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Bert de Ruiter

Engaging with Muslims (III): Ways of being Muslim in Europe

Fundamentalist Muslims, Reformed Muslims, Converted Muslims, Secular Muslims... There are at least 11 ways this faith is lived out in Europe. 

ENGAGING MUSLIMS AUTHOR Bert de Ruiter 28 MARCH 2017 11:02 h GMT+1
quran, Islam Photo: Rudolph Langer (Pixabay, CC)

Read part I and part II of this in-depth analysis article by Bert de Ruiter.


I have identified several ways of being Muslim in Europe. [1]

1. ‘Angry’ Muslims

2. Converted Muslims

3. ‘Cool’ Muslims

4. Critical Muslims

5. Ex-Muslims

6. Folk Muslims

7. Fundamentalist Muslims

8. Liberal Muslims

9. Progressive Muslims

10. Reformist Muslims

11. Secular Muslims


‘Angry’ Muslims

An influential group of Muslims in Europe can be classified under the term ‘Angry Muslims. Other words to describe them are “Wahhabists”, “Salafists”, “Jihadis”, or “radical Muslims”.

Salafists (=“righteous predecessors”) draw their legitimacy from the Hadith. Of particular interest to them is the hadith that says: “The Prophet said: The best people are those living in my generation, then those coming after them, and then those coming after.”  Salafists look back to the Prophet and his companions for strict instructions on how to live a religious life. Salafists want to purify Islam from cultural influences.

‘Angry Muslims’ renounce modern society and want to return to the golden age of Mohammad and his followers. They often isolate themselves to avoid contamination by European infidels. ‘Angry Muslims’ have caused harm to themselves and others in Europe through their use of violence. ‘Angry Muslims’ consider good Muslims to be religiously conservative, to wear the hijab, to follow strict gender separation, avoid promiscuity, and limit their relations with non-Muslims or Muslims who do not behave like them. In contrast, they consider bad Muslims to have been ‘contaminated’ by the Western lifestyle and values and, therefore, in need of purification.

In Europe there are ‘Angry Muslims’ that have migrated here and others that have grown up here. Reliable data on the size and influence of radical groups are difficult to come by. Some estimates have suggested that the number of ‘Angry Muslims active’ in jihadi cells or networks in Europe has never exceeded more than several hundred. One report estimated that there were 28 active jihadi networks in Europe from 2001-2006. Among radical Muslims there is a significant portion of converts. Most of the ‘Angry Muslims’ are not (or no longer) related to local mosques.


Converted Muslims

Converted Muslims are Europeans from non-Islamic background that have converted to Islam. Some reports claim that in England about 5.000 people convert to Islam every year and in Germany and France about 4,000 each year. So far, converted Muslims make up less than 1% of all Muslims in Europe. Exact data is not available.

Although their numbers are relatively small, they are highly visible in the media. Within the group, there are two trends: a) an activist and at times polemical and outspoken anti-Western trend; b) a mystically oriented, quietist trend. In Westernizing Islam a very active role is played by converts. For instance, a large majority of web pages on the Internet dealing with Islam can be linked to young Muslim converts.

Researchers, who have looked at several websites promoting conversion to Islam, gave the following reasons why people convert to Islam:  a) spiritual poverty;  b) curiosity about Islam; c) unlike Christianity, Islam makes sense to them; d) Islam is in agreement with modern science; e) Islam is an egalitarian religion, blind to the racial prejudices so common to Western culture; f) one betters himself upon embracing Islam, doing away with adverse personal and social behavior; g) influence of other Muslims; h) marriage.


‘Cool’ Muslims[2]

In Europe, an Islamic youth culture is emerging. These ‘Cool Muslims’ combine Europe culture and religious expressions, and thereby showing one’s pride in being Muslim. They are looking for new ways to express their Islamic faith. The values ‘Cool Muslims’ often convey are considered anti-liberal, presented in a liberal form; for example, gender segregation is practised on many occasions. Also, the proselytising aspect is very dominant and sometimes suggests a superiority of Islam to other faiths and convictions.

‘Cool Muslims’ choose a lifestyle, patterns of behavior, products, consumption patterns that differ greatly from their parents and are also quite different from their non-Muslim peers. Among them are fashionable trends in veiling, the consumption of halal products (Halal Fried Chicken, Mecca Cola; but also halal shampoo etc). Some download ringtone voicing a sure from the Qur’an. Others decorate their bedrooms with Qur’anic calligraphy stickers. Some attend events such as Islamic fashion shows, religious entertainment evenings, religious concerts,  Islamic healing session etc.

In ‘Cool’ Islam modernity and religion are merged, fun and faith can go together. We can see Islamic youth culture particularly manifested in the areas of music, fashion and media.

The Muslim hip-hop and R&B scene has become a highly popular musical genre among Muslim youngsters. This Muslim hip-hop includes Islamic ethics and aesthetics in its form and content. Islamic stand-up comedians, not only deal with topics familiar to Muslims, but also leave certain other topics out, such as the many references to sex. 

Also fashion plays an important role. This can be seen in fashionable headscarf styles. Several companies offer sportive street wear, using T-shirts as an advertising board for one’s convictions. Slogans or symbols that bear an Islamic message are printed on the fashion items. E.g. a T-shirt with “I love my Prophet” or the popular Juma –Friday (the day of prayer), which resembles the sports brand Puma, but replaces the jumping puma with a praying person. Also in arts & media we find various means of Islamic expression. There are Islamic graffiti artists who spray large murals saying Dhikr (Remembrance of God) or Iqra (Read; the first revealed word of the Quran).  

One finds also new expressions of ‘Cool Muslims’ through magazines and both Europe-wide as well as in several countries in Europe, Muslim Youth Organisations are established. They organize youth camps with a mix of religious education and entertainment. Many Muslim youth are not so much connected to local mosques but have their ‘fellowship’ through web forums, internet platforms or youth agencies.   


Critical Muslims 

Critical Muslims are Muslims, who do not understand “Islam” as a set of pieties and taboos. They embrace the diversity of contemporary Islam in all its complexity. However, they challenge all interpretations of Islam: traditionalist, modernist, fundamentalist and apologetic, to develop new readings with the potential for social, cultural and political transformation of the Muslim world.

Critical Muslims are critical in the sense of being sceptical of received ideas. For critical Muslims, Islam and the West are not two opposites, but interdependent world views and cultures. They look at both critically and seek to synthesise what is best in both.

Critical Muslims are concerned that the lack of support for the right to critical thought has contributed to tolerance of often violent forms of extremism. Critical Muslims do not consider themselves to be newcomers. They believe that criticism has been central to Islam from its inception.  Critical Muslims are upset that Islam has been hijacked by extremists, and are eager to contribute towards change and reform.

They look for a more pluralistic future for Islam and believe that the realisation of such future depends on looking at Islam’s history, tradition, legacy, theology, societies and cultures, critically. Many critical Muslims embrace humanism and pluralism, believing that thereby they can help solve the pressing social and cultural problems of European societies. Critical Muslims have faced opposition and condemnation. Some of their opponents state Islam needs no criticism and others declare that critical Muslims are heretics. Several critical Muslims are publishing magazines, some of which are banned in some Islamic countries.



Throughout Europe we find a growing number of ex-Muslims or Apostates. These are people who have renounced their Islamic faith, without converting to something else. The three major destinations appear to be atheism, agnosticism, and Christianity. Ex-Muslims are people that self-identify as apostates, not those that others believe are apostates, simply because they disagree with what they consider to be orthodox Islam.  

As far as gender is concerned, the great majority (70%) of those leaving Islam (at least whose testimonies are recorded) are men, which is intriguing considering how frequently the status of women in Islam is cited as an intellectual motivation for leaving the religion. In terms of geography, or cultural zones, generally speaking, most of these conversions are occurring in countries/regions where Muslims are more likely to have immediate contact with members of other religions, be they missionaries or an indigenous non-Muslim majority. Research reveal that two major reasons for leaving Islam, are:  a) The status of women in Islam; b) The cruel, oppressive and backward behavior of Muslims.

Other reasons given are: the contradiction between Shari‘a and Human Rights; the problematic nature of the Qur’an; the character of the Prophet and other Muslim leaders; Islam is seen as illogical and unscientific; the eternal damnation of good non-Muslims; the unnecessary, strict rules and expectations of Islam; the dubious historicity of the Qur’an and Hadith.

“For the apostate, the decision to renounce Islam is a daunting one and is taken after a prolonged and often agonizing period of sustained reflection and self-questioning and self-doubt. But no less daunting and agonizing is the decision to ‘come out’ as an apostate or disbeliever, since it involves the feelings, sensitivities and reactions of others.”[3]

Among Muslims, Ex-Muslims are often described as: imposters –they were never truly Muslims in the first place; mistaken, confused, deluded –they lack knowledge of Islam or misunderstand its beliefs; unserious – it is a temporary phase, out of which they would return to the fold once they had recovered their senses; morally depraved –they leave Islam because of their worthless desires (e.g. drinking); people with a depraved moral character; crazy –their apostasy has been caused by affliction, trauma or tragedy.

In several countries in Europe Councils of Ex Muslims are being established. These councils aim to break the taboo that comes with renouncing Islam and to oppose apostasy laws and political Islam.


Folk Muslims

Although not really a stream within Islam, we cannot ignore the importance of so-called Folk Islam. In the daily life of Folk Muslims, orthodox convictions go hand in hand with practices, which probably find their origin in pre-Islamic times. Such practices involve customs regarding birth, puberty, marriage and funerals, etc. Also practices have to do with protection against misfortune (Muslims sometimes refer to the so-called “evil eye”). When a woman is barren, sometimes one seeks help from intersession from Muslim saints who have died. Also, dreams, predictions, blessings and curses, play an important role in the daily life of many Folk Muslims.


Fundamentalist Muslims

Other words that are being used to describe fundamentalist Muslims are: ‘Islamists’, ‘Islamic revivalists’ or ‘Muslim puritans’.  Fundamentalist Muslims are found in a variety of brands, shapes and sizes. Generally speaking, fundamentalist Muslims are austere, literal, orthodox, and scriptural. Fundamentalist Muslims are known for their fidelity to the Qur’an. It is puritanical and deplores all folk Islam or popular practices and innovations. 

It is important to differentiate between fundamentalist Muslims and Angry Muslims. Generally speaking, we might say that all Angry Muslims are fundamentalist Muslims, but not all fundamentalist Muslims are Angry Muslims.

Fundamentalist Muslims accept modern society but want to reform it in a fundamentalist direction, through political involvement and preaching. Fundamentalist Muslims seek to preserve divine origins and Islamic traditions while adapting to current conditions and borrowing from the West. They seek to permeate Islam every dimension of daily social and cultural life.

Among fundamentalist Muslims one can identify several sub-groups, such as:

a) missionary fundamentalists, who appeal to Muslims to return to a purer form of Islam; many of them reject politics and choose to reform social behavior and religious practice

b) political fundamentalists, who seek to restore Islam through politics. They want to replace secular law with some version of Sharia;

c) pietist fundamentalists are separatists, dedicated to religious study, emphasizing peaceful methods of propagation and education. Pietists reject association with ‘ infidels’  and pledge their primary loyalty not to their country but to the ummah, the worldwide Muslim community.


Liberal Muslims

Liberal Muslims are committed to liberal and modern values, such as opposition to theocracy, support for democracy, guarantees of the rights of women and non-Muslims in Islamic societies, defense of freedom of thought, and belief in the potential for human progress.

Liberal Muslims have respect for the Qur’an, the life of Mohammed, the example of the first Muslims and the Sharia, however they reevaluate the significance of all these for modern life. Many liberal Muslims view the Qur’an and God’s supreme revelation to mankind, but they do not interpret it literally. Liberal Muslims are critical of customary Islam and revivalist Islamic traditions and maintain that Islam is compatible with the spirit of modernity if interpreted properly. 

Liberal Muslims particularly focus on issues such as justice, the status of women, ethical monotheism, social solidarity and charity. It seems that liberal scholars have not been able to develop a liberal wing within Islam in Europe, unlike other streams within Islam in Europe. On the other hand, more and more books and other media outlets in which liberal Islam is described are becoming available. Among liberal Muslims one finds a heterogeneous group of people and thoughts. Some have identified the following streams within liberal Islam: 

a) Brute-Force Liberal Islam -- that separates religious law from public life and politics without attempting an adequate theological explanation of how or why it is justified in religion.

b) Liberal Sharia--  liberal Muslims that believe that Qur'an and Sunnah if properly understood are already liberal in nature. This is considered the most influential form of liberal Islam.

c) Silent Sharia -- liberal Muslims who believe that Qur'an and Sunnah are silent on a number of matters. This silence gives space for progress within Islam.

d) Quranists liberals Muslims who claim that the Qur'an alone is valid as a source of Islamic law. They reject the Hadith. Being restricted to the Quran allows for greater leverage than having to deal with the whole of Shariah, and also allows for more creative ways of interpretation.

e) Contextual Islam -- liberal Muslims who believe that the legal, moral and social dictates of Islamic law are context dependent, and therefore subject to modification with change in context.

f) Interpreted Sharia -- iberal Muslims who believe that Shari'a is divinely revealed, but the interpretations are human and fallible and can be subjected to critique. They argue that interpretation is always based on human perspective and therefore cannot be granted a universal applicability, even though the scripture is divine.

g) Essence Islam -- liberal Muslims who strip Islam to its bare essence and believe that to follow Islam is not to follow the rules of Sharia, which are human sociopolitical developments, rather it is to follow the essence of what Islam prescribes, such as morality, rationality, justice, modesty, etc., i.e. to be a good human being.

Mystical Muslims

Mystical Muslims are part of Sufism, a large stream within Islam. It originates in early Islam.

Historically Mystical Muslims were organized into a number of brotherhoods or mystical orders, each with its own religious rites, saintly lineage and leadership structure. The head of each order, generally a hereditary position represented a spiritual genealogy tracing back to Muhammad.

Although many Sufi orders have been brought into Europe through Muslim immigrants, some orders, such as the Bektashis of Albania, Bulgaria and Macedonia, have been present in the region since the Middle Ages.

Mystical Muslims believe in the Qur’an and the Sunnah, but place more emphasis on the inner life and mystical union with God, than on outward obedience to religious duties. Mystical Muslims may take part in prayer services in mosques together with other Muslims, but many also have their own gatherings.

Mystical Muslims emphasize individualism, stress mysticism; have limited interest in Islamic law, strive for equality between the sexes, focus on music and dance and desire to seek oneness with God. Mystical Muslims represent the inward-looking, mystical dimension of Islam, they mix mainstream religious observances, such as prayers, with a range of supplementary spiritual practices, such as the ritual chanting of God’s attributes or the veneration of saints.

Mystical Muslims emphasize personal spirituality and this seems to fit neatly with secular European notions that religion should be reserved for private life rather than for the public square.

Given the pervasiveness of Sufi orders in Europe, and the often informal nature of their influence, it can be difficult to determine their actual size. In addition, while some Muslims choose to formally join a particular order, others may opt for a more informal relationship, treating the heads of Sufi orders as respected spiritual guides rather than as formal religious leaders. Nevertheless, Sufism’s influence is strong. France is often mentioned as the European country with the strongest Sufi presence. There is a very significant number of Sufi orders in Britain.  In Germany  up to 15% of Turkish immigrants and 20% of German-born Turks are thought to be active members of Sufi-based organizations Also in the Balkans and Russia the influence there is a long history of Sufism that extends to the present day..

There is a growing enthusiasm for Islamic mysticism in Europe. Some researches see the development of a Euro-Sufism, which shows itself as a more universalistic form of Sufism, meaning that they have a generally religious rather than an exclusively Islamic view of life.


Progressive Muslims

In Europe there is a growing number of progressive Muslims. Other terms used to describe progressive Muslims are: “modernist Muslims”, “enlightened rationalists” or “Islamic humanists”.

“Being a progressive Muslim means not simply thinking more about the Qur’an and the life of the Prophet, but also thinking about the life we share on this planet with all human beings and all living creatures. Seen in this light, our relationship to the rest of humanity changes the way we think about God, and vice versa.” (Omid Safi)

Progressive Muslims strive for an Islam that is relevant for the 21st century and that is in harmony with Western society. They are forward-thinking Muslims. Among progressive Muslims one can find a variety of opinions, for example the book Progressive Muslims is written by 15 different people, who have different opinions on many things. What progressive Muslims have in common is their love for Islam and their rejection of conservative interpretations of the Qur’an and Sunnah and their rejection of Jihadism.

Progressive Muslims believe in separation of church and state. They believe in a critical and individualistic reading of the Quran and other Islamic sources. They desire gender equality. They consider a burqa as a cultural, not a religious custom.

Most progressive Muslims are not opposed to interfaith marriages. They emphasis the importance of Human Rights, freedom of expression and the dignity and social justice of all human being irrespective of beliefs and gender. Progressive Muslims emphasize the use of reason in interpreting the Qur’an and Sunnah. Progressive Muslims are ecumenical, open and tolerant.

Progressive Muslims conceive of a way of being Muslim that engages and affirms the humanity of all human beings, that actively holds all of us responsible for a fair and just distribution of our God-given natural resources, and that seeks to live in harmony with the natural world.

Progressive Muslims challenge, resist and seek to overthrow the structures of injustice that they consider part of Islamic thought. They criticize not because they have stopped being Muslim, but because they want to see the Muslim communities rise up to their highest potential of justice and pluralism. In several European countries one can find organisations of progressive Muslims.


Reformist Muslims

It can be argued that many of the other streams (liberal, progressive, critical) within the Muslim community in Europe are, in one way or the other, reforming Islam. Nevertheless, I believe it is important to also include this category of reformist Muslims in the palette of Islam in Europe.

“Muslim voices of reform… represent a diverse collection of Muslims: men and women, laity and clergy, professionals, scholars and popular preachers.” [4]

All Muslim reformers seek to link their proposed changes with the long-held Islamic beliefs and traditions. Also, they seek to distinguish between the universal and the particular, between the unchanging prescriptions of God and Muslim cultures and traditions that are subject to change.

“Faithfulness to principles cannot involve faithfulness to historical models because time change, societies and political and economic systems become more complex, and in every age, it is in fact necessary to think of a model appropriate to each social and cultural reality.”[5]

Three important and influential Muslim reformers in Europe are: Soheid Bencheikh, who calls for a reform of Islamic theology; Tariq Ramadan, who pleads to reform Islamic law; Bassam Tibi, who seeks to reform Islamic practice.

Soheib Bencheikh

Soheib Bencheikh calls for a thorough reform of Islamic theology, which he calls anachronistic.

Soheib Bencheikh of Algerian background is Mufti in Marseille, France. His explicit aim is the harmonious integration of Islam, and a search for compatibility of its re-read original message with French laicism. He believes that the idea of laicism has not yet been adequately understood in the Muslim world. He proposes the term "religious neutrality." Bencheikh pleads to read the Qur’an in light of the “recognition of what the dominating intelligence at a given time and in a given surrounding has acknowledged as good."  It is therefore a relative concept, open to change, and provides the opportunity for Muslims to develop a theology of minority.

Tariq Ramadan

Tariq Ramadan is a grandson of Hasan al-Banna, the founder of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In his desire to modernize Islam in the European context he concentrates on Islamic law. Ramadan’s main concern is to help bring about a European identity of Islam. His aim is to show Muslims a middle path between adoption of Western standards and forgetting Islam and the withdrawal to a rigid and formalistic interpretation of Islam, on the other. He pleads for the development of Islamic jurisprudence on the European level and an Islamic conception of modernity. He believes that renovation of the law and its application to the European environment means an uncompromising return to pristine Islam, an Islam that has to be purged of all accidental and secondary influences of its traditional interpreters. He calls for a return to the ideal state of early Islam. He identifies the actual foundation of Muslim identity in "the significance of being Muslim, proceeding from the Islamic principles, free from their specific cultural forms." To be a European Muslim in his understanding is to apply the absolute and transcendental principles of the Islamic religion in a European context.

Bassam Tibi 

Bassam Tibi, born in Damascus in 1944 has been a professor in Germany since 1973. Tibi emphasizes the pluralistic nature of Islam and believes this opens the door of interpreting Islam to suit its European contextual  surroundings. Tibi focuses on developing a modernized interpretation of Islam. Tibi wants to create an opening for the full integration of Muslims into European society, based on social equality. He develops Euro-Islam, “a cultural pattern of Islam adjusted to the political culture of civil society and to the separation between culture and politics.” Tibi recognizes that Muslims can integrate into their European surroundings, but not without reinterpreting Islam and what it means to be Muslim.

Tibi suggests reforming Islam to make it compatible with the core aspects of European cultural modernity, which Tibi defines in part as embracing pluralism and accepting democracy, individual human rights, and civil society. Tibi recognizes that the process of making Islam compatible with European norms and values includes revising, and potentially abandoning, the worldviews of an Orthodox Islam that is centered on religious practice; the process can be performed primarily through religious reforms that include a re-examination of aspects of religious observance and a critical reading of their textual sources.


Secular Muslims

Although the term “secular Muslim” is not an identity that has been acknowledged, accepted or expected in today’s world, secular Muslims exist. Other words used are ‘cultural Muslims’ or ‘nominal’ Muslims or ‘Minno’s’ (Muslims in Name Only).

Secular Muslims believe in the inviolable freedom of the individual conscience; the equality of all human persons; the separation of religion from state and the observance of universal human rights.

Among secular Muslims one finds a variety of people. There are secular Muslims who are nominal, cultural and for whom being Muslim is no more than an outside layer. Other secular Muslims are purposefully secular Muslims, meaning that they are critical of orthodox Islam and don’t mind to condemn Islamic practices that in their opinion violate human reason or Human Rights. Secular Muslims are united by a lack of indoctrination, a belief in personal freedom and a similar accident of birth and want to forge a positive and progressive future for Muslims worldwide.

I am someone who isn’t really religious and my worldview isn’t necessarily informed by the religious text, but I participate in traditional Muslim celebrations, like Eid, I enjoy visiting shrines of Sufi Saints and I respect the Muslim traditions surrounding birth, marriage and death. I do not think I have to give up that label just because I am not religiously inclined as being a Muslim is. It can be a cultural identity rather than just a religious one, and I can not give up this cultural identity even if I tried—it doesn’t have to be an either/or situation.

By accident of birth, being Muslim was thrust upon me....The few Islamic Center meetings I attended at college would invariably extend into speeches about the Palestinian conflict, the Kashmir conflict, the Chechnya conflict, the Bosnian conflict. Somewhat dispassionate about such issues, I chose to define myself as an undefined creature with no real place in society: the secular Muslim.[6]

The Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society[7] has been formed to promote the ideas of rationalism, secularism, democracy and human rights within Islamic society. It promotes freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, freedom of intellectual and scientific inquiry, freedom of conscience and religion – including the freedom to change one’s religion or belief - and freedom from religion: the freedom not to believe in any deity.

This is part III of a four-part in-depth article. Read part I and part II. Evangelical Focus will publish part IV next week. 


Bert de Ruiter, Consultant of Christian-Muslim Relations OM Europe and European Evangelical Alliance.

[1] This is in no way a complete list but suffices to exemplify the plurality of Islam in Europe.

[2] The term Cool Muslims is taken from Maruta Herding’s book “Inventing the Muslim Cool: Islamic Youth Culture in Western Europe.”

[3] Simon Cottee, The Apostates –when Muslims Leave Islam, C. Hurst & Co, Londen, 2015, page 80

[4] Esposito, The Future of Islam, page 93

[5] Tariq Ramadan, quoted in Esposito, The Future of Islam, page 95  

[6]   Posted on   by a Pakistani student pursuing his masters degree from Columbia University. He wishes to remain anonymous in order avoid any difficulties upon returning to Pakistan.

[7] The Institute of the Secularization of the Islamic Society




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