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Lesson Plan:
Trends in Modern Arab Political Thought: Islamic Reformism

Yasmeen Daifallah
Assistant Professor
University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Audience: This lesson plan is intended for a college undergraduate audience.

Lesson Objectives:

By the end of this series of lessons, students are expected to:

  • Acquire basic knowledge of the main intellectual trends in late 19th–early 20th century Arab thought, the historical context in which these trends emerged, and the impact of these trends on their respective cultural and political contexts.
  • Identify the historical-theoretical roots of central modern Arab ideologies: liberalism, nationalism, and Islamism.
  • Improve your reading, writing, public speaking and presentation skills (the latter two through the poster presentation group project outlined below).

What is the “Islamic tradition;” what is “Modern Arab Thought”?

The Islamic tradition is typically employed as a catchall term to signify the religious, intellectual, cultural, and folkloric aspects of the life of modern Muslims. In the media, we often encounter this term in reference to “Shari’a,” the set of moral and legal laws stipulated in the Qur’an and the prophetic tradition, or in reference to what are taken to be the “customs” or accepted norms of social behavior in Muslim-majority countries. The “Islamic tradition” is also sometimes used synonymously with “Islam,” itself a term that is perceived to encompass the faith, culture, history, and social norms of Muslims irrespective of where (and when) they live.

For the purposes of this lesson plan/course, however, we will take the “Islamic tradition” to mean two very specific things: a) A set of disciplines that have historically developed around interpreting the Qur’an and the Sunna (the teachings of Prophet Muhammad). These disciplines include the science of hadith, or the proper methods of collecting and verifying the teachings of Prophet Muhammad; Islamic jurisprudence and legal theory, the set of legal rulings on how the principles delineated in the Qur’an and the Sunna apply to specific real-life circumstances, and the proper methods of producing such rulings); kalam or dialectical theology, the study of the nature and attributes of the divine entity and their implications for the human world; philosophy, the study of how ancient (specifically Greek) wisdom relates to Islamic revelation; and Islamic mysticism, the study of how to attain knowledge about God through non-rational means.

Most of these disciplines were established as fields of inquiry in the 8th–9th centuries AD. Importantly, for producers and practitioners of these various disciplines, they were never referred to as a composite “tradition” in the sense we use the term today, but were rather understood as religious sciences, the legitimacy and status of which has varied through time.

The second sense of the “Islamic tradition” refers not to the foundational texts of Islamic faith, or to the disciplines dedicated to their study, but to an ideological construct that expresses the desire of modern Muslims (19th–21st centuries) to revive or reconstruct an indigenous identity at a time when it that identity is perceived to be under threat. This threat has taken multiple forms since the mid 19th century, the time at which modern Arab thought is born (also commonly referred to as Al-Nahdah or the Renaissance). These include the threat of European colonialism, and relatedly, the threat of the impending demise of the Islamic state as represented in the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922). More recently, such threat is conceived as one of cultural imperialism, military intervention, or political manipulation by Western countries.

The Islamic tradition is thus both, an interpretive endeavor as well as an ideological claim about the continued presence and relevance of the past in the present.

The tendency to reaffirm the continued relevance of Islamic texts and disciplines in the present, and to recast these texts and disciplines as adhering to modern understandings of “reason,” “progress,” and “democratic politics” is one of the defining characteristics of modern Arab political thought. This body of thought is modern by virtue of the time and occasion in which it was born, the 19th century with the heightened adoption of European science, architecture, military training and institutions, and legal norms by the Ottoman Empire.

This body of thought is also modern by virtue of the questions it sought to answer: what is the relationship between the Islamic tradition and the ideals of the European Enlightenment, such as humanism, reason, science, equality, and freedom? How can we establish a political community that bore allegiance to Islamic norms and institutions while making use of European technology, administrative arrangements, and political values?

Reading material for this section:

Hourani, A. 1983. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Pp. 1-33.

Abou El Fadl, K. 2013. “The Shari’ah.” In The Oxford Handbook of Islam and Politics. 7-16.

Islamic Reformism

Islamic reformism or Islamic modernism as it is sometimes referred to, is an intellectual trend that tried to tackle the questions above about the relationship between the tradition of knowledge associated with Quran and the Sunna, and European knowledge. The thrust of this trend is to reconcile the Islamic tradition with “modernity” as this trend took it to be. What this effectively meant is posit arguments about the rationality of the Qur’an, Islamic faith’s support of all kinds of knowledge, Islam’s tolerance towards other creeds, and the progressive impetus of the Islamic message. The major figures of these trends are the Persian reformer and pan-Islamic activist Jamal Ad-Din al-Afghani (1838–1897) and Egyptian religious scholar and jurist Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), but its early advocates included the Egyptian teacher, translator and official Rifa’a Al-Tahtawi (1801–1837) as well as the Circassian official in Tunis, and later grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire in 1878–9, Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi. (See also the entry on “modernism”)

Tahtawi and Tunisi: Early Beginnings

Tahtawi and Tunisi were both part of a growing class of officials, officers, and teachers who considered the adaptation of at least some European reforms (in education, military and political institutions, etc.) as crucial to the regeneration of the Ottoman Empire. For these early thinkers, European influence was conceived less as an immediate threat, and more as “offering a path to be followed” (Hourani, vi). Their attempts for educational, political, and legal reform in line with European ideas and institutions were part of the broader reform attempts that were initiated in Istanbul as early as the late 18th century and culminated in the Tanzimat (1839–1876), and that were increasingly being adopted in major cities of the empire like Cairo (under Mehmet Ali Pasha) and Tunis.

For Tahtawi and Tunisi, political values like liberty, equality and patriotism and the institutions that enacted these values (chiefly the constitution and the parliament) were the secret of European creativity and success. The adoption of such values and institutions by the Ottomans could not be but beneficial, especially when it embodies what Tahtawi and Tunisi saw as fundamentally Islamic principles like those of shura or consultation and the prevention of oppression of the ruled by the ruler.

Reading material for this section:

Hourani, A. 1983. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Pp. 67-84.

Tahtawi, R. 2002. “The Extraction of Gold” and “A Discourse on the Homeland” Modernist Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. 31-39.

Tunsi, K. 2002. “The Surest Path.” In Modernist Islam, ed. Charles Kurzman. 40-49.

Afghani and Abduh: Explaining Islamic Demise

Unlike the case of their earlier counterparts, the problem of European military and political threat was real for Afghani and Abduh—the former had witnessed British colonialism of India and, later, Egypt and the latter lived in British-colonized Egypt from 1882 until his death in 1905. Both well-versed in the Islamic intellectual tradition, the quest of both these thinkers was to explain what seemed to them to be the degeneration of the Islamic community (as represented by the Ottoman Empire), and to prescribe a path for its future regeneration.

For Afghani, the dynamic, charismatic, fiery-tempered ideologist, the demise of the Muslims vis a vis their European (Christian) rival was a result of their divergence from “true Islam.” Unlike Tahtawi and Tunisi, Afghani’s concern was not simply to strengthen the Ottoman state through instituting new legal and political reforms, but “to persuade Muslims to understand their religion aright and live in accordance with its teachings” (Hourani, 113). It is Afghani’s quest for re-educating Muslims about what Islam really was that, together with his political activism, usually earns him the title of being “radical,” that is of seeking a rapid and comprehensive overhaul of the beliefs and actions of Muslim societies in accordance with what he understood to be the “true Islam.” For Afghani, this Islam, contra the charge of French Orientalists like Renan, characterized by being rational, this-worldly, and capable of supporting scientific and philosophical achievements similar to those of Europe.

A more mild-tempered student of Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, was compelled by his teacher’s message about the cause of Ottoman demise, but not by his method for setting things aright. Abduh was a traditionally educated Islamic scholar and jurist who received his training in the Azhar, the pre-eminent institution of Islamic learning in Egypt. Like Afghani, Abduh was concerned with what he saw as the crisis of the Islamic community. In this context, he asks, “If Islam granted to reason and will the honor of independence, how is it that it has bound them in such chains? If it has established the principles of justice, why are the greater part of its rulers models of tyranny” (Modernist Islam, 59). Like Afghani, Abduh affirms that the reasons for this “decline” is that Muslims have strayed from the true Islamic path, that is, from the rational and just Islam that provides the guiding principles –if not specific laws or institutions—for successful political organization. Also like Afghani, Abduh takes the causes of this decline to be internal to the Muslim community, leading a weakening of that community and ultimately its conquest and subjection. Such causes include the scholars’ practice of taqlid, the emulation of religious precedent, rather than ijtihad, or reasoning of religious scholars about how the Quran and the Sunna relate to the present independent of precedents in the Islamic tradition. They also include the political apathy of religious scholars, and much of the Muslim community.

Unlike Afghani, however, Abduh thought that the solution for such deep-seated problems was not to be sought in immediate or rapid social, legal or political changes; rather, this solution was necessarily slow and gradual; it consists of legal and educational reform. The guiding rubric of effective legislation is for it to take into consideration the “level of intelligence” of a given population as well as its “customs and habits” in order to establish laws that were “beneficial and just” (Modernist Islam, 54). For such habits and customs to change, education is key: “This is what makes intelligent people, when they desire to establish a sound system to regulate a nation’s life, strive first to change a people’s capacities and traditional habits, placing education before all else in order to attain that goal” (ibid).

Reading material for this section:

Hourani, A. 1983. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Pp. 103-129; 130-160.

Afghani, J. 2002. Modernist Islam. 103-110.

Abduh, M. Modernist Islam. Pp. 50-60.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What does Islamic reformism mean by “reason” and “justice”? What evidence do Islamic reformists put forward for the rationality and justice of Islam?
  2. How do Afghani’s attitude towards the question of colonialism differ from those of Abduh? How can we explain this difference?
  3. What is the underlying tone of Afghani’s response to Ernst Renan? How does the message Afghani delivers in this response similar to, and/or different from, the message conveyed in his other writings?
  4. What do Afghani and Abduh mean by “progress” in their respective writings? In what sense do their definitions of progress converge with and/or diverge from our conceptions of this concept?

Poster Presentation Project: In groups of 3, prepare a poster presentation of one Al-Nahda Arab thinker that we have not discussed in class. Your poster should do the following:

  1. Give an account of a thinker’s life, times and works
  2. Relate the thinker’s background to their thought (the problem they sought to resolve, and how they went about resolving it)
  3. Give an account of their thought: what are the central concepts they use in their writing? How do they define or elaborate upon these concepts? How do they connect these concepts to each other to offer a conception of an Arab of Islamic future?
  4. Each group will be given 10 minutes to present their thinker (and poster) to the class. The project will be graded according to the content you present in your posters and class presentations, your presentation skills, and the creativity of your poster.

Further Reading

Euben, R. 1999. Enemy in the Mirror. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Rahnema, A. 2005.Pioneers of Islamic Revival. London: Zed Books.

Haj, S. 2008. Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality, and Modernity. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Keddie, N. 1983. A Response to Imperialism: Political and Religious Writings of Sayyid Jamal Ad-Din Al-Afghani. LA: UC Press.

Donohue, J. and Esposito, J. 1982. Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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