Islamic World and Crisis of Modernism

Posted on March 30, 2009 by


by Asghar Ali Engineer

(Islam and Modern Age Jan. 2002)

Editor’s Note: This article brings up many important issues within and faced by the Muslim world today. We at Secular Pakistan may not need to agree with all the points that the author has illustrated.

The rising tide of what is called by the print and electronic media as ‘fundamentalism’ in the Islamic world from Indonesia in the East to Algeria in the West has created many problems in the world at large. The attack on the WTC in New York on 11th September 2001 has further aggravated the matter and people have come to believe that Islam really is against modernity and stands for jihad. This view is being spread by various comments and articles appearing in the media. It must be said that due to these happenings Islam has evoked tremendous interest among the people.

What is relation between Islam and modernity? Is Islam really against modernity? First let us see what modernity is. According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary (Delhi, 1993) modern means 1) “of the present and recent times” and 2) “in current fashion; not antiquated.” Keeping this definition in view the question arises can there be any relationship between religion and modernity?

The next question then arises what is religion. What constitutes religion. Is religion of permanent nature and what is that in religion which ensures its permanence? These are important questions to be dealt with if we have to grapple with the problem of Islam and modernity.

Religion is not only set of rituals but also set of beliefs, values and institutions. A religion also gives a thought system to its people. Any religion, despite its eternity carries the birth-marks of its historical circumstances. This social and historical contextuality is as important in understanding religion as its eternity. Since followers of religion have strong emotional bonds with their religion they accept whatever reaches them as permanent lock, stock and barrel. They often refuse to take notice of changes in historical contextuality.


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Here arises the question whether everything inherited by a faithful by way of religious rituals, institutions, values and thought system as permanent and immutable? The religious leaders and faithfuls would say yes. The reformers, on the other hand, would advocate changes in certain practices and traditions. Modernity, as pointed out above, relates to what is recent as opposed to what is ancient or old. Thus there is bound to be some kind of incongruity between religion and religious traditions and what is construed as modernity.

All religions, not only Islam, face this problem earlier or later depending as when modernity dawns in the area where that religion has its sway. Christianity in the West faced it much earlier than other religions in the East. Here we should keep in mind that modernity cannot be defined only something temporal or related to time. It is to be dealt with also as something to do with mental approach and way of accepting or rejecting a proposition. In other words we have to speak of modernity as value.

Also, it would be wrong to think that modernity was accepted by other religions without struggle whereas Muslims resisted it. All religions went through crisis of modernity though the degree of crisis might have varied. It would also be wrong to think that any religious community accepts or rejects modernity uniformly. The intellectual elite of the community as well as other beneficiaries accept it more readily than others.

It is also true that the Islamic world in general has been very late in accepting modernity. Other religions or other peoples did it earlier or with less resistance. But nowhere it was accepted without struggle or resistance. We would like to discuss, later in this paper, the reasons why Islamic world has been late comer in the modern era.

Of all the religions, Christianity in the west was first to accept modernity but not without struggle. In fact there was fierce struggle and great deal of bloodshed before western Christianity embraced modernity. Still sections of Christians in the western world continue to reject it. In fact Christianity went through throes of great crisis due to complete domination the Catholic Church had over the Christian community during the medieval ages. The dogmas evolved by the Church could not be questioned by anyone and no one had right to interpret Bible except the Church hierarchy. And it was not easy to challenge the authority of the Church, neither for religious persons like Martin Luther nor for scientists like Galileo.

Galileo was severely persecuted for his proposition that earth goes round the sun rather than otherwise. He was blinded by the Church so that he could no more observe natural phenomenon and come forward with ‘heresies’. However, scientific truths not only prevailed but were found of immense benefits for the emerging ruling classes in the west. Their acceptability became possible not only because of their demonstrable truth but also because of immense benefits accruing to the emerging European business and political leaders. The discovery of steam engine ultimately led to inventions of steam ships and this in turn made colonisation possible for Western European powers. Gun- powder was also invention of modern science leading to political domination of the west.

Colonisation of the eastern countries included large number of Islamic countries from Indonesia to Algeria. For them the experience of colonisation was most humiliating one as the Muslims suddenly from rulers became the ruled and modern science, an important parameter for modernity, was found by them to be a powerful instrument of subjugation. The Catholic Church had rejected modern science as it challenged its dogmas and Muslims rejected modernity as it brought to them colonial humiliation and complete loss of their hegemonic control.

While the European people left their poverty behind and began to become prosperous as the wealth plundered from the colonies was transferred to the metropolitan countries, the peoples in colonial countries began to be impoverished. And impoverishment made them more insecure and insecurity made them cling to their traditions and customs more tenaciously. It really became very difficult to break this viscous circle. Though there is no church in Islam and no priestly hierarchy, the theologians lost out power and influence they wielded during the Muslim rule and thus they became hostile to modern science and modern rationality.

Another thing we have to keep in mind while discussing Islam and modernity is that apart from colonial plunder and transfer of wealth from colonial to colonising countries Islam was generally embraced by poorer and weaker sections of peoples in various countries. Most of them happened to be either poor peasants or artisans. They constituted the overwhelming number of Muslims all over the Islamic world and it is so even today. These poorer and weaker sections embraced Islam as it laid great emphasis on social justice, equality and dignity of all human beings.

For these poorer and weaker sections of society religion means more as an inner solace and spiritual balm than rationality and modernity. They find this inner solace more by clinging to age-old traditions and customs than by indulging in intellectual quest. In fact intellectual quest leads to more uncertainties and tensions. The clergy also basically came from these poorer sections as after colonisation clergy was downgraded and ceased to wield political influence.

The clergy’s intellectual universe was very traditional one and it wielded tremendous influence on poorer and illiterate masses. On top of it colonial experience which led to more impoverishment particularly of the artisan classes led to fear of modern sciences. As initially the workers in Europe had launched attacks on machines, which they thought were the cause of their woes the artisans in the colonised Muslim countries developed fear of modern scientific inventions and the Muslim clergy further reinforced their fears and legitimised it through use of religious traditions. It is important to understand this social and intellectual universe prevailing in the colonised Muslim world for understanding the causes of crisis of modernity.

But we find both revivalist as well as modern movements during nineteenth century in almost all the Islamic countries. In Egypt number of modern reformers like Mohammad Abduh, Ahmad Amin and others launched movements for spreading modern ideas and modern reforms in Egyptian Islamic traditions. In Iran and Afghanistan and also Turkey Jamal al-Din Afghani worked tirelessly for promoting modernity. Mohammad Abduh was his disciple. While Jamal al-Din Afghani was political activist emphasising pan-Islamic movement to fight against western colonialism Abduh concentrated on educational and religious reforms in Egypt. He had spent number of years in France as an exile and he imbibed many modern ideas from there.

In India Sir Syed’s contribution to modernisation of Islamic society was very seminal. He also reached conclusion that rejection of modernity will lead Muslims nowhere. He founded scientific society and began translating into Urdu books on modern sciences. He was of course pioneer in promoting modern education among Muslims. He was followed by many illustrious modern reformers like Nawwab Mohsinul Mulk, Maulavi Chiragh Ali, Justice Amir Ali and several others who advocated modern reforms. However, they had impact more on intellectual elite, which was coming into existence through colonial education system and western ideas of science and rationality.

It is another important fact to be born in mind that in Islamic countries due to widespread poverty and illiteracy accentuated by colonisation emergence of educated middle class was painfully slow and this further impeded growth of modernity and rationality. Existence of strong middle class is highly necessary for modern reforms. Throughout Islamic world there was widespread poverty and illiteracy. Due to oil revolution in early seventies prosperity was experienced only in some Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and some other Gulf countries. Also except in Egypt there was no democratic tradition anywhere and no concept of civil society.

The colonial legacy still persists in Islamic countries and after colonial powers withdrew they set up either dictators or kings of their choice. It was so specially because Middle East was particularly very sensitive area in view of its oil wealth. The USA assumed political role in the area and never allowed any genuine democracy to flower. The State of Israel was also created to keep the Arab countries under tight leash. When Mosaddeq took over in Iran in early fifties through genuine democratic revolution and nationalised the oil- company the CIA plotted to overthrow him by mobilising lumpen elements and the Shah’s rule was re-established. The Shah throttled democracy and continued to rule and serve American interests until the Islamic revolution in 1979.

In the entire Islamic world there is poverty and backwardness on one hand, and absence of democracy, on the other. A study conducted by the US based Freedom House circulated on network dated December 16, 2001makes interesting revelation. The survey called “Freedom in the World 2001-2002” concludes that there is a dramatic expanding gap in the levels of freedom and democracy between Islamic countries and rest of the world. The study found that “a non-Islamic country is more than three times is likely to be democratic than an Islamic state.”

The survey shows that “Of the 192 countries in the world today, 121 are electoral democracies, but in countries with an Islamic majority, only 11 of 47 have democratically elected governments, or 23 per cent.” In the non-Islamic world there are 110 electoral democracies out of 145 states, over 76 per cent, the report said. The report also said, “within the Islamic world there are nine countries with authoritarian presidencies, there are seven with dominant party states in which opposition parties are nominal, there are six with presidential-parliamentary systems with features of authoritarian rule, there are nine traditional monarchies, there are three one party states, there is one military ruled state, and, until November there was one fundamentalist theocracy, Afghanistan under the rule of Taliban.” It is of course no more.

Thus it will be seen that Islamic world cannot boast of free democracy which is one of the criteria for modernity. The lack of people-oriented polity in the Islamic world has again serious social, economic and educational consequences. The authoritarian regimes do not permit free inquiry, which is necessary for growth of science, technology and rationality. Social sciences also can flower only if political freedom is guaranteed. Also, education is strictly controlled and has heavy dose of medieval theology.

The lack of freedom and absence of democracy is sought to be compensated by declaring the state as Islamic. And then under the garb of Islamic state and in the name of Islam medieval theology is imposed, freedom of thinking even on Islamic issues severely curtailed and Shari`ah law is applied mechanically. It has happened in several countries in last few decades. Because of this Islamic theocracy becomes all- powerful and all state institutions slip under their control.

It has already been pointed out that the Muslim theologians come from poorer and backward strata of society and their intellectual universe is severely limited to medieval theology. This medieval theology becomes their power and anyone opposing it is declared heretic. The finest minds that questioned validity of these medieval theological formulations and stressed the need for creative rethinking on these issues had to flee their countries to some or the other western countries. They could write their much- appreciated works only in free environs of those countries. Thus from Egypt, from Algeria, from Pakistan and from several other Muslim countries finest minds had to migrate to western countries.

However, the blame does not go to Islam per se as is often thought. There is absolutely nothing in the Qur’an, which puts restriction on freedom of thought. On the contrary the Qur’an encourages knowledge equating it with light (and equating ignorance – jahl – with darkness. Knowledge – `ilm – is key word in the Qur’an. Also, knowledge is not possible without free inquiry. It is a creative process and free intellect is sin qua non for it. Also, knowledge has not been used in the Qur’an only for matters of religion and Shari`ah as the theologians began to argue later. The Prophet also made acquisition of knowledge obligatory on all believers, men and women (see Sahih Bukhari). And according to yet another tradition the Prophet said “acquire knowledge, even if it be in China..” Naturally no religious knowledge, as far as Islam was concerned, was available in China as there was not a single Muslim then there.

In fact the Qur’an does not hit for religious knowledge but knowledge in general, including secular and scientific knowledge. It is interesting to note that in those days the most advanced knowledge was available in Greece. The Greek philosophers, however, stressed deductive rather than inductive knowledge. Deductive knowledge leads to speculative knowledge as deduction depends on the basic premise and basic premise may or may not be based on empirical observation.

However, inductive knowledge is based on observation of empirical facts and is the very basis of modern science. The Qur’an repeatedly stresses observations of nature and reflection on nature and thus encourages scientific observations. It was Bacon who stressed inductive knowledge and he is considered as the father of modern science. But the Qur’an, as pointed out, had already led emphasis on inductive knowledge much before Bacon. We find in the Qur’an verses like this:

“Do not those who disbelieve see that the heavens and the earth were closed up, so We rent them. And we made from water everything living. Will they not then believe?” (21:30).

Many more such verses could be quoted from the Qur’an.

Here in this verse also there is stress on seeing and observing. The statement that every thing living was made from water which also is in keeping with modern theories of origin of life. The Qur’an also denies existence of miracles which again is in keeping with the rational attitude.

As Islam spread into different cultures and different societies at different levels of knowledge – from superstitious to advanced stages of knowledge – Islam acquired different hues and different meanings in these different cultural settings. Thus Bassam Tibi, a Syrian Arab scholar teaching in Germany, rightly observes in his book The Crisis of Modern Islam (University of Utah, Salt Lake City, 1988),

“There is no unified Islam in reality or in religious doctrine. What was initially an Arab Islam was assimilated into the cultures of Islamized non-Arab populations and thus de-Arabized. West African Islam, for example, has been fully integrated into the West African animistic cultures, even though in its original Arab version it was vigorously monotheistic.” (p-56)

It is not all. Islam was also thoroughly feudalised when it spread to old feudal empires like the Sassanid and Roman empires. All the traditions of these empires and subsequently other empires like the Moghul Empire in India were integrated into Roman, Iranian or Indian Islam. In feudal cultures dominated by monarchy and feudal lords free inquiry was not permitted. Submission to the authority was the rule. This became part of feudal Islam and free inquiry so pervasive in Prophet’s time and subsequently during the early period of Islam until complete feudalisation of Islam with the Umayyad period (later part of 7th Century A.D.) came to an end.

Be it Shari`ah law or other theological formulation early history has recorded many free debates but after feudalisation of Islam these debates became rarer and submission to earlier theological authorities became the rule as submission to religious authorities was the rule. The feudal culture so stuck to Islam that it has not been able to shake it off even in post-modern period. The Islamic countries are still in feudal or semi-feudal era and have failed to imbibe democratic culture. The Islamic thought is deeply sunk in autocracy and theocracy and there is absolutely no place for creative re-thinking or re-formulations.

What is needed is thorough democratic revolution in the Islamic world for which there is no immediate prospect. Modernism imposed from above as we saw in case of Iran (The Shah imposed modernism through his authoritarian edicts) does not succeed. A thorough going and pervasive modernisation is possible only with equally thoroughgoing democratic revolution and industrial revolution. Without such thorough-going democratic revolution mere acceptance of modernisation for infra-structural purposes (providing roads, flyovers, skyscrapers, computers, and printing technology) will not bring about intellectual modernisation. Through democratisation culture of submission must be done away with. Culture of dissent cannot prosper in authoritarian polities.

Lastly, I would also like to point out another important dimension of this problem. The ruling classes of the Islamic countries are still dependent on support of Western colonial masters, particularly, the USA politico-economic interests. They support authoritarian rulers and are interested in perpetrating highly authoritarian power structures and culture of submission. Free democracies in oil rich Islamic world will hurt their economic interests. This is preventing thoroughgoing democratic revolution in most of the Muslim countries. Also, countries like Iran are stuck with theocracy punishing freedom of thought.

Also, the Iranian Islamic revolution and earlier oil revolution in the Islamic world gave an new sense of pride in Islamic identity which was also hijacked by the ruling classes and what could have led to renaissance was turned into sheer revivalism by these rulers. The process of globalisation is also not very helpful in this direction. It is further strengthening western economic domination and is making western American culture hegemonic culture buldozing all other identities in the process. This has led to strengthening of Islamic identities and symbols of Islamic identities like hijab. By itself there is nothing wrong with these symbols of Islamic identities but it is leading to other less desirable consequences namely revival of feudal traditions and theocratic structures. This will hardly help flowering of modern Islamic culture