The Islamic Nahḍah (rebirth, renaissance) started in Syria and achieved its real momentum in Egypt in the nineteenth century, then as subsequently the intellectual engine room of Islamic intellectual life. The Nahḍah movement represented an attempt to do two things. One was to introduce some of the main achievements of European culture into the Islamic world. The other was to defend and protect the major positive features of Arab and Islamic culture and revive them despite the assaults of European imperialism. The important features of the movement were the attempt to combine these policies and the reaction to the apparent decadence of the Arab world not by rejecting Arab culture but by purifying it and introducing it to aspects of modernity from without that were seen as acceptable from an Islamic point of view.
The main Nahḍah thinkers were Sayyid Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838–1897), and Muḥammad 'Abduh (1849–1905), who in their different ways sought to confront modernity not by rejecting it nor by rejecting Islam, but by effecting some kind of synthesis. The Renaissance movement suggested that one could accept some European ideas and reject others, thus preserving tradition while adopting modernity at the same time. Nahḍah argued that Islam is itself a profoundly rational system of thought and has no problem in accepting science and technology. So there is no reason for Muslims to abandon their faith while at the same time accepting the benefits of European forms of modernity. Interestingly, the significance of reviving Islam or Arabism played a considerable part in the political rhetoric of the time.
The most important intellectual figure in this movement was undoubtedly al-Afghānī, who as his name suggested had close connections with Afghanistan, where part of his early education took place. He seems to have been deliberately unclear about his precise ethnic origins to prevent that from being a divisive factor in his attempts to address the whole Islamic community. At the age of around eighteen he moved to India, where he came across the modernist ideas of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–1898), whom he later attacked in his Refutation of the Materialists. Ahmad Khan was intent on proving to the British rulers of India that Islam was a religion capable of accepting rationality, and it was this apologetical tone that al-Afghānī attacked. His arguments were not based on Islam alone; they also borrowed a great deal from what he regarded as science and philosophy. He argued that Islamic philosophy was perfectly compatible with modern science and technology and should encourage Muslims to acquire the necessary skills to resist the impact of European imperialism. Part of the Islamic Renaissance ideology was that there should be a rebirth and rediscovery of the main intellectual and political achievements of the Islamic world during its high point.
Al-Afghānī's Refutation of the Materialists argues that the source of evil is materialism, the philosophical doctrine that argues that the world has developed out of a set of material preconditions. He also criticizes the theory of evolution, which he sees as denying God's role in designing the world. His critique also has a social aspect in that materialism is held to reject founding society on any common moral values, and in being critical of religion as such, and of Islam in particular. This sort of critique of what is seen as European culture has since the nineteenth century become common in the Islamic world.
The influence of his ideas was amplified by the efforts of Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935), who founded in 1898 the journal al-Manar (The Lighthouse) in Cairo. The central theme of the journal was that there is no incompatibility between Islam on the one hand, and modernity, science, reason, and civilization on the other. Riḍā tended to emphasize religion and was a firm opponent of secularism, arguing that supporting modernity did not imply advocating secularism.
Muḥammad 'Abduh used his position as head of al-Azhar, the leading theological university in the Sunni Islamic world, to propound the message of the Nahḍah that the Islamic world should accept modernity while at the same time not rejecting Islam. The period of stagnation that he identified with the tenth to the fifteenth-centuries was a time when the early scientific and philosophical progress of the Islamic cultural world came to an end and the political and religious authorities had a mutual interest in maintaining control by restricting the intellectual curiosity of those over whom they ruled so effectively. What was now needed, he argued in the nineteenth century, was reform of all the institutions of the Islamic world, while preserving the timeless truths of Islam itself. He suggested that the connection between religion and modernity, in particular between Christianity and modernity, is entirely misplaced. Christianity itself advocates belief in the transience of everyday life, by contrast with the concern for possessions and comfort so characteristic of modern industrial societies. Still, Christianity found no inconsistency in combining religion with modernity, so this need not be a worry for Muslims either.
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Kedourie, Elie. Afghani and 'Abduh: An Essay on Religious Unbelief and Political Activism in Modern Islam. New York: Humanities Press, 1966.
Kurzman, Charles. Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Source Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Oliver Leaman (2005)