Citation for Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival

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"Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival." In Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition. Ed. Ninian Smart, Frederick Denny. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Nov 25, 2020. <>.


"Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival." In Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition. , edited by Ninian Smart, Frederick Denny. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Nov 25, 2020).

Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival

ISLAMIC MODERNISM and revival are two of the many intellectual responses, operating within an Islamic framework, to Western colonial influence and to the eighteenth-century political decline of Muslim powers. Islamic modernists, while acknowledging with varying degrees of criticism or emulation, the technological, scientific and legal achievements of the West, aimed to overcome a perceived impasse in the development of Islamic societies. Islamic revivalists objected to Western colonial exploitation of Muslim countries and the imposition of Western secular values. They aimed to reassert ‘original’ Islamic values.

Islamic Modernism

Islamic modernist ideas promoted a re-interpretation of Islam which would fit in with the modern world. They were formulated during the last decades of the nineteenth century and implied an acknowledgement that the Muslim world had lost its position in the world. For many modernists the reason for this loss rested in the lack, in Muslim countries, of a modern and dynamic understanding of science. Ironically, they claimed, Islamic medieval knowledge with its transmission of classical science to the West was instrumental in the development of modern European science and technology.

Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival

1. Islamic revivals in the 18th and 19th centuries

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Countries such as Egypt, Turkey, Persia, Indonesia and India were influenced by Islamic modernist ideas. In Egypt, scholars such as al-Tahtawi (d. 1873) and Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905) re-discovered the role of Islamic philosophical principles, and affirmed that revealed knowledge and individually-sought rational knowledge could co-exist. Thus, they sanctioned the study of Western science as acceptable to Islamic education. In Turkey during the 1860s, the Young Ottomans movement discussed constitutional and political principles along western lines. Jamal al-din al-Afghani (d. 1897), while condemning European colonial aggression and opposing its political domination of Muslim countries, called for the need to acquire the tools of modern science to combat the West. In India, where in 1857 the British had abolished the Muslim Mughal dynasty, the emphasis was again on reforms in the educational field. Indonesia, under Dutch rule, was also active in implementing modern curricula combining religion with modern sciences.

The Reforms of Atatürk and Reza Shah

Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival

2. The Turkish Revolution, 1919-1923

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The legacy of the debates among modernist scholars, combined with Western-inspired nationalistic ideas, re-emerged in the reforms brought about in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal ‘Atatürk’ (the ‘father of the Turks’) (d.1938) and in Persia by Reza Shah Pahlavi (d. 1944). Unlike the modernists before them, both Atatürk and Reza Shah created secular modern nation-states. Although they were not necessarily anti-Islamic in their programmes, and despite the very different political outcomes, both Atatürk and Reza Shah faced stern opposition from the ‘ulama’ classes. In Turkey, political reforms led to the declaration of the Turkish republic and the nationalization of railways, ports and utilities. Economic reforms promoted industrialization. It‐was in the cultural field, however, that the reforms had‐their most far-reaching consequences. Organized institutions of Islam such as the sultanate and the caliphate were abolished, Sufi orders were declared illegal in 1925 and the ‘ulama’ were placed under the authority of a state-controlled office of religious affairs. The Arabic script was replaced by Latin characters. In family law, a Swiss-modelled legal code replaced the shari‘a: in 1924 polygamy was abolished, divorce was no longer a male prerogative but became subject to court ruling. Gender equality was constitutionally guaranteed in education, employment and in the right to vote ( 1934 ).

In Persia similar modernizing reforms affected the military, the administration, the economy and education while constitutionally the country was declared a monarchy in 1925 . However, no equivalent political reforms were introduced. As in Turkey, the secularization of education and state control of religious funds aimed to reduce the influence of the ‘ulama’.

Islamic Revival

Islamic revival (ihya') refers to the support for an increased influence of Islamic values on the modern world as a response to Western and secular trends. Accordingly, a return to Islam in its purest form is seen as the solution for the ills of Islamic societies and modern society as a whole. One expression of ihya' was the Salafiyah movement, especially in its Wahhabi form. Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1791) was concerned about the survival of religion and sought to rectify the dangerous innovations that had been introduced into Islam. By emphasizing the concept of tawhid (the unity and oneness of God), he rejected all forms of mediation between Allah and the believer. In particular, he aimed to eliminate Sufi ideas and practices, such as the veneration of holy persons and the ziyarah to their tombs, as well as condemning excessive veneration of the prophet Muhammad. Wahhabi ideology shaped the religious character of the first Sa‘udi-Wahhabi state, which was crushed by Egyptian forces in 1818 . The second Sa‘udi state, which was proclaimed the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 , continues to be shaped and informed by Wahhabi ideology.

Other formulations stemming from the Salafiyah include jihad movements such as the Mahdiyah of Sudan and activist Sufi orders like the Sanusiyah of North Africa, both of them revival movements spurred by the struggle against Western control

A twentieth-century development of revivalist ideas is the so-called ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, or radical Islamism. Fundamentalism in fact originated in the 1920s among conservative Protestant circles in America, and is the militant statement of the infallibility of Scripture and of ethical absolutism.

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