In Search of an Islamic Counternarrative

Commentary | July 28, 2016

In Lebanon's The Daily Star, EWI Distinguished Fellow Mustapha Tlili poses what he says the most important question before the Muslim world today.

Few today will doubt that since Sept. 11, 2001, Islam has had a very bad name in the West. Since those tragic events 15 years ago, many other dramatic events around the world have cemented Islam’s poor reputation. We have reached the stage when some Western political leaders denounce Islam as an important part of their bids for office, with incendiary and often ignorant pronouncements.In these early years of the 21st century, Muslims ourselves—both in the West and in Muslim majority countries—do not seem to agree on what being Muslim is all about. The absence of a central authority in Islamic theology and tradition heightens this problem. Those who speak and act in the name of Islam are often driven by a quest for power, and present conflicting images of Islam and its holy texts. The multitude of points of view available through social media amplifies the confusion to an extent unimaginable only a few years ago. Unsurprisingly, there is a thriving “fatwa stock market” (as I call it) in the Muslim world that often relies on the Internet to communicate its message, and intentionally frustrates dialogue with other cultures and faiths.

History tells us, however, that the search for a universally recognized truth has been part of Islamic tradition throughout its 14 centuries. If you strip Islamic history of its competition for political power, what remains can all be articulated in terms of interpretation of the faith, its tenets, and its fundamental texts—above all, the Quran. Various dimensions of Islamic civilization and culture cannot be properly understood if they are not interpreted in light of the context that produced them, whether the impressive openness of Al-Mu’tazila, those daring rationalists of Islam’s classical age, the fundamentalism of Al-Muwahiddin, whose fanaticism and intolerance destroyed medieval Muslim Spain, or the political and religious agendas of today’s Wahabbis and jihadist Salafis. 

What makes our moment different is the weight and challenge of the rules governing the international system, which are based on the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declarations of Human Rights, as well as the weight and challenge of globalization, which requires the Muslim world to confront the question of how to be Muslim in the 21st century.

In contrast to the times of Al-Mu’tazila or Al-Muwahiddin, or of the Wahabbism founders in the 18th century, or even the Islamic reform movement of the 19th century, narratives that run counter to the universal values enshrined in the founding documents of the United Nations and other legally binding international instruments are today rejected by the international community. Another difference is that in today’s hyper-connected world, Muslim countries can no longer hide certain truths about their lack of economic development, education, women’s rights, freedom of expression, rule of law and tolerance of difference. They can no longer close their eyes to the terrible damage that Islamic literalist narratives have wrought both in the Muslim world and beyond. Every open-minded Muslim intellectual or leader should recognize these ills that are plaguing Islam today, from Malaysia to Nigeria, from Morocco to Azerbaijan, and accept the need for counternarratives based on different interpretations of the sacred texts. They should recognize that this is their task; it cannot be performed for them from the outside. 

Reading and interpreting the Quran and the Prophet’s Tradition (or Hadith), the foundational texts of Islam, has always been the ultimate basis for building an understanding of what it means to be a Muslim. Islam is a faith and a way of life informed by an understanding of the faith. For Muslims, how the Quran and the Hadith are interpreted is not simply a matter of piety. It has real implications on how Muslim societies build states, economies, ethical and legal systems, and relationships with the rest of the world.

The discipline of interpreting the sacred texts has evolved through the centuries. But, if Muslim intellectuals and enlightened political and religious leaders admit that, as any discipline, it relies on intellectual tools and categories, they should not hesitate to apply the modern human and social sciences. Only through a critical re-examination of the foundational texts can they arrive at a radically new narrative to replace the narrative of violent extremism based on a misguided, literalist reading of the faith.

Piety serves its purpose, although nobody can ultimately know its role in our salvation. Critical intellect has a different function—in which the sacred becomes an object for rigorous and clear examination. With the stakes as high as they are today, must Islam be trapped by piety into literalist interpretations that are used to justify violence? Or can Muslim intellectuals and leaders, applying the tools of critical thought, achieve a new understanding of Islam in the 21st century? This is the most important question before the Muslim world today—and a question that has tremendous implications for the international community.


Mustapha Tlili is a distinguished fellow at the East West Institute in New York and founder and director emeritus of New York University Center for Dialogues.