Farzana Hassan: Islamic Reform — Daunting But Needed

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Farzana Hassan is a former president of the Muslim Canadian Congress. She is an author and columnist at the Toronto Sun.

Hassan has written extensively on Islam and Muslim issues and has made several media appearances internationally, including on the world famous Doha Debates, where she argued in favor of banning the burka. Her most recent book, Unveiled: A Canadian Muslim Woman's Struggle Against Sharia, Misogyny and Jihad" is an account of her personal struggle in combating violence and extremism in Islam.

The following is Clarion Project National Security Analyst Ryan Mauro’s interview with Farzana Hassan:


Ryan Mauro: Your website says you are a voice for reformation changing the "existing ideological framework of Islam." How much clerical support is there for a reformation? How can a reformation begin without clerical support?

Farzana Hassan: Muslims must embrace the notion of contextualizing verses of the Koran and hadith literature if they desire an Islamic reformation. Quranic edicts must be understood as being relevant only in one particular context–that of seventh century Arabia–as these prescriptions speak to issues in the seventh century. Some reformists suggest that the principles behind these prescriptions are eternal and ought to be extrapolated in order to align them with modern values and sensibilities.

However, I feel such a compromise can be achieved only in a very broad sense. For example, if the Quran calls for social justice, then that broad principle can be applied to reform Islamic societies. This type of reformation is possible if one looks at broad religious principles to configure society.

That said, I firmly believe in the separation of religion and state. The aforesaid solution to Islam’s obscurantism must not to be seen as a basis for enacting laws. The legal framework of any modern state requires a clear separation of religion and state. Issues should be debated in legislatures from a position of neutrality towards all faith traditions.

I see little clerical support for an “Islamic Reformation.” Even educated Muslims believe that Islam is perfect and therefore needs no reformation. Reformist Muslims, on the other hand, repudiate sharia provisions and attempt to understand Islamic belief and practice mainly as metaphor. Traditionalists see them as constituting the fringes of Muslim society, even as heretics.  Few heed their call for an Islamic reformation.

From my experience in dealing with Muslims of various stripes and persuasions, I have come to the conclusion that while there is movement toward and away from Islam, the main body of Muslims has remained largely orthodox due to recognizable inertia in Islamic theology. Muslims who challenge traditional interpretations often end up repudiating Islam, at least intellectually. New converts to Islam, on the other hand, embrace the orthodox view simply because it is the entrenched view. The result is stasis within the community of Muslims across the world.

An Islamic reformation is therefore a daunting task. Mullahs and clerics would have to abandon the literalist approach to Islam in favor of its broad principles, especially when there is a blatant contradiction between the two. I have clarified this point in my book "Unveiled: A Canadian Muslim Woman's Struggle Against Sharia, Misogyny and Jihad."

Because of the aforesaid inertia in Islamic theology, combined with social taboos against any reform movement, the character of the Islamic community worldwide has largely remained the same. Thus it is Orthodox Islam that occupies the space of Muslim belief. It would be right to presume that space is shrinking because of undeclared apostasy within Islam, but there are no statistics to guide us to the accurate figure. Anecdotal evidence suggests the space is shrinking considerably. Whether the end result of this demographic shift will be reform or the eventual demise of Islam remains to be seen.


Mauro: In one of your articles, you talk about combating jihad "by destroying its conceptual roots." Can you explain what you mean by that?

Hassan: I have talked at length about combating jihad by destroying its conceptual roots. I have tried to prove theologically that the doctrine of jihad is obsolete. Interpretations like mine, however, are rejected by many. It is this kind of extreme outlook that makes reform in Islam difficult. However, reformists could make headway with those individuals who are sitting on the fence with doctrines like jihad.

There is great turmoil within Islam. Muslims are vigorously debating these issues among themselves, and with the plethora of interpretations floating around, it has become quite difficult to understand the true essence of Islam. Some Muslims remain unconvinced about the implications of jihad in the twenty-first century. It is these fence-sitters who can still be swayed to reject extremism and violence.

I believe my arguments to counter jihad may eventually prove to be effective, as they attempt to defeat mullahs on their own turf, but it will be a while before they are embraced universally. It is not possible to discuss these arguments here as that would require more space and time. Suffice it to say that no doctrine is equally applicable in every era because no two societies can ever be identical.


Mauro: Please bring us inside the Canadian-Muslim community and the Muslim communities in the West as a whole. Virtually all experts agree that the majority are moderate, but is the leadership moderate? 

Hassan: The term moderate is misused. If a moderate Muslim is one who does not resort to open violence, then the word has some use. However, as I have stated earlier, the character of Islamic communities worldwide has not changed much. They espouse jihad, they endorse the status quo when it comes to women’s rights, and they consider religious minorities inferior to Muslims. They consider members of other faith traditions misguided.

Therefore, Muslims across the world believe in the fundamentals of Islam. There may be some inconsistencies between their belief and practice. For example, some Muslim women may not wear the hijab, but they continue to express the desire to adopt the garb. Therefore many Muslims hold the theory of Islam dear, even though they would not practice all of it. I do not regard that as moderation in faith. Moderation in faith for me would have to include a certain degree of open-mindedness in debating religious precepts.

Unless and until a Muslim has renounced polygamy and the Islamic doctrine of armed jihad as totally obsolete in the era of the modern nation state, he or she cannot and should not be considered a “moderate” Muslim. In addition, if they believe that Sharia should be a source of public law, then too, irrespective of their claim to be “moderate,” they are not. Other faith communities allow dissent to debate such issues. However, in Islam the slightest dissent is promptly frowned upon because Muslims who challenge accepted interpretations are seen as challenging divine law. The leadership also reinforces such attitudes and is responsible for perpetuating fundamentalist interpretations.

So the majority of Muslims are moderate in that they are not themselves violent. But the seeds of violence will remain as long as Muslims worldwide accept the doctrine of jihad as an essential element of their faith. With such a universal acceptance of the doctrine, there is always a danger of anyone tipping over to the dark side. Unless Muslims renounce the doctrine of jihad, the problem of international terror will remain. The two – jihad and terror – have come to be equated in the minds of jihadists.


Mauro: Violent Islamists like Al-Qaeda and Hamas get almost all of the attention. What's your take on non-violent Islamists that oppose terrorism but argue that Western foreign policy is the "root cause" of the problem?

Hassan: There is great resentment towards the West in the Islamic world community. The enmity between Islam and the West has been an historical one, but it has taken on a new life in recent years. Muslims accuse the West of adopting a pro-Israel stance or accuse it of meddling in Muslim countries, usurping their resources and killing their children.

The Quran’s retributive law of equality permits Muslims to seek revenge in like manner. It is an eye-for-an-eye retribution that most of us living in contemporary societies know falls short of true justice. However, that is how jihad comes to be equated with terror. In the minds of terrorists, American carpet bombs kill innocent Iraqi or Afghan children. This therefore justifies Muslim terrorists killing innocent Westerners.

Many wonder why Muslims do not speak out against terror. It is because of this justification that they refrain from denouncing it. Soft Islamists and their “moderate Muslim” supporters must be told that terror is wrong regardless of “root causes.” Absolutely nothing justifies the killing of innocent people.

Furthermore, the Islamic world’s resentment towards the West is unfounded. The West has many times helped the Islamic world and continues to enjoy a relationship of mutual cooperation with many Islamic nations. However, propaganda in the Islamic world prevents Muslims from understanding the true nature of the West’s relationship with Islam. Any counter-terrorism effort would also have to include an attempt to diffuse these negative feelings. 


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org