Islam and Modernity - Definition


“The reformist spirit of the times was especially evident in the emergence from Egypt to Southeast Asia of an Islamic modernist movement that called for a “reformation” or reinterpretation (ijtihad) of Islam.” Islamic modernism was both an attempt to provide an Islamic response to the challenges presented by European colonial expansion and an effort to reinvigorate and reform Islam from within as a way to counter the perceived weakness and decline of Muslim societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Islamic modernists argued that Islam and modernity were compatible and “asserted the need to reinterpret and reapply the principles and ideals of Islam to formulate new responses to the political, scientific, and cultural challenges of the West and of modern life.” The reforms they proposed challenged the status quo maintained by the conservative Muslims scholars (ulama), who saw the established law as the ideal order that had to be followed and upheld the doctrine of taqlid (imitation / blind following). Islamic modernists saw the resistance to change on the part of the conservative ulama as a major cause for the problems the Muslim community was facing as well as its inability to counter western hegemony.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97) is regarded as one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism. He believed that Islam was compatible with science and reason and that in order to counter European power the Muslim world had to embrace progress.

Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) was a disciple and collaborator of al-Afghani. He was even more influential than his master and is often referred to as the founder of Islamic modernism. Abduh was born and raised in Egypt and was a scholar of Islam (alim). He taught at al-Azhar and other institutions and in 1899 became Mufti of Egypt. Abduh believed that the Islamic world was suffering from an inner decay and was in need of a revival. Asserting that “Islam could be the moral basis of a modern and progressive society", he was critical of both secularists and the conservative ulama. He called for a legal reform and the reinterpretation (ijtihad) of Islamic law according to modern conditions. While critical of the West, he believed that it was necessary to borrow or assimilate what was good from it.

Other notable Islamic modernists include Rashid Rida (1869–1935), and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) in the Indian subcontinent (the latter was also the conciever of the modern state of Pakistan). Like al-Afghani and Abduh, they rejected the doctrine of taqlid and asserted the need for Islam to be reinterpreted according to modern conditions.

Although Islamic modernists were subject to the criticism that the reforms they promoted amounted to westernizing Islam, their legacy was significant and their thought influenced future generations of reformers.

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