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Thematic Guide to Islam and Modernism

John Voll, Georgetown University


Islamic modernism is a major movement within the long traditions of revival and renewal in Islamic history. In contrast to fundamentalism in modern Islamic history, modernists recognize the need for reform, or islāh, because of the changes resulting from modernization and development, while working to maintain a sense of Islamic authenticity within modern life and society. Muslims have engaged in a broad spectrum of reform programs in the modern era. Some of these actions were basically administrative and in the secular sphere, like the reforms of Muhammad Ali in Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century. Such programs were not primarily focused on the religious or intellectual Islamic dimensions, although some individuals involved in these reforms, like Rifaa al-Tahtawi in Egypt and Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi, an important North African Ottoman official, consciously considered the Islamic dimensions of the reforms.

Major efforts to articulate explicitly Islamic expressions of modernism began in the second half of the nineteenth century. The best-known figures in this emerging modernist movement were Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, an itinerant activist scholar who had followers in Iran, Egypt, and Istanbul, and his Egyptian associate, Muhammad Abduh, who went from being an activist in exile in Paris to becoming the Grand Mufti of Egypt. Abduh became well-known throughout the Muslim world by the time of his death in 1905. Al-Manar, the journal that he published with his student and associate Rashid Rida, was read from Java to Morocco and stimulated the emergence of modernist groups and intellectuals in many areas. This emerging trend came to be identified as the Salafiyah, looking to the “salaf,” the pious ancestors in the early Muslim community, for inspiration, rejecting simple acceptance (taqlīd) of preceding traditional scholarship and engaging, rather, in informed independent analysis (Ijtihād).

In addition to this Salafiyah, major Islamic modernist movements emerged in other Muslim contexts in the late nineteenth century. In South Asia under British rule, Muslim thinkers developed a broad spectrum of modernist positions. Sayyid Ahmad Khan emphasized the complementarity between Islam and modern science, establishing a major Islamic university in Aligarh. Other intellectuals such as Syed Ameer Ali and Chiragh Ali gave greater attention to issues of modernist historical and theological interpretations. In the Russian Empire, Ismail Bey Gasprinskii and the movement that he led, Jadidism, called for Muslim educational curricula not based on rote memory and advocated participation of Muslims within Russian society.

Throughout the Muslim world, Islamic modernists were active in competing with more secular reformers as well as with the conservative Muslim establishment. In the next generation, many different lines of advocacy emerged. In Egypt, intellectuals following in Abduh’s path ranged from the increasingly conservative political positions of his leading disciple, Rashid Rida, to advocacy of more activist reform, like Qasim Amin, who spoke for women’s rights, and Ali Abd al-Razaq, who challenged traditional views of the unity of religion and politics in Islam. In British India, Muhammad Iqbal became identified with the movement for a separate Muslim state and is considered the “Father of Pakistan,” as well as influentially defining a “reconstruction of religious thought in Islam.” In contrast, other Muslim leaders like Abū al-Kalām Āzād articulated a more secular nationalist position that provided the basis for Muslim life in independent India.

In many other areas, important modernist movements developed. In Indonesia, inspired by Abduh, Hadji Ahmad Dahlan established the Muhammadiyah in 1912, and it became one of the largest Islamic organizations in the world, with continuing significance into the twenty-first century. In North Africa, modernists became involved in both supporting intellectual reform and developing national identities. In Algeria, Abd al-Hamīd Ibn Bādīs was an important advocate of Islamically based nationalism and was also active in opposing popular religious practices that were viewed as non-Islamic. A major Shi’i intellectual, Ayatullah Muhammad Husayn Naini, wrote a famous study supporting constitutionalism during the Constitutional Revolution (1905–1911) in Iran and gave strong support to Iranian nationalism. In Turkey, Kemalism, a comprehensive program of secular reform established by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, limited the influence of religious modernism, but scholars like Ahmet Hamdi Akseki made important developments in Islamic studies within the secular framework, and Said Nursî created a loosely organized movement emphasizing spiritual devotion in modern contexts. Following the Communist Revolution in Russia, the heirs of the Jadid movement were gradually eliminated in the measures suppressing religion in the Soviet Union. Some Communist Muslims including Mir Said Sultan Galeyev worked to develop a synthesis of Communist and radical Islamic thought, but Galeyev was killed during Stalin’s purges around 1930.

By the second half of the twentieth century, many of the important issues of earlier modernism were replaced by debates about imperialism, nationalism, and possible radical alternatives to old-style modernisms in many different societies. The old questions of whether or not Islam was compatible with modernity were replaced by debates about different styles of Islamic modernity. Modernism became an important part of mainstream Islamic faith, as shown by the influence by the third quarter of the twentieth century of Mahmud Shaltut and Abd al-Halim Mahmud, two modernist Shaykhs of al-Azhar in Egypt; Hamka (Haji Abdul Malik Karim Amrullah), a major scholar and writer in the tradition of the Muhammadiyah in Indonesia; Muhammad Allal al-Fasi, a Moroccan modernist intellectual and nationalist; and Ayatullah Mahmud Taleqani, a leader of the Freedom Movement of Iran in the 1960s and an early articulator of the ideology of the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

By the final quarter of the twentieth century, the main emphases in movements of Islamic revival shifted beyond modernist perspectives, defining new approaches in Islamic scholarship and politics. A major figure in the intellectual transition is Fazlur Rahman, a Pakistani scholar who taught for many years outside of Pakistan because of opposition to his modernist reformism in his home country. His work in Islamic hermeneutics shaped many Muslim scholars who were important in the emerging scholarship beyond the classical modernism. These intellectuals include Nurcholish Madjid, who challenged establishment modernism in Indonesia, Amina Wadud, who developed a gender-inclusive hermeneutical approach to the Quran, and Mustafa Cerić, the Grand Mufti in post-Communist Bosnia. Other important pioneers in the new methodologies and approaches include the French-Algerian intellectual Mohammed Arkoun, the Egyptian philosopher Hasan Hanafi, and Ali Shariati, an Iranian intellectual and activist whose ideas were important in Iranian Islamic revolutionary thought.

These new intellectual trends, supported by the emergence of the ideologies of Political Islam, as developed by a broad spectrum of intellectual activists like Hasan al-Turabi, Rashid al-Ghannushi, and Ayatollah Ruhollah al-Musavi Khomeini, can be viewed as the culmination of the efforts of Islamic modernists to adapt to the contexts and challenges of modernity and also as the beginning of an era of ideas and activism that goes beyond the old issues and programs of modernism.


Further Reading

  • Abduh, Muhammad. The Theology of Unity. Translated by Ishaq Musa’ad and Kenneth Cragg. London: Allen & Unwin, 1966. [The most influential late nineteenth century articulation of the Islamic modernist position.]
  • Browers, Michaelle, and Kurzman, Charles, eds. An Islamic Reformation? Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004. [A collection of important essays on Islamic reformism from the perspective of twenty-first century scholarship.]
  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1983. [The classic analysis of modernism, concentrating on thought in the Arab world.]
  • Iqbal, Mohammad. The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Many printings. Dubai, UAE: Kitab al-Islamiyyah. [An influential statement in the second era of Islamic modernism by a significant South Asian intellectual.]
  • Khan, Syed Ahmed. A Series of Essays on the Life of Muhammed. Delhi, India: Idarah-I Adabiyat-I Delli, 1870. [Historiographical essays by a major South Asian modernist in the late nineteenth century.]
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed. Modernist Islam, 1840–1940. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. [The standard comprehensive anthology of writings by Islamic modernists.]
  • Moaddel, Mansoor, and Kamran, Talattof, eds. Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam: A Reader. New York and Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002. [An anthology of representative writings with a useful introduction.]
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. [An important analysis of the development of modernism by a major late twentieth century Muslim modernist intellectual.]
  • Rida, Muhammad Rashid. The Muhammadan Revelation. Translated by Yusuf Talal DeLorenzo. Alexandria, Va.: Al-Saadawi Publications, 1996. [A clear presentation of the more conservative modernism of Abduh’s major associate.]
  • Zebiri, Kate. Mahmud Shaltut and Islamic Modernism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. [An important analysis of mid-twentieth century modernism.]

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