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Just sharing – RSIS Commentary – Puritanical Reformists & Liberal Modernists: Two Sides, Same Coin

RSIS Commentary is a platform to provide timely and, where appropriate, policy-relevant commentary and analysis of topical and contemporary issues. The authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU. These commentaries may be reproduced with prior permission from RSIS and due recognition to the author(s) and RSIS. Please email to Mr Yang Razali Kassim, Editor RSIS Commentary at

No. 016/2018 dated 31 January 2018

Puritanical Reformists & Liberal Modernists: Two Sides, Same Coin

By Mohamed Bin Ali and Muhammad Mubarak


While the world’s attention has been drawn to the violent extremists who are at odds with the world, there exists another kind of extremists: they assimilate into global ideologies but at the cost of religious values and traditions. Addressing the two simultaneously will lead to more effective counter-ideological work today.


IN CONTEMPORARY Islamic thought, two trends inform extreme ideology. On one end, there is the literalist, puritanical reformists who de-contextualise Islamic teachings and scriptures to the extent that they discard centuries of Islamic intellectual history. These Puritanical Reformists, as their name implies, claim that to understand and interpret Islamic texts one is only required to go directly to the primary sources, thus rejecting the rich heritage of Islamic scholarship built over more than a thousand years.

On the opposite end of the spectrum lies the Liberal Modernists who disguise their agenda for reform in Islam with a thin veneer of Islamic terms. Using the banner of progress and keeping pace with the advancement of science and technology, they surrendered the religious, intellectual and spiritual perspectives to secularism in the name of embracing the world and accommodating Islam to every changing condition of humanity.

Puritanical Reformists and Liberal Modernists

Generally, both groups — the Puritanical Reformists and Liberal Modernists — have gained supporters ranging from the general public to intellectuals and political leaders. Examples of Puritanical Reformists are those involved in violent Islamist groups such as IS and Al-Qaeda. Liberal Modernists view modernity (or part of it) as an integral element of their worldview and practice. They often produce a considerable body of liberal thought on the re-interpretation and reform of Islamic understanding and practice.

Currently, more intellectual and political attention is given to the Puritanical Reformists, given the evidence that their ideologies can manifest into violence. However, in reality, the extreme ideologies of both groups have disastrous effects on the religious, intellectual and spiritual life of the Muslim community. In addition, counter-ideological efforts which have largely concentrated on the Puritanical Reformists can be better enhanced by negating the subtle influences of the Liberal Modernists as well.

Ignorance: Foundation of Extreme Ideologies

A crucial question to ask is what factors led to the increasing occurrence of these extreme attitudes and ideologies? If we were to analyse the thinking pattern and ideological orientation of Islamic reform groups from the early 19th century, a quick answer would be ignorance coupled with arrogance.

Ignorance arises from being unaware of the relevance and richness of Islamic intellectual and spiritual heritage such as Sufism and traditional Islamic learning in the hands of Islamic scholars that had developed since Islam’s early history. This ignorance is fed in some measure by the need to acquire immediate solutions and Band-Aids to respond to the onslaught of alien ideas and cultural penetrations in a dynamic, fast-moving world.

As such, they are incapable of tapping into the power of the Islamic intellectual and spiritual tradition to solve contemporary problems facing the Muslim community and humanity in general.

Connected to this is the refusal to admit their ignorance which can be traced to the egocentricity of the activists, thinkers and leaders who subscribed to either of these two ideologies. In all areas of Islamic sciences, their ignorance is amplified in the extreme positions that their respective thinkers and activists propagate.

Characteristics of the Two Extremities

In the area of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), Puritanical Reformists, for example, promote and legalise suicide bombing. They legalise the burning of non-Muslims and apostates by quoting obscured juridical judgments taken from isolated and outcast classical jurists. On the other hand, the Liberal Modernists propagate the abandonment of fiqh claiming that fiqh is rooted in a medieval code of life that is not applicable in the “new world order”.

In another example, the Puritanical Reformists have decontextualised the teachings of Prophet Muhammad by denying women rights that were granted from the beginning of Islam. The Liberal Modernists, on their part, have rejected the authenticity of the sayings and actions of the Prophet; they argued that the Prophet is a “male chauvinist” who created laws to a highly patriarchal society and therefore his interpretations of Islamic laws are not suitable for contemporary societies.

In the area of Quranic exegesis (tafsir), Puritanical Reformists have, for example, equated the Quranic term jihad (struggle) to qital (fighting) which reduces all of Islam to armed jihad. The Liberal Modernists take an apologetic attitude that attempts to satisfy Western notions of non-violence and political correctness by brushing aside the whole issue and history of armed jihad in Islam in favour of a purely “spiritualised” notion of striving in the way of God.

The sheer ignorance of the “intellectual” authorities of these two groups, in their attempt to showcase their understanding of Islam, demonstrates the lack of any relationship with the thoughts and depths of the majority of Muslims on the Quranic pronouncements of jihad throughout Islamic history.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

An analysis of their respective ideologies will indicate that these two extremes are conflicted. The Puritanical Reformists’ ideology shows a blind puritanical and political rejection of modernity without any understanding of its nature and are alleged to breed narrow-minded doctrinal adherents of Islam. The Liberal Modernists on the other hand have capitulated to modern Western civilisation and are portrayed supposedly as broad-minded and progressive Muslims.

The truth of the matter is that both of these groups are two sides of the same coin. They both betray the corpus of scholarship of many centuries that contains the intricacies and complexities of the development of the Islamic intellectual tradition. Both these groups of extremities are united in their opposition to traditional Islam despite functioning as opposite reactions to modern secular thoughts.

They are also united in their efforts to re-interpret the Quran and Prophetic Tradition without giving due regard to the lives and activities of the Islamic community of the past in all domains of life and thought. The Islamic community of the past are in actual fact a historical commentary upon and continuity of the revealed texts.

In counter-ideological work today, the need to negate the influences of these two extremes are equally important. Firstly, this will ensure the Islam that the majority subscribe to will gain its rightful place in the community; the Islam that is principled upon the values of excellence, moderation, balance and justice.

Secondly, a unified and clear voice of authentic Islam is necessary to reduce the support base of the violent Puritanical Reformists and the Liberal Modernists. Negligence in performing these twin efforts in equal measure will have negative consequences, not only for the Muslim community but for humanity as a whole.

Mohamed Bin Ali is Assistant Professor with the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Muhammad Mubarak obtained his PhD in Islamic Civilisation and Contemporary Issues from the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies, University of Brunei Darussalam (UBD). Both are members of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), Singapore.

About Muhammad Haniff Hassan

Muhammad Haniff Bin Hassan is a Fellow. He holds a PhD and M.Sc. in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (previously known as the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies), Nanyang Technological University. He received his early education in Aljunied Islamic School. He then continued his tertiary education at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, National University of Malaysia, with honours in Syar`iah and Civil law. Mr. Haniff is also active in social activities as a member of the Islamic Religious Council Appeal Board, HSBC Insurance Islamic Advisory Board from 2000 to 2014, Association of Islamic Religious Teachers and Scholars of Singapore (PERGAS) and Management Committee of Al-Irsyad Islamic School. He writes extensively in Berita Harian (a local Malay newspaper) and has also published articles in The Straits Times. He has published six books in his name, co-authored a monograph and helped publish two books for PERGAS and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore. His personal website in Malay is at


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