Muslims, when confronted with instances of disorder, backwardness and even violence, often reply that these actions are not representative of Islam, but of individual Muslims who have failed to abide by authentic Islamic teachings. While making a distinction between Islam as a system of belief and practices and the actions of individual Muslims seems a perfectly reasonable one, indeed, even an obvious one, it raises the danger of obfuscating what is otherwise may be a serious problem in the Muslim community. No community can survive if it is unable to transmit its values effectively to future generations. To the extent that Muslims have become accustomed to dismissing negative, or even destructive practices within the Muslim community as simply the individual failures of ignorant, misguided Muslims, or even fanatic Muslims, Muslims are failing to ask whether the existence of these practices indicate a deeper problem in the way Islam is taught to future generations of Muslims. While no normative system can claim to produce 100% adherence, the extent to which the conduct of individuals within a community reflect the normative values of that community reflects the success of that community in transmitting its values. On the other hand, when individuals within a community generally fail to reflect the normative values of that community, it is safe to say that a deep crisis has emerged in that community, or is about to emerge in that community.
From this perspective, it is clear that the Muslim community is experiencing a serious crisis, one that is reflected not only in the existence of violent extremist groups such as al-Qaʿida and al-Qaʿida-inspired affiliates such as Boko Haram, but also in the existence of self-styled progressive Muslim groups that refuse to defer, to one extent or another, to historical understandings of Islam, whether in theology or law. Traditionalists, recognizing this crisis, nostalgically long for a return to the pre-19th century world of Sunni Islam, where orthodox scholars maintained an effective monopoly over religious discourse. That world, however, has disappeared and will never return, no matter how much we might yearn for it. While we might intuitively grasp that the idea of a shared understanding of what it means to be Muslim has been slowly disappearing over the last century, we don’t understand or even ask what can be done to restore a shared understanding of Islam. Restoration of a shared understanding of Islam will require us to ask difficult questions about how we understand our relationship to the normative sources of Islam, and how we teach Islamic values to Muslims and non-Muslims. It is clear that the textual approach, whether in its Salafi form or traditionalist form, will be insufficient to restore a stable orthodoxy for the contemporary Muslim community. Salafi heremeneutics would condemn Islam to be little more than a cult living on the margins of civilization; traditionalist hermeneutics effectively deny the vast majority of Muslims the capacity to engage in moral reasoning, and so even if the substantive conclusions of traditionalists are often more acceptable than that of their Salafi adversaries, it adopts a view of the average person that cannot be sustained in the modern world. Indeed, one might say that Salafism’s popularity is due in large part to the elitism inherent in traditionalist hermeneutics. What is needed then is an approach to understanding and education that takes seriously the proposition that all individuals are morally autonomous, and accordingly, religious doctrines, whether theological or legal, must ultimately be rationally defensible to the average person. This does not mean, of course, that there is no room in religion for the supra-rational — what Muslim jurists termed taʿabbud — in our religion. But the scope of religious teachings which fall under the category of taʿabbud must necessarily be limited in scope if we accept the idea that the individual believers are themselves morally autonomous and will only comply with doctrines that they themselves find persuasive. If, on the other hand, the scope of taʿabbud expands to include the majority of religious teachings, there is the risk either of becoming a cult or cult-like, or fragmentation arising out of radical subjectivism. Instead of dismissing groups as disturbed or confused individuals or groups, we should recognize that they are the proverbial canaries in the coal mine, and they are symptoms of a deeper crisis that faces the entire community, one whose solution cannot be found by a nostalgic return to pre-modern modes of piety. Instead, we need the moral courage to think creatively about how we can understand and teach Islam in a manner that is not only faithful, but equally important, is also appropriate to the psychology of modernity, and even post-modernity.