Things will get highly problematic if one tries to assess whether liberalism can be adopted—in a way or another—by Muslim societies.
I am the last one on earth to judge or give any affirmative position on such a possibility: I am neither a theologian nor a Muslim. At the end of the day, such an inquiry should be left to Muslims, if and only if they want to find whether liberalism would be suitable for their social, political and economic progress.
As a classical liberal Jordanian, I have the following notes, which, again, do not necessarily follow to be correct or precise:
Across the desolate Middle East, the development of political thought has become depleted, in a region still surviving on past ‘glories.’ There exists a dearth of Arabic sources—including works of translation—of liberal philosophy, along with its political, economic and social derivatives. Thus, before studying the economics, politics, sociology, and culture of liberalism, we have to acknowledge the fact that people in the Middle East are not trained to differ in thought and opinion, coexist within a framework of difference, or even resolve their differences. Within such a framework, and based on all of these principles, it is highly unlikely to witness the offshoots of liberalism in Muslim societies.
The Mu’tazilla of eighth-century Iraq were the earliest Muslims to be called ‘liberal’ by Western scholars. They referred to themselves “the partisans of reason and justice” and believed that humans must be left free to succeed or fail in the exercise of their God-given free will. They died out as a coherent movement when, having acceded to power, they insisted that only people who shared this view should be allowed to hold positions in government, sparking a rebellion against their insistence that all participants in the political process take a “loyalty oath.”
The most consistent of the many free-market economists in Islamic history is Ibn Khaldun. In his Muqaddimah, he argued that civilizations rise and fall because of their adherence to, or departure from, principles of justice, including freedom of trade and protection of property. He anticipated what in recent years has been called “supply side economics,” by asserting that, in their beginnings, dynasties raise large revenues from low tax rates and, at their end, raise small revenues from high tax rates. He warned that government intervention into commerce would bring the ruin of a dynasty.
Historically, some Islamic ‘modernists’ (e.g. Jamal-ad-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu) contended against extremist wings which were inspired by ultraconservatives (e.g. Muhammad ibn Abdul-Wahhab) and radicals (e.g. Sayyid Qutb). Al-Afghani, Abdu, and Abdul-Wahhab were all examples of “Salafi thinkers,” meaning those who wished to return to original sources in order to reform Islamic thought from an ossified tradition. The liberals among such thinkers have had a limited influence, mainly on other intellectuals, whereas the conservative followers of Abdul-Wahhab have been so influential that recently commentators have used the broader term (Salafi) as if it applied only to the conservatives.
Nowadays, people in the Middle East have come to speak in an extinct language which entails political life does not have meaning at all. Time has transcended discussion of self-evident issues and cannot tolerate fundamentalists. The Middle East forces one to be a doctrinaire in all cases and, hence, you find anyone who has been reared in a certain type of dogma to be shifting quickly and comfortably to another set of dogmas!
Before testing its merits and applicability, Muslims should be versed on the liberal heritage in its entirety. They should be exposed to the totality of liberal ideas as articulated by its principal exponents and philosophers and pause against the background of the floundering which the West has witnessed at all levels.
Liberal political life will falter if not grounded in three cardinal elements, namely, the absolute faith in liberal democracy, pursuing the latter through a culture and advocacy of pluralism, embodying the right to differ while accepting the other for what she/he is and what she/he believes in. Other than that, it is a waste of time.