May 6, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9322

Iraqi Writer: All Attempts To Reform Islam Have Failed And Are Likely To Continue Failing

May 6, 2021
Iraq | Special Dispatch No. 9322

In a March 10, 2021 article on the Sawt Al-Iraq website, Iraqi journalist Mahdi Qassem noted that all the efforts of liberal Muslim intellectuals over the years to reform Muslim thought and adapt it to the modern age have failed. Moreover, he said, they often resulted in the assassination of the reformists. He added that future  reform attempts are bound to fail as well, because they continue to be met with fierce and violent opposition from the extremists, both Sunni and Shi'ite, who regard their proponents as traitors and Western agents. This extremism, he lamented, is rampant even among young Muslims who grew up and were educated in the West, as reflected by terrible terrorist operations they have carried out. He concluded by promising to reward anyone who managed to reform Islam with "bird's milk" – an idiom for something nonexistent and unobtainable.    

Cartoon: "Religious extremism" (Al-Jazirah, Saudi Arabia, January 7, 2021)

The following are excerpts from Qassem's article:[1]

"Every once in a while, attempts to establish enlightenment in Muslim thought, or [at least] to discuss this, come to the fore. [These attempts are] prompted by the violence and terror that have been perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated in the name of Islam, especially based on certain Quranic verses. Such attempts were made and are still being made [with respect to] Salafi ideology, both  Sunni and Shi'ite [sic][2], with the aim of ending the ideological stagnation in Muslim thought and opening it up to reform and humanism, so as to adapt it to the spirit of the [modern] age, which is characterized by respect for human dignity and the promise of human rights for all.

"These attempts started in the 1920s and continue to this day. But [they are only] a pale spark of light in a long and dark corridor, because they were met with, and are still met with fierce opposition from the armed guards of the Sunni perception that accuses the other or heresy, as well as from the extremist Khomeinist Shi'ite ideology. [These reformist attempts] often end with the murder of the enlightened reformists, such as intellectuals Hussein Muruwa[3] and Farag Foda.[4] The late [Egyptian] author Naguib Mahfouz [survived] an attempt to stab him to death, while others were forced to hide or flee to the 'infidel West' and beg asylum there.

"I believe that any future attempt [of reform] will fail as well, for Islam is the only religion in the world that resists reform and will never be reformed, neither by force or through a flexible [approach]. Not only because this requires changing [the religion] and omitting many Quranic verses that call for violent jihad and for forceful coercion, but also because the Salafis and their sheikhs believe that any enlightened reform of this kind will empty Islam of its content and essence, and lead to its distortion and annulment, turning it into what they see as a fake religion like Christianity and Judaism.

"These [Salafi] elements regard the enlightened attempts [of reform] as a major objective of Western forces that are completely hostile to Islam, and regard those who engage [in reform] as treasonous agents of these hostile forces, who must be brutally slaughtered and murdered as punishment for their actions against Islam and the Muslims…

"Many third-generation descendants of Muslim [immigrants] were born in Western welfare states and studied at their best schools and universities. Moreover, they grew up in real democracies and in open societies that promote the values of tolerance and of giving every individual a chance to develop his personal skills and abilities, and that punish every kind of racism and hate-mongering. But it is young men and women of this third generation, of all people, who joined terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda, ISIS and others… and perpetrated horrible, heinous and barbaric crimes of murder, massacre and burning people alive…  

"If any of those [liberals] manages to reform Islam and make it truly enlightened, let him come to me and I will give him bird's milk as a reward, along with my heartfelt gratitude!"


[1], March 10, 2021.

[2] The term "Salafism" is generally used in the context of Sunni Islam.

[3] Hussein Muruwa (1910–1987) was a Lebanese intellectual and philosopher and a senior member of the Lebanese Communist Party, who was assassinated in his home in Beirut.

[4] Farag Foda (1946–1992) was a renowned Egyptian liberal thinker who was murdered by two members of the Al-Gama'a Al-Islamiyya organizations.

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