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The Scholarship on ‘Islam-Modernity’ Discourse

The Scholarship on ‘Islam-Modernity’ Discourse
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Muslim responses to issues of reform and modernization, since its emergence, have spanned the spectrum from secularists and modernists, to religious traditionalists (fundamentalists) and reformists. Believing that Islam and modernity are compatible, Islamic reformers emphasize the need for an Islamic reformation through reinterpretation (ijtihad) and urge fresh approaches to the Quranic interpretation {John L. Esposito, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam, 2011, pp. 47, 48}

By the mid-19th century, the terms Tajdid and Islah, literally Renewal and Reform, acquired the added meaning of reconciling Islam with rationalist and scientific thinking and restructuring Muslim countries educational and socio-political institutions more or less along the lines of European institutions {Shireen T. Hunter, (Ed.), Reformist Voices of IslamMeditating Islam and Modernity, 2009, pp. 5, 20}

Islam, as a religion and ideology, has faced a number of challenges—both in the past and in the present. Especially in the modern times, Islam has been discussed and debated in parallel or contrasted to various ideologies and discourses; and one of the central and most dominant discourses that has engaged Muslims and non-Muslim scholars alike from the 19th century especially is the grand narrative of Islam and Modernity. With the emergence of modernity, modernism, and modernization in the West, there emerged a parallel discourse, in the Muslim world, that is commonly referred as ‘Islamic Modernism’. This discourse is right now, undoubtedly, more than two-centuries-old discourse. There have been numerous attempts and endeavors, in the past and in the recent decades and years too, to explore the prospects and prognoses of the modernist and reformist thought across the Muslim world, from the Middle East, Africa/ Maghreb, to Southeast and South Asia.

Since the last four decades (mid-1970s), it is true that most of the scholarship and academic devotion on Islam has been pre-occupied and dominated not by modernist or reformist inclination but by a revivalist, resurgent, and extremist trend within the broader revivalist movement and with a wide spectrum of intellectual and operational tendencies, ranging from varying shades of conservative, fundamentalist, and literalist to revolutionary, extremist, and jihadist (Hunter, 2009: xix; Italics mine).

As a result, there have been, time and again, attempts by scholars to argue that Islam is incompatible with modernity and hence encouraging the appearance of formulas and formulations like Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1996), a theory which views Islam as unable to accommodate modernity and as posing a long term civilizational and security challenge to the West. Works of Huntington and like-minded scholars being varied but marginal have collectively reinforced and strengthened, in different ways, the idea that Islam (as a religion, ideology, and civilization) is incongruent, inconsistent and divergent with (Western) modernity and modernization or more broadly with principles and values like liberty, equality, human rights, progress, democracy, pluralism, etc. and thus resulted in labels and clichés like Islam and the West, Islam versus the West. Some of the works highlighting the issues, both in positive and negative aspects, are: Bernard Lewis’s Islam and the West (1993); Shireen T. Hunter’s The Future of Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations or Peaceful Coexistence? (1998); Gema Martin Muñoz (Ed.), Islam, Modernism and the West (1999); Iftikhar Haider Malik, Islam, Nationalism, and the West (1999); Kai Hafez et. al., (Eds.), The Islamic World and the West (2000); Tariq Ramadan, Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity (2000); Mishal Fahm al-Sulami, The West and Islam (2003), etc.

The extremist discourse, its various aspects and varied shades, nevertheless, do not represent the entire spectrum of Islamic thought. Contrary to this revivalist tendency flows (and has in the past too) the modernist/ reformist trend tracing its legacy back to the 19th century attempting and endeavoring to expound that Islam and modernity, in essence and principle, do not clash and conflict with each other, but merge and reconcile; because neither Islam nor its law and history are opposed to dynamism, development, advancement and progress. The most prominent intellectuals who instigated, initiated and pioneered the modernist visions and agendas at the turn of the century were Rifaah Rafi al-Tahtawi (180173), Khayr al-Din al-Tunisi (1810-89), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-97), Namik Kemal (1840-88), Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905) and Rashid Rida (1865-1935) in the Arab world, and Sir Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-98), Syed Ameer Ali (1849-1928), Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938), and Abul Kalam Azad (1888-1958) in South Asia (Sub-Continent).

Afterwards, this legacy was carried on, in the South Asian context, by such modernist thinkers comprising both fundamentalists (revivalists/ Islamists) as well as reformists (liberals/ progressives) like Chiragh Ali (1844-95), Shibli Numani (1857-1914), Mumtaz Ali (1860-1937): (all associates of Sir Sayyid), Abu Ala Mawdudi (1903-79), Amin Ahsan Islahi (1904-97), Fazlur Rahman (1919-88), Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi (d. 1999), Dr Israr Ahmed (1932-2010), Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013), Wahiuddddin Khan (b. 1925), Khurshid Ahmad (b. 1932), Muhammad Khalid Masud (b. 1939), Javed Ahmad Ghamidi (b. 1951), etc.

Riffat Hassan (in Hunter, 2009: 170, 173, 178, 179), for example, confers and labels Fazlur Rahman as the Pakistan’s Influential Reformist Thinker, Masud as the Keeper of the Reformist Tradition, Ghamidi as a Contemporary Reformist Thinker in Pakistan, and Engineer as Indias Reformist Scholar-Activist.

They contributed, and have been contributing, extensively to the discourse of Islam and modernity and its various aspects, including democracy, secularism, pluralism, globalization, and other aspects and themes. That is, Islamic engagements with modernity have been neither static nor uniform, but have always been in a move and movement, change and variation.

Back in 1960s, Albert Hourani (1962/ 1983) called the 19th and early decades of 20th century (1798-1939) as the Liberal Age in Arabic thought: a period of modernity among the intellectual elite of the Middle East first evidenced in the work of thinkers exposed to European thought such as al-Tahtawi (d. 1873); and Aziz Ahmad (1967), in the same period and on similar lines, called the period from 1857 to 1964 as the age of Islamic Modernism in India and Pakistan, beginning with the works/ contribution of Sir Sayyid (d. 1898) who traced his legacy from the 18th-century influential revivalist theologian, Shah Wali-Allah Dehalvi/ or Shah Waliullah (1703-62) who is regarded as a precursor to modernist Islamic thought in South Asia.

Shah Waliullah was an 18th century Islamic theologian/ scholar and reformer who worked for the revival of Muslim rule and intellectual learning in South Asia, and is considered not only as one of the influential theologian and revivalists in the subcontinent during a time of waning Muslim power but, as A. S. Bazmee Ansari (in The Encyclopedia of Islam, II: 254) says, he may be called the founder of Islamic modernism. On the life, legacy, and thought of Shah Waliullah, the best sources are: J. M. S. Baljon, Religion and Thought of Shah Wali Allah Dihalwi (1986); Marcia K. Hermesen, (Trans.), The Conclusive Argument From God: Shah Wali Allah of Dehlis Hujjat Allah al-Baligha (1996); and Muhammad al-Ghazali, The Socio-Political Thought of Shah Wali Allah (2001).

In the modern times, Charles Kurzman has labeled the intellectual currents of 1840-1940, and (more or less) of 20th century intellectual activities and accomplishments, as Modernist Islam (2002) and Liberal Islam (1998) respectively; while Antony Black, in his The History of Islamic Political Thought: From the Prophet to the Present (2001/ 2004: 279-307, 308-48), described the periods between 1830-1920 and 1920-2000 as the Age of Modernism and Age of Fundamentalism, respectively.

For Charles Kurzman, the editor of two famed anthologies, viz. Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook (1998) and Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook (2002: 3-27), the early modernist Muslims (like Afghani, Abduh, Rida, and Sir Sayyid) distinguished by distancing themselves from the secularists like Ali Abd al-Raziq (d. 1966), and from the religious revivalists like Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949), Syed Qutb (d. 1966), and Abul Ala Mawdudi (d. 1979). Late in the 20th century, the combination of modernist and Islamic discourses was revived in a subset of modernist Islam, labeled by Kurzman as Liberal Islam and includes intellectual activities and accomplishments (more or less) of 20th century which sought to resuscitate the reputation and accomplishments of earlier modernists.

Thus, from the beginning of 20th century, besides Albert Hourani and Aziz Ahmad’s seminal works (including, for example, Charles C. Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt (1933/ 1968); Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Modern Islam in India: A Social Analysis (1943); H. A. R. Gibb, Modern Trends in Islam (1947)) to the end of final decades like Fazlur Rahman’s 1982 work, Islam and Modernity and other works (published from 1960s to 2000s), and later on other scholarly and erudite endeavors have been made to (i) highlight the various facets of Islamic modernism; (ii) mediate, intervene, and harmonize Islam and modernity; (iii) reconcile modernist and reformist thought of past and present; and (iv) unify and reunite traditionalism and modernism. Some of these significant works, besides above mentioned, published in the second half of 20th century are: Aziz al-Azmeh, Islams and Modernities (1993); Louay M. Safi, The Challenge of Modernity (1994); Daniel W. Brown, Islamic Modernism in South Asia: A Reassessment, The Muslim World, 87, 3-4, July-Oct, 1997: 258-71; John Cooper Ronald Nettler, and Mohamed Mahmoud (Eds.), Islam and Modernity: Muslim Intellectuals Respond (2000), etc.

In the present times too, innumerable attempts have been made to explore the past legacy of Islam-Modernity discourse and to find out the prospects and discover the prognoses for the present as well as for the future. Some of the works of post-2000 era, of which this author is informed, are: Mansoor Moaddel, Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism (2005); Mehran Kamrava (Ed.), The New Voices of Islam: Reforming Politics and ModernityA Reader (2006); Vincent J. Cornell (Ed.), Voices of Islam; 5th Vol.: Voices of Change (2007); Hunter, Reformist Voices of Islam (2009); Muhammad Khalid Masud, Armando Salvatore, and Martin van Bruinessen (Eds.), Islam and Modernity: Key Issues and Debates (2009); M. Reza Pirbhai, Reconsidering Islam in a South Asian Context (2009); Filippo Osella and Caroline Osella (Eds.), Islamic Reform in South Asia (2013); and Safdar Ahmed, Reform and Modernity in Islam (2013), etc.

In the recent years as well, this trend has continued and sustained. For instance, in 2009 some excellent work was done by the contributors in Shireen T. Hunters edited volume (Reformist Voices of Islam) in analyzing the current Islamic reformist discourse and the writings of its major protagonists by putting the current debate into its proper historical context, offering advice on ensuring, endorsing, and enhancing that the outcome of the current debate in the Muslim world favors a reformist rather than either radical or obscurantist Islam (Foreword, in Hunter, 2009: xvi-xvii). A comprehensive, informative, nuanced and well-written work covering such regions as Middle East (including Turkey and Iran), Africa/ Maghreb, South Asia, South East Asia, Europe (France) and USA, it reflects the ideas about moderate and reformist voices and trends within Islam that have recently appeared in the Islamic world. The major objectives of this work are: (i) to provide a comprehensive survey of the works and ideas of Muslim reformist thinkers, including those lesser-known and younger generation reformists to Western audiences; (ii) to explain the methodology of reformist and moderate thinkers and groups as applied to the interpretation of Islamic religious and legal sources, along with their views regarding such vital issues as democracy, human rights, gender and minority rights, and freedom of conscience/ expression; (iii) to place the works and ideas of key contemporary reformist thinkers within the broader context, and to make a comparative analysis of the reformist discourse; and (iv) to assess the outlook of current reformist thinkers and activists, based on experience, and to identify factors helping or hindering the success of the current reformist wave, thus providing guidelines for strengthening the reformist trend (Preface, in Hunter, 2009: xxi-xxii).

Masud, Salvatore, and Bruinessen (Preface, in Masud, et. al., 2009: vi-viii) in their mutual exertion, also attempted to conceptualize, negotiate, and debate Islam and Modernity by providing reflections on major debates that have taken place within and between the various scholarly disciplines that have addressed questions of modernity in connection with Islam and Muslim societies, under three major themes: (i) Conceptualising Modernity, which introduces theoretical and general issues in modernity studies; (ii) Negotiating Modernity, which offers an analysis of the processes of modernization of Muslim societies, by focusing on specific aspects of their socio-political dynamics; and (iii) ‘Debating Modernity’, which investigates “how Muslim scholars and intellectuals have perceived and responded to issues of modernity”.

Similarly, works specifically on reconsidering the South Asian modernist/ revivalist thought and legacy have also continued. Three major recent examples are: M. Reza Pirbhai’s Reconsidering Islam in a South Asian Context; Filippo and Caroline Osella’s Islamic Reform in South Asia, and Safdar Ahmed’s Reform and Modernity in Islam. Pirbhai’s (2009: 3) book focusing on Islam and South Asian Muslims in the transition from Mughal to post-colonial era (covering specifically the region from Lahore to Lucknow, centered on Delhi) explores the foundations of South Asian Muslim post-coloniality, while illuminating the historical roots of late trends common to the Muslim World accessible to a broad scholarly audience. Stemming from the construction of a new paradigm, the book contributes in revealing and highlighting an Islam that is dynamic, multifaceted and systematically hostile and/ or hospitable to the local environment in which Muslims live. That is, it is study of an Islam that not only mediates the relationship between Muslims and non-Muslims, but also between Muslims of various sectarian, scholastic and disciplinary stripes (Pirbhai, 2009: 15).

Filippo and Caroline Osella (2013: xi), in their edited volume, bring a number of voices together to discuss contemporary Islamic reformism in South Asia in some of its diverse historical orientations and geographical expressions to bring together processes of reform and about trends such as Islamism and global Islam. Especially the chapters like ‘The Equivocal History of a Muslim Reformation (pp.3-25)’ and ‘Islamic Reform and Modernities in South Asia (pp. 26-50)’ by Faisal Devji (University of Oxford) and Francis Robinson (Royal Holloway, University of London) are of much significance, for they focus on different aspects of intellectual and ideological aspects of Islamic reform in South Asia. Ahmed’s Reform and Modernity in Islam (2013: 1)— with an overarching theme that there is no singular or transcendental definition of modernity next to which other variant or lesser modernities are compared—is a sound and thoughtful introduction to the complexity of Islamic discourses on modernity. Ahmed’s analysis provides an overview of the particular Muslim response to the challenges of modernity and its essential characteristics in relation to Western interpretations of the modernity (Elisabetta Loi has written an insightful review on this book in Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia, 3, 1, 2015: 74-76). Among the South Asian modernists, he focuses on the thoughts and writings of Sir Sayyid, Qasim Amin, Muhammad Iqbal, Mawdudi, Fazlur Rahman, etc.

Besides these, three other examples of book chapters on South Asian modernist and reformist thought and legacy are of Robert Rozehnal, Riffat Hassan, and Muhammad Khalid Masud. The details of these chapters are: Robert Rozehnal, Debating Orthodoxy, Contesting Tradition: Islam in Contemporary South Asia, in R. Michael Feener (Ed.), Islam in World CulturesComparative Perspectives (2004: 103-31); Riffat Hassan, Islamic Modernist and Reformist Discourse in South Asia, in Hunter, Reformist Voices (2009: 159-86); and Muhammad Khalid Masud, Islamic Modernism, in Masud et. al., Islam and Modernity (2009: 237-60). Collectively, they discuss the emergence, development, prospects, and prognoses of reformist trends of South Asia of the last two centuries, stemming from the revivalist/ reform movement of Shah Waliullah (d. 1762). And the trend has not stopped yet, but will continue in the future as well.

This brief and succinct outline and summary just few drops of an ocean provides a glimpse of the scholarship on, and contribution towards, the dissemination and exploration of various aspects of Islam and Modernity, its historical context and legacy, perspective and prognoses in contemporary times, illustrating the scope, significance, and relevance of this more than two-centuries-old discourse. It also reveals that it is the legacy of the pioneering modernist thinkers, the foundations of which were laid, for example in South Asian context, by Sir Sayyid, Ameer Ali, Iqbal, Azad and others (summarily called the Pioneering Modernists of Colonial India: though Azad spent about a decade in independent India, after its independence from British Colonialism in 1947); was advanced and expanded by later modernists, like the neo-modernist Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) which is still relevant in present times. No doubt, it has now developed and fragmented into numerous divisions and sub-divisions ranging from revivalists to reformists, modernists to Islamists, and from liberals and progressives to revisionists. It includes a broad spectrum of areas and issues stretching from the (re)interpretation of Islamic religious and legal sources, to compatibility of democracy, pluralism, human rights, gender and minority rights, and freedom of conscience and expression, in Islam, and their place within the Islamic law.

Imp. Note: The above article is an excerpt (with numerous modifications) from the authors forthcoming work ‘Trailblazers: Sir Sayyid, Iqbal, and Azad (presently in Press).

About the Author: Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray (b. 1984) is presently working as Assistant Professor, Islamic Studies at GDC Pulwama) in Higher Education Department, Jammu & Kashmir, India. He holds Masters, PhD, and Post Doctorate in Islamic Studies, from University of Kashmir (KU) Srinagar, J&K (2006-08); Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) Aligarh, India (2009-14); and Iqbal International Institute for Research & Dialogue (IRD), International Islamic University, Islamabad (IIUI), Pakistan (2014), respectively.
A Writer/ Researcher, Reviewer, and Columnist, he has been active in the academia from 2010, and has published in numerous reputed academic journals and magazines (of Islamic Studies and Social/ Political Science), from a dozen countries around the world, mostly on Islam and Democracy; Islamic Modernist/ Reformist Thought in Contemporary South Asia; and Modern Trends & English Scholarship in Quranic Studies. His two forthcoming works (presently in Press), are: ‘Towards Understanding Some Quranic Terms, Concepts, and Themes & Trailblazers: Sir Sayyid, Iqbal, and Azad’. For any comments, criticism, or feedback email at

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