Keohane lecture; UNC-Chapel Hill

Theology, Ethics, Politics: Three Challenges for Islamic Reform

Abstract: How should Islamic teachings relate to the specific conditions of modernity? Islamic Reform is the effort of Muslims to reconstruct Islamic teachings and practice in modern times. This lecture addresses the challenge of reforming Islamic doctrines in three related areas: theology, ethics and politics, with special reference to Shi`ism. It will be illustrated by critical reflections on concepts of religious authority (the position of the Imams), shari’a as an ethical tradition in dialogue with modernity, and the necessity of secularism in terms of separation of mosque and state.


Islam as the religion of 1.6 billion Muslims after fifteen centuries is full of energy and dynamism on one hand, and subject to misunderstanding and abuse on the other hand, for both Muslims and non-Muslims. Islamic Reform is the effort of Muslims to reconstruct Islamic teachings and practices in the modern era. This essay is a brief summary of the implications of Islamic reform in the areas of theology, ethics, and politics.

The theory of the clash of civilizations has dominated western media and policy, highlighting the ugliness, violence and underdeveloped actions and reactions of Muslim fundamentalists. There are several reasons for the persistence of this problem, including neo-colonialism, or Orientalism as Edward Said described, widespread corruption and dictatorship in many Muslim majority countries, the continuous humiliation of Muslims by most Western media, the refusal of Muslim seminaries and clerics to engage with modernity, and radical activists’ ignorance or misunderstanding of the principles and goals of Islam. According to “Pew Research on Religion and Public Life” in 2013[1], a strong majority of Muslims supported implementation of Sharia while simultaneously condemning violence and advocating democracy and individual freedom. It means that the majority of Muslim masses do not see any contradiction between the implementation of sharia and peace and democracy. This pro-democracy ratio is much higher among Muslim conservative clerics. Jihadis or fundamentalist militant Muslim groups were established and recruited by radical Muslim laymen who are ignorant of the intellectual traditions of Islam. We rarely find clerics among these militants. The majority of conservative Sunni clerics and educated Muslims does not support the violence of ISIS, Boko Haram, al-Qa’ida, and their imitators. The story among Shi’ites is different. A minority of Shi’ite clerics and laymen is fundamentalist. One factor in this violent tendency is reaction to unfair Western policies in the Middle East affecting Muslims. But another factor consists of the misunderstandings on the part of the Muslim clerics, elites and masses. The treatment for this international disease depends on resolving both political and religious problems. Regardless of the importance of the political problem, here I will focus on the religious problem. It has been my main concern for more than three decades. Reform in Islamic thought and practice is a necessary project. This necessity is not only because of the aforementioned problems, but also for the continuity and revival of Islam and the dignity of Muslims. The European Renaissance was the product of humanities as well as modern science and technology. In the absence of domestic humanities and modern science and technology, religious reform among Muslims is exceedingly slow. Most conservative clerics do not advocate any reform in Islamic thought, because of their naïve understanding of modernity. It takes a long time to convince them of the necessity of reform of Islamic thought. I think that major reform in Islamic thought has at least three aspects: theological, ethical and political. Although they are tied to each other, the implications of each one could be studied independently. Because of my background, my case study is Shi’ite Islam in Iran, but it could be expanded to Sunni Islam as well as other Muslim majority countries and communities in the world. My presentation is organized in three sections, relating to the major challenges for reform in the areas of theology, ethics, and politics.


Section One: Major Theological Challenges and Reform

I mean by “theology” the explanation and analysis of Islamic beliefs and dogmas. Theological reform is the foundation of other two reforms. There are three theological principles in Islam: the Unity of God, Resurrection, and Prophecy. There are several points in each principle that need reform and reconstruction. I will focus on the third principle: Prophecy. The subject of Prophesy includes several sub-sections such as the necessity of prophecy, the history of messengers of God, Prophecy of Muhammad, Revelation and the Qur’an, expectation of religion (or boundary of religion), the seal of the prophets or the end of prophecy, and the succession after Muhammad. Each of these sections needs revisiting and reconstruction. I want to share my points only on the last question: the succession after Muhammad. According to Islamic doctrine, Muhammad’s mission had three dimensions: religious, political and mystical. It is obvious that his prophecy and revelation came to an end with his death. So who was to be the religious authority after him? In practice, the opinion of the companions of the messenger of God and the consensus of the Muslims or Muslim scholars were accepted as the third source of Islamic knowledge after the Qur’an and the Tradition of the prophet. The political dimension continued in the name of Caliph. The mystical dimension that continued among the Sufi Saints is not accepted by many Muslim conservatives. It is the Sunni perspective of successor-ship. Shi’ite Muslims, who constitute 15% of the world Muslim population, believe that all of these three dimensions of prophecy have been continued through the imams of the household of the Prophet. This means that the office of imamate has been a third authoritative Islamic source after the Qur’an and the Tradition of the Prophet; the Imam was supposed to be the political ruler after the Profit, and the office of mystical protector or guardianship continued through the Imams to the Sufi Saints. This subject has a secondary dimension that is historical, the endless polemical discussion between Sunni and Shi’ite. I want to focus on the primary dimension, i.e., the Imamate as the third source of Islamic authority. In practice the sayings and actions of the twelve imams were the major sources of Shi’ite doctrine in all of their teachings. There are two approaches to understanding the character of the Imams. The first approach that dominated in the first three centuries of Islam regarding the imams as “pious scholars” without any supernatural characteristics. Although the imams were the best interpreters of the Qur’an and the tradition of the prophet and the best Islamic pattern after Muhammad, they were not initially considered as an independent source of Islamic knowledge apart from the prophet. Neither Muhammad nor imams were regarded as divine. The Qur’an as the word of God is divine and may be called the heart of Islam, but nothing else can. Islam is God-oriented. Muhammad was the messenger of the One God, and the imams were his reliable interpreters. Highlighting the character of the imams should not violate the centrality of God. The divine unity is the most important core teaching of Islam.

The second approach that was still marginal in 11th century, ended up dominating and erasing the first approach in 13th century. According to this approach the imams have three main characteristics: first, they were selected and appointed by God Himself; second, their knowledge was divine, not acquired from human teachers; third, they were innocent of any sin and immune to any mistake. The consequence of these characteristics is the mediatory role of the imams in God’s revelation. Now the mainstream of Shi’ite thought follows this interpretation. According to this approach, although the prophetic revelation was terminated by the death of Mohammad, the divine connection of Shi’ite Imams to God was continued in the name of “inspiration”. They were able to know everything they wanted to know, and their divine absolute knowledge covers the past, the present and the future. Salvation depends on their satisfaction and intercession. Their love forgives all sins. They are “God-Men” as M.A. Amir-Moezzi described them.[2] This understanding of the Imams is not far from the divinization of Jesus Christ in Christianity.  This approach to the Imams cast its shadow over all Islamic principles, including the unity of God, resurrection and the finality of prophecy. My research has reached the conclusion that although this approach is supported by a huge number of hadiths and justified by some mystical justifications, it is nevertheless a distortion of Qur’anic thought and contrary to the major principles of Mohammad’s doctrine and Islamic teachings. Most of these hadith were fabricated by the large industry of exaggerators and attributed to the imams, and unfortunately these fake hadiths entered the major hadith collection books with considerable frequency since the 11th century. Return the sources and reconstruction of the forgotten early approach (on the Imams as pious scholars) is the starting point and vital foundation of any reform in Shi’ite teaching. This fundamental reform has significant consequences on Shi’ite theology, Sharia, politics, and the Shi’ite-Sunni divide. Any modernization in Shi’ite area is impeded without this reform.    

Section Two: Major Ethical Challenge and Reform

Sharia is the basic core of Islamic teachings. It is the indispensable element of Islam. Implementation of Sharia is the unmistakable sign of devotion to God. But what is sharia? There are at least two approaches here: conservative and reformist. The first approach that is close to the mainstream of the Muslim communities looks at sharia as a system of law that determines the Islamic duties of all human beings from birth to death. Sharia ordinances are derived from the verses of the Qur’an, the tradition of the prophet, the sayings of the companions for Sunnis and the sayings of imams for Shi’ites, consensus and analogy for Sunnis, and reason for Shi’ites. The sharia ordinances worked well in pre-modern times, i.e., up to the 19th century, without any difficulty. They were reasonable, just, and ethical, and they perform better than other legal system according to the mentality of the Muslim community of that time. After confronting modernity, the Muslim elites gradually came to realize that the rules found in sharia texts could not be the permanent Islamic rules. There is something wrong with the methodology of the jurists. Rules are bound to their time and place. Permanent ordinances or eternal rules are impossible. Dependence on the specific condition of time and place is essential to the nature of rules. What we now have under the name of sharia is not divine. It is the understanding of Islamic sources according to past jurists. It was reasonable, just, ethical and practical according to the mentality of the time, but some of these ordinances, such as penal codes or the rights of women, are unreasonable, unjust, unethical and impractical according to the mentality of our time. If they were God’s permanent rules we should not find these shortcomings in them. God is perfect and His rules ought to be perfect, just, moral and fair in all situations. If our mentality is not only personal but also it is a public intellect or something like common sense or consensus of the wise persons, it would be a reliable criterion to measure the sharia against its optimal possibilities.         The key question returns: What is sharia? Sharia is virtues, ethical values and moral norms, most of which were outlined by the Qur’an and the Prophet. Virtues, ethical values and moral norms could be permanent. Sharia should be understood from the perspective of virtue rather than law. The Qur’an introduced itself as the book of guidance and light, not as the book of law or rules. The verses related to rules of human interaction or ordinances are less than 2% of the total verses of the Qur’an. They are nothing but examples of the ordinances of early Islamic society. It was a misunderstanding of the Qur’an to see it as a book of law and to regard its few examples of rules as permanent. The teachings of Muhammad were moral and ethical. He frankly stated that his mission was protecting noble ethical virtues. Sharia as a set of virtues could be permanent and reconciled with human rights, civil life and modern discipline. But Sharia as a legal system, or a concrete set of laws and ordinances, is temporal and restricted to a particular time and environment of law making. There are two deviations in the history of sharia. The first happened in the time of Muhammad’s companions, and it was the shift from an ethics-based sharia to a law-based sharia. The second deviation happened around the 1950s, and it was &to a legal code as the basis of a nation-state. It is the starting point of political Islam in Egypt, India and Iran as expressed by leading figures such as Seyyed Qotb, Abul-A’la Mawdudi and Ruhallah Khomeini. I will explain more about this point in the third section.    Although as Muslims, we should rely on permanent Islamic virtues and values, there is no requirement nor any benefit in imitating the mentality of past centuries or the tribal customs of Arabia in the name of permanent Islamic ordinances. We should distinguish permanent virtues and moral values from the temporal ordinances that were relevant to Arabia and the special situation of previous centuries centuries. The time of temporal ordinances has expired, or, you may say, they were abrogated. References to slavery in the scriptures does not mean slavery is valid in Abrahamic religions now. Penal codes and women’s rights should be understood in the same way. Worship and rituals mostly are not subject to change. This framework is the minimal requirement for any reform in Islamic ethics. It will terminate those interpretations and understandings that justify violence and gender or religious discriminations in the name of Islam.

Section Three: Major Political Challenge and Reform

Is there such a thing as an “Islamic State” that has been administration, function and are different from other states? This is a key question, which has at least two kinds of responses. There is a spectrum of responses from the advocates of the Islamic State, from conservative scholars to fundamentalist activists. They refer to the state of Medina in the time of the Prophet Muhammad as the permanent exemplar of an Islamic State. The administration of the Muslim community in the time of righteous Caliphs is the other archetype of Islamic State. Returning to this golden age and the reconstruction of Islamic authority consequently becomes a sacred goal. The public ordinances such as jihad, commanding the good and prohibiting the evil, Islamic taxes such as zakat, and Islamic penal codes are have become the badges of the Islamic state in Islamic teachings or sharia.     In the period of post-colonialism the Muslims found their religion to be the best instrument for vindicating their humiliated identity, independence and sovereignty, anti-imperialism and anti-Zionism, and struggle against monarchy and despotism. The twentieth century is the time of the rise of political Islam. Political Islam is based on three pillars: the Islamic State as the major framework of this approach, the implementation of sharia as the system of law of Islamic State, and the permissibility of using violence in implementation of sharia, for the establishment and administration of Islamic state. This fundamentalist approach produces a powerful Islamic ideology in the short term and inflict harm on many Muslim youths. The second response to that key question is the reformist approach to the state. This approach is based on the experience of revolution of 1979 and 36 years of the Islamic Republic of Iran, as well as the experience of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and non-Arab countries such as Indonesia and Turkey. Drawing upon the works of Talal Asad, Abdullah al-Na’im and Wael Hallaq on secularism in Islamic culture, I want to share with you my experience in this case. State and administration in their essence are secular. Running social order, security, public health, education, occupation, and so on are the primary duties and responsibilities of all governments, regardless of religion of the citizens. Religious affairs are not the job of the states. Involving the state in religious preaching and rituals does not assist the faith of the citizens and does not promote the religiosity of Muslims. The name “Islamic State” is something new that was used among Muslim revivalists in Egypt, Pakistan and Iran in the mid 20th century. But the state of Medina in the 7th century was a state appropriate to the situation of that time and place, nothing more. It is correct to say that sharia in the medieval period meant the rule of the state as well as performance of rituals and personal ordinances. As I mentioned in section two, this style of sharia was the understanding of the Muslim scholars of that time. There is a big difference between the pre-modern period and modern times. Sharia was the framework of Muslim community or ‘ummah. We have more than 56 nation states in place of one Muslim Community now. A citizen of a nation state is completely different from a member of a religious community. Implementation of sharia as the regulation of the medieval Muslim community in modern times is neither possible nor useful. It is the same as using the sword in the time of nuclear weapons. The advocates of the Islamic State, or for that matter any other religious state in modern times, are playing the role of Don Quixote in the novel of Cervantes. Sharia as the legal system of a premodern society could not be implemented in modern times. Sharia as a set of virtues and moral values is a framework that inevitably impacts on the legal system and administrative policy. The lawmakers in the parliament consider the public interest and nothing else. There is no right of veto for any religious authority above the parliament. Using violence in implementation of sharia, or imposing Islamic values, or applying punish-codes of the medieval period in modern times, do not have any effect except undermining the religiosity of citizens. Theocracies try to push the people to paradise by forcing them to do something in opposition to public desires. The unique product of this compulsive religiosity is making this temporal life into a hell. Paradise is impossible without freedom and free choice. Those who wish to promote religiosity, piety and deepening the faith of the believers should support mosque –state separation. Secularism at least in its American model protects religiosity of the citizens better than theocracy. Secularism or mosque-state differentiation is the approach of Muslim reformists in politics for protecting faith and ethics. Muslims are able to follow their political goals in civil society in equal and fair competitions with others, protecting the rights of the minorities to become majority.


Muhammad Iqbal Lahori in 1930 published The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Eighty-four years later, I want to add these three points to his valuable work: Islam as the religion of mercy, dignity, justice, peace and love represents its beauty through 1) a reconstructed theology based on love of One God and his centrality, 2) sharia as a set of virtues and moral values, and 3) the concept of the secular nation-state.



[1] Pew Research Center, ،The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society”, August 9, 2012; “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, Executive Summary, April 30, 2013


[2] M.A. Amir-Moezzi, Divine Guide in Early Shi’ism and The Spirituality of Shi’ite Islam.

November 12, 2014; Keohane lecture; UNC-Chapel Hill