Islamic Modernism

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For Liberal movements in Islam, see Liberal movements within Islam. For the topic of Islam in the contemporary sociology of religion, see Islam and modernity.

Islamic Modernism, also sometimes referred to as Modernist Salafism,[1][2][3][4][5] is a movement that has been described as "the first Muslim ideological response"[Note 1] attempting to reconcile Islamic faith with modern Western values such as nationalism, democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality and progress.[7] It featured a "critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence" and a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis (Tafsir).[6]

It was the first of several Islamic movements – including secularism, Islamism and Salafism – that emerged in the middle of the 19th century in reaction to the rapid changes of the time, especially the perceived onslaught of Western Civilization and colonialism on the Muslim world.[7] Founders include Muhammad Abduh, a Sheikh of Al-Azhar University for a brief period before his death in 1905, Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, and Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935).

The early Islamic Modernists (al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu) used the term "salafiyya"[8] to refer to their attempt at renovation of Islamic thought,[9] and this "salafiyya movement" is often known in the West as "Islamic modernism," although it is very different from what is currently called the Salafi movement, which generally signifies "ideologies such as wahhabism".[Note 2] Since its inception, Modernism has suffered from co-option of its original reformism by both secularist rulers and by "the official ulama" whose "task it is to legitimise" rulers' actions in religious terms.[10]

Modernism differs from secularism in that it insists on the importance of religious faith in public life, and from Salafism or Islamism in that it embraces contemporary European institutions, social processes and values.[7]


Egyptian Islamic jurist and Islamic modernist Muhammad Abduh
Egyptian Islamic jurist and scholar Mahmud Shaltut
academic, poet, barrister, philosopher, and Islamic modernist Muhammad Iqbal

Salafism and modernism[edit]

The origins of Salafism in the modernist "Salafi Movement" of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh are noted by many authors,[11][12][13][14] although others say Islamic Modernism only influenced contemporary Salafism.[15][Note 3] According to Quintan Wiktorowicz:

"There has been some confusion in recent years because both the Islamic modernists and the contemporary Salafis refer (referred) to themselves as al-salafiyya, leading some observers to erroneously conclude a common ideological lineage. The earlier salafiyya (modernists), however, were predominantly rationalist Asharis"[17]


Some trends in modern Islamic thought include:

  • The acknowledgement "with varying degrees of criticism or emulation", of the technological, scientific and legal achievements of the West, while at the same time objecting "to Western colonial exploitation of Muslim countries and the imposition of Western secular values" and aiming to develop a modern and dynamic understanding of science among Muslims that would strengthen the Muslim world and prevent further exploitation.[18]
  • Taking the four traditional sources of Islamic jurisprudence—the Quran, the reported deed and saying of Muhammad (hadith), consensus of the theologians (ijma) and juristic reasoning by analogy (qiyas) -- and reinterpreting the first two sources (the Quran and hadith) "to transform the last two [(ijma and qiyas)] in order to formulate a reformist project in light of the prevailing standards of scientific rationality and modern social theory."[6]
  • Employed ijtihad not to only in the traditional, narrow way to arrive at legal rulings in unprecedented cases (where Quran, hadith, and rulings of earlier jurists are silent) but for critical independent reasoning in all domains of thought, and perhaps even approving of its use by non-jurists.[19]
  • Restricting traditional Islamic law by limiting its basis to the Quran and authentic Sunnah, limiting the Sunna with radical Hadith criticism.[Note 4][21]
  • A more or less radical (re)interpretation of the authoritative sources. This is particularly the case with the Quranic texts on polygyny, the hadd (penal) punishments, jihad, and treatment of unbelievers, which conflict with "modern" views.[Note 5]
    • On the issue of jihad, modernists such as Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida, took a different line than "traditionalist-classicist" scholars, emphasizing that jihad was allowed only as defensive warfare to respond to aggression or "perfidy" against the Muslim community, and that the "normal and desired state" between Islamic and non-Islamic territories was one of "peaceful coexistence."[23][24] According to Mahmud Shaltut and other modernists, unbelief was not sufficient cause for declaring jihad.[24][25] The conversion to Islam by unbelievers in fear of death at the hands of jihadists (mujahideen) was unlikely to prove sincere or lasting.[24][26] Much preferable means of conversion was education.[24][27] They pointed to the verse "No compulsion is there in religion"[Quran 2:256][28]
  • An apologetic which links aspects of the Islamic tradition with Western ideas and practices, and claims Western practices in question were originally derived from Islam.[citation needed] Modernist apologetic has however been severely criticized by many scholars as superficial, tendentious and even psychologically destructive, so much so that the term "apologetics" has almost become a term of abuse in the literature on modern Islam.[29]

History of Modernism[edit]

Commencing in the late nineteenth century and impacting the twentieth-century, Muhammed Abduh and Rashid Rida undertook a project to defend and modernize Islam to match Western institutions and social processes. Its most prominent intellectual founder, Muhammad Abduh (d. 1323/1905), was Sheikh of Al-Azhar University for a brief period before his death. This project superimposed the world of the nineteenth century on the extensive body of Islamic knowledge that had accumulated in a different milieu.[7] These efforts had little impact at first, however were catalysed with the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and promotion of secular liberalism – particularly with a new breed of writers being pushed to the fore including Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq’s publication attacking Islamic politics for the first time in Muslim history.[7] Subsequent secular writers including Farag Foda, al-Ashmawi, Muhamed Khalafallah, Taha Husayn, Husayn Amin, et. al., have argued in similar tones.[7]

Abduh was skeptical towards Hadith (or "Traditions"), i.e. towards the body of reports of the teachings, doings and sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Particularly towards those Traditions that are reported through few chains of transmission, even if they are deemed rigorously authenticated in any of the six canonical books of Hadith (known as the Kutub al-Sittah). Furthermore, he advocated a reassessment of traditional assumptions even in Hadith studies, though he did not devise a systematic methodology before his death.[30]

Influence on Muslim Brotherhood[edit]

The "early Salafiyya" (Modernists) influenced Islamist movements like Muslim Brotherhood[31][32] and to some extent Jamaat-e-Islami. The MB is considered an intellectual descendant of Islamic modernism.[33] Its founder Hassan Al-Banna was influenced by Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida who attacked the taqlid of the official `ulama and insisted only the Quran and the best-attested ahadith should be sources of the Sharia.[34][34] He was a dedicated reader of the writings of Rashid Rida and the magazine that Rida published, Al-Manar.[35] As Islamic Modernist beliefs were co-opted by secularist rulers and official `ulama, the Brotherhood moved in a traditionalist and conservative direction, "being the only available outlet for those whose religious and cultural sensibilities had been outraged by the impact of Westernisation".[36]

Connection with the contemporary Salafism[edit]

Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Muhammad Rashid Rida and, to a lesser extent, Mohammed al-Ghazali took some Wahhabi ideals, such as endeavor to “return” to the Islamic understanding of the first Muslim generations (Salaf) by reopening the doors of juristic deduction (ijtihad) that they saw as closed.[30] The modernists used the term "Salafiyya" for their movement whose proponents strove to reconcile their faith with the Enlightenment and modernity. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, the term "Salafi movement" attached with the Wahhabism.The Salafi movement became inexplicably antithetical to Islamic modernism.[37]

Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi writes:

"Rashid Rida popularized the term 'Salafī' to describe a particular movement (i.e.,Islamic modernism) that he spearheaded. That movement sought to reject the ossification of the madhhabs , and rethink through the standard issues of fiqh and modernity, at times in very liberal ways. A young scholar by the name of Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani read an article by Rida, and then took this term and used it to describe another, completely different movement. Ironically, the movement that Rida spearheaded eventually became Modernist Islam and dropped the 'Salafī' label, and the legal methodology that al-Albānī championed – with a very minimal overlap with Rida's vision of Islam – retained the appellation Salafī'. Eventually, al-Albānī's label was adopted by the Najdī daʿwah as well, until it spread in all trends of the movement. Otherwise, before this century, the term 'Salafī' was not used as a common label and proper noun. Therefore, the term 'Salafī' has attached itself to an age-old school of theology, the Atharī school".[15]

Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller writes:

"The term Salafi was revived as a slogan and movement, among latter-day Muslims, by the followers of Muhammad Abduh".[38]

Islamic modernists[edit]

Although, not all of the figures named below are from the above-mentioned movement, they all share a more or less modernist thought or/and approach.

Contemporary Modernists[edit]

Contemporary use[edit]


According to at least one source, (Charles Kennedy) in Pakistan the range of views on the "appropriate role of Islam" in that country (as of 1992), contains "Islamic Modernists" at one end of the spectrum and "Islamic activists" at the other. "Islamic activists" support the expansion of "Islamic law and Islamic practices", "Islamic Modernists" are lukewarm to this expansion and "some may even advocate development along the secularist lines of the West."[45]

Criticism of Modernism[edit]

Criticism of Islamic modernism comes mainly from supporters of Salafi movement.The salafis consider them as Neo-Mu'tazila, after the medieval Islamic school of theology based on rationalism, Mu'tazila.Critics argue that the modernist thought is little more than the fusion of Western Secularism with spiritual aspects of Islam.[citation needed]. Other critics have described the modernist positions on politics in Islam as ideological stances.[46]

One of the leading Islamist thinkers and Islamic revivalists, Abul A'la Maududi agreed with Islamic modernists that Islam contained nothing contrary to reason, and was superior in rational terms to all other religious systems. However he disagreed with them in their examination of the Quran and the Sunna using reason as the standard. Maududi, instead started from the proposition that `true reason is Islamic`, and accepted the Book and the Sunna, not reason, as the final authority.Modernists errored in examining rather than simply obeying the Quran and the Sunna.[Note 6]

Critics argue politics is inherently embedded in Islam, a rejection of the secular principle, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". They claim that there is a consensus in Muslim political jurisprudence, philosophy and practice with regard to the Caliphate form of government with a clear structure comprising a Caliph, assistants (mu’awinoon), governors (wulaat), judges (qudaat) and administrators (mudeeroon).[48][49] It is argued that Muslim jurists have tended to work with the governments of their times. Notable examples are Abu Yusuf, Mohammed Ibn al-Hasan, Shafi’i, Yahya bin Said, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ismail bin Yasa, Ibn Tulun[disambiguation needed], Abu Zura, Abu Hasan al-Mawardi and Tabari.[50][51] Prominent theologians would counsel the Caliph in discharging his Islamic duties, often on the request of the incumbent Caliph. Many rulers provided patronage to scholars across all disciplines, the most famous being the Abassids who funded extensive translation programmes and the building of libraries.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Islamic modernism was the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge. Started in India and Egypt in the second part of the 19th century ... reflected in the work of a group of like-minded Muslim scholars, featuring a critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and a formulation of a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis. This new approach, which was nothing short of an outright rebellion against Islamic orthodoxy, displayed astonishing compatibility with the ideas of the Enlightenment."[6]
  2. ^ "Salafism is, therefore, a modern phenomenon, being the desire of contemporary Muslims to rediscover what they see as the pure, original and authentic Islam, ... However, there is a difference between two profoundly different trends which sought inspiration from the concept of salafiyya. Indeed, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, intellectuals such as Jamal Edin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu used salafiyya to mean a renovation of Islamic thought, with features that would today be described as rationalist, modernist and even progressive. This salafiyya movement is often known in the West as “Islamic modernism.‘ However, the term salafism is today generally employed to signify ideologies such as Wahhabism, the puritanical ideology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."[9]
  3. ^ "‘Abduh clearly did not claim to be a Salafi nor identified his followers as Salafis. He simply referred al-Salafiyyin in the context of theological debates as Sunni Muslims who differed from Ash’arites based on their strict adherence to ‘aqidat al-salaf (the creed of the forefather) (Lauziere, 2010)"[16]
  4. ^ Muhammad 'Abduh, for example, said a Muslim was obliged to accept only mutawatir hadith, and was free to reject others about which he had doubts.[20] Ahmad Amin, in his popular series on Islamic cultural history, cautiously suggested that there were few if any mutawatir hadith (especially, Fajr al-Islam, 10th edition Cairo: Maktabat al-Nahda al-Misriyya, 1965, p. 218; see also G. H. A. Juynboll, The Authenticity of the Tradition Literature: Discussions in Modern Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1969), and my Faith of a Modern Muslim Intellectual, p. 113.
  5. ^ See Quran 4:3 on polygyny, 5:38 on cutting off the hand of the thief, 24:2-5 on whipping for fornication (the provision for stoning for adultery is in the Hadith). On jihad and the treatment of unbelievers, the difficult passages for modernists are the so-called "verses of the sword," such as 9:5 on the Arab pagans and 9:29 on the people of the Book.[22]
  6. ^ "He agreed with them [Islamic Modernists] in holding that Islam required the exercise of reason by the community to understand God's decrees, in believing, therefore, that Islam contains nothing contrary to reason, and in being convinced that Islam as revealed in the Book and the Sunna is superior in purely rational terms to all other systems. But he thought they had gone wrong in allowing themselves to judge the Book and the Sunna by the standard of reason. They had busied themselves trying to demonstrate that `Islam is truly reasonable` instead of starting, as he did, from the proposition that `true reason is Islamic`. Therefore they were not sincerely accepting the Book and the Sunna as the final authority, because implicitly they were setting up human reason as a higher authority (the old error of the Mu'tazilites). In Maududi's view, once one has become a Muslim, reason no longer has any function of judgement. From then on its legitimate task is simply to spell out the implications of Islam's clear commands, the rationality of which requires no demonstration."[47]


  1. ^ SE Asian Muslims caught between iPad and Salafism
  2. ^ Salafism Modernist Salafism from the 20th Century to the Present
  3. ^ Salafism
  4. ^ Salafism Tony Blair Faith Foundation
  5. ^ The split between Qatar and the GCC won’t be permanent
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Mansoor Moaddel. Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse. University of Chicago Press. p. 2. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, Thompson Gale (2004)
  8. ^ Salafism, Modernist Salafism from the 20th Century to the Present
  9. ^ a b Atzori, Daniel (August 31, 2012). "The rise of global Salafism". Retrieved 6 January 2015. 
  10. ^ Ruthven, Malise (2006) [1984]. Islam in the World. Oxford University Press. p. 318. Retrieved 23 April 2015. 
  11. ^ Understanding the Origins of Wahhabism and Salafism| Terrorism Monitor| Volume 3 Issue: 14| July 15, 2005| By: Trevor Stanley
  12. ^ Dillon, Michael R (page-33)
  13. ^ Wahhabism, Salafism and Islamism Who Is The Enemy? By Pfr. Ahmad Mousali | American University of Beirut | Page-11
  14. ^ Historical Development of the Methodologies of al-Ikhwaan al-Muslimeen And Their Effect and Influence Upon Contemporary Salafee Dawah
  15. ^ a b On Salafi Islam | IV Conclusion| Dr. Yasir Qadhi April 22, 2014
  16. ^ The Salafi Movement In Global Context Theology Religion Essay (no author given)]
  17. ^ Anatomy of the Salafi Movement By QUINTAN WIKTOROWICZ, Washington, D.C., USA Page-212
  18. ^ "Islamic Modernism and Islamic Revival". Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Retrieved 27 March 2014. 
  19. ^ Fitzpatrick, Coeli; Walker, Adam Hani (eds.). Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of. p. 385. Retrieved 1 January 2015. 
  20. ^ Risalat al-Tawhid, 17th Printing, Cairo: Maktabat al-Qahira, 1379/1960, pp. 201-3; English translation by K. Cragg and I. Masa'ad, The Theology of Unity London: Allen and Unwin, 1966, pp. 155-56
  21. ^ Hanif, N. (1997). Islam And Modernity. Sarup & Sons. p. 72. 
  22. ^ Shepard (1987), p. 330
  23. ^ Peters (1996), p. 6
  24. ^ a b c d DeLong-Bas (2004), pp. 235–237
  25. ^ Peters (1996), p. 77
  26. ^ Peters (1996), p. 64
  27. ^ Peters (1996), p. 65
  28. ^ Cook, Michael (2000). The Koran: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press. p. 35. Retrieved 29 April 2015. 
  29. ^ Smith's criticism of Farid Wajdi in Islam in “Modern History”, pp. 139-59, and Gibb's complaint about "the intellectual confusions and the paralyzing romanticism which cloud the minds of the modernists of today" - “Modern Trends in Islam”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947, pp. 105-6.
  30. ^ a b c The Modernist Approach to Hadith Studies By Noor al-Deen Atabek|| 30 March 2005
  31. ^ Salafi
  32. ^ The battle for al-Azhar
  33. ^ The split between Qatar and the GCC won’t be permanent
  34. ^ a b Ruthven, Malise (1984). Islam in the World (first ed.). Penguin. p. 311. 
  36. ^ Ruthven, Malise (1984). Islam in the World (first ed.). Penguin. p. 317. 
  37. ^ The past ten day Salafi led unrest in reaction to an anti-Islamic video spread through the Muslim world, here a look at who is behind it.| world news research |21 September 2012
  38. ^ Who or what is a Salafi? Is their approach valid?| ©Nuh Ha Mim Keller | | 1995
  39. ^ Amin (2002)
  40. ^ a b c d e (French) Céline Zünd, Emmanuel Gehrig et Olivier Perrin, "Dans le Coran, sur 6300 versets, cinq contiennent un appel à tuer", Le Temps, Thursday 29 January 2015, pages 10-11.
  41. ^ Muhammad Ahmad Khalafallah, Oxford Islamic Studies On-line (page visited on 30 January 2015).
  42. ^ Parray, Tauseef Ahmad (2011). "Islamic Modernist and Reformist Thought: A Study of the Contribution of Sir Sayyid and Muhammad Iqbal" (PDF). World Journal of Islamic History and Civilization 1 (2): 79–93,. Retrieved 28 April 2015. 
  43. ^ a b c d Watson (2001), p. 971
  44. ^ Bennett, Clinton; Ramsey, Charles M. (2012). "When Sufi tradition reinvents Islamic Modernity; The Minhaj al-Qur'an". South Asian Sufis: Devotion, Deviation, and Destiny. Great Britain: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1472523518. 
  45. ^ Kennedy (1996), p. 83
  46. ^ Shepard (1987), p. 307
  47. ^ Mortimer, Edward (1982). Faith and Power : the Politics of Islam. Vintage Books. p. 204. 
  48. ^ Nabhani, T, "The Islamic Ruling System", al-Khilafah Publications
  49. ^ Mawardi, "Ahkaam al-Sultaniyyah".
  50. ^ Hallaq, W, “The Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law”, Cambridge University Press, 2005, pp.173-6, 182-7
  51. ^ Salahi, A, “Pioneers of Islamic Scholarship”, The Islamic Foundation, 2006, pp. 51-2


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