Modernism unfolded – Trends in the Muslim world

November 20, 2009 at 3:45 am (Islam)

By Sharique Naeem
Islamic Idiology is the only hope for humanityModernism, as a term with respect to reformation in religion, has had its origins in middle-ages in Europe. The modernist movement began as a result of ever increasing contradictions in the scientific approach and the dogmatic beliefs of the church. This eventually led to a gradual change. Before we begin to dwell into the details of how the Muslims in the contemporary world have responded to modernism, we need to have a picture of modernism as viewed from a number of different angles. One can approach the subject of modernism from three different angles:

First, today, by modernism, one may imply, the progress of society, in terms of technological advancement and infrastructural development

Second, perspective of viewing modernism is that Religion and State should be kept apart.

Third is the notion that the premises of modernism – in all faiths – is essentially the notion  that religion is not fixed and should change according to the circumstances. So although religion has a role in the state, its constants are viewed as progressively variable.

The Muslim response to each of the three perspectives of modernism, has varied in different degrees, and is at time complex and overlapping.

Modernism: 3 Dimensions

The first perspective as mentioned is that we may take modernism to signify the general progress of society, in terms of advancement in technology, improved infrastructures, access to better health care facilities, and overall improvement in life.

The two possible responses to this perspective of modernism can be either, whole hearted acceptance, and welcome of this progress; or rejection of scientific innovation, effectively implying an anti-technology approach.

The Muslims societies, Scholars and rulers alike, almost unanimously and globally have positively responded to this form of modernism. Development in technology, access to high tech gadgets, better means of commutation, electronic media, have always drawn welcoming response. And indeed today, those sectors of Muslims that remain underprivileged yearn for this kind of modernism.

Questions may be raised that there exists some tiny pockets within the Muslim world, that have objected to technological progress, and have at times banned Televisions, Camera cell phones etc. However in instances when such cases have occured, the underlying reason has been the ‘ethical misuse’ of such technological items, and not necessarily the technology itself.

Historically, the Muslim world in its ‘Golden age’ has had a pivotal role in this form of modernism.

Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard, referring to the Muslim civilization of the past, in a speech at Minneapolis said:

“…this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love, when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things. When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others…”

The Second angle from which “modernism” may be viewed, is the explicit idea of Separation of Religion and state. The response to this notion was once positive, sometime back. When Mustafa Kemal, took the role of leadership in Turkey, he effectively managed to perpetuate the idea in the masses that Islam had no longer any role in the authority of State, and to considerable degree he had success, and this notion drew a sizeable response from Muslims in other regions as well.

However today, this notion, stands on the defeated lines. The current political waves in the Muslim world, clearly show, the Muslims are generally of the view that Islam has an identifiable and integral role top play with the state. The rise to power, of Islamic political and democratic parties in a number of Muslim countries are indicators of this.  MMA rise to power in two provinces in Pakistan, Likewise the electoral increate of Hammas vote bank in Palestine. In Bangladesh too, Islamic political parties have gained momentum. And in countries like Turkey, where the notion of separation of religion and state was once perhaps most dominant within the Muslim world, one can find Political parties that use Islam in their campaign, gaining support.

The poll results, as surveyed by The Pew Global Attitudes Project, in its report dated July, 2005 showed Large majorities of Muslims in most predominantly Muslim countries having the opinion that it is very vital that Islam play a more important and influential role in the world than that religion does at present. In Morocco, 84% of Muslims, 73% in Jordan, 70% in Pakistan and 64% in Indonesia expressed this opinion. In some countries like Lebanon and Turkey, where comparatively fewer amongst the Muslims place high importance on a larger global role for Islam, a sizeable proportion are of the opinion that Islam needs to play an influential world role.

In another recent opinion report by ‘World Public Opinion’ dated April, 2007, findings showed that “Large majorities in most countries support the goals of requiring a strict application of Sharia, keeping out Western values, and even unifying all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state”. The poll results indicated 76% in Morocco, 74% in Egypt, 79% in Pakistan and 53% in Indonesia, agreeing to the notion that there should be strict application of Shariah Law in every Islamic Country.

The Muslim response therefore to this particular angle of modernism has been tilted to towards rejection of the notion: “state and religion are separate”

The Third perspective, from which one may view modernism, is that religion is not fixed and should change according to the circumstances. In the Muslim world, this is an ongoing and recent struggle. And this tussle has itself given rise to a lot of confusion.

What we find today in the Muslim world, is that over 50 countries, declare themselves to be Muslim, and Islamic, and yet none of these countries have a comprehensive and holistic implementation of the Shariah.

On one hand we can find Islamists, propagation the notion of ‘Jihad’ as an ‘offensive war against the infidels’, and on the other hand we see liberal rulers in the Muslim world, like Pervaiz Musharraf who refer to ‘Jihad’ as struggle for eradication of poverty and illiteracy.

As another example, we find, for instance in Saudi Arabia, the view that thief should have their hands cut in accordance to the Quranic injunction. And at the same time, we find, infamous leaders such Mahathir Mohammad, suggesting the Quranic injunction regarding the cutting of hands has the objective of reducing crime rate, and if crime rate is reduced by other means, than the ‘spirit’ of the law has been fulfilled, and there is no need to implement this particular law. Such interpretational differences can be seen not only amongst the political leaders, but also amongst the prominent scholars. For instance in Pakistan, clear cut interpretational differences exist in the approach of Dr. Israr Ahmed and Javed Ghamdi. The government, in turn tries to use and project those scholars which favor its stances on modernism.

The poll results, by The Pew Global Attitudes Project, showed that large majorities in the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan(79%), Morocco(70%) and Jordan (63%) say they self-identify first as Muslims, rather than in terms of their nationalities as Pakistanis, Moroccans or Jordanians.  Turkey, with its relatively more secular traditions, a 43% plurality among Muslims expressed that their identify primarily with their religion rather than their nationality.

This trend is also a slightly growing phenomenon amongst the Muslims living in the west. In a report, by Policy Exchange, the findings showed that younger Muslims are much more likely to be inspired by political Islam. 37% of the British Muslims in the age group of 16-24 year-old said that they would prefer to live under Islamic Sharia law than under British law.

To sum up, the ongoing trend with regards to the Muslim response on this particular aspect of modernism is divided on the lines of “Interpretation and Understanding of Islam” and its “scope of applicability” rather than the notion of “Secular vs. Islam”.


The future trends of Muslim responses to modernism are most likely to be split along the lines of either Advocacy of democracy in the grab of Islam, or the Islamic ruling in form of a Caliphate.

According to the survey by World Public Opinion, conducted in the four countries: Morocco, Egypt, Pakistan and Indonesia, significant majorities(67%) agreed that “a democratic political system” is a good way of governing their country.

And yet in the midst of all this, a parallel opinion that seems to be gaining momentum is of a ruling system from Islam rather than democracy. The Washington Post [January 14th, 2006] headed an article with the title ” Reunified Islam: Unlikely but Not Entirely Radical, Restoration of Caliphate, Attacked by Bush, Resonates With Mainstream Muslims”, arguing that a call of Caliphate ruling system is not entirely limited to radicals nor is it only resonant with Islamic guerrilla groups engaged in battles, but the mainstream Muslims are also increasingly being open to this notion.  Patrick J. Buchanan, who has served three presidents in the White House and is the founder and editor of magazine ‘The American Conservative’, writes in one of his articles:

“If Islamic rule is an idea taking hold among the Islamic masses, how does even the best army on earth stop it? Do we not need a new policy?”

Whether or not this particular call will be able to draw response from Muslims remains yet to be seen, and has a potentially critical role to play in the near future.

In the opinion of one analyst, Samuel P. Huntington, in his book, “The Clash of Civilizations and the remaking of world order” the response to modernism from Muslims, has by large coupled with a consciousness of the Islamic identity. This consciousness of ‘Islamic identity’, and the revival of the belief that Islam can offer solutions in the modern world, are by its nature going to create contradictory opinions in the present age, regarding various issues related to Democracy, Economics and Legislation etc. And those views that have been traditionally regarded as un-Islamic, will have to be either molded into a form or presented in a camouflage, that makes them “acceptable from the Shariah’s perspective”. This we can see for instance  in the recent rise and spread of the Islamic Banking institutes and aceptability of democractic system, by Islamic groups e.g Muslim Brotherhood[Egypt], Hammas[Palestine], MMA[Pakistan] etc.


In conclusion, it is vital to take into account the multiple dimensions of modernism as viewed today in the contemporary Muslim societies, as a prerequisite to analyzing and evaluating Muslim response to it. The socio-political scenario shaping the lives today in the Muslim world as well as the ability of Islam as an integral religion giving a comprehensive system to the society, invariably governs popular Muslim response to the different perspective of modernism.

Carly Fiorina, ex-CEO of Hewlett-Packard comments:
World Public Opinion Report:
The Pew Global Attitudes Project:
Policy Exchange:
The Washington Post:
Patrick J. Buchanan:

(Article by Sharique Naeem,  Edited version Published in ‘The Post’)


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