ISLAMIC MODERNISM (Western Colonialism)

A term associated with Muslim religious intellectuals who have appropriated modern Western point(s) of view and sought to reform Islamic institutions of learning, law, and politics in the light of Western ideas and values. The modernist trend flourished in many parts of the Muslim world in the heyday of colonialism, between the 1860s and World War I. Its proponents argued for the compatibility of Islam with Western concepts of (instrumental) rationality, science, and progress, and advocated constitutionalism and women’s rights. In the course of the twentieth century, Islamic modernism gave way to one or the other of the two trends it had originally attempted to bridge: secularized modernism, most notably of the nationalist type, and the fundamentalist Salafiyya. Reflecting changes in notions of modernity in the West, later modernist thinkers put forth Islamic notions of democracy, equality, and civil liberties. The impact of Islamic modernism was generally confined to cultural elites, though in some cases it gave birth to political and socioreligious movements.

Islamic modernism is often merged with the modern Salafiyya, which also emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century in response to the Western challenge. Yet despite mutual influences, partial overlapping, and occasional crossovers, it is analytically important to distinguish between the two trends. The Salafi discourse draws legitimacy from the Islamic past, most notably the medieval thinker Ibn Taymiyya and his premodern followers: the ultraorthodox Wahhabis and the Yemeni jurist Shawkani. Following in their footsteps, the Salafis professed to revive the legacy of the forefathers of Islam (al-salaf), while downplaying their borrowings from Western models. This construction made the Salafiyya the prototype of Islamic fundamentalism and enabled it to gain a large following among the Muslim masses and be involved in politics, which modernism could never accomplish.

Islamic modernism has never been a monolithic trend. There has been wide divergence of opinion among its protagonists concerning what is to be adapted from the West, what of Muslim tradition is to be set aside, and what attitude is to be taken toward the colonial and postcolonial powers. Such divergence reflects both variations in the intellectual background and social standing of modernists—who range from traditionally trained mid-level ulama (religious scholars) to middle-class laymen—and the differing circumstances of time and place. The boundaries of Islamic modernism are likewise imprecise, and scholars often disagree as to whether one figure or another belongs to it or crossed the lines to secular modernism or Islamic fundamentalism. However, there are certain core concerns that at least to some extent all Islamic modernists share, and that give this trend a measure of unity.

The intensification of the colonial enterprise from the 1850s onward brought home to many Muslims the painful realization that their countries had become backward compared with the West. Subjected to either direct European rule or Westernizing regimes, they felt that the Muslim world had fallen into a state of cultural decline. The distinctive feature of the Islamic modernist project within this wider religious perception lay in its fuller internalization of the Orientalist vision of Islam as the inferior Other, and in the conviction that to regain its place in the world Islam must adapt not merely Western science and technology, but also many of its institutions and customs. Modernists accordingly advocated reforming the traditional educational system by introducing secular sciences into the school curriculum and by building modern schools beside the old madrasas (seminaries). They were also among the first religionists to have recourse to the new medium of the periodical press; they likewise adopted novel literary forms and simple language in an effort to reach out to the expanding literate populations.

In common with the Salafis, modernists put the blame for the degeneration of Islam on its latter-day religious leaders. According to this construction, the ula-mas resorted to the practice of blind imitation (taqlid) within their legal and theological schools and thus stifled all original thinking, while the Sufis deviated from the right path in their irrational teachings and popular practices. Purporting to revive the “true” principles of Islam, modernists and Salafis alike turned to the legal practice of ijtihad, which in their hands was transformed from a technical term, meaning an authorized “effort” to find a ruling in the sources, into rational deliberation. Similarly, not being averse to Sufism as such—many of them had a Sufi background—they sought to set it on a sounder rational-moral basis. Still, whereas the Salafis grounded their reasoning in a literal interpretation of the Qur’an and sunna (the Prophet’s example), the modernists made rationality and science the measuring stick for a continuous reinterpretation of the scriptures.

In the political sphere, modernists living under Muslim rule generally favored a constitutional form of government. Aware of the importance of the state in effecting the reforms they desired, they regarded constitutionalism as both a guarantee of civil rights and freedoms and a check on the state’s drift to Westernization, the wholesale adoption of Western values without regard to Islamic law (Sharia). Islamic modernists living in colonized countries tended to accommodate themselves to their foreign rulers, and at times even accepted their self-proclaimed “civilizing mission,” in the belief that the process of shaping the Muslim personality must precede the collective goal of independence. In the post independence era modernists expounded their liberal ideals against both Westernized authoritarian regimes and radicalized fundamentalist oppositions. In the social sphere, Islamic modernists were committed to the promotion of women’s rights. They backed girls’ education and raised for public debate issues such as polygamy, divorce, the veil, work outside the home, and suffrage.

Outdoor Lesson in Punjab. A teacher for an Islamic school holds class outdoors in May 1933 in Taxila, Punjab.

Outdoor Lesson in Punjab. A teacher for an Islamic school holds class outdoors in May 1933 in Taxila, Punjab.

Islamic modernists employed various discursive strategies to justify, for themselves and for their coreligionists, the far-reaching adaptation they favored. For one, in their interpretation of the scriptures they made a distinction between basic commands, which pertain to religion proper, and contingent social and political rules that were given for their time and place and are therefore liable to amendment according to changing circumstances. Another strategy, taken from the Islamic philosophical tradition that modernists sought to revive, was to postulate that knowledge attained from revelation necessarily conforms to knowledge acquired by reason.

Finally, modernists adopted the apologetic line that European science had been built on the foundations of classical Islamic scholarship, and that by acquiring it Muslims were merely reclaiming their own heritage.

Representatives of the Islamic modernist trend appeared in practically every region of the Muslim world. Its earliest centers were established in the 1860s and 1870s in India, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt. In the following decades modernist ideas radiated to other Arab countries, Russia’s Muslim territories, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere. Shi’i modernism spread mainly in the twentieth century, reaching its peak in the 1960s and 1970s.

In India, the early modernist trend is primarily associated with the name of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (18171898). He opposed the Great Revolt of 1857, and in its aftermath devoted his energies to bringing about a rapprochement between British rulers and Muslim subjects. Khan was deeply troubled by the perceived backwardness of the Muslim community in India, and tried to persuade his coreligionists to adopt Western ideals and standards.

He rejected tradition and reduced the essence of Islam to the Qur’an, which was reinterpreted in the light of modern reason and science. Social practices that did not conform to liberal standards, like aggressive war, slavery, and subjection of women, were similarly rejected. Khan established his own journal, Tahdhib al-Akhlaq (Refinement of Morals), and later on the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, which, modeled on Oxford and Cambridge, was designed to train Muslims for service in the colonial administration.

Subsequent Indian modernists argued that Islam actually contained the Western values of the time. The theologian and historian Shibli al-Nu’ mani (18571914), a long-time teacher of Arabic at Aligarh, drew on the Mu’tazilite rationalist school of early Islam to restate received theological positions in light of the contemporary Western scientific worldview. The Bengali jurist Sayyid Amir cAli (d. 1928) contended that Islam was inherently a civilizing and progressive religion, drawing evidence from the life and teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and from the intellectual achievements of Islamic civilization in its formative phase.

With the advent of the Indian nationalist demand for self-rule during and after World War I, the modernist project assumed a political dimension. Its proponents were thereby divided into two camps in regard to the struggle’s objectives: one group stood for cooperation with the Congress for the sake of a unified Indian nation, the other lent its support to the Muslim League’s demand for the creation of Pakistan. The major spokesman of the first group was Abu al-Kalam Azad (1888-1958), a journalist who distinguished himself at the time of the Khilafat movement and was later elected president of the All-India National Congress and appointed India’s minister of education. Azad maintained that all faiths are one in their essence and advocated universal humanism. The second group was led by the poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), the foremost intellectual figure in Muslim India in the interwar period, who had studied philosophy and law in England and Germany. Iqbal postulated the essential harmony of religion and science, and called for the use of ijtihad to create a strong Muslim personality and a progressive Muslim society.

The representatives of early Islamic modernism in the Ottoman Empire are generally known as the Young Ottomans. This was a group of religious-minded civil officials and journalists from Istanbul, who supported the state program of modernization (Tanzimat), but objected to the Westernizing turn it took under the high-handed direction of the Sublime Porte after the Reform Edict of 1856. The Young Ottomans arose in 1865 as a secret society, and often lived in exile in the provinces or in the West. They promoted their ideology of constitutional monarchy and patriotism through the press and the theater. They justified their resorting to Western notions of freedom and fatherland by the claim that these were part of Islam. Namik Kemal (1840-1888), their foremost writer, reinterpreted the Islamic concepts of shura (consultation) and bafa (oath of allegiance) to mean parliament and popular sovereignty. The Young Ottomans helped bring about the first Ottoman Constitution in 1876, but were suppressed under the autocratic regime of Sultan Abdulhamid II and gave way to the secularized movement of the Young Turks.

Early Islamic modernism in Egypt was inspired by two forerunners: the education official Rifapa Rafip al-Tahtawi and the Iranian-born activist Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. Tahtawi (1801-1873) acquired a firsthand knowledge of Europe when he served between 1826 and 1831 as imam of the first student mission sent to Paris by Muhammad Ali. Subsequently he was appointed head of the Translation Bureau and editor of the official paper, and in the 1860s he took part in planning Egypt’s new educational system. Tahtawi believed that modernization could be achieved through cooperation between an enlightened monarch and progressive ulamas bent on adapting Islamic law to modern conditions. He had recourse to the Islamic philosophical tradition to justify the study of modern sciences, and called for universal primary education for both boys and girls to develop their personality and inculcate in them patriotic feelings.

As a Shi’i by origin, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) was acquainted with the Islamic philosophical tradition and with the methodology of ijtihad, both largely rejected in latter-day Sunnism but flourishing in Iran. Around 1857 he moved to India, where he learned of modern Western science but also developed strong anti-imperialist feelings, primarily against Britain. Afghani spent the rest of his life seeking to influence Muslim rulers to modernize and unite in the face of European domination (making him part of a current termed pan-Islamic). Afghani arrived in Egypt in 1871, after a sojourn in Istanbul, and became the guide of a group of young admirers, mostly from al-Azhar. Expelled by the Khedive, in 1884 he established in Paris the short-lived but influential journal al-pUrwa al-Wuthqa (The Firm Bond). Afghani ended his life in Istanbul, a virtual prisoner at the court of Sultan Abdulhamid II.

The foremost exponent of Islamic modernism in Egypt was Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849-1905). ‘Abduh was a disciple of Afghani, who encouraged him to study philosophy and engage in journalism. Exiled for his role in the resistance to the British occupation, he cooperated with the master in publishing al-Urwa al-Wuthqa, but after that the two parted ways. ‘Abduh moved to Beirut, where he interacted with the Syrian Salafis, before being allowed to return to Egypt. There he accommodated himself to British rule and was appointed chief mufti and rector of al-Azhar, with the mission of promoting reform in the educational system and in the application of Islamic law. ‘Abduh was troubled by the division of society between Westernizers and conservatives. To bridge the gap he sought to prove that Islam accords with reason and science, and that it is capable of providing the moral basis and guiding principles for adapting to modernity. In his Qur’anic exegesis ‘Abduh made a distinction between specific rules relating to worship and general principles concerning worldly affairs, the latter leaving wide scope for ijtihad as rational deliberation based on public interest and a synthesis among the four legal schools. Possibly under Salafi influence, ‘Abduh also emphasized the need to return to the “true” religion of the forefathers.

Maulama Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958). The scholar and independence leader Maulama Abul Kalam Azad addresses a crowd in India, circa 1935.

Maulama Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958). The scholar and independence leader Maulama Abul Kalam Azad addresses a crowd in India, circa 1935.

Contemporaries of ‘Abduh advocated modernist ideas in other regions of the Arab world. In Tunisia, the reformist Prime Minister Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1810-1889) established the Sadiqiyya college, which taught foreign languages and modern sciences along with Islamic subjects. For him, the road to integration in the modern world lay in the adoption of a responsible parliamentary government and in freedom of the person and the press. In Tripoli, Husayn al-Jisr (1845-1909) founded on similar lines the National Islamic School. More conservative in his outlook, he reformulated the Muslim doctrine in simplified language and in relation to modern sciences. In Damascus, Tahir al-Jaza’iri (18521920), who had been influenced by the ideas of the Young Ottomans and cooperated with the reformist governor Midhat Pasha, established the Zahiriyya library, the core of Syria’s national library, and worked for the revival of the Arab heritage.

The next generation of Arab reformers drifted away to either secular modernist and nationalist ideologies or to the fundamentalist cause. Prominent among the fundamentalists was the Syrian Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), who is commonly regarded as ‘Abduh’s foremost disciple and a major proponent of the Salafiyya. At the other end of the spectrum was ‘Ali ‘Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966), who justified the abolition of the caliphate by the Turkish National Assembly in 1924 and called for the separation of religion and state. ‘Abduh’s efforts to reform al-Azhar were continued by the rectors Mustafa al-Maraghi (1881-1945) and Mahmud Shaltut (1893-1963).

Among the Muslim peoples of the Russian Empire, Islamic modernism was generally known as Jadidism. It was initiated by intellectuals from Crimea and the Caucasus and spread to the Volga region, Turkistan, and Central Asia. Beginning as a project of reform of the traditional educational system, Jadidism enlarged its focus to include most aspects of Islamic society. Its proponents accepted the ideas of progress and women’s empowerment, and called for the adoption of modern science and technology to meet the Western challenge. The Jadidis were a diverse group in terms of ethnic, social, and intellectual background, and differed widely on the desirable balance between Islam and modernity. Their most articulate exponent was the Crimean Tatar Ismail Bey Gasprinski (1851-1914), editor of the influential newspaper Tercuman (The Interpreter). At the beginning of the twentieth century efforts were made to organize Jadidism as a political faction and empire-wide congresses were convened, but the Bolshevik Revolution brought these efforts to an end.

Born in 1945, Islamic scholar and revisionist thinker ‘Abd al-Karim Soroush has been described as the ”house intellectual” of Iran’s democratic reform movement by Boston Globe writer Laura Secor, and as ”the Martin Luther of Islam” by the Los Angeles Times’s Robin Wright, who called him ”a man whose ideas on religion and democracy could bridge the chasm between Muslim societies and the outside world” (“Islamist’s Theory of Relativity,” January 27, 1995).

Soroush’s philosophical beliefs began forming when, as a student in London, he studied both philosophy and science. Soroush developed the position that humankind’s changing and evolving understanding of nature and metaphysics should extend to religion, and that these different perspectives should be considered together.

Active in the Muslim Youth Association during Iran’s prerevolutionary years, Soroush returned to Iran during the revolution and became a member of the Culture Revolution Council. He was charged with combating the Marxist thought that had infiltrated Iranian politics. After the country’s universities were closed, in order to establish fundamental reforms, Soroush was appointed by Ayatollah Khomeini to reopen them and restructure their syllabi.

Soroush ultimately questioned the rigid interpretation of Islam endorsed by Khomeini and challenged the establishment’s use of religion to further its political and economic agendas. Soroush has never sought political office; indeed, his position is that Islamic religious leaders should not also be the leaders of governments—in other words, he advocates a separation of church and state.

During his career, Soroush has served as director of the Islamic Culture Group at Tehran’s Teacher Training College, researcher at the Institute for Cultural Studies, professor of ethics at the Tehran Academy of Philosophy, lecturer at the Imam Sadeq Mosque in Tehran, and as an instructor at Tehran University. Soroush, whose talks in Iran are often disrupted by hard-line opponents, began lecturing abroad in 2000, and has served as a visiting professor at such leading institutions as Harvard Divinity School, Yale University, and Princeton University.

In Indonesia, Islamic modernism combined the call to adapt to modernity with rejection of the animist and Hindu traditions characteristic of indigenous Islam. It was stimulated by enhanced contacts with reformists of the Middle East, and secured a substantial base among the middle classes. The largest modernist movement in Indonesia is the Muhammadiyya, founded in 1912 in Java by Ahmad Dahlan (1868-1923), who was influenced by qAbduh during his studies in Egypt. Shunning politics under Dutch colonial rule as well as after independence, the movement established hundreds of branches with millions of members. These support a network of schools, for both boys and girls, which combine religious education and modern sciences, as well as missionary societies, economic and welfare organizations, and newspapers and magazines.

Shiqi modernism was largely confined in its initial phase to the heterodox Babi and Baha’i faiths. Baha’ullah (1817-1892) advocated Western ideas such as separation of religion and state, constitutionalism, women’s emancipation, and international peace. Within mainstream Shi’ism, modernism emerged as a response to the autocratic secular modernization of the Pahlavis in the 1930s and became popular in the years leading to the Islamic revolution of 1978 to 1979. In 1961 Mehdi Bazargan (1907-1995), an engineer who had studied in Paris, and the populist Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani (1910-1979) founded the Liberation Movement of Iran, which called for an end to foreign domination and restoration of constitutional rights. The two played an active role in the revolution that toppled the Shah, trying to provide a bridge between Khumeini’s fundamentalist followers and the secular nationalist opposition. Bazargan was appointed prime minister, but was soon forced to resign and the modernists were relegated to the margins of Iranian politics. Modern Western ideas— particularly of the Marxist type—are also apparent in the teachings of ‘Ali Shari’ati (1933-1977), the chief ideologue of the Islamic revolution, who called for a rational and humanistic reinterpretation of Shi’ism to fight subjugation and injustice.

Despite its weakening during the twentieth century, Islamic modernism has never ceased to be cherished in religious-minded intellectual circles, and it attracts much sympathy in the West. Among its recent prominent proponents are the Pakistani scholar Fazlur Rahman, the Syrian civil engineer Muhammad Shahrur, and the Iranian thinker ‘Abd al-Karim Soroush. Rahman (1919-1988) studied Islamic philosophy at Oxford and taught at Western universities. He called for a reformulation of Islamic theology and educational reform, though his attempt to effect them in Pakistan during the 1960s ended in failure. Shahrur (b. 1938) emphasizes the need to reinterpret the Qur’an in light of contemporary social and moral concerns, and advocates “creative interaction” with non-Muslim philosophies and women’s equality. Soroush (b. 1945) developed an evolutionary approach to the human understanding of religion that makes room for modern sciences. Initially a member of the Cultural Revolutionary Council, his deepening criticism of the Islamic regime eventually obliged him to leave Iran and settle in the West.

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