By Rose Khouri*
Earlier this month, Martin Accad asked the very interesting question: can Islam be reformed? In his post, he argues that through ijmaa, or “consensus”, renewed and reformed interpretations of the Islamic scriptures are not only possible, but their development has been ongoing in this period of violence carried out in the name of Islam. In this article, I seek not to ask whether Islam can be reformed, but who will be reforming? Whose voices, as we move deeper into the 21st century, will become the most important?
The idea that Islam, or perhaps more accurately, how Islam is practiced and understood by its followers, needs reforming is not a new concept. In the last hundred or so years, calls for reform and revival developed out of interactions with the West. Albert Hourani, in his classic work, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, explores four “generations” of thinking as the Arab Muslim world began interacting with the rising European powers in the mid-1800s.
Hourani begins in the 1830s, as scholars from the major cities of Cairo, Istanbul, and Tunis became better cognizant of and familiar with the new, industrializing Europe. These scholars did not view the West as adversaries but instead wrote about the laws and institutions of modern Europe as models to be emulated while staying true to Islamic values. As European power grew in the region, Hourani notes that the writings of influential scholars also began to take on a more antagonistic tone in the face of a perceived threat. In the second generation, from 1870 to 1900, Hourani states that while writers still saw Europe as a model, they began to advocate for holding onto their past and their traditions while accepting Western-influenced changes they recognized as unavoidable. By the third generation, beginning in the early 1900s, Hourani described the burgeoning drive for nationalism, which was thought to preserve the Islamic past in imagination and heart yet allow Arab societies to become part of the modern culture first manifested in Western Europe. This led into the fourth generation of both Islamic revival and broadening Arab nationalism as the Second World War ended the period of European ascendancy (Hourani 1962).
There have been additional “generations” of thinking since his book was first published in the 1960s. I argue that a new generation has been forming through the rapid adaptation of Internet technology, an “Internet Generation”. The rapidity with which the Internet has evolved makes the social effects it enables more difficult to capture with certainty. As Internet use increases, so does society’s reliance on this technology for everything from shopping to socializing to religion. The Internet is a medium that allows for at least the illusion of anonymity, the free flow of information, and the ability to break down political and geographic barriers. This technology has allowed the global Muslim community to engage in instantaneous dialogue, in many respects reminiscent of the early Muslim community. With the spread of the Internet in the Muslim world, a “Muslim Internet” has developed.
This Muslim Internet is a communal space formed by those seeking or spreading information on Islam, in which issues of faith are discussed or carried out. Everything from Tumblr blogs dedicated to female Muslim fashion to humorous hashtags like #MuslimProblems to chat sites for engaging in serious discussions about the proper way to perform wudu’ (ritual ablutions before prayer) make up this Muslim Internet. This space is occupied primarily by practicing Muslims but also contains a dynamic group of non-Muslims interested in the religion, as well as non-Muslims engaging in polemics.
This Muslim Internet is also organized around virtual sectarian and ethno-religious divisions that mimic those in real life, tensions often exacerbated by the anonymity and facelessness that impact all internet conversations. With the Syrian and Iraqi crises splitting the Arab Muslim world it is difficult to avoid ugly Shi‘ite/Sunni fights breaking out beneath YouTube videos or blog comments embroiled in arguments over whether or not Sufis are kuffar (unbelievers).
With the growth of the Internet and its increasing usage in the Arab and Muslim world, the strongest voices in this medium – typically American and British – have been able to reach new groups and maintain influence in populations they previously could not reach. Simultaneously, traditional sources of religious knowledge – local sheikhs or intellectuals – have struggled to take advantage of new media. The most powerful voices of religious authority reaching young Muslims are no longer centered in the traditional Muslim world.
For revivalists in the Arab Muslim world, the historic center of religious authority, political instability interrupts the basics of their da‘wa (call to Islam). Political pressure can curtail their ability to freely author messages their governments would consider subversive or threatening. Muslims also have limited access to local religious leaders, particularly women who rarely attend Friday prayers. Traditional authoritative voices, local sheikhs or imams for example, rarely maintain Facebook pages or personal websites, restricting access to their views and teachings. As a result, many young Muslims turn to the Internet to seek out greater knowledge in practicing their faith.
These new voices, dominating the social media platforms over which Islam is being so rapidly carried and debated, bring the Euro-American perspectives they were raised with into their interpretations of Islam. Although the media is quick to note that converts and Western-raised Muslims are joining groups like ISIS in the hundreds, in terms of percentage and visibility, these Muslims attracted to groups demanding the re-establishment of the Caliphate, or cutting off hands of thieves, or enslavement of non-Muslims like the Yezidis are statistically minute.
This new generation of reformists, calling for new interpretations of Islam, are more likely to interpret scripture to call for greater inclusion of women in the life and activities of a mosque, protection against domestic violence, or racism. Their Facebook debates, YouTube clips, tweets, and blog posts calling for reform do not convey the same sense of victimization that drove the reforms of the 19th and 20th centuries. It is this sense of victimization that led to the modern horrors of groups like ISIS and the Taliban, which place themselves as champions of an oppressed Islam in the face of Western oppression. Their obsession with the restoration of the Caliphate has far less to do with a complete understanding of the centuries-long historical reality of the actual Caliphate and more to do with a desire to return to the days when their assumed identity (Arab/Muslim) was in power.
I argue that through this Internet Generation of Muslim thought, devoid of this particular identity crisis, there is hope for a new chapter of reformation in Islam. Additionally, there is hope for an inter-faith role in this reformation. These rising Muslim voices are not cloistered in their own communities. These Euro-American voices that have gained such traction are living amongst Christians, Jews, Atheists, Buddhists, and Hindus, which may explain why many fight not only against Islamophobia, but anti-Semitism and the persecution of Sikhs. During this period of reformation, the Western Christian community should be encouraged to strengthen their relationships with those in their local Muslim community. Christian communities should not view their Muslim neighbors or colleagues as suspicious threats or harbingers of violence and “creeping Shari‘a” but rather cohorts in building a respectful, safer, more loving world.
Rose Khouri has been working at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary (ABTS) in the Development and Partner Relations office since 2014. Lebanese-American, she grew up in California until moving to Lebanon to complete her Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Anthropology and Religious Studies.