In early May, the Brookings Institution held a lecture and panel discussion in India on the question of whether Islam is "exceptional" and what it means for the future of Western democracy. A main speaker at the event was Shadi Hamid, author of a 2016 book, Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam Is Reshaping the World.
Hamid, an American Muslim, repeated the thesis of his book, summarized in an op-ed in Time magazine.
"Because of its outsize role in law and governance, Islam has been — and will continue to be — resistant to secularization," he wrote. He explained:
"Unlike Jesus Christ, the Prophet Muhammad was a theologian, a preacher, a warrior and a politician, all at once. He was also the leader and builder of a new state, capturing, holding and governing new territory. Religious and political functions, at least for the believer, were no accident. They were meant to be intertwined in the leadership of one man.
"Second, more than merely the word of God, for Muslims, the Quran is God's direct and literal speech. It is difficult to overstate the centrality of divine authorship. This does not mean Muslims are literalists; most are not. But it does mean the text cannot easily be dismissed as irrelevant."
This means, he added, that "Western observers... will need to accept Islam's vital and varied role in politics and formulate policies with that in mind, rather than hoping for secularizing outcomes that are unlikely anytime soon, if ever."
To clarify that his position is not necessarily critical, he wrote, "'Islamic exceptionalism' is neither good nor bad. It just is."
Islamists might be likely to welcome Hamid's understanding of Islamic "exceptionalism" more than his value-neutral assertion that it is "neither good nor bad."
"Indeed, the religion in the sight of Allah is Islam. And those who were given the Scripture did not differ except after knowledge had come to them -- out of jealous animosity between themselves. And whoever disbelieves in the verses of Allah, then indeed, Allah is swift in [taking] account."
Many of the Western world's politicians, academics and members of the media tend to treat Islam differently from other religions and ideologies. They claim it is a "religion of peace" -- abused by a small minority of radicals to justify terrorism -- and that it is compatible with democratic values.
Hamid, however, appears to do neither.
According to Middle East Institute scholar Hassan Mneimneh:
"Hamid's work can be understood as an invitation to sober the discussion about Islam and politics on two connected fronts: 1) disabusing some Western circles of the reductionist and patronizing notion that Muslim societies will eventually follow the Western template toward liberal democracy, and 2) calling for an acceptance of the depth of the cultural and conceptual differences between Muslim and Western societies."
Mneimneh nevertheless added that, "Hamid seems to accept the Islamist notion of the uncontested primacy of a totalitarizing religion, and that 'universal' values are basically a Western import."
Hassan Mneimneh (left) and Shadi Hamid (right) at a panel discussion for The Middle East Institute, July 27, 2016. (Image source: Middle East Institute video screenshot)
It should be of great concern that even a self-described liberal such as Hamid -- one who said he feels "a bit uncomfortable making this claim, especially now with anti-Muslim bigotry on the rise" -- leaves little room for optimism where the ability of Islam to undergo a reformation is concerned. He does not appear even to think it is necessary.
Salim Mansur, author, among other works, of The Qur'an Problem and Islamism: Reflections of a Dissident Muslim, disagrees. In a recent article, he wrote:
"The Muslim world currently appears trapped within the parameters of the pre-modern world, based on its quasi-nominalist view of God. The Sufi understanding of God as universal love seems not fully to meet the Muslim world's urgent need to figure out how to negotiate modernity without abandoning the God of the Qur'an.
"The fury of the internal upheaval inside the Muslim world -- the Muslim rage that is incomprehensible to non-Muslims -- will eventually exhaust itself when a sufficiently large segment of the Muslim population reconciles reason and revelation to discover that God never meant any religion, including Islam, to be a burden preventing man from threading a relationship with Him in harmony with human nature.
"As the transition from pre-modernity to modernity proceeds with its twists and turns, the Muslim world, over time will progress and develop to the point that eventually there will arise a theology, as occurred in Christendom, consistent with the needs of Muslims and reconciled with modernity."
A. Z. Mohamed is a Muslim born and raised in the Middle East.