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Islam and Modernity

Published: 24/12/2011 09:03:00 AM GMT
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Islam and modernity is a subject of discussion in the modern sociology of religion. It is not easy to define the modernity and Islam as unified entities. Theycannot be reduced into simple categories because they are abstract quantities. Like other religions, the history of Islam has different approaches and interpretations. Modernity is a multidimensional and complex phenomenon rather than a homogenous and unified phenomenon.

Islam’sEncounter With European Modernity

Europe faced major transformations in the 18th century because of the modern ideas arising out of Age the Enlightenment. Importance of science, human reasoning and rationality was stressed upon during this time. Europe began to acquire global influence and power, and phase became a turning point in world history. It increased the gap between the scientific skills of some northern and western European countries. It led to the decline of the great Ottoman Empire that faced political, economic and military breakdown by the end of 18th century.Napoleon Bonaparte occupied all provinces of the Ottoman region in 1798, and this move exposed most provinces of theOttomanEmpire to the European Enlightenment ideas and new technology. However, another view of this development is that it actually challenged the authority of Islam and all local Muslimsfelt unfamiliar with these changes and felt alienated as a result of them.

Modernization And Reforms In The Ottoman Empire

The period between 1839 and 1876 is recognized as the period of modernization and reforms in the Ottoman Empire. One of the reform movements is known as Tanzimat, and these movements involved the adaptation of all European practices to suit the local situation. Some reforms were in the form of marked progress in the spheres of education, economy and law.

Modern curricula of education re-established the standard of education. Legal codes of Europe became the fundamental principles for legal reform movements. These reform movements challenged thefeelings of conservative Muslims, who denounced the Tanzimt movement for “ introducing un-Islamic innovations into the Islamic society”

Islamic Modernism

The Islamic modernist movement called “itihad” was the reformist spirit of the times, emerging in a number of Islamic states ranging from Egypt to Southeast Asia.

Islamic modernism was an attempt to fight back all the challenges presented by Europe. It was an Islamic method to reform and reinvigorate Islam and trade all the ways that voided the pious mission of Islam. The goal of all Muslim modernists was to change the conservative attitude towards Islam.

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani:

Jamal al-Din al-Afghani is one of the famous pioneers of modern Islamism. His philosophy produced a compatible vision of Islam and Science, and developed the ideas thatMuslims had to embrace the progress in order to counter European power.

History of Islamic Modernism

The first Islamic country where Islamic modernism surfaced was Turkey. There was a majorshift in legal and scientific thought. A four volume text ‘Mecmua-i Ulum –i Riyaziye’ was published by Ishak Efendi  and it established a strong attempt to reconcile Islam and Copernican astronomy.In the year 1968, the Turkish adopted metric system. These idea-shifts coincided with Tanzimat ideology. In the mean time, Shariah laws were confined to family laws.Namik Kernal was the key figure of this reform movement. Namik Kernal worked mostly in the field of journalism, his motive was to promote the freedom of press, equality before the law and the reconciliation between the Holy Quran and parliamentary democracy.

Muhammad Abduh was the first Islamic modernist who fought for the basic human rights such as education for girls. Qasim Amin was another Islamic modernist and reformer in Egypt, who was concerned with women rights.

Other major Islamic reformers and Islamic modernists included Sayyid Khan of India, Wang Jingshai of China and Mahmud Tarzi of Afghanistan.

Impact Of Early Modernists

The consequences of early Islamic modernism included cultural revival.Newspapers and dramatic plays became more popular. Notable works by European artists and writers were analyzed and translated.

Egypt, theOttoman Empire,Tunisia and Iran were major legal reform centers. Government power suffered restrictions and in many Islamic countries polygamy  ended.

The reform-minded Islamic scholars recommended the teaching of western sciences in new schools.  Intellectual social Darwinism had enough room to work with these modern schools.


The Middle East was dominated by European powers such as France and Britain. World War I ended the main Islamic modernist movements and at this point Muslims lost  faith with materialism and culture of science but there were many countries where  Islamic modernity  and reform movements continued, the new Republic of Turkey being one of those countries.


In the recent years, the proliferation of “Islamic extremist groups” has been witnessed in the Middle East. Islamic extremist groups contradict the concepts such as modernity and democracy. It is important to note that these extremists groups are an offshoot of the religion and a manipulation and distortion of the religion because Islam tenets of Islam recommend “Khilafat” not democracy.

Islam spreads the message of peace but Islamic extremist groups have colored this message in some black and crimson grounds, but it is essential to note that this is not the true picture of Islam. Modernism in Islam aims to split the lights of modern world into beautiful rainbows and for this to happen, the religion needs to be allowed to flourish freely without extremists and cynics suffocating its progress.

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