The Tremors of Muslim Reform

The powers at the center of the Muslim world are refusing to tolerate radical Islamism, and a spirit of repair and renewal is at hand. Will it catch on?

Worshippers inside the historic al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo on August 28, 2020. Islam Safwat/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Worshippers inside the historic al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo on August 28, 2020. Islam Safwat/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

Nov. 10 2020
About the author

Hussein Aboubakr is an Egyptian-American writer.

This article is part of Mosaic’s continuing coverage of the diplomatic revolution in the Middle East.

No observer of the Middle East can ignore the shift that has been taking shape in the last few years. In Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and elsewhere, Arab governments are signaling major changes in their approach to religion. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, there have been voices in both the Muslim world and the West calling for religious reform. Something like that is now underway before our very eyes.

Muslims today speak of a process of islah, or repair, a word that suggests that the religious tradition is fundamentally good, but functioning improperly and in need of restoration. The word has historically been associated with the Islamic revivalists of the 19th century, but has begun to assume a new meaning. In the words of the Saudi thinker Mohammad al-Mahmoud, “It is important to stress that we are not speaking of islah in terms of revival or resurrection, as it was spoken of by [19th-century] traditionalists. . . . Religious islah must begin with a critique of the current structures of common religious discourse.”

Others have taken to using the word tajdeed, or renewal, which can be found in traditional Islamic thought and signals a need for new ideas from new places. Used most often in Egypt, the term has become a favorite of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for instance in his declaration earlier this year that “a tajdeed of Islamic discourse is necessary in order to save Islam and Muslims.”


The calls for islah and tajdeed have their roots in both the chaos of the Arab Spring and the coming of age of a new generation, a confluence that has propelled Arab governments to seek greater influence over religious institutions and rhetoric. Using the same autocratic instruments they have long employed for political repression, these governments are attempting to transform religious discourse—with enthusiastic support from a growing segment of the public. In doing so, these dictatorships are choosing a course likely supported by the majority of their people, against that of an influential and well-organized minority. The results may well benefit not just the Arabs and Israel, but the whole world.

Before discussing these developments, it’s necessary to state the obvious: Islam is different. In his 2016 book Islamic Exceptionalism, Shadi Hamid argues that Islam is resistant to secularization in a way other religions are not. This is a profound truth. The Islamic paradigm of civilization and social organization differs fundamentally from the Christian one. Most importantly for this discussion, Islam has a long tradition of understanding religion and state not as distinct, but as part of a seamless whole.

Hamid concludes, correctly, that this unity of religion and state explains the persistence of Islamism—a catch-all term for a variety of modern ideologies that place Islam at the center of the political order, ranging from the election-loving Muslim Brotherhood to the apocalyptic Islamic State. Where he errs is in taking this argument one step further by claiming, as do the Islamists themselves, that Islamism is the necessary, modern expression of the Muslim political tradition.

Today, the evidence seems to refute such a conclusion. Arab regimes are seeking to reform official Islam—that is, the state-approved understanding of the religion—in order to offer an alternative to Islamism. For much of the 20th century, Islamists have been trying to subordinate the polity to Islam; now Arab states are pushing back by subordinating Islam to the polity, which, they claim, already embodies Islam.

The current policies of Egypt and the Gulf states ought not to be confused with secularization; nor do they at all resemble American-style separation of church and state. What is happening now is the opposite. It does not involve the expulsion of religion of the clergy from public life along the lines of the government-enforced secularization of Kemalist Turkey or laïcité in France. After all, Arab governments have neither the desire nor the ability to decrease Islam’s centrality to their societies. But they do have the ability to govern and channel it.

In both public and private, Middle Eastern life has long been dominated by conservative sensibilities. This situation shows no sign of changing; traditional morality is likely to remain. What has changed is that Arab states are starting to take an active role in reshaping the discourse around the religious tradition, trying to create a robust and appealing official Islam that can compete with Islamism in all its permutations. We can see this pattern most definitely in Saudi Arabia and Egypt—which stand out because of their importance to the broader Muslim world—and in the United Arab Emirates, which stands out in the extent of its embrace of religious moderation. It’s worth examining each case separately.


Perhaps the biggest story of all comes from Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and a country that has allowed extremist clerics to define its national character for over half a century. The kingdom has traditionally served as the bastion of Wahhabism, the strictest and harshest school of Islamic interpretation (outside of that embraced by Islamic State). But in the last few years, a major shift has been underway.

The most visible and best-publicized manifestation of this shift is in the deregulation of women’s lives. In keeping with traditions going back to the beginning of Islam, if not earlier, Saudi women were not just forced out of the political, economic, and social spheres but placed in a state of perpetual house arrest—forbidden to travel without the permission of a male “guardian,” to drive, or to attend public events.

Likewise, the morality police, authorized by the state to oversee religious practices, were until recently a force to be reckoned with. They ensured that stores shut down during prayers, prevented the playing of music in public, supervised female modesty, and hunted down sinners wherever they might be, even in the privacy of their own homes. Perhaps the most atrocious example of their behavior was when they prevented schoolgirls from escaping a burning building in Mecca in 2002 because they were not fully covered, causing the deaths of fifteen students.

Aside from the dehumanizing treatment of women, the most uncomfortable issue for Western politicians was the connections many wealthy Saudis had to Islamic terrorism. Since the early 1970s, Riyadh supported and exported Sunni extremism to counter various ideological threats at home—Arab nationalism, the Muslim Brotherhood, Communism, Iranian influence—and to gain influence in the wider Muslim world. The promotion of religious fundamentalism abroad became a cornerstone of Saudi foreign policy, as the regime and generous donors from the royal family poured billions in oil money into the coffers of radical movements, many of them violent. Saudi contributions to terrorist and extremist groups were probably the single most troubling point of American-Saudi relations.

The Saudi Arabia I just described is a thing of the past. Since his rise to power, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has overseen the most significant legal transformation in the kingdom’s history. Now women are allowed to drive, travel, work, and move about with their heads uncovered. The crown prince even talked about formally ending the male guardianship system. Just as importantly, Saudi officials have constricted the authority of the religious police, revoking their law-enforcement powers and limiting them to making civil reports. In the last year, concerts, mixed-sex events, and Western forms of art and entertainment became permitted in public. As a friend who recently visited Riyadh put it to me, many Saudi cities are unrecognizable today.

Parallel to these social changes, the Saudi security establishment is also switching gears. In 2017, Washington and Riyadh signed a historic agreement establishing the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center to disrupt the global terrorist-finance network, which once relied on Saudi support.

There is abundant evidence that these efforts are not random, but follow a systematic and determined approach related to the crown prince’s 2030 Vision, a strategic framework for modernization and economic diversification. Perhaps the most significant part of the current transformation is the strong hand the Saudi state is using to reform Islamic scholarship. In the past few years, it has become amply obvious that the kingdom’s religious clerics were given a choice: either support the crown prince or disappear completely from public life.

Particularly telling is the case of the most dynamic and prominent Saudi Wahhabist cleric, Aid al-Qarni, who for decades was the poster-imam of the Saudi Sahwa movement, which vigorously promoted unforgiving and puritanical Islamic values and is directly responsible for the rise of doctrinal extremism in many parts of the Sunni world. Growing up in Egypt in the 1990s and 2000s, I often saw Qarni’s books being sold by the doors of mosques and on the sidewalks. On the first day of the holy month of Ramadan of 2018, Qarni shocked audiences by going on Saudi TV, condemning the movement he once led, apologizing for his “mistakes and extremism which ran counter to the Quran, the legacy of the prophet, and Islamic tolerance.” He announced that now he is “with the open, moderate Islam . . . of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.” One would do well to wonder if he had a choice not to be with the open and moderate Islam of the crown prince, who had declared in 2017, “We will not waste 30 years of our lives in dealing with extremist ideas; we will destroy them now.”

The monumental transformation of Saudi Islam is as shocking to Muslims around the globe as it is to Westerners. Elsewhere in the Arab world, writers, authors, and journalists are enjoying a bitter laugh at the fact that the Saudis led their own societies down a dark road only to abandon them in the middle. Many are now using the Saudi turn to criticize their own countries’ radical religious movements.


Religious development in Egypt is no less important. It is difficult to overstate Egypt’s centrality to modern Islamic intellectual history, which is the reason Barack Obama chose it as the site of his 2009 address to the Muslim world. It was in Egypt in the 1800s that, after centuries of stagnation, intellectuals undertook a revival of classical Islamic learning and Arabic literature, setting into motion a religious renaissance that in many ways is still going on today. Islamism in fact should be seen as an outgrowth of this revival, and it was Egyptians who laid down much of its intellectual and theological foundations.

Precisely because of this foment, the Muslim Brotherhood, the most pervasive and successful Muslim political movement of the 20th century, arose in Egypt, drawing on a potent mixture of Islamic tradition, Muslim hyper-nationalism, and European revolutionary ideologies. While puritanical Wahhabists are concerned primarily with Muslims’ conduct in their social and private lives, the Brotherhood is solely preoccupied with the will to Muslim political power. For most of the past century, it succeeded in defining Islam in both the East and the West. Brotherhood intellectuals, and their concept of political-religious identity, have undermined the Arab states since their independence, depicting them as insufficiently Islamic. This Foucauldian theology, in which power is supreme, gave rise to the relentless focus of many modern Islamic scholars on politics rather than on spirituality or Quranic scholarship.

The saga of the Muslim Brotherhood climaxed in 2012 as the movement was able, finally, to acquire power in its birthplace. In retrospect, it is now clear that this was the beginning not of the Brotherhood’s victory but of the present and perhaps final showdown between it and the Arab states. In 2013, the Egyptian military—backed by the Saudis and the UAE—ended the short-lived presidency of the Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. Since then, Egyptian generals have spared no tool of violence or oppression in uprooting the Muslim Brotherhood politically and ideologically, leaving its members dead, jailed, or seeking refuge in Qatar, Turkey, or the West.

At the same time, President Sisi launched an aggressive top-down campaign to reform and restructure the Egyptian religious landscape, which comprises three distinct ideological streams: the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist movement (which seeks to emulate the practices of the earliest generations of Muslims), and the classical Islam of the establishment. The attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood has been largely exterminationist, coupling outright repression with the mobilization of popular nationalist sentiment by labeling it a foreign terrorist group. These efforts to discredit the Brotherhood succeeded, and now there is much hostility among large segments of the Egyptian population towards both its leaders and its rhetoric. To admit pro-Brotherhood sentiment publicly in today’s Egypt is quite dangerous.

Fearing a similar fate, the Salafist movement was quick to withdraw support for the Muslim Brotherhood and declare its loyalty to Sisi. While this strategy indeed saved it from annihilation, it wasn’t long before the state media apparatus started to target Salafism as well. For this mission, the government recruited young anti-Salafist researchers, such as Islam al-Behiry, a scholar who was convicted of blasphemy, personally pardoned by Sisi, and then given his own TV show, where he scrutinizes Salafist literature and undermines its doctrinal validity. This effort intensified as the Saudi establishment started to turn against its own Salafist scholars, arming Egyptian public intellectuals with more ammunition with which to fight Wahhabist religious discourse.

But unlike the Saudi monarchy which can use a heavy hand to impose reforms, the Egyptian regime faces an uphill battle. Sisi has thus been engaged in careful political gamesmanship to balance and outmaneuver competing voices and sources of authority. The most important of these are the three state-backed religious institutions: Dar al-Ifta (the high office of fatwas, responsible for ruling on issues of the interpretation of shariah), the Ministry of Religious Endowments (responsible for the management of mosques, the licensing of imams, and Muslim common-law trusts), and, above all, Cairo’s al-Azhar University, the world’s oldest and most important institution of Sunni religious learning.

Dar al-Ifta has long issued fatwas validating governmental decisions and actions, including the use of aggressive force to combat the Muslim Brotherhood. The Ministry of Religious Endowments, as a part of the executive branch, has recently sought to tighten control over mosques and imams, even policing fatwas and the content of sermons. But of the three, the most influential, and the one that has had the most problematic relationship with Sisi, is al-Azhar, headed by the Grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayyeb, who insists on maintaining institutional autonomy. Today, al-Azhar finds itself walking a delicate line between doctrinal commitments and state demands. But Sisi too fears antagonizing al-Azhar, since he needs its support in combating the Muslim Brotherhood.

The pressure on the university to engage in religious reform comes from multiple sources. First, there are President Sisi’s blunt demands for social and religious change. Since he took office, he has spared no sacred occasion to renew his condemnation of extremism and stagnation, and to call for tajdeed. His speeches usually include indirect attacks on Tayyeb’s stubbornness, and especially his unwillingness to modernize laws concerning marriage, divorce, and other civic affairs. On at least one occasion, the grand imam has hit back with a speech, in Sisi’s presence, about the dangers of tyranny. But Sisi is resourceful, and in his confrontation with al-Azhar he has utilized every instrument available, including the ranks of academics, writers, journalists, and public figures employed by the state.

The most visible spillover of this conflict happened during an international conference organized by the university in January 2020 to discuss the renewal of religious thought. During the conference, the grand imam engaged in an unplanned, heated debate with the president of Cairo University about the importance of classical Islamic learning and the struggle between tradition and modernity. Millions watched the debate on TV and on their computers, and the video segments went viral on social media, starting long and heated online discussions.

The second source of pressure comes from the other competing religious institutions. Dar al-Ifta, having declared unconditional support for Sisi’s efforts, increasingly enjoys a positive image, especially among the secular young. With its strong social-media presence, Dar al-Ifta engages directly with Muslim youth, who generally feel alienated from the religious establishment. This year, as the Me Too movement came to Egypt, Dar al-Ifta declared its support for women experiencing sexual harassment by issuing official fatwas disassociating modesty of dress from harassment and assault. By taking a stand against the oft-heard refrain that revealing outfits cause abusive behavior toward women, Dar al-Ifta gained popularity among young people of both sexes while undermining al-Azhar’s longstanding insistence that female modesty is a cornerstone of social stability. In this way, the younger generation has also come to take Sisi’s side in this struggle.

Further complicating the relationship between the two institutions is the fact that technically Dar al-Ifta is a branch of al-Azhar. To reward the former for toeing the official line, and to punish the latter for refusing to do so, the government attempted to grant Dar al-Ifta financial and administrative independence so that it would answer directly to the cabinet. This move was meant to increase pressure on al-Azhar, but the university, showing that it still has some clout, publicly expressed its fierce opposition to such a change until the government backed down.

Lastly, there is pressure on the university from certain sectors of the Egyptian public itself, especially those who wish to undermine Salafism by invalidating the canonical Sunni religious works that serve as its prooftexts. The fact that such texts are also used by al-Azhar puts those modernizers, backed by the state, in a confrontation not just with Salafism, but with the state-sponsored institution of al-Azhar itself. Prompted by this pressure from the reformers, the grand imam inveighed publicly against state media for hosting those who criticize Islamic traditions while refusing to allow al-Azhar and its representatives to respond. How long the duel between Sisi and Tayyeb will go on and who will emerge victorious is anyone’s guess—but it is indisputable that change is afoot.

Finally, there is the case of the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is not home to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, nor to the premier institution of Islamic scholarship. But it has been a pioneer in terms of state-sponsored religious moderation. For decades, its government has tried to foster a culture of tolerance, hosting interfaith events and offering hospitality to various religious groups. UAE-based religious television promotes the most enlightened and moderate interpretation of Islam possible. On the state-funded Abu Dhabi network, the young and energetic superstar cleric Waseem Youssef tells Muslim women that being a good person has nothing to do with covering their hair, instructs Muslims living in Western countries to love their new homelands and to be loyal to their constitutions, and warns them against listening to the voices of hatred. On Twitter, he praises peace and preaches the acceptance of Israelis as neighbors and friends.

Following the Arab Spring, the UAE began to promote these messages, heretofore mostly for domestic consumption, to a regional audience, sponsoring an aggressive anti-Islamism campaign—while helping the Saudis in their reform efforts, fighting Iranian influence, supporting the Egyptian military, and making its most significant move yet with its peace agreement with Israel. The UAE’s foreign minister even came out in defense of the French president Emanuel Macron in his recent campaign against Islamism, inspired by the latest episode of Muslim uproar there over cartoons of Mohammad.


The bloody outcome of the Arab Spring brought many Arab governments, and many of their subjects, to the same conclusion: the region has a pressing need for new religious ideas. The changing Arab attitude toward Israel is an integral part of such a reformation, one made possible by the rising tide of religious moderation, and one that will likely encourage more of it. Arab clerics, journalists, and writers for the first time are starting to challenge the anti-Semitism that once dominated Islamic discourse.

The peace agreement between Israel and the UAE was preceded by many steps taken by different countries to challenge negative perceptions of Jews. Such steps included the production of Umm Haroun, a Kuwaiti TV series offering a humanizing view of Mizraḥi Jews; the visit of the secretary-general of the Mecca-based Muslim World League to Auschwitz earlier this year to condemn the murder of six-million Jews and lead prayers for their souls; and the Friday sermon given on September 4 in the Grand Mosque of Mecca, Islam’s holiest site, where the imam preached kindness and dialogue with Jews.

For years, Muslim secularists like myself agonized over the religious crisis of the Middle East. The prospects of religious enlightenment seemed impossible. Many had to seek refuge in the West to escape heresy laws, government persecution, and death threats. Now the wind is blowing in our favor.

We would do well to avoid the mistake of thinking that Islam is losing any of its centrality to Middle Eastern life, or that it can be relegated, Western-style, to a distinct sphere of “religion.” In the Arab world, Islam is religion, history, and language—a completely integrated way of life. It is part of the very air one breathes.

What is taking place instead is a narrow but significant reorientation of Islamic thinking about politics, as well as certain codes of conduct, to match the lifestyle and aspirations of the Arab urban middle class. Thus blasphemy laws are likely to remain in place and to be applied harshly towards those who insult Allah, Mohammad, or the Quran. Now, however, governments are far less likely to use these laws to punish those who criticize other elements of the Islamic traditions. To give an example: a person at present can suggest that some Islamic strictures concerning women are no longer valid without fear or prosecution. This might seem trivial for a Westerner, yet it is monumental for many Muslim countries—especially in that this new attitude allows free and open discussion of political and social questions.

Of course, there is no guarantee that a change in political leadership won’t bring about a reversal. A century ago Ataturk brought Turkey into secular modernity only for neo-Ottomanism to rise a century later, at the hands of an Islamist political party. Will a new Arab Islam meet the same fate?

Moreover, the leaders initiating these reforms are autocrats notorious for their disregard for human rights. How much legitimacy can religious repair have if it is brought about by tyrants? It seems quite possible that dissidents will turn against moderate Islam so long as it is tied to despotism. The poisons of Islamism might be destined to survive due to the very nature of the efforts to eradicate them.

But one thing is certain: the societies of the Middle East are changing. New generations of Muslims and Arabs are rightfully frustrated with current conditions. Young Muslim women are unlikely to remain content with their condition while following the Instagram profiles of Western women on their smartphones or observing the “me-too” hashtags on social media. Already, young female members of Arab royal families are beginning to play previously unthinkable public roles. The most important Saudi diplomatic function, that of the Saudi ambassador to Washington, was passed from Prince Bandar al-Abbas not to his son but to his daughter, Princess Rima.

A decade ago, I would never have dreamt of scholars who cast a critical eye on the horrors in the medieval Islamic texts—glorification of jihad and martyrdom, the promotion of concubinage, and so forth—speaking publicly in Egypt; today, they are doing so on television. A decade ago, it seemed unthinkable—even in Egypt, whose government is closely allied with Israel—to suggest on state-run media that the Jewish state might be anything less than evil; today, many say Israel is a good neighbor. The Islamic renewal that once seemed so distant is taking place even faster than one could imagine.

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