Is Reform Needed in Islam?

Nick Danforth
3 min readAug 22, 2019

Over 50 years ago Islamic reformers already realized this was a dumb question.

In 1958, the magazine Turkish Thought asked a number of Turkish thinkers a question that had been the subject of considerable debate over the previous decade, and indeed the previous century: “Is Reform [Reform] Needed in Islam?”[1]An array of answers appeared over the course of two issues, each author getting a few pages for his views and a quick pen-and-ink sketch by way of introduction.[2]What emerges most clearly from the responses is that many thinkers felt it would be most appropriate to conduct a serious debate about the nature of modern Islam without recourse to the Christian idea of “reform.”

Ismail Hakkı Danişmend began with the most forceful articulation of a position held by several respondents: “[Reform] is neither necessary nor needed. Because Islam, from the perspective of being the final and most perfect religion, can already make the necessary improvements [islahat] itself.” In Danişmend’s view, the concept of reform, specifically the use of the borrowed word “reform,” was inextricably linked to the Christian experience of the Protestant reformation. Inherent in Luther’s idea of reform, Danişmend explained, was the belief that the Catholic church had strayed from a correct or pure form of Christianity. But Islam, Danişmend maintained, had not been distorted enough to need such drastic measures applied to it. Explaining the inappropriateness of the parallel with reference to Islam’s superiority, Danişmend wrote: “The Quran is truly God’s word. If it were, like the Bible, an invented and adapted book, in that case reform could be a matter for discussion. As a result, in the Bible and Christianity, reform occurred.” Since the Quran was a much more perfect sort of book, there could be no talk of reforming it.

Rhetorically, a least, Danişmend joined a number of other authors in trying to minimize the importance of the changes that were needed within Islam, seemingly in order to dispel any implication that the need for change represented a shortcoming of the faith. That any call for “reform” implied a fundamental inadequacy of Islam was perhaps best articulated by another contributor to the debate, Ali Fuat Başgil: “For almost fourteen centuries Islam, as shown and explained by the prophet, has endured without any changes. Neither in its creed or its operation has Islam become “deformed” [déformé] such that we can speak of reform [réforme]. Several other authors added to this critique by pointing out that the “reforms” of Martin Luther had in fact tended toward fundamentalism. Ziya Ülgen thought that it was this parallel that made talk of ‘reform” in Islam inappropriate. As he explained: “Reform — as it is seen in Islamic history — gives way to violent fundamentalism [taassuba]…. If reform unites religion and temporal power… it destroys secularism: it takes the form of Haricilik or Wahabbism.”

Other authors also insisted while the reform Islam needed may have been parallel to the reform Luther introduced in Christianity, Islam certainly did not have to borrow the idea of reform from Christianity. In fact, several authors argued, Islam’s history and doctrine were conducive to just the sort of reform the religion needed. Thus if Danişmend believed that Islam contained the seeds of its own “improvement” other authors were just as sure it contained the seeds of its own modernization. Ülgen articulated the common ground underlying these semantic debates when he explained while for a number of reasons “reform” was the wrong word, “modernism” [modernism] would be perfectly appropriate. “Modernism, as it could accommodate secularism, could also accommodate the ideas of nationalism and contemporary civilization.” Just as cultural change, even of the sort that made Turkey more like the West, could be “modernization,” not “Westernization” Ülgen suggested that changes in Islamic practice, even those that made Islam more like Protestantism, need not be “reform.”

[1]All quotes taken from Türk Düşüncesi, Issues 52 and 53, 1958–1959.

[2]The prize for most modest response certainly went to Professor Ahmed Ateş, who wrote back simply: “This is truly a serious issue. To say either yes or no one would truly have to be qualified in every sense… Considering all of this, I do not believe myself to be sufficiently qualified to speak on such a topic. I’m sorry.”