Islam and Modernism: Consolidation or Conflict?


SHAFAQNA – In the history of civilizations, Islam stands as a pinnacle between the Dark ages and the Renaissance period. Although ” Islamic civilization” cannot be treated a purely sociological implication; in spite of its pristine religious insularity, Islam spread over a quarter of the then known geographical world and gave rise to a specific mode of lifestyle and became a cynosure for all observes beyond its boundaries.

The cause was simply when the Prophet Muhmmad’s (PBUH) revelations were heralded to the world in seventh century of Christian era; the ” message ” could not be confined to the Hijaz or the Arabian peninsula. Within three quarters of a century the banner of Islam’s prophet(PBUH) migrated eastwards to Transoxiana, southward to the banks of the Indus river in India, northwards to the shores of the Black sea in Asia Minor and westward into Spain onto the Pyrenees.
Islam’s newly won empire-civilization out shone rest of the world. Islam expanded its boundaries almost all around the world. It spread over from Samarqand in central Asia to Cordova in Spain, famed institutions of learning, the arts, the science, literature and the technical discoveries, invented and improvements, brought exciting wonderment to all peoples. Islam’s sociological trends were produced everywhere with sublime surrender for the religion.
In Islam’s empirical dominions, it was inevitable that all other nations would subsume themselves into the culture of their Arab Muslim rulers, incorporating an adulterated Arabic, which then became modified and tempered by those cultures. The fusion of cultural ideas gave great mobility to new civilization which still has a vital influence on the western world. Even claimed by the great legends like Bertrand Russell , British philosopher and mathematician, whose emphasis on logical analysis greatly influenced the course of 20th-century philosophy. “Our use of the phrase ‘the Dark Ages’ to cover the period from 699 to 1,000 marks our undue concentration on Western Europe… From India to Spain, the brilliant civilization of Islam flourished. What was lost to Christendom, at this time, was not lost to civilization, but quite the contrary… To us , it seems that West-European civilization is civilization; but this is a narrow view.”
Muslims could feel superior to the other civilizations about which they knew. The Mongols had been the greatest challenge and within half a century the Mongols had accepted Islam. The loss of Andalus (Muslim Spain) had a blow, but God compensated it with the advance of the Ottomans. In any case, they had taken the measure of the uncivilised ” Franks ” during the crusades; at their best these Franks were eager students of the sciences and philosophy of the Muslims. As many centuries later, with apparent suddenness, the situation was reversed. Now the franks were defeating the Muslims and demonstrating their superiority in science, stagecraft and a range of other cultural accomplishment.
As European success continued for so long and so profoundly, It seemed as if historical process ordained by God had somehow gone off this track.
Among educated Muslims, there were those who perceived the deeper nature of modern challenges and recognized that neither response in old ways nor haphazard copying of Western ways was sufficient. If Islam was/is truth and it applied to all areas of life, it had to be profoundly rethought to meet the modern challenges. If the west having received science and wisdom from the Muslims, had then surpassed them, it is because the Muslims closed the gate of ijtihad and been satisfied with taqlid(imitation), thus stifling creative thinking, bifurcated the knowledge into Islamic and non-Islamic and making ‘takfeer’ on Muslim scientists. This halted Muslim contribution in modern science and technology. (Modernist trends to use the terms ijtihad and taqlid in the sense of general creativity and rigidity, not just as fiqh terms).
Modernism’s discourse usually looks in two directions: in the first instance, to technology that increases human control over the physical environment and then, by extension, to such areas as education and politics. Modernism cannot be separated from change. In fact , Islam, was a product of fundamental social and economic changes which were occurring in Arabian society. Tribal relations were breaking down in and around Mecca and a trans-tribal mercantile class was emerging on the scene, quite greedy for wealth and totally neglectful of higher human values like compassion, alleviation of poverty and misery of weaker sections of society, mitigation of woes of slavery, recognition of socio-legal status of women, equality of all human beings transcending all barriers of caste, creed, colour, race, and tribe. Islam laid great emphasis on these values while welcoming the changes taking place in society. But, it provided a human face for the change and exhorted people not to neglect their duty towards human suffering.
Education is highly necessary for any modern society. Even scientific experiments cannot be conducted without ability to read and write. In pre-Islamic society, literacy was extremely low. The Qur’an, through its first revealed verse, encouraged reading and writing. Allah also swears by ‘qalam’ pen giving it great importance making it sacred to swear by. Also, as pointed out by Philosopher Allama Iqbal in his ‘Reconstruction of Religious thought in Islam’, the Qur’anic approach is inductive. While the inductive approach leads to encouragement of scientific observation of the universe. Physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and their branches all depend on observation and process of induction. In the Quran, crucial questions have been raised about this universe and the faithful have been encouraged to observe the animals, plants,and heavenly bodies.
It is true the language of these verses is theological and natural . The Qur’an after all is the book of religious guidance. It is not fundamentally a book of science. However, it is not against the scientific observations and experimentation, but, in fact, encourages it. As the Quran mentions in 3:190, it encourages people to reflect on the creation of God. It is only through this reflection and study that they can conclude that nothing has been created in vain ; everything has been created with a purpose.
On the flip side, modernism seeks to paint Islam with liberal colours and shift interests from spiritual world or the future life to the secular world, to draw one’s values and beliefs primarily from human rather than divine source, and to limit the influence of religious institutions on society, often by separating them from other institutions. It seeks to persuade traditional Muslim to change their ways. Although modernism has been widespread, it has provided its own ideology. In order to meet present needs and challenges, Muslims must open the gates of Ijtihad.

By Owais Manor Dar —The author is pursuing masters in Islamic studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at:

The views expressed here are the author’s own


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