Modern Thought

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A complex of ideologies that emerged unevenly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—including revivalism, rationalism, empiricism, pluralism, constitutionalism, and egalitarianism—drawing heavily on European inspirations and seeking to anchor itself in Islamic precedent.


Modern Islamic thought emerged during the period of European colonial expansion. Beginning in the eighteenth century, and accelerating in the nineteenth century, the Islamic world began to bear the brunt of this expansion. The Ottoman Empire and the Qajar dynasty in Iran lost territory and were forced to sign humiliating treaties of "capitulation" that granted extraterritorial and monopoly rights to Europeans. Other Islamic lands, from West Africa to Southeast Asia, were colonized outright. By the early twentieth century, virtually the entire Islamic world was in the grip of Europe.

Europe's self-understanding at this time, notwithstanding variations and contradictions, involved the ideology of modernity. Indeed, this ideology had developed in part as an attempt to distance Christians from Muslims: Early modern political theorists contrasted the emerging constitutionalism in Europe with the "Oriental despotism" of the Islamic world; Enlightenment thinkers contrasted European religiosity with Muslim "fanaticism"; Orientalist scholars contrasted European science with Muslim "irrationality."

In response to the threat posed by Europe, many Muslims sought to adopt aspects of modernity, to make modernity serve their interests rather than the interests of the colonizers. This process was not specific to the Islamic world—in Europe and elsewhere, interstate competition also spurred the development of modern institutions. The first institutions to be modernized were the militaries, whose reorganization, reoutfitting, and retraining—along European lines, often with European instructors—were ordered by rulers such as Muhammad ˓Ali of Egypt (r.1805–1849), Mahmud II of the Ottoman Empire (r.1808–1839), and Ahmad Bey of Tunisia (r.1837–1855). A second wave of modernization involved the bureaucratization of other state institutions under reformist ministers such as Amir Kabir in Iran (1848–1851), Midhat Pasha in the Ottoman Empire (1860s–1870s), Khayr al-Din in Tunisia (1873–1877), and Abu Bakar of Johore in Malaya (1862–1895). Some of these reformers did not last long in office, but their project of state-building continued after their departure. A further wave of modernization involved economic institutions, which were transformed by their entry into the global economy. While some guilds were able to survive in their traditional forms, many peasants were forced from their lands and deposited in the modern capitalist workforce. Fortunes accumulated in the hands of Muslim industrialists, such as the Azerbaijani businessmen who collaborated and competed with European investors in the Islamic world's first oil boom, in the 1870s in Baku.

These modern institutions sponsored, sometimes unintentionally, the creation of the new class of intellectuals associated with modern Islamic thought. Muhammad ˓Ali of Egypt, for example, sent students to study in France; the religious guide appointed for the group, Rifa˓a Rafi˓ al-Tahtawi (Egypt, 1801–1873), returned after five years to write an influential book extolling the virtues of French technology, society, and politics. State-run secular schools in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere generated modern-oriented graduates such as Ali Suavi (Turkey, 1839–1878), who incorporated Western concepts such as "democracy" and "constitutionalism" into the Islamic lexicon. Industrialists in Baku and throughout the Islamic world funded modern schools, newspapers, and cultural institutions that provided cadres, jobs, and audiences for the new breed of intellectuals.

Yet modernist thinkers, for all their novelty, also considered themselves to be authentic representatives of Islamic heritage. Modern Islamic thought appealed to aspects of this heritage that it viewed retroactively as precursors to modernity. In particular, modern movements framed their ideals as the recovery of the lost piety and glory of the early years of Islam.


The theme of revival—also termed renewal, rebirth, and reform—permeates much of modern Islamic thought. "There is no doubt that in the present age distress, misfortunate, and weakness besiege all classes of Muslims from every side," wrote Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (Iran, 1838–1897), perhaps the most influential activist of the modernist Islamic movement.The Islamic world awaits a "sage and renewer" to "reform the minds and souls of the Muslims, repel the unforeseen corruption, and again educate them with a virtuous education. Perhaps through that good education they may return to their former joyful condition" (pp. 123–129). This joyful condition existed in the early years of Islam, before "complete intellectual confusion beset the Muslims," according to Muhammad ˓Abduh (Egypt, 1849–1905), the most prominent student and collaborator of al-Afghani's. Confusion can only be cured by returning to "the essential nature" of Islam, as "interpreted according to the understanding of those among whom it was sent down [from heaven] and to the way they put it into practice" (pp. 39, 153–154) "Truly, we are in a dire need for renewal and renewers," wrote Rashid Rida (Syria-Egypt, 1865–1935), Abduh's most prominent student and collaborator, citing the saying of the Prophet, "God sends to this nation at the beginning of every century someone who renews its religion" (Kurzman et al., p. 78).

The most important precedent for the earliest modern renewers was Ibn Taymiyya (Syria, 1263–1328), who along with his student Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya (Syria, 1292–1350) railed against the corrupt practices of Muslims of their era. While these figures remain important for modern revivalism, they have been eclipsed somewhat by the example of Muhammad Ibn ˓Abd al-Wahhab (Arabia, 1703–1787), the religious leader of a movement to purify Muslim practices—demolishing shrines, for example, which they took to represent false idols. Other Islamic movements of purification and renewal emerged about the same time in West Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia, and China. Hostile observers often label revivalists "Wahhabis" to emphasize their premodern roots, while contemporary followers of such movements generally identify themselves as Muwahiddun (Unitarians, or believers in divine unity) or Salafiyyun (imitators of the ancestors, that is, the early generations of Muslims).

Yet modern revivalism differs significantly from its premodern predecessors. It emerged most often in regions that are highly modernized, including the Muslim diaspora in western Europe and North America. Its leaders frequently have modern educations—for example, Hasan al-Banna (Egypt, 1906–1949), the most prominent follower of Rida and founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, was trained as an educator, as was Sayyid Qutb (Egypt, 1902–1966), the Muslim Brotherhood's most influential theoretician of radical revival. Usama bin Ladin (Saudi Arabia, born 1957), the most notorious revivalist of the present time, was trained in civil engineering. Al-Afghani and Abu l-A ˓la˒ Maududi (India-Pakistan, 1903–1979), the leading South Asian revivalist of the twentieth century, had seminary training but hid their traditional backgrounds, not wishing to be identified with such institutions (in al-Afghani's case, because he attended Shi˓a seminaries and later passed as a Sunni). In addition, modern revivalism presented itself as an ideology, comparable to other ideologies in the modern world (though preferable to them, according to its supporters). Revivalist slogans like "Neither East (that is, communism) nor West" and "Islam is the solution" placed Islamic revival within the field of global ideological debates, in a way that premodern revivalism did not. Finally, many revivalists also adopted other strands of modern thought, such as the ones discussed in the following sections.

In the first generations of modern Islamic thought, revivalism and these other strands were seamlessly woven together. By the 1930s, however, the seams had begun to show. Revivalism remains central in modern Islamic thought, but some revivalists downplay modern ideals, while some modernists downplay revivalist ideals. Today a distinction can be drawn between Islamic ideologies that approach modernity as a means toward revivalism, and those that approach revivalism as a means toward modernity.


Debates within modern Islamic thought take place on the ground of rationalism. Even thinkers who disagree with one another share the underlying premise that educated, informed Muslims should devise reasoned justifications for their positions, and may the best argument win. This premise differs from premodern limits on rationality (as opposed to faith), suspicion of novelty (vulnerable to accusations of heresy), and reliance on authority (particularly the genealogy of one's spiritual teacher). The distinction is not absolute: Certainly novel arguments were developed in premodern times, and some modern thought denies that it does anything more than revive the insights of its predecessors. But in general, the distinction holds, demarcated symbolically by the concept of ijtihad.

The concept of ijtihad, derived from an Arabic root meaning "effort" or "struggle," was for centuries limited to a fairly technical meaning, referring to the intellectual effort of trained Islamic scholars to arrive at legal rulings on matters not covered in the sacred sources. The modernist Islamic movement of the nineteenth century adopted the term as a rallying cry, transforming its meaning into the more general task of "rational interpretation" that they held to be incumbent upon all educated Muslims. The opposite of ijtihad, in this view, was taqlid, literally "following," which modernists took to mean "blind obedience to authority." Al-Afghani, for example, urged Muslims to "shun submission to conjectures and not be content with mere taqlid of their ancestors. For if man believes in things without proof or reason, makes a practice of following unproven opinions, and is satisfied to imitate and follow his ancestors, his mind inevitably desists from intellectual movement, and little by little stupidity and imbecility overcome him—until his mind becomes completely idle and he becomes unable to perceive his own good and evil; and adversity and misfortune overtake him from all sides" (p. 171). ˓Abduh sought "to liberate thought from the shackles of taqlid to return, in the acquisition of religious knowledge, to its first sources, and to weigh them in the scales of human reason, which God has created in order to prevent excess or adulteration in religion" (Hourani, 140–141). Sayyid Ahmad Khan (India, 1817–1898), the chief organizer of the modernist Islamic movement in South Asia in the nineteenth century, argued that Islam is "in full correspondence with reason" (Troll, 257).

Modernists cited premodern precedents for this view. Ahmad Khan, for example, praised the broadened use of ijtihad by Shah Wali Allah (India, 1703–1762). Muhammad Iqbal (India, 1877–1938), the great poet and philosopher, relied on Shah Wali Allah, Muhammad b. ˓Ali al-Shawkani (Yemen, circa 1760–1839), and other, older theorists of ijtihad. Fazlur Rahman (Pakistan-United States, 1919–1988), the most prominent Islamic modernist of late twentieth century South Asia, cited a long-standing legacy running through Wali Allah and Iqbal. Many modernists trace rationalism back to a saying of the prophet Muhammad: When Muhammad appointed Mu˓adh b. Jabal as ruler of Yemen, he asked Mu˓adh how he planned to make decisions. "I will judge matters according to the Book of God," said Mu˓adh. "But if the Book of God contains nothing to guide you?" Muhammad asked. "Then I will act on the precedents of the Prophet of God." "But if the precedents fail?" "Then I will exercise my own ijtihad." Muhammad praised Mu˓adh for his response.

Modern Islamic rationalism universalized such precedents. Whereas premodern thought had generally limited the use of ijtihad to qualified scholars, modernists consider all Muslims—or, in some theories, all educated Muslims—to be capable of rational interpretation. Modern thinkers nonetheless differ as to the matters to which rationalism may legitimately be applied, with some exempting matters whose treatment in the Qur˒an and the precedent of the prophet Muhammad they consider to be unambiguous. Other thinkers, such as ˓Abd al-Karim Sorush (Iran, b. 1945), hold that even seemingly unambiguous revelation is subject to human—and thus variable and fallible—interpretation, and therefore that rational analysis is required on all matters.


In modern Islamic thought, rationalism is not limited to textual exegesis, but operates also on the empirical world. Scientific observation is required of Muslims, in this view, both for its own sake and for the benefits it can bestow upon the welfare of the Islamic world. Isma˓il Bey Gasprinskii (Crimea, 1851–1914), one of the founders of modern Islamic thought in the Russian Empire, considered science to be crucial to the survival of Islam, which had fallen hundreds of years behind Europe, he argued, because of its failure to keep up with Western scientific advances. Rizaeddin bin Fakhreddin (Ar. Rida al-din bin Fakr al-din) (Tatarstan, 1858–1936), one of the chief seminary-trained collaborators of the Russian-educated Gasprinskii, likened the sciences in the Islamic world to "a factory standing idle," and argued that "it is futile to resist machines and struggle against nature" (Kurzman, 239). Abdalrauf Fitrat (Ar. ˓Abad al-Ra˓uf Fitrat) (Bukhara-Soviet Union, 1886–1938), who helped to bring Ottoman and Tatar modernism to Central Asia, urged Muslim schools to abandon "the nonsense of studying obscure points of Arabic grammar" in favor of "the new sciences, which produce rapid results and great benefits, [and which] the Christians possessed to make them victorious over you" (Kurzman, 245).

These figures and their colleagues were instrumental in reforming and founding Islamic schools—known as "New Method" (Usul-e Jadid) schools—throughout the Russian Empire to encourage the teaching of empirical subjects: natural sciences, particularly physics and chemistry; human sciences, particularly history and geography; and language arts, particularly literacy in Arabic and local languages. By the time the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917, there were hundreds of such schools, only to be destroyed through the economic disasters, political purges, and civil conflicts of the early Soviet era. In other regions, however, similar school reform movements survived. Ahmad Khan's Anglo-Muhammadan College in Aligarh, India, was one of several new institutions that trained generations of modernist Muslims in South Asia. The Muhammadiyya movement in Southeast Asia established a network of new schools that exist to this day. Postcolonial states throughout the Islamic world have frequently required traditional schools to introduce scientific subjects, while also incorporating religious education as a subject in the new state-run educational systems. Empiricism has become widely entrenched both as a worldview and as a pedagogy.

The Islamic justification for empiricism cites both scriptural and historical grounds, as well as the pragmatic grounds of progress and survival. Modernists describe in glowing terms the scientific advances of the early centuries of Islam, including such figures as Abu Ja˓far al-Khwarazmi (Baghdad, c. 800–847), who invented algebra; Ulugh Beg (Central Asia, 1394–1449), whose astronomical observations were used throughout the world for centuries; and Ibn Khaldun (Tunisia, 1332–1406), widely considered a precursor to modern historiography and social science. The relative lack of comparable paragons in later years poses the central problem for modern Islamic empiricism. Modernists have also collected numerous verses of the Qur˒an and sayings of Muhammad in support of empirical study, including the saying, "Seek knowledge, even though it be in China." Indeed, one strand of Islamic empiricism argues that all significant scientific discoveries were prefigured in the Qur˒an—not only is scientific knowledge fully consistent with Islam, in this view, but Islam had it first.


Empirical claims, according to modern Islamic thought, are to be judged by their content, not by the social position of the speaker. In the words of ˓Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza˒iri (Algeria-Syria, c. 1807–1883), an anticolonial military leader who turned to a modernist form of Sufism during his decades of retirement: "People should be measured according to the truth, not the truth according to [the reputation of] people" (Kurzman, 135).

Other modernists extended this egalitarian sentiment to many arenas of social life, for example, ethnicity. ˓Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi (Syria, 1854–1902) and others criticized Ottoman Turkish discrimination against Arabs in governmental and social affairs; Syeikh Ahmad Surkati (Sudan-Java, 1872–1943) and others objected to Arab discrimination against Southeast Asians; Chandra Muzaffar (Malaysia, b. 1947) and others protested against Southeast Asians' discrimination against non-Muslim communities in the region, such as the Chinese. In these and similar cases, egalitarianism sought to replace traditional forms of hierarchy with a new form of community, sometimes defined in religious terms (the umma, or Islamic community as a whole), but more frequently in national terms. Arab, Southeast Asian, and other nationalisms cast individuals as citizens with equal rights and responsibilities.

One of the most contentious aspects of egalitarianism involved the extension of this ideology to gender. At the turn of the twentieth century, feminists—both male and female—began to argue that patriarchal practices offended Islamic faith. Qasim Amin (Egypt, 1863–1908), the Islamic world's most famous male feminist, argued that Islamic law originally treated men and women equally, with the exception of polygamy, granting women rights still not achieved by many Western women. Halide Edib Adivar (Turkey, 1882–1964), arguably the Islamic world's most famous female feminist, argued the reverse, suggesting that Islamic family law was inherently anti-egalitarian on gender matters and had to be replaced with Western laws. The debate between these positions continues, with men and women on both sides of the fence. However, feminists have won near unanimity on several crucial points: that women have historically been oppressed by men; that this oppression has often been defended with misguided interpretations of Islam; that such justifications must be countered, either by the reform or removal of traditional laws and practices; and that women deserve, at the very least, equal access to education.

Another controversial extension of egalitarianism involves economic rights, especially those associated with the socialist movements that emerged in the Islamic world in the early twentieth century. In the Dutch East Indies—later Indonesia—the Islamic Union Party combined nationalist goals with redistributive ones, using an Islamic discourse of zakat, or tithing. To the left of this movement was an Islamic Communist Party, which criticized the Islamic Union Party and others on Islamic grounds, as in the comments of Hadji Mohammad Misbach (Java, circa 1876–1940): "To be sure, they perform the precepts of the religion of Islam, but they pick and choose those precepts that suit their desire. Those that do not suit them they throw away. Put bluntly, they oppose or defy the commands of God—and rather fear and love the will of Satan—that Satan whose evil influence is apparent in this present age in [the system of] Capitalism" (Shiraishi, 285). Socialist thought, drawing on Islamic and non-Islamic discourses, was embedded in the independence movement in Indonesia, as in Pakistan and several others around the Islamic world. In parts of the Middle East, Islamic socialism became particularly popular in the 1960s, expressing itself in both pro-Soviet and nonaligned manifestations. Soon thereafter—in the Islamic world as in the West—a counter-movement set in, with leftist sentiments ceding to dreams of individual and national capital accumulation.


A special case of egalitarianism involves political rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law, all of which were bundled in the movement for constitutional government—mashrutiyat, a nineteenth-century neologism derived from the Arabic root shart (conditionality) and the French term charte (constitution). Namik Kemal (Ottoman Turkey, 1840–1888), one of the leading activists in the constitutionalist movement of the 1860s and 1870s, quoted Qur˒anic injunction such as, "And seek their council in the matter" (3:159), and concluded that "the salvation of the state today is dependent upon the adoption of the method of consultation" (Kurzman, 140). ˓Ali ˓Abd al-Raziq (Egypt, 1888–1966), a scholar at al-Azhar University in Cairo, took another tack, arguing that the sacred sources do not require democratic government, but rather permit it. The Qur˒an and the precedent of the Prophet leave the form of government to human devising, "for the trusteeship of Muhammad, peace be upon him, over the believers is the trusteeship of the Message, untainted by anything that has to do with government" (Kurzman, 36). These novel arguments for constitutionalism were controversial in their day. Namik Kemal served on the Council of State that prepared the short-lived Ottoman constitution of 1876, but suffered banishments before and after that time. ˓Abd al-Raziq was fired from al-Azhar for his controversial views.

Yet constitutionalism gradually became the norm in Islamic lands. Egypt promulgated a constitutionalist document in 1860, and a fuller constitution in 1882; Tunisia briefly in 1861 and then, after the colonial interlude, in 1959; Iran briefly in 1906, then again in 1909; and so on. Upon decolonization, almost all countries in the Islamic world drew up constitutions, the last one to do so being Saudi Arabia, whose monarch announced a Basic Law modeled on Western constitutions in 1992. Some of these documents, including Saudi Arabia's, provide far fewer rights and limits on state power than is common in Western constitutions of the same period. But it is indicative of the spread of modern thought that even traditional monarchs have felt the need to draw up a codified statement of rights and obligations. At the same time, states in the Islamic world often disregard the constitutions that are nominally in force. Many such regimes are secular in orientation, not Islamic, but a correlation persists between Muslim population and low levels of democracy.

In the face of ongoing repression, even some radical Islamic movements have adopted the discourse of constitutionalism. In Turkey, the Welfare Party—banned and reconstituted under several different names—portrayed itself as an "Islamic-Democrat" movement analogous to the Christian-Democrat parties in several western European countries. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood began to mobilize on behalf of civil liberties in the 1980s, as did the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, the Renaissance movement in Tunisia, and the Justice and Charity movement in Morocco. Uncharitable observers have expressed skepticism about the sincerity of this discourse, but these movements have generated a substantial written record elaborating their constitutionalist ideologies in Islamic terms. These writings brought the radicals closer in some ways to Islamic liberalism.


Alongside political pluralism stands religious pluralism, the notion that multiple interpretations of the sacred are possible and legitimate. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, proponents of this approach emerged around the Islamic world. Among the most influential is the philosopher ˓Abd al-Karim Sorush (Iran, born 1945): "Religion is divine, but its interpretation is thoroughly human and this-worldly," Soroush wrote. "The text does not stand alone, it does not carry its own meaning on its shoulders, it needs to be situated in a context, it is theory-laden, its interpretation is in flux, and presuppositions are as actively at work here as elsewhere in the field of understanding. Religious texts are no exception" (Kurzman, 245). Similarly, the philosopher Hassan Hanafi (Egypt, b. 1935) argued, "There is no one interpretation of a text, but there are many interpretations given the difference in understanding between different interpreters. An interpretation of a text is essentially pluralistic. The text is only a vehicle for human interests and even passions" (Kurzman, 26). Fazlur Rahman, cited above, suggested that "To insist on absolute uniformity of interpretation is neither possible nor desirable" (144). Amina Wadud-Muhsin (United States, b. 1952) wrote that "when one individual reader with a particular world-view and specific prior text [the language and cultural context in which the text is read] asserts that his or her reading is the only possible or permissible one, it prevents readers in different contexts from coming to terms with their own relationship to the text" (Kurzman, 130). ˓Abdullahi An-Na˓im (Sudan, b. 1946) wrote that "there is no such thing as the only possible or valid understanding of the Qur˒an, or conception of Islam, since each is informed by the individual and collective orientation of Muslims." (An-Na˓im, 233). Few if any of these authors had read one another's work; pluralism sprouted independently in multiple locations.

Some writers consider the millennium of coexistence of multiple schools of thought in Islamic jurisprudence to be precedent for contemporary pluralism. Others go back further, to the earliest years of Islam. Mohamed Talbi (Tunisia, born 1921) quoted Sura 5, Verse 51 of the Qur˒an: "To each among you, have We prescribed a Law and an Open Way. And if God had enforced His Will, He would have made of you all one people." Muhammad Asad (Austria-Pakistan, 1900–1992) quoted the saying of the prophet Muhammad, "The differences of opinion among the learned within my community are [a sign of] God's grace." Farid Esack (South Africa, b. 1959) cited the words of ˓Ali b. Abi Talib, Muhammad's son-in-law and fourth successor: "this is the Qur˒an, written in straight lines, between two boards [of its binding]; it does not speak with a tongue; it needs interpreters and interpreters are people." Esack translates this into contemporary terms: "Every interpreter enters the process of interpretation with some preunderstanding of the questions addressed by the text—even of its silences—and brings with him or her certain conceptions as presuppositions of his or her exegesis" (p. 50). Leading pluralists have suffered threats and worse, as their arguments pose a challenge to other modern trends in Islamic thought that believe a single correct interpretation of Islam is achievable and ought to be enforced.


The contrast between pluralists and revivalists reminds one that modern thought is frequently self-contradictory. Constitutionalism is consistent with both authoritarianism and democracy. Empiricism breeds competing analyses. Socialism and capitalism are both modern phenomena, as are "third way" ideologies. Indeed, the label modern is sometimes used so elastically that virtually all ideas expressed in the past two centuries fall under this rubric. Other definitions, such as the one presented here, are more restrictive. Others leave the definition open, considering an idea as modern only if its authors consider it so.

Similar definitional dilemmas are associated with the term Islamic. Some of the writings quoted in this piece are not considered Islamic by other Muslims, even if their authors consider them so. A further body of thought is self-consciously non-Islamic, though its authors are Muslims.

At stake in these definitional disputes is the frame of reference for any given analysis. Calling something "modern" associates it with the entire package of modern institutions, an association that some Muslims desire and others abhor. Calling something "Islamic" associates it with the divine revelation and generations of followers of Islam, an association that some Muslims would like to monopolize. Bringing the two terms together, as in "modern Islamic thought," suggests that the two frames overlap, and that Muslims have contributed to the construction of modernity.

See also˓Abd al-Karim Sorush ; Afghani, Jamal al-Din ; Ahmad Khan, (Sir) Sayyid ; Capitalism ; Communism ; Feminism ; Gender ; Iqbal, Muhammad ; Liberalism, Islamic ; Modernism ; Pluralism: Legal and Ethno-Religious ; Pluralism: Political ; Qutb, Sayyid ; Rahman, Fazlur ; Science, Islam and ; Secularization ; Shari˓ati, ˓Ali ; Wali Allah, Shah .


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Charles Kurzman