Modernism: Islamic Modernism

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As is the case with a number of other Islamic discourses, it can be hard to locate the precise boundary of Islamic modernism. Few Muslims explicitly self-identify as "Muslim modernists," instead referring to themselves simply as Muslims, Muslims involved in the process of reform and renewal, Muslims committed to democracy, or even Muslims intent on reviving the original spirit of Islam. In this essay, Islamic modernism is defined as those discourses of Islamic thought and practice in the last two centuries in which modernity itself is seen as a viable category to be engaged and drawn upon, not merely dismissed or used as a foil to define oneself against. In other words, advocates of Islamic modernism are not simply modern Muslims but those Muslims who see something (if not all) of modernity as a constitutive element of their worldview and practice.

As is the case with other intellectual and religious traditions, Islamic engagements with modernity have been neither static nor uniform. Traditions ranging from the revivalism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the rationalizing and Salafī tendencies of the early twentieth century, as well as liberal movements of the twentieth century onto the progressive Muslim movement of the twenty-first century, can all be discussed under the broad parameter of Islamic modernism. At times, it has been difficult to locate the boundary between Islamic modernists and some nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Salafī thinkers. While both advocated fresh interpretations of the Qurʾān, the modernists tended to engage modernity explicitly, while many Salafīs couched their language in terms of the "righteous forefathers" (al-salaf al-salih ), the generation of Muslims living with and immediately after the Prophet Muammad in the seventh century. As the Salafī movement has become more intertwined with Wahhabism in the later half of the twentieth century, the overlap between modernists and Salafīs has greatly been reduced.

The discourse of modernity itself has not stayed static, as it has come under severe critique and contestation from feminists, environmentalists, Marxists, subalterns, and others. As the discourse of modernity continues to change, so do the Muslims' engagement with modernity.

There has also been a long-running tendency among Western journalists and even some scholars to look at the more conservative articulations of Islam (such as those of some traditional religious scholars) and even Muslim extremists as somehow representing "real" Islam. Subsequently, these same sources have not adequately engaged Muslim modernists, who are unfairly dismissed as lacking a constituency or influence. Even more problematic is the view that any explicit reimagination of Islam is no longer proper Islam. Lord Cromer, the British high commissioner in colonized Egypt, once said: "Islam reformed is Islam no longer." That attitude misses out on the vigorous and dynamic debates that are going on within not only modernist circles but also much wider segments of Muslim societies.

Westernization and Islamic Paradigms

Part of the difficulty in establishing the proper boundaries of Islamic modernism has to do with the way that the legacy of Islamic thought in the modern era is conceived. Many Western scholars (such as Bernard Lewis and others) have seen modernity as the exclusive offspring of the West. As a result, they approach any other civilization that engages modernity through the lens of "westernization." There is no doubt that the encounter with Western institutions and thought has had a profound impact on Islamic modernism both positively (emphasis on human rights, constitutional forms of government, adoption of science, etc.) and negatively (colonialism, support for autocratic regimes). At the same time, many of the issues that Islamic modernism engages today, such as human rights, democracy, gender equality, and the like, are truly seen as universal struggles. Furthermore, most Muslims who engage these issues frame their own discourse not as a borrowing or "influence" from Western discourses but rather as a part of indigenous Islamic interpretations. Positioning the Muslims' struggles in these universal arenas as perpetually derivative vis-à-vis Western paradigms robs them of their own legitimacy and dynamism.

The above debate is also related to when one begins the history of Islamic modernism. The older paradigm that viewed Islamic thought as being hopelessly stagnated before being jolted into a renaissance by its interaction with European colonialism is now critiqued by many scholars. Without diminishing the profound experience of responding to the shock, inspiration, and violation of the colonial experience, it is also important to realize that some of Islamic modernism also taps into important reform traditions such as Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi (d. 1762) and many others that predate the full-blown experience of colonialism.

Many Muslim modernists have readily acknowledged their interactions with Western models, institutions, and figures. At the same time they have been careful to cast their movement in decidedly Islamic terms. Perhaps the most common strategy for presenting modernism as an indigenously and authentically Islamic movement is through the framework of ijtihād. Ijtihād initially had a narrower meaning, referring to the process whereby Muslim jurists would arrive at rulings for unprecedented cases. Modernists have gradually expanded the definition of ijtihād to mean critical, independent reasoning in all domains of thought. In other words, the proper domain of ijtihād was taken to be not just Islamic law but rather all aspects of thought. In an egalitarian move, modernists often hold that it is not just jurists but all Muslims who have the responsibility to carry on ijtihād. The majority of Islamic modernist writers emphasize the need for ijtihād, often juxtaposing it polemically against taqlīd. As with ijtihād, modernists often came to reinterpret taqlīd. Taqlīd had originally meant simply following a school of Islamic law, or a designated authority (marjaʿ) in the case of Shīʿī Muslims. For modernists, who wished to highlight independent critical reasoning, taqlīd came to mean blind imitationism, becoming a symbol of everything they held to be wrong with Islamic thought.

Like many other Muslims, modernists have also cast their own struggles as perpetuating the spirit of the Qurʾān and the teachings of the Prophet Muammad. Modernists often insist that the egalitarian spirit of the Qurʾān in areas ranging from women's rights to religious pluralism should take precedence over more conservative later rulings. The distinction between essence and manifestation (universals and particulars, or other similar dichotomies) is a common motif in the history of modern religious thought. Many modernists also argue for a situated and contextualized reading of the Qurʾanic revelations.

Modernists find Qurʾanic precedence for their own critique of tradition-embedded injustice by pointing to Qurʾanic voices (such as Abraham and Muammad) who challenged their own community, which had insisted on continuing "the ways of the forefathers." In appealing to prophetic legitimization, many modernists have recorded the conversation between Prophet Muammad and a companion named Muʿādh ibn Jabal (d. 627). Muʿādh stated that if he found no explicit guidance in the Qurʾān or the prophetic sunnah, he would rely upon his own independent reasoning. While the systematic nature of this anecdote may well belie a later juridical desire to legitimize their own methodology, it has served as a powerful tool for modernists to sanctify their own appeal to ijtihād.

Modernists also tapped into other traditions of Islamic legitimacy that predated the encounter with Europe. One of their most powerful means of legitimizing themselves was by adopting the title of "renewer" (mujaddid), which recalled a statement attributed to the Prophet Muammad: "God sends to this nation at the beginning of every century someone who renews its religion." In doing so, modernists could lay claim to carrying the mantle of Islamic renewal, following established masters such as Abū āmid al-Ghazālī (10581111) whose Iyāʾ ʿ ulūm al-dīn (Revivification of Religious Sciences ) had explicitly evoked the theme of rejuvenation and renewal after death and stagnation.

Religious Authority

The crisis of contemporary Islam is inseparable from the struggle over defining Islam and the concomitant question of who gets to define Islam, using what sources and which methodologies. The question of authority in Islam is todayand has always beena contested one. It has often been noted that there is no formal church structure in Islam, thus making the base of religious authority more fluid. However, the lack of a formal structure of authority does not mean that there is no religious authority in Islam. Competing groups of Muslims claim authority for themselves by appealing to religious language and symbols. Foremost among them have been the religious scholars (ʿulamāʾ ) and the mystics (ūfīs) of Islam. However, Sufism is a contested category today, and many in the Muslim community who gravitate towards Salafism view ūfīs with skepticism. For example, the mainstream Muslim organizations in the United States, such as the Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), avoid almost all mention of Sufism (and also Shiism). Ismāʿīlīs, particularly those under the leadership of the Aga Khan, are arguably the most cosmopolitan and modernity accommodating of Muslims, yet they too are seen by some conservative Sunnī Muslims as suspect.

The majority of Muslims turn to the ʿulamāʾ, religious scholars, for religious guidance. However, many ʿulamāʾ today are ill equipped to handle the more sophisticated aspects of modernity. Traditional madrasah institutions in many Muslim-majority countries no longer offer the highest level of critical thought. Whereas these institutions historically attracted the brightest minds in the community, today they are often a haven for those who have been unable to gain admittance to more lucrative medicine, engineering, and computer science programs. By and large, there are very few madrasah s for the training of ʿulamāʾ in a curriculum that takes modernity in the sense of engagements with modern philosophy, sciences, politics, economics, and the like seriously. Ironically, while it is precisely modernist Muslims who are often best suited to handle those decidedly modern parameters, many community members view the same scholars with some skepticism because modernists are not usually products of the madrasah system. This skepticism of the community members reveals a great deal about the presuppositions of many contemporary Muslims regarding the "purity" of Islamic knowledge and how it may be "contaminated" by Western training. Ironically, this compartmentalized view of knowledge contradicts both medieval philosophical notions and certain contemporary rigorous interpretations of Islam. As early as the ninth century, the philosopher al-Kindī had stated: "We should not be ashamed to acknowledge truth and to assimilate it from whatever source it comes to us, even if it is brought to us by former generations and foreign peoples." This epistemological pluralism is also echoed in the works of the Iranian modernist intellectual ʿAbd al-Karim Soroush, who states: "I believe that truths everywhere are compatible; no truth clashes with any other truth. Thus, in my search for the truth, I became oblivious to whether an idea originated in the East, or West, or whether it had ancient or modern origins."

The vision of Islam espoused by many modernists is a more liberal, inclusive, humanistic, and even secular interpretation of Islam that is greatly distrustful of Islamist political discourses. By "secular" what is intended is a model of social relations in which the boundaries between religious discourse and political legitimacy are not collapsed, not one in which one would seek an exile of the religious from all of the public domain. The modernists' suspicion of models of government that base themselves on Islamic discourses often provides their critics with ammunition to accuse them of laxness of religious practice. Whether it is warranted or not, modernists have often been perceived as being less observant than their conservative coreligionists.

The Twentieth Century

One of the characteristics of the modernist movement in the twentieth century was its transregional, translinguistic, and transnational character. While figures such as ʿAbduh and Rida worked in Egypt, others such as Sayyīd Amad Khān, Muammad Iqbal, and Fazlur Rahman hailed from South Asia. Figures such as Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī moved with seeming ease from Iran and Afghanistan to the Ottoman Empire. One could mention other well-known figures such as the Malaysian Chandra Muzaffar, Indonesians Amad assan and Nurcholish Madjid, the Algerian/French Mohamed Arkoun, and American Amina Wadud to give a sense of its global reach.

Still, moving toward and into the twentieth century, a few Islamic modernists stood out above the rest. Almost all later modernists engaged the following figures explicitly or implicitly.

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (18381897)

Along with his disciple ʿAbduh, al-Afghānī is seen as the most important of the nineteenth-century Muslim modernists. When in the Sunnī Arab world, he adopted the name Afghānī to distance himself from his Iranian Shīʿī heritage. He was instrumental in arguing for a vision of Islam that adopted modern sciences. He is a good example of the ambiguity many modernists have vis-à-vis realpolitik, now supporting the British imperial forces, now opposing them.

Muhammad ʿAbduh (18491905)

Along with al-Afghānī, he published the highly influential al-ʿUrwa al-wuthqa (The Firmest Handle ), a title that harkens back to Qurʾān 2:256. Initially exiled from Egypt, ʿAbduh eventually returned to head al-Azhar. Generally considered the most influential of the nineteenth-century Muslim modernists in terms of his impact on later thinkers, ʿAbduh was responsible for many reforms in the educational system.

Rashid Rida (18651935)

Rida was a link between ʿAbduh and twentieth-century modernists. His al-Manar was one of the most important means for disseminating modernist ideas. He too talked explicitly about the need for renewal (tajdīd ) and renewing (tajaddud ), connecting it back to the aforementioned adīth that God sends a renewer (mujaddid ) at the beginning of every century.

Muammad Iqbāl (18771938)

Iqbal is widely credited for having been the philosophical inspiration behind the creation of the state of Pakistan. One of the few Islamic modernists with serious interest in poetry and mysticism, he is remembered for having argued for the importance of dynamism in Islamic thought. His widely influential The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam simultaneously harkens back to Abū āmid al-Ghazālī as it pushes the discourse into the twentieth century.

Fazlur Rahman (19191988)

A British-trained scholar of Islam, he highlighted the importance of educational systems in the reinvigoration of Islam. For the last twenty years of his life he taught at the University of Chicago, beginning a long legacy of exiled Muslim intellectuals who took up teaching posts in Europe and North America. A fierce critic of fundamentalism, Rahman is usually acknowledged as the doyen of Islamic modernism in the latter half of twentieth century. Unlike many modernists, Rahman was profoundly steeped in the tradition of Islamic philosophy, especially that of Mullā adrā (d. 1632).

Progressive Islam

The most significant development in modernist Islamic thought in the last generation has been the various understandings of Islam that go under the rubric of "progressive Islam." Fully immersed in postmodern critiques of modernity, progressive Islam both continues and radically departs from the 150-year-old tradition of liberal Islam. Many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century modernists generally displayed an uncritical, almost devotional, identification with modernity and often (though not always) bypassed discussion of colonialism and imperialism. Progressive understandings of Islam, on the other hand, are almost uniformly critical of colonialism, both in its nineteenth-century manifestation and in its current variety. Progressive Muslims develop a critical and nonapologetic "multiple critique" with respect to both Islam and modernity. That double engagement with the varieties of Islam and modernity, plus an emphasis on concrete social action and transformation, is the defining characteristic of progressive Islam today.

Unlike their liberal Muslim forefathers (who usually were forefathers ), progressive Muslims represent a broad coalition of female and male Muslim activists and intellectuals. One of the distinguishing features of the progressive Muslim movement as the vanguard of Islamic (post)modernism has been the high level of female participation and leadership. This is particularly the case in Western countries, where a majority of Muslims who self-identify as progressive are female. The majority of progressive Muslims also highlight women's rights as part of a broader engagement with human rights.

Progressives measure their success not in developing new and beatific theologies but rather by the amount of change for good on the ground level that they can produce in Muslim and non-Muslim societies. As Safi and a number of other prominent authors noted in the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (2003), this movement is noted by a number of themes: striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through critically engaging Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism, and a methodology of nonviolent resistance.

Muslim libera(c)tion

Progressive Muslims perceive of themselves as the advocates of human beings all over this world who through no fault of their own live in situations of perpetual poverty, pollution, oppression, and marginalization. A prominent concern of progressive Muslims is the suffering and poverty, as well as the full humanity, of these marginalized and oppressed human beings of all backgrounds who are called mustadʿafūn in the Qurʾanic context. The task of progressives in this context is to give voice to the voiceless, power to the powerless, and confront the "powers that be" who disregard the God-given human dignity of the mustadʿafūn all over this earth. Muslim progressives draw on the strong tradition of social justice from within Islam from sources as diverse as Qurʾān and adīth (statements of the Prophet Muammad) to more recent spokespersons such as ʿAlī Sharīʿatī. The Qurʾān itself specifically links fighting in the cause of God (Sabīl Allāh ) to the cause of mustadʿafūn.

The methodological fluidity of progressive Muslims is apparent in their pluralistic epistemology, which freely and openly draws from sources outside of Islamic tradition, so long as they serve as useful tools in a global pursuit of justice. These external sources include the liberation theology of Leonardo Boff, Gustavo Gutiérrez, and Rebecca Chopp, as well as the secular humanism of Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, and others. Progressive Muslims are likely to combine a Qurʾanic call for serving as "witnesses for God in justice" (Qurʾān 42:15) with the task of a social critic to "speak truth to the powers."

As is the case with many feminists and African-American scholar-activists, progressives do not accept the dichotomy between intellectual pursuit and activism. Whereas many (though not all) of the previous generations of modernist Muslims were at times defined by a purely academic approach that reflected their elite status, progressive Muslims realize that the social injustices around them are reflected in, connected to, and justified in terms of intellectual discourses. They are, in this respect, fully indebted to the majestic criticism of Edward Said. A progressive commitment implies by necessity the willingness to remain engaged with the issues of social justice as they unfold on the ground level, in the lived realities of Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

Progressive Muslims follow squarely in the footsteps of liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff, who in his Introducing Liberation Theology deemed a purely conceptual criticism of theology devoid of real commitment of the oppressed as "radically irrelevant." Boff recognized that liberação (liberation) links together the concepts of liber ("free") and ação ("action"): there is no liberation without action. The aforementioned Progressive Muslims (Safi, 2003) volume states: "Vision and activism are both necessary. Activism without vision is doomed from the start. Vision without activism quickly becomes irrelevant" (pp. 67).

This informed social activism is visible in the many progressive Muslims organizations and movements, ranging from the work of Chandra Muzaffar with the International Movement for a Just World in Malaysia, the efforts of Farid Esack with HIV-positive Muslims in South Africa, and the work of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, with groups such as the Iranian Children's Rights Society. Progressive Muslims are involved in an astonishing array of peace and social justice movements, grassroots organizations, human rights efforts, and the like.

Toward an Islamic humanism

At the heart of a progressive Muslim interpretation is a simple yet radical idea: every human life, female and male, Muslim and non-Muslim, rich or poor, "northern" or "southern," has exactly the same intrinsic worth. The essential value of human life is God given and is in no way connected to culture, geography, or privilege. A progressive Muslim agenda is concerned with the ramifications of the premise that all members of humanity have this same intrinsic worth because each member of humanity has the breath of God breathed into them: "And I breathed into humanity of my own spirit" (wa nafakhtu fīhi min rūhī ) (Qurʾān 15:29 and 38:72). This identification with the full humanity of all human beings amounts to nothing short of an Islamic humanism. In this global humanistic framework, progressives conceive of a way of being Muslim that engages and affirms the full humanity of all human beings, that actively holds all responsible for a fair and just distribution of God-given natural resources, and that seeks to live in harmony with the natural world.

Engaging tradition

Progressive Muslims insist on a serious engagement with the full spectrum of Islamic thought and practices. There can be no progressive Muslim movement that does not engage the textual and material sources of the Islamic tradition, even if progressives themselves debate what those sources should be and how they ought to be interpreted. Progressives generally hold that it is imperative to work through inherited traditions of thought and practice: Sunnī, Shīʿī, ūfī, juridical, philosophical, theological, mystical, poetical, "folk Islam," oral traditions, and others all must be engaged. In particular cases they might conclude that certain preexisting interpretations fail to offer Muslims sufficient guidance today. However, they can only faithfully claim that position afterand not beforea serious engagement with the tradition.

Social justice, gender equality, and pluralism

Justice lies at the heart of Islamic social ethics. Time and again the Qurʾān talks about providing for the marginalized members of society: the poor, the orphan, the downtrodden, the wayfarer, the hungry, and so forth. Progressive Muslims believe that it is imperative to translate the social ideals in the Qurʾān and Islamic teachings in a way that those committed to social justice today can relate to and understand. For all Muslims there is a vibrant memory of the Prophet repeatedly talking about a real believer as one whose neighbor does not go to bed hungry. Progressives hold that in today's global village, it is time to think of all of humanity as one's neighbor.

Progressive Muslims begin with a simple yet radical stance: the Muslim community as a whole cannot achieve justice unless justice is guaranteed for Muslim women. In short, there can be no progressive interpretation of Islam without gender justice. Gender justice is crucial, indispensable, and essential. In the long run, any progressive Muslim interpretation will be judged by the amount of change in gender equality it is able to produce in small and large communities. Gender equality is a measuring stick of the broader concerns for social justice and pluralism. As Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner, stated, "Women's rights are human rights."

Progressive Muslims strive for pluralism both inside and outside of the ummah. They seek to open up a wider spectrum of interpretations and practices marked as Muslim and epistemologically follow a pluralistic approach to pursuit of knowledge and truth. In their interactions with other religious and ethnic communities, they seek to transcend the arcane notion of "tolerance" and instead strive for profound engagement through both commonalities and differences.

Progressives and jihād

The pervasive discourse of jihād has become thoroughly associated with Islam, to the point that one may legitimately ask whether the term can be redeemed. Both Muslim extremist groups such as al-Qāʿidah and Western Islamophobes in fact do use the term to mean a holy war. On the Muslim side, one can point to the public statement of Usāmah bin Lādin: "In compliance with God's order, we issue the following fatwa to all Muslims: The ruling to kill the Americans and their alliescivilians and militaryis an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country." Scholars of Islamic law have been quick to point out that the very parameters of this alleged "fatwa " violate both the letter and the spirit of Islamic law. At the same time, one has to acknowledge that bin Lādin supports his own recourse to violence through the discourse of jihād. This same sentiment is reflected on the Western Islamophobic side, where many Christian evangelicals are recasting centuries old polemic against Islam in a new guise.

Progressive Muslims counter both the Muslim extremists' and the Western Islamophobes' definition of jihād. Instead, they hold firmly to the notion that jihād is key, not in the sense of holy war and violence but rather in its root meaning of resistance and struggle. In this regard, progressives in the Muslim community emphasize the responsibility to engage the wider social order by confronting injustice and inequality, while always remembering that one must do so in a nonviolent way. In doing so, they are the heirs of both Muslim visionaries such as the mystic Rūmī ("Washing away blood with blood is impossible, even absurd!") as well as exemplars of nonviolence such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and the Dalai Lama. This new understanding of jihād, which seeks to uphold resistance to well-entrenched systems of inequality and injustice through nonviolent means, is one of the key contributions of progressive Muslims. Building on the comments of religious figures such as the Dalai Lama (in his Nobel acceptance speech), they recognize that even terms like "peace" are insufficient when peace is not connected to justice and the well-being of humanity. The goal is not simply peace in the sense of absence of war but rather a peace that is rooted in justice.

Also revealing their indebtedness to American voices of social justice, many progressive Muslims are also inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. For these Muslims, King embodies speaking out for justice from the depth of a religious commitment, from the very midst of a faith community to that community and beyond. Thus, he is a great source of inspiration for many progressive Muslims to be voices of conscience speaking not in the wilderness but in the very midst of society. Progressives thus seek to be voices for global justice speaking firmly and powerfully to the powers that be while perpetually affirming the dignity of all human beings.

An Islamic Reformation?

Modernist Muslims are often asked whether their project constitutes an "Islamic reformation." They answer the question in both the affirmative and the negative. It is undeniably true that there are serious economic, social, and political issues in the Muslim world that need urgent remedying. Much of the Muslim world is bound to a deeply disturbing economic structure in which it provides natural resources such as oil for the global market while at the same time remaining dependent on Western labor, technological know-how, and staple goods. This economic situation is exacerbated in many parts of the modern Muslim world by atrocious human rights situations, crumbling educational systems, and worn-out economies. Most modernist Muslims would readily support the reform of all those institutions.

However, the term reformation carries considerably more baggage than that. In speaking of the "Islamic reformation," many people have in mind the Protestant Reformation. It is this understanding that leaves many Muslims uneasy. Theirs is not a project of developing a "Protestant" Islam distinct from a "Catholic" Islam. Most insist that they are not looking to create a further split within the Muslim community so much as to heal it and to urge it along. For this reason, iconic figures such as Shirin Ebadi eschew the language of "reform" and "reformation," instead calling for a return to a real, just Islam.

A global phenomenon or a Western Islam?

It would be a clear mistake to somehow reduce the emergence of progressive Islam to a new "American/Western Islam." Progressive Muslims are found everywhere in the global Muslim ummah. When it comes to actually implementing a progressive understanding of Islam in Muslim communities, particular communities in Iran, Malaysia, and South Africa lead, not follow, the United States. Many American Muslim communitiesand much of the leadership represented in groups such as Islamic Circle of North America, the Islamic Society of North America, and the Council on American-Islamic Relationsare far too uncritical of Salafī (if not outright Wahhābī) tendencies that progressives oppose.

Wahhabism is by now a well-known, puritanical reading of Islam that originated in eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia. It was not until the discovery of oil in Saudi Arabia that Wahhabism had the financial resources necessary to import its evangelical mission all over the world, including to the United States. In spite of their exclusivist ideology, Wahhābīs have had a great working relationship first with the British and since the 1930s with the U.S. administration. Lesser known is the Salafī movement, which represents an important school of Islamic revivalism. Salafīs espouse a "return" to the ways of the first few generations of Muslims, the "righteous forefathers." Central to their methodology has been a recentering of Qurʾān and sunnah of Prophet Muammad. It would be a mistake to view American Muslim organizations such as ISNA and ICNA as Wahhābī. On the other hand, interpretations of Islam such as Shiism and Sufism are largely absent from these organizations, and the representation of important and contested issues such as gender constructions tends to reflect a conservative, Salafī orientation as well. It is in opposition to both Wahhabism and Salafism that many Muslim progressives define themselves.

One also has to acknowledge that the European and more importantly the North American context has provided a fertile ground for the blossoming of progressive Islam. Many participants in this young movement have found a more hospitable and open environment in the North American milieu than in Muslim-majority areas. Even the contested public world of post-9/11 America still offers great possibilities for conducting public conversations about difficult matters of religion and politics. It would be hard to imagine those critical conversations taking place freely and openly in many Muslim countries. Also one has to acknowledge the significance of North American educational establishments, as well as many fruitful cross-pollinations with liberal religious institutions, human rights groups, and the like.

Challenges to Islamic modernism

Muslim modernists face a whole host of challenges. Many modernists have profound internal disagreements about issues ranging from hermeneutical approaches to Qurʾān and adīth, women's rights, and others. More problematic is the ongoing question of modernity versus the hegemony of the West. Many modernists have wrestled with the question of how to incorporate political institutions, science, and the like from the same Western civilizations that have continued to colonize and exploit much of the Third World, including many Muslim-majority countries.

Some initial phases of Islamic modernism became entangled in apologetic presentations of Islam in which Islam was idealized and imagined as an initially perfect system that had only been sullied through the misogyny and stagnation of later Muslim generations. That presupposition does not enable one to deal constructively with problematic questions in the Qurʾān or the lifetime of the Prophet and the early companions, even as it dismisses useful resources in later developments.

Other challenges are external. Muslim modernists do not have a natural institutional home other than academia and some media outlets. They have continuously struggled to find a home in the madrasah systems, although in some places they have achieved a measure of success because of the efforts of Muammad ʿAbduh and others. In other cases, they live in exile (Fazlur Rahman and Nar Abū Zayd, for example) for having been persecuted in their homeland. Politically they have often come under attack from a number of directions: state authorities who find the modernists' political critiques disturbing; secularists who are puzzled by the modernists' continued involvement with Islam; traditional religious authorities whose own understanding of Islam is undermined by the modernists. In spite of all the above, some modernists such as Fazlur Rahman and Iqbal have the strange designation of being the target of persecution as well as large-scale admiration.

In conclusion, it is clear that Muslims are entering yet another age of critical self-reflection. Given the level of polemics and apologetics, it is extraordinarily difficult to sustain a critical level of subtle discourse. Yet these Muslims today are not merely initiating social transformation, they are reflecting much wider processes at the same time. They are well situated to provide the most balanced and critical synthesis of Islam and modernity.

See Also

Jamāʿat-i Islāmī; Muslim Brotherhood; Wah-hābīyah.


There are some classical studies for each phase of Islamic modernism, but to get a sense of the flavor and methodology of modernists, there is no substitute for actually reading the primary sources.

The finest place to begin a study of Islam in the contemporary world is Carl Ernst, Following Muhammad: Rethinking Islam in the Contemporary World (Chapel Hill, N.C., 2003). For an encyclopedic reference, the four-volume The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World (New York, 1995), edited by John L. Esposito, is a useful resource. The often neglected eighteenth-century context can be studied through N. Levtzion and J. Voll's Eighteenth Century Renewal and Reform in Islam (Syracuse, N.Y., 1987). For nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century figures, the classic study remains Albert Hourani's masterpiece, Arabic Thought in a Liberal Age: 17981939 (1962; reprint, Oxford, 1983). It can be supplemented with as Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi's Intellectual Origins of Islamic Resurgence in the Modern Arab World (Albany, N.Y., 1996).

For anthologies of primary sources with useful introductions, there is no better source than the two volumes edited by Charles Kurzman. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook. (New York, 1998) deals more or less with twentieth-century figures, and Modernist Islam 18401940: A Sourcebook (New York, 2002) with slightly earlier intellectuals. Both are worth going through in detail.

For an overview of Muammad ʿAbduh, see his The Theology of Unity (London, 1955). A good secondary study is Malcolm H. Kerr's Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muhammad ʿAbduh and Rashid Rida (Berkeley, Calif., 1966). Muhammad Iqbal's widely influential The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore, Pakistan, 1951), reprinted numerous times, is a ubiquitous study of modernist Islam. Another master of Islamic modernism, Fazlur Rahman, can best be approached through two of his works, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago, 1984) and Revival and Reform in Islam: A Study of Islamic Fundamentalism, edited by Ebrahim Moosa (Oxford, 2000).

Important feminist reevaluations of Islamic history and the rise of the women's movement include Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate (New Haven, Conn., 1992). A more positive reading of the possibility of incorporating feminism into Qurʾanic hermeneutics is Amina Wadud's Qurʾān and Woman (Oxford, 1989; reprint 1999). For modernist revaluation of Islamic law, particularly in the area of gender, the classic study is Khaled Abou El Fadl's Speaking in God's Name: Islamic Law, Authority and Women (Oxford, 2001).

A critical evaluation of Wahhabism is Hamid Algar's Wahhabism (Oneonta, N.Y., 2002). A less polemical study is Ahmad Dallal's "The Origins and Objectives of Islamic Revivalist Thought, 17501850," Journal of the American Oriental Society 113, no. 3 (1993): 341359. Also worth consulting is Michael Cook's "On the Origins of Wahhabism," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 2 (1992): 191202.

A brilliant anthology of how Neoconservatives, Western Triumphalists, and Christian Evangelicals define Islam as the latest "other" against which the "West" is defined is The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, edited by Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells, (New York, 2003). The classic study that deconstructs the meta-discourse of "Islam and violence" is Bruce Lawrence, Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence (Princeton, N.J., 2000). A prominent intellectual who argues for the necessity of incorporating a Western identity into Islamic consciousness is Tariq Ramadan, author of Western Muslims and the Future of Islam (New York, 2003). A useful study of pluralistic readings of the Qurʾān is Abdulaziz Sachedina's The Islamic Roots of Democratic Pluralism (New York, 2001) and Suha Taji-Farouki, ed. Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Quran (Oxford, 2004).

Lastly, Omid Safi's edited volume, Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism (Oxford, 2003), features the writings of fifteen prominent Muslim intellectuals and activists in areas ranging from social justice to religious pluralism and gender equality. The study marks the full turning point from uncritical engagements with modernity in Islamic liberalism and modernism to a progressive understanding that adopts a critical stance vis-à-vis both Islam and modernity.

Omid Safi (2005)