The Muslim world has historically been subject to movements of both reform and renewal. Only the most shallow reading of its history could maintain that social, economic, and political structures haven’t changed, and along with them the way in which Muslims imagine what it means to be a Muslim in a Muslim world.
Yet Muslims, and indeed all peoples, respond to the challenges of their situation within what Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary,” the range of possible social structures that the members of a society can imagine. Even in the Christian West the social imaginary of different societies (England and France for example) were strikingly different in the 18th and 19th centuries. The development of modern democratic societies thus took place at both a different pace, in remain characterized by different institutional forms and different ways in which the citizens of these countries relate to those institutions.
The Muslim world is not only as varied as Europe was in the 18th century, but the social imaginaries found within it vary considerably from those present in the modern West. And the place where they vary most is in the concept of personal choice in relation to religiously motivated participation in public life.
Taylor points out that the “public sphere” in the modern Western social imaginary is the place where a vast variety of different opinions and viewpoints engage in discussion of social issues. In the western social imaginary what emerges from this discussion will be the most rational and representative choices for the society as a whole. And these will be legitimate precisely because of the mechanism (public discourse) out of which they arose.
For this social imaginary to have arisen at least three socially shared convictions need to emerge.