has.

Many so-called moderate Muslims speak of reform and the like. They argue that the jihadists and Islamists do not represent real Islam. Instead, they argue, they are extremists who distort the true teachings of Islam. The problem is, the “moderates” and the radicals both claim to speak for Islam.

So the real question is, who really represents Islam? Are the Islamists the real face of Islam, or are the reformers? Do the moderates in fact faithfully reflect genuine Islam, or do the jihadists? These are important questions to ask, and seeking to get the answers right is very crucial indeed.

To answer these sorts of questions, we must understand the fundamental place the life, teaching and example of Muhammad plays in Islam. This, known as the sunna, is the basis for Islamic faith. What Muhammad did and said is the gold standard for all Muslims.

What was good for Muhammad is to be good for all Muslims. We learn about what he did and said in not just the Koran but in two other important sources: the hadith and the sira. The first are collections of his teachings and activities, and the second are the authorised biographies of Muhammad.

So the three sources give us what we need to know about his life and teachings. And what we find there is not always pretty. The commands to violence, discrimination against non-Muslims, the second class condition of women, the lack of freedom of conscience, honor killings, the death penalty for apostasy, and so on are just some of the fundamental and inherent problems of this religion.

But of course sharia law enjoins us not to say anything critical of the prophet, or to cast aspersions on his name and character. Indeed, to do so is a capital offense. So right there we have a major problem, if we are talking about reforming Islam. Islam is considered to be a perfect religion, and to speak ill of it is just not on.

Thus you can’t even really discuss the very things that need discussing. And to reform Islam really means to reform Muhammad! Since his life and example is what all Muslims are to follow, what happens with his violent and often immoral life? How can that be reformed?

Take the issue of religion and violence for example. Jesus of course spoke about loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us. He never used force, coercion or violence to bring people to faith, and he decried the use of such force.

Thus when Christians have sought to force people to become believers, they are at odds with the life and teachings of Jesus and the entire New Testament. But things are quite different in Islam. Not only does the Koran and hadith repeatedly condone religious violence, but the life of Muhammad is a paradigm for all his followers.

The truth is, Muhammad was a man of war, certainly in his later years. He participated in 27 military campaigns, and authorised another 46 to 59 campaigns (depending on which version of events we run with). Islam was spread by the edge of the sword, and Muhammad led the way in this.

He engaged in violence, murder, assassinations, beheadings, raids, trafficking in slaves, and other forms of religious coercion. So when jihadists do exactly the same, they have the example of Muhammad to follow, along with clear teachings of the Koran and the hadith.

The jihadists can therefore very correctly argue that they are true Muslims, and that they are going back to the heart of their faith: the life and example of Muhammad. So that puts would be moderates and reformers in a real bind. Indeed, it can rightly be argued that such reformers are not in fact real Muslims, since they are seeking to repudiate their own leader and his example.

Sure, Muslim scholars, jurists and leaders can and do debate questions of interpretation and the like: what exactly does jihad mean for example. But there is a clear consensus amongst Muslim scholarship that not only was Muhammad a man of war, but there is clear exhortation for Muslims to do the same in all classic Islamic sources.

The only way Muslim moderates can get around such clear teachings and history is to take liberties with the texts, and to deny their clear teachings. Instead of taking things at face value, they have to water things down or explain things away.

A classic example of this comes from a major Islamic leader here in Australia who I just recently publicly debated. Dr Ameer Ali is a self-declared moderate who also seeks to defend Islam. But the only way he can push for moderation and reform is by renouncing much of his own faith or by pretending it does not mean what it clearly teaches.

On the issue of women in Islam for example he has said this:  “Islam came to liberate the women from this state of subjugation and oppression. An intentional and not literalist reading of the various verses in the Quran relating to marriage, inheritance, orphans, slaves, modesty etc. should make it clear to any intelligent person that the religion came as a liberator and not a subjugator of women.”

There you go: the only way we can defend the horrible track record of Islamic dehumanising of women is to make sure we do not take a “literalist” reading. But to not take these sources seriously and literally is to undermine the very faith. In other words, the only way he can put a positive spin on all this is to effectively contradict his own religion, its own holy writings, and the example of Muhammad.

While Muhammad was a good husband to the widow Khadijah, Dr Ali does not fully inform his audience about his 12 or so other wives, including the child bride Aisha (married at age 6, consummated at age 9). He does not speak of his female slaves, the Koranic justification of wife beating, female genital mutilation, the belief that women are inferior, and so on. I detail all this elsewhere: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2006/11/02/islam-and-women/

Thus a straight-forward and literal reading of the Islamic source documents makes it perfectly clear how poorly women are viewed and treated in Islam. Only by denying what these texts so clearly state can you seek to argue that Islam is good for women.

So in this case of moderation and reform, it can only be done by doing the very thing good Muslims are not supposed to do: by denying or undermining the example and teachings of Muhammad. And in most Muslim-majority countries the only response to this would be death.

So let me wrap things up here by asking several questions. Are there such things as moderate Muslims? Yes absolutely, and perhaps the majority of Muslims would roughly fall into this camp. But can we argue that Islam itself is moderate? I believe the answer here is no.

Thus the next question also has to be answered in the negative: Can Islam be drastically reformed and made peace-loving? How can it be so transformed, when to do so would mean to reform the very founder of the religion, Muhammad?

To remove all the violent, anti-women, anti-Semitic, anti-freedom, anti-democracy and anti-pluralistic elements of Islam would be to destroy Islam itself. It would no longer exist. So genuine reform of Islam to make it compatible with Western freedoms, pluralism and democracy seems to be simply impossible.

Indeed, Islam is considered to be a “perfect” religion. How can you reform that which is perfect? To argue for reform means you consider it to be less than perfect, something the Koran clearly warns against. So it is really difficult for a true Muslim to even consider reform. Reforming Islam is a contradiction in terms according to devout Muslims.

We must nonetheless applaud and support those Muslim reformers. But I suspect their attempts at modernising and democratising Islam are doomed to fail. It may be better to persuade them that Islam itself is the problem, and that if they truly value such things as religious freedom, the rule of law, genuine democracy and treating all people equally, they really should consider leaving Islam altogether.

That is, individual Muslims can be reformed, but to seek to reform Islam would be to attempt to make it into something altogether different – it would no longer be Islam. In fact, one can argue that there is a real reformation of Islam going on today – that of the Islamists who think (I believe correctly) that they are the true followers of Muhammad.

I close where I began: to reform Christianity one must go back to its roots and go back to Jesus. To reform Islam (away from its inherent violence, misogyny, expansionism, intolerance, discrimination, oppression and tyranny) one must move away from its roots, not back to them. But to do so really means leaving Islam.


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18 Replies to “On Reforming Islam”

  1. In Australia we have Bill Muehlenberg and Mark Durie for rational discussion of Islam in public life. I hope we’re nurturing other leaders who are as effective as these two great Australians.
    Martin Snigg

  2. Thank you Bill, you have said it so clearly and directly. I like your quote that 70% of refuges are Muslims fleeing countries where Islam is the official religion. It is a shame that our MSM keeps up its support for Islam by never being critical of its discrimination, oppression and tyranny.

    God bless Gary Baxter

  3. Bill
    Very well written. It goes quickly and directly to the heart of the problem.
    David Grace

  4. Thanks again Bill! Awesome, really powerfully presented! Praise God for TRUTH that will set these people free! Praise God for your obedience to the Word!
    Barb Hoc

  5. Thanks Gary

    The quote which I offer elsewhere is by Roger Scruton. It is a good one:

    “70 percent of the world’s refugees are Muslims fleeing from places where their religion is the official doctrine. Moreover, these refugees are all fleeing to the West, recognising no other place as able to grant the opportunities, freedoms, and personal safety that they despair of finding at home.”

    Bill Muehlenberg

  6. What a good idea bill, to compare Christianity reform to Islam reform.
    My wife and I have been getting a bit more input on these Muslims.
    What we have noticed so far, persecution of a Muslim warrants death-Islam and state:
    -there are 70 commandments for going to the bathroom
    -Muslims are in breach of the American constitution
    -Muslims would rather get monies for protection (mafia) than work.
    Daniel Kempton

  7. Praise God for the clear and powerful exposition on the issues related to Islam through Bill’s article. Thank you Bill!
    We’ll keep praying for you!
    Jovian Choi

  8. What a fantastic opportunity God is giving us Christians, the mission field coming to us! They are coming from countries where they wont hear the gospel, so come on Church, lets get out and win them for for Christ, as He commanded us to.
    I have found many of them are more open to the gospel than Aussies are, and ready to talk.
    Harvey Bishop

  9. Thanks Harvey

    Yes quite right. While we must do all we can to resist creeping sharia and stealth jihad, we must also do all we can to win individual Muslims to the Lord. It is a great opportunity.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity. The fact that in Mohammedan law every woman must belong to some man as his absolute property – either as a child, a wife, or a concubine – must delay the final extinction of slavery until the faith of Islam has ceased to be a great power among men. Thousands become the brave and loyal soldiers of the Queen: all know how to die but the influence of the religion paralyses the social development of those who follow it. No stronger retrograde force exists in the world. Far from being moribund, Mohammedanism is a militant and proselytizing faith. It has already spread throughout Central Africa, raising fearless warriors at every step; and were it not that Christianity is sheltered in the strong arms of science, the science against which it had vainly struggled, the civilisation of modern Europe might fall, as fell the civilisation of ancient Rome.” -Winston Churchill

    Doug Holland

  11. Congratulations!
    Well said and hope this article will send messages across to the those who still does not understand about who we believe in………..our Saviour Lord Jesus Christ for all mankind.
    Molly Lim

  12. Thanks heaps, Bill, for exposing the crux of what Islam truly is in such an eloquent and incisive manner. Having lived in a de-facto Muslim country for decades, and having followed the insurgence of Islam in particularly the West and other non-Muslim nations, I cannot fault anything you said here. This message must be circulated as widely as possible!

    Richard Chieng

  13. Good job, Bill.

    No nonsense exposé of the ‘religion of peace’.

    Damien Spillane

  14. The last bit by Winston Churchill is not correct, since it was a direct result of Biblical Christianity that modern Science flourished. The bits about Islam are correct, which was the point of the quote, but I could not allow that to rest.
    Ian Nairn

  15. Excellent article Bill, and I agree Islam, per se is unreformable for all the reasons you give.
    However it raises other interesting questions, one being: How does God break through such closed systems? There have been many in history – not least medieval Roman Catholicism, and many of the cults right up to today which are equally closed.
    I think the answer is that because He is no respecter of persons, or of ecclesiastical or other systems, the Lord often intervenes by underming them with the searchlight of the truth of the Word of God – and sometimes through the conversion of just a few “insiders”.
    Just as He save Christians OUT of the world, so he still works by saving Moslems out of their system, and brings many of them in different ways to seek Him and the Gospel. Such is His grace!
    One recent and astonishing example is that of Daniel Shayesteh, and his wife and family. This man was a leading Islamist fanatic, almost the very last we might expect, humanly speaking, who would seek God.
    Here is a brief summary of this man’s path to Christianity

    Daniel Shayesteh was born in Iran near the Caspian sea. By age nine he was able to recite the entire Quran in Arabic. As a young man he was totally committed to Islam and was a member of Hezbollah in Iran. He inspired other good Muslims to hate and kill Americans and Jews. After he helped to oust the Shah of Iran and bring Ayatollah Khomeini to power, he was kidnapped and sentenced to death; the Ayatollah didn’t like Daniel’s opposition to his political agenda. He existed for a time in torturous prison conditions.
    His cellmates were executed, but by the grace of God Daniel escaped to Turkey. It was there that he met a group of Iranian Christians. And it was through their witness of the love of Christ and training in the truth of the Bible, beginning in Genesis, that he came to know Christ as Saviour…He helps Christians understand how to effectively evangelize those still trapped in the traditions and deceptions of Islam.
    Speaking as one who formerly trained Muslims in the strategies of Islamic Jihad, Shayesteh also addresses the alarming social implications of the growth of Islam in western nations today.
    His DVD ‘From Darkness to Light’ is an amazing testimony by Daniel. A ‘must see’!
    We must pray that the Lord will raise up many more such ‘Daniels’!
    Graham Wood

  16. Thanks Graham

    Yes God can work and is working in the world of Islam. We must do two things: do all we can to stop creeping sharia while seeking to win Muslims to Jesus. I discuss this here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/08/01/christianity-other-religions-and-islam/

    As to Daniel, yes I know him and I wrote about his amazing story here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2009/06/26/a-review-of-islam-the-house-i-left-behind-by-daniel-shayesteh/

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  17. Often we read of “reformer” when someone speaks about so-called moderate Muslims, obviously meaning to distinguish a less violent, less fanatical, more modern flavour of Islam from the orthodox interpretation.

    But is this not just a misleading use of the word “reform”? In Christendom Martin Luther was a reformer, he had enough of the indulgences and excesses of the medieval state church and sought the return to the basic fundamentals of the religion – he wanted to re-form what had come gotten out of form. In re-forming we bring something back into it’s original form.

    If Muslims seek to re-form Islam, then they are seeking to bring Islam back to what it was 1,400 years ago. This is the agenda of wahabbis and salafis; not exactly a shining line of modernism and peaceful religious coexistence.

    Perhaps we then should not use the term reformer when we speak about those wishing to modernise Islam? How a modernisation can ever be possible given Muhammed was the ultimate and final seal of the prophets and the Koran the infallible word of the Islamic deity and valid for all times remains a problem for another day.

    Ralf Schumann

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