Islamic Studies Reformist Muslims in Contemporary America
Serhan Tanriverdi
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 March 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0270


In the last two centuries, Muslims have made efforts to reform Islamic tradition and thought. Reform attempts have often focused on the advancement of the Islamic tradition and reconfiguration of Muslim thought and practices in light of changing sociopolitical circumstances and human knowledge. Reforming Islam has been a particularly central focus since Muslims’ direct encounters with modernity in the early 20th century. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (b. 1838–d. 1897), Muhammad Abduh (b. 1849–d. 1905), Muhammad Rashid Rida (b. 1865–d. 1935), and Fazlur Rahman (b. 1919–d. 1988) are the prominent figures of the reformist trend in recent history. Since the 1990s, an increasing number of Muslims have migrated to the United States, and rising Muslim populations have led to the emergence of reformist Muslim intellectuals there. Many of these reformists are professors or public intellectuals working at American institutions, and they come from different ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. Reformist American Muslim intellectuals should not be considered as an entirely and internally homogenous group; instead, it should be seen as an umbrella term covering various critical reconstructivist approaches to the Islamic tradition and modernity in the context of the United States and globalization in the last three decades. These thinkers call themselves “reformists,” “progressives,” or “critical Muslims” in their works. Referring to them as “reformist American Muslim intellectuals” was preferred for this article because they live and work in the United States and want change, but they are not advocating for revolution or radical social upheaval. Instead, reformist Muslims mainly focus on building democratic, pluralist, and ethical theories or practices from a Muslim perspective while prioritizing the development of indigenous Islamic arguments for their agendas and ideas. Thus, their intellectual projects often simultaneously challenge (a) apologetic, exclusivist, premodern socio-legalistic thoughts, and epistemologies promoted by Muslim fundamentalists, Islamists, and traditionalists; and (b) Western-centric, secularized, reductionist views found in some popular Western discourses. Ultimately, reformists attempt to deconstruct the hegemonic assumptions of (neo)orientalist perspectives and dogmatic discourses about Muslims in order to reconstruct democratic, pluralists, and just interpretations of the Islamic tradition for the sake of contemporary Muslims. The themes of reformists’ writings reveal a correspondence to the sociopolitical issues of contemporary Muslims in the West and the global scene. For example, reformist Muslims’ writings have focused on themes such as the critique of traditional Islam in the aftermath of 11 September 2001 and the resurgence of radical groups, extremist ideas, and authoritarianism in Muslim communities. Thus, reformist Muslims often focus on debates about Islam’s compatibility with modernity and democracy, the role of religion in public life, human rights, religious freedom, pluralism, and gender justice. As a result, reformist Muslims in the United States can be seen as a continuation of Islamic modernism that started in the 19th century in the Islamic world but has been significantly shaped by the conditions of the modern American society and circumstances of Muslims. In other words, it is reasonable to say that reformist Muslim discourses do not emerge or exist in a vacuum. Thus, their writings can be seen as the production of a dialectical engagement between Islamic tradition and modernity at large.

General Overviews and Introductory Theoretical Resources

The following list demonstrates the range of topics generated by reformist or progressive Muslims in the contemporary era, and it shows the multiplicity of ways authors define this reform quest. The terms “reformist” and “progressive” are used interchangeably, despite their differing connotations, in some texts, because both concepts have very similar meanings in the overall analysis. In other words, all the work listed here, in a larger perspective, discusses the compatibility of Islam with modernity and its various manifestations in different aspects of social life. Safi 2003 and Safi 2006 discuss the main concerns, themes, and approaches of reformist/progressive Muslims. Moosa 2003 analyzes the challenges and responsibilities of critically reforming Islam in the modern world without leaving the Islamic tradition. Moosa 2007 provides further conceptualizations in the definition of progressive Islam, reformist thinking, and its theoretical differences from traditional perspectives. Abou El Fadl 2014 comprehensively addresses the reconciliation of Islamic ethics and morality with modern democratic, pluralistic values, and reasoning. Afsaruddin 2015 presents multiple interpretations of Islam through a sociohistorical perspective and their compatibility with modernity.

  • Abou El Fadl, Khaled. Reasoning with God: Reclaiming Shari‘ah in the Modern Age. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2014.

    Abou El Fadl writes from his personal Muslim perspective. He deals with the major sociopolitical, moral, and theological problems Muslim societies face in the contemporary age. He particularly focuses on how to reconcile Islamic ethical teaching with modern sensibilities, including reasonableness, goodness, justice, human rights, and democratic culture. He also calls for a new methodology to reinterpret scriptural sources of Islam and understanding of the modern world.

  • Afsaruddin, Asma. Contemporary Issues in Islam. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

    Afsaruddin analyzes key controversial issues of contemporary Islam within a larger historical context and presents the complexities of Islamic tradition in modern times. She challenges the notion that the Islamic tradition is unchangeable and unable to respond to the modern world. Instead, she shows multiple interpretations of Islam that are compatible with modernity, democracy, gender justice, religious freedom, and interfaith relations. This text would be useful for graduate and undergraduate teaching.

  • Moosa, Ebrahim. “The Debts and Burdens of Critical Islam.” In Progressive Muslims on Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Edited by Omid Safi, 111–127. Oxford, UK: Oneworld, 2003.

    Moosa examines major contemporary intellectual challenges that Muslims face today. He proposes a dialectical engagement between the Islamic tradition and modern human knowledge and experiences to reconceptualize Islamic intellectual thought and Muslim culture in the modern world.

  • Moosa, Ebrahim. “Transitions in the ‘Progress’ of Civilization: Theorizing History, Practice, and Tradition.” In Voices of Islam: Voices of Change. Edited by Vincent J. Cornell and Omid Safi, 115–130. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2007.

    Moosa critically discusses and conceptualizes what progressive Islam is, the ways it differs from Islamic orthodoxy, and the challenges it faces today. He also discusses the importance of Islamic tradition and history, and the notion of progress in the formation of progressive Islam.

  • Safi, Omid. “Progressive Islam in America.” In A Nation of Religions. Edited by Stephen R. Prothero, 43–60. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

    Safi discusses the main premises of progressive Islam and conceptualizes it. Then he analyzes the emergence of progressive Islam in the context of America, its sociopolitical dynamics, and its challenges.

  • Safi, Omid, ed. Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism. Oxford: Oneworld, 2003.

    This edited volume emerged in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attacks. Its introduction is a good overview of the basic themes and approaches of progressive/reformist Muslims. It reexamines key contemporary and controversial issues Muslims face today. It also develops an internal criticism toward apologetic and fundamentalist views and practices within Muslim culture and promotes a new understanding of Islam that is rooted in social justice, pluralism, and gender equality.

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