One of the vanguards of this forgotten trend was an intellectual group in the late Ottoman Empire – which then covered almost the whole Muslim Middle East – called Young Ottomans. (Not to be confused with the later Young Turks, who were more secular and nationalist.) The Young Ottomans were both pious Muslims and committed liberals, who believed that the only cure to Muslim societies was to import the liberal democracy of the West and re-articulate it in Islamic terms.
The most prominent Young Ottoman was Namık Kemal, who saw liberty as the secret of the West’s ascendance, but also believed that Islam had the same ideal in its core. “Being created free by Allah, man is naturally obliged to benefit from this divine gift,” he wrote in his journal Hürriyet (“Freedom”) in 1868. “[Thus] state authority should be realized in the way which will least limit the freedom of the individual.”
Thanks to such idealistic calls, and also the pragmatic need to keep the multi-religious empire intact, the Ottoman State, the very seat of the Muslim Caliphate, realized very important reforms in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The powers of the sultan were limited by law, while citizen’s rights were guaranteed. Non-Muslim peoples of the empire, who used to be “protected” but unequal according to classical Islamic law, gained the status of equal citizenship.
Perhaps the new “Arab Spring” is a revival of the Young Ottomans.