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Modernization and Development

Louis J. Cantori
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Modernization and Development

Modernization” and “development” are complex terms simultaneously embedded in the two cultures of the West and Islam, in the vocabulary of a largely Western scholarship on development and in the real world of imperial great power policy. This becomes immediately apparent from their definitions. “Modernization” has as its operative assumptions: secularism, individualism, rationalism and materialism. “Development,” on the other hand, is a dynamic term defined as the control of nature for the benefit of man and, most commonly, thought to proceed dynamically according to the principles of liberal market forces, which lead inevitably to secularist and individualist political outcomes. It does not require much reflection, however, to appreciate that these terms originate in the European Enlightenment. This suggests a further complexity to these terms, and that is their liberal cross-cultural impact. Thus, their origin in the European Enlightenment suggests the directness of their conflict with the conservative characteristics of Islamic societies, which generally continue to venerate the past as the origin of its revealed truths. Traditional Muslim societies also feature the ascendancy of the family and community over the individual and set as their objective the desire, as stated in the Qurʿān, to “strengthen that which is good and to prohibit that which is evil.” Liberalism, in contrast, stands for the individual, equality, and secularism. The implication is clear: modernization and development as Western terms are in tension with what Muslim theorists are increasingly calling an Islamic theory of development.

Development as Purpose.

“Modernization” and “development” also are dynamic terms that suggest movement towards some purpose. This “movement” is expressed in two realms. The first expression is in terms of policy; the second takes place in the intellectual world of scholarship and analysis. The purpose alluded to here is the answer to the question of why modernization and why development? In the West, the broad answer to this is the attainment of the liberal objectives mentioned above: individualism, equality, secularism, and pluralism. The problem in the West is that these purposes tend to be denied or obscured. Western social science, for example, is motivated by these values, but they are kept below the surface in the name of “scientific objectivity.” In policy terms, something similar occurs in the denial that the West is attempting to imperially impose its values via economic aid and investment. Therefore, when Western social scientists sit, for example, at the analytical table on matters of American foreign policy, they do so with biases often leading to an uncritical affirmation of that policy. The clearest illustration of this most recently has been the uncritical and clamorous support of a liberal version of democracy that supports the extension of American influence even by war in the Muslim world.

Islamic development, on the other hand, is directed to the attainment of that which is morally good. For this reason, Muslim theorists are direct and to the point: developmental purpose is natural and desirable. Islamic development is therefore direct and to the point whereas Western development has to address what often appear to be the contradictions of technical language on the one hand and the obscurities of purpose on the other.

Western Imperialism and Development.

Clearly implied in the foregoing is the fact that Muslim exposure to modernization and development has occurred both externally as a matter of imperial design and has been adopted internally as well as a matter of a dialectical relationship between Islamic and Western thought. On the one hand, modernization and development is a topic of significant vitality and widespread discussion and, on the other hand, it finds itself in an expectant relationship to what the proponents of the concept themselves refer to as “Islamization,” i.e., the further extension of the political hold of Islam upon the peoples of the already Islamic ummah (the community of believers). The emerging concept of Islamic development is thus waiting for the contemporary Islamic trend to continue to expand its hold upon the nation-states of the ummah. What is clear, however, is that while Muslim theorists and economists are willing to concede the dominance of Western neoclassical economics that might be said to technically encompass modernization, they regard the economic subfield of development economics to be so replete with Western values and assumptions that they argue for an Islamic alternative.

The story of the developmental impact of the West upon the Muslim peoples is the one of British, French, and more recently, American imperialism. Beginning in the Middle East with the French in Egypt in 1796 and continuing until the present day, this imperialism has been one of classic military conquest and domination in order to seek national security objectives, to secure water and air passageways, and to control the price of oil. It has been accompanied, however, by a developmental “gift package” of promises to benefit the affected peoples in terms of physical and cultural modernization based on liberal assumptions. In the Middle East this was greeted affirmatively by governments intent on defensive modernization in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, and Tunisia. It was also greeted by curiosity and imitation on the part of the first generation of intellectuals attempting to make sense of the conflict.

The Origins of Islamic Development.

These reactions gained increasing intellectual substance in the Islamic writings of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghanī (d.1897), and even greater stature in the writings of Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d.1905) and Shaykh Rashīd Riḍā (d. 1935) from the latter part of the nineteenth century onwards. ʿAbduh had, however, already made a pioneering intellectual breakthrough that was to be resumed over fifty years later by Sayyid Quṭb (d.1966). He argued that modern reform must begin with the sunnah (the written details of the life) of the prophet Muḥammad and include the rashidūn (the “divinely guided ones”), that is, the first four caliphs (which period lasted until 661 CE). Contemporary reformers are only now returning to this intellectual foundation of the thought of the salafīyah (respected elders), the earliest adherents of the first years of Islam. The present-day discussion of these terms, however, is related to the Islamic revival that began with the 1967 military defeat of the Arab armies by Israel and the symbolic defeat of Arab nationalism. It cannot be stated too strongly, that this defeat was more than military in nature. It represented the shattering of the glass of a modern cultural self-confidence and presumed technical and intellectual modern competency by republican regimes that had successfully and proudly rid their countries of colonial occupation (Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc.). The Islamic reform, which had been at a low boil beneath the surface of society broke through and aggressively presented itself as an alternative, both politically (and violently) as well as intellectually. In fact, however, by that time what had been initially radical and moderate strands of Islamic thought were now in increasing agreement. This was the point where a small group of Muslim thinkers who had been termed “liberals” sometimes by themselves and their Western admirers began to lose acceptance in their own countries. They were now outnumbered in effect by their critical, far more conservative counterparts.

Advocates of an Islamic approach to development are now almost united in agreement that the “past,” defined above as an important concept in Islamic conservatism, is that of the salafīyah noted above in reference to ʿAbduh. The salafīyah include Sayyid Quṭb (Egypt), Sayyid Abū al-Aʿla Mawdūdī (d. 1979, Pakistan), and Ḥasan al Turābī (b. 1932, Sudan), all of whom had previously been termed both politically and especially intellectually “radical.” The revival of this conservative trend has had two effects on the conceptualization of modernization and development. The first and more significant one has been a general claim by Islamic theorists as varied as Mawdūdī, ʿAli Shariʿatī (d. 1977, Iran), and Quṭb that modernization and development contain elements with which Islam can agree. The ideas of these Islamic theorists have become more reformist than revolutionary. Structurally, the Islamic revival has also occurred within established Muslim states whose leaders have been secularists. Therefore, the revival is no longer so much regime-challenging as it is regime-reforming. Moreover, in the theoretical writings of the revival related to issues of development, the criticism of the West is less polemical. This is a reflection of the purpose of such writings—guiding fellow Muslims to religious awareness and an intellectual self-confidence that is contributing to the creation of dialogue rather than confrontation. This dialogue is occurring between Islamic theorists and more secular Middle Eastern leaderships, as well as between Islamic and Western theorists.

The concept of “modernization” is regarded by Muslim theorists as more value-neutral than that of “development.” Development, on the other hand, is considered a more flexible concept due paradoxically to the obviousness of its Western bias and its more explicit logical requirement of “why” or “purpose.” The Islamic view is presently prepared to self-confidently supply the answers to these questions. But the Western definition of development is also treated critically, for the illuminating reasons given by a prominent American Muslim, Ismail Raji al-Farouqi: “By concerning itself with ‘process’ and denying every teleological representation of reality, Western ‘development’ has turned man into a ‘moment’ of and within the cosmic process, rootless, anchorless, and destinationless. Development created a narcissistic exercise and invented an epistemology and science theory to explain and justify his predicament.”

The Religious Imperatives of Development.

The elaboration of what constitutes Islamic development possesses its own technical vocabulary and its own set of moral assumptions. As one scholar has noted, taken together, the actual theory is also one of political economy, calling as it does for political institutions and processes within which its religious imperatives operate. It begins with an injunction from the Qurʿān: “God does not change the condition of a people until they change their own inner selves” (13:11). Development is God's work, and His reward for the necessary first step of spiritual improvement. Quṭb makes this point with some precision when he lays out a three-phase process of development, beginning with the spiritual cultivation (tazkīyah) of the good side of man, which simultaneously creates self-discipline against evil. This contributes to his well-being, or falāh. Development then proceeds on a political front, to build the community of believers (ummah) within which good is pursued and evil is forbidden. Finally, since man lives in family and social networks, social reform is required. Quṭb then specifically begins to approach material development when he quotes the Qurʿān to the effect that, although the “earth is subservient to you,” a balance must be sought between individual gain and the welfare of society.

Development is also related to the theological imperative of unity, or tawḥīd. The term refers to the belief in the oneness or monotheism of God as well as the oneness of existence with God, which suggests organic solidarity (aṣabīyah), or corporatism (takafulīyah). The simultaneous identification of God and society means that the needs of society must take precedence over those of the individual and that the collectivity of man is represented by the community of believers. Individuals are also related to the organic whole by the concept of khilāfah, or the appointed representative of the individual as the expression of God on earth, constituting the brotherhood of man in the sharing of this status. Accordingly, man is the custodian (amīn) of God's resources, meaning, in development terms, economic resources. Thus, individuals may acquire wealth in a capitalist fashion, but only with the understanding that such wealth does not belong to them, but to God.

The principle of ʿadālah (justice), conditions the acquisition of wealth. Not only is the accumulation of capital part of the management of God's resources, but the individual must also be committed to the elimination of ẓulm (inequity). Wealth must be produced from a respectable source with the employment of skill and as a reward for risk taking, but such accumulation is accompanied by a requirement to attend to the basic needs of those less fortunate. These needs are met through the provision of zakāt (alms), dispensed by individuals through the family and neighborhood, rather than the state. The individual is thus free to pursue wealth and hence develop society because of his service to or as representatives of God and his responsibility to Him.

The Political Economy of Islamic Development.

Family and neighborhood (the centrality of which has been termed here as a criterion of Islamic conservatism) are the basis of social solidarity, or cooperativeness, of Islamic society. This solidarity is achieved via the two concepts of shūrā (consultation) and bayʿah (allegiance) that, taken together, bind society to the state. These concepts, in turn, are related to an Islamic view of political development, or what might be termed republican Islamic democracy. Shūrā is to be exercised through a consultative process with both those governed and the ruler. This consulting process is assumed to be between the ruler and “those who loosen and bind” (ahl al-ḥall wa-al-ʿaqd), i.e., the social and political elite. In theory, and to a significant extent in practice, this consultation is accomplished by representatives of corporative constituent groups linked by law to the state such as the ʿulamāʿ (community of learned ones), i.e., professionals, businessmen, landowners, and leaders of trade unions. Consultation may be extended more popularly through an elected parliament, but deliberation and consultation must characterize its proceedings, not divisiveness and contestation. This conservative republican conception of democracy diverges significantly from the liberal democratic formula of the West.

The second concept binding society to the state is that of bayʿah. While the term essentially means allegiance, or even obedience, it also connotes agreement in the selection of a leader and a contract between leaders and followers. As a rhetorical device, bayʿah, in its latter connotations, may serve to legitimize a leader or a regime. More speculatively, it implies those elections, especially presidential, are really plebiscitary in nature and not a matter of exercising mass political choice. What is being sought in elections is legitimacy and approval, with less consideration given to removing one political leader or expressing preference for another. Democratic practice in the Muslim world is characterized less by contentious liberal competition among groups seeking to capture the citadels of political power, as in Western civil societies, than by disciplined deliberations within the framework of Islamic development. Sovereignty in Islamic democracy rests with God and not the individual.

All of this, however, suggests that conceptually, contrary to the stereotype of Islamic “oriental despotism,” the role of the state in Islamic development is a more minimal one. It can be said that the theoretical center of political gravity of the state in Islam is located at the middle level, where the individual is bound to constituent groups and these groups are then in turn bound to the ruler. By choice of language, the state and the ruler lack a certain permanence, which may account for the apparent oddity that the word for “state” with its apparent implication of solidness or permanence has in fact become dawlah in Arabic with a meaning of turning or rotating. Traditionally, the functions of the state were the minimal ones of responsibility for the maintenance of order and the collection of taxes. The state and the ruler are also the khilāfah, or vicegerents, of God on earth. Thus, maintaining order involves upholding and enforcing His law (sharʿīah) and in general supporting and assisting the ummah in meeting its spiritual needs. But although the limited role of the state accords with the ethos of Islamic capitalism, it is also the case that the state is ultimately responsible for the enforcement of social and economic justice (ʿadālah). The Islamic theory of development is thus a conservative theory in its greater priority given to the revelations of God, respect for the past, etc., yet it is progressive in its recognition of the desirability of economic growth accompanied by attention to the problem of equity. At a minimum, the Islamic theory of development in the contemporary Islamic revival represents a set of modernized ethical standards by which the economic policy of Muslim states may be judged. What appears clear is that the imperative for development originates in the central fundamental spiritual requirement for zakāt (alms) or khaiʿri (charity). It is giving to the needy, rather than state-centered development policies, that constitutes the “culture” of Islamic development.

The foregoing confirms what the eminent Muslim economist Khurshīd Ahmad (b. 1932, Delhi) has said, that the moral focus of Islam in contradistinction to Western liberal social science leads to a separate but related Islamic social science and discipline of economics. It is also clear that the advent of Islamic developmental policies has as a precondition the possession of political power by Islamists. In short, there is an expectant sense of the arrival of, in effect, “Islam in one country” (by analogy to Stalin's adjusting the universal ideology of communism to the nation-state in his famous slogan, “Communism in one country”) similar to what has already occurred in Turkey, Iran, Egypt, and increasingly elsewhere.


For the present, the scale of the developmental challenge facing Muslims can be seen in the scathing reports of the Arab United Nations Development Program prepared annually by the “best and brightest” of the Arab secular intelligentsia. On three indices in 2002, for example, comparing the Middle East as a region to six others in the world, the Middle East ranked seventh in “freedom,” (i.e., genuinely meaningful elections), it also ranked last in terms of “educational capabilities” and sixth out of seven in attention paid to the “development of women.” It is noteworthy that, on the basis of this report, the economically authoritative magazine The Economist roundly condemned the Middle East for its development failures in light of the enormity of the potential benefit of its vast oil wealth and the absence of the obstacle of pockets of deep-seated poverty overcome so effectively by India and China. It reserved its most scathing condemnation for what it termed the “most delicate” failure of the report: the latter did not point an accusing finger at the alleged backwardness of Islam which the magazine presumed to be the explanation for the profoundness of the region's underdevelopment. In saying this, it did not note that Islam has yet to have full political accountability in nearly all of the states of the Middle East. It also did not note the contradictory evidence to its assumption of Islam being the problem in the strong economic performances of Indonesia as the largest Islamic state in the world, nor the case of prosperous Malaysia as well.



  • Ahmad, Kurshīd, ed.Studies in Islamic Economics. Leicester, 1980. Ahmad is a distinguished scholar who has reached the intellectual conclusion of the logical separation of Islamic economics and development economics from the value liberalism of Western academic economics.
  • Buraey, Muhammad al-. Administrative Development: An Islamic Perspective. London, 1985. This is an argument for the necessity of a theory of Islamic administration to complement Islamic development.
  • Cantori, Louis J.“Democracy from Within Islam,”The Centre for the Study of Democracy Bulletin, Summer 2003, Vol. 10, 2, pp. 1–2. An article presenting the argument for a republican and conservative as opposed to a conventionally liberal form of Islamic democracy.
  • Cantori, Louis J.“Islamic Revivalism, Conservatism, and Progress in Contemporary Egypt.” In Religious Resurgence and Politics in the Contemporary World, edited by Emile F. Sahliyeh, pp. 183–194. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990. This article elaborates on the subject of Islamic conservative democracy as an alternative to liberal democracy in Egypt.
  • Cantori, Louis J.“Republic”, Encyclopedia of the Islamic World, new edition.Chapra, M. Umer. Islam and the Economic Challenge. Leicester, UK: Islamic Foundation, 1992; Herndon, Va.: International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992. This is perhaps the most comprehensive and authoritative elaboration of Islamic economics and development.
  • Donohue, John J., and John L. Esposito, eds.Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, 2d ed.New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. This up-to-date volume is an invaluable, nearly encyclopedic collection of the translated writings of many of the important Muslim theorists mentioned in this article, such as Quṭb, Abduh, Mawdūdī, etc.
  • “Self-doomed to Failure,”Economist, July 4, 2002, pp. 24–26. This article is a scathing criticism of the underdevelopment of the Middle East as reported in the United Nations Development Program's 2002 Arab-authored report, cited below.
  • Esposito, John L, ed.Voices of Resurgent Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983. An early and authoritative collection of scholarly articles and translations covering the Islamic revival.
  • Mannan, Muhammad Abdul. Islamic Economics: Theory and Practice. Kent, UK: Seven Oaks, 1986. A further authoritative and comprehensive volume on Islamic economics.
  • Nafi, Basheer. “The Challenge of Reformist Thought and Its Challenge to Traditional Islam.” In Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by Suha Taji-Farouk and Basheer Nafi, pp. 28–60. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. A concise, authoritative and original interpretation of both pre-nineteenth century and contemporary Islamic reform.
  • Osman, Fathi. “The Contract for the Appointment of the Head of an Islamic State: Baiʿat al-Imam.” In State, Politics, and Islam, edited by Mumtaz Ahmad, pp. 51–85. Indianapolis: American Trust Publications, 1986. A very scholarly and complete discussion of this important and neglected subject.
  • United Nations Development Program. Arab Human Development Report2002. www.pogar.org/publications/other/ahdr/ahdr2002e.pdf. A remarkably candid and forthright criticism of the underdeveloped state of the Middle East which, however, fails to address the real or potential role of Islam in development.
  • Voll, John. “Renewal and Reform in Islamic history: Tajdid and Islah.” In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 83–95. New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.This interpretive essay is the classical article sympathetic to the cultural importance of the Islamic revival.
  • Wilson, Rodney. “The Development of Islamic Economics: Theory and Practice.” In Islamic Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by Suha Taji-Farouki and Basheer Nafi, pp. 195–222. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004. The author is one of the outstanding Western specialists on Islamic economics who presents here an empathetic understanding of the subject in a remarkably concise fashion.
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