Islamic Modernism: Reality or Illusion? - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Islamic Modernism: Reality or Illusion?
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in Turkey, circa 1930s (Wikimedia Commons)

Our women are now seen as serving no useful purpose to mankind other than having children; they are considered simply as serving for pleasure, like musical instruments or jewels. But they constitute half and perhaps more than half of our species…. Women are not inferior to men in their intellectual and physical capacities. In the ancient times women shared in all men’s activities, including even war…. The reason why women among us are thus deprived is the perception that they are totally ignorant and know nothing of right and duty, benefit and harm. Many evil consequences result from this position of women …

— English translation from A Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters and History, edited by Bernard Lewis (Random House, 2000), p.192.

Ever since the attack on the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, and the Islamist terrorist incidents that followed, Islam has become the subject of debate. People in the West wonder if Islam can ever be harmonious with the Western norms of liberty, equality, and secular democracy. Some argue that Islam should undergo a similar process of reformation to that of Christianity in the 16th century. Others argue that Islam can never be reformed.

I believe it is wrong to expect Islam to follow the trajectory of Christianity because despite possessing some similarities, the two faiths differ greatly. First, the Reformation posed a challenge to the religious and political legitimacy of the Roman Catholic Church and to papal authority. In Islam, there is no church and therefore no notion of the papacy or priestly intermediation between the believer and the Maker. One, therefore, should not expect a similar kind of reformation in Islam.

Second, unlike the Old and New Testament,  a collection of books by multiple authors that extend over a long period of time, the Quran is a single book promulgated at one time by one man, Mohammad, and deemed by Muslims as the actual word of God.

Then, thirdly, there is also a difference in the very structure of the two religions. For instance, Christ instructed his followers in Matthew 22:21, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

This statement marked the distinction between the religious and political authority or, in other words, between church and state. For many centuries, until the Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, Christianity remained a persecuted religion. During the course of this struggle, Christians formulated a distinctive institution: the church, which possesses its own unique laws and its own hierarchy. Throughout Christian history, Church and state continued to exist side by side as separate institutions. There were times in Christendom when priests exercised temporal power or when kings claimed divine right over the church. But these were aberrations from Christian norm.

In contrast, in Judaism and Islam, God is Caesar, and there is no corresponding distinction between religious and state affairs. Therefore, both these faiths lack a native secularism.

So, the question that arises is, despite such inherent obstructions, can Islam still be reformed to co-exist peacefully with the modern state?

Many of my secularist counterparts believe that Islam cannot be reformed and that the Quran does not provide any room for any possible alteration since it claims to be the literal word of God valid until the very end of time. It is true that the Quran claims to be the literal word of God and that the coeternity of the Quran is regarded as a vital part of Islamic doctrine. But, despite this claim, it still relies on people for its interpretations, and people can interpret it differently depending on their requirements.

From the 19th century on, and beginning before that, Islam has changed in many ways. One may argue that since the 19th century it has only gotten worse despite attempts at modernization by some courageous people. Who they were and why they did they not succeed is the main emphasis of this article.

The opening quotation is not an utterance of a contemporary Muslim reformist or secularist but of the 19th-century Ottoman writer and patriot Namik Kemal. It was originally published in the newspaper Tasvir-i Efkar in 1867.

Kemal was one of the leaders of the Young Ottomans, a secret group formed by Turkish intellectuals who felt discontented with the reforms brought by the Ottoman Empire under the “Tanzimat” program. Tanzimat (Reorganization) were a series of reforms enacted in the Ottoman empire between 1839 and 1876. These reforms were influenced deeply by European ideas and developments and sought to alter the nature of the empire from an outdated system based solely on religious principles to that of a modern state.

Tanzimat promised, among many other things:

  • Equality of all the citizens regardless of race and religion. That meant that Christians, Jews, and other religious minorities were to be deemed as equal citizens of the empire.
  • The decriminalization of homosexuality.
  • Abolition of slavery and the slave trade.

For nationalists like Kemal, these reforms were promulgated simply to please the foreign powers, particularly the French and the British. The western powers, being clearly victorious over the Muslim empires after centuries of confrontation, did pressurize them to introduce new reforms. The British, for instance, sought to persuade the Ottomans to abolish the traffic in Black slaves from Africa[ii]. Western powers also demanded that the Ottomans treat the Christian citizens of their empire with more dignity and grant them more rights. In this case, the Christians were the intended beneficiaries and Jews the accidental ones.

Kemal, however, envisaged something very different for Istanbul: an autonomous, elected body, a real parliament. An ardent Muslim who translated the Quran into Turkish, Kemal sought to justify his quest for constitutionalism from an Islamic point of view. In this regard, he referred to the third chapter of the Quran, verse 159, where Mohammad was urged by God to make consul with his followers while making a decision. Kemal quoted this verse to demonstrate the congruity between Islam and the principles of consultation. Many Muslim scholars had decried the institution of parliament as an “innovation” and perversion of faith, but Kemal remarked that it was no more an illegal innovation than steamships: “Should the Ottoman Empire then not buy steamships, and let the Greeks capture Crete with their little lemon boats?”[iii].

Kemal found nothing in the Sharia against a republican government. Given the traditions of the Ottoman Empire, he felt that a constitutional monarchy would be best suited and suggested the British constitutional monarchy, which he admired, as a model. He opposed the Western intervention, but he also gloried in the achievements of the West. Turkish nationalism as it developed in the following years remained deeply indebted to Kemal and others like him. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern state of Turkey, was also influenced by Namik Kemal’s ideas.

Like Turkey, Egypt also produced reformists of Kemal’s stature ever since the arrival of Napoleon and his troops in the country in 1798. One of them was Qasim Amin, a young Egyptian lawyer who studied in Paris and seems to have been influenced by the developments he witnessed there. He wrote a book in Arabic, entitled The Liberation of Woman, in which he argued for more women’s rights in Muslim societies. In particular, he proposed to interdict the veil and to reinterpret the Quranic provisions that had usually been understood as authorizing polygamy and concubinage. He believed that only by freeing women could Muslim society be truly free, since a free society is one in which all members of society are free. He was chided in traditional circles for his iconoclastic views, but the book was read by many and was also translated into Turkish[iv].

But the reforms in Egypt were largely spearheaded by Sheikh Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), a trained cleric versed in classical Islam. He was an acolyte of Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, another important Islamic figure of the 19th century, but unlike his mentor he did not loathe the Western imperialists. He was allowed re-entry into Egypt by the British de facto ruler of the country, Lord Cromer. A cordial relationship began between the two. While Abduh criticized the British occupiers, he nevertheless maintained a healthy relationship with them. Cromer proved instrumental in mainstreaming Abduh’s modernist views and providing them more public attention.

Abduh delivered a series of lectures that were later compiled and published as a book called The Theology of Unity. In this manifesto of modernist Islam, Abduh argued in favor of the followers of the 10th-century figure Abu al-Hassan al-Ashari, called the Asharites, whose doctrine was a rational one based on the laws of the universe. Abduh deeply regretted that obscurantists had gained the upper hand and destroyed whatever rational fabric Islam possessed.

In time, he became the preeminent clerical voice not only in Egypt but also in Iran and Turkey, where his work inspired Taqizadeh and Gökalp, two scholars leading the movement for reform in their respective countries. Abduh’s and his followers also attempted to re-open the doors of ijtihad — independent reasoning — which had been slammed shut in the 16th century by Ottoman jurists.

Abduh as a mufti (an Islamic scholar authorized to issue religious decrees) not only denounced traditionalist Islamic practices such as taqlid (imitating an established Islamic authority) but also revived the old and forgotten Mutazilite idea that the Quran was not coeternal. This view meant that it could be interpreted differently in different times and could also contain errors introduced by humans. He spoke out against the already decaying institution of polygamy and debated against the notion of predestination. He also adopted evolution into his corpus of natural law[v].

But Abduh’s best-known interventions in the lives of Muslims were his fatwas: opinions issued by a cleric that carry adequate legitimacy to overturn existing Islamic interpretations and propose alternative ones. For instance, in 1901, he authorized property insurance, hitherto forbidden because it was considered a kind of gambling. He also allowed Muslims to eat meat slaughtered by Christians and others, a practice that does not comply with the Islamic guideline of slitting the animal’s throat. He was perhaps the greatest conciliator between Islam and liberalism.

Reading this, one may quite naturally be tempted to ask why, if there have been modernists and reformists in the Muslim societies since at least the 19th century, the Muslim world in general lags so far behind in terms of incorporating modern ideas.

The answer is that just as there have been modernists who have tried to harmonize Islam with liberal ideas, there have been others who have opposed such modernization. For the larger part of Islamic history, up until now, the modernists have mostly lost.

But why have the reformists lost? For many centuries after its inception, Islam remained the world’s greatest civilization. Muslims were the main torch-bearers of literature, arts, science, governance, and the military. Being a Muslim implied being an adherent of a victorious faith.

After the 16th century, however, things began to change. Europe, which had previously relied heavily upon Muslims’ scientific achievements, started to thrive on her own. Muslim armies were defeated first on land, then on the seas, and later in scholarship and other fields. Europe, which most Muslims regarded as barbaric and as the land of the infidels, was now carving out the new leading civilization.

European advancements in various areas had far-reaching influence, including in the Muslim territories. Ottomans had started to introduce changes in their military and administrative systems after the Treaty of Karlowitz was signed in 1699, marking the Ottomans’ loss of the Great Turkish War. This treaty meant the end of Ottoman control in much of Central Europe.

The decline of the Muslim world and the rise of Christian Europe cultivated two types of responses in Muslim society. One response was admitting one’s defeat and displaying openness to European ideas. The adherents of this class were the reformists. Often reformists such as those mentioned above tried to rationalize their attempts from within an Islamic perspective, by reinterpreting the Islamic injunctions in a way that reconciled with modern developments, while others, like Atatürk, opted for more secularist stances. The fact that they were open to foreign ideas does not mean they admired the foreign powers, however, as evidenced by the emphasis on nationalism in Kemal’s work. But they did acknowledge that changing needs and changing times required changing rules, as well.

Others admitted defeat but displayed utter disdain and hate toward European principles. The partisans of this view did not believe that the Muslim world declined because it failed to address the changing times; they believed it deteriorated because it had simply stopped adhering to the correct teachings of Islam or perverted its true doctrine. They prescribed going back to the instructions of Islam. Out of this school, emerged the Wahhabi movement of Hejaz (now Saudi Arabia) and puritanical movements elsewhere in the Islamic world. The Islamists, responsible for most of the religiously inspired terrorism in the present world, emerged out of this strain of thought.

Bernard Lewis, a celebrated historian on Islam and the Middle East, aptly characterized the two positions. He believed that the earlier group posed the question “What did we do wrong?” while the latter asked, “Who did this to us?”

While the first group campaigned for finding flaws within itself, the second favored looking for scapegoats. Sometimes, the scapegoats were the Jews, sometimes Christians, and sometimes — in fact, most of the time — they were people within Muslim societies: the reformists condemned by the radicals as traitors and deemed as deserving punishment for leaving their roots and adopting foreign principles.

This position can be easily seen in a famous sentence from a widely circulated booklet by Muhammad Abd al-Salam Faraj, the ideological guide of the group that murdered President Anwar Sadat of Egypt: “Fighting the near enemy is more important than fighting the distant enemy”[vi].

Here the near enemy implies native secularizers (even if some of them were not truly secular) like Atatürk of Turkey, Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, Hafez al-Assad of Syria, and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, along with Islamic modernist thinkers who try to bridge secularism and Islam.

Another major impediment to the emergence of a modernized Islam is Islam’s lack of institutional authority. Many Muslim reformists advocate liberal views, but they speak only for themselves and carry no institutional power. And whereas reformists need to rely upon contextual analysis of the Quran in lieu of taking the text literally, the extremists simply have to cite clear verses from the text to demonstrate their views and prevail over the reformists.

This is perhaps one of the negative consequences of the end of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman ruler was not simply a governor of a specific state; he was also widely recognized as the caliph, the head of all Sunni Islam. The caliphate remained a potent symbol of Muslim unity and identity. Many Muslims viewed the caliph as the religious and political head of Islam. This was perhaps the only institution in Islam, though mostly political in nature, that could have accelerated the quest for a modern Islam, and the above-mentioned policies of the late Ottoman period showed that the caliphate had this sort of potential. Its fall gave others, notably the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia, the opportunity to claim the same authority for themselves. It is also worth noting that when the Ottomans decided to abolish slavery, the most vocal religious opposition came from the scholars of Hejaz, who declared: “With such proposals the Turks have become infidels. Their blood is forfeit and it is lawful to make their children slaves”[vii].

Sadly, the reformists lost the battle in the last century, and the fundamentalists have had a much bigger impact. Even though most Muslims do not follow either the hardcore teachings of Wahhabi doctrine or the Jihadist views of Islamists, the two latter positions still have exerted more influence worldwide due to their greater mobility and more coherent ideology. These two views have been more successful in convincing Muslim youths to follow them. The reason for that is quite simple: people naturally look toward scapegoats and very often chose to escape reality and their own inherent flaws.

But the pendulum could swing the opposite way in our time. A growing number of people around the world are developing a very genuine and rational fear of Islam, a fear that also contributes to the development of grudges against Muslims. Many Muslims find themselves defending the picture of their religion and dissociating their faith from the horrors of ISIS and al-Qaida. The reformists finally may gain the upper hand if they can convince Muslims that the only way to save their faith, and even themselves, is by adapting to modernity and making their views compatible with those of the contemporary civilized world.

[ii] B.Lewis, What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (UK:2002), p.97-98.

[iii] Davison, Reform in the Ottoman Empire, p.224.

[iv] Kasim Amin, Liberation of Woman (Cairo:1899). The book was rendered into English by Samiha Sidhom Peterson in Cairo in 2000.

[v] Christopher De Bellaigue, The Islamic Enlightenment: The Modern struggle between Faith and Reason(London: 2017), p.284.

[vi] Johannes J. G. Jansen, The Neglected Duty: The Creed of Sadat’s Assassins and Islamic Resurgence in the Middle East (New York and London: 1986), Chapter I.

[vii] Cevdet, Tezakir, p.111.

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