Islam - The Struggle Within

March 08, 2017

Islam – The Struggle Within


Leo Gher

            Who are the Muslims? To many in the West, they are simply followers of the prophet Mohammed. Europeans once called them Mohammedans. Why not? The followers of Christ are called Christians, so the followers of Mohammed should be Mohammedans. But that is an imprecise analogy, not useful in any way. In both faiths, "God is God," but believers in each religion see the role of their prophet differently. For most, Christians regard Jesus Christ as both man and God. For Muslims, Mohammed is just man – the herald of God's message, the Qur'an. Mohammed is not "man/God 2.0."

            Another essential distinction between Christianity and Islam is the role that religion plays in everyday life. Civil societies in the West purposefully separate religions from government, culture, and society – church and state in the Islamic world are codependents. For example, in Iran, one cannot run for public office without first being deemed fit to serve by a presiding mullah. In Saudi Arabia, there is no constitution because the Qur'an is the constitution. In some Indonesian regions, religious police patrol the streets, maintaining public order and religious decorum. Even in the most progressive Islamic states, religion guides the lives of men and women daily, and for most integration of church and state is natural, orderly, and has been the way of things for more than a thousand years. So, what is the destiny for the fastest growing religion in the modern world?  

            At first blush, many readers will assume that the struggle within refers to the dispute for religious leadership between Sunnis and Shiites, carried out primarily between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it is not. Others – usually westerners – naturally assume it refers to the War on Islam, the fiction instigated by a few extremists who hope to overthrow their governments by creating a western boogieman. But that is wrong as well. No – the struggle refers to Islam's religious and dutiful path in the 21st century and beyond. Conservative Muslims see Islam's greatness linked to a glorious past; progressives find that greatness in its unerring relevance to contemporary life. These two visions – one ancient and the other modern – are at the heart of Islam's unsettling battle, not with the West, but from within.

            Islam is evolving, but how? In recent decades conservative Islam has been the dominant Muslim voice worldwide. Emerging from the 2011 Arab Spring have been numerous fundamentalist groups that have as their aspiration a return to the ways of the Rightly Guided Khalifas of the 7th century, known as the Rashadun. Broadly described, they are called Salafis. Politically active and spiritually devout, these groups see the practices of the first three generations of Muslims as the “truest form of Islam.”1 They dismiss speculative theologies that embrace discourse and debate, and view such processes as part and parcel of Greek philosophy and alien to the practices of Islam.

            The "significant other" in the battle is progressive Islam. Practiced mostly in the West, progressive Islam is ready, willing, and able to build Islam into a faith that is fully compatible with the 21st century and the standards of liberal democracy: multiple political parties, free and fair elections, separation of powers, and statutory law. For the moment, much of Islam is discounting the progressives. They are losing the contest for what Islam will become, what it will look like, and who will control it. The factions have drawn the lines: look to the past or look to the future, each assembly of believers seeing itself as true Islam and the soul of their religion.

            For a very long time, each of the old colonial powers of the West has seen itself as the "fixer" of all problems Islamic. Sadly, our solutions have frequently been about patching up the crisis de jure, and securing Western interests in the international places where Islam holds sway. After more than 100 years of meddling, one thing is very clear: the West cannot fix the problems – only Muslims can do it – find the long-lasting answers that benefit the majority of citizens, not just the privileged few. 

            Right now the moneyed interests of conservative Gulf nations (and their Western guarantors) are in control of the narrative, the money, and the religious establishment. But somehow, progressive Muslims must find a way to win the final war of words and the future of Islam. Simply stated, a noble civilization will be greatly diminished in the eyes of the world if the longing for a purer past is made the winner of the struggle within.


  1. Haykel, Bernard. "Chapter 1: On the Nature of Salafi Thought and Action". In Meijer, Roel. Global

      Salafism: Islam's New Religious Movement. Columbia University Press. pp. 34. 2009



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