Middle East Resources

The Arab Rationalists’ Attempt to Modernize Islam

In 2007, a group of Arab intellectuals founded the online journal, Alawan[i] As the 10th Anniversary for the launching of this bold initiative approached, a leading member of the group, Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm, passed away.

Al-Awan published the obituary of Dr. al-Adhm that detailed the role he played in the founding of the “Association of Arab Rationalists” in 1997.

“The goal of the Association was “to explain in a rational way, the causes that led to destruction of the Arab civilization; and to attempt to repair that devastation.”

Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm was born in Damascus in 1934. He belonged to an aristocratic Sunni family; some of its members held high government positions during the French Mandate (1920-1946) and in the early years of independence.

“Mr. al-Adhm studied philosophy at the American University of Beirut (AUB) and at Yale University. After graduation, he taught at the University of Damascus, at the University of Jordan, in Amman; at the AUB, at Princeton University, and in Germany.”

(While teaching at the AUB, Dr. al-Adhm published in 1969, “Naqd al-Fikr al-Deeni” (A Critique of Religious Thought). The book consisted of a critique of theistic religions, and especially of Islam. The Lebanese Government brought charges against him for defaming the religious beliefs of the citizens of Lebanon. He was acquitted by the Lebanese courts, but felt the need to pursue his career elsewhere.) Paragraph is mine.

“Mr. al-Adhm settled permanently in the US, and continued his literary activities. He became a respected leader of Arab intellectuals who sought to deliver the new Arab generation from the hegemony of irrationalism that had impacted the Arab world in politics, law, economics, and education. Freedoms had disappeared, giving way to backwardness, the expansion of political and religious authoritarianism.

“Sadeq Jalal al-Adhm was a great champion of liberty as a basic value, a foundation of modernity and secularism. Freedom is of the essence of citizenship; should it disappear, human rights would disappear as well.

“Rationalism has been besieged by a sacred past, and by “sacred” rulers. The Arab mind has been unable to free itself from the structures of the past. Religious thought was unable to engage in self-evaluation, or to explain the world. Thus, a critique of religious thought, which is a basic component of rational thinking, was forced to retreat, notwithstanding the efforts of Dr. al-Adhm, a pioneer of this venture.”

There are several contributors to Al-Awan who have been active in dealing with the sad state of Arab civilization. For example, the Algerian intellectual Hamid Zanaz, published in 2014 a book in French under the title of L’islamisme raconté à ma fille” (Islamism as Told (Explained) to My Daughter) He posted an Arabic summary of the book on Al-Awan, on 21 May, 2014.


Date de parution : 09/05/2014 200 pages – Prix : 15.00 €

In a dialogue with his daughter, Mr. Zanaz explains how difficult it is, to reform and modernize Islam.

Daughter: Aren’t there serious efforts of some Muslims in Europe to bring about reconciliation between ‘spiritual and secular’ Islam?

Father: Indeed, however these attempts remain formal and lead nowhere as in L’Islam sans soumission: Pour un existentialisme musulman,’ by Abdennour Bidar published in 2008. [Islam without Submission: Toward an Islamic Existentialism]

“In his attempt to expound the sacred texts, Abdennour goes to the length of abrogating some. He believes in the possibility of modernizing Islam, to make it compatible with the present age. He hopes to be able to liberate the Muslim from submitting to those texts he considers irrational. However, he forgets that Islam is above all a recognition of, and submission to the will of Allah.’ We cannot harmonize Islam and modernity without altering Islam itself. The Islamic mind is incapable of modernizing itself.

Daughter: Is there an explanation for that?

“Father: Muslims consider their religion as an intellectual system that must be applied in all areas of life, both social and personal. In other words, the religious belief-system must be incorporated within the very core of the governing political system. The Islamist parties have exploited this point of view in their struggle against the ruling regimes, promising people that they, and they alone, can govern Muslims in a peaceful and democratic way, as Islamists had failed to accomplish that through violence.

“Daughter: Well, wouldn’t that lead to a Reformation in Islam, and to the rise of a genuine democracy?

“Father: Let’s say that Islamists manage to save us from the old regimes; but who would then help us to get rid of the Islamists, should they fail to deliver on their promises? This is the real dilemma. Once Islamists arrive at power through democratic means, they consider democracy as the ships that Tariq Bin Ziyad set on fire upon landing in Spain, to prevent the invaders from returning to North Africa, as one critic put it.[ii]

Hamid Zanaz’s dialogue ended without much hope for a beneficial change in Islamic teachings that would foster the rise of a humane relationship among Muslims, and with the rest of mankind. His personal “jihad” against Islamism goes on unabated, as one may read any of the 622 articles and essays he had posted on Al-Awan. In his latest posting, he manifested his exasperation with the Muslims’ inconsistencies, in these words:

“Oh, why are Muslims so quick and eager to appropriate and use the latest models of cellular phones, while at the same time remain unwilling to ‘digest’ the simplest forms of human rights; just because they consider them as ‘Western’ inventions?!”


Another reformist contributor to Al-Awan, is the Moroccan, Sa’eed Nasheed, the author of “Modernity and the Qur’an.” It was published in Beirut, Lebanon, and reviewed in Al-Awan by Khaled Ghazal on 16 May, 2015. Five years earlier, Mr. Nasheed had posted What Is the Qur’an?” dealing with the same topic.

“In Modernity and the Qur’an’ Sa’eed Nasheed starts with the nature of the Qur’an, whether it is in fact Allah’s words, i.e., a text which was dictated by Heaven! In his answer, he doesn’t deny that God is the author of the “Wahy”[iii] (revelation); however, it was formulated or redacted by the Prophet. This was accomplished by Muhammad within the context of his culture, language, personality, and his time. Therefore, the Qur’an is, in a sense, a human text par excellence!

“On the other hand, as Islam spread, a rational view of the Qur’an changed to such an extent, that the Prophet became like a “Second Person” next to the Divine Being, sometimes even superseding Him. The (Arabic) text of the Qur’an became a closed text based solely on ‘Uthman’s Qur’an, which is regarded by the various Islamic communions, as the Authorized Version; while all other copies were forcefully destroyed.[iv]

“By juxtaposing the “Qur’an with Modernity,” the author set forth a very important thesis: ‘Unless a revised view of the nature of Revelation is adopted by Muslims, they would never be able to adapt to Modernity.’ Such a revised view requires nothing less than jettisoning the notion that every word in the original Arabic text is literally, a divine speech. On the other hand, if the belief in the ‘Uncreatedness of the Qur’an is maintained,’ one is left with the historical view of Orthodox Islam that the text is eternal and cannot be revised, or re-interpreted.”

Unlike Al-Adhm whose adherence to Marxist ideology remained much alive with its total rejection of theism, Mr. Nasheed, like many previous reformers, is pleading with his contemporaries to realize that maintaining the traditional view of the Qur’an, will hold Muslims captive to an irrational and obscurantist worldview. By allowing the human factor to play a role in Revelation, and limiting its scope, he would like his contemporaries to reflect on his modest proposal. His concern is very real, since the number of young Muslims leaving Islam, and adopting unbelief, is growing rapidly.

Sa’eed Nasheed’s book offers a radical concept of “Wahy,” (Revelation.) Other than stating that Muhammad’s original mission was to announce and defend the Oneness of Allah, Mr. Nasheed hardly dealt further with the doctrine of Allah. While one may not expect him to write an entire book on Theology, yet the importance of the concept of God cannot be overstated.

The official Muslim view of the Qur’an is its “Un-Createdness.” The only way Muslim theologians could maintain that it doesn’t conflict with the Oneness of Allah, was to discourage theologizing, and to adopt the concept of “Bila Shabah,” i.e. “No Similarity.” Allah is the “Wholly Other.” His attributes are incommunicable. Thus, the Biblical doctrine of Man being created in the image of God and after his likeness[v] is unthinkable to Muslims. On the other hand, it means that a Muslim can never know Allah; he or she, can know Allah’s will as revealed in the Qur’an. The relation between Allah and a believer is that of a Master to a slave (‘abd), which explains the multiplicity of Muslim names in which the term ‘abd forms the first part of a man’s name, such as ‘Abdul-Ilah, Abdallah, ‘Abdul-Karim, Abdul-Rahman, etc.

The lack of a possibility for a closer fellowship with Allah, led some Muslim intellectuals to unbelief (Ilhad). This was the case of the Saudi scholar, Abdallah al-Quseimi! He began his intellectual career as a defender of the faith, but died as an unbeliever! One Arab writer offered this startling explanation: “Islam possesses a unique motif or impulse that makes it the most likely religion to cause unbelief. Several other religions contain the promise of an eschatological salvation at the end of time, such as in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism. However, in Islam, there is neither a place, nor a need for a Savior.” http://www.unashamedofthegospel.org/faith-to-unbelief.cfm

Sa'eed Nasheed’s “Modernity and the Qur’an” has offered a solution for a serious problem that besets Islam, namely its inability to cope with Modernity. The Caliphate Movement, Da’esh (ISIS) and its success in occupying large parts of Syria and Iraq, the civil wars raging in Libya and Yemen, are just two concrete examples of this serious malaise in Daru’l Islam. Unfortunately, there is little hope that Mr. Nasheed’s proposal would find acceptance. The past, with all its unresolved doctrinal issues and schisms, still weighs heavy on a civilization that seems to be unable to break its shackles, and chart a new course, that will insure peace and prosperity for its peoples, as well as for the rest of mankind.


[i] Al-Awan signifies the right time, like the Greek term, Kairos. Another way of conveying the meaning of the Arabic word is “It’s High Time.”

[ii] In 710, the Arab Islamic armies crossed the narrow strait separating North Africa from Spain, under the command of Tariq Bin Ziyad. It is claimed by Muslim historians, that after the landing, Tariq told his soldiers, after burning the ships: “the enemy is before you, and the sea is behind you; there is no choice but to attack.” In European languages Gibraltar became the name of the Strait, based on the Arabic phrase: “Jebel Tariq,” Tariq’s Mountain, reference to the giant Rock on the Spanish side.

[iii] The Islamic doctrine of Wahy is quite different from the Biblical view of revelation. In Islam, the prophet is totally passive as he receives the divine message in the form of a Kitab (Book) that “descends” on him. His unique role is to deliver message.

[iv] According to Islamic historiographers, it was ‘Uthman ibn ‘Affan, (644-656) the third Caliph, who ordered that only one copy of the Qur’an be preserved and the rest be destroyed. This explains why the Arabic text is usually known as ‘Uthman’s Qur’an.

[v] So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. Genesis 1:27 (ESV)