Islamic Reforms and Intellectual Currents bewtween the Middle East and the West

This paper examines critiques of secularism penned by Abdolkarim Soroush, Abdullahi an-Naim, and Amyn B. Sajoo, three Muslim intellectuals frequently identified as Islamic liberals, or reformists, over the past twenty years.  Against the backdrop of a surge in political Islam throughout the last quarter of the 20th century, there emerged a number of Muslim intellectuals deeply critical of such movements.  These reformists offered an alternative vision of Islamic society that both rejected the Islamists’ goal of establishing an “Islamic State” and deemed certain pillars of Western liberal thought unfit for the Islamic world.  The reformists’ balancing act was reflected in their treatments of secularism and the role it ought to play in the societies they were envisioning.

This paper makes two central claims. First, while Soroush, Naim, and Sajoo endorse the separation of religious and state institutions of authority, they reject the notion that such institutional secularism must also be accompanied by the removal of religion from the public sphere. Second, each writer echoes objections to liberalism found in recent Western scholarship questioning the primacy of the individual and the privileging of “the right” over “the good” – liberal tenets that have made ethics, morality, and communal identity largely private matters in the West. This exchange between non-Western Muslim thinkers and Western intellectuals represents a new, qualitatively different, chapter in the modern transmission of ideas between the Western and Islamic worlds dating back to the early 19th century.  Whereas earlier generations of Muslim thinkers sought to justify the adoption of Western political ideas and institutions by finding parallel concepts in Islamic history and texts, this newer generation demonstrates both a greater comfort acknowledging the Western sources of certain modern political concepts and a more sophisticated familiarity with debates taking place within Western political thought.