Faced with the specter of Islamic radicalism and the terrorism it has spawned, many in the West have come to the conclusion that Islam needs a Reformation. This notion is based on the assumption that the Muslim world was left behind by modernity. As historian Bernard Lewis notes, the great events of Western civilization—the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution—went largely unnoticed in the Islamic world. Isn’t it about time, Lewis and others say, for Islam to reform itself?
The only problem with this recommendation is that Islam is in the middle of a reformation. What is the rise of Islamic fundamentalism if not a sign of the Islamic Reformation of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? The term “fundamentalism” is, of course, misleading. In Christianity it refers to those who read the Bible literally, those who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God. By this definition every Muslim is a “fundamentalist,” because every Muslim believes that the Koran is the unadulterated word of God delivered in the Arabic language to the Prophet Muhammad.
The erroneous “fundamentalist” label frequently results in Westerners positing false divisions in the Muslim world. For instance, our pundits and commentators frequently speak of Islamic community as divided between “fundamentalists” and “liberals,” or between “fundamentalists” and “secularists.” But this is nonsense. Liberals and secularists are rare in the Muslim world. The few that do exist are politically irrelevant.
Nor is the important distinction in Islam between the Shia and the Sunni factions. Despite their power-struggle in Iraq, the theological differences between these groups are virtually nonexistent. Islamic radicalism and terrorism have sprung out of both major strains. The Khomeini revolution arose out of Shia Islam, and Hizbollah is predominantly Shia. Al Qaeda, Hamas and the Iraqi insurgents are Sunni.
The big story in the Muslim world is that for the past several decades a religious revival has been sweeping across the 22 or so countries of Islam, affecting the lives of nearly a billion Muslims. This revival is by no means confined to the Arab world. Its impact can be seen in Turkey, in India, in Malaysia, in Indonesia, and in North Africa. Even Muslims in Western countries have become more religious, praying more regularly, celebrating Muslim feasts, adopting Islamic dress and diet, and defining themselves in private and public in terms of their religious identity.