Contrary to the accepted wisdom in the West that regards Islam as a monolithic and unchanging religion and Muslim societies as static, there has always been a great deal of intellectual and religious movement and innovation among Muslim thinkers and theologians. In the 9th century AD, we see the beginning of the rise of the Mu‘tazilites, a group of speculative theologians who believed in a contingent conception of human rationality and free will, as well as people’s responsibility for their actions, while maintaining a notion of God’s justice. They stressed the importance of reason and indeed the primacy of reason vis-à-vis revelation. Very early in the history of Islam, nearly all classical works by Greek and Neo-Platonic writers, as well as ancient Iranian, Indian and Assyrian texts were translated into Arabic.

The fusion of classical learning with Islamic philosophy gave rise to bold philosophical speculation. The history of Islam has seen many innovative and influential philosophers such as the rationalist Ibn Rushd, the agnostic Omar Khayyam, Suhrwardi with his Zoroastrian Ishraqi or Illuminationist philosophy, Mulla Sadra with his transcendental philosophy, mystics such as Rumi and Ibn-Arabi, Ibn Khaldun, the sociologist and historian, and many others. Above all, Islam has given rise to one of the deepest and most beautiful mystical literatures in the world.

During the early centuries of the Islamic civilisations, Muslims were innovative, tolerant, pluralistic and open to new ideas. This was the period of Muslim supremacy not only in military and political terms, but also in sciences and arts. In fact, one cannot have material progress without freedom of intellect and inquiry.

This glorious period of Islamic civilisations came to an end with the destruction of the ‘Abbasid caliphate. Although later on, the Ottoman Empire in Turkey, the Safavid Empire in Iran and the Mughal Empire in India revived the period of military strength, there was not a commensurate measure of intellectual and scientific progress that could restore the ancient glory of Islamic civilisations. While Muslims neglected science and philosophy in favour of theology and religious controversy, the West emphasised scientific and intellectual freedom and innovation, combined with religious reformation. These developments widened the gap between Islamic and Western civilisations and resulted in the colonisation of most Muslim countries.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century, Islam has been used as a potent ideological force against colonialism, and many Muslim reformers produced militant and fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. However, during the past decade, a number of Muslim reformers have rejected the use of Islam as a political ideology dominated by fundamentalists, and stressed the universality and pluralistic aspects of Islam. Scholars such as Abdol-Karim Soroush, Mohsen Kadivar, Ayatollah Mohammad Mojtahed-Shabestari in Iran, Sheikh Rashid Ghannouchi from Tunisia, and many other reformers are putting forward new and innovative ideas, and are challenging Islamic orthodoxy. This presentation focuses on the thought and writings of these reformers.