Middle East Resources

What’s Needed: Radical Reforms, Not a Revision of Public Discourse

A Call to Add Marginal Notes to Passages in the Qur’an
(Al-Islahat al-Jidhriyyat, La Tajdid al-Khitab al-Dini) 

By Bassam Michael Madany
21 June 2018  


Al-Awan is a liberal/reformist online journal that calls for the de-coupling of the Islamic faith from the Public Square, via a process of radical reforms in the interpretation of the Qur’an. On two previous occasions, I had translated and commented on this topic: “Modernity and the Qur’an,” and “What is the Qur’an?” 


Many reformist intellectuals have concluded that any genuine reformation in the Islamic religion must start with the adoption of a new hermeneutic that takes into consideration and critiques the time and circumstances for the “descent” of each Qur’anic Surah. Such an approach runs counter to the historic Muslim belief that the sacred text is “uncreated,” and remains normative for all time, and in all places! Notwithstanding this belief, liberal Muslims are working hard to initiate radical reforms, realizing that unless these changes take place, the exodus from Islam will only accelerate among future generations.[i]

The following excerpts from the Arabic on-line article present the case for such a radical hermeneutical venture:

“The Qur’an declares that, the only acceptable religion to Allah is Islam (3:19) This Ayah implies that Islam is the most complete and worthy faith to follow. Islamists, most Muslims, even so-called ‘Moderates,’ regard all other religions as false.  

“Can we claim then that Islam is a tolerant religion; or, are its detractors right, when they assert that Islam, is the most intolerant faith? When Muslim radicals commit crimes against humanity, the conclusion is obvious: Islam is a violent and belligerent religion. 

“On the other hand, when we study the early chapters of the Qur’an (the Meccan Surahs 610-622,) we encounter Ayas that breathe a tolerant faith, with emphasis on freedom and mercy toward all human beings. 

Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects evil and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trustworthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things. 2:256

O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things). 49:13

“Don’t these texts breathe a spirit of love and a view of a humanity living in harmony; where all people enjoy equal status; created to get acquainted with one another, and becoming friends, without reservation or preconditions, and regardless of differences in beliefs?
“However, it’s both painful and unfortunate when we encounter in the Medinan Surahs (622-630) Ayas that contradict the view of a peaceful Islam! 

Therefore, when ye meet the Unbelievers (in fight), smite at their necks; At length, when ye have thoroughly subdued them, bind a bond firmly (on them): thereafter (is the time for) either generosity or ransom: Until the war lays down its burdens. Thus (are ye commanded): but if it had been Allah’s Will, He could certainly have exacted retribution from them (Himself); but (He lets you fight) in order to test you, some with others. But those who are slain in the Way of Allah,- He will never let their deeds be lost. 47:4 

“Actually, the Qur’an reveals two ‘faces’ of Islam: an Islam of love, mercy, and tolerance; as when the Prophet was at peace with the Jews. On the other hand, there is an Islam of murder and intolerance. As one Hadith recounts Muhammad as saying, I’ve come to slaughter; another Hadith, where he describes himself as laughing while killing; and that Jihad is the apex of faith

“There are around 500 Ayas in the Qur’an calling for violence and intolerance vis-à-vis  non-Muslims; while those calling for tolerance, have been marginalized in the religious discourse. In contrast, the violent Ayas are clear, detailed, and form an essential part of the regular Khutbahs (sermons) of the Friday services at the mosques! 

“We urgently need radical reforms. To attain this goal, marginal notes must be added to the Mus’haf (the printed copy of the Qur’an) where combative and intolerant Ayas, are explained, and declared as no longer normative.

“As an example, we may refer to The First Chapter of the Quran, Al-Fatiha. [ii]

Al-Fatiha constitutes the text for the five-daily prayers; it has seven Ayas, the seventh Aya, as historically expounded by Muslim exegetes, refers to the Jews, as being under the wrath of Allah; and to the Christians, as those who had gone astray. This Aya  requires a complete re-interpretation. 

“Arab intellectuals must learn from the Europeans who made radical reforms in their culture, when their theologians employed textual criticism in the study of their sacred texts. They rediscovered that the Bible taught a separation, or a distinction between the role of the church and that of the state; each having its own sphere of authority. The distinction between religion and governance, secured the integrity of religion; at the same time, it allowed the state to deal with the affairs of the social life. 

“When we come to Islam, the developments that took place in Europe are completely absent. Furthermore, it must be added that it was Western scholars who initiated serious and scholarly research of the early manuscripts of the Qur’an. While they encountered opposition from certain academic circles, yet they persisted in their ventures. We may mention among them, Patricia Crone, Christof Luxembourg, and Tom Holland. Some were forced to hide their identities, lest the radical Islamic authorities might issue fatwas legitimizing their assassination! The discipline of Orientalism was depicted as a Western colonialist anti-Islamic plan to spread Islamophobia, a term employed by Islamists, to silence opposition to their cause. 

“As an example of this Islamist attitude, we may refer to the silencing of the documentary, Islam: The Untold Story, by the British historian Tom Holland. It was aired only once on the BBC Chanel 4 due to the pressure exerted on the channel by the Gulf States. In contrast, the same channel had aired programs critical of Christianity’s basic beliefs; however, neither the Christian Church, nor Christian groups, attempted to stop their airing!

“Nowadays, Islamists have become a global active force, thanks to millions of dollars they receive from governments to spread their propaganda among the Muslim communities living throughout of the world. Qatar is one of these states; its TV Station Al-Jazeera, works hard to stifle any reform movement in the Muslim world, while  spreading archaic teachings about Islamist governance, and ethics. Its goal is to defend Salafism, based on the views of the late Sayed Qutb [iii], the notorious ideologue of the Muslin Brotherhood.

“They employ all types of dissimulation in their polemics against reform in Islam, including criticism of Western democratic values that some Muslim states had adopted, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. [iv]

“The totalitarian Islamist system is like Nazism. It goes beyond authoritarianism, as it seeks absolute control over every aspect of life, leaving no room for individual freedom. It subjects people’s morals, politics, economics, education, literature, and science to its worldview. In fact, it possesses a genocidal nature! 

“For example, Kemal Ataturk’s authoritarianism led to the rise of modern Turkey, where secularism pervaded every aspect of life. Turkey became one of the advanced societies in the world. However, this Kemalist renaissance began to decline and wither, when Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party took over the reins of government, and began a ‘creeping Islamization’ policy, as some Turkish intellectuals have called it. He has succeeded in striking at the roots of Turkey’s secular tradition, by altering the Constitution through a series of plebiscites, the prosecution of journalists, and by weakening the two basic supports of Turkey’s secularism: an independent Judiciary and the Army.

“Adding to that, Erdogan initiated a campaign to denigrate secularism, while he began to glorify the history of the Ottoman Caliphate, aided by the neo-Ottomans headed by his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu. Erdogan’s interest has shifted from an attempt to join the European Union, to his dream of reviving the Ottoman Sultanate, and control over the Arab world.  

“In order to overcome the Islamist plague, with its debilitating illnesses, such as underdevelopment, and Irhab; it is necessary to embark on radical reforms. The West has already given us the tools and methods, by which we can accomplish the work. Now it’s our responsibility as Muslims who understand the dimension of the challenge, to take the required measures for the rise of a tolerant Islam, that’s utterly distinct from the violent Islam of the radical movements!” 


This lengthy essay is a very bold call for radical reforms in Islam. The writers are suggesting that marginal notes be added to passages in the Qur’an that they deem incompatible with modernity. It requires the adoption of a new hermeneutic in interpreting Surahs of the sacred text that were “revealed” in Medina (622 – 630) The combative Ayas known in Arabic as “Ayat al-Sayf” (The Sword Verses) would be regarded as time-conditioned, and relevant only to the circumstances that Muhammad faced in Medina. They should no longer be valid in this age of globalization, especially nowadays, as Muslim communities reside permanently in several parts of the West. 


The case for radical reforms in contemporary Islam has taken on new urgency as the Third Millennium begins. The spread of radical Islamist movements such as Al-Qaeda and Da’esh (ISIS) have troubled moderate Muslims. The biggest problem facing any genuine reform in Islam is the entrenched belief in the divine origin and applicability of the Qur’an for all time and in all places. 

The rise of the Internet has spurred on both the radicals and the moderates.  The radicals use it with evil intent to propagandize young people and urge them to join various causes against the Infidel. The moderates have also used it to good effect in an attempt to rescue their religion from its extremist interpreters.   Even for those who just want to live in peace, freedom of thought and action is infectious. The “Arab Spring” wouldn’t have spread from Tunisia to Egypt, without this new medium of communication. The events at Tahrir Square in Cairo serve as an example of how masses of young people gathered at the Square and succeeded in toppling the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak! 

The fear of an acceleration of the exodus of young Egyptians from the faith, and the growth of Ilhad (Unbelief) make it an urgent matter to “save” Islam from an extremely serious condition. This fear is accentuated by the rise of Ilhad movements that are gaining strength by using YouTube, where interviews with leaders of secular worldviews, present their critique of the Islamic sacred texts, such as the activities of the Egyptian Dr. Sayyid al-Qimni [v]

It's very hard to forecast what the future holds for the much-needed reformation in Islam. One thing is certain, there can be no return to the past, to an era when discussions and articles on such topics could not have taken place! In all areas of life, and among all civilizations, history is accelerating toward an unknown future!  

The “radical reform” essay was posted on Al-Awan website, on the First of February 2018 and can be found at: https://www.alawan.org

[i] The spread of disbelief in the Arab world

[ii] Al-Fatiha The First Chapter of the Quran
1 In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. 2 Praise be to Allah, Lord of the Worlds, 3 The Beneficent, the Merciful. 4 Master of the Day of Judgment, 5 Thee (alone) we worship; Thee (alone) we ask for help. 6 Show us the straight path, 7 The path of those whom Thou hast favoured; Not the (path) of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray. The Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an, by M.M. Pickthall

[iii] Sayyid Qutb was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s. His major book, “Milestones on the Way,” (published in 1964) has become the textbook for Jihadism. In 1966, he was convicted of plotting the assassination of Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser and was executed by hanging.

[iv] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a historic document that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly at its third session on 10 December 1948 as Resolution 217 at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, France. Of the then 58 members of the United Nations, 48 voted in favor, none against, eight abstained, and two did not vote.

Charles Habib Malik was a Lebanese academic, diplomat, and philosopher. He served as the Lebanese representative to the United Nations, the President of the Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations General Assembly, a member of the Lebanese Cabinet, a national minister of Education and the Arts, and of Foreign Affairs and Emigration, and theologian. He was responsible for the drafting and adoption of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

[v] Sayyid al-Qimni is an Egyptian scholar who subscribes to a secularist worldview of all religions, denying their supernatural origin. He has waged ideological battles with Al-Azhar University Mosque, that had declared him a Kafir. The following is one of his many interviews that takes place in Arabic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDodqUcwwTk&t=51s