The onset of European imperialism created a crisis of monumental proportions in the Muslim world. For Muslim intellectuals and religious scholars, it became abundantly clear that the nations of Europe had been able to conquer and subdue Muslim societies due to superior weaponry and machinery. The crisis, however, was not simply political or technological. It was also economic, social and cultural, as the structures and institutions introduced by the colonial powers brought with them a range of challenges to traditional Muslim world-views and perspectives on a wide range of issues. For instance, with European colonialism came the idea of secularism and the notion that sovereignty, the ability to make laws, and to determine right from wrong, rested neither with God nor with religious institutions claiming to interpret God’s will, but with the consensus of the people as expressed in the institutions of the state. Colonialism also brought it with Christian missionaries who were anxious to take advantage of the opportunities to spread their religion under the benevolent protection of the colonial state. These missionaries, along with early western scholars who studied Islam under colonial patronage, promoted the view that Islamic doctrines, practices and concepts, such as jihad, polygamy, the veil, and the shari’a, were evidence that Islam was a “backward” religion, incompatible with progress and development. Hence, it was their duty to embark on a mission that was to simultaneously “Christianize” and to civilize colonial subjects and show them the way to progress. In the civilizing mission of European imperialism, Muslim communities were confronted with a force that was powerful enough to transform them into its own image, using brute military might, if necessary.
For many Muslims, the political, cultural and religious denigration they experienced under colonial rule resulted in a crisis of faith as religious ideals chafed against historical realities. Viewed particularly from the perspective of Sunni Islam, to which the majority of world’s Muslims adhere, the history of their faith, until the eighteenth century, had been on the whole, with a few exceptions (such as the Crusades and Mongol invasions), a history of political triumph characterized by the steady expansion of Islam as a global religion. This political triumph, lasting many centuries, had been interpreted in theological terms: it was a sign that God was on the side of the Muslims, rewarding them with triumph in the world for faithfully following His commands. The new dominance and the visible strength of the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries created an uneasy feeling among many Muslims that something had gone wrong in history, triggering anxious questions. Was not the loss of hegemony in world affairs a sign that God had abandoned them because they were no longer practicing their faith correctly? How were Muslims to respond to challenges to Muslim identity and faith in this new context? What were the reasons for the political and economic decline? Secularists blamed outmoded interpretations of Islam, its institutions and role that they played in public life for the ills facing Muslim societies. They felt that secularism, that is, separation of religion and politics and establishment of nation-states based on models derived from the West, would open the path towards modernization. By imitating the nations of Europe, they were convinced that Muslim societies would once again regain their lost dignity and their rightful place on the world stage. In contrast, conservative religious leaders (the ‘ulama) argued that imitating the West was not a cure; on the contrary the West was a deadly poison for Muslim societies. For them, Muslims were in a situation of powerlessness because they had deviated from the correct practice of religion as interpreted by the great Sunni scholars of the ninth and tenth centuries, the founders of the four main schools of Sunni religious jurisprudence. If Muslims were to follow carefully the teachings of the learned teachers of the past, they would surely return to the sirat al-mustaqim, the “right path” and then, perhaps, God would be on their side once again.
Islamic modernism emerged as a compromise between secularly based advocacy of Western ideals and religiously motivated rejection of these ideals. It was an attempt by Muslim intellectuals, many of whom were not part of the traditional religious elite, to reconcile fundamentals of the Islamic faith with modern concepts such as nationalism, constitutionalism, rationality, scientific inquiry, modern western style education, women’s rights and so on. Its leaders struggled to redefine Islam in terms of dominant Western values and to demonstrate its ability to adapt to the new world that Muslims encountered as their societies modernized. Integral to Islamic modernism was a process of internal self-criticism in which Muslim intellectuals struggled to come to terms with causes of decline while at the same time developing interpretations of Islam that accommodated modernity. For Islamic modernists, the ulama, through their old-fashioned and outdated modes of interpreting Islam and its religious texts, constituted a major part of obstacle in the path of reinvigorating Islam in the new context. For instance, a leading modernist, Jamal ad-Din Al-Afghani (1838-1897), felt that the ‘ulama, by stifling independent and rational thought, had been responsible for the decline of Islamic civilization. Claiming that they were the true enemies of Islam, he likened them to “a very narrow wick on top which is a very small flame that neither lights its surroundings nor gives light to others.” (as quoted in Reza Aslan, There is no god but God, p. 230) The modernists challenged the status of the ‘ulama as sole authoritative interpreters of the faith by declaring that the doors to ijtihad, individual interpretation, had never been closed. According to the modernists, the notion of taqlid, following or adhering to the interpretations of the learned, had been clearly promoted by the ‘ulama to bolster their authority and suppress alternative viewpoints and interpretations. Viewed from this perspective, Islamic modernism was “nothing short of an outright rebellion against the Islamic orthodoxy, [and] displayed an astonishing compatibility with the nineteenth century Enlightenment.” (M. Moaddel and K. Talattof, Modernist and Fundamentalist Debates in Islam, p.1) Not surprisingly the ‘ulama did not take too kindly to Modernist attacks on their authority and used their traditional control over the masses to fight against the Modernist vision by declaring its proponents to be kafirs, or infidels. and apostates.
The readings for this Session cover the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when a group of prominent Muslim thinkers promoted the Modernist vision in the Middle East and the Indian Subcontinent. They critically examined traditional conceptions of various aspects of Islamic thought, including legal systems, and called for new ways of interpreting the Quran and the other sources of Islamic jurisprudence. The most prominent of the modernists was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97) around whom developed a circle of influential disciples. Al-Afghani promoted the view that Islam, correctly interpreted, was a socio-political ideology and civilization whose values were superior to Western civilization and could be used to unite politically Muslims of different nationalities and ethnicities against European colonialism. In this regard, he is often perceived as the father of pan-Islamism. He was also a strong advocate for the adoption of modern science which he considered central to the survival of Muslim civilization against European cultural onslaught. Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), an Egyptian scholar, was one of the most prominent disciples of al-Afghani. Together they founded a short-lived journal called Al-Urwah al-wuthqa which vehemently opposed European imperialism and demanded Islamic reform and unity. Based on his familiarity and training in traditional Islamic education, Abduh called for a fresh interpretation of the Qur’an and the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad so that it was more appropriate to a modern context. Indeed, for him, interpretation of divinely revealed texts was a dynamic process in which reason and revelation were to be harmonious. In his eyes, anyone who denied scientific truths or the importance of rationality was committing a grievous sin. On account of his teaching position at Al-Azhar, a premier institution of learning in the Sunni world, he was able to influence students who came from as far as Indonesia and Malaysia. Abduh espoused his ideas in al-Manar “The Beacon” a journal widely read in parts of the Muslim world. Abduh edited this journal with his disciple and biographer Muhammad Rashid al-Rida (1865-1935). While Rida, like al-Afghani and Abduh, called for a reinterpretation of the Qur’an as well as the compatibility of Islam with science, reason and modernity, over time he became religiously more conservative and critical of the increasing secularization of society. He advocated that Muslims follow the example of the early Muslim community, the salaf, laying the foundation for the more strident Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood that was to evolve later. Qasim Amin (1863-1908) was another important figure in the circle of disciples associated with al-Afghani and Abduh. He was a prominent among the Modernists for his advocacy of equal rights for women, an end to their seclusion and, through access to education, equal participation in public life.
In the Indian subcontinent, the Modernist movement arose in the aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857-8 when Hindu and Muslim sepoys (soldiers) began a movement to overthrow the power of the British. The British suppressed the rebellion with brutal force, with many Indians losing their lives and/or their property. In this traumatic context arose a Modernist leader, Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), who was firmly convinced that to make progress in the context of colonial India, the best path for the Muslims to follow was that of absolute and unwavering loyalty to the British. Furthermore, he felt that Muslims should participate fully in the Western-style educational system being established by the British so that they would not become a social and economic underclass. Western thought, he believed, was not in fundamental conflict with Islam, nor was the studying the natural sciences, for there could not be a conflict between the Qur’an – the Word of God – and Nature – the Work of God. In this regard, he advocated a rational and contextual approach to Qur’an interpretation since Islam, according to him, accommodates historical change. To promote his ideas and provide young Muslims with Western-style higher education, he fought for and eventually founded the Anglo-Muhammadan Oriental College, which later became Aligarh Muslim University. Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s approach enjoyed the support of several important personalities in Indo-Muslim society and formed the basis of the so-called Aligarh Movement. Among its members were several important literati who wrote Urdu prose and poetry to disseminate their ideas. Most prominent were Altaf Husayn Hali (d. 1914) who wrote the famous poem Madd va gazr-i Islam, “The Ebb and Flow of Islam,” in which he contrasts the past glories and achievements of Islamic civilization with the miserable status of Muslims of his time; Nazir Ahmad (d. 1912) a novelist whose writings, such as Mirat al- Arus “The Bride’s Mirror,” emphasized the need for female education; and Mumtaz Ali whose major work, Huquq al-niswan, “The Rights of Women,” advocates complete equality between men and women. Perhaps the most radical of Sir Sayyid’s collaborators was Chiragh Ali (d. 1895) who not only dismissed traditional Islamic jurisprudence, but more controversially considered the genre of hadith, accounts of the Prophet’s deeds and statements, to be entirely fabricated. A significant intellectual and financial supporter of Aligarh Muslim University was Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah Aga Khan III (1877-1957), Imam, or spiritual leader, of the Ismaili branch of the Shia Muslims. Sultan Muhammad Shah utilized his religious authority to institute a social, economic, and educational revolution among his followers that had far reaching consequences, including dramatically improving the status of Ismaili women. For instance, he declared the seclusion of women to be crime, and abolished the practice of veiling among his followers. During his lifetime, Sir Sultan Muhammad Shah held several leadership positions within India’s Muslim community organizations representing their interests before the British. In an international context he represented India at the League of Nations, the predecessor to the present-day United Nations, being elected to its presidency in 1937.
As you read about Islamic Modernism, it is worth keeping in mind that it is a complex movement, far from being monolithic for it is comprised of several strands some which were in deep disagreement and contradiction with each other. Such tensions inherent in the movement would explain why Jamal al-Din al-Afghani was quite critical of the ideas and outlook of a fellow Modernist, Sayyid Ahmad Khan whom he considered to be a puppet of the British colonialists.