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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 7    Issue 20   01-15 March 2013

Modernity, Islamic Civilization and the
Muslim World -- Part II

Professor A. R. Momin

Modernity in Islamic Perspective

Modernity is an omnibus term that denotes a cluster of interrelated ideas, principles and institutions. Broadly, one can identify four distinct components or dimensions of modernity: (i) economic, financial, technological (manifested in science and technology, financial institutions) (ii) political and legal (nation-state, constitutionalism, democracy, citizenship, secularism, judicial institutions, bureaucracy) (iii) social and cultural (secularization of society, modern (Western) culture, modern education, materialist or this-worldly orientation, women’s rights) (iv) ideational (rationalism, individualism).

It is instructive to deconstruct the discourse of modernity and isolate its constituent elements and then examine the question whether, and to what extent, these elements are compatible with Islamic principles. One may proceed with a brief explication of some of the distinctive features of the Islamic faith that have a significant bearing on the discussion. The Islamic faith is characterised by an exceptional openness, inclusiveness and flexibility. Islam eschews the narrow path of xenophobia, solipsism and exclusion. The Islamic attitude towards forign cultural traditions is reflected in its view of the pursuit of knowledge and the learning of foreign languages, in the adoption of foreign technology, in the approval of foreign medicines and cultural patterns, and in the legal sanction accorded to regional customs and usages.

The Islamic view of knowledge epitomizes the inclusionary and accommodative spirit of the Islamic faith. The Prophet Muhammad (SAAW) is reported to have said: "Wisdom is (like) the lost animal of a Muslim; he catches hold of it wherever he finds it". The Prophet regarded the acquisition of knowledge as an obligation on every Muslim and exhorted his followers to carry the torch of learning far and wide. He warned against concealing or withholding knowledge. Islam opened the portals of knowledge and learning to all and sundry, men and women, rich and poor, high and low.

The Prophet had no hesitation in occasionally wearing Persian and Roman attire. He advised the use of medicines of Indian. Once, Sa'ad ibn abi Waqqas, a Companion of the Prophet, complained of chest pain. When the Prophet was informed about this, he suggested that the patient be taken to Harith ibn Kaldah, who was a Christian physician at Madinah. In the Battle of the Ditch, one of the companions, Salman the Persian, suggested the digging up of a wide ditch around the city of Madinah as a defence strategy, which existed in his native Persia. The Prophet readily accepted the suggestion. In some of the battles fought during the time of the Prophet, foreign techniques of warfare were used without any reservations. The Prophet instructed his secretary Zayd ibn Thabit to learn Syriac, Hebrew and Persian languages so that he could carry on the Prophet's correspondence with foreign rulers. Islamic law recognises the validity of some of the local customs and usages, known as urf and a’dah in legal parlance, in judicial rulings.

In the Battle of Badr, Muslims scored victory over their enemies and more than seventy prisoners-of-war were captured by them. Umar, who became the second caliph after the demise of the Prophet, suggested that they should be executed. (Incidentally, the Bible says that if the enemy is defeated in war, their men, women, old persons and children should be put to death.) Abu Bakr, who succeeded the Prophet as the head of the Islamic state, disagreed with this opinion and suggested that they should be set free in lieu of some ransom. The Prophet agreed with his suggestion. A ransom of four thousand dirhams or a hundred camels was fixed as ransom for each of the captives. Those who paid the ransom were set free. In the case of those who could not afford the ransom money, their relatives and friend came to their rescue and arranged for the ransom amount. Some of the captives had neither the ransom money nor friends or relatives who could pay the ransom money on their behalf, but they knew reading and writing. The Prophet declared that a captive, who is unable to pay the ransom money but knows the art of writing, could secure his release by teaching ten Muslims children how to write. It was from one of these prisoners that Zayd ibn Thabit, who later served as the Prophet's secretary, learnt writing. Imam Bukhari has reported this incident under the caption: sanction accorded to the appointment of pagans as teachers of Muslims. Interestingly, a few of the prisoners had neither the capacity to pay the ransom money nor the ability to read and write. They were set free on their assurance that they would not wage a war against Muslims in the future.

One day the Prophet saw some people putting the kernel of the male dates into female dates. When inquired, they told him that this method enhanced the yield. The Prophet disapproved of the practice and the people accordingly gave it up. It so happened that the yield turned out to be poor at harvest. When the Prophet came to know of it, he said, “I am also human (like you). If I instruct you in a matter that relates to religion, act on it. If I give you an instruction (pertaining to worldly matters) according to my opinion, I am also human. You know matters of your world better than me.” This Hadith, narrated by Muslim, provides sufficient scope for human agency and intervention in matters relating to the world.

As far as the question of the compatibility of modernity and Islam is concerned, three points are particularly note-worthy. First, there is no inherent conflict between certain features of modernity, such as science and technology, and Islamic principles. Second, certain features of modernity, such as constitutionalism and democracy, can be modified, adapted and reinvented in accordance with Islamic ideals and principles.

Islam stipulates a set of normative principles and ideals to regulate individual and collective behavior as well as political, social and economic processes. Muslim thinkers such as Al-Mawardi, Al-Shatibi, Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Qutayba, Al-Farabi and Shah Waliullah Dehlavi are of the unanimous opinion that the establishment of state is a necessity for the fulfillment of the collective needs of human beings and for the maintenance of order. One can draw a distinction between certain ideational and normative principles that have a close bearing on the state, on the one hand, and the structure and form of the state, on the other. While Islam lays down a set of principles and guidelines to regulate the state, it does not prescribe a specific or definitive form or structure of state or government.

The quintessential features of the Islamic state – described as imarat or khilafa in the classical sources – are as follows.

  • The Islamic state represents an institutional form of man’s vicegerency of God on earth.
  • The Islamic state is essentially a welfare state, whose basic function and responsibility is to ensure the security and wellbeing of its citizens and the protection of their legitimate rights, including the rights to life, physical and economic security, honour, justice, equality, freedom of conscience and participation in government.
  • The constitutional cornerstone of the Islamic state rests on the Islamic Shariah, which is derived from the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet, and the precepts and precedents of the Four Caliphs and the Companions.
  • The Islamic state is founded on the fundamental principles of equality, justice and the rule of law. The principles of equality and justice are taken to their logical conclusion in the stipulation that the head of the state has no immunity from criminal prosecution.
  • The judiciary is independent of the government and enjoys autonomy. It is expected to act as the custodian of the Shariah and to keep a vigilant eye on the conduct of the ruling dispensation. Muslim judges are required to implement the provisions of Islamic law (Shariah) without fear or favour, and in the discharge of his obligations they are accountable, not to the powers that be, but only to God. An independent judiciary played a crucial role in ensuring compliance with Islamic law on the part of the ruling establishment as well as the general public.
  • The head of the state is to be elected by popular mandate and not through hereditary succession.
  • The election of the head of the state and important matters relating to governance and administration are to be regulated through consultation (shura).

There is considerable flexibility in respect of the methodology for the election of the head of the state and the modus operandi of consultations. Following the passing away of the Prophet, the Companions gathered at the parapet of Banu Sa’ida in Madinah to deliberate on the issue of succession. There was some disagreement between the Ansar (Helpers), the native inhabitants of Madinah, and the Muhajirun (Immigrants) as both staked their respective claims to succession. Some from amongst the latter felt that Ali or Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib should be nominated as successor to the Prophet and as leader of the Muslim community on account of their kinship with the Prophet. However, the overwhelming majority of the Companions were of the opinion that the question of succession should be settled on the basis of consultation and popular vote rather than kinship. Subsequently, Abu Bakr was unanimously elected as leader of the community and as head of the Islamic state.

Before he breathed his last, Abu Bakr held consultations with the trusted and senior Companions and nominated Umar as his successor. His decision was unanimously approved by the Companions. When Umar was fatally wounded in an assassination attempt and was asked to nominate his successor, he thought it wise to appoint a seven-member committee to deliberate and decide about the issue of succession. The committee included Ali, Uthman, Sa’ad ibn abi Waqqas, Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Awf, Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, Talha ibn Ubaydullah and Abdullah ibn Umar. Caliph Umar instructed the committee not to consider his son Abdullah, who was included in the committee, as his successor. Most of the committee members were inclined in favour of either Ali or Uthman. Abd al-Rahman ibn al-Awf, who was a member of the committee, spent several days and nights in trying to find out whether people generally favoured Ali or Uthman. Ibn Kathir reports that he even consulted veiled women in this matter. Finally, the committee recommended Uthman’s name as Umar’s successor, which was approved by Umar and the Companions. Following the assassination of Uthman, the people rallied around Ali and elected him as the fourth caliph.

The Islamic conception of the state shares certain basic features with the democratic form of government. These include the decisive role of the general public in electing the head of the state, the rule of law and equality before the law, equal citizenship, democratic consultations and the involvement and participation of people in matters of governance and administration, and the accountability of the ruling class.

Though there is much to be said for democracy, democratic states around the world suffer from certain inherent limitations. In modern democracies, where the media play a highly influential role in moulding public opinion, people are often swayed by propaganda and misinformation, systematically disseminated by the media, political parties and vested interests. In a multiethnic democracy, such as India, people’s electoral preferences are often determined by extraneous considerations, such as caste, religion, community, language and other primordial affiliations and identifications. In addition, money and muscle power play an influential role in voting behavior and electoral politics. The electoral process is often manipulated by powerful politicians in cahoots with the police and the local administration. Since democracy is essentially a game of numbers, politicians who gain even a slender majority by hook or by crook manage to form the government.

In spite of its manifold limitations, democracy seems to be the most representative and desirable form of government, especially in the present context, and is certainly a preferable alternative to monarchy, dictatorship and communism. It is possible and desirable to combine the positive and time-tested features of democracy with the normative principles of Islamic Shariah and to restructure and reinvent it in accordance with the requirements of Muslim societies.

Third, modernity is not a monolithic or homogeneous phenomenon, modeled after its Western prototype. The view that the West epitomizes a universal and inevitable model of modernity, espoused by American social scientists in the 1950s and 1960s, is now passé. A close study of the trajectory of modernity in Asia, Africa and Latin America suggests that it has been differently interpreted, modified, adapted to specific social and political contexts and reinvented in accordance with regional ethos and traditions and local requirements. This is the case, for example, with the career of modernity in Japan, India, Korea and Thailand. Some scholars have rightly spoken of multiple modernities or multiple paradigms or models of modernity. This suggests that the identification between modernization and Westernization is untenable.

Modernity in the Muslim World

The penetration of Western modernity in the Muslim world came about as a result of contact with Western culture (as in Ottoman Turkey and Russia) or through conquest (as in the case of Egypt) or under colonial rule (as in North Africa, India, Indonesia and other parts of the Muslim world). Though the two situations often overlapped, they represent different historical and social contexts for the onset of modernity.

The Ottoman Empire

In the Muslim world, the Ottoman Empire had the earliest and the most prolonged contact – political, diplomatic, commercial and cultural -- with the West. The Ottoman Empire, the largest empire in history, lasted for nearly five centuries, from the mid-15th century until the early 20th. Its boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory extending from North Africa to the Danube and from the Middle East to the Balkans. The Ottomans ruled over a multiethnic, heterogeneous population with a wide-ranging diversity of faiths, ethnicities, languages and cultural traditions.

The Ottoman Empire held a central position in world trade, linking the Middle East and East and South Asia to eastern and central Europe. The Ottomans exported raw silk, wax, pepper, cotton and metals to Europe and, on the other hand, acquired merchandise from eastern and central Europe. The Polish kingdoms of the Middle Ages traded extensively with the Ottoman Turks. Most of this trade -- in textiles, wheat and Arabian horses -- passed through Istanbul and the Black Sea ports of the Ottoman Empire.

During the Middle Ages, extensive commercial, diplomatic and cultural links between the Ottomans and the Venetian republic were established. Venice acted as the European gateway for trade with the Ottoman Empire and Mamluk Egypt, which was carried out largely through intermediaries such as the Jews, Greek Orthodox and Armenians. The Ottomans supplied to the Venetians raw silk, cotton, coral, grains, spices and leather. In return, they imported from Venice luxury textiles, glass, soap, mirrors and paper. In the mid-16th century, Venetian craftsmen were greatly influenced by Ottoman ceramics, characterised by white-and-blue symmetrical arabesques. The Venetians imported lustrous tiles from Ottoman Turkey, which were often used for church decorations. Turkish craftsmen excelled in making heavy silk velvets, which were especially suitable as furnishing garments and as wrappings for religious relics. Capes, dalmatics and chasubles made of Turkish-made velvets and used in Roman Catholic ritual are found in church treasuries and museums in Italy, Sweden, Romania, Poland and Bosnia. Ottoman velvets were also used as ceremonial vestments in Russian Orthodox churches.

The Ottoman Empire provided a safe haven for Jewish communities from Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. Jewish engineers and technicians helped the Ottomans manufacture advanced artillery and sophisticated siege engines. They also made significant contributions to the modernization of agriculture, industry and trade in Ottoman Turkey. The Christian population of the Ottoman Empire made a significant contribution to the economy, defence and culture. A Hungarian engineer built for the Ottomans a gigantic canon which could only be moved by 100 oxen.

Apart from Spain and southern Italy, Venice was the only city in Europe which established direct and sustainable channels of communication -- through trade and commerce, diplomatic missions, frequent visits of dignitaries and merchants, exchange of gifts and intercultural dialogue-- with the Islamic world. A number of Venetian merchants and members of the nobility stayed in Istanbul and other cities of the Muslim world. Venice was the only city in Europe that for centuries received a regular stream of Ottoman and Mamluk dignitaries and emissaries. The Venetians made frequent gifts to members of the Ottoman court. Turkish merchants frequented the bazaars of Venice.

The generally peaceful relations between the Ottoman Empire and Venice were occasionally disrupted by the outbreak of hostilities and armed confrontations. Following the cessation of hostilities and the restoration of cordial relations between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire in 1479, the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II sent a letter to the Venetian Signoria or Senate with a request to send to his court a painter, a sculptor and a bronze founder from Venice. The Venetian Senate promptly sent to the sultan’s court Gentile Bellini, the Republic’s official painter, and Bartolomeo Bellano, along with two assistants for each master. Bellini spent two years at the Ottoman court in Istanbul, during which he drew a portrait of Sultan Mehmet II. Bellini and Bellano made several medals of the sultan, of which 15 have survived.

In the 15th century, Venice became a thriving centre for the production of high-quality glass objects, rock crystals, fine silks and velvets, jewels and paintings. The Egyptian and Ottoman sultans were greatly fascinated by the beauty and craftsmanship of Venetian objects. Taking advantage of the great interest evinced by Muslim rulers in the Eastern Mediterranean in Venetian luxury goods, the city’s craftsmen began making glass objects and textiles according to their tastes and favourite designs. Some of them made ceremonial robes for Ottoman sultans. The large collection of Ottoman ceremonial costumes preserved in the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul includes some 30 kaftans or ceremonial outer robes in silk velvet, which were imported from Venice. In the 16th century, there were requests from the Ottoman sultans and members of the nobility for furniture pieces, glass mosque lamps, textiles, jewellery, clocks and mechanical marvels. The Venetian Republic made frequent gifts to the Ottoman court. Sometimes the Ottomans dispatched their agents to Venice for the purchase of their favourite luxury goods or used diplomatic channels for the purpose. In 1590, 440 panes of glass and some 450 items of blown glass, many of them gilded or silvered, were shipped from the Venetian island of Murano to Istanbul. The Ottoman Grand Vizier Sokollu Mehmet Pasha ordered 900 custom-made lamps from Murano. A large collection of Venetian-made mosque lamps is preserved in the Topkapi Palace Museum and the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art in Istanbul.

During the reign of Sultan Selim III (ruled 1789-1807), a comprehensive reform programme was launched. It was aimed at the reorganization of the Ottoman army and the restructuring of administrative structures in accordance with European patterns. The Ottoman rulers recruited European military experts, such as Comte de Bonneval and Baron de Tott, to advice the Ottoman military officers on the introduction of new military technology. Gun-founding was introduced and a school of military engineering was established in 1776. New subjects such as algebra, trigonometry, mechanics, ballistics and metallurgy were introduced in the teaching curriculum and European teachers were recruited to teach these subjects. The Ottoman rulers also began to send officials to study in European universities.

Tanzimat Reforms

The term “Tanzimat” (regulations) refers to a broad-based Western-inspired movement of political, legal, administrative and educational reforms that was launched in Ottoman Turkey in 1839, which lasted till 1877. The idea of the reforms was mooted by a group of Western-educated Ottoman high officials and bureaucrats and was endorsed by Sultan Mahmud II and Abdulmecid I, in the context of the empire’s declining territorial and political fortunes and the growing threat of European encroachments. The most important objective of the reform movement was the modernization of the military, for which European military experts were recruited. In addition, a number of Western-style schools and colleges, such as Robert College and Galatasaray, were established in the 1860s in which modern subjects, including some foreign languages, were taught. The reforms also included the codification of civil law, which was influenced by the Napoleonic code, French law under the Second Empire and the Italian code. A law passed in 1869 granted citizenship, with equal rights and regardless of religious affiliation, to all residents in the empire.

Mehmet Ziya Gokalp

Mehmet Ziya Gokalp (1875-1924) was an influential Turkish poet, writer, sociologist and political activist and a pioneering figure in the nationalist and modernist movement in Turkey. He was greatly influenced by French secularism and the sociological positivism of Emile Durkheim and argued that the process of secularization should encompass all aspects of social and political life and that religion should be confined to the private sphere. He equated secularization with Westernization. Gokalp rejected the imperial, religious and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and was a votary of Turkish nationalism. As a member of the parliamentary committee that drafted Turkey’s constitution, his ideas had a profound impact on the formation of the Turkish republic. Gokalp believed that Islamic institutions, including mosques and Shariah courts, should be under the control of the state. He argued in favour of the adoption of a civil code, modeled after the Swiss code, in place of Islamic family laws.

Mehmet Namik Kemal

Mehmet Namik Kemal (1840-1888), a prominent poet, writer, journalist and political activist, was one of the pioneering figures in the modernist movement in Ottoman Turkey. He was born in an aristocratic family a year after the proclamation of the Tanzimat reforms. He began his career at the Ottoman Translation Bureau, which brought him into contact with Western publications and ideas. He also wrote for a newspaper Tasvir-i-Efkar, founded by Sinasi Efendi, who had been educated in Europe and had imbibed Western ideas on democracy and constitutionalism. Kemal joined an anti-government group in Istanbul which was pressing for wide-ranging political reforms and for the establishment of a constitutional government.

During his self-imposed exile in Paris and London in 1868, where he published a newspaper Hurriyet, Kemal was greatly influenced by the ideas of the French Enlightenment and the principles of constitutionalism and democracy. He returned to Istanbul in 1870 and began writing for another paper, Ibret, in which he launched a blistering attack on the Ottoman rulers for their authoritarianism and suppression of civil liberties. His writings, which were avidly read by thousands of people, earned him the wrath of the Ottoman authorities and he was exiled to Cyprus in 1876.

Kemal’s ideas reflect a synthesis of Islamic values and ideals and Western principles, especially constitutionalism and democracy. He likened the Islamic concepts of shura (consultation) and bay’ah (oath of allegiance to the ruler) to an elected parliament and popular sovereignty.

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s Modernist Project

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the establishment of Turkey as a secular, republican state in 1923, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938), the first president of the Turkish Republic, sought to make a radical break with the Islamic and cultural legacy of the Ottoman Empire and launched a state-sponsored project of modernization, Westernization and secularization. The project was inspired by what came to be known as Kemalism. The ideology of Kemalism was enunciated in terms of six core principles, which were set out in the ruling Republican People’s Party Statutes of 1935. These principles, which constitute the official creed of the Turkish state and are written into the constitution, are Republicanism, Nationalism, Populism, Statism, Secularism and Revolutionism. The caliphate was abolished and Turkey was declared a secular republic. All social, religious, cultural and educational institutions were placed under the control and regulation of the government and all powers were concentrated in the hands of a centralized, Jacobin state, at the expense of local governments, NGOs, people’s rights and religious and ethnic minorities.

The ruling establishment introduced wide-ranging and sweeping changes in Turkish society, with a view to make it a mirror-image of Western societies. The education system was overhauled and modern subjects replaced the traditional Islamic subjects. The Islamic calendar was replaced by the Gregorian calendar and Islamic family laws were substituted by the Swiss Code. Turkish replaced Arabic as the liturgical language and it was decreed that calling the faithful to prayer (azan) sould be in Turkish, and not in Arabic. People were prohibited from going on pilgrimage to Makkah. The Quran was to be read not in Arabic but in its Turkish translation. The post of Shaykh al-Islam was abolished and the ulama were placed under the authority of the ministry of religious affairs. Sufi orders were banned and Islamic madrasas and Sufi lodges (tekkes) and shrines were closed down. Sunday replaced Friday as the weekly public holiday. The Arabic script of the Turkish language was changed to Latin and an attempt was made to purge it of words of Arabic origin. The wearing of the traditional Turkish cap – fez -- was prohibited and the wearing of veils and headscarves was banned in all public institutions, including schools, universities, government offices and public hospitals. In 1928 the Assembly voted in favour of deleting the words ‘The religion of the Turkish state is Islam’ from Article 2 of the constitution. The ruling regime sought to nationalize and manipulate religion in order to make it subservient to the state ideology. Interestingly, the first state-run industry during the reign of Ataurk was a brewery. Ataturk and his colleague and successor Ismet Inonu introduced policies aimed at the forcible assimilation of the Kurdish minority into mainstream Turkish society. The teaching of Kurdish language in schools was banned and the ethnic identity of the Kurds was systematically denied and undermined.

The influence of the Kemalist ideology, which sought to impose a top-down model of Western modernity and secularization on the Turkish people, remained confined to the urban elite. The large majority of people in the Anatolian countryside remained largely unaffected by it. The ideology had a calamitous and insidious effect on Turkish polity, economy, society and religious and cultural ethos. In 1999, the then Turkish president Suleyman Demirel said that nearly 330 verses of the Quran are “no longer practicable.” The statement created a huge furore across the country. Demirel’s move was rejected by Turkey’s High Court for Islamic Affairs. Under its influence, the state acquired absolute and tyrannical powers. The Turkish army, which considers itself the guardian of the state ideology, is not accountable to anyone. Kemalism was used as a pretext for repeated military interventions and takeovers in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. The Kemalist ideology created a cleavage between the Westernised ruling elite, including the army and the courts, and the masses. Laicism or secularism became an official instrument for the control and manipulation of religion and for the suppression of people’s religious and cultural rights.

However, the Kemalist ideology never enjoyed an unchallenged sway, especially in the Anatolian countryside and in Kurdistan. From time to time there were strong and sometimes violent reactions against the government’s policies, especially from the Sufis of the Naqshbandiya order. In 1930, Dervish Mehmed, a Sufi leader, mobilized a large number of people and called on them to overthrow the Kemalist regime which was widely perceived as anti-Islamic. Bediuzzaman Nursi (1878-1960), an influential Islamic thinker and social activist, tried to resist the wave of Westernization that appeared to overtake Turkey in the aftermath of Ataturk’s ascension to power. Though he was highly critical of the materialist outlook that was making inroads into Turkish society under the impact of Western culture, he was careful not to reject the whole baggage of Western civilization. He had admiration for Western science and technology. He emphasised the compatibility of faith and reason and modernity and tradition and believed that the chasm between religion and modern science could be bridged through a restructuring of the curriculum in both Islamic and modern educational institutions.


In 1798 Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Egypt, which was then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Although the occupation lasted only three years, it paved the way for a slow penetration of Western ideas, modern education and science and technology.

In the aftermath of the confusion and turmoil caused by Napoleon’s incursion, the Egyptian ulama decided to entrust the reins of government to Muhammad Ali. Muhammad Ali (ruled 1804-1841) launched a forceful Western-inspired programme of reform and modernization to strengthen the state and reinvigorate Egyptian society. The programme included the introduction of Western technology for irrigation, mining, military hardware and textile manufacturing, civil engineering and a printing press. He sent more than 400 students to Europe to study science and military technology. Muhammad Ali also established technical schools and recruited European teachers to teach modern subjects. Muhammad Ali sent Rifa’a Rafi al-Tahtawi, an Egyptian intellectual, to Paris in 1826. Al-Tahtawi stayed in Paris for five years and was greatly influenced by French thought. He was a great admirer of Europe’s scientific and technological advancement and Western political ideas. Upon his return to Cairo, al-Tahtawi advocated the adoption of Western science and technology and political institutions. He urged Muslim theologians and jurists to reinterpret Islamic legal provisions in the context of changing conditions. The project of modernization initiated by Muhammad Ali received a setback from the British intervention in 1840 and the subsequent assumption of power by Khedive Abbas and Khedive Isma’il.


In North Africa, Tunisia has been in the forefront of the modernist movement. In the 19th century, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, who had studied in Paris and was a minister in the 1870s, launched a movement for the restructuring of the education system, in which Islamic teachings were combined with modern education. In 1875 he set up the Siddiqi College for this purpose. Al-Tunisi argued that parliamentary democracy and freedom of expression were compatible with Islamic principles and that the only way to reinvigorate Muslim societies was to adopt Western ideas, education and political institutions.

Habib Bourguiba, the first president of Tunisia, was an enthusiastic votary of secular modernity and had great admiration for Ataturk. He was in fact called the “Maghrebian Ataturk.” Bourguiba’s 30-year reign was marked by a pro-Western and secular orientation, an unrelenting drive for modernization and a disdain for political parties and groups that claimed to be inspired by the Islamic ideology. In 1956, shortly after independence, Bourguiba launched a massive programme aimed at undermining the vitality of Islamic institutions and the authority of religious functionaries. Shariah courts were abolished and Islamic endowments were placed under the control of the government. In addition, Bourguiba pushed through a controversial legislation called the Code du Statut Personel, which secularized the family code and replaced the Shariah-based laws in respect of marriage, divorce, inheritance and child care. Polygamy was outlawed and divorce was made subject to judicial review. The celebration of feasts at Sufi shrines was prohibited. The wearing of the headscarf was prohibited in universities and government offices. In 1964, during the month of Ramadan, Burguiba drank a glass of orange juice in front of television cameras and told his countrymen that fasting unnecessarily drained one’s energy and that this energy could be harnessed for the nation’s progress and prosperity.

In July 2010, Syria’s minister of higher education, Ghiyath Barakat, declared that students wearing the full-face veil would not be allowed to enter university campuses. He added that the practice of wearing the full veil ran counter to the academic values and traditions of Syrian universities.


Reza Shah and his son and successor Muhammad Reza, who founded the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran in 1926, adopted policies that were aimed at promoting modernization, Western ideas and education and secular nationalism. The Pahlavi regime brought about substantial changes in Iranian society, including the introduction of modern education and the establishment of universities, the adoption of European civil, criminal and commercial codes, bureaucratic reorganization modeled after the French system, and modernization of the military. Dozens of modern institutions, including hospitals, clinics and scientific laboratories, were established in the country. A number of Iranian students were sent by the government to European universities to study modern disciplines, including law, medicine, engineering and economics, with a view to utilize their expertise, after the completion of their studies, for the modernization of the country.

Muhammad Reza, who was a great votary of secularism and Western culture, tried to downsize the role and influence of the Shia clergy in public life. Religious institutions were placed under the control of the government and deprived of much of their authority and resources. The government made an unsuccessful attempt to outlaw the wearing of the veil in public life. Muhammad Reza ruled with an iron hand. Dissidents were exiled, jailed, tortured and even executed. His authoritarian rule, widespread violation of human rights, growing dependence on Western countries, especially the United States, and the attempt to impose Western modernity on the people generated a great deal of resentment and anger across the country. He was ultimately overthrown by a popular uprising led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979.

A vivid example of the manner in which certain features of modernity can be selectively appropriated and harnessed is provided by the extensive use of audiocassettes during the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Prior to the revolution, the Shia clerics, who were opposed to the Pahlavi regime, had established a countrywide network of between 60,000 and 200,000 mullahs and like-minded individuals, with close ties with the people, in some 90,000 mosques, seminaries, community centres, merchant guilds and universities located across the country. During the 1970s, many of the speeches of Ali Shariati were recorded at Mashhad University and the Hosseiniye Irshad institute in Tehran. The cassettes were clandestinely distributed across the country as well as among the overseas Iranians through a network of formal and informal institutions.

By the mid-1970s the sermons and messages of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, recorded on cassettes, began to circulate. When he was exiled to France in 1978, his taped messages were transmitted through cassettes, which were reproduced in Iran in large numbers and widely distributed. The messages were relayed by Western and international news agencies as well as by the clandestine anti-shah radios operated by the overseas Iranians. The wide dissemination of the messages of Khomeini through a countrywide network of cassettes fuelled and reinforced anti-shah sentiments and ultimately paved the way for the overthrow of the Pahlavi regime.


Syria was a part of the Ottoman Empire from 1517 to 1918. In 1920 French forces invaded Syria and established direct rule over the country that lasted until 1946. The modern Syrian state gained independence in 1946 and was established as a parliamentary republic. Since independence, Syrian politics has been dominated by secular Arab nationalist parties, such as Ba’th and leftist parties, which have espoused the idea of a secular state. In 1949 Syria adopted a new civil code that was enacted in Egypt earlier in the same year. In the same year, the administration of Islamic endowments (awqaf) was placed under government control. A military coup in 1963 brought the Ba’th party to power. The party, whose leadership and cadres belong to the Alawi Shia minority, is ideologically committed to secularism and socialism. Hafez Al-Assad and his son and successor Bashar al-Assad have ruled the country with an iron hand. In 2010 the Assad government banned women from wearing the headscarf in universities. On November 8, 2012, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad told a Russian television network that his regime was the “last stronghold of secularism in the Middle East.”

The Muslim Brotherhood in Syria is strongly opposed to the Assad regime and its secularist project. The ruling regime’s autocratic style of functioning and the suppression of human rights and civil liberties have fuelled people’s resentment and anger. A determined opposition is seeking the ouster of the Assad government and the establishment of democratic rule in the country.

Modernist Discourses and Movements

It is instructive to look at the social, historical, political and economic context of the responses to European colonial rule and Western modernity that was brought in its wake. This context was marked by the political and economic decline of the worldwide Muslim ummah and the stagnation of Muslim societies. In addition, it was marked by the economic, technological, political and military ascendency of the West. Since modernity and Western culture were introduced under the aegis of colonial governments in most Muslim societies, they were often perceived as closely intertwined.

The responses to colonial rule in Muslim societies varied from violent opposition and armed resistance to compromises, cooperation and acquiescence. In North Africa and Russia, Sufi leaders and the ulama launched armed resistance movements. The Western-educated elite played a key role in the diffusion of modernity in the Muslim world. However, there were significant variations in the responses to colonial rule and Western modernity. Some of them, such as Sayyid Ahmad Khan in India, Qasim Amin and Taha Husayn in Egypt, Mehmet Ziya Gokalp in Ottoman Turkey and the leaders of the Jadidi movement in Russia, favoured a wholesale adoption of Western education, science and technology, political ideas and institutions and Western culture. On the other hand, a majority of them, including Mehmet Namik Kemal and Bediuzzaman Said Nursi in Ottoman Turkey, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, Muhammad Iqbal in undivided India and Ali Shariati in Iran, argued in favour of a selective and judicious appropriation of modernity within an overarching Islamic framework. They believed that certain features of modernity, such as Western education, science and technology, and legal and political principles and institutions like constitutionalism and democracy, could be suitably modified and adapted to the cultural ethos and the specific social and political contexts of Muslim societies. They rejected a wholesale adoption of Western culture and values because, in their view, it would undermine the moral and spiritual fibre of the Muslim ummah. Some of them argued that the efflorescence of modern science, medicine and technology owed much to the outstanding and wide-ranging contributions of Muslim scientists and physicians in the Middle Ages. Therefore, they argued, by embracing modern science and technology, Muslims would be reclaiming their own heritage.

By and large, the response of the Muslim elite to science and technology, modern education and legal and political institutions was far more favourable than to Western culture. Islamic reform and rejuvenation movements were launched in various parts of the Muslim world to counter and combat the immoral effects of Western culture.


One of the earliest manifestations of modernist ideas among Russian Muslims found expression in the Jadidi movement launched by some prominent members of the Muslim intelligentsia, who held important positions in the government, military and academia, in the 1890s. The movement, which was particularly strong in Crimea, the Caucasus and the Volga region, emerged against the backdrop of the decline and degeneration of Muslim society, the growing Russian hegemony and the challenges of Russian culture faced by the Muslim community.

The leaders of the movement, such as Abbas Kuli Aga Bakikhanov (1794-1848), Mirza Fetali Akhunddov (1812-1878), Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865), Mirza Kazem-Bek (1802-1870), Shihabeddin Merjani (1818-1889) and Ismail Gasprinski (1851-1941), identified themselves with Russian culture and Western modernity and argued that in order to rectify the economic decline and social stagnation of Muslims in Russia and to put them on the path of progress, it was imperative to embrace Western education and modernity. They called for the reform and reconstruction of Muslim society through a restructuring of the education system, whereby the economic and technical competence of Muslims could be improved, and the adoption of science and technology. The Jadidi modernists argued that the goal of progress would remain unaccomplished without the emancipation and empowerment of Muslim women and the expansion of their role in public life. They opposed such traditional practices as the wearing of the veil, polygamy and easy divorce. There was a strong undercurrent of anti-clericism in the Jadidi movement, which put it at loggerheads with the ulama.

Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), a highly influential writer, teacher, social reformer and social activist whose ideas had a profound influence on Egypt in particular and on the Arab and Islamic world in general, was born in Asadabad, Iran. He travelled widely across the Muslim world and had close interactions with the ulama, intellectuals and social activists. Al-Afghani was fiercely opposed to colonial rule and Western hegemony and was a great votary of the unity and solidarity of the Muslim ummah. He was highly critical of the Westernised Muslim elite who were too enamoured of Western culture and who favoured the wholesale adoption of Western ideas and institutions.

Al-Afghani believed that there was no conflict between Islam on the one hand and reason, science, modernity and liberal political ideas that are associated with the West, on the other. He suggested that the secret of the prowess and superiority of the West lay in its whole-hearted embrace of science and technology, and he urged Muslims to accept science and technology with open arms so as to get out of the morass of stagnation and degeneration. He advised Muslims to reconcile Islamic values and principles with modern education, science and technology and Western political ideas in order to defend the Muslim world against the hegemonic expansion of the West. Al-Afghani’s advocacy of constitutionalism and parliamentary democracy made him very popular with the younger generation of Muslims.

In association with his disciple Muhammad Abduh, al-Afghani started a journal, Al-urwah al-uthqa, from Paris in 1883. The articles published in the journal focused on three fundamental and interrelated issues: the challenge of European colonialism and Western hegemony, the overriding importance of the unity and solidarity of the Muslim ummah, and the pressing need for an intellectual and cultural reorientation and social reform. Though the paper lasted for less than a year, it had a profound influence on the Muslim intelligentsia, ulama and social activists in the Muslim world. Al-Afghani’s ideas influenced a number of Muslim intellectuals and reformers, including Muhammad Abduh, the Russian social reformer Fakhreddin Rizaeddin and Ali Shariati.

Muhammad Abduh

Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) was an influential Egyptian scholar, jurist and social reformer, who is often described as the father of Islamic modernism. Abduh was deeply influenced by the ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. He was exiled from Egypt for six years by the British in 1882 for supporting the Egyptian nationalist revolt led by Ahmad Urabi. In 1884 he moved to Paris to assist al-Afghani in editing his journal. He returned to Egypt in 1888 and was appointed Mufti of Egypt in 1899.

Abduh was of the opinion that it was possible and desirable to combine Islamic values and ideas with science and modernity in a harmonious framework. He believed that the key to the West’s power and prosperity lay in its adoption of modern education and science. He issued edicts endorsing the permissibility of banking interest, photographic reproduction of humans and the meat of animals mechanically slaughtered. He thought that the only effective means of resisting European domination was the adoption of modern education and the restructuring and reform of society. He urged the ulama and jurists to reinterpret Islamic legal provisions – through ijtihad -- in the context of changing times.

Muhammad Abduh’s reformist ideas influenced a fairly large number of Muslim intellectuals, reformers and political activists, including Qasim Amin, Muhammad Rashid Rida and Mohammad Hussein Heikal.

Muhammad Rashid Rida

Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935), a prominent Egyptian scholar and social reformer, was born in a respectable family in a village near Tripoli. After attending a local madrasa, Rida joined an Islamic school established by Shaykh Husayn al-Jisr (d. 1909), who advocated a synthesis of Islamic instruction and modern education. Rida acquired proficiency in Islamic disciplines and a fair knowledge of modern subjects as well as French and Turkish.

Rida was greatly influenced by the Salafiyah movement and the social reform movement led by al-Afghani and Abduh. He was drawn to the reformist ideas of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1791). In 1897 Rida became Abduh’s disciple and began disseminating his views through a weekly magazine Al-Manar. Like Abduh, Rida believed in the compatibility of Islam and modernity and was an admirer of Western science and technology. Rida considered education a prerequisite for social reform and for emancipation from colonial rule. He founded the School of Propagation and Guidance in Cairo in 1912. The school’s curriculum combined Islamic instruction with modern subjects. Rida strongly believed that Islamic legal provisions needed to be reinterpreted in the context of changing times and circumstances.

In the early decades of the 20th century, a group of Muslim intellectuals led by Ahmad Lutfi El-Sayyid (1872-1963), who were influenced by Western political ideas, argued that the spheres of state and religion should be separated and that religion should be relegated to the private realm. El-Sayyid, who was a key figure in the modernist movement in Egypt, founded Egypt’s first political party, El-Ummah, which played a key role in rousing anti-colonial and nationalist sentiments in the country. He was influenced by European liberal thought and was a votary of participatory democracy, civil rights and women’s rights.

Qasim Amin (1863-1908), Egyptian jurist and social reformer, was a key figure in the nationalist and modernist movement in Egypt. He had studied at the University of Montpellier in France and was greatly influenced by Western thought, particularly the ideas of Charles Darwin, Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. His reformist ideas also reflected the influence of Muhammad Abduh. He was a great votary of Western education and women’s rights and was opposed to the veil. Mohammad Hussein Heikal (1888-1956), Egyptian novelist and journalist, was an influential figure in the modernist movement in Egypt. He had studied law at Sorbonne University. Upon his return to Egypt, he worked as a lawyer and at the same time contributed articles on issues of social reform to local newspapers. He was influenced by the reformist and modernist ideas of Ahmad Lutfi El-Sayyid, Muhammad Abduh and Qasim Amin. Heikal was a forceful advocate of liberalism, which had a distinct Arab nationalist flavor.

After World War I, most nationalist parties in Egypt began to espouse the view that Islamic institutions should be placed under state supervision and that Western law codes should be introduced in the country. Taha Husayn (1889-1973), one of the most influential Egyptian writers who had studied at the universities of Montpellier and Sorbonne in France, was a forceful proponent of Western modernity.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan

Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), a prominent Indian writer, educationist and social reformer, was a great votary of modern education and an admirer of Western culture. He experienced great anguish over the deteriorating condition of Muslims in India in the wake of the aborted Mutiny of 1857 and felt that this could be rectified only through the adoption of modern education and Western ideas. He viewed colonial rule as benign and launched a movement to persuade and urge Muslims in India to embrace modern education, science and Western culture without any misgivings. He founded the All India Mohammedan Educational Conference for the promotion of modern education among Muslims. He travelled to England in 1869 to observe and study the British system of education and stayed there for 15 months. He visited prominent schools such as Eaton and Harrow and the reputed universities of Oxford and Cambridge. His major contribution was the establishment of Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh in northern India in 1875, which became the Aligarh Muslim University in 1920. He was knighted by the British government in 1888.

Sayyid Ahmad Khan believed that Islamic beliefs and doctrines were compatible with science and modern ideas. He made a controversial attempt to reinterpret Islamic theology in the light of rational and scientific principles.

Modernist Reform Movement in Indonesia

Indonesia came under Dutch colonial rule in the 17th century, which lasted until 1945. Colonial rule posed multiple challenges to the Muslims, including the massive exploitation and plundering of the country’s natural resources, suppression of human rights, the threat of evangelization by European missionaries, and the growing influence of Western culture. In response to these challenges, Haji Ahmad Dahlan (1868-1923) founded the Muhammadiya movement in Jakarta in 1912. Dahlan, who had travelled and lived in Egypt for some time in the 1890s, was influenced by the reformist ideas of Muhammad Abduh. Like Abduh, Dahlan believed that there was no inherent contradiction or conflict between Islam and modernity. He believed that the most effective means of social reform and regeneration was education. Dahlan and his followers established a network of schools, including a school exclusively for Muslim girls, where Islamic instruction was combined with modern subjects.

Muhammad Iqbal

Sir Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938) was one of the most influential Muslim philosopher-poets in British India. In his poetry, written in Urdu and Persian, he lamented the dogmatic slumber into which Muslims had fallen and urged them to make determined efforts to free themselves from the shackles of superstition, dogmatism and fatalism. He also called for the reconstruction of Islamic thought to restore the vitality of Islamic faith and the dynamism of Muslim society. Iqbal admired the dynamic spirit of Western civilization, its single-minded pursuit of rationalism and its scientific and technological prowess. He was considerably influenced by the thought of Henri Bergson and Friedrich Nietzsche. At the same time, he was highly critical of its excessive materialism and self-gratification and its moral bankruptcy.

Ali Shariati

Ali Shariati (1933-1977), Iranian sociologist and political activist, played a leading role in the movement that ultimately led to the ouster of the last Iranian king Muhammad Reza Shah and ushered in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. He has been called the ideologue of the Iranian Revolution. Shariati studied at the University of Mashhad and thereafter at the University of Paris. He obtained a doctorate in sociology from a university in Paris. He was considerably influenced by the ideas of the French Orientalists Louis Massignon and Jacques Berque and the French sociologist Georges Gurvich. He was also influenced by the revolutionary thought of the French-Algerian psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary writer, Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) and Che Guevara (1928-1967), the Argentine Marxist revolutionary writer and guerilla leader who played a key role in the Cuban revolution. Shariati translated an anthology of Fanon into Persian. Upon his return from Paris, Shariati taught for sometime at the University of Mashhad and at Hosseiniye Ershad Institute. The most profound influence on Shariati’s thought came from the ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Iqbal. Shariati was a fierce critic of Western imperialism which had led to the enslavement of the colonized peoples in Africa and Asia.

Shariati sought to focus on the relevance of Islamic teachings and principles to the requirements of his time. He believed that Islam provided a viable and enduring alternative to both Marxism and capitalism. He argued that science and modernity should be appropriated within the framework of Islamic values and traditions and the Iranian culture. His writings and lectures were widely distributed through audio cassettes and had a great influence on the intelligentsia and students. He was imprisoned several times for his views and political activities, which were seen as subversive by the government of Muhammad Reza.

Mohammed Arkoun

Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010) was an Algerian-born scholar of Berber descent and a leading Arab intellectual. He was a professor of the History of Islamic Thought at the Sorbonne and a former Director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies there. For the most part of his academic career, Arkoun was engaged in a radical reinterpretation of Islamic intellectual and legal traditions in a hermeneutic framework that was inspired by the contemporary French discourse. In his main works, Lectures du Coran (1991) and Rethinking Islam: Common Questions, Uncommon Answers (1994), Arkoun controversially argued, contrary to mainstream Muslim opinion, that the text of the Quran represented an amalgamation of several levels and phases of production and compilation.

Islamic Socialism

Some Muslim intellectuals and political activists in the Middle East and North Africa, who were drawn to the socialist ideology, sought to synthesise it with Islamic values and principles, which has been called Islamic socialism. The idea of Islamic socialism has been popular, at different points of time, in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Tunisia, Algeria and South Yemen. A prominent socialist thinker in Egypt was Salamah Musa (1887-1958). He had studied in England and was deeply influenced by Fabian thought. He wrote a large number of books and tracts on social justice in a socialist framework, which were widely read in the country. The Egyptian intellectual Shaykh Khalid Muhammad Khalid argued that socialism was sanctioned by Islam and was a desirable alternative to capitalism.

The most influential theorist of Islamic socialism was Mustafa al-Siba’i (1915-1964), head of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, known as Islamic Socialist Front. Al-Siba’i argued that Islam and socialism were compatible and that socialism represented a desirable goal for society. He believed that the basis of social solidarity in a state and society inspired by Islamic socialism was provided by a combination of principles, including equality, social justice, cooperation and responsibility. He maintained that Islamic socialism rested on five principles: the right to live a protected and healthy life, the right to liberty, the right to knowledge, the right to dignity, and the qualified right to property. Al-Siba’i’s ideas were adopted by the Egyptian president Jamal Abdel Nasser, who sought to combine Arab nationalism, socialism and Islam.

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