Islamic Modernism may be defined as a reform of inherent Islamic tradition by stressing the importance of Sunnah1 And Quran2 To the needs of contemporary society, encompassing its modern institution and technology. Islamic modernism emerged in the 19th century from different parts with a primary goal to reinstate the dynamism, flexibility, and potency of Muslim communities. In particular, Islamic modernism emerged to counter western influence. Islamic modernists borrowed certain western aspects to avert the replacement of Islamic culture by western culture.
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For instance, they used science and technology to reclaim Islamic heritage because European science originated from classical Islamic learning (“Modernism” par. 1). Modernists differentiated between acquired knowledge (via reason) and revealed knowledge by ensuring that both did not clash. Primarily, major modernist movements emerged in India, Indonesia, Iran, Pakistan, and Egypt. Specifically, these movements focused on politics, law, education, society, intellectual, spiritual, and moral issues (Rahman 317). Some notable Islamic modernists were Shah Wali Allah, Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s, Muhammad Abdul, and Rashid Rida. This essay paper reviews the manner in which modernists shaped Islamic culture.
Islamic modernism began in Egypt and India in the second part of 19th century. Mainly, these movements were characterized by a remarkable intellectual development (Moaddel, “Islamic Modernism” 2). Notably, groups of like-minded Muslim elites critically examined the conventional conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and, at the same time, formulated new approaches to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis. In particular, new approaches were considerably a “rebellion” against Islamic orthodoxy and favored enlightenment. The main theology issues that emerged among modernists’ thoughts revolved around the validity of knowledge derived from the external sources of Islam and methodological adequacy of the four primary sources of jurisprudence – Quran, Hadith3, Ijma4 And Qiyas5 (Moaddel “Discursive Pluralism” 4).
The modernists decided to reinterpret Quran and Hadith and transform Ijma and Qiyas to formulate a reformist project in order to align Islam with prevailing standards of scientific rationality and modern social theory. Through impressions from west achievements, ranging from Darwinian evolution, Spencer’s sociology, Newtonian conception of the universe to western lifestyles, modernists argued that Islam as a global religion was in a position to adapt itself to the dynamic conditions of the modern age, with perfect Muslim society being characterized by law and reasoning (Moaddel 3). In this regard, modernists showed Islam as compatible with natural and deistic religion.
Modernists reforms aimed to deal with aspects relating to the law of evidence, modern education, the status of women in the society, right of Muslim to have independent thinking and rationality, constitutional reforms, the nature of the universe, man and God, and, the freedom of individuals (Rahman 317). However, the principal focus was on intellectual and spiritual issues. The emergence of Islamic modernism movements marked the start of the new and powerful chord in the Muslim mind due to intellectual issues that had remained for many years under self-imposed dormancy and stagnation at an instance of conservative orthodoxy (Rahman 317). Mainly, modernists gave spiritual and intellectual issues a priority because they believed that the human mind was a critical locus of progress and reform.
The modernist movements under Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan, Muhammad Abdul, and Rashid Rida promoted education within the Islamic culture. Mainly, their focus was based on their understanding that education was fundamental to the renaissance of the modern world. Although these individuals advocated for education, their objective differed significantly. For instance, the objective of Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan was to enable Indian Muslims to fill higher posts in the British Indian services (Siddiqi 180). As such, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan opposed competitive examinations because he thought that Muslims would not fair better against the Hindu.
Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), an Indian modernist, tried to persuade Muslims to accommodate western ideas. As a modernist, Ahmad Khan teachings of Islam’s Quran, God, and the Prophet aimed at demonstrating that they are in line with modern science, and in particular, in education. Mainly, the fundamental objective of Indian’s modernists in the early 20th century was to find a way in which the Muslim community could prosper within a non-Muslim regime. Notably, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s education proposal failed to attach more importance to science and technology than he did to arts. Usually, he did not subscribe to industrial and technological education because he believed that India was not yet close to the machine age.
Muhammad Abdul (d. 1905) reforms aimed at bringing Muslims closer to the modern intellectual heritage of Europe and providing them with a wider vision of the world in which they live now than the one imparted by their medieval studies (Siddiqi 180). Mainly, the teachings of Muhammad Abduh on education, theology, and law offered the intellectual foundation of harmony between Islam and reason through revelation that any rational knowledge, including modern technology and science, is agreement with principles of Islam. Muhammad Abduh teachings urged Muslims to embrace science and modern learning, accommodate other contemporary religious education, and advocate for gradual societal reformation to triumph over European dominance (“Modernism” par. 3). Due to Abduh’s approach, his teachings encountered a challenge relating to the tension between strict devotion to religious authority and the desire to accommodate the demands associated with modernity. As such, his followers advocated for tolerance, dynamism, and flexibility among the first generations of Muslims via close study of Quran and Sunnah.
Rashid Rida, Shibli, and Hadji Ahmad Dahlan promoted education among Muslims but with different perspectives. The objective of Rashid Rida (d. 1935) teachings was to train missionaries of Islam who were able to spread Islamic message throughout the world, and preachers who could look after the religious needs of the masses (Siddiqi 180). Mainly, Rashid Rida’s initiative was to preserve the scriptural authority and integrity of Islam by showing the compatibility between modern government and Islamic law.
Another modernist, Shibli advocated for people to be trained as writers so that they could reply adequately on charges brought forward against Islam by Western scholars and groups of muftis (legists) who could give their verdict on disputed points of Islamic law (Siddiqi 180). Shibli contribution is significant to the Islamic modernism considering that there are numerous Muslim scholars across the word. In Indonesia, Hadji Ahmad Dahlan (d. 1923) founded Muhammadiyyah, the Indonesian modernist movement. Notably, Muhammadiyyah6 created a network of modernist schools for girls and boys that combined both modern scientific education and religion. Again, these schools advocated for necessary legal reforms through Quran, Sunnah and Ijtihad7 (Modernism” par. 5). Overall, Muhammadiyyah focus was to purify religious beliefs and practices.
Another Islamic modernism movement was led by Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897). His movement was based on a low opinion he held about Muslim rulers due to perceived influence of the western imperialism (Siddiqi 181). Thus, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s mission was to try to change the existing regimes in the Muslim world by installing new leaders who could resist foreign influence and domination, and leaders who could promote effective cooperation among various national units which divides Muslims. His efforts were not meant to change the systems of government directly but individuals who controlled the affairs of the Muslim countries.
He wanted various Muslim rulers and nations to retain their separate identity, cooperate with each other, and defend the Muslim world from foreign control, influence, and dominance (Siddiqi 182). Under his teachings, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s believed that Muslims had the mandate to manage their welfare instead of advocating domination of western culture. According to “Modernism,” Islamic modernism went through dynamic development under Al-Afghan’s Egyptian discipline (par. 1). Overall, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s movement achieved little in promoting unity among Muslim countries and averting foreign influence among Muslim countries.
Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) is another modernist who played a significant role in promoting Islamic modernism in Indo-Pakistan sub-content (Siddiqi 182). As a poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal’s main idea was to secure an independent state in the northwestern provinces where Muslims were the majority. In other words, Muhammad Iqbal group called for Indian Muslims to live in a Muslim state (“Modernism” par. 4). Accordingly, the state was to be based on social democracy where each citizen was to be assured of necessities of life. Notably, Iqbal died in 1938; however, his ideas could have influenced the Islamic modernism and political movements that pursued two nation theory in Indo-Pakistan sub-content (Siddiqi 182). In particular, political movements under his ideas led to the birth of independent Muslim state constituting two wings, one in the west (Pakistan), and the other in the east (Bangladesh) of India. Overall, his followers took part in the struggle of creating Pakistan as a distinct Muslim nation.
From an intellectual perspective, the Quran, and the desire to reject any intermediate authority that stood in the way of direct access to the holy book motivated the Islamic modernists. The primary reason for motivation was restrictions that Quran puts on human freedom and liberty which intermediate authority denies individuals (Siddiqi 183). The modernists were aware that human life cannot advance without some restrictions; however, these constraints must be rational and be dictated by the needs of the time instead of a social structure that has become void. In short, Islamic modernists wanted to legislate for the needs of the new society based on the effect of western civilization on the Islamic world, which they felt was severely based on medieval jurists and the interpretation of the Hadith literature (Siddiqi 183). Thus, their aim was to reject the verdict of medieval jurists entirely and adopt a new approach to Hadith that will bind together the future generations of Muslim.
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Amir Ali is an example of Islamic modernist whose views were extreme in advocating for the abolition of medieval laws. According to Amir Ali, “even the laws laid down by the prophet had no finality” considering that “the prophet himself wanted to abolish them after they had outlived their utility (Siddiqi 183). Notably, it is not clear if Amir Ali call of abolition included Quranic laws. Other modernists were not willing to go that far; however, they limited the authority of Hadith in its legal and other aspects. For instance, Muhammad Abdul only accepted Hadith that had been reported on numerous occasions via many chains of authorities and the ones that did not violate the sense experience. On the other hand, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan accepted Hadith on the basis of Dirayat8 and those dealing with life hereafter or that contain directions relating to morality (Siddiqi 183). Apparently, modernists did not directly reject the authority of Hadith; however, they accepted them with great reservations. Notably, modernists felt that it was hard to sift the true Hadith from the false and that the criteria laid down by the medieval transitions to judge the veracity of Hadith are by no means perfect and, thus, the new standards should be used to scrutinize the Hadith.
Islamic modernists have significantly influenced Islamic culture through Ijtihad framework (Cornell xix). Notably, modernists have expanded the definition of Ijtihad to imply critical, independent and reasoning in all the main domains of thought. In short, modernists’ perspective of ijtihad is not based on Islamic law only but all aspects of thought. Thus, advocates of Islamic modernism prefer Ijtihad to Taqlid.9 In this regard, modernists struggle as they try to perpetuate the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the spirit of Quran. In many cases, tensions that relate to the differences of “actuality and ideal,” God’s command and man’s behavior,” “virtual and power,” and, spiritual and temporal” are eminent (Moaddel “Discursive Pluralism” 6).
However, Islamic modernists “insist that the egalitarian spirit of Quran in areas such as women’s rights to religious pluralism should take precedence over more conservative later rulings” (Cornell xix). For instance, modernists favor Ijtihad to Taqlid on marriage status of a woman. Notably, the Hanafi law regarding the prolonged absence of a husband whose whereabouts are not known create difficulties by mandating the wife to wait for 90 years before she can remarry (Rahman 326). On the other hand, Maliki law mandates wife to wait for 4 years only to remarry. In this case, many Islamic modernists advocate for Maliki law due to its moderate severity on women predicament. Overall, Islamic modernism is driven by the common principle of Maslahah.10
In conclusion, Dirayat (or reason) guides Islamic modernism. Notably, a significant number of Muslim modernists have agreed that reason should be permitted to play its important role in law and theology. For instance, Muhammad Abdul maintained that reason should dictate the act taken by an individual in a case where Sunnah and Dirayat conflict. Again, modernist emphasized on the similarity between modern science (and technology) with Islam teachings. Further, some modernists like Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan advocated for tolerance and prosperity of Islamic culture within non-Muslim regimes; while, Muhammad Iqbal advocated for intolerance by pursuing an independent Muslim state. Currently, modernists’ thoughts are still alive in advocacy of using Ijtihad in legal aspects and the common principle of Maslahah where it acts as a guiding principle regarding Islamic law evolution. In particular, the emphasis of Islamic modernists on education has promoted modern learning especially in religious schools across the globe. Overall, modernists have influenced Islamic culture regarding the manner in which Muslim belief, behave, do, reason and worship.
“Modernism.” Oxford Islamic Studies Online, n.d. Web.
Cornell, Vincent J. Voices of Islam: Voices of Change. Westport, Campaign to Suppress Counterrevolutionaries: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007. Print.
Moaddel, Mansoor. “Discursive Pluralism and Islamic Modernism in Egypt.” Arab Studies Quarterly 24.1 (2002): 1-29. Print.
Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.
Rahman, Fazlur. “Islamic Modernism: Its Scope, Method and Alternatives.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 1.4 (1970): 317-333. Print.
Siddiqi, Mazheruddin. “Islamic Modernism.” Islamic Studies 12.3. (1973): 179-192. Print.
- Sunnah in the teachings, says, deeds, and implied permissions and disapprovals of Prophet Muhammad that Muslims follow or practice as a way of life.
- Quran is a sacred book of Islamic religion, which is perceived as the word of God.
- Hadith are the dicta attributed to the Prophet. They are habits, words, or actions of Prophet Muhammad. For instance, Hadith mentions five prayers, which Muslims are entitled to recite every day.
- Ijma means the consensus of the theologians; that is, Muslim scholars and jurists.
- Qiyas means juristic reasoning by an analogy.
- Muhammadiyyah is a religious, educational, and social movement.
- Ijtihad constitutes an independent legal reasoning.
- Dirayat means reason.
- Taqlid means following a school of Islamic law or designated authority. To modernists, Taqlid means blind imitation.
- Maslahah means public welfare.