The Future of Islam

How Muslims are forging a 21st-century Islam.

The Future of Islam By John Esposito Oxford University Press 256 pp., $24.95

In Saudi Arabia, Muslim leaders have developed a seven-year initiative to make the holy city of Medina a model green city that would pave the way for future goals, including planning a more environmentally-friendly Hajj pilgrimage and integrating eco-awareness into Islamic education.

In Egypt, cellphone ring tones with religious themes like Koranic verses have been gaining popularity over the years – and Muslims around the world are installing iPhone applications with compasses that indicate the direction to Mecca and remind worshipers when it’s time for prayer.

And in Afghanistan, mullahs are distributing condoms, encouraging contraception, and citing prophetic example to encourage birth control and reduce maternal deaths.

For many Westerners, Islam is a medieval theology, stuck in the parched deserts of sixth-century Arabia, ill-suited to the modern world. It is, they say, the very antithesis of modernity, incapable of supporting democracy and in need of reform.

But – as illustrated in the vignettes above – some Muslims are reconciling modern concerns with traditional ways of life, and in the process, forging a 21st-century Islam.

And they’ve done so throughout their history, says John Esposito, in his latest book, The Future of Islam. Part primer on Islam and part handbook for the way forward, Esposito’s newest book is a well-researched, richly nuanced portrait of Islam. Though manageable at 234 pages, the book is both comprehensive and in-depth. But this is the latest of Esposito’s more than 35 books, from which he borrows heavily. If you’ve read some of those, “The Future of Islam” may offer little that is new. Still, if Esposito repeats himself, it is for good reason: the leading scholar on Islam is on a mission to cultivate greater understanding of Islam in the West.

Esposito divides “The Future of Islam” into four parts: The first explains the basic tenets of the faith and plumbs the diversity of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. The second section explores Islam’s role in politics, and the birth and growth of jihadist ideology. In the third, and most interesting chapter, Esposito delves into Islamic reformism, and asks the critical question: Is Islam capable of reform? Finally, he proposes ways Muslims and non-Muslims, particularly in the West, can “find a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect,” as President Obama said in his inaugural address.

If you only read one part of this book, make it the third section on Islamic reformism. Here, Esposito asserts that not only is reformism in Islam alive and well, it has been since the birth of the religion.

“From its earliest days, Islam possessed a rich tradition of reform,” writes Esposito. “The concepts of renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) are fundamental components of Islam’s worldview, rooted in the Quran and the Sunna [traditions] of the Prophet.” In fact, he goes on, the concept of tajdid, or renewal, is even supported by a hadith (tradition of the prophet) that states “God will send to His community those who will renew its faith for it.”

Esposito then offers a sampling of some of Islam’s ‘Martin Luthers,’ “The number and diversity of [which] belie the oft-raised question (with its implied skepticism) ‘Are there really any Muslim reformers?” I could wish there were fewer,” he writes, “because I would not have faced the difficulty of selecting a representative sample.”

His choices are fascinating and provide a road map for the myriad ways in which Islam is changing and adapting to new challenges. They include Tariq Ramadan, a European Muslim reformer who draws from the experiences of Muslims in the West to propose reforms in Muslim countries. The very personable Egyptian televangelist Amr Khaled, who “blends conservative religious belief with a charismatic personality and speaking style,” gets more hits on his website than Oprah Winfrey. And then there’s American convert Amina Wadud, who stirred controversy for becoming the first women to lead a mixed congregation in Friday prayers. Wadud has developed a controversial blend of Islamic feminism that she calls “gender jihad.”

As Esposito sees it, reform is rampant in the Muslim world. It’s the West, he says, that needs to change, to recognize Muslims as part of a shared Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

“The Future of Islam” is a step in the right direction.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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