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ISLAH. The Arabic term for “reform,” islah has come to denote the reform movement in the Islamic world in the last three centuries. In a modern Islamic context, the term primarily refers to the work and writings of Muhammad `Abduh and his disciple, Rashid Rida. The lexicographic and Qur’anic origins of the word also imply meanings of “reconciliation” and, in the words of the master lexicographer Ibn Manzur in Lisan al-`Arab, “the opposite of corruption.” Variants of the word appeared in the Qur’an to refer to striving a toward peace (surah 2.220) or to pious actions (surah 4.35).

Reform in an Islamic context should be distinguished from reformism within Christian churches. Islamic reformists did not-and do not-claim that Islam in itself needs any reform, but that various misunderstandings and misinterpretations have come to distort some of the original meanings of the texts, introducing some harmful practices. Islamic reformism is thus a movement aimed at returning Islam to its original message, with a theological emphasis on unity.

Although Islam (as a body of theological teachings and a system of devotional practices) has endured argumentation and debate about a variety of social, philosophical, and political issues on which there was an absence of ijma` (consensus of the clerical elite), there have often been men (and sometimes women) who have attempted to influence or change the common understanding and practice of the religion. The thrust behind the current reform movement, which began in the last half of the nineteenth century, revolves around the need for fulfilling the ethical requirements of Islam. It developed in response to modern Western influences in Islamic societies.

Among religious thinkers, or thinkers concerned about the viability of Islamic thought and practice, the islah, movement addresses modern problems by introducing modern answers that are drawn from the Qur’an. The movement, which stresses the continuity of its message, approaches inevitably the realm of ijtihad (individual inquiry in legal matters). Muhammad `Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida’s major contributions to the movement were in the area of interpretations of religious texts. Strictly orthodox Muslims (such as the Wahhabiyah and mainstream Islamic scholars at al-Azhar University) downplayed any originality in their work and emphasized instead their dedication to the sunnah (the path set by the Prophet). To be sure, islah thinkers did not hesitate to criticize facets of religious beliefs and practices prevalent among Muslims in their times. In fact, Islamic reform stressed in its message the rejection of what it calls bid’ah (impermissible innovations). These innovations were dismissed, because they were seen as incompatible with the interests of the community and with the teachings of the Qur’an and h adiths.

Another staple of Islamic reformist thought, particularly as represented by `Abduh and his immediate disciples, lies in recognizing a prominent role for reason in the life of the believer. Equal emphasis was put on the reformation of educational systems, including traditional religious education as represented by the ultratraditional al-Azhar University, and the improvement of the status of women in society.

No consensus exists among Muslims on the true definition of reform in an Islamic context. Every religious movement claims the reformist title for itself, with reformism understood in the Qur’anic notion of salah (the general good) of the community. By some accounts, the ultraconservative Wahhabiyah movement is considered reformist, because it too aspired to purify religion from the harmful influences of innovations and to call for the return of the original simplicity of early Islam. This last element of the Wahhabiyah doctrine is shared by most Islamic thinkers, although they might disagree on the definition of the “simplicity” of early Islam.

[See also Bid’ah; Fundamentalism; Ijtihad; Revival and Renewal; and Wahhabiyah.]


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Merad, ‘AlL. Le reformisme musulman en Algerie de 1925 a 1940. Paris, 1967.

Voll, John Obert. Islam, Continuity, and Change in the Modern World. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y., 1994


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/islah/

  • writerPosted On: May 30, 2014
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