The New Enlightenment: The Role of Women in Muslim Reformation

First, of all, apologies for the long gap in blogging; work commitments as well as general laziness are my less than adequate excuses. Having said that, last week, I attended a lecture by Professor Madhavi Sunder, who is a leading scholar in the field of legal regulation of culture. Her lecture was deeply insightful and thought provoking, so in that respect, a week to reflect on the conclusions of the talk was most welcome.

In 2006, Sunder was awarded a Carnegie Corporation scholarship, to support her writing a new book entitled “The New Enlightenment: How Muslim Women are Bringing Religion Out of the Dark Ages.” Sunder is a thoughtful and engaging speaker and a passionate advocate of human rights. It was refreshing to hear her views on Islam because her work is mainly aimed towards a Western audience. It seeks to dispel the myths that Islam is incompatible with the Western lifestyle and refutes the Samuel Huntingdon model of the clash of civilisations. However, primarily, Sunder’s work focuses on changing the established mindset of Muslim women to secure equal rights and freedoms.

During the talk, Sunder clarified the lecture’s title, explaining that she is not suggesting that Islam itself that is in the “dark ages,” but rather how the religion is perceived, interpreted and indeed practiced in many parts of the world.

First of all, it is important to establish how the “old enlightenment” differs from the “new enlightenment.” The old enlightenment entailed taking cultural practice and religion out of the domains of the law, so that people pursue liberty and equality in the public sphere, i.e. our pursuit of freedom exists outside the realms of religion or culture. However, this does not always prevent the violation of human rights in the private sphere; Sunder conceptualises the New Enlightenment as the right of women to seek liberty, freedom and equal rights not only in the public spheres of society and law, but also in the private spheres of family, culture, and within religion.

Sunder also cited the recent Gallup World Poll, which asked Muslims across the world what they think of education, democracy, religion and culture. The findings of this poll are to be published shortly in a book entitled “Who Speaks for Islam: What a Billion Muslims Really Think.” The book, written by Dalia Mogahed and John L. Esposito compiles six years of research and more than 50,000 interviews, representing some 1.3 billion Muslims in 35 nations, that are either predominantly Muslim or have sizeable Muslim populations.

The research is thorough and extensive, but some highlights include that when asked about what they admire about the West, Muslims frequently cited political freedom, liberty, fair judicial systems, and freedom of speech. Muslims were also asked to critique their own societies; extremism and inadequate adherence to Islamic teachings were cited as their top grievances. Furthermore, between 82% and 99% of Muslims (varying by country) wanted freedom of speech as part of their constitution.

In their report of extremism, a key finding of the Gallup poll was that both moderate and radical Muslims affirmed religiousity, through stating that religion was an important part of their lives, or through attendance of religious services. Thus, despite the difference in the politics of both groups, it seems that clear that to be against terrorism does not necessitate abandonment of religious beliefs. This supports my assertion that the roots of terrorism do not lie in Islam itself, but rather it stems from its (incorrect) interpretation.

It is interesting to note that whilst 33% of US citizens (at least, perhaps more) believe that Islam encourages violence, the radical group represented just 7% of the total Muslims polled. Whilst I would argue that even 7% is too much, this means that 93% of the world’s Muslims are moderates, dispelling the myth that the majority of Muslims are against the West.

But, I digress. The results of the poll make for interesting reading, and I would highly recommend that you check out the findings for yourself. However, the overall conclusion of the poll debunks the myth that the majority of Muslims support terrorism. Rather, the research suggests that there is no battle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world; rather the majority of Muslims want liberty and embrace democratic values.

The problem does not lie in convincing Muslims of a democratic, egalitarian vision, as this is the sort of constitution that the vast majority seeks. However, the problem lies in operationalising these rights, such that Muslims countries have human rights alongside their religious rights and freedom to practice their faith. Madhavi Sunder says:

“Islam is stereotyped as regressive, anti-modern, anti-Western and incompatible with democracy. Too often, the media ignore those people doing the much harder work of exposing Islam’s modern side.”

In other words, religion is not the dark sphere that the West perceives it to be. Muslims have a desire for human rights and freedoms within religion and culture, and this is the essence of the modern enlightenment.

Readers of this blog have asked me about the right of people to leave Islam, and this is indeed one of the basic human rights that must be attained in every nation across the world. With regards to this restriction, Sunder also quoted John Locke’s letter on tolerance:

“No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but every one joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God.”

I would assert that this restriction is not imposed by Islam itself, but rather by interpreters of its laws. Indeed, there are many verses in the Quran supporting this:

2:256 “There is no compulsion in religion”

16:82 “But if they turn away from you, (O Prophet remember that) your only duty is a clear delivery of the Message (entrusted to you).”

88:21, 22; also see 24:54
“And so, (O Prophet!) exhort them your task is only to exhort; you cannot compel them to believe.”

And this reconstructivist approach was the essence of Sunder’s lecture. For centuries, Muslim women have had their rights violated by patriarchal societies who impose the belief that their abuse of human rights comes from a higher power. Sunder argues that Muslim women must take a critical, textual approach, where they are encouraged to examine the Quranic verses for themselves and challenge the widely held beliefs about the text.

The reality is, that there is no conflict between Western democracy and the practice of religion.

With regards to Sharia law, Sunder argues that whilst the laws of Islam might be divinely guided, they were recorded by men and thus have a historical and temporal basis. Now, whether you believe the laws are divinely guided or not is irrelevant; the vision of new enlightenment is a world where Muslim women do not have to abandon their faith in order to pursue freedom.

The point being, that there is inherent flexibility in these laws to interpret them for the modern era. However, the patriarchal society means that many Muslim women simply do not realise that they have a choice within the religion. Just one of the groups working to change the mindset of Muslim women includes Sisters In Islam (SIS). Their mission statement is well worth reading, but here is a short extract:

“We uphold the revolutionary spirit of Islam, a religion which uplifted the status of women when it was revealed 1400 years ago. We believe that Islam does not endorse the oppression of women and denial of their basic rights of equality and human dignity. We are deeply saddened that religion has been used to justify cultural practices and values that regard women as inferior and subordinate to men and we believe that this has been made possible because men have had exclusive control over the interpretation of the text of the Qur’an.”

Such organisations work with women on the ground to operationalise the liberties and rights of women. SIS works with women to create dialogue about the intepretation of the Quran and challenge their beliefs about what the religion states. They help women to realise that religion, in part, is a human creation, enabling women to separate that which is divinely guided from that which is part of human construction, to redefine and reconstruct the interpretation of Islam.

This reconstructivist approach enables democracy and freedom both within the private realm as well as the public realm, since women are empowered to make autonomous decisions.

After the lecture, I had the opportunity to ask Madhavi about her views of Irshad Manji’s Project Ijtihad. The key point is that human rights and injustices are not challenged because they come from a tradition or history within Islam but becaue every human being has the right to assert and challenge injustice. In that way, it is a universal message for all women who have had cultural patriarchy and injustice imposed on them. Some may call it Ijtihad, whilst others assert that we must attain basic human rights, not because Islam says so, but on the basis of our universal humanity. However, one could argue that the end goal is the same.

I really appreciated Madhavi Sunder’s approach and the lecture was deeply inspirational and refreshing. It challenged the notion that secularism is the only solution to securing rights in the Muslim world. Clearly, given the importance Muslims ascribe to their religion, securalism and abandoning faith, whether in the public or the private sphere is not a viable solution.

The lecture gave me much to think about, and was a welcome change from the bleak picture painted by traditional media outlets, who talk about the deep conflict between Islam and the West and leave me with a sense of hopelessness and despondency. Organisations such as Sisters in Islam are a beacon of light and hope in this dark era. Change will take time, it always does, but with the good work of women such as Zainah Anwar, perhaps we will see the New Enlightenment take shape, challenge traditional ideas about women’s rights in Islam and attain the freedoms and liberties that the Muslim world so greatly desires.

The Gallup Poll reports are available as free downloads from the website of the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies.
“Who Speaks for Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think” is now available from Amazon

As always, please feel free to add your comments.



  1. Farouq Taj · March 22, 2008

    The currently accepted theological model of Islam certainly needs changing. In my experience it is the cause of enormous suffering, particularly of women, in the Muslim world.

    Whilst there is no official clergy in Islam there has always been a ‘Mullah’ class of stern faced miserable men who have held a monopoly on the interpretation of scripture.

    The Muslim world is in desperate need of reformation but it will be a slow and painful process. Perhaps Madhavi Sunder and others are part of that process.

  2. evolution · March 24, 2008

    Hi Farouq,

    Thanks for commenting. I’m happy to say that Islam is not monolithic, and as the Gallup polls show, Muslim embrace democratic values. However, the next step is for moderates to reclaim the faith and make their voices heard.

    I agree that change will take time, but fresh thinking from the likes of Madhavi Sunder, Tariq Ramadan, Zia Sardar, and the work of Zainah Anwar provide hope for the future,


  3. Reverse_Vampyr · March 28, 2008

    Very good post. I hope that Muslim women around the world will continue to make progress toward equality in their societies.

    I would disagree, however, that there is no compulsion of religion in Islam. Islamic conquerors throughout history offer but three choices to the conquered: death, conversion, or the reduced-human status of dhimmitude.

    Islam is pretty clear about apostasy in the Qur’an:

    9:73-74 “O Prophet, strive hard against the disbelievers and the hypocrites and be adamant and stern with them . . . they did utter the words of unbelief. Thus, they were guilty of unbelief after they professed Islam . . . If even now they repent of their misbehavior, it will be good for their own selves, but if they do not repent, Allah will chastise them with a painful chastisement in this world and the Hereafter” (Maududi, vol. 2, p. 213)

    4:88-89 “Then what is the matter with you that you are divided into two parties about the hypocrites? Allah has cast them back (to disbelief) because of what they have earned. Do you want to guide him whom Allah has made go astray? And he whom Allah has made to go astray, you will never find for him any way (of guidance) 89 They wish that you reject (Faith), and thus that you all become equal (like one another). So, take not Auliya (protectors or friends) from them, till they emigrate in the way of Allah (to Muhammad). But if they turn back (from Islam), take (hold of) them and kill them wherever you find them.”

    Death is often prescribed for apostates in many hadith:

    “The blood of a Muslim who confesses that none has the right to be worshipped but Allah and that I am His Apostle, cannot be shed except in three cases: In Qisas [like-for-like punishment] for murder, a married person who commits illegal sexual intercourse and the one who reverts from Islam (apostate) and leaves the Muslims.”
    – Sahih Bukhari – Volume 9, Book 83, Number 17 (Abdullah)

    “Whoever change[s] his Islamic religion, then kill him.’”
    – Sahih Bukhari – Volume 9, Book 84, Number 57 (Ikrima)

    “. . . No doubt I heard Allah’s Apostle saying, “During the last days there will appear some young foolish people who will say the best words but their faith will not go beyond their throats (i.e. they will have no faith) and will go out from (leave) their religion as an arrow goes out of the game. So, wherever you find them, kill them, for whoever kills them shall have reward on the Day of Resurrection.”
    – Sahih Bukhari – Volume 9, Book 84, Number 64 (Ali)

    “As for the person who leaves Islam for something else and divulges it, he is called on to repent. If he does not turn in repentance, he is killed . . . If they repent, that is accepted from them.”
    – Malik’s Muwatta Book 36, Number 36.18.15

    Although death is more often mandated through hadith and Shari’a law, the intolerance of other religions from the very origins of the Muslim faith is pretty clear.

    It is not the billions of peaceful Muslims who worry non-Muslims. It is the millions of radicals who are rapidly forcing their ways upon other societies and bullying them with violence.

    Hopefully, peaceful Muslims and non-Muslims alike will stand together against this.

  4. evolution · March 28, 2008

    Hi Reverse_Vampyr,

    Thanks for your comments and for putting a different spin on the debate.

    What I would say, however, is that your sources include Sahih Bukhari and Maududi. Whilst many Muslims believe in the legitimacy of these sources, I however, do not and would dispute their validity.

    But, beyond that, the women who work on the ground with women in the Middle East are working to revoke the meaning that has been exploited by patriarchal societies for generations. The whole point is not to read these verses literally, but to look at them from a critical viewpoint. Anyone who wants to justify anything can do so, but what I am stressing here is that we should not take the interpretation that many people exploit to justify acts of terrorism, but rather look at the verse in its historical context.

    Furthermore, i note that you refer to Islamic conquerers. That is quite different from Islam itself. The Saudi Royal family, would be examples of so-called “Islamic imperialism” (in reality this is a contradiction in terms, but they do not represent the legitimate teachings of Islam.

    Religion is often used to create a cult-like following, and indeed throughout history, there have been tyrants who have exploited Islam to gain power. This is the essence of universal Machiavellian leadership, which has been used to attain power throughout world history.

    With regards to the “millions of radicals,” i hoped this week to publish a blog post with more in-depth analysis of the Gallup World Polls. It reveals that the radicals are a tiny minority, and indeed the vast majority of Muslims are indeed peace-loving.

    This is coming soon, time permitting. Please look out for it as a follow-up to this blog post,



  5. Antonio · March 31, 2008

    Interesting reads in the responses. I look forward to the Gallup World Polls post.

    – Antonio

  6. Silent Rant · April 15, 2008

    Hey there Aliyah,

    I was also at the same lecture… you’ve made some interesting points and I must say a very thorough and well-written post. I would however say that although hailed a progressive reformist, Madhavi still does have a long way to go in understanding some of the complexities faced by Muslim (often third world) countries. Until some of the internal cultural, political and economical strife is addressed, little will be achieved in terms of human rights for Muslim women.

    Anyways, am inclined to put a link to your site from mine – hope you don’t mind. Nice work – keep it up.


  7. evolution · April 16, 2008

    Hi Silent Rant,

    Thanks for your comments. Obviously Madhavi Sunder was speaking as an outsider, but to be honest, that’s the main reason I really appreciated her point of view. I think that sometimes it’s difficult to see the wood for the trees when you’re on the inside.

    That’s why sometimes it’s better to get an outsider’s point of view. They see things that you might not be able to see.

    And for links – well yes, any link love is most certainly welcome! Please feel free to reference my blog, and send me a link – will most certainly return the favour by commenting and adding my thoughts.

    It’s a small world after all! Interesting that you were at the same lecture… I’m planning to attend many more LSE lectures next term so hopefully might see you around!

  8. Pingback: The New Enlightenment: The Role of Women in Muslim Reformation How Muslim Women are Bringing Religion Out of the Dark Ages.” « Muslim786malaysia’s Blog

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