In the minds of many Muslims, an imagined West is the source of all or most of the problems afflicting the world of Islam. Similarly, in the West, an imagined Islam, purposefully structured and popularly propagated, has created a perception that this religion is a threat to Western civilisation. Between these mutually exclusive mind-sets a new phenomenon is emerging in the real West, laying the foundations for a new wave of Islamic rationalism in the 21st century.
The Islamic resurgence of the post-1970s strengthened the hands of the religious orthodoxy and engendered the spectre of political Islam but failed to rekindle the spirit of intellectual rationalism that once pushed Islam to the frontiers of science and modernity. That failure was compounded and worsened by the rise of tyrannical regimes in the Muslim world. The absence of democracy and lack of popular support forced these regimes to look for legitimacy elsewhere.
By championing the cause of religious orthodoxy of the dominant variety in each context, these regimes masqueraded as champions of popular and populist Islam. Any intellectual pursuit that threatened this state-mullah alliance was aggressively curtailed. In Egypt, in Pakistan, in Syria, and in many other Muslim countries Muslim intellectuals who challenged populist Islam faced condemnation not only by the religious hardliners but also by the secular elite that governed these countries.
One happy outcome of this tragic situation was the voluntary exodus of Muslim intellectuals to the West. From an inhospitable environment of political tyranny and ideological oppression Muslim scholars migrated to find refuge in the West, where the mind enjoys more freedom to think, debate and express.
As a result, the migrant Muslim intellectuals are now producing a new genre of publications, many of which are questioning centuries-old interpretations of the primary texts in Islam. A new era of ijtihad (independent thinking) rooted in scientific, objective reasoning is spreading from the West and is beginning to make its mark in the Muslim mind-set.
These intellectuals are not necessarily religious scholars by training, like the graduates from al-Azhar University in Egypt or Zeituna from Tunis or Qarawiyin in Morocco, but scholars trained in other fields such as social sciences, medicine, engineering, physical sciences and law.
For example, Mohammed Arkoun, an Algerian Muslim, is an emeritus professor of Islamic thought at the Sorbonne, Paris, who approaches the Koran and other classical texts in Islam from historical, social, psychological and anthropological angles. The methodology of his research, the sharpness of his arguments and conclusions of his writings are dynamite to traditional Islam.
Laleh Bakhtiar, a Chicago-based American female convert to Islam, is not a classically trained Arabic scholar, but has translated the Koran after years of research and is questioning the conventional meanings of some of the Koranic concepts.
Bassam Tibi, a political scientist, who writes mostly in German, applies sociological and anthropological theories to study Islam and finds that the cause of Muslim underdevelopment lies not in the West but in Islam as understood and preached by the orthodox clerics.
Amina Wadud, an Afro-American Muslim convert from Bethesda, Maryland in the US, has a PhD in Islamic Studies and Arabic from the University of Michigan and is pioneering the research on gender relationship in Islam and retheorising Koranic hermeneutics.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi, a former Sudanese diplomat based in London, published Who Needs an Islamic State? in 1991, in which he questions the theological arguments advanced by the protagonists of an Islamic caliphate.
And finally, Abdullahi An-Naim, a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, questions the inadequacies of Islamic sharia and its suitability for a pluralistic society.