What’s A ‘Real Muslim’ Anyway?


It’s clear to me that the problem of Islamic fundamentalism will not be solved by non-Muslims. It’s going to take a great number of liberal, secular, progressive Muslims to reform their own religion from within. That’s not to say that non-Muslims do not have a valuable role to play in this process, but given that this process has already begun, I think it’s worth asking whether we are helping it or holding it back.

One of the biggest hurdles appears to be getting non-Muslims to accept that there even is such a thing as a liberal, progressive, secular Muslim. Pointing out examples invariably leads to cries of ‘no true Scotsmen’. How can they be Muslims if they don’t wish to push their faith on society? Surely they are not true Muslims if they favour secularism over theocracy.

I’ve noticed a double standard at work here when we consider the legitimacy of progressive thinkers within the Islamic faith. Non-Muslims are quick to decry Islamic fundamentalism on the one hand, yet hold all Muslims to a literal, fundamentalist understanding of Islam on the other. Any deviation betrays a lack of authenticity in the mind of the non-Muslim.

The popular press, even when well-intentioned, bolster this way of thinking too. They were quick to tell us that the Paris attackers weren’t true Muslims for example. Why? Because they were reported to have enjoyed alcohol and marijuana. This reinforces the narrative that in order to be considered sincere in the Islamic faith you must adhere to all its dogmas, stigmas and injunctions – wholesale. Coincidentally, this is also the narrative of the Islamist.

Non-Muslims toeing this line strikes me as odd given we don’t do this with Christians. Can you recall any newspapers investigating whether or not Christian lunatics had any tattoos or enjoyed shellfish? No, Christianity has been allowed to ‘progress’ and reform – yet Muslims are being held back, pigeonholed in a literal, medieval box – by Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

I’ve often wondered what it must be like for a progressive Muslim to hear ‘I’ll kill you’ in their right ear and ‘you’re not a real Muslim’ in their left, simply for the crime of being a Muslim and challenging literalism, fanaticism and orthodoxy. Just like many Christian reformers have done throughout history to the benefit of us all.

How can we hope to see a change for the better if we continue to issue an Islamic ‘purity test’ which demands the worst from Muslims? We say we don’t want fundamentalists, but in the same breath we are telling Muslims that they must adhere to the fundamentals of their faith to have any authenticity. I understand the unique problems the literal ‘transmission’ of Islamic scripture presents, but since there’s no actual god holding Muslims to this, why can’t they take a fresh approach?

This is not about treating Muslims with kid gloves, but rather affording them the same privileges to cherry pick and interpret their religion however they wish. Just like everyone else does. Everybody cherry-picks their religion. The very nature of religious scripture makes this process inevitable and necessary. No-one can possibly hope to satisfy all the contradictions and demands of their particular ‘holy’ book. This is not to confuse the reformers, who recognise the problems within their faith, with the apologists who wish to distract you from them. They hinder Islamic reformation more than most.

This isn’t a case of ‘going soft’ on Islam either. Preposterous faith based notions should be ridiculed and challenged wherever they rear their head. This is about making sure that we don’t abandon those Muslims who want to live their lives in accordance with what they understand their faith to mean – but also understand the importance of human rights and secularism too. Many of these Muslims risk everything to do this openly. And we need them.

This doesn’t mean we have to give Muslim reformers a free pass either. By all means, feel free to quiz them on where they stand on hoofed aviation and a prophet’s choice of bride. It’s just that there’s an important distinction to be made between a person of faith, and a person who wishes to push their faith on everyone else.

Would it be better if all 1.6 billion Muslims abandoned their false beliefs? Of course it would. But that’s not going to happen. Not any time soon anyway. So in the meantime, perhaps it’s best for non-Muslims to support those Muslims who are trying to influence their fellow believers to adopt a more progressive interpretation. A mainstream alternative to pious literalism is desperately needed. Just as it was with Judaism and Christianity.

It seems hypocritical to lament the ‘nothing to do with Islam’ brigade whilst at the same time abandoning Muslims who acknowledge the problems within their faith.

Religion, despite what the believer may tell you, has always been fluid. Oral dictation, alteration, translation, reinterpretation and reformation are religious themes as much as anything. Secular, progressive Muslims are not asking for anything new here. Sure, the Ayatollahs and the Imams will dismiss the reformers as apostates. But that’s exactly why it’s important to empower the reformers in order to diminish the influence of the literalist theocrat.

If you are looking for a list of Muslim reformers and dissidents to acquaint yourself with and support, I recommend reading ‘Heretic: Why Islam Needs A Reformation Now’ by Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She dedicates a sizable chunk of the appendix section to them. If anyone would like to hear what a secular, liberal reforming voice sounds like right now, please listen to my discussion with Maajid Nawaz.

 Stephen Knight is host of The #GSPodcast. You can listen to The Godless Spellchecker Podcast here, and support it by becoming a patron here.


  • I always find your analysis to be spot on. I also think it’s very impressive just the extent to which it’s clear that liberalism is the guiding principle underpinning your reasoning, even in those cases where the conclusions you reach are stereotypically associated with the right. We need true liberals like youself to relentlessly take theocracy, and its morally confused defenders in the West (i.e. the regressive left), to task. Cheers!

  • There haven’t been many “real” (in the sense of adhering strictly to their holy books’ teaching) christians in the world for a hundred years or more, likewise I’ve heard many Jew’s (in the west at least) describe themselves as “cultural” rather than practicing. Islam suffers partly from being the younger religion of the three but can hopefully be encouraged to evolve into a faith that treats it’s holy text’s as metaphor rather than fact, just like the other two abrahamic sects largely have.
    I read a thing the other day (apologies for no link) by a woman who grew up in the middle east in the 70’s or 80’s where it was fine to be “not very muslim”, not wear a hijab etc., she was lamenting the way the progress she had enjoyed as a child has been all but lost…
    Anyway, excellent article!

  • I really like your content and you are quite right most of the time, however this piece is not your best moment. The quran is a violent, bloodthirsty mess and people who follow islam in its most puritanical interpretation will always have more theological credibility over someone like Mr. Nawaz. Even if we empower the reformers, they will always lose in theological debate with Saudi scholars and quite frankly, Muslims worldwide follow religous authorities rather than the Quilliam foundation.

    • Stephen Knight

      You may be right, but the things you take issue with are not things I’ve said, or disagreed with. I’m incredibly dubious about Islamic reform & I don’t disagree with what you’ve just said. I’m simply advocating being an ally to reformers rather than throwing them under the bus with the Islamists. Surely that can’t hurt the chance of progress.

      • Abdallah Elsabrouti

        I wasn’t quite able to get my point across as well as I should have. My apologies. My point was why should we even empower reformers when we know their arguments have a weak theological basis and would never sway your average imam from teaching the usual brand of islam to kids? To make matters worse, the quran has verses that explicity condemns people that are hypocrites by islamic standards (going to a strip club is included, I am afraid) and that the quran is supposedly the pure, literal word of allah and can’t be changed. With this all in mind, why even bother empowering reformists when the very best they would do is just form an extreme minority splinter sect that no devout muslim will ever take seriously?

        • Is it necessary that a minority splinter sect be formed? I work with a large Canadian Muslim population, most of whom have never actually read the quran, and who are astonished to hear that there are violent texts. Those who have read it have concluded on their own that they can ignore what is no longer relevant. I’ve just assumed that they are a little ahead of their European and Middle Eastern brethren, who will inevitably follow the same path. I see Quilliam as providing the tools to hasten the transition. Am I being naive?

          • Abdallah Elsabrouti

            You seem to be ignoring the power of radical preachers over in european mosques. Mosque funding comes from the gulf states most of the time and we both know the islam their favoured imams will go by.

          • Stephen Knight

            I’m not ignoring anything. I specifically mentioned the Ayatollahs and Imams.

            Again. I’m not even saying reform is possible, or probable. I’m entirely sceptical on that front. I’m simply saying it’s still a good idea to support liberal, progressive Muslims.

        • Stephen Knight

          Every single thing you have raised here is addressed in my article. Please read it again. Going forward, could you please quote the specific points you disagree with, or you think are untrue from my article.

          It’s not that you’re wrong about the things you’re saying, it’s just that they seem to be in response to points I’m not actually making.

          • Abdallah Elsabrouti

            “Religion, despite what the believer may tell you, has always been fluid. Oral dictation, alteration, translation, reinterpretation and reformation are religious themes as much as anything. Secular, progressive Muslims are not asking for anything new here. Sure, the Ayatollahs and the Imams will dismiss the reformers as apostates. But that’s exactly why it’s important to empower the reformers in order to diminish the influence of the literalist theocrat”.

            What makes you think that differing flavours of apostate (reformists and ex-muslims alike) and kuffar empowering each other will diminish the influence of theocrats and their crap they sponsor in European mosques?

          • Stephen Knight

            Empowering progressive/liberal Muslims and making them the mainstream creates more influence for them and will undoubtedly increase their numbers. For every young Muslim that then chooses to subscribe to this narrative instead of whatever their local mosque is peddling, that’s one small step to diminishing the influence of the literalist.

            Again, reform may be unrealistic. I certainly won’t see it in my lifetime – I’m simply suggesting it makes more sense to support progressive Muslims than to denigrate them as ‘apostates’ as you just did.

  • First of all, kudos Mr. Knight for having Maajid Nawaz on your blog.

    As a nitpicker, I would like to find fault with his argument, but I can’t. Plus, I haven’t seen a superior alternative to Quilliam’s as a counter extremist narrative.

  • Reforming Islam does not mean cherry-picking benign verses.

    Most moderate Muslims don’t read the Quran or care much about piety. But they also feel somewhat guilty about it. They know that the Quran is for all times even though they don’t follow it literally. They believe that Sharia is the best code of conduct for humanity and superior to any other man made legal or political system. They vehemently defend Islam (often out of guilt to compensate for not being pious enough) when critics or reformers point out the need for reform. Call for reform is seen as an affront, reformers are seen as apostates.

    Islam is unlike Christianity or Judaism in that questioning the fundamental doctrines and actions of the prophet is simply not allowed. Moderate Muslims can cherry-pick all they want (in fact that’s what they do), but that’s not going to be enough unless the infallibility of scripture is not challenged.

    Only arguing about interpretation is not going to eradicate Jihadism or Islamism because even moderate Muslims know that Jihad, Sharia and global caliphate are core tenets of Islam. They are taught this from early childhood. So they grow up believing it even though they don’t read scripture. They buy into and propagate the victimhood narrative, conspiracy theories and end of the world prophecy. They dream of the day when Islam will reign supreme.

    • Stephen Knight

      I’m only arguing that we should afford Muslims the privilege to cherry pick (as other religions do) rather than denigrate them for it. This can’t harm the ‘reform’ process. I agree, it isn’t the only solution though. It will take a lot of different approaches to reform Islam, and that’s if it’s even possible at all, which I’m sceptical of.

  • Abdallah Elsabrouti

    Stephen, you misunderstood me.
    I did not mean to denigrate reformist muslims as apostates. I wanted to portray how they are seen by mainstream conservative Muslims. Mainstream conservative Muslims don’t differentiate between the ex-muslim and the liberal Muslim. If mainstream conservative Muslims see liberal Muslims as apostates, you just might as well take an extra step and become an ex-muslim like myself.

  • But the whole point is they cant cherrypick because they all believe that every word of the Koran is the literal command of God. That is why their religion was seen as indisputable and took off so rapidly in the 7th century, it is the absolute foundation of everything they believe in., . But that strength, after 1400 years has become its greatest weakness and is a straight jacket that traps them all in the sands of antiquity for evermore. I only wish they could cherry pick and I wish they could reform but they cant do that until they face the unpalatable fact that the entire Koran is not the absolute word of God and if they actually knew everything in it, they would realise that it, like all the other Holy books, paints a very poor picture of God. Sadly I cant see that happening so I dont know the answer, only Muslims can find their way out of this mess and just because they are getting mixed messages in both ears that’s a pretty feeble excuse for doing Nothing. After all arent all believers supposed to be persecuted even to death for their beliefs? Others certainly were, surely they are not afraid of a few controversial arguments?

What do you think? Leave some comments!