Trends in Contemporary Islam: A Preliminary Attempt at a Classification

Trends in Contemporary Islam: A Preliminary Attempt at a Classification

Over the past fifty years and in particular during the last two decades, a wide range of terms has been used to discuss and describe Muslims and Islam. There is an emerging debate about how best to classify Muslims today and contemporary trends in Islam.
This article is presented as a contribution to this debate. 1 Classification can be broadly defined as “the arrangement of knowledge into specific groups or systems.” 2 Such classification can be based on hierarchy or on broader sociologically orientated criteria. It can involve distributing material things into classes or categories or, alternatively, it can involve arranging groups of people into same classes or categories. 3 Classification systems are used widely by scientists as well as statisticians for the purpose of data collection and analysis. For instance, when categorizing religion, the Australian Standard Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG 2005) states that “. . .
 classification criteria are the principles by which classification categories are aggregated to form broader or higher-level categories in the classification structure. Three classification criteria are used in the ASCRG to form the categories of the [religious] classification: (a) similar religious beliefs; (b) similar religious practices; and/or (c) cultural heritage. 4 However, there are a number of difficulties in classifying religious groups. Usually religions share a common heritage, common practices and doctrines, but there can be many exceptions to this, making classification difficult. In addition, classification criteria change over time.
For example, traditionally, in Christianity, religious groups were categorized sociologically as churches, sects or cults. 5 However, today, a more commonly accepted classification is on the basis of religious families, denominations, segments or branches, theological belief, political orientation and conflicts.6 Another aspect of classification that can cause difficulty is choosing the most appropriate method for the specific faith or religion. For instance, categorization can be based on historical descendents by identifying sub-groups within groups, thus identifying a branching hierarchy of a particular faith.
Or a religion can be classified on criteria relating to size, number of adherents, or the geographical spread of this religion or its independent and distinct nature. 7 Other choices of classification can include: the religion”s theology, its history or level of political power and social acceptability, or the number and nature of deities, to name a few.

Other questions that can be raised in determining a religious categorization can be: does the faith group consider itself to be part of (or the definitive version of) a larger religion? And, does the larger religion consider the faith group to be part of its tradition? 8 Problems may also arise when attempting to identify the degree of doctrinal and theological similarity between the various sub groups and determining the diversity in ritual, practice and organization. While these are key issues in classification, it is increasingly common today to see classification schemes that are based not on historical ties, but on current organizational affiliation or doctrinal similarity. 9 In Islam, many of these difficulties of classification also exist.

Classification of Muslims Today

The usual classification of Muslims is based on differences among Muslims on several areas: (a) religio-political differences on the question of leadership of the Muslims after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, leading to Sunnism, Shi`ism and Kharijism; (b) legal differences leading to Hanafis, Malikis, Shafi`is, Hanbalis and Ja`faris; (c) theological differences leading to Mu`tazilis, Ash`aris and Maturidis; (d) differences in the emphasis on spirituality leading to Sufis and non-Sufis; (e) differences in the emphasis on the rational aspects of Islam leading to rationalists and non- rationalists (or traditionalists). In the modern period, classification of Muslims into modernists and traditionalists has also been common. More recently, terms such as radicals, militants, extremists and moderates have also been used and their meanings are often unclear. What is noticeable is that recently a plethora of terms have emerged to discuss Islam and Muslims.

In this article, I seek to identify broad trends among Muslims today. Each trend specified below would have its share of members from legal schools, theological schools and other areas of Islamic thought. Hence, no specific references to these areas are made in discussing a particular trend, the focus instead being on the broad orientation of the trend. In the following, broad orientations of Muslims today towards law, theological purity, violence, politics, separation of religion and state, practice, modernity or ijtihâd are taken as a basis for the classification of the trends.

1. Legalist Traditionalists

Legalist traditionalists are primarily concerned with maintenance of the law as conceptualized in the classical schools of law: Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi`i, Hanbali and Ja`fari. They uphold solutions arrived at by classical jurists of the relevant school, and reject calls for reform of Islamic law and criticism of traditionalism. Taqlîd (uncritical following of one”s legal school) is a prominent feature of legalist traditionalists.

Key issues of concern for legalist traditionalists include:

implementation of classical Islamic law in today”s societies (from family law to criminal law as they were conceptualized in the schools of law); maintenance of classical views, for instance, the inequality of men and women in certain areas of law; a literal reading of Qur”ân and Sunnah texts; reverence for the opinions of the imams and key figures within each school of law; strict adoption of the principles of jurisprudence (usûl) and application of them in constructing law; where necessary, to benefit from the opinions expressed in other schools of law in dealing with contemporary problems rather than exercising independent reasoning (ijtihâd).

An example of legalist traditionalist thinking is that of Yûsuf al- Qaraâwî, a well known contemporary scholar based in Qatar, who argues that a woman cannot be a leader in Friday prayer (jum`a). In his response to a question relating to whether it is permissible for a woman to lead the prayer (alât), al-Qaraâwî states:

Throughout Muslim history it has never been heard of a woman leading the Friday prayer or delivering the Friday sermon, even during the era when a woman, Shagarat al-Durr, was ruling the Muslims in Egypt during the Mamluk period.

It is established that leadership in prayer in Islam is to be for men. People praying behind an imam are to follow him in the movements of prayer Рbowing, prostrating, etc. Рand listen attentively to him reciting the QurӉn in prayer.

Prayer in Islam is an act that involves different movements of the body. . . . Hence, it does not befit a woman, whose structure of physique naturally arouses instincts in men, to lead men in prayer and stand in front of them, for this may divert the men”s attention from concentrating in the prayer and the spiritual atmosphere required. . . . Hence, it is to avoid stirring the instincts of men that the Shari`a dictates that only men can call for prayer and lead people in the prayer, and that women”s rows in prayer be behind the men.10

2. Theological Puritans

Unlike legalist traditionalists, whose focus is Islamic law, theological puritans are concerned primarily with theological matters such as “correct belief.” They seek to purify society of what they consider to be practices antithetical to Islam, such as reverence for saints and saint-worship, magic, certain Sufi practices and what they call innovation in religious matters (bid`â). Theological puritans are also concerned with the literal affirmation of God”s attributes without any interpretation.

Generally speaking, theological puritans do not follow a specific school with respect to its principles but follow the views of the Hanbali school with respect to minor issues. They emphasize a literal reading of the key sources of Islam (the Qur”ân and Sunna) and maintain a highly conservative outlook with regard to women and family. This trend calls for the revival of ijtihâd in some form and emphasizes the necessity of returning to the teachings of the Qur”ân and the Sunna and does not accept anything with regard to belief unless it is based on a clear-cut textual support from these two sources. In addition, this trend propagates the belief in the attributes and names of God, as provided in the Qur”ân or explained by the Prophet, and has revived the obligation of jihâd (although they disagree on how this jihâd should be undertaken). Theological puritans call for the cessation of innovations and superstitions, such as visiting graves and seeking requests or invoking God through an intermediary such as “saits” or building tombs and decorating them. This trend calls for strong opposition to the views of Sufis and the “innovations” they have introduced to the religion of Islam.11 They also argue for maintaining some form of “separation” between Muslims and non-Muslims, believing that mixing is harmful to the Muslim”s beliefs, behavior and outlook. They rely heavily on the teachings of figures such as Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) and the modern proponents of their teachings, usually referred to as Salafis.

3. Militant Extremists

A third contemporary trend is that of the militant extremists. The late 20th- and early 21st-century militancy among Muslims is associated with a range of activities. These include localized national liberation struggles, international struggles such as the First Afghan War (as a result of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan) and anti-Western (more specifically anti-American) struggles by militant extremists such as that of Usama Bin Laden.
 In the early 21st century, it is the anti-Western struggle that dominates much of the debate on militancy and xtremism among Muslims, particularly as a result of the events of “9/11” and a series of bombings in both Muslim and Western countries by a global network of militant extremists.

These militant extremists are driven by a worldview that is characterized by a deep sense of injustice against Muslims and a profound sense of powerlessness surrounded by a world, they believe,
that aims at obliterating Islam and Muslims. This worldview is enhanced by a narrative that reinforces this sense of injustice from the time of the Crusades, to colonialism, to post-colonial domination
of Muslims by the “Christian” West. This view includes a belief that the West is committed to the domination and subjugation of Muslims,
the `stealing” of Muslim lands and resources and the economic, military and political control of Muslims to prevent any challenge to this domination. Militant extremists also believe that the West is committed to constraining the spread or growth of Islam through
supporting anti-Muslim missionary activities. They also feel betrayed by fellow Muslims who`collaborate” with the West against Muslims.
They are motivated by a particular understanding of jihâd whose theater is global and by a belief that less resourceful people can defeat a powerful enemy using terror as a tool to achieve specific objectives. Their thought is reflected in Usama Bin Laden”s “fatwa” against the Americans in which he said:

The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies – civilians and military – is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it, in order to liberate
the al-Aqsa Mosque [one of Islam”s most holy places, in Jerusalem]
and the Holy Mosque [in Mecca] from their grip, and in order for
their armies to move out of all the lands of Islam, defeated and
unable to threaten any Muslim. This is in accordance with the words
of Almighty God, `and fight the pagans all together as they fight you
all together,” and `fight them until there is no more tumult or
oppression, and there prevail justice and faith in God.” 12

4. Political Islamists

Unlike militant extremists, political Islamists overall choose an
Islamic socio-political pathway to change. They reject, at least in
theory, the modern ideologies of nationalism, secularism and
communism. They also reject `Westernization.” Political Islamists
argue for reform and change in Muslim communities,
emphasizing `Islamic” values and institutions over what they see as
Western counterparts. They are interested in establishing an Islamic
state or an Islamic socio-political order in Muslim societies. Most
argue for a gradual approach through education, beginning at the
grassroots level, avoiding violence.

Political Islamists are particularly keen to project an alternative
program to expand the scope of what Islam means and its role in
society today. They are reacting to a situation in which the role of
Islam in society, as they see it, is constantly being eroded. In
their view, the roots of this erosion lie largely in the colonial
period. They believe that in the post-independence period, the modern
state continued to implement various colonial projects, including the
marginalization of Islamic law, and that this has to be reversed.
They argue that God”s sovereignty should be supreme in the state, in
which case the state should enforce and implement Islamic law, not,
as they say, “man-made law.”

Notable movements associated with political Islamists include the
Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt and the Jamaat-i Islami of Pakistan. They
have similar approaches to social change, including an ideology that
emphasizes a more activist Islam that challenges the existing
authorities, whether state or religious. They are determined to
change Muslim societies from within. Maududi, the founder of Jamaat-i-
Islami of Pakistan, highlights certain key aspects of Islamic
political philosophy, as he understood them:

The belief in the Unity and the Sovereignty of Allah is the
foundation of the social and moral system propounded by the prophets.
It is the very starting-point of the Islamic political philosophy.
The basic principle of Islam is that human beings must, individually
and collectively, surrender all rights of overlordship, legislation,
and exercising of authority over others. No one should be allowed to
pass orders or make commands on his own right and no one ought to
accept the obligation to carry out such commands and obey such
orders. None is entitled to make laws on his own authority and none
is obliged to abide by them. This right vests in Allah alone. . . .
According to this theory, sovereignty belongs to Allah. He alone is
the lawgiver. 13

5. Secular Liberals

This trend sees Islam as largely confined to the domain of personal
belief and as a faith based on a relationship between God and the
individual. Many value piety at a personal level. They do not see any
need for an Islamic state, nor the implementation of what is referred
to as Islamic law in Muslim societies. Among the issues they are
concerned with are: protection of religion from state control;
respect for the religious freedom of all, including Muslims;
condemnation of declarations and acts of misogyny and homophobia
carried out in the name of Islam; and a commitment to equal rights
for both sexes. Secular liberals fight the oppression of women,
emphasize democracy, are against symbols such as the wearing of
hijab. They call for personal freedom as long as people do not break
existing laws and emphasize the non-intrusion of the state into
peoples” personal lives. 14

6. Cultural Nominalists

The focus of cultural nominalists is on culture, rather than
religion. This trend represents Muslims who are “culturally Muslim” –
that is, those who are usually born into Muslim families and are
associated with Islam but are not interested in the beliefs or
practices of Islam. They may adopt certain basic beliefs but are not
practicing Muslims except in so far as occasionally attending Eid
prayer. They may also display some interest in religio-cultural
practices like burial and circumcision. This trend represents a very
large number of Muslims today. They are not interested in the
practice of their religion be it private or public.

7. Classical Modernists

Classical modernists are committed to reform of Islamic thought, both
legal and theological, and place strong emphasis on ijtihâd.
Classical modernism is in part a continuation of the reformist
movement of Islam in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and is seen
as a way to address the challenges posed by modernity while remaining
faithful to the basics of Islam. As many Muslim thinkers saw it in
the 19th and early 20th centuries, the impact of the West on Muslims
required a response commensurate with the enormity of the challenge.
Among the first “modernists,” we may include Jamal al-Din al-Afghani
and Muhammad Abduh (in Egypt), and Sayyid Ahmad Khan and Muhammad
Iqbal in the Indian Subcontinent.

Among the key concerns of the classical modernists is the reform of
Islamic thought through an emphasis on ijtihâd. They believe that the
modern context demands a reappraisal of the intellectual heritage of
Muslims and this requires giving up the blind imitation of early
scholars. Classical modernists believe that revelation does not clash
with reason and that an effort should be made to revive Islam”s
rationalist philosophical tradition. They argue for a flexible
interpretation of Islam and its sources in order to develop
institutions commensurate with modern conditions, and that social
change must be reflected in Islamic law. Classical modernists believe
that a return to Islam, as it was originally practiced, would inject
into Muslim societies the intellectual dynamism required to catch up
with the West. They emphasize scientific knowledge as a way to catch
up with the West through reform of Islamic education and condemn what
they see as deviations and accretions not worthy of the earliest
Muslims (salaf), such as certain Sufi practices and syncretism.

8. Progressive Ijtihads

Progressive ijtihadis can be considered intellectual descendents of
classical modernists. Progressive ijtihadis argue for major changes
in the methodology of Islamic law and for reform of Islamic law
itself. For them, many areas of traditional Islamic law require
substantial change and reform to meet the needs of contemporary
Muslims. They perceive that some areas of traditional Islamic law are
not relevant today, and that they are in need of replacement with
legislation more in keeping with the needs of contemporary Muslims.

This trend emphasizes enacting or perhaps re-enacting core Islamic
values of justice (`adl), goodness and beauty (isân) in their
societies and the world at large and engaging both Islamic tradition
and modernity on the issues of human rights, social justice, gender
justice and pluralism. Progressive ijtihadis believe that Muslims
need to enter contemporary debates on these and other issues such as
globalization, freedom of speech and equality of all people
regardless of religion, gender, race, ethnicity or language. They
support action that involves a relentless striving towards a
universal notion of justice in which no single community”s
prosperity, righteousness and dignity come at the expense of another.
15 They believe in an interpretation of Islam that accommodates
pluralism, seeks to recover Islam”s early compassionate tradition,
supports a revival of the rationalist heritage of Muslims and tries
to retrieve Islam from literalist interpretations. Progressive
ijtihadis stand up to what they consider to be “arrogant” modernity,
and endeavor to tackle its excesses while at the same time calling
for open and safe spaces to undertake a rigorous, honest and
potentially difficult engagement with the Islamic tradition. While
doing so they remain hopeful that such an engagement will lead to
further action. 16

The label of “progressive ijtihadis” brings under it a range of
Muslims such as Muslim feminists like Fatima Mernissi, activists who
argue for pluralism like Farid Esack, neo-Modernists like Fazlur
Rahman, proponents for a more humane interpretation of Islam such as
Khaled Abou El-Fadl, proponents of full participation in Western
societies as citizens such as Tariq Ramadan, and even philosophers
like Hasan Hanafi. In a sense, the progressive ijtihadi category
brings together a large number of sub-groups, but as this article is
about broad trends, these sub-groups and their characteristics will
not be dealt with here.

The following is from the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU) website (a
group based in the United States). It lists twelve principles that
guide the work of the PMU, many of those may be shared by other
progressive ijtihadis. Although this is only one group of progressive
ijtihadis, the following selected principles from their website
(abridged) provides an indication of the broad orientation of
progressive ijithadis:

·   We affirm that a Muslim is anyone who identifies herself or
himself as “Muslim,” including those whose identification is based on
social commitments and cultural heritage.

·   We affirm the importance of celebrating the arts, culture, and
the pursuit of joy in our daily lives. . . .

·   We affirm the equal status and equal worth of all human beings,
regardless of religion, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual
orientation. We oppose any restrictions on women”s full participation
in society and believe that separation and segregation of men and
women is contrary to the equity among genders enshrined in the
Quran. . . .

·   We affirm that justice and compassion should be the guiding
principles for all aspects of human conduct. . . .

·   We affirm our commitment to social and economic justice and our
opposition to the culture of militarism and violence . . .

·   We reject the authoritarian, racist, sexist and homophobic
interpretations of our faith as antithetical to the principles of
justice and compassion . . .

·   We call for critical inquiry and dynamic engagement with Islamic
scripture, early Muslim sources, the Islamic intellectual heritage,
and traditional and current Muslim discourses.

·   We endorse the separation of religion and state in all matters of
public policy, not only in North America, but also across the Muslim
world . . .

·   We recognize the growing danger of religious extremism and view
the politicization of religion and the intrusion of religion into
politics as twin threats to civil society and humane
civilization. . . .

·   Recognizing our participation in the broader human family, we
seek to engage with and contribute to other philosophical and
spiritual traditions and progressive movements. 17

Concluding Remarks
The above discussion provides an overview of key trends within Islam
today. The purpose of this exercise is to make a contribution towards
a more systematic look at contemporary trends in Islam and shape a
more appropriate terminology to be utilized in discussing them, away
from the often misused terms such as fundamentalism, Islamism,
radicalism and so on. However, the categories identified in this
article are intended to be preliminary. More work is needed in order
to refine these categories further and identify various sub-movements
within each broad trend.


1. A large part of this article is based on a chapter of my
forthcoming book, Islamic Thought: An Introduction, (Routledge,
London). While the chapter focuses on six trends, I have added two
further trends in this article, namely the “cultural nominalists”
and “classical modernists.”

2. “Glossary of library terms”,


4. Australian Bureau of Statistics, “Australian Standard
Classification of Religious Groups (ASCRG), 1996″…/0/9A04F207AB02D8E9CA25697E0018

5. “Levels of Classification of Faith Groups”,

6. “Christian sub-menu: Meta-groups, wings, families, denominations
& belief systems”

7. “Levels of Classification of Faith Groups”

8. “Major Religions of the World Ranked by Number of Adherents”

9. “Levels of Classification of Faith Groups”,


11. “The Wahhabi Movement: History and Beliefs”

12. Text of “Fatwa Urging Jihâd Against Americans.” Published in Al-
Quds al-`Arabi on 23 February 1998. Statement signed by Usama Bin
Muhammad Bin Ladin; Ayman al-Zawahiri, leader of the Jihâd Group in
Egypt; Abu Yasir Rifa`i Ahmad Taha, a leader of the Islamic Group;
Sheikh Mir Hamzah, secretary of the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-e-Pakistan; and
Fazlul Rahman, leader of the Jihâd Movement in Bangladesh.

13. Sayyid Abul A`la Mauctudi, “The Political Theory of Islam; in
Mansoor Moaddel and Kamran Talattof (ed.), Contemporary Debater in
Islam, London: Macmillan, 2000, 270.

14. `A Secular Muslim Manifesto” by Tewfik Allal and Brigitte
Bardet. The Manifesto attracted several hundred signatories and a
list of `Les Amis du Manifeste” (Friends of the Manifesto) composed
of non-Muslim intellectuals expressing their solidarity
( Tewfik Allal, a French union activist,
who was born in Morocco of Algerian parents, and his wife Brigitte
Bardet, a teacher and feminist activist, are the authors of this

15. Omid Safi, “Introduction,” in Omid Safi (ed.), Progressive
Muslims (Oxford: Oneworld, 2003), 3.

16. Omid Safi, “Introduction”, 18.

17. Progressive Muslim Union of North America, “PMU Statement of

 *The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia