The Future of Islam

In his latest book ,  John Esposito turns his attention to the future of Islam itself; the nature of Islamic reformist theologies and movements and the ensuing struggle to define Islam in the Muslim world itself. He focuses on some of the most profound and complex issues Muslims are dealing with in the 21st century, such as gender relations, human rights, war and peace, the viability of democracy and secularism. He also focuses on the growing Muslim communities in America and Europe and discusses the pertinent concepts of identity and loyalty which have taken centre stage in the public discourse in these countries.
Esposito constructs a mosaic-like mural of the Muslim world and its relation with Europe and America. In it Islam is depicted as a diverse phenomenon stretching across national boundaries, historical periods and many races, and where religious interpretation is subject to multiple factors and variables. The book is divided into four chapters and a conclusion, along with a foreword by Karen Armstrong. Armstrong dispels notions that an ‘Islamic Reformation’ has not occurred by mentioning the numerous movements that claim reform and revival as their motivating factors.

She quotes the Quranic verse ‘O people! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes so that you might come to know one another’ (49:13) as encapsulating the imperative to foster and engender a pluralistic global community. What might worry some is her suggestion that the ‘future of Islam does not simply depend on the effectiveness of a few Muslim reformers but that the United States and Europe also have a major role to play.’

It is true that religious discourse cannot be solely determined by Muslims because those outside the faith can also influence it. This is the reality of the new globalised and interdependent world in which Muslims have to operate and interpret their faith. Esposito painstakingly deconstructs the monolithic version of Islam prominent in the western media in order to present the breathtaking diversity of Islam, or what he calls ‘the many faces of Islam and Muslims.’

It is an incredibly humanising picture of the faith of over one billion people and the interpretive struggle and hermeneutic conflicts that occur within it. Issues of identity and the prejudice that Muslims face in Europe and America from certain religious leaders are also discussed. The second chapter titled ‘God in Politics’ focuses on a subject which provokes many heated discussions. In it the author argues that politically speaking Islam is viewed in the West from the prism of the Iranian revolution, but the fact is that the political experience of Islam and Muslims is much more diverse and includes groups which endorse democracy and work within secular parameters such as the AKP party in Turkey.
The interlinked challenges of political reform and religious reform appear to be the crux of Esposito’s narrative; he is convinced that in Muslim societies the one cannot happen without the other. He argues that for democracy to occur it has to pass through the gates of religious politics, and in order for it to be fostered religious institutions and leaders have to endorse it fully. Chapter three deals with the phenomenon of Muslim reformers; in the author’s view Muslim reformers are important ‘not only because of their ideas and orientations but also because they are debunking entrenched perceptions.’ In effect Muslim reformers offer a double critique both of European and American societies as well as Muslim societies, critiquing European conceptions of modernity for instance and tackling the complex questions of Islamic law and theology. It is sad but also in a way quite encouraging that many of the well-known and respected reformers mentioned, such as Tariq Ramadan and Timothy Winter, live and work in Europe and America.

Clerics such as Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa are also mentioned for their reformist attitudes towards issues such as apostasy laws and gender relations. At times Esposito’s choice of reformers in Muslim-majority countries can be perplexing since many are quintessentially conservative televangelists rather than liberal or reformist theologians or philosophers as such. One can argue long and hard about who is a Muslim reformer and who is not, but Esposito offers a wide variety of names from a host of different societal contexts and national discourses across the Muslim world.

Still, this is the strongest chapter in the book because it deals analytically with the various religious actors — both clerical and non-clerical — with various tendencies of reformism, classical traditionalism, fundamentalism and extremism on key issues such as democracy, secularism, human rights, war and peace, the ethics of war and the challenges faced by Islamic traditions in a globalised age. The fourth chapter deals exclusively with American-Muslim relations, an area which the author hopes will experience a new age of engagement during the Obama presidency. Once again the issues of identity and loyalty of American Muslim communities is raised, as well as their rights, civil liberties and the narratives constructed about them by the media in the post 9/11 context.

Here Esposito takes aim not only at western leaders and foreign policy but also Muslim preachers who espouse hate and extremism. He criticises American and European societies for marginalising Muslim minorities and acknowledges the value and utility of dialog. Esposito concludes his groundbreaking work with the optimistic assertion that the preachers of hate can be eliminated so long as mainstream Muslims and Muslim reformers work together to marginalise extremism and reach sensible conclusions in the myriad of controversial and complex debates which surround the Muslim world.

The book contains some glaring omissions of key Muslim intellectuals and reformers, however, to the author’s credit, he is aware that it is not possible to cover the entire Muslim intellectual spectrum in such a work. The Future of Islam is a short but thought-provoking study which seeks to foster debate rather than be wholly definitive.

[John Esposito is a professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and one of the leading American voices on Islam. He has written extensively to bridge the gap of understanding that exists between Muslims and the West. Some of his best works are Islam and Democracy (1996), What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam (2002), Who Speaks for Islam: What a billion Muslims really think (2008) and Islam: The straight path (2004), which is considered to be one of the most widely used introductory texts to Islam in America and Europe. ]

[What’s at stake: By Ahmad Ali Khalid , Book Review in Dawn, Sunday, 18 Apr, 2010, Courtesy Dawn:]

The Future of Islam