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Modernism

By the 1800s and early 1900s, Europe had gained control over much of the Muslim world from North Africa to Southeast Asia. Tendencies toward modernism appeared in the late 1800s in response to westernizing European regimes. Islamic modernists advocated a flexible and continuous reinterpretation of their religion so that Muslims could reform education, law, and politics, making them more suited to modern life. Modernists also believed that Muslims could restore their political power by selectively adapting Western ideas and technology.

Middle Ground.

Colonial rule had severely undermined the political and cultural authority of the Islamic state and society. Muslims offered a variety of explanations for this condition as well as different ways to address it. Conservatives linked the weakness of Muslim society with a movement away from traditional Islam. They called for a total rejection of Western values and culture, and some religious leaders urged Muslims to wage jihad against colonial governments. At the other extreme were groups that blamed the situation on a refusal to abandon outdated ideas. In their view, Western secular culture could be a model for modern Muslim nation-states. They promoted the separation of religion and politics and the restriction of Islam to personal matters.

Modernists offered an alternative response based on the concept of ihya (revival) and tajdid (renewal). They identified Europe's advanced scientific and technological knowledge and its political organizations as the major factors that enabled the West to colonize Muslim countries. They acknowledged the problems that prevailed in the Islamic world but rejected the argument that the underdevelopment of Muslim societies was attributable to Islam. In their view, Islamic countries had declined because of their unquestioning reliance on traditional practices. They noted that the early followers of Islam were flexible and willing to accommodate new ideas. Historically, Muslim centers of learning produced important works in the fields of law, education, and the sciences. In fact, Europe obtained much of its early scientific knowledge from Muslim Spain. These modernists concluded that a revival of the earlier Islamic commitment to science and learning would restore dignity and greatness to the Muslim world without damaging the integrity of Islam.

Renewal was another key concept of modernism. Reformers advocated a continuous reinterpretation of Islamic texts so that Muslims could develop institutions of education, law, and government suited to ever-changing conditions. They rejected the idea that ijtihad (independent reasoning) was no longer acceptable or necessary, arguing that the deteriorating state of the Muslim world served as proof that modern problems required modern answers. Modernists also asserted that reason is compatible with belief.

Modernism in the Middle East.

One of the earliest modernists was a leading Egyptian educator named Rifaah Rafi al-Tahtawi ( 1801 – 1873 ). Drawing on the philosophy of the compatibility between reason and revelation, he called for the study of modern science and technology. He also urged jurists to use independent reasoning to adapt Islamic law to changing social conditions, and he promoted primary education for all boys and girls. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani ( 1838 – 1897 ) shared al-Tahtawi's views, but he also brought a new sense of activism and political resistance to the modernist movement. He encouraged Muslims to vigorously oppose European forces, rather than passively accept foreign domination. Al-Afghani believed that acquiring a modern education was a practical method of self-improvement and political reform. Although he succeeded in effectively spreading his message, he failed to persuade Muslim rulers to take action.

Egyptian scholar Muhammad Abduh ( 1849 – 1905 ), a disciple of al-Afghani, developed modernist ideas more fully, promoting a positive attitude toward modern learning and its application in society. A few years after Great Britain occupied Egypt in 1882 , British officials appointed Abduh to reform Egypt's educational and legal systems. His opponents thwarted his attempt to blend customary religious education and modern learning at al-Azhar, the famous mosque-university in Cairo. Nevertheless, as mufti (chief jurist) of Egypt, he interpreted Islamic law broadly to demonstrate that Muslims could adapt to modern circumstances and still remain true to their faith.

India and Indonesia.

As in the Middle East, European colonialism led to the rise of modernism in India. Following an uprising in 1857 , Great Britain abolished the Mughal dynasty and established formal political rule over India. Muslims were barred from governmental posts because of their support for the revolt. Writer and political activist Sayyid Ahmad Khan ( 1817 – 1898 ) emerged as a strong voice calling for reform. Motivated partly by his desire to convince the British that Muslims were loyal subjects, Ahmad Khan led a movement in support of Western scientific and political ideas. In 1875 he established a college to provide Muslims with a British education. Professors at the school promoted a flexible interpretation of Islamic law and sought to improve the status of women in Islamic society.

During the early 1900s, Indian modernists faced a new question: Assuming that India gained its independence from Great Britain, what would be the future role of Muslims as a minority among India's majority Hindu population? Led by poet and political writer Muhammad Iqbal ( 1875 – 1938 ), one group called for a separate Muslim state in northwestern India. Another group, led by Islamic thinker Abu al-Kalam Azad ( 1888 – 1958 ), argued that Muslims and Hindus should unite to oppose British rule and seek to form a single nation. Both groups agreed that Indian Muslims should live in a democracy.

Dutch colonialism fueled Islamic modernism in Indonesia. In 1912 Hadji Ahmad Dahlan ( 1868 – 1923 ) founded the Muhammadiyah, the country's most important modernist movement. The Muhammadiyah established a network of schools that combined modern scientific and religious instruction. In addition, it pushed for legal reforms through a return to the Qur'an, sunnah, and the use of ijtihad (independent reasoning). Confronted by local animist and Hindu sects, the Muhammadiyah gradually shifted its focus from spreading modernism to purifying religious practices among Indonesian Muslims.

Contemporary Challengers.

Modernism has declined as a force for change in Islamic society. During the first half of the 1900s, the movement suffered from the perception that its members represented only the educated elite. Nationalists and conservatives condemned modernists for compromising with Western colonial powers, maintaining that such actions prolonged foreign rule. The nationalists used this argument effectively to win popular opinion.

After Muslim countries achieved their independence, Islamic fundamentalism emerged, posing yet another challenge to modernism. Although fundamentalist ideas have great popular appeal, the principles of modernism survive among many contemporary Islamic thinkers. See also Afghani, Jamal al-Din al-; Ahmad Khan, Sayyid; Colonialism; Education; Fundamentalism; Ijtihad; India; Iqbal, Muhammad; Science; Secularism; Technology.

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