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The relation and compatibility of the phenomenon of modernity, its related concepts and ideas, with the religion of Islam is a topic of discussion in contemporary sociology of religion.

Neither Islam nor modernity are simple or unified entities. They are abstract quantities which could not be reduced into simple categories. The history of Islam, like that of other religions, is a history of different interpretations and approaches to Islam. "There is no a-historical Islam that is outside the process of historical development." Similarly, modernity is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon rather than a unified and coherent phenomenon. It has historically had different schools of thoughts moving in many directions. [1]


History of Islamic modernism


European influence

Modernity swept through Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, following the Reformation of the Christian church in the previous two centuries. Power shifted from religious leaders to a growing civil service, with a deliberate separation of church and state. Respect for science grew with each new discovery. This led to scientific ideals such as rationality and empiricism being applied to society itself, changing industry, schools, and commerce. Political philosophy flourished under the banner of the Age of Reason.

The Crimean War marked a major alliance between Christian and Islamic powers. The Ottoman Empire co-operated with France and Britain against Russia, and benefited from outside ideas about weapons and medicine. [2]. After the war, Muslim scholars became more interested in the West. This interest went beyond military technology and included European law, science, and art.

Islamic modernists until 1918

Turkey was the first Muslim country where modernity surfaced, with major shifts in scientific and legal thought. [3] In 1834, Ishak Efendi published Mecmua-i Ulum-i Riyaziye, a four volume text introducing many modern scientific concepts to the Muslim world. Kudsi Efendi also published Asrar al-Malakut in 1846 in an attempt to reconcile Copernican astronomy with Islam. The first modern Turkish chemistry text was published in 1848, and the first modern Biology text in 1865. [4]. Eventually, the Turks adopted the metric system in 1869. These shifts in scientific thought coincided with Tanzimat, a reform policy undertaken by the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire that was inspired by French civil law. This reform confined sharia to family law. [3] The key figure in the Turkish modernist movement was Namik Kemal, the editor of a journal called Freedom. His goal was to promote freedom of the press, the separation of powers, equality before the law, scientific freedom, and a reconciliation between parliamentary democracy and the Qur'an[3].

In 19th century Iran, Mirza Malkom Khan arrived after being educated in Paris. He created a newspaper called Qanun, where he advocated the separation of powers, secular law, and a bill of rights[4]. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, also educated in France, proclaimed that Europe had become successful due to its laws and its science. He became critical of other Muslim scholars for stifling scientific thought[5], and hoped to encourage scientific inquiry in the Muslim world.

Muhammad Abduh became a leading judge in Egypt, after political activities and studies in Paris. He pushed for secular law, religious reform, and education for girls.[5] He hoped that Egypt would ultimately become a free republic, much like how France had transformed from an absolute monarchy. [6] Muhammad Rashid Rida also became active in the Egyptian modernization movement, although he was born and educated in Lebanon. Al-Manar was his journal, through which he advocated greater openness to science and foreign influence[6]. He also stated that sharia was relatively silent about agriculture, industry, and trade, and that these areas of knowledge needed renewal[6]. Qasim Amin was another reformer in Egypt heavily concerned with the rights of women.

Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi was similarly educated in Paris around the same time. He surveyed the political systems of 21 European countries in an effort to reform Tunisia.[4]

Other major Islamic modernists included Mahmud Tarzi of Afghanistan, Sayyid Khan of India, Achmad Dachlan of Java, and Wang Jingshai of China.[4]

Impact of early Islamic modernists

The influence of modernism in the Islamic world resulted in a cultural revival.[6] Dramatic plays became more common, as did newspapers. Notable European works were analyzed and translated.

Legal reform was attempted in Egypt, Tunisia, the Ottoman Empire, and Iran, and in some cases these reforms were adopted. [7] Efforts were made to restrict the power of government. Polygamy was ended in India. [8] Azerbaijan granted suffrage to women in 1918 (before several European countries) [8].

At the recommendations of reform-minded Islamic scholars, western sciences were taught in new schools. [7] Much of this had to do with the intellectual appeal of social Darwinism, since it led to the conclusion that an old-fashioned Muslim society could not compete in the modern world. [7].


The aftermath of World War I resulted in the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the domination of the Middle East by European powers such as Britain and France. Intellectual historians such as Peter Watson suggest that World War I marks the end of the main Islamic modernist movements, and that this is the point where many Muslims "lost faith with the culture of science and materialism" [9]. He goes on to note that several parallel streams emerged after this historical moment.

Continued modernization

In some parts of the world, the project of Islamic modernity continued from the same trajectory before the great war. This was especially the case in the new Republic of Turkey, under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

Political Islam

Certain groups and thinkers openly criticized European ideas, which they saw as a corrupting influence on Islamic thought. By the 1920s this stream of thought began a surge in power, emphasizing a modern society that would not abandon traditional Islamic law.

In British India, the Muslim League had co-operated with Hindu leaders in the Indian National Congress for a few years, with the goal of an independent and unified India. But once the Indian National Congress rejected the idea of separate electorates for Muslims, the divisions with the Muslim League became stronger. Muhammad Iqbal, a philosopher and poet educated in the West, was elected president of the Punjab Muslim League in 1930. Iqbal believed that Islam had traditions that were inseparable from social order, and thus rejected the notion that Muslims ought to blend with other peoples in a secular society. He emphasized traditional rules guided by Islam, along with a philosophy of free will inspired by Nietzsche. This philosophy was a driving force behind the creation of Pakistan as a Muslim state.

In Egypt, Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood.

Arab socialism

On the other hand, Arab socialism of Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party and Nasserite movement emerged as a stream of thought that played down the role of religion. [9].


The Six-Day War between Israel and its neighbours ended in a decisive loss for the Muslim side. Many in the Islamic world saw this as the failure of socialism. It was at this point that "fundamental and militant Islam began to fill the political vacuum created". [9].

Turkey has continued to be at the forefront of modernising Islam. In 2008 its Department of Religious Affairs launched a review of all the hadiths, the sayings of Mohammed upon which most of Islamic law is based The School of Theology at Ankara University undertook this forensic examination with the intent of removing centuries of often conservative cultural baggage and rediscovering the spirit of reason in the original message of Islam. One expert at London's Chatham House compared these revisions to the Christian Reformation. Turkey has also trained hundreds of women as theologians, and sent them senior imams known as vaizes all over the country, away from the relatively liberal capital and coastal cities, to explain these re-interpretations at town hall meetings. [10]

The Middle East, Modernity and the proliferation of Islamic fundamentalism

  • Modern Islamists movements are considered the 'dominant' voice today, though this belies the reality. Some Islamists (the word itself has yet to be well-defined, since there is no overall global "Islamist" movement) have entered the limited democratic processes in the Gulf States, and others, such as those in Pakistan, have long been on the political stage. The vast majority of Muslims remain within, what has been termed, Traditional Islam, which is largely apolitical and accommodationist (and so a subject of criticism from certain activists). Advocates of violence, like Qutb, were opposed to the traditional scholars of al-Azhar Mosque, because they regard them as complicit in the crimes of the secular state. One general feature of Islamist movements is that they advocate creation of "the Islamic state", though this often means "Islamisation" of the modern nation-state.

In general, the first two trends are more commonly understood in the Islamic World whereas the latter trends, are more known in non-Muslim and Muslim-minority nations, or ones receiving substantial aid from developed nations. Some argue that this suggests that these trends are insincere and that alternations between fundamentalism and secular military dictators are somehow inherently part of the politics of the Arab World in particular. One response is that such trends were likewise observed in other regions, e.g. Latin America, with Communism as a form of fundamentalism, and that those regions often democratize once outside interference is limited.

In recent years the world has witnessed the proliferation of Islamic extremist groups all over the world and in the Middle East, who are voicing their dislike of concepts such as democracy and modernity. This is due to the fact that democracy and modernity as concepts in the Middle East, are most commonly associated with imposing Western secular beliefs and values. If considering that about 95% of the population of the Middle East are Muslims and keeping in mind the imperial past of the region, it should come as no surprise that the spread of secularism has caused great concerns among many Islamic political groups. It has indeed been the reasoning for the ‘islamisation of politics and protest’.[11] which has been seen happening across the region. To reiterate, for Islamic countries in the Middle East, there is not necessarily a problem as such with modernity, however, ‘the problem is when modernity comes wrapped with wersternisation, with absolutely and utterly rampant materialism’. [12]
In the book, Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World(1994), the author N. Ayubi continues this debate by explaining, what he believes to be the two main concerns of Islamic political movements and extremist groups in the Middle East; namely the Western belief in a bureaucratic state and secondly, what is mentioned above, the secular values and beliefs associated with concepts such as modernity.[13]

These concerns are exemplified in an interview with the well-known Islamic fundamentalist, Osama Bin Laden who states, after being asked about the message he wants to send to the West:

Their presence [in the Middle East] has no meaning save one and that is to offer support to the Jews an Palestine who are in need of their Christian brothers to achieve full control over the Arab peninsula, which they intend to make an important part of the so called Greater Israel…They rip us of our wealth and of our resources and of our oil. Our religion is under attack. They kill and murder our brothers. They compromise our honor and our dignity and if we dare to utter a single word of protest against the injustice, we are called terrorists.[14]

After September 11, the Western media often has its focus on personalities such as Usama Bin Laden for condemnation, and exaggerate what are often unknown terrorists into forerunners of "Islamic jihad." This causes the creation of stereotypes of Muslims in the Middle East and moreover, results in the grants of prominence to Islamic fundamentalists who might otherwise have been insignificant political characters, and legitimises extremist opinions and views which might otherwise have been shunned by mainstream Muslims. However, as John Esposito notes:

The tendency to judge the actions of Muslims in splendid isolation, to generalize from the actions of the few to the many, to disregard similar excesses committed in the name of other religions and ideologies…is not new.[15]

Yet the number of militant Islamic movements ‘calling for an Islamic state and the end of Western influence is relatively small.’[16]. Nevertheless, these groups are causing great fear among people in the Middle East and in the West. Finding a solution to this problem of fear, will depend not only on how Islam deals with concepts such as modernity, but on how the West deals with Islam.

See also




  1. ^ The Responsibilities of the Muslim Intellectual in the 21st Century, Abdolkarim Soroush
  2. ^ Peter Watson, Modern Mind: An intellectual history of the 20th century (2001), p. 970
  3. ^ a b c Watson (2001) p. 970
  4. ^ a b c d Watson (2001) p. 971
  5. ^ a b Watson (2001) p. 972
  6. ^ a b c d Watson (2001) p. 973
  7. ^ a b c Watson (2001) p. 974
  8. ^ a b Watson (2001) p. 975
  9. ^ a b c Watson (2001) p. 1096
  10. ^ "Turkey in radical revision of Islamic texts" Robert Pigott, Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News 26 Feb 2008
  11. ^ Fawcett, L (2005) International Relations of the Middle East, UK: Oxford University Press, p 72
  12. ^ BBC News online, Islam and the West, Monday, 12 August, 2002, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
  13. ^ Ayubi, N, N,M(1994) Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, London: Routledge p48
  14. ^ Khater, A, F (ed.)(2004) Sources in the History of the Modern Middle East US: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp360-361
  15. ^ Milton-Edwards, B(1999) Islamic Politics in Palestine, UK: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, p2
  16. ^ Ayubi, N, N,M(1994) Political Islam: Religion and Politics in the Arab World, London: Routledge p70


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