Islam and Westers Modernism: Is There a way Forward?

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Talat Farooq[*]


(This is a multi-faceted topic and cannot be encapsulated within the limited space of this writing. This article therefore aims to understand the fundamentals of the relationship between Western modernism and Islam in the light of some key areas of discord. It further attempts to analyze some of the underlying factors that shape the Muslim reaction to Western modernism and investigates the possibility of a future course of action leading to peaceful conflict resolution. Author).

Both Islam and modernism are abstract quantities which cannot be reduced to simple categories. The history of Islam, like that of other religions, is a history of different interpretations and approaches, from the literal to the metaphysical, and from the external to the introspective. Similarly, modernism is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon rather than a unified and coherent trend. According to the Western approach it is a “philosophical approach to certainty which relies primarily upon reason rather than revelation.”[1] It began with Descartes’ identification of self-evident principles to repel doubt, but is usually associated with Kant’s critical analysis of epistemological arguments and ethical and aesthetic judgments. The term modernity represents the scientific and technical advances that were obtained subsequent to a shift from politico-religious authority to secular democracy. In everyday usage the terms modernism and modernity are interchangeable.

Dawn of the Modern Era: A Brief Perspective

Europe’s productivity in all aspects of human existence was seriously damaged during the middle ages and scientific and technological achievements were possible only after Europe won its long drawn war against the Christian church. The medieval concepts of original sin and salvation and the overwhelming religious and political authority of the Church had subdued the European intellect for centuries, hindering scientific research, oppressing women and perpetuating injustices in the name of strengthening the moral fibre of their societies.  It was largely the cultural influence of the Islamic world that began to effect change within the European civilization. The best minds of Europe armed with the progressive trends of Islamic thought challenged Church supremacy till it was swept overboard in the 18th century.

The geo-centric model of the universe and its traditional picture as supported by Aristotelian Physics and Neo-Platonic cosmology was deeply concerned with the metaphysical position of man and his relationship with a Higher Reality. Post-Renaissance revival of the mechanical view of the universe emphasized man’s personal relationship with God. This line of thinking culminated in rationalism followed by the empirical approach of modern science. Empiricism rejected the rationalist view of innate knowledge of abstract ideas. Instead it emphasized the significance of sensory experience. The positivist view further discarded metaphysical and religious thinking as archaic. The certainty of religious belief was replaced with scientific doubt as man became the master of the universe, capable of individual choices without divine guidance.

A new intellectualism and cognition marked the beginning of modern European societies and ushered in the intellectual and moral paradigm shift, redefining these societies as communities with particular symbols used for social integration. The new European material interests and the modern scientific and philosophical mindset added to the religious vacuum as materialism with its emphasis on utilitarianism became the new beacon of hope. The paradigm shift resulted in secularism, industrialization, labor-intensive capitalist economy and technological advancement which in turn redefined the political structures and socio-cultural norms of the West. An increased number of skilled people were now expected to participate in industrial projects to keep the economy going. Modern human resource management resulted in enhanced literacy and integration of the marginalized segments of the society. “Thus, the ideals of democracy, pluralism, toleration, human rights and secularism were not simply beautiful ideals dreamed up by political scientists, but were, at least in part, dictated by the needs of the modern state.”[2] The post industrialization mindset accompanied Western imperialism into different corners of the globe aiming to become a pervasive force in the colonies.

The new western societies developed a different economic base, and industrialization and technology enabled them to replicate and reproduce resources indefinitely. Rational and scientific organization of institutions rendered them strong as compared to the agrarian structures. Since new markets and raw materials were needed, the western powers eyed the Islamic world that was strategically placed. The local industry was ruined in the process and instead of innovation; the colonized world could only imitate the West. The Islamic world was quickly demoted from leader to dependent, having to put up with the colonist’s contempt who arrogated to himself the ‘white man’s burden’ based on the assumption of western superiority and progressiveness. Organized colonization was accompanied by the notion of the supremacy of Western modernism. The paradigm shift in Europe did not come easy to the Muslims who considered themselves the inheritors of the Golden Age of the Islamic civilization. Polarization spawned by European colonization eventually left a legacy of conflict and hatred that has survived into the 21st century. Western modernism and its manifestations have thus become symbols of cataclysmic imperialism especially in the minds of the religious in the Islamic world.

In the face of European imperialism both the Muslim political elite and the religious authorities endeavoured to reconstruct their societies with politics achieving centrality in the face of western encroachment. The intrusion of the West, that raised major religious questions, was viewed as a political tragedy and an indication of a deeper malaise in the heart of the Ummah.[3] Islamic modernists, secular nationalists and socialists generated the intelligentsia’s commitment to secular and western ideals. This shift from traditional to modern expressions of political identity was a profound departure from the Muslim historical political culture while on the other it affirmed the secular legitimacy of the state as inherent in the concept of sultanate.[4]

The pre modern Muslim societies were agrarian with weak central authority. Far flung areas of the empire were controlled by religious figures who managed the justice system and education. The tribal setups gave a great deal of power to the ulama. As opposed to the Muslim political elite, Islamic reformism became important to the religious authorities. The ulama encouraged the middle class to resist state power and defy European commercial and economic concepts.  The reformist movements adhered to variant versions of historical Islamic political culture leading to a threefold structure of Muslim societies that rested on secular state regime, non-political Muslim religious associations and opposition movements geared towards the reestablishment of a Muslim state based on the pristine principles of early Islam.[5]The Ulama and the market forces opposed both colonial influences as well as the secular nationalism of the intelligentsias. They led resistance movements and expressed their motives in reformist agenda.

In societies where ulama were under state control, as in Ottoman Turkey, the intelligentsia led the independence movements unopposed. Nationalism became the preferred doctrine of people with western education and for those uprooted elements who in the aftermath of colonization did not belong to traditional thought patterns or communities. The political intelligentsia adopted secular nationalist leanings because it helped integrate masses under their leadership. The Young Turks, for example, through this ideology opposed the pan-Islamic claims of the Sultan. Nationalism was used against reformist oriented elements and movements in the society. It served dual purposes; the nationalist leadership could participate in colonial regimes and could resist foreign rule at the same time. In other states, such as Iran, imposition of western modernization gave rise to direct state – ulama conflict. In Indonesia and Algeria diverse social elements such as the petit bourgeoisie, rural populations and socialists attempted to define national identity. [6] Thus, the two Muslim responses to European colonial intervention were from the intelligentsia and the ulama.

The post colonial Muslim societies, dislocated by rapid modernization imposed by the west, continue to reel under the impact. The rapid fundamental changes in their socio-political and economic structures continue to be characterized by struggles amongst the intelligentsia and other elite and the ulama.[7] The questions of the role of religion in the modern state and the state-society relationship have remained ambiguous and this inherent ambiguity has been transmitted to modern Muslim societies of the twentieth century. The late twentieth century fundamentalist response endeavours to correct what it perceives as harmful secular effects of modernization and in the process continues to depart from the core values of Islam. The mutual Muslim-West failure to find a peaceful resolution to this conflict has allowed violent elements to fill the vacuum. Today, the Muslim world in general and Pakistani society in particular is faced with the violent face of conflict resolution that is being employed by both the state and the non-state actors.

Modernism signified the decline of the traditional social order and the religious world-view, replacing it with secular culture based on individualist and rationalist impulses.   The post-colonial Muslim world in general has remained suspicious of the Western ideals of modernism. The discord is not only between the Muslims and the West but also within the Muslim schools of thought and opinion makers.  Some of the key socio-political areas of disagreement are discussed in the next section.

Islam and the West: Some Key Areas of Discord

Post-colonial Islamic thought has remained wary of western modernism for various reasons. The very term ‘modernism’ according to one school of traditional Muslim thought means that “which is cut off from the Transcendent.’[8]It is contrasted with “al-din”[9]to demonstrate the inherent incompatibility.  The western concepts of secularism and rationalism that extol pure reason, empiricism and humanism are perceived to be detrimental to the fundamental beliefs of the Muslims. According to Fazlur Rahman the blight of modernity is secularism as it destroys the transcendent moral values by undermining their universality. He therefore considers it inherently atheistic.[10] Abd al-Wahab al-Masiri, while he does not link secularism directly to atheism, describes secularism as a complete ideological worldview that accounts for a complex array of problems in the modern world including “the spread of moral and epistemological relativism’ ‘ disintegration of society’, decline of family’, ‘the de-centering of man’, ‘consumerism’ and Americanization’. The concept of death of God has led to ‘anti humanist philosophies’ and philosophical nihilism’.[11] In the realm of politics, economics and morality modernism lacks principles because it is divorced from immutable higher principles. Modernism has thus brought about “disequilibrium through its very inventions and discoveries.”[12]

The opposing Western and liberal Muslim opinion however refutes both points of view by asserting that secularism is more of a social structure than an ideology, invented to combat the regressive worldview of the Christian church that emphasized otherworldliness to maintain its own power. It is a fallacy to consider all westerners as irreligious and atheists. Although there are those who deny transcendental values, as indeed there are atheists, their beliefs do not define the essence of the term ‘Secularism’ and within the Western societies the term ‘value-free’ has been portrayed as a myth by many thoughtful individuals. Moreover, the modernist outlook insists that official or state-mandated religion is ‘no guarantee that transcendent values will operate in society.’[13] This school of thought maintains that the secularism of Europe did not aim to establish irreligion as the new doctrine of the state but to preclude doctrinal basis of the state so as to prevent the upholders of any doctrine to use it against fellow Christians belonging to different churches. The modern concept of secularism has emerged from this legacy of bitter conflict.

The Renaissance that liberated the Western mind was to a great extent due to the revival of the Hellenistic culture and rationalist ideals integrated with Islamic thought that were transmitted by the Muslims to medieval Europe. The interaction between the Muslims and Christians through the crusades, the universities of Spain and the commercialism of Genoa and Venice wrought a pattern that showed refinement of Islamic rational thought in the works of Al Kindi, Ibn e Sina, Al Razi, Ibn e Rushd and others.

The Mutazillah School that was established sometime during the early eighth century as a protest against religious dogma spawned an influential rational movement within Islam. Their tenets were enforced as state doctrine during the reigns of Mamun and Mu’tassim and  history tells us that “Phenomenal progress in the secular sciences occurred under Mutazitlite rulers, and most of the great Islamic scholars and scientists either openly declared their allegiance to rationalism or were heavily influenced by it.”[14]

Although the Mutazillah expounded the primacy of reason and free will, they believed in the compatibility of reason and revelation but with little faith in the reliability of the Ahadis. They were bitterly opposed by the Asharites. Al Ghazali, the proponent of Asharite thought, contributed commendable Sufi values to the Muslim masses in the wake of the Christian onslaught. However, his attack on the rational Islamic philosophy gravely undermined the role of reason in functioning of the natural world. He categorically rebuts that “fire is the agent of burning, bread the agent of satiety, medicine the agent of health.”[15]Instead he argues that everything happens because of divine intervention. Contemporary Muslim orthodoxy that subscribes to the Asharite concept of predestination denies the search for causal connections that underlies Western rationality. The ideas of the Mutazillah, nonetheless, shaped the thought process of the Muslim reformers in the Western colonial period more than ten centuries later. Thus, rationalism is not an innovation in Islam although it continues to incur sustained opposition from orthodox Muslim quarters. The rational creed propounded by Islamic philosophers impacted the West profoundly but since Western rationalism was employed to challenge the Christian religious authorities in the West it came to be viewed as anti-religion, atheistic and immoral.

The liberal Muslim opinion does not reject Western rationalism as such. It maintains that modern rationalism identifies various ways of reasoning to avoid the fallacies taught by religious authorities as a reaction to “politicized religious order that tried to maintain its central role by denying the validity of any truths which it did not propagate.”[16] It is not devoid of morality and ethics by definition. Kant, the modernist philosopher, has argued in favor of the innate ‘primary moral ideas of goodness and duty.”[17]His rational morality rests on the concept of categorical imperative or universal moral principles. He asserts that the knowledge of God and the afterlife must be assumed as “conditions of the full realization of the goals of morality.”[18] Monotheism led to personal responsibility which is the basis of rationalism and hence the modern age. Therefore, this school of thought insists that modernism and religion are not mutually exclusive.[19]

Secular empirical science that rests on Western rationality draws criticism from the Muslim traditionalists. Maryam Jameelah for example, criticizes the importance that modern science attaches to originality and progress and declares that innovation and change do not constitute the intrinsic values of the Islamic society.[20] This line of thought maintains that the first trait of modern science is anthropomorphism in that it excludes the reality of the human being in the universe and employs purely human criteria and instruments in reaching scientific theories. It is human reason and human sensory experience that underline modern science in contrast to pre-modern ,traditional sciences  for whom “the locus and container of knowledge is not the human mind but ultimately the Divine Intellect.”[21] The pre-modern Muslim scientists did not merely rely on human reason and sensory perception but had as its guiding principles the sources of revelation and intuition.[22] The traditional Islamic point of view does not discard human intuitive ability as a source of knowledge in favor of sensory perception; the Sufi thought believes in the possibility of direct experience of the Higher Reality.

Conversely, Muslim intellectuals who do not discard modern science and its methods in totality maintain that ideal and material exist side by side. According to this outlook “ …Islam, recognizing the contact of the ideal with the real, says “yes” to the world of matter and points the way to mastering it with a view to discover a basis for a realistic regulation of life.”[23]

Modern Islamic scholars such as Ismail R. al Faruqi restate the meaning of Islam for the modern times by considering tawhid to be a rational concept since it eliminated mythical dimensions of religion and in its place spawned rationalized theology. Thus, tawhid by definition opposes the forces of myth and superstition that hinder natural science and civilization.[24] Man can achieve the divine purpose through his interaction with the world of matter that has been created in conformity with the Divine objective and intent. His life has a purpose precisely because in the words of the Quran, neither he nor the universe was created randomly:

‘We created not the Heavens, the Earth and all between them, merely in (idle) sport; We have created them not except for just ends; But most of them do not understand.”44:38-39

The Muslim liberal school of thought warns that by rejecting empirical science the Muslim world will continue to weaken technologically and the regressive system of education will arrest human potential. This point of view asserts that the pragmatic Muslim vision shared by the silent Muslim majority is conducive to the reconciliation of Islamic thought with modern, empirical science in sharp contrast with the orthodox outlook.[25] The modern Muslim “is quick to find in the record of past Islamic scientific achievement solid proof of harmony between Islam and science. The Golden Age becomes the triumphant vindication of the numerous exhortations of the Quran and the Prophet to seek knowledge, and these exhortations are specifically understood as instructions to acquire scientific knowledge in the modern sense.”[26]

One of the defining features of secularism pertains to the dominance of secular forms of political authority and the subsequent bifurcation between politics and religion; a development that reinforces an existing intra-Islam conflict and translates into a crucial dissension between Islam and the modern West. According to Muslim reformers, democracy is not alien to Islam in that Islam promotes consultation and consensus in statecraft. This was amply demonstrated after the death of Muhammad when the Rashidun were elected by vote. However, the modern Western democratic concept of sovereignty belonging to the people is in direct conflict with the traditional Islamic view of God being the ultimate sovereign and both the state and the society being the mediums of translation and manifestation of His divine will.

The modern Muslim states have managed to introduce democracy without following the Western model in letter and spirit. The more fundamentalist view, however, considers the Muslim democracies, along with Muslim monarchies, to be un-Islamic. It maintains that conformity to Islamic code of life enshrined in the shariah is crucial for a state to be Islamic. The Muslim political leader is deemed as God’s vicegerent on earth who does not rule in his own right but rather is responsible for establishing a just society based on revealed truths. The Islamic ideal of tawhid, according to the traditional view, precludes secularism and the struggle to preserve this ideal in state structures has preoccupied Muslim ulama and reformers throughout history. They have not been comfortable with the idea of modern democratic states that disconnect the spiritual from the temporal. Pre-modern Islamic history demonstrates that while the social ethic of the Ummah was consolidated through the shariah, the areas of politics, commerce and administration were excluded. The Sultanate, according to this point of view, was accepted in place of Caliphate for the sake of peace and the legitimacy of the leadership was rationalized to perpetuate the Ummah.[27]

The conflicting positions of Islam and the west vis-a-vis separation of politics and religion is an extension of pre-modern intra-Islam conflict that has evaded resolution over the centuries. The pre-colonial alternative concepts of Islamic society, i.e., the Caliphate and the Sultanate continue to stimulate Muslim thought in the post-colonial period. This conceptual legacy however does not offer“…a defined structure of state and society, but a spectrum of variation and an inherent ambiguity about the relations between the two.”[28] In the face of political realities of the modern era the traditionalists are nostalgic for the era of the Caliphate that is conceptually perceived to integrate religion and politics along with state and society, in conformity with the concept of tawhid.

The opposing analysts, however, find democratic principles to be compatible with the egalitarian spirit of Islam. They are hopeful for democracy to take root in the Muslim world because:

The study of Islamic history and the vast and rich Islamic political literature encourages the belief that it may well be possible to develop democratic institution—not necessarily in our Western definition of that much misused term but in one deriving from their own history and culture……[because]there is enough in the traditional culture of Islam on the one hand and the modern experience of the Muslim people on the other to provide the basis for an advance toward freedom in the true sense of the word.”[29]

In the aftermath of European colonization the concept of nation-state dealt the final blow to the Muslim Ummah. The Islamic conception of Ummah defines identity on religious basis and collides with the western concept of nationalism based on cultural and linguistic diversities. In Islam there is no concept of the Promethean revolt against Heaven and the divine essence is present in the minutest detail of a Muslim’s everyday life. It determines the identity and status of man while encompassing his entire being. The formalism of the shariah in its externality is the reflection of the Divine Will. In this ideal Islamic polity the temporal political power is fused with the sacred.

The Muslim traditional orthodoxy views western colonizing powers as infusing nationalism to divide the Ottoman Empire and undermine the unity of the Islamic world. The trend, according to this view, was initially introduced in the Ottoman Empire by targeting a certain segment of the intelligentsia that was duly inspired by it and subsequently the movement of the Young Turks embarked upon the dissemination of the ‘Pan-Turkish’ policy. They expounded the idea of Turk-superiority and adopted an anti-Arab stand in line with direct plans of the British imperialists toward Arab nationalism. It was the discriminatory and nationalistic policies of the Young Turks that “kindled the flame of Arab nationalism.”[30] The same pattern was then followed in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. The divergent view, on the other hand, points out that the weakened Ottoman Empire was already on the brink of collapse due to various internal conditions and causes. The masses wanted a change from “the injustice of the selfish, pseudo-Muslim governments which inflicted suppression and torture upon the people.”[31]

The traditional Muslims further denounce the individual-centric modern ideas of humanism, utopianism and progress. They opine that deriving from these ideas modernism seeks to establish a just social order through pure human endeavor and progress. Islam considers man to be the representative of God on this earth with a mission to execute His divine plan. As he embarks upon this transcendent endeavor his reason is guided by the spiritual light preserved in the guiding principles of the Quran. Man possesses a divine self and within the limits of the Shariah he can achieve ever greater heights towards perfection and is not bound by the baser elements of the unconscious mind. An individual can achieve the status of the spiritual ‘super-man’ by following the Quranic injunctions while indulging in mutually fulfilling interaction with the community and without exploiting or eliminating the weak.

The Muslim traditionalists oppose Darwinism and theorize that although man contains within his inner self the animal and plant nature, “man has always been man”[32] and has not evolved from lower forms of life. The traditionalists denounce the Darwinian theories of evolutionism and natural selection that strike at the heart of the Islamic belief of man’s divine purpose. The randomness of change as envisaged by Darwin is in conflict with the Muslim belief in God mega plan that is progressing toward a higher purpose in which man is God’s co-worker. There is an underlying pattern and consistency behind seemingly chaotic and random reality of appearances and sense experience. The modernist concepts of Darwinian, Freudian and Nietzschean worldviews are thus seen as harbingers of imperialism, racism and socio-economic injustices as well as manipulation of the political processes in the non-western nations.

While the Islamic discourse includes adherents to predestination, there are those who subscribe to the philosophy of free will. The more liberal Muslim scholars like Ali Shari’ati see the story of Adam and his creation in the Quran as full of symbolism and in which Adam “represents the whole human species, the essence of the human race, man in his philosophical sense, not in the biological sense.”[33]He is theomorphic and capable of fashioning his own destiny. Similarly, Allama Iqbal, propounds the unfettered potential of man. He considers man’s ego or self to be inherently driven toward manifestation of his latent capabilities. It is the world of matter around the human being that animates him and offers him opportunities to realize his potential by discovering and creating, and thereby evolving freely toward higher spiritual stations.  A believer’s life is progressive in that through his God-given abilities he can shape his own destiny and that of the universe .The Quranic vision conceives him as:

“…. an ascending spirit who, in his onward march, rises from one state of being to another.”[34]

On the other hand, modernism conceptualizes man as the master of the universe who is responsible only to himself. The notion of western freedom is perceived to result in unbridled passions entailing greed and moral degradation in the socio-cultural milieu.  According to Seyyed Nasr the concept of utopianism “of the last centuries, which is one of the features of modernism, combined with various forms of Messianism, led and still leads to deep social and political upheavals whose goals and methods cannot but remain completely alien to ethos and aims of traditional Islam.”[35] He, however, maintains that the Islamic promise of renewal of Islamic social order is profoundly different from Western utopianism. Unlike modern humanism the Islamic perspective does not deny the sacred and does not encourage the profane or the secular.[36]

It may be surmised that the unresolved disputes and disagreements between the West and Islam on the one hand and within Islamic thought on the other demonstrate that modernization of Islamic societies has been superficial. European colonization was an unnatural imposition that intercepted the indigenous social evolutionary process. The divide and rule policy of the imperialist powers led to alienation and divisions that continue to haunt the post-colonial Muslim societies. The antagonism is compounded with an overwhelming sense of loss of identity that has enveloped the Muslim world since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. In the post-colonial developing nation states modernity has been accompanied by a loss of independence and not by an affirmation of identity, giving rise to discontent and intra-state conflicts. Concerned Muslims have resolved to put the Islamic Ummah back on track by drawing on the thought processes of the early rival parties. The post-colonial Muslim states have had an uneasy relationship with reformist Ulama and religious intelligentsia. They have responded to the attempts at Islamization in a number of ways and since their negative response has hindered the evolution of indigenous modernization it needs to be discussed in some detail in the light of certain relevant historical developments.

The Question of State and Religion

The integration of religion and politics is one of the most fundamental issues of Islamic theological and philosophical thought process and it predates modern times. The Kharijites symbolize the beginning of a significant “Muslim trend, whereby the politics that affected the morality of the Ummah led to a new theological development.”[37]The dye had been cast and throughout Islamic history “from time to time, the Muslims who protested against the behavior of the reigning caliph would retreat from the Ummah, like the Kharijites, and summon all true Muslims to join them in a struggle (jihad) for higher Islamic standards.”[38] Later day historical developments forged theological movements and pioneered the discipline of fiqh that defined Islamic piety as the guidelines for setting up local legal systems. The state policies and the conduct of the ruler “acquired a religious significance that had profound reverberations with the asceticism, mysticism, sacred jurisprudence and early theological speculation of the Muslim world.”[39] The late 15th and early 16th centuries saw the emergence of three absolute Muslim monarchies; the Safavids and the Shia dominated empire in Iran; the shariah following Ottomans in Anatolia, North Africa, Syria and Arabia, and the Sufi and philosophy loving Mughal Empire in India. During this time the dichotomy between state and religion that had emerged strongly during the late Abbasid period became more pronounced at the institutional level, although at the cultural level the questions remained unanswered. These Muslim empires, although apparently secular, nonetheless identified with the Muslim value system derived from the early caliphate. [40] Over the centuries the political health of the Muslim community thus won a centrality in the Muslim discourse and argumentation. The centrality of politics has continued to strengthen in post-colonial Muslim societies.

Whereas Western secularism was benign [41]and seen by philosophers like John Locke as freeing religion from state control to adhere more honestly to its spiritual ideals, Muslim nation states have borrowed this idea to brutally suppress religion. By basing state formation and state building on purely Western secularist tenets, states such as Egypt, Iran and Turkey employed secularism to confront reformist agendas. Ataturk suppressed Sufi orders, clamped down on madrassah education system and forced western styles of dressing. Similarly Reza Shah of Iran (1878-1941) deprived the ulama of land endowments and introduced civil system in place of shariah. He suppressed Shia ceremonies related to the martyrdom of Hussein and forbade Iranians from performing hajj. His son Reza Shah Pahlavi (1919-1980) continued his father’s brutal policies in an ostensibly democratic state, against the religious by shooting protesters, including students in the street, and intimidating, imprisoning without trial, exiling and torturing ulama through SAVAK, the Iranian secret police. Similarly in Egypt Jamal Abd al- Nasser (1918-1970) suppressed the Muslim Brotherhood through militant means, imprisoning in jails and concentration camps thousands of Brothers who had not been directly involved in any serious anti-state activities.[42]

Certain political authorities in the post-colonial Muslim states cautiously accommodated Islamic politics by manipulating Islamic discourse to some extent without fully adopting Islamic statecraft. Egypt, Turkey and Jordan typify such utilitarian response by a state that is inherently secular but enters into alliance with Islamic forces to attain short term political goals. All four states employed such tactics during critical periods. In Egypt, Anwar Sadat strengthened Islamic forces to weaken the Nasserites while in Jordan the Nasserites as well as the Bathists and Communists were perceived as threats to the monarchy and were countered with Islamic forces. Such state opportunism has had both negative and positive fallout; while the process has led to the development of indigenous Islamic discourse it has also spawned fierce state-Islamists conflicts.[43]

States where Islamization has been more prominent, such as Pakistan and Malaysia, secularism was relinquished to accommodate Islamic ideology. This was done to expand the authority of the state over society; to this end Islamizing the state facilitated the achievement of state supremacy and in the case of both the aforementioned states “managed to expand the scope of its activities and control of society extensively under the guise of Islamization.”[44]

In Pakistan the administration of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) used jihadists   against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan to help America achieve its foreign policy goals. This has subsequently had a deep and significantly devastating effect on foreign and domestic policies of the country. While on the one hand the state entered into alliance with the religious forces and facilitated the incubation and supply of fodder to the conflict in Afghanistan, simultaneously it employed cosmetic Islamization in order to facilitate state expansion within the society to ensure continuity of foreign policy. This was accomplished by increasing revenue generation through state collection of zakat funds and Islamization of economy. It reinforced its authority by controlling and Islamizing public educational sectors. The state ensured the continued support of its Islamization by influencing the training of the ulama. The role played by the conservative religious elements in supporting the rise of the Taliban during and after the Afghan jihad can be attributed to mullah-military alliance, a recurring motif in the history of Pakistan.

The Muslim states, while continuing to obey the diktat of their former colonial masters, have failed to learn from the Islamic discourse and initiate discussion and debate amongst diverse segments of the society to reach acceptable solutions. It has consistently reverted to the perpetuation of colonial structures and modes of governance, undermining the possibility of a peaceful resolution to this long drawn quarrel and anomaly.  In the face of brutal and opportunist state policies, the movements for Islamization have become more radical. Suppression and violence employed by the state have begotten violence in return with non-state actors resorting to militancy.

While discussing the state-ulama relationship one needs to remember that traditionally, the ulama have held a central position in an Islamic agrarian society along with the tribal leaders and state elite. In the Ottoman Empire, for instance, under Suleiman the Magnificent, shariah courts were regularized and the qadis, the muftis and the madrassah teachers constituted official government corps. This partnership was used to legitimize Ottoman rule especially in the Arab provinces under the Ottomans. “Thus the shariah was made to endorse the system of absolute monarchy” [45]

The significant religious elements in the Mughal Empire continued to wield power during the colonial period. They defined colonization in socio-cultural rather than economic terms.[46] The reforms of the 19th century in the Muslim world led to enactment of commercial, civil, criminal and constitutional laws modeled on   European laws. In the field of education, traditionally the domain of religious men, reforms followed the European model. These reforms strengthened central powers and undermined traditional authority of religious men and old military bodies such as the Janissaries in Ottoman Empire.[47] The loss of traditional power and financial benefits in the modern era could not have been easily forgotten or forgiven. The contemporary political tilt of a segment of ulama in the Muslim world, therefore, is colored with personal power-retrieval agenda.

In the modern era the protest movements against the western secularist agenda have gradually transformed into what is now known as ‘Islamic’ fundamentalism. It is not just the manipulation of religion for political ends that defines fundamentalist movements; According to Karen Armstrong “these are essentially rebellions against the secularist exclusion of the divine from public life…. [but this also] distorts the religious tradition…”[48] The ‘Islamic’ fundamentalist movement of the late twentieth century calls for return to the pristine law of Islam and its own political order. It aims at excluding the post-colonialism secular reforms and abolishing non-Islamic social codes and cultural influences. They denounce nationalism and patriotism as un-Islamic and advocate a return to Islamic Ummah configuration. Fundamentalists are disenchanted with the modern experience on the grounds of its failure to deliver its idealistic promises. Their radical interpretation of religious doctrine aims at retrieving Islamic values in their pristine form. It denounces the perceived corruption of secularism and liberal cultural values that include emancipation of women and capitalist economy. Their mindset is reminiscent of other such movements in Islamic history. The difference is that in the absence of peaceful conflict resolutions, compounded by post-colonial socio-economic hard realities, the destructive elements in the Islamic world have chosen the violent answer, influencing Muslim youth through manipulation of religious beliefs of salvation and concepts of otherworldliness much in the same way as the medieval Church. The contemporary fundamentalist response is a devastating addition to the various other historical factors that have perpetuated Muslim regression in the modern times.

Fundamental Causal Factors of Muslim Regression

A closer look at Islamic history demonstrates the disparity between the social and political aspirations vis-a-vis Islam. The Abbasids encouraged the development of fiqh and shariah for the common man while their own courts were based on pre-Islamic, Persian model of monarchy. A distinct class of ulama and qadis began to emerge. Different schools of Islamic jurisprudence, a trend initiated during the Umayyad rule, became stronger under the Abbasids’ patronage. The debates and dissentions between the Hanifi, Maliki and Shafi schools stimulated interest in Hadis and fiqh leading to compilation of formal Shariah. The shariah had a political bent in that it was meant to create a counter culture to transform the corruption ridden political system of the day.[49] However, with time its tenets became fixed and rigid. The four Sunni schools of jurisprudence remain unchanged since the end of the eleventh century when the doors of ijtihad were firmly closed.

The various schools of religious thought especially within Sunni Islam, while emphasizing Ijma and Qiyas do not stress Ijtihad to interpret Shariah. The truth is that the number of Quranic verses dealing with legal issues is far lesser in number than the verses commanding the use of reason and intellect. Those who forsake reason and do not use their critical thinking abilities are criticized harshly and are equated with animals or worse:

Many are the jinn and men We have made for hell: They have hearts wherewith they understand not, eyes wherewith they see not and ears wherewith they hear not. They are like cattle, nay, more misguided: for they are heedless. 7:179

Despite such unambiguous commandments, a shaken Muslim Ummah, in the aftermath of the  11th century Christian onslaught,  was unwilling to analyze reasons for Muslim decline and was readily cajoled into undermining rationality by Al Ghazali, the staunch Asharite. Conversely, the Sufi movement initiated by Jalauddin Rumi (1207-73) of Konya, in the face of the Mongol devastation, stressed the harmony of ishq and aql, reason and intuition. Simultaneously, the Mongol brutality intensified conservative approaches in an agrarian society that discouraged individual innovation and curiosity to preserve communal unity. In the aftermath of the destruction of libraries and slaughter of scholars it seemed important to preserve the past. [50] In the educational field the institution of madrassah did not encourage open debate and, while Rumi was looking at new horizons of human potential, the ulama were content that the gates of ijtihad had slammed shut for all times to come.

Because of this mindset the Muslims in general remained unaware and uninterested in the events of Renaissance, Reformation and technological revolution. The Ottomans and the Persians continued to fight each other from the 16th until the 19th century subsequently weakening each other which proved mutually detrimental. The Islamic world failed to address the transforming relationship between the East and the West. The Mongol had destruction visited upon the Muslim world when the institution of Abbasside caliphate was tottering; similarly the West could successfully deal a fatal blow to the Ottomans because of internal deterioration that predated the European colonization.

The medieval attitude of the Sunni orthodox pertaining to reinterpretation of the Quranic teachings and the Sunnah has been passed on to the modern times.The clergy has arrogated to itself the task of explanation of higher truth. Women and minorities, being the weaker segments, are the worst victims. By involving themselves in the political process of the nation states the mullah continues to perpetuate his nuisance value. The hypocrisy of the orthodox is best reflected in the Saudi Kingdom where the shariah legitimizes monarchy in stark contravention of the egalitarian vision of Islam; the same shariah, however, does not allow a woman to drive. Thus, the conformist worldview creates an imbalance in the society in the name of shariah and obviates free thinking needed for progress.

The majority of Muslim nations suffer due to the lack of a democratic political culture that ensures checks and balances and freedom of expression. Abuse of human rights becomes a norm in totalitarian states and monarchies that encourage a hierarchical and patriarchic political system that is in direct opposition to the democratic Islamic ideals.Instead of a genuine quest for the true essence of the Islamic worldview that exhorts tolerance, compassion, discovery and learning, the post-colonial Muslim states chose to ignore the diverse solutions offered by Muslim scholars. They failed to initiate and facilitate serious debate on the issue and inculcate acceptable ideas into state policies. Instead they have resorted to suppression and tyranny against religious elements. The political leadership has followed the colonial model of statecraft, continuing to obey the commands of their former colonial masters to further vested personal interests. The West on the other hand finds it convenient to exploit this particular weakness of the political elite to achieve its own foreign policy goals that usually translate into anti-Muslim policies. This has widened the gulf between the religious intellectuals and ulama and the Muslim rulers.

The state is increasingly seen as un-Islamic by the conservatives in keeping with the age old controversy. The dichotomy between the mindset of the ruling class and the common man in the Muslim world has been exploited and manipulated by radical religious elements present within the cadres of religious movements. The stance of the religious orthodox has become rigid in the face of state excesses. It is the result of this gradual hardening of position on both sides that is reflected in the present lack of intellectual discourse. Such attitudinal stubbornness undermines critical thinking and analysis of the relationship between Islamic thought and modernity.

The anti-intellectual tendencies of the fundamentalist approach are spawning mental rigidity and severity.  Such developments are symptomatic of a deep psychological malaise as well as the logical outcome of stark ground realities underlying socio- economic disparities in the Muslim world. The criminal elements amongst the Islamic fundamentalist groups have managed to hijack the stated mission of reformism by distorting the Muslim tradition in the name of Islam. This has been a disastrous addition to the extant list of causes for Muslim backwardness.

Western sea and battlefield successes were accompanied by European commercial and scientific successes. Instead of persisting in conformity to seemingly immutable natural laws, the Europeans discovered their ability to change the course of nature to their advantage with the help of scientific methods and equipment. In contrast the Muslim agrarian societies have remained conservative and averse to change. Intellectual and scientific advancement has been obviated by fatalistic attitudes, the lack of independent judgment and rejection of rationalism as well as due to deprecation of theoretical knowledge.[51] The most noticeable era of intellectual progress is associated with the times of Haroun-al-Rashid and Al Mamun “whose liberalism was a source of great displeasure to the orthodoxy of their times,”[52] and while the philosophical query is deprecated by the religious orthodoxy the West admits that “Indeed, Islamic scholarship became the firm foundation on which European culture was established.”[53]

The educational system of the Muslims ceased to evolve by the end of the 13th century.  The Ottomans while appropriating some western inventions did not encourage “advances in thought or to recognize that technology was a consequence of scientific thinking.”[54] Similarly while the splendor and architectural magnificence of the Mughals is undisputed, “history does not credit them with significant intellectual achievements such as establishment of universities, observatories, or encouragement of positivistic thought.”[55]

Traditional education based on rote-learning and lack of query has resulted in stagnation and regression over the centuries. Even today secular learning and rationality remain low on the list of Muslim priorities although science and technology are not the sole property of the West but are universal. Modern science, introduced by the British into the subcontinent, for example, was viewed with suspicion and resentment. While the Hindus welcomed it with open arms the Muslims perceived it as a subterfuge aimed at subverting Islamic culture and religious teachings. British arrogance, reflective of the inbuilt biases of Orientalism, strengthened Muslim resistance and a combination of wounded pride and conformism forced them to reject modern learning.  The modernist educational system that was “nascent fifty years ago has visibly collapsed in key Islamic countries”[56]

Like the western Utopianism, the Muslims too wish to achieve a utopia. But instead of resorting to their tradition of rational thinking and learning the Muslim societies are being driven back in time under the (mis)guidance of medieval literalist orthodoxy. More than a west-east clash it is an internal conflict between the forces of extremism and moderation within the Islamic world. In the face of fundamentalist violent activism the Muslim moderates and liberals stand marginalized. The quest for utopia results in intolerance and totalitarianism because it suppresses free thinking and realistic analysis of the situation. People enjoying a beautiful dream hate to be woken up.

The Way Forward

By closing the gates of ijtihad the Muslim world has descended into ignorance, allowing destructive forces to penetrate the fabric of Muslim socio-cultural fabric. The Muslim orthodoxy’s claim on religious interpretation is reminiscent of the pre-Reformation Christian tactics of reinforcing the political power of the Church.  Islamic society is not envisioned as functioning on the dictates of blind faith; blindness is darkness, faith is light; the two cannot coexist. Intellect is considered to be the criteria for human actions. The purity of the shariah is enshrined in a return to the essence of Islam that commands respect for human dignity regardless of colour, religion or gender, and not regression into the new Dark Ages. The Quranic permanent values, such as social justice, equitable distribution of wealth, compassion and human dignity, are immutable. The legal system in any Muslim country can resort to them. How these values may be executed in the light of contemporary ground realities can only be formulated through reinterpretation of the modes of implementation. None of it would be possible without Ijtihad. Modern day Islamic scholars like Fazlur Rahman, are aware of “historical change,”[57] and reject the “wholesale duplication of early Islamic social forms in the modern world.”

The Quran demands that Islamic teachings be accepted in the light of deliberation and rational arguments. It asks people of understanding to ponder the signs in the universe and within themselves to comprehend the nature of reality and their own purpose on earth:

On the earth are signs for those of assured faith, as also in your own selves: will ye not see then? 51:20-21

This is a rational argument because while logic cannot settle the metaphysical questions with finality a human being can have “an experiential belief in God based upon the beauty that we perceive in the natural world.[58] The natural world is the medium through which Islam tells us to aim for higher truths because faith is an inner conviction that can be strengthened through reason and empiricism. The reasoning abilities and the sensory perception have been bestowed upon man to achieve enlightenment. The Quran categorically exerts that true believers are those who pay attention and use their faculties to analyze in order to understand:

Those who, when they are admonished with the signs of their Lord, droop not down at them as if they were deaf or blind. 25:73

If the Muslims want to regain their identity and self respect in the modern world it is crucial to revamp their educational system and bring it at par with modern times while ensuring continuity of Islamic culture and values that are congruent with the true essence of Islamic teachings. In an evolving and rapidly changing global environment social complexities fail to hold fast to outdated solutions that hinder both material and spiritual progress. Rethinking the educational system is indispensible particularly in Pakistan that has become the hotbed of religious extremism and terrorism. Large scale public-private sector partnership is required to replace the parallel system of madrassah education where the difference between Islam and mullahism has been conveniently erased. The outmoded and lopsided syllabi being followed in public and private schools respectively must be reviewed. The study of natural and social sciences including Islamic and Western philosophy, liberal arts, comparative religions as well as diverse interpretations of the Quran, would allow the students to gain deeper insights into both modernism and Islam. Genuine, research-oriented academic excellence based on freedom of thought and expression needs to be encouraged at the university level.

Modern science is part of incremental human knowledge. Even if a devout Muslim scientist is working on a natural phenomenon he would have to employ sensory perception and reasoning ability to theorize.  His stated or unspoken intention to achieve scientific knowledge is dependent upon his personal belief system that cannot affect the scientific finding in any way. Muslims need science and modern methods to accelerate technological advancement and improve the standard of living in their societies as well as to achieve economic and military strength.

Muslims today remain inferior economically while politically they are at the receiving end. The Western powers continue to use Islamic lands and resources to further their own national interests. The Muslim identity is perceived to be under the threat of modernization that is transforming Islamic socio-cultural structures beyond recognition. The Muslim response to such daunting challenges has mostly been emotional and irrational with only a few voices of sanity on the periphery. The internal reactionary and obscurantist forces continue to push the Islamic world toward the medieval ages. ‘Islamic’ fundamentalism is a manifestation of the perceived reformism, aggravated by frustration and anger at their historical decline.

It is interesting (and ironic) that aspects of modernity have been happily acknowledged by the fundamentalists. Reductionism, associated with modern science, has been employed to reduce Islam to one dimensional Shariah. Never in the history of Islam has the Muslim response to external challenges been so indiscriminately violent.  Modernity with its advanced weaponry and telecommunications has been readily accepted by the terrorists to achieve their political ends through brutal means. The response of the terrorist to western modernity presents a paradox that many conservative and liberal Muslims live every day; the rejection of the Western modern values is coupled with massive migration to the West. A great number of parents settle in Europe or America or send their children to study or work in the West. They live under non-Muslim governments and follow the non-Muslim personal law. In fact there is such a huge and permanent Muslim presence in Europe and America that it is said that “capital and labour have succeeded where the armies of the Moors and the Turks both failed.”[59] This paradox needs to be addressed because if certain aspects of western modernity are crucial to Muslim economic development and social uplift then they must become self-sufficient and not mere imitators or beneficiaries.

There is no denying that Western colonization upset the natural socio-cultural evolution of the colonized Muslim lands. However, in the post-colonial era the rejection of western modernism is often used as a justification for continued Muslim regression into a misty past and their rejection of rationality and reason-based decision making as instructed by the Quran. Never-ending conspiracy theories are employed to justify inaction, corruption and lethargy. The perpetuation of the status-quo serves the vested interests of the state and extremist non-state groups alike. The Muslims need to remind themselves that the enemy within is always the most dangerous. The hypocrisy of Abdullah bin Ubbayi was worse than the declared hostility of Abu Sufyan.

Social discrimination in the name of either religious or secular ideology is counterproductive. It has already led to wars, sectarianism and violence. A truly democratic political setup is possible within the Islamic world on its own terms. While a great deal is said about inter-faith dialogue, what the Muslims actually require is inter-Islam discourse to build consensus on thorny issues and to inculcate tolerance through accommodation of diverse and opposing views. Enlightened Muslim scholars, ulama and intelligentsias from all over the world must unite to establish an international body for such a purpose. The forum should welcome all schools of Islamic thought including the orthodox, the moderate and the liberal. Their diverse points of view should be made presented to the masses in simple language. In this regard the print and electronic media can play an effective role. But before undertaking such an endeavour let the Muslims take full personal responsibility for their predicament and accept that Muslims have chosen to remain backward and dependent upon the Western form of modernization instead of designing their own.

Till recent times Islam has never been associated with large scale violence against its own adherents. Islam in its correct form does not demand textual precision in belief so much as loyalty to the community and its constituted leader. In the past this has lead to a broad tolerance of dissent unless it transformed from deviation to treason. [60] Unless Muslims undertake serious efforts to dismantle the terrorists’ agenda that manipulates religion for political goals, Islamic thought can never re- emerge as a viable alternative alongside western modernism.

Muslims require intellectual weapons to face the challenges of modernism such as secularism, rationalism, existentialism and agnosticism. Debate, scholarly argumentation and intellectual discourse constitute civilized and effective means of changing mindsets. Modern technology has provided today’s Muslim youth with global exposure. It is time to equip them with critical thinking skills to analyze modern thought and understand it dispassionately before wanting to encounter or accommodate it. The future process of modernization and the form it may take in the Islamic world is in the hands of the young Muslim men and women. They must be facilitated by the older generation to reach independent decisions.


[*] Talat Farooq teaches at the Bahria University, Islamabad. She is also a poet and social worker.

[1] Tamara Sonn, “Modernity, Islam and the West”, Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2001,p. 216

[2] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, London :Phoenix Press, 2001, p. 123

[3] Ibid, p.130

[4] Ira.M.Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1988,p. 883

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp 562-570

[8] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Lahore: Carvan Press,1997, pp. 99-100

[9] Ibid.

[10] Fazal ur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982, p.15.

[11]Lecture delivered at the University of South Florida, spring,1995

[12] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Lahore: Carvan Press,1997, p.102

[13] Tamara Sonn, “Modernity, Islam and the West”, Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2001,pp. 224-225

[14] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for rationality, London: Zed Books Ltd, 1991, pp.98-99

[15] Ibn e Rushd, Tahafut Al-Tahafut, translated by S, Van den Bergh, London: Luzac and Co, 1954, I, p. 318

[16] Tamara Sonn, “Modernity, Islam and the West”, Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2001,p.219

[17] Henry E. Allison, “Kant” The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford university press, 1995, p.437

[18] Ibid.

[19] Tamara Sonn, “Modernity, Islam and the West”, Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue, Islamabad: Islamic Research Institute, 2001, p.222

[20] Maryam Jameelah, Modern Technology  and the Dehumanization of Man, Lahore: El Matbaat ul Arabia, p.8

[21] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Lahore: Carvan Press,1997, pp. 99-100

[22] Ibid, p.102

[23]Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of religious Thought in Islam, Lahore : Institute of Islamic Culture, 1999, p .8

[24] Abdulkader I.Tayob, “Defining Islam in the Throes of Modernity”, , accessed on  12/2/2009

[25] Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for rationality, London: Zed Books Ltd, 1991, p.59

[26] Ibid.,p.86

29 Ira.M.Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1988,p. [27]

[28] Ibid., p. 882

[29] Bernard Lewis, The Crisis of Islam, London: Orion Books Ltd,2003, p.146

[30], accessed on 25/2/2009

[31] Ibid.

[32] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Lahore: Carvan Press,1997, p.103

[33] Ali Shari’ati, On the Sociology of Islam, Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1979, pp.88,95

[34]Allama Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of religious Thought in Islam, Lahore : Institute of Islamic Culture, 1999, p.10

[35] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Lahore: Carvan Press,1997, pp. 107-108

[36] Ibid.

[37] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, London :Phoenix Press, 2001, p. 30

[38] Ibid., p. 35

[39] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, London :Phoenix Press, 2001,  p.42

[40] Ibid., p.97

[41] Ibid., p. 135

[42] Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr, “States and Islamization”, Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue, pp.307,309

[43] Ibid., pp.307,309

[44] Ibid., pp.300-305

[45] Ibid., p.112

[46] Ira.M.Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1988,p.722-725

[47] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong, , New York: Oxford University Press, 2002,  pp. 7-15

[48] Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, London :Phoenix Press, 2001, p.142

[49] Ibid., p. 55

[50] Ibid.

[51]Pervez Hoodbhoy, Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for rationality, London: Zed Books Ltd, 1991, p.121

[52] Ibid.

[53] Tim Wallace Murphy, What islam Did for Us: Understanding Islam’s Contribution to Western Civilization, London: Watkins Publishing, 2006, p.117

[54] Ibid.

[55] Ibid.,p.122

[56] Ibid.,p.135

[57][57] Abdulkader I.Tayob, “Defining Islam in the Throes of Modernity”, , accessed on  12/2/2009

[58] , accessed on 5/3/2009

[59] Bernard Lewis, Islam and the West, New York: Oxford university Press, Inc., 1993 pp.41-42

[60] Bernard Lewis, What Went Wrong, , New York: Oxford University Press, 2002,  pp. 182-183