Way Forward for a Better Future for Islam, Muslims and the West

Reading John L. Esposito’s ‘The Future of Islam’

By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

‘The Future of Islam’ is an insightful and perceptive work proposing the way forward for a better future for Islam, Muslims and the West 

TODAY Islam is the fastest-growing religion in Africa, Asia, Europe, and America. More than 1.5 billion Muslims are living in 56 majority Muslim populated countries worldwide and some significant minorities in Europe and America (where it is second and third-largest and fastest-growing religion respectively). That is, presently, Islam is more dispersed around the globe, and its capitals and major cities cover a global expanse from Cairo to Jakarta in the Muslim world and from New York and Los Angeles to Paris, London, and Berlin in the West.

But, at the same time, over two decades (21 years) have passed since the tragic events of 9/11, but still many speak of—and still believe in—the ‘clash of civilizations’, ‘What went wrong?’ or ‘Why do they hate us?’ At the same time, there are a number of questions raised and asked about Islam, as if everything good is related to the other part of the question and as if whatever is wrong, is part of Islam.

Title: The Future of Islam
Author: John L. Esposito (Forwarded by Karen Armstrong)
Publication Details: New York: Oxford University Press, 2013 (1st Ed. 2010)
Pages: xviii+234; ISBN: 9780199975778; Paperback; Price: € 10.99

Professor John L. Esposito (Georgetown University, USA)—who is regarded as one of the most important and influential leading scholars of Islam and the Muslim politicsin this new edition of The Future of Islam (Forwarded by Karen Armstrong) seeks to understand the “struggle for reform in Islam to “explore the religious, cultural, and political diversity of Muslims facing daunting challenges in Muslim countries and the West, to clarify the debate and dynamism of Islamic reform, to examine the attempt to combat religious extremism and terrorism, and to look into the future of Muslim-West relations” (p. 3).

For Esposito, from 1970s especially, “Islam and Muslim politics have moved from offstage to center stage” and thus one witnesses “an explosion of interest in and coverage of Islam” (p.4), because the topic of Islam and of Muslims is political as well as religious, and Islam is “not only a faith… [but] also an ideology and worldview that informs Muslim politics and society” (p. 4). The Future of Islam, in this direction, is about “all of our future”, because, as Esposito puts it: “Islam and Muslims today are integral players in global history. They are part of the mosaic of American and European societies. In a world in which we often succumb to the dichotomy between ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are challenged to transcend (though not deny) our differences, affirm our common humanity, and realize that ‘we’, whether we like it or not, are interconnected and co-dependent, the co-creators of our societies and our world” (p. 5).

Through this book, Esposito wants to tell the story about “how we got to where we are and what we need to understand and do to create… ‘a new way forward’” (p. 6). Divided into four main chapters, the book is preceded by Foreword (by Karen Armstrong, pp. ix-xi), Preface (pp. xvi-xviii) and Introduction (pp. 3-9), and is followed by a precise but perceptive 5-page Conclusion (pp. 195-9).

Chapter 1, “The Many faces of Islam and Muslims” (pp.10-55) provides a brief introduction of Islam and Muslims, and of Islam in/and the West. Esposito, here, clearly points out that while we commonly speak of “Islam”, in fact “many Islams or interpretations of Islam exist”, and the images and the realities of Islam and  the Muslims are multiple and diverse: religio-culturally as well as politico-economically (p.11). He also highlights the fact that Islam, like other faiths, has historically been a “source not only of compassion, morality, and virtue but also of terror, injustice, and oppression.” (p.12)

Chapter 2, “God in Politics” (pp.56-87) provides the background and the context for understanding political Islam, the role of religion in politics and society, and its impact on Muslim societies and the West. Esposito here examines the reassertion of Islam in Muslim politics and society, looking at its impact and global implications, seeking to answer various questions, like what is political Islam? Are all Islamic movements a threat? For him, Muslims today face twofold challenge of religious and political reform, both of which are integral to the development of Muslim communities and the marginalization and containment of religious extremism and terrorism, and thus the ongoing challenge is “to formulate and implement doctrinal and educational reforms (in schools, madrasas, and universities) that more effectively respond to the challenges of globalization in the twenty-first century with its need for all religious faiths to emphasize inclusive rather than exclusive theologies, theologies that foster mutual understanding, respect, and religious pluralism” (pp.86-7).

Addressing the critical questions and issues in Islamic reform, Chapter 3, “Islam Needs a Reformation” (pp. 88-141), looks at the roots of reform and the extent to which it continues today from Egypt to Indonesia as a broad array of Muslim religious leaders and intellectual, men and women, traditionalist and more modern-oriented reformists, discuss and debate in a dynamic process of reinterpretation and reform. He presents the views of a globally and intellectually diverse group of reformers—like Tariq Ramadan, Amr Khaled, Sheikh Ali Goma’a, Mustafa Ceric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Nurcholish Majdid, Timothy Winter, Farhat Hashemi, Amina Wadud, Heba Raouf, and Abdullah Gymnastiar—working and speaking out on issues of religious and political reform. In the beginning of this chapter, Esposito ardently argues that the questions “Is Islam capable of reform?” and “Are there Islamic reformers?” are not only “strange, [but] even absurd” (pp. 88-9) because the issue is not “whether there will be change but rather how much and what kind” of change is needed and necessary. For him, given the human nature and dynamic historical and social context of a religion, “change [in interpretation] is inevitable” (p. 89).

It is in this context (of this message) that Karen Armstrong (in her Foreword) has pointed out and appropriately emphasized that there are many “reformers” in the present Muslim world, who like Martin Luther (1483-1556) articulate, by challenging the common Western view of Islam, an important trend in Muslim thinking, which, on one side, “does not clearly regard a literal interpretation of scripture as normative”; and on the other, regards “self-criticism as creative, necessary and religious imperative”, “abhors terrorism and violence” and is anxious to initiate a “gender jihad” (p. x).

Esposito argues that although these intellectuals have addressed the “role of Islam in contemporary society” (p. 89), but a major challenge for all these reformers is the “importance of linking, of showing continuity, between proposed changes and long-held Islamic beliefs and traditions”, and thus “The legitimacy of Islamic reformist thought, its acceptance or rejection, hinges on its perceived Islamic character and authenticity. Therefore, the “how” is as important as the “what”; the process of change (methodology) is often as important as the actual reforms themselves” (p. 94).

Moreover, in Chapter 4, “America and the Muslim World: Building a New Way” (pp. 142-194), Esposito makes an analysis of the challenges of Islamophobia, failed American foreign and domestic policies, the roles of militant Christian Zionists and the media, and the continued threat posed by religious extremism and terrorism. It also throws light on interfaith and inter-civilizational dialogue and such initiatives as the Amman Message and “A Common Word” (pp. 186-191) as well as at the role of public diplomacy in new paradigm to rebuild America’s image and role in the Muslim world. Appreciating the conviction of Esposito’s present book, Armstrong in her Foreword supports this view also when she argues 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” (p. xi).

Finally, in the “Conclusion”, Esposito makes the following key and important arguments, and it is not necessary that one should agree with his presumptions.

1. In the 21st century, Muslims—throughout the world—stand at “major crossroads”, as they face a world of multiple modernities, and thus struggle with living and practicing their “faith in a rapidly changing world”(p.195);
2. Reform-minded Muslims—equipped to reinterpret Islamic sources and traditions to meet the challenges of modernization and development, leadership and ideology, democratization, pluralism, and foreign policy—are articulating a “progressive, constructive Islamic framework” (p. 195);

3. The fundamental problem for the development and long-term stability in the Arab and Muslim worlds “is not the religion of Islam or Islamic movements but the struggle between authoritarianism and pluralism” (p.196);

4. The future of Islam and Muslim-West relations remains a key political and religious issue; and that inter-civilizational dialogue is not only a prerogative of religious leaders and scholars but is now “a priority for policymakers and corporate leaders” and is “the agenda for international organizations” (p.198);

5. It is necessary to recognize that the Children of Abraham are part of, not only the Judeo-Christian heritage, but of a rich Judeo-Christian-Islamic history and tradition; therefore, steps should be taken—and efforts be made—to hook up this “missing link”, for the “peoples of America, Europe, and the Muslim world have many shared values, dreams and aspirations” (pp.198-9)

The book ends with this striking (inspiring and perceptive) message: “The future of Islam and Muslims is inextricably linked to all of humanity. All of our futures will depend on working together for good governance, for freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, and for economic and educational advancement” (p.199).

In sum, The Future of Islam is very insightful, perceptive, and comprehensive work that proposes the way forward for a better future for Islam, Muslims and the West. It is highly recommended for all those interested in knowing about the past, present, and future of Islam and the Muslims, and of the Muslim-West relations.

  • The author is Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies, at GDC Sogam, Kupwara (J&K). Email: [email protected] 

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