Prof. Dr. Gokhan Bacik (Turkey)

What will the future of Islam look like? The crucial question has been keeping both Muslims’ and non-Muslims’ minds busy for quite some time. A deep and worldwide concern about the current situation of Muslims is the key factor that has made this crucial question also a popular one. Concerned by their own situation, Muslims are looking to the future and they want to be hopeful. Despite their current disappointment, very interestingly, there is also almost a worldwide optimism among Muslims that their future will be a better one. This optimism is a direct result of a process that could be called “spatialization of time.” This is definitely a mental process or a mental construction which makes Muslims’ future a special place (topography) where Muslims will have a perfect interpretation and application of Islam. Indeed, belief in such a better future has almost been seen as a substantial part of the Islamic faith itself.

However, the future of Islam as a concept or mental construction is not quite clear. There are two major questions about this mental construction. To begin with, it is not clear what is meant by these words. More, it seems as a sum of several other sub-titles. Secondly, once the content of “the future of Islam” is defined, more critical is the agenda that one should follow to solve the problems that Muslims face today. However, the clarification of the content of the phrase is still useful.

Based on what I have already said, I will now try to explain “the future of Islam” under three major issues:

i. The future of Islam must be perceived in terms of material and non-material development of Muslims. This refers to the quality of Muslim societies in regard to economic welfare, technological progress and as well as democratic standards, and human rights.
ii. The future of Islam must be perceived in terms of proposing and developing a new interpretation of Islamic theology i.e. the foundational texts.
iii. The future of Islam must also be perceived in terms of how Islamic societies would shape their political relations and as well as how Muslims shape their political relations with non-Muslims i.e. Christians, Jews etc.

On the first point, one should confirm that all Muslim societies, notwithstanding some very exceptional cases, have been very adaptive to the material development, technological and scientific advancements of the modern world. Today, several Muslim states such as Turkey and Malaysia stand as the brilliant samples in terms of the daily use of high technology. In fact, Muslims do not have any types of theological or theoretical reservations against technology. In other words, Muslims did not have any problems in importing Western inventions in the scientific and technological areas. However, Muslims had a lot of reservations in importing Western inventions in the social, economic and political realms. After pointing this out, I have to emphasize the fact that the critical aspect of this issue then, is more about internalizing and practicing democracy.

As recently voiced by many Muslim scholars, such as Abdullah an-Naim, Islam does not propose a model of government. In fact, what Islam proposes are values and principles on good governance. The contemporary consensus which underlines that Islam does not propose a fixed model of government is actually very critical. We all remember that in the last century many Islamic actors came out with the idea of various models of Islamic states. For a while, it was argued that there is one fixed model of government in the Qur’an. However, the newly emerging consensus, i.e. there is no fixed model of government in Islam, is not enough in itself. Although Islam does not propose a model of government, it must be clearly understood that Islam is totally against any kind of authoritarian model of government. In other words, in positive sense, the Qur’an does not come with a model of government. However, in negative terms, it proposes a fixed ultimatum on Muslims. Islam never allows authoritarian regimes in any form let it be a parliamentary regime or presidential regime or monarchy. Thus, the new consensus should bring one step forward so far as to argue that any authoritarianism is illicit in Islam. A. Belkeziz reminds us that authoritarianism is in natural clash with the very major purpose of Islam: establishing a faith through individual liberty. While preventing individual liberty, authoritarianism also prevents the establishment of faith/iman. In conclusion, authoritarianism systematically prohibits the emergence of a faith-based society.

However, to consolidate the negative political legacy of Islam, that is to reject all kind of authoritarian tendencies in the name of Qur’an, Muslims should fulfill two other responsibilities: First, Muslims should dismiss the state as an actor of creating a religious orthodoxy. From a historical point of view, since the Caliph Abdulmalik, many political leaders attempted to use state power to create religious orthodoxies. They wanted the state to be the major decider on religious issues which was essentially a non-Islamic strategy. But to a large extent, political actors failed in creating religious orthodoxies through the use of state power until the rise of the Seljuk Empire in the 12th century. As Omid Safi explained in his monumental book the Seljukis successfully made the bureaucratic state power the main mechanism of creating religious truth. The use of state power in creating the religious truth paved the way to the rise of Christian-like idea of religious orthodoxy established by the state power in Islam. Raison d’etat dominated the ijtihad. Worse, the notion of politically established religious orthodoxies was consolidated by contemporary Muslims. Facing the inhuman colonial rules, Muslims came up with the idea of having an independent Muslim state. Indeed, we can not deny the fact that state, law and order are vital for the survival of societies. However, Muslims should get rid of the idea of using the state power to create the Islamic truth. The historical essentialist interpretation of state is thus to be criticized on the Islamic ground. Islamic truth i.e. ijtihad should be created independent of the raison d’etat. This can be possible only in two ways: First, a critical reading of the historical Islamic political literary tradition is a must. We should also read the critical scholars of Islamic history. For instance, it is time to remember Ayn-al Qudat of 12th century, the author of Tahmidat and a colleague of Abu Hamid al Ghazali in the same university, who was critical of the use of state power in establishing religious orthodoxy by Seljuki leaders. Second, Muslims should re-define their relationship with nationalism. Muhammad Ayoob succinctly displayed that Muslims in fact employ a nationalistic interpretation of Islam. It is again another result of the state-obsessed Muslim mind that I have tried to outline above. A careful examination of various Islamic discourses in different Muslim societies be it Turkey or Iran or Egypt can easily exhibit how those Muslims are surrounded by nationalistic tendencies. The separation of Islam and nationalism therefore has to be accomplished. Additionally, nationalism for Muslims has been a secularizing force for the Muslim way of thinking. While Muslims are complaining about moral corruption, and religious laxity, they failed to grasp how nationalism secularized their political mind. The secularization of the Muslim mind led Muslims to perceive the global system through the ultra secular boundaries of nation state which in itself is not an Islamic concept. The consequence of this type of compartmentalization of the Muslims’ minds had serious consequences. The very idea of the nation state further atomized the Muslim world and contributed the insensitivity of Muslims in regards to political or social problems that happen in their neighboring states.

Now let me turn back to the second sub-title that I have underlined previously. It is the future of Islam in terms of proposing and developing a new interpretation of Islamic theology i.e. the foundational or fundamental texts. The official declaration of this conference underlined that it is Muslims not Islam that needs reform. I will not get into the details of this linguistic debate. No matter how we name or explain it, there is a crystal clear fact: As Tariq Ramadan wrote it previously, “we have reached limits and that we are now at a loss”. Therefore, the future of Islam is very connected to the rejuvenation of the Islamic thought now. Worse, further delay on this issue may force people to the direction of practical ijtihad. Practical ijtihad refers to the internalization of various practices without any debate from an Islamic point of view. It is more a result of necessity of daily needs. In this regard, the silence of the ulema/scholars on the issue of ijtihad does not make any sense to the Muslim masses. For instance, we have not succeeded in adapting the fiqh in environmental issues, daily traffic, and the use of the internet. Despite this shortage, Muslim people keep producing waste, use cars and surf on the internet. So, what guides Muslims in those areas? Actually nothing or the practical ijtihad. More than repeating the old-fashioned debates such as the status of woman, it is time now to focus on daily/practical needs of Muslims. For example, can we say that not stopping at the red light in traffic is haram or makruh? In other words, the use of fiqh in everyday life, public sphere is more critical now.

At the macro level, there are two critical facts about this issue: First, a more realistic connection with the previous Islamic literary tradition is required. The legacy of previous Muslim scholars is indeed vital and necessary. However, we should not forget that even the ideas of Abu Hanifa were just doctrines not necessarily one hundred percent binding decrees. Despite this fact, to many Muslims, the past Islamic intellectual tradition more seems like a collection of infallible rules or decrees issued by infallible scholars. A realistic reading of the past Islamic tradition is necessary which is the mixture of both respect and criticism. A Catholic-style infallibility of the Pope doctrine has no place in Islam. We all should accept that the quality of intellectual life in the classical age of Islam was more liberal than our times. A wave of reification perplexed the contemporary Muslim mind. For example, how Taberi, a 9th century Muslim scholar, explained the early debates on the election of Caliph Uthman is absolutely brave even according to the present day Islamic standards. Instead of presenting the election a totally holly process, Taberi reminds the role of tribal and economic factors in Caliph Uthman’s election. Or, how Shahristani of 11th century presented his famous fourth Mukaddima/Introduction in his magnum opus Al Milal val Nihal. Today, it might be very risky to take the same issues from the perspective of Shahristani in several Muslim societies. Or just remember Abu Hamid al Ghazali while writing in his Faysal al-Tafriqa in 12th century that “most of the Christians of Byzantium and the Turks of this age will be covered by God’s mercy.” For Ghazali, a proper, in other words satisfactory, contact is a must for Islamic responsibility. Al Ghazali wrote “these people knew the name of Muhammad but nothing of his character and attributes.”

The second factor is the need for a transnational mechanism for ijtihad. This mechanism will be a great opportunity to bring multiple scholars and diverse opinions in one location. How different Muslims cope with the contemporary problems in an area is indeed a very precious experience and it must be acknowledged for all Muslim communities. The expansion of Islamic Banking and halal foods are two brilliant examples of such transnational mechanisms. Similar attempts are required in the fields of communication, internet, and family law as well as other issues such as sports, environment and education. This type of a transnational mechanism is also strategic for another reason: The lack of highly efficient transnational mechanism among the global Muslim ulema has paved the way for the emergence of the local minded ulema or national ulema profile. Indeed, Islam respects local solutions and trends; however, a global/transnational perspective particularly in fiqh is highly needed for the contemporary global Muslim society. A very related aspect of this mechanism is the inclusion of the informal ulema. Almost all Muslim societies have their official religious establishments in form of public educational institutions or bureaucratic units. Equally important is the role of informal religious orders, jama’as and their leaders. The formation of transnational corridors among Muslim communities should also include these informal religious movements.

Finally, I will comment on the future of Islam in terms of how Islamic societies should shape their political relations and as well as how Muslims should shape their political relations with non-Muslims i.e. Christians, Jews etc. A key question in this vein is the lack of a EU-style transnational organization that would ease the transborder cooperation and contact among Muslims. The traditional Westphalian nation-state model is applied very rigidly among Muslim states. The Organization of Islamic Conference is a key institution in this vein. However, since the OIC does not have a strict membership base, it has not been transformed into an efficient organization. The membership criterion of an international organization directly affects its efficiency. All international organizations aim to create an international regime of rules, norms, principles and procedures. Those regimes, created usually by agreements among the signatory parties, reflect the nature of an international organization’s membership base. To create standards of behavior, any regime must have a disciplining and enforcing mechanism. Indeed, there is a direct relationship between the requirements of being a member of such an organization and an organization’s level of efficiency. For that relationship to become dynamic, a regime’s membership rule must be disciplining, informative, detailed and costly. It is the high costs of regime building that helps existing regimes persist. Loose membership rules – which are, by their nature, unclear – impede the success of the international regime. It is relatively easy to become part of some international organisations, and difficult to accede to others. The EU could be a good example here. The EU evaluates candidate states according to very detailed criteria, such as the Copenhagen criteria or the Maastricht criteria. Those criteria include very specific prerequisites. The membership process is long and difficult: All prospective members must enact legislation in order to bring their domestic laws in line with the body of European law, known as the acquis communnautaire, built up over the history of the Union. The acquis is divided into separate chapters, each dealing with a different policy area.

The analysis of the history of the OIC through the lens of membership regime evidently displays the practical link between effectiveness and strict membership rules. Clearly, the OIC’s membership rule of 1972 was very simple: ‘every Muslim State’ was eligible to join the OIC. In terms of the foregoing discussion, those membership rules were not informative. Besides, the Charter did not stipulate any further requirements of membership, so membership was not costly. Thus, the OIC’s criteria were inclusive, not selective or disciplining. Because of the ease of obtaining membership, the OIC has a total of 57 members today. The OIC in practice did not push candidate states into a difficult membership process and did not ask candidate states to abide by and internalise a complex acquis. Consequently, the Organization failed to assemble homogenous members with shared principles and common ends.

What is the solution? Since the current situation within the Organization is untenable, some radical agendas are not totally improbable. Logically, adding strict objectives and principles such as radical reform agendas into the Charter would be a practical move. For many members, however, such plans are naturally offensive. Countries like Saudi Arabia would never let the OIC become a platform where their regimes are attacked based on principles that they would not agree. Similar fears exist when it comes to economic liberalization or regulations on social policy, since many members have closed political and economic systems. Therefore, adding new objectives to the Charter would not ensure their operational uptake, for though the OIC is a colossus, it is currently an organization without the homogeneity that would enable it to act as a body with a commitment to common principles.

If it were to seriously contemplate reform, the OIC might follow one general and one specific agenda. The general OIC agenda should be to present itself as a useful and well functioning platform. Actually, the OIC has already attracted the attention of major international actors such as the UN, the EU and even the US. These influential actors appear ready to use the OIC as the forum for dialogue with Muslims. Russia’s plans for OIC membership would support such an agenda. Logically, this appears to be the best option for the OIC: Being a significant forum for dialogue with the great global powers is the best status that an organisation without an informative membership rule can aspire to. The specific OIC agenda should be the enabling of the emergence of intra-OIC formations with strict and costly demands upon aspiring members. The grand idealistic framework of the OIC should not be allowed to prevent such functionalist and pragmatist formations. Rather than pursuing unfeasible new projects that involve all 57 member states, new projects should proceed with strict prerequisites brought to bear on member states that are willing to participate in them. Naturally, those that are not equipped to meet these prerequisites, or that are not disposed to meet them, should not be included in such projects. It should be made known that intra-group formations are normal in any large organization. Successful examples can be taken from the EU’s operations. Although it is not officially part of the OIC, the D-8 (Developing Eight) initiative is a proper example. The D-8 Charter is relatively informative, as it underlines that membership will be open to other countries subscribing to the goals, objectives, and principles of the group, and generally, sharing common bonds with it. Indeed, successful intra-organization formations may revitalize the entire OIC as well.


Despite the deep and worldwide concern about the current situation of Muslims, personally I see a bright future for Muslims if they are willing to take the necessary steps to bring about the material and non-material development of Muslims, develop a new interpretation of Islamic theology, and reshape their political relations within and among themselves as well as with the non-Muslims. Islam and Muslims must have something new to say about the new issues and problems that not just Muslims but the whole world is facing. There is no benefit in reinterpreting and reevaluating the older theological debates of traditional fiqh. Islam should be able to respond to new problems, not with the traditionalist orthodox view, but with a new perspective enlightened by the spirit of Islam. This new perspective requires Muslims’ dismissal of the state as an actor of creating a religious orthodoxy. Second, Muslims should re-define their relationship with nationalism. Nationalism, among other things, forces Muslims to become local. Third, a new interpretation of Islamic theology has to be proposed. Therefore, the future of Islam is very connected to the rejuvenation of the Islamic thought. This rejuvenation should happen through a more realistic connection with the previous Islamic literary tradition. The legacy of previous Muslim scholars is indeed vital and necessary. Fourth, a transnational mechanism for ijtihad is desperately needed. This transnational mechanism will be a great opportunity to bring multiple scholars and diverse opinions in one location. Lastly, the OIC must be reformed so that it becomes a well functioning platform for Muslim states to solve their problems, initiate projects and provide cooperation in various fields. Achieving the goals above is a daunting task, but it is not impossible to accomplish if the Muslim world has the will.