Islam and modernity is a topic of discussion in contemporary sociology of religion. Neither Islam nor modernity are simple or unified entities. They are abstract quantities which could not be reduced into simple categories. The history of Islam, like that of other religions, is a history of different interpretations and approaches. "There is no a-historical Islam that is outside the process of historical development." Similarly, modernity is a complex and multidimensional phenomenon rather than a unified and coherent phenomenon. It has historically had different schools of thoughts moving in many directions.
4.1 Islam's First Encounters with European Modernity
In the 18th century Europe was undergoing major transformations as the new ideas of the Enlightenment, which stressed the importance of science, rationality, and human reason, and the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution were sweeping through much of Europe. This proved to be a turning point in world history as Europe began to gain power and influence. In the last quarter of the 18th century “the gap between the technical skills of some western and northern European countries and those of the rest of the world grew wider.” The rise of modern Europe coincided with what many scholars refer to as the decline of the Ottoman Empire, which by the 18th century was facing political, military, and economic breakdown. While prior to the 18th century the Ottomans had regarded themselves to be either of superior or, by the mid-18th century, of equal strength to Europe, by the end of the 18th century the power relationship between the Ottoman Empire and Europe began to shift in Europe’s favor.
In 1798 the army of Napoleon Bonaparte occupied the Ottoman province of Egypt. Although the occupation lasted only three years, it exposed the people of Egypt to the ideas of the Enlightenment and the new technology of Europe. The values of the European Enlightenment, which challenged the authority of religion, were alien to the local Muslim population. Al-Jabarti, a Muslim intellectual and theologian who witnessed the occupation, wrote critically of the French calling them “materialists, who deny all God’s attributes.” Nevertheless, the exposure to European power and ideas would later inspire the new governor of Egypt, Muhammad Ali, to draw on European ideas and technology in order to modernize Egypt setting an example for the rest of the Ottoman Empire. From the end of the 18th century the Ottoman Empire began to open embassies and send officials to study in Europe. This created conditions for the “gradual formation of a group of reformers with a certain knowledge of the modern world and a conviction that the empire must belong to it or perish.”
One of the scholars sent by Muhammad Ali to Europe in 1826 was Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi. The five years he spent in Paris left a permanent mark on him. After his return to Egypt he wrote about his impressions of France and translated numerous European works into Arabic. Tahtawi was impressed with Europe’s technological and scientific advancement and political philosophy. Having studied Islamic law, he argued that “it was necessary to adapt the Sharia to new circumstances” and that there was not much difference between “the principles of Islamic law and those principles of ‘natural law’ on which the codes of modern Europe were based.”
Like Tahtawi, Khayr al- Din was also sent to Paris where he spent four years. After his return from Europe he wrote a book, in which he argued that the only way to strengthen the Muslim States was by borrowing ideas and institutions from Europe and that this did not contradict the spirit of the Sharia.
In the period between 1839 and 1876 the Ottoman government began instituting large-scale reforms as a way to modernize and strengthen the empire. Known as the Tanzimat, many of these reforms involved adopting successful European practices. In addition to military and administrative reforms, Ottoman rulers implemented reforms in the sphere of education, law, and the economy:
"New universities and curricula were created and modern curricula were introduced to allow students to acquire the knowledge necessary to modernize. European legal codes became the basis for legal reforms, and Islamic law was restricted to personal status or family law (marriage, divorce, inheritance). Modern economic systems and institutions were established."
Some conservative Muslims denounced the Tanzimat reforms for “introducing un-Islamic innovations into state and society.”
4.2 Islamic Modernism
“The reformist spirit of the times was especially evident in the emergence from Egypt to Southeast Asia of an Islamic modernist movement that called for a “reformation” or reinterpretation (ijtihad) of Islam.”
Islamic modernism was both an attempt to provide an Islamic response to the challenges presented by European colonial expansion and an effort to reinvigorate and reform Islam from within as a way to counter the perceived weakness and decline of Muslim societies in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Islamic modernists argued that Islam and modernity were compatible and “asserted the need to reinterpret and reapply the principles and ideals of Islam to formulate new responses to the political, scientific, and cultural challenges of the West and of modern life.” The reforms they proposed challenged the status quo maintained by the conservative Muslims scholars (ulama), who saw the established law as the ideal order that had to be followed and upheld the doctrine of taqlid (imitation / blind following). Islamic modernists saw the resistance to change on the part of the conservative ulama as a major cause for the problems the Muslim community was facing as well as its inability to counter western hegemony.
Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838–97) is regarded as one of the pioneers of Islamic modernism. He believed that Islam was compatible with science and reason and that in order to counter European power the Muslim world had to embrace progress.
Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) was a disciple and collaborator of al-Afghani. He was even more influential than his master and is often referred to as the founder of Islamic modernism. Abduh was born and raised in Egypt and was a scholar of Islam (alim). He taught at al-Azhar and other institutions and in 1899 became Mufti of Egypt. Abduh believed that the Islamic world was suffering from an inner decay and was in need of a revival. Asserting that “Islam could be the moral basis of a modern and progressive society", he was critical of both secularists and the conservative ulama. He called for a legal reform and the reinterpretation (ijtihad) of Islamic law according to modern conditions. While critical of the West, he believed that it was necessary to borrow or assimilate what was good from it.
Other notable Islamic modernists include Rashid Rida (1869–1935), and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817–98) and Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938) in the Indian subcontinent. Like al-Afghani and Abduh they rejected the doctrine of taqlid and asserted the need for Islam to be reinterpreted according to modern conditions.
Although Islamic modernists were subject to the criticism that the reforms they promoted amounted to westernizing Islam, their legacy was significant and their thought influenced future generations of reformers.