Islamic Modernism: Responses to Western Modernization in the Middle East

By Yevgeniya Baraz

200px-Muhammad_Abduh By the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, a large part of the Muslim world had begun to lose much of its cultural and political sovereignty to Christian occupiers from Europe. This came as a result of European trade missions during earlier centuries that had propagated Western technology and modernization. There was a large shift of power due to the declining Ottoman Empire, which led to an essential subordination of Muslims because of Western technology and modernization. This subjugation by Christian empires led Muslims of the Middle East to question their own beliefs as well as their aspirations, making many wonder whether the success of Western occupation was due to the inferiority of their own Islamic ideals. Out of these self-criticisms came an assortment of responses, including adaptation of Western ideals, advocating for separation of religion and politics, complete rejection, and calls for armed struggle against Western powers. However, one of the major responses to western modernization and occupation of the Muslim world was Islamic modernism.

Islamic modernism was an attempt to reach a medium between adaptation and rejection. Two influential proponents of this idea were Islamic reformers Jamal al-Din and his pupil Muhammad Abduh. They blamed the decline of Muslim societies and their occupation by the West on taqlid, a “blind and unquestioned clinging to the past.” According to some scholars, Muslims could not accept the idea that man is the “measure of all things,” which was an idea brought to the Middle East by forces of Western colonialism. Avoiding this conflict caused some to adapt to the stronger force, Western colonialism; this, in part, led to the Muslim decline. This idea amongst scholars is not uncommon, and decline of groups because of adaptation can be seen throughout history—for example, adaptation to geographical locations can be attributed to the severe assimilation of many Jewish populations.

Muslim reformers emphasized the “dynamism, flexibility, and adaptability” during the early development of Islam. This time period was distinguished by Islamic accomplishments in the sciences, law, and education. Afghani advocated for an Islamic renaissance, which would unite the Muslim world while simultaneously confronting the cultural threat posed by adaptation of Western ideals. Afghani argued that “Islam was in harmony with the principles discovered by scientific reason, [it] was indeed the religion demanded by reason.” Thus, he blamed their subjugation not on Islamic inferiority, but on the society’s “intellectual backwardness” caused by the hundreds of years of neglect and suppression of the Islamic umma, or community. Afghani blamed the influence of Sufism, which he said had emphasized passivity, fatalism, and otherworldliness. He also faulted the ulama, or learned elite, for discouraging Muslims from obtaining scientific knowledge because they themselves lacked the expertise to respond to such modernity. Afghani traveled throughout the Muslim world and outside of it, calling for internal reform and strengthening of the Muslim umma. To Abduh and Afghani, the ultimate way of combating Western occupation was to regenerate the “stagnant” Muslim world. Essentially, these Muslim reformists tried to respond to Western imperialism rather than react to or against it.

Abduh and Afghani argued that the best way to re-strengthen the Muslim world was through the study of their religion in order to bring out its true meaning; they should model their lives on the religious teachings. Afghani maintained education, science, and technology had been the “grand accomplishments” of early Islamic civilization and was fundamental in Islam. Some scholars blame the Mongol Empire’s domination for replacing early Islamic intellectual progress with nostalgic folklore.

They also attribute the Mongol domination to Muslim retreat into orthodoxy, saying the when people feel unsecure in their environment they develop a system of securities because they feel threatened by the outside world—resulting in a religious orthodoxy. Afghani argued that re-appropriating and reclaiming the Islam’s early “grand accomplishments,” which had been lost during periods of domination, would be the best way to repel Western influence and strengthen the Islamic world. They saw no dichotomy between religion and science. Their reaffirmation of Islamic identity and unity would reestablish and assure continuation of a vigorous Islamic community. However, Afghani stressed that in addition to studying their religion, Muslims should formulate new responses to the changing societies out of Islamic principles they learned in their studies. He argued that Muslims could use Western ideas to their advantage; and therefore, those ideas should be studied.

Muhammad Abduh’s response to the reforming of Islam was the creation of the Salafiyya movement, which influenced reform movements throughout the Middle East and beyond. Abduh was one of Afghani’s earliest disciples and the two collaborated in the writing of many articles on reform. He was also a strong participant in the nationalist movement. His focus was on religious, educations, and social reform. Like Afghani, he believed that religion and logic were complementary. Abduh posed that Muslims could selectively apply features of Western ideas to their own societies as long as they were not divergent to Islam. He also emphasized the need to differentiate between “immutable” and “mutable” Muslim traditions; i.e. certain old traditions, which were not necessary in upholding Islamic law, should be either reformed or discarded. Abduh placed a heavy emphasis on education as a means of reform.

He became one of Egypt’s leading ulama and eventually became the Mufti of Egypt, or the chief judge of the Sharia court system. As a result, he posed as a great influence to Egyptian reform. Reformers in Egypt embraced his idea that public interest was an Islamic justification for legal reform. Abduh used his position as Mufti of Egypt to propagate liberal reforms of Islamic law, education, and administration. Arab nationalists embraced his views after World War I. His major contribution to Egyptian nationalism was his emphasis on education. Many Egyptian nationalists adopted his conviction for education as a means for gradual reform, believing that this was the way to achieving independence.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani is considered one of the catalysts of Islamic modernization, with Muhammad Abduh seen as one of its great synthesizers.15 Abduh is even seen as the “Father of Islamic Modernism” in the Arab world. They sought to reform Muslim’s “clinging to the past” and “backwardness,” which had been brought on by a retreat into orthodoxy caused by Mongol domination. Afghani and Abduh did so by attempting to reach a medium between Islamic law and modernity. Their influence can be seen throughout the Arab world today.


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