With a 2004 estimate of 1.48 billion followers, Islam is the religion of roughly 23 percent of the world’s  population (based on CIA Fact Sheet 2004). Most Muslims live in the region that extends from North Africa to South East Asia, but Muslim minorities across Europe and the Americas are the second or third largest religious communities

(Esposito 1999:690). Islam comprises people from almost every ethnicity, including Arabs (19%), Turks (4%), Indians/Pakistanis (24%), Africans (17%), and South-East Asians (15%). The largest Muslim population is in Indonesia (194 million), and the largest Muslim minorities live in India (150 million), China (38 million), Russia (28 million), France (6 million), and the United States (6 million). Most Muslims in non-western countries are indigenous nationals who belong to the local ethnicity and culture. However, the majority of Muslims living in the West are educated immigrants who migrated for various reasons related to the phenomenon of ‘brain drain’ of their original countries.

All Muslims believe in the absolute oneness of God, the prophethood of Muhammad (570-632 C.E.), and the Quran as the final message from God to humankind revealed to Muhammad (The Holy Quran, Chapter 33:Verse 40). Muslims grew from a small and oppressed group in Mecca, now in western Saudi Arabia, at the beginning of the seventh century to an established ‘Islamic State’ that overpowered both the Roman and Persian empires by the end of the same century. Islam, then, became the religion of a variety of cultures and a flourishing civilization that spanned over the medieval centuries. The early post-prophetic era, however, witnessed violent tribal disputes in Arabia, which eventually lead to the formation of a few politico-religious sects within Islam in addition to the Sunni mainstream (92% of Muslims), namely, Shia or Twelvers (now 5.8% of Muslims, mainly in Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon), Ibaddis or Kharijites (now 1% of Muslims, mainly in Oman), Zaidis (now 1% of Muslims, mainly in Yemen), and Alawites (now 0.1% of Muslims, mainly in Syria). Eventually, the Islamic state’s internal problems, especially political dictatorship, patriarchy, and racial disputes, lead to severe deterioration, colonization from outside powers, and ultimate disintegration by the late nineteenth century. The second half of the twentieth century witnessed widespread political liberalization and initiation of modern processes of development across the Muslim world (Esposito 1999:643).

Islam and Development

According to the 2004 United Nations Development Program (UNDP) report, most Islamic countries (I.e., countries with a Muslim majority) rank within the ‘medium’ range of the comprehensive Human Development Index (HDI), which is calculated using indexes of life expectancy, enrollment in education, and standard of living. However, some Islamic countries, specifically the oil-rich Arab states, rank comparatively much higher in terms of income per capita and much lower in terms of female literacy and Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), which includes women’s political participation, economic participation, and power over resources (UNDP 2004:221). In addition to Muslim minorities who live in developed countries, countries with Muslim majorities which were ranked under ‘high human development’ are Brunei, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and United Arab Emirates (which collectively represent less than 1 percent of Muslims). The bottom of the HDI list includes Yemen, Nigeria, Mauritania, Djibouti, Gambia, Senegal, Guinea, Ivory Cost, Mali, and Niger (which collectively represent around 10 percent of Muslims).

Islam is both a belief system and a comprehensive way of life that governs Muslims as individuals, families, and societies. Islamic principles in the form of prescribed ‘good deeds’ and forbidden immoralities play a constructive role, from a development perspective. However, historical interpretations of Islamic scripts that evolved into established traditions in some predominantly Muslim countries do impede development, especially in the areas of politics and women rights. Nevertheless, modern Islamic scholarship seeks reform through novel re-interpretation theories. Numerous Islamic organizations embrace these theories and work on the ground to materialize reform. However, there is a need for more theoretical investigation of the concept of development itself in non-western Islamic contexts. The following paragraphs will elaborate on these topics.

Principles Conducive to Human Development

The Quran views humankind as vicegerents on earth, whose mission is ‘betterment and reform’ (for example, Quran 11:88, 26:152). The Quran also states, ‘let there be no compulsion in religion,’ ‘the noblest of humankind is the best in conduct,’ ‘no bearer of burdens can bear the burden of another,’ ‘stand out firmly for justice, even as against yourselves, or your parents, or your kin, and whether it be against rich or poor,’ ‘male or female: you are members, one of another,’ ‘if the enemy inclines towards peace, do you also incline towards peace, and trust in God,’ and that dialogue is ‘the means that is best’ (Quran 2:256, 49:13, 17:15, 4:135, 3:195, 8:61, 29:46, respectively). Based on these verses and others, a Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights was announced in 1981 by a large number of scholars who represented various Islamic entities at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Supported by a number of Islamic scripts mentioned in its references section, the declaration contains all basic rights declared in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), such as rights to life, freedom, equality, justice, fair trial, protection against torture, asylum, freedom of belief and speech, free association, education, and freedom of movement (Bora Laskin Law Library 2004). However, since 1981, a debate is still alive, especially in the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights (UNHCHR), on whether this Islamic declaration ‘gravely threatens the inter-cultural consensus on which the international human rights instruments were based’ or whether Islam ‘adds new positive dimensions to human rights, since, unlike international instruments, it attributes them to a divine source thereby adding a new moral motivation for complying with them’ (UNHCHR 2003).

On the practical level, there are specific ‘acts of worship’ that Islam prescribes that could contribute to human development. These are, for example, seeking and teaching knowledge,  spending and consuming moderately, sponsoring orphans, forgiving debts, assisting the disabled, ensuring hygiene, helping one’s relatives and neighbors, treating prisoners of wars kindly, avoiding transgression, being ‘kind and just’ to those of a different religion, and the annual charity of up to ten percent of every Muslim’s wealth, which is given to the needy in society and other social causes (for example, Quran 2:177-179, 17:23-38).

Additionally, all forms of corruption are considered ‘major sins’ in Islam, such as bribery, conflict of interest, fraud, and the use of one’s political power for personal gains. Prophet Muhammad was reported to have judged whether an employee has a right to receive a certain gift by asking whether that employee would still have been offered the gift if he or she had never been employed.

Historical Interpretations Impeding Development

Despite the strong moral ideals of the Quran listed above, some verses of the Quran had been interpreted in ways which serve certain agendas of dictatorship, patriarchy, or violence. For example, the Quran states: ‘To those against whom war is made, permission is given to fight, because they are wronged; and verily, God is most powerful for their aid. They are those who have been expelled from their homes unjustly’ (Quran 22:39-40). These verses and similar ones had been interpreted a millennium ago to mean that the entire world is divided into two exclusive zones, the ‘land of Islam’ and the ‘land of war,’ which are expressions mentioned nowhere in the scripts themselves. Other verses that encouraged Muslims to fight ‘for the sake of the oppressed’ (Quran 4:75) are claimed to have abrogated (I.e., legally annulled) all other verses that advocated mercy, cooperation and dialogue with any non-Muslim. These binary classifications of the world are still endorsed by some violent political groups.

Certain verses of the Quran that encourage Muslims to respect and cooperate with their leaders in addition to verses that mention ‘security’ as a blessing from God are repeatedly interpreted to mean that loyalty to de facto rulers is an Islamic obligation, regardless of their conduct. Therefore, seeking to change unjust leaders, even through peaceful means, is considered an act of deviance that ‘jeopardizes the blessing of security.’ Similar interpretations, historically popularized by the Abbasid dynasty (758-1258 C.E.), sanction tribal monarchies as the only form of acceptable Islamic regimes and go further to claim that a Muslim ruler should be only from ‘noble Arab lineages.’ Based on these interpretations, resources in some Muslim countries are distributed over citizens based on their lineages, and ‘noble’ rulers have the right to make dictatorial decisions. ‘Mutual consultation’ (Quran 42:38), which is a clear Islamic instruction, is interpreted to mean that the ruler should consult the ruled, but without being under any obligation to follow what they choose.

Other verses, which specifically advised Prophet Muhammad’s female followers to take certain precautions during Medina’s revolts, around 624 C.E., to protect themselves from assaults (Quran 33:59), are often taken out of their historic context to entail that all women are to be ‘protected’ by isolating them from places of work and even mosques. Such interpretations further render women incapable of making political, legal, financial, or personal choices, or even drive cars. Examples of Muslim groups that have subscribed to such opinions are the Taliban, former rulers of Afghanistan, and the Wahhabis, an extreme Sunni trend influential in Saudi Arabia.

Modern Interpretations and Reform

An Islamic reform movement has been initiated which rejects extreme traditional interpretations, re-defining many basic Islamic concepts, and modernizing the Islamic law itself. Fazlur-Rahman, for example, criticized medieval Islamic thought for not producing ‘a single work of ethics squarely based upon the Quran, although there are numerous works based on Greek philosophy’ (Fazlur-Rahman 1979:257). He called for a contemporary interpretation of the Qur’an based on ethics and reform of the Islamic law to emphasize ‘purposes’ rather than ‘quantified actions.’ Abdul-Karim Soroush supported new interpretations of the Quran that differentiated between verses that are ‘functions of a cultural, social and historical environment’ and other verses that are universal (Kurzman 1998:248). Contemporary Islamic reform started across the Islamic world one century ago with ‘modernist’ Islamic scholars, as will be explained next.

In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of Islamic reformists ‘sought to reconcile Islamic faith and modern values, such as constitutionalism, as well as cultural revival, nationalism, freedom of religious interpretation, scientific investigation, modern-style education, women’s rights, and a bundle of other themes’ (Kurzman 2002:4). Two key pioneers of modern Islamic reform are Mohammad Abduh (1849-1905), the Chief Egyptian Mufti at his time educated in both Al-Azhar and France, and Mohammad Iqbal (1877-1938), an Indian poet-lawyer-philosopher educated in England and Germany. Both scholars, from both geographical sides of the Islamic world, integrated their Islamic and western education into proposals for Islamic reform. A common theme in both proposals was the reinterpretation and reconstruction of Islamic thought. Iqbal distinguished between universal principles of Islam, on one hand, and their relative interpretation in practical life, on the other hand. Abduh wrote a Quranic exegesis based on a direct understanding of the Quran’s Arabic language and without quoting any previous exegete for the first time in Islamic scholarship history.

Through new interpretations of the Quran, Abduh and his student, Qassim Amin (1863-1908), promoted education of girls and women, restriction of polygamy, and granting Muslim women divorce rights (Kurzman 2002:61). Their writings eventually influenced Egyptian laws and many other Muslim legal systems. Qasim Amin’s book, Liberation of Women, published in 1899, initiated women’s liberation literature in the Arab world as well as Iran, after its translation into Persian in 1900. Interestingly, women rights movements in Iran also started due to the works of modernist Islamic (male) scholars. For example, Ahmad Kasravi Tabrizi (1880-1946), originally from Azerbaijan, called for academic and political freedoms and the equality of women and men in education. At present, women’s rights activists in the Muslim world are typically women in both Islamic and secular establishments, who promote more advanced forms of social and political equality and development (Krause 2005).

Whether Islam is a ‘religion that has a political character’ is a question posed in 1925 by Ali Abdel-Raziq (1888-1966), an Azhari judge and Oxford graduate, and the topic has sparked heated debates since. In a strong re-interpretation style, Abdel-Raziq quoted numerous Quranic verses and prophetic traditions to prove that Prophet Muhammad had only had ‘authority as a prophet and not dominion as king, caliph or sultan’ (Kurzman 2002:32). Abdel-Raziq’s view was that the Islamic law is neutral about political systems; hence, Muslim societies are free to choose any political system they deem suitable, without making any political system an ‘Islamic obligation.’ These new interpretations opened up possibilities for Islamic scholars after Abdel-Raziq to call for changing dominant monarchical systems throughout the Islamic world, which have been supported by traditional Islamic interpretations.

Present-day popular Muslim politicians, such as Mohammad Khatami, Iran’s fifth president, Benazir Bhutto, former president of Pakistan and the first Muslim female president in modern history, Rachid Ghannouchi, founder of the Tunisian Renaissance Islamic Party, and several others, all have supported democracy and democratic practices based on new interpretations of the Islamic scripts (Khatami 1998, Kurzman 1998). Abdulaziz Sachedina, an Islamic scholar from the University of Virginia, recently explored the ‘Islamic roots of democratic pluralism’ in the Quran and evidences of ‘civil society’ in the early Muslim community that Prophet Muhammad formed in order to ‘legitimize modern secular ideas of citizenship in the Muslim political culture’ (Sachedina 2001:132)

Islamic Organizations that Contribute to Development The above Islamic principles of justice and charity and modern interpretations of social equality and political reform inspire numerous Islamic organizations across the Muslim world. These organizations, in effect, contribute to the process of human development in the Muslim world even though they might not have specific agendas for development per se. Organizations are hereby categorized as Islamic if they are attached to mosques or announce mission statements or projects that signify religious Islamic goals. Examples of such organizations are given below.

A large number of organizations across the developing world operate through local mosques in order to offer literacy programs, basic health care, orphan sponsoring projects, and charity collection and distribution programs. Besides contributing to human wellbeing, these organizations are indirectly contributing to the process of political liberalization, civil society expansion, and ‘democratization from below’ (Krause 2005). Moreover, several organizations directly promote democracy, minority rights, and cross-cultural dialogue in the Muslim world on Islamic basis, through academic publications, public lectures, activist awards, and research workshops. Specifically active is the Washington-based think-tank, Centre for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies.

Muslim women’s organizations also contribute to the process of social reform. An important example is Women Living under Muslim Laws (WLUML), an international solidarity organization, which rejects unjust laws and customs resulting from different interpretations of Islamic religious texts and the political use of Islam. Another example is Sisterhood is Global Institute (SGI), in Jordon, which led a campaign to outlaw honor killing as un-Islamic. Its founder, Jordanian lawyer Asma Khader, was acknowledged by an award from the United Nations Development Program in 2003.

Theoretical Considerations for Development

The concept of development is a product of western modernism and has been shaped over the past five centuries by the European and American ‘models.’ Muslim scholars and politicians have dealt with this concept in a spectrum of ways, although its two extremes and rather popular positions could be identified. Traditional Islamic scholars and extreme Islamic political groups reject the concept of development altogether based on its western origin and ‘centricity’ (I.e., self-projection), a critique interestingly similar to the western postmodernist critique. On the other hand, several modern reformers and politicians in the Islamic world, in addition to some western politicians, invite Muslims to give up their heritage and follow the modern western development model as the only way to achieve prosperity and solve their problems. As popular as they are, neither of the two positions has been able to achieve a balance between development values, which attained an undisputed success in the West, and the Islamic heritage, which represents the core religious and cultural identity of Muslims. Muslim countries cannot prosper if they continue to view the world through medieval eyes and ignore the valuable experience of western development. On the other hand, asking Muslims to dissolve into another’s cultural paradigm is ethnocentric, unsympathetic, and unrealistic. There is a need for Muslim thinkers and politicians to absorb the western experience and integrate its lessons of development into their Islamic heritage and identity. The concept of ‘human development,’ as proposed by the United Nations, could be a basis for this much needed middle ground. Human development, the 2004 UNDP report states, is about ‘rejecting claims that cultural differences necessarily lead to social, economic and political conflict’ (UNDP 2004:v). Human development is about realizing basic human rights, for which Islam called fourteen centuries ago.