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Lesson Plan: "Islamic Modernism"

John Voll
Professor of Islamic History
Associate Director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding
Georgetown University

Course: History
Syllabus Section: Islamic Modernism

Modernism in the Era of Modernity's Dominance

The Diversity of Successors to Abduh: Rida and Others.

The first half of the twentieth century is the era when "modernity" was seen as inevitably dominant and religious modernism (that is, the adaptation of the major world religions to modernity) was a major intellectual enterprise. In the Muslim world, it was a time when a wide diversity of modernisms were being articulated, building on the foundations laid by the modernist pioneers of the late nineteenth century.

Islamic modernism in this period took many different forms, even among those who can be considered followers of and successors to Abduh and the Salafi–Manar core of the early modernist movement. In our discussion of this "second generation" of modernism, we will focus on three very different heirs to late-nineteenth-century modernism. Rashid Rida is usually described as the most visible and directly connected heir to Abduh, and he took the Salafi tradition in Egypt and the Arab world in a more conservative direction than one might have expected.

A second person inspired by the Abduh–Manar initiation is a strange and cosmopolitan figure, Ahmad Surkati. Surkati is a Sudanese scholar who studied in Mecca and Medina and then went to Java, where he helped to shape the modernist movement in Southeast Asia. He was important in shaping the Muhammadiya organization established by Achmad Dachlan in Java in 1912 and which is still one of the largest Islamic organizations in the world.

The third person in our trio to discuss is Mahmud Tarzi in Afghanistan. Given the attention paid to the retrograde conservatism of the Taliban in contemporary Afghanistan, it is important to get a sense of the nature of Islamic modernism as a major force in Afghanistan in the early twentieth century.

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

Read Albert Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Chapters 7 and 9, and the following primary source documents: "Renewal, Renewing, and Renewers", "What Is to Be Done?" , and "Ijtihad and Taqlid". In addition, on Blackboard, read "Surkati & Manar," Tarzi 1, and Tarzi 2. You can also read the writings of other "second generation" modernists, including primary sources by Qasim Amin (The Emancipation of Woman and the New Woman), Bahithat al-Badiya (A Lecture in the Club of the Umma Party), Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (Summary of the Causes of Stagnation), Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi (Ijtihad and the Refutation of Nabhani), and Achmad Dachlan (The Unity of Human Life)).

Questions for Discussion

  • What are the major similarities and differences among Rida, Surkati, and Tarzi?
  • Why did Abduh's ideas have such a significant influence on people in so many different areas of the Muslim world?
  • What do you consider to be the basic ideas of Rashid Rida and how close are they to Abduh's approach: Is it correct, do you think, to say that he is more "conservative" than Abduh?
  • What is the relationship between modernism in this generation and "nationalism"?
  • Is Tarzi an exception in the context of modernist thinkers?
  • How can an African like Surkati have influence in Southeast Asia?

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