Ali Eteraz: An Open Letter to Western Muslims

January 22, 2007 § 11 Comments | The State of Islam | November 21, 2006
By Ali Eteraz
Social Activist,

jumu’ahUnlike some of my fellow believers I don’t think that the recent glut of Westerners calling for the reformation of Islam is due solely to an imperial Western ambition. I believe that some of non-Muslim engagement with Islam is premised upon a well-intentioned impulse. I believe that some Western antipathy towards Islam(ism) is due to decency. It is quite plausible that a generation that faced off against two totalitarianisms might be right about a third. It is also plausible that for every Westerner who calls for the destruction of Islam in order to defend the Western status-quo, there is another Westerner who agitates for change in Islam because has a Muslim friend who has been hurt by what passes for Islam, or has a glimpse (in Hafiz, perhaps in Ibn Rushd), of what Islam could be; and as such, is upset by what Islam today is not. I believe that there are many in the West capable of recognizing beauty — and they have recognized the beauty that Islam was in the hands of Rumi, and also have recognized the potential of that beauty in Islam today, in Muslims today. This is another way of saying that I believe there are many in the West who are driven by the humanity of the Muslim, who faces daily in Iraq, in Punjab, in subversive mosques in Europe, the inhumanity of a utilitarian death theology.

Yes, I know that there was a time when the West went to ‘civilize’ and ended up conquering; when it went to ‘keep the dominoes upright’ and ended up slaughtering; when it went to ‘trade’ and ended up colonizing; when it went to ‘liberate’ and left civil war behind. Yet, in spite of this I believe that there are Westerners who are impelled solely by the humanity of the Muslim, because when the West conquered there were Westerners who spoke against it; when the West went to Vietnam there were Westerners who spoke against it; when the West colonized there were Westerners who were anti-colonial. Even still, all Westerners cannot be held accountable for the sins of their leaders. Muslims can, and do, ask that others forgive what Muslim leaders do in the name of God. Why cannot the West be forgiven for how its leaders have manipulated humanism? I forgive.

If, then, there are those in the West who challenge what passes for Islam today, on the basis of their humanity with the Muslim, then we Muslims must embrace them as our brothers. It is conceivable, yes, that there are those in the West with as much sadomasochism (or courage, if you will), as the reformists of Islam; with as great a penchant for human rights as the reformists of Islam; with as great a willingness to face off against the edifice of a corrupt theology as the reformists of Islam. We must embrace them as our brothers, be they Latino, Black, or dare I say, white; be they Hindu, Jew, Christian, or dare I say, secular-humanist. We — this is the ‘we’ that refers to all those who fight injustice — did not exclude such helpers when the evil was Soviet Union. We — this is the ‘we that refers to all those who fight injustice — did not exclude the helpers when the evil was Jim Crow. Nor when the evil was the patriarchy which denied female equality. In fact, if reformist Islam is to stand a chance, it has to be open to those who want to help. There has never been a case in history where change has occurred without participation by some members of the dominant discourse joining in the efforts of those who agitate for change.

There is a concern that some of those who wish to ‘join’ are dissimulators. That they want only to use our ‘reformist’ critique to demonize Islam. That there are hypocrites in the lot of the so called helpers. That they are drawn only to the exoticism of the Muslim woman, or the virility of the Muslim sperm, and so on. My reply is to not be frightened by this possibility. At this time the fight between our philosophy of the future and yesterday’s death theory, has not even begun. When it begins, those who joined for illegitimate reasons will reveal themselves. But that remains to be seen. In fact, who is to say, given the magnitude of the confrontation and given what is at stake — enlightened living for our children — that there will not be individuals amongst us who turn tail in the face of the gravitas? Who is to say, given that our activism will pit us against our elders, our ancestral homes, our history as it has been so far written, that there will not be individuals amongst us who simply turn traitorous and expose us to the frothing fundamentalism we face off against? When we see those who appropriate our efforts, well, we’ll call a spade a spade, but that is no reason to not start gardening.

Man has always come to the assistance of man. The Helpers of Medina to the migrants of Mecca; Indians to the Pilgrims; Ottomans to the Sephardim; Albanian Muslims to the Jews of Europe. There are men and women in the West who wish to be of assistance to us. So what if they sometimes say things that you find offensive or incorrect. To correct them by way of friendship is much better than to sneer at them. We must judge them, not by their ancestors’ history, but by their love of the oppressed. We are clear, are we not, that there has been one too many Mukhtaran Mai? We are clear, are we not, that there has been one too many tyranny? We are clear, are we not, that there has been one too many Bin Laden? One too many 9/11, 3/11, 7/7, and Aksari Shrine and Shia massacre and Baha’i jailing and Jew-baiting. One too many Bamiyan Buddhas. One too many novelists accused. One too many suicides. The task ahead will be difficult enough. If, then, there are those who will link their arms with us, we must not hesitate. When the moment of reckoning comes — and there is no reason to believe that time is not now — we will be in need of every able mind, profligate pen, and nervous smile. Do it out of pragmatism, or do it out of love, but do it you must.

All those then, theists, secularists, atheists, deists, refuseniks, peaceniks, Jews, Gentiles, Unitarians, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, Philosophers, who wish to walk for humanity: speak up and do not stop speaking. Walk with the believers. There are believers who will walk with you.


Ali Eteraz

Eteraz, Ali. Open Letter to Western Muslims. “”. 21 Nov. 2006. <>


§ 11 Responses to Ali Eteraz: An Open Letter to Western Muslims

  • Adam says:

    Well written and poignant. I agree 100%.

  • Amad says:

    Unfortunately, I am losing patience with the pro-regressives, despite their attempt to wrap up the same, old arguments in flowery garbs.

    Here’s my answer: Only imperfection needs reformation to become perfect, otherwise it wasn’t perfect in the first place. Allah Himself perfected Islam. I am not going to be the one suggesting to Allah that He just didn’t quite get it right the first time. Go ahead, Ali, though I hope that you’ll learn this basic fundamental aspect of our religion and come back to your roots. If you want to reform anyone, reform the Muslims, to GO BACK to the truth. Everything else will fall in place, because Allah knew what He was and is doing…
    Musings of a Muslim Mind

  • Wellwisher says:

    Salaam to all.

    It is not a question of reforming Islam, but of reforming attitudes of Muslims, of reforming Muslims’ interpretation of Islam and of reforming modern Muslim thought.

    We should be able to see why Westerners, who can understandably take ‘reform’ of religion to mean changing substantial parts of the faith itself – after all, they have seen it happen time and time again in the history of Christianity – could be suggesting the same for Islam. There is not necessarily any malice in their suggestion.

    That does not mean that there are definitely no evil intentions behind the same proposals coming from politicians in the West. When they say: “Maybe it’stime to reform Islam,” what they mean could be quite different. In Europe, several attempts have been made, notably in France, to have a ‘government-sponsored version’ of Islam, aided, supported and controlled by the government. Attempts are made for Muslim associations to be regrouped into one body that acts as a spokesperson for all Muslims of the country. These efforts are made for many reasons, one of which is to control Muslims.

    Muslims who fear they might be controlled by their government, should stop behaving like beggars when it comes to obtaining government funding. There are Muslim associations in the West that politely turn down government aid – aid which is offered to all religious organisations, irrespective of faith – because the minute one starts to take any kind of funding, strings will become attached. Thereafter, there is no way to prevent interference in one’s affairs. So they turn it down, saying: “Thank you, but we are not here to be an extra burden on the nation. We are the people who have been made for the good of mankind. We are here to GIVE not to TAKE.” And State officials are impressed by the sincerity and genuineness of this, and these Muslims stand out, because no one else does it. Christians take the money, Jews take the money, so do Hindus and Buddhists. And, of course, most Muslims do too.

    But there you are. Many Muslim religious leaders are vociferous in their condemnation of the West, but are quite happy – one could even say eager – to receive money from Western governments. So one thing that needs to be reformed is this hypocrisy. Muslims should be self-funded; they should have a sense of shame. Muslims do not need State funding to exist. There are Muslim associations who are 100% self-funding – i.e. funded by their members – and they are thoroughly active.

    This brings me to the next, related, issue. Why do so many Muslim organisations in the West accept and even actively seek funding from Muslim governments? Again, the issues of strings attached, of a State meddling in the affairs of the association, of having to side with the ‘benefactors’ and of having to become, as it were, agents of the State who funds you, will be raised. Muslim governments have agendas, just like every government does. And often these agendas are less than pious. So why be involved with them and why survive on their money?

    Thus, there is a need to thoroughly reform the way Muslims think, and this should start by Muslims taking a good look at where they stand, and WHO funds them.

    Another issue which demands urgent attention is the cruel and merciless interpretation of Islam by many leading and prominent thinkers in Islamic history, that is behind a lot of the violence shown by Muslims, and that is abhorred – and rightly so – by westerners. Take for instance highly respected figures like Abu’l A’la Maududi. His writings and thoughts have affected huge parts of the Muslim world. His view is that Islam is there to conquer the world by force…People are to be coerced into practising Islam…A Muslim State cannot rest until its neighbouring States are made to submit to Islam…Early Islam was spread by the sword …There can be no freedom of speech…Others can enter Islam, but if a Muslim changes his faith he must be put to death…etc. etc.

    Anyone can access his books. They have been translated into all the main languages of the Islamic world and are, unfortunately, very popular.

    And he is not alone. There are hundreds of writers and thinkers, so-called ‘Ulama’ of Islam, who preach this crooked, fanatic version of Islam to their flocks. Now, when harsh, violent, cruel, merciless and politicized versions of Islam obtain wide acceptance, can we expect good results to be born from them?

    The results stand before our very eyes.

    So, as long as these grossly mistaken views on Islam are maintained, there will only be more suffering, violence and evil. We cannot condemn westerners who suggest we get rid of such interpretations of Islam. They are right to say so. These interpretations are ALIEN to Islam anyway. So to get rid of them is to serve the cause of Islam, no less. Even if it takes an outsider to politely point it out to us.

    “A word of wisdom is the lost property of the believer. Wherever he finds it, he should pick it up,” said the Holy Prophet s.a. So there is no need to get on our high horses when we are politely advised by non-Muslims to get rid of dangerously misguided views on Islam, however popular or engrained these views may be. We should accept this word of wisdom…or get ready for even more suffering.

    However, there are aspects of Islam which are genuinely Islamic and which are hated by westerners, and I need not go into the details of them here as they are well-known. To mention the hijab, polygamy and unequal inheritance shares would bring the picture to mind. This western hatred is wholly due to a lack of understanding. It is for us Muslims to understand these things properly and to explain them in the best way for all to see the great wisdom that lies beneath these divine commandments. Therefore, when we see westerners clamouring for changes in Islam, we should not be shocked if they also mean we ought to get rid of the veil, of segregation, etc. That is what THEY have done in their recent history. They can understandably believe that Muslims should do the same.

    However, this is a relatively easy situation to redress: westerners most often understand the wisdom of these Islamic teachings once these have been properly explained to them. So it is for Muslims to do their duty and remove misunderstandings about Islam instead of shooting one another in their mosques.

    Another thing which westerners understandably fail to grasp is the never-ending friction between Sunnis and Shiites, and indeed between different Muslim groups in general.

    It is time that peace be encouraged BY MUSLIMS amongst Muslims of all affiliations. All Muslim organisations should cease the abominable practice of ‘Takfir’- branding other Muslims as ‘Kuffaar’ or disbelievers. Religious leaders in Islam should follow the Quranic principle of refraining to tell someone who greets you with ‘Salaam’: “You are not a believer.” How can there ever be peace between Muslims when their own leaders are at the forefront of name-calling and verbal abuse? How can there ever be peace when Muslim religious leaders encourage their followers to consider others to be disbelievers? This problem, which is by and large a Sunni-related one, should be dealt with immediately. It does the Sunnis no favour to retain the evil practice of ‘Takfir’, when it so clearly goes against the Holy Qur’an.

    Similarly – and this is addressed specifically to Shiites – there is a Quranic principle which has been overlooked, which is: Do not revile the gods of the disbelievers, lest they, out of spite, revile Allah in their ignorance.

    Muslims are forbidden to revile even IDOLS. So how can they get away with reviling holy personages and think that Allah will be pleased with them?

    How can there ever be warm feelings towards Shiites whilst they amuse themselves by reviling and abusing some of the holiest personages of Islam: the wives of the Holy Prophet s.a., called ‘Mothers of the believers’ by Allah Himself, and the closest of the companions – including those who gave the greatest sacrifices for Islam – such as Abu Bakr r.a., ‘Umar r.a. and ‘Uthman r.a.? Sunnis who hold these holy people dear will not be able to have warm and friendly thoughts for Shiites who hold such abuse to be part and parcel of Shi’ah Islam, no more than they can feel friendly towards those who print abusive cartoons of the Holy Prophet s.a.

    So, a radical change will have to be brought about by Shiites
    in the practices that are clearly abusive and inflammatory. If they cannot, then they should not expect friendship from Sunnis any more than westerners who caricaturize the Prophet s.a. can expect friendship from Muslims in general. But will Shiites have the courage and wisdom to do it? That remains to be seen.

    And yes, Muslims should go back to the basics of Islam. But they should be wary of whom they ask these basics from. And which Islam, indeed? As interpreted by whom??

    Will they look for Islam from those who are followers of Maududi’s principles? Will they look for Islam from those who are on the payroll of repressive Islamic States? Will they look for Islam from those who, by condemning the West while taking Western funding, have shown themselves to be absolute hypocrites? Will they look for Islam from those who abuse the holy personages of Islam? Will they look for Islam from those who think they have the divine power to determine who is a Muslim and who is not, and to be able to brand Muslims ‘disbelievers’?

    All Muslims should honestly want to get their game straight. And that means praying sincerely for guidance and help from Allah. And it means deciding what needs to be kept of their beliefs, of their views and of their interpretations, and what needs to be gotten rid of.

    The task is HUGE. But with true prayers and efforts by individual Muslims, there is no doubt that the situation can be redressed. Allah cannot leave the believers in such a mess. But He says: Laa yughay-yirullaahu maa bi qawmin hat-taa yughay-yiroo maa bi anfusihim: “Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in their own selves.”

    So it is time for Muslims to have the courage to admit where they are wrong, to let go of anything that is inflammatory and alien to the merciful, kind, loving religion of Islam, and to explain its beauties to the world.

  • Wellwisher says:


    Any thoughts on my response above?

  • Hakim says:

    Salaam brother,

    Yes well for starters you said,

    “It is not a question of reforming Islam, but of reforming attitudes of Muslims, of reforming Muslims’ interpretation of Islam and of reforming modern Muslim thought.”

    Perhaps you have chosen for your last item in this statement a peculiar choice. Because you wrote that a reformation of modern Muslim thought is needed but how do you propose this should be done? Because for the Muslim, it is not necessarily to reform modern thought, but a return to the fundamentals of Islam.

    Once this occurs – I feel that – naturally Muslims will acclimate to a noble footing, greatly contributing to the reformation of global politics and building upon its pluralist design. I think this is what Islam was meant to do, in certain terms. And the process is already underway.

  • Wellwisher says:

    Brother Hakim,


    Yes, I meant exactly that. By ‘reform’ I meant discarding things alien to the Islam brought by the Holy Prophet s.a., and a return to that pristine religion brought by him.

    How it can be brought about is an interesting question. Prayer and moral, spiritual and guided secular education would be a start.

    However, as far as removing the deep-seated and violence-causing differences between various Muslim groups is concerned, that seems to be an impossible task, unless, perhaps, God Himself sends someone to decide where people have gone wrong and to be the leader of the Muslims. Traditionally, Muslims have looked towards the Mahdi figure to play that role. At any rate, Allah surely has a plan for the believers.

    No one seems to be ready to give up their ugly views on the legitimacy of coercion, or their backward beliefs such as possession by jinns, to give just one example. Old habits die hard.

    For the condition of Muslims to change, they also need to become more unified; so far, all attempts on the international level have failed to produce any tangible results. It’s all very well for heads of Islamic States to meet up and discuss issues, but getting results is another matter. And heads of religious groups do the same, eg the Rabita Al ‘Alam Al Islami, but the results are practically nil. It all turns out to be a lot of back-patting and handshaking, no more. Such meetings bring nothing as far as the condition of common Muslims is concerned.

    I agree that it is vital that Muslims return to the fundamentals of Islam. But once again, the question will be there: fundamentals as interpreted by WHOM? Wherever you turn, Islamic teachings come as a package deal, bundled up with many unpleasant, clearly unislamic things.

    I think that people, instead of being impressed by the standing or bearing of certain religious figures or societies, should pray directly to Allah for guidance to find a true and pure spring of Islamic teachings. If anyone knows where that exists, it is Allah. It is not enough to just read the Qur’an and the Hadith, etc., and draw one’s own conclusions. Community life is a requirement of Islam. So WHICH community should be preferred and for what reason? These are genuine questions Muslims can ask.

    I believe Allah guides people who are not impressed by what they see and who sincerely want the truth, wherever it is found.

    Allah declares: Al-ladheena jaahadoo feenaa layahdiyan-nahum subulanaa: Those who strive to find Us, We most definitely guide them to Our paths.

    May Allah help all Muslims to pray sincerely for this divine guidance instead of remaining content with their present lot.


  • Amad says:

    Hakim, I love your reply. Sometimes a few words make so much sense, and Allah has gifted you with the art of being concise, yet wholesome in your writings. May Allah reward you handsomely for your good deeds.

  • Hakim says:

    Brother Amad you said,

    “Allah has gifted you with the art of being concise, yet wholesome in your writings.”

    alhamdulillah and thank you for your kind words, jazaka’allah kheir.

    Bro Wellwisher I noticed in your comments you said,

    “However, as far as removing the deep-seated and violence-causing differences between various Muslim groups is concerned, that seems to be an impossible task, unless, perhaps, God Himself sends someone to decide where people have gone wrong and to be the leader of the Muslims. Traditionally, Muslims have looked towards the Mahdi figure to play that role.”

    This problem ultimately falls on Muslim Leadership but this is a tricky problem. Because the Muslim is an identity that transcends nationality, race and domicile. In other words because of the nature of the Muslim being a global phenomenon leadership must also fall back to its most fundamental archetype in order to bring success. Do we think that our Prophet (s.a.w.s.) was so short-sighted that he could not peer into the obstacles that the Muslim Ummah would face in the future?

    The Caliphate (Khalifat) of the Muslim Ummah must be reestablished if peace is to happen for the Muslims. However, I think that if Muslims start talking about al-mahdi and al-khalifat in certain terms non-Muslims will get spooked out and attempt to demonize and destroy any possible progress toward effective leadership. Which is essentially what is happening now between the Western styled nationalism and Islamic statehood.

  • Danya says:

    I’m at school so I can’t read all the comments but I just wanted to say that “Islam” already went through a reformation– called Salafism. That was our reformation, folks. Muhammad Abduh deemed to be the father of “Islamic Modernism” and one of the main proponents of Salafism. How is it a reform? How is it modern?! Salafism is modern because it espouses many modern values and namely I want to say individualism and question of authority. By doing away with the traditions of the past 1200 years, we are doing away with great dynamism and diversity. Instead, it is replaced with individual notions and ideas of what every person thinks “Islam” *should* be. So be it Bin Laden or [insert cultural Muslim here], every person has given themselves the authority to interpret Islam for themselves. But this only resulted in chaos, ignorance, lack of a foundation for law, and worst of all, regression. We need to return to the classical frameworks. The fact of the matter is, many of these *problems* have already been addressed by scholars of the past– we are just rehashing them in our modern times. We need to take what has been established and move forward with it.

    I really mean mainly in the field of law. Law is adaptable. I can say safely, as a student of American law, that law as law, be it Islamic or secular, is ever changing and one can use the established framework to make new ideas and to “reform” (if you want to call it that). Islamic jurisprudence already is dynamic. We just need people who will study it in depth and apply it to circumstances of our times.

  • Hakim says:

    as-salaamu ‘alaikum,

    Danya: subhana’allah, Sis, I am very pleased to see you visiting the site again, I agree with every point you have made which I have discussed in another article entitled, “What Is a Moderate Muslims“.

    “We just need people who will study it in depth and apply it to circumstances of our times.”

    Whoa you are dead on! This point was made by Shakh Hamza Yusuf in the Doha Debates as well. It is important that competant people who are really interested in Islamic jusrisprudence take on the challenge because as you know sis it is a daunting challenge that is overcrowded with underachievers, I’m sorry to say.

  • Wellwisher says:

    Brother Hakim,


    You wrote: “Do we think that our Prophet (s.a.w.s.) was so short-sighted that he could not peer into the obstacles that the Muslim Ummah would face in the future?”

    Well, you are absolutely spot on, Hakim: the Holy Prophet s.a. DID peer into the obstacles of the future. The Hadith are heavy with his sayings on these issues. And to him, the basic problem was Imaan (faith). He spoke of a time where Islam would no doubt be there and where mosques would be well-frequented, but there would be no true guidance. For example:

    “A time will come upon the people, when there will be nothing left of Islam but its name, and there would be nothing left of the Qur’an but its traditional writing; their mosques would be well-frequented, but they would be devoid of guidance. Their ‘Ulama would be the worst creatures under the heaven: from them would fitnah (disorder and persecution) emerge, and this fitnah would eventually return towards them (meaning their own fitnah would become a source of punishment for them).”

    The Holy Prophet s.a. always linked the salvation of Muslims of the future to the Imam Mahdi; not to politics or to a return to the fundamentals by oneself, but through the Mahdi, who, he said, would bring faith back to the world of Islam.

    So the real issue is that although Muslims of today believe God exists, many do not have real faith in Him and they live their lives as though He were not watching their every action. From the commonfolk right up to many of the so-called ‘Ulama – the knowledgeable divines of Islam – this lack of conviction in a Living, Watchful God has become conspicuous. This is why Muslims, including a number of Imams and Sheikhs, are letting themselves be so affected by the lures of materialism, or are letting themselves fall into blind fanaticism that knows no mercy for others.

    I totally agree with you, Hakim, on the Khilafat issue. The Holy Prophet s.a. actually spoke of all the Islamic eras that were to follow him:

    “Prophethood will remain as long as Allah wills, then Allah will take it away. Then will come the Caliphate based on Prophethood, and this will remain for as long as Allah wills, then Allah will take it away. Then there will be oppressive monarchies for as long as Allah wills, then Allah will take them away. Then there will be tyrannical monarchies. Then there will be Caliphate based on Prophethood.”

    Every major period in Islam has been covered in these prophetic words.

    So the question to be asked is: Who will start the Caliphate? The Muslims themselves? How will they be able to do it after having failed for over 1300 years? Many attempts were made, but none were international in their scope or divinely approved like the Caliphate of the first four Caliphs of Islam.

    Since the Holy Prophet s.a. knew best what the solution would be, and he said it would be the coming of the Mahdi, who would be a divinely-directed Imam (Mahdi meaning guided by God), it would be futile for Muslims to try and find any other solution to the problem of leadership.

    One the one hand, there are all these different ideas about how to reinstate the Caliphate – and on the other, there is the prophecy of our Master and Guide, Muhammad s.a. the Chosen One.

    As the companions always said when asked anything by the Prophet s.a.: “Allah and His messenger know best.” Everyone has his own pet ideas about how to right things, but in any case the HolyProphet s.a. knew best. And a good Muslim will trash his own ideas if they clash with the Holy Messenger’s words that are repeated in hundreds of Hadiths.

    So we should try to understand what he meant by Al-Khilaafatu ‘alaa minhaajin-nubuwwah “Caliphate based on Prophethood” and by Al-Imam-Al-Mahdi (the divinely guided leader).

    I would like to hear from your views on these solutions that were promised by the Holy Prophet s.a. and about what you all understand by Imam Mahdi.

    His words were meant for our modern times. This is clearly borne out in a large number of Ahaadeeth. There are signs of our times predicted by the Holy Prophet s.a. that are so clear that I have often used them successfully with atheists…who had to admit that there was no explaining how Muhammad, an Arab in the desert, could have foreseen all that 1400 years ago.

    Maybe we can explore some of them a little later, Insha Allah.

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