The evolution of religion and its relationship to the rest of society was a major topic of early sociological theory. One of its earliest and most persistent propositions—reaffirmed by many contemporary theorists of the sociology of religion—is that religion, like any other institution, is a dynamic entity and that its functional differentiation is a fundamental part of social processes. In this theoretical framework, religious institutional arrangements are thought to be evolving according to the perceived needs of the sociohistorical time period. As religion impacts the larger society, it too is impacted by the dominant patterns of society. Moreover, the various institutional arrangements either support or are in competition with one another. However, the topic of Islam and modernity, as it has evolved in the modern era, is a complex one largely due to shifting and multidimensional interpretations of both Islam and the concept of modernity.
The word Islam, which means “surrender,” is related to the Arabic word salaam, or “peace.” Islam as a religion means “submission to the will of God.” It stands in a long line of Abrahimic religious traditions that share an uncompromising monotheism. The foundation of Islamic values and practices is the Koran and Hadith, which are composed of the teachings and the deeds of the Prophet Muhammad. For Muslims, the Koran is the Book of God (Allah) revealed to Muhammad by means of the angel Gabriel. In a very deep sense, Islam is the Koran and the Koran is Islam. Today Islam is the religion of one fifth of the world’s population (1.2 billion), and, as the second largest religion, it exists not only in the Middle East but also in Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Europe, and the United States.
Modernity is a term used to describe the condition of being “modern.” Since the term modern is used to describe a wide range of periods, modernity must be taken in context. In the field of sociology, many of the defining characteristics of modernity—such as specialization, rationalization, secularization, and universalism—stem from the relatively small communities to the more large-scale societies. In this context, social changes which are common to many different levels of social integration are not limited to the Western European societies. In other words, modernization is a general, abstract process, also found in non-Western societies, including Islamic society.
The Evolution of Islam
For more than 1,400 years, Islam has been in a constant state of evolution, going through many phases in its development, including the formation of nation-states in the Muslim world. However, Islam has not yet evolved to a point where there is a separation of religion and state, as found in the history of Western civilization. Historically, Islam developed both as a faith and as a political order. While Islam provided the basic framework of meaning and direction for political, social, and cultural life, it has continually adapted to the cultural, political, and social realities of various regions.
Thus, throughout history, Islam manifested itself in different cultures and societies, creating in each case a unique expression of Islamic culture. This evolutionary process gave rise to an Islamic civilization that is multiracial and multicultural.
Islam also inspired a rich civilization in which Muslim scholars made important advances in sciences such as mathematics, algebra (itself an Arabic word), astronomy, and medicine. Muslim scholars have long been recognized for their contributions to the preservation of classical learning during the Dark Ages. It was through Muslim thinkers’ translations of the Greek works of Plato, Aristotle, and other classical thinkers that these works reached Europe and contributed to the first flowerings of the Renaissance. Most Islamic thinkers maintain that the initial encounter between Islam and the West during Islam’s early years of expansion represented a dynamic and fruitful interaction. According to many historians, this was because Islam possessed ample power to absorb and assimilate intercultural elements. Some historians even maintain that despite the fact that the history of Christianity and Islam has been marked by mutual hostility and confrontation, medieval Islam was a religion of remarkable tolerance for its time, allowing Jews and Christians the right to practice their religions. Thus, in its prime time, during the period that Islam was a dominant and expanding civilization, it exhibited a great amount of tolerance.
However, the “Golden Age” of Islam was short-lived and lasted only a few centuries. By the 12th century, a decline in the political and intellectual development of the Islamic world had set in. Most Islamic thinkers agree that the impediment to change was not Islam itself as a religion but rather the emergence of religiopolitical structure in the Islamic world. Other historians believe that this decline was due to the reinterpretation of Islam by powerful conservative religious leaders.
Islam in Modern Times
The history of Islam in modern times is essentially the history of the Western impact on Muslim societies. The modern era in Islam’s history can be said to begin around 1800 CE, which marks the time when Napoleon Bonaparte and his forces were in Egypt. Following that, the European powers colonized one Islamic country after another. Thus, the rise of modern Europe coincided with European colonial rule, a humiliating experience for Muslims conscious of their proud past. After World War I, the European invasion of the Islamic world intensified as a result of more political and economic dominance.
Cultural and political confrontations with Europe caused Muslims to become defensive and more hostile toward Western political and cultural influences. In the shadow of European colonialism, Muslim thinkers and intellectuals developed conflicting strategies to reconcile traditional Islamic values with modernity. Their responses to modernity provoked a great deal of controversy, particularly among Muslim thinkers and Ulema (religious leaders). Secularists, while overemphasizing external factors such as colonialism and imperialism as the cause of the rapid decline of the Islamic world, advocated the restriction of religion to private affairs and its exclusion from public life. Meanwhile, the conservative sectors led by religious leaders conceived of Islam not only as a religion that allowed for no change but also as a total way of life. These religious leaders also became increasingly suspicious of independent reasoning or personal reinterpretation (Ijtihad). Ijtihad is an inherent tradition in Islam and serves as a juristic tool that allows for independent reasoning to articulate Islamic law on the issues where textual sources are silent. The conservatives did not favor “opening the door of Ijtihad,” whereas the Islamic reformists argued that Ijtihad equipped Muslims to meet the challenge of social change by the reinterpretation of Islam. In other words, to the reformists, Ijtihad was a tool to reconcile Islamic values with modernity.
Like most religious traditions, Islam has had, and continues to have, multiple interpretations and applications throughout its history and even more so today. As a result, there are a variety of Islamic movements, which display the many faces and forms of Islam. However, the phenomenon of interpretation and reinterpretation in Islam is complicated by the fact that no organized hierarchy or centralized religious authority exists in Islam. Religious authority in Islam is distributed among numerous Ulema and jurists whose authority stems from the willingness of the faithful to accept their decrees (fatva).
The concept of Islam and modernity as presently conceived can be best explained by focusing on the developments that have occurred in the past 4 decades in the Muslim world. Since the late 1960s, Islamic revivalism has increasingly come to dominate religious and political discourse in much of the Muslim world. Muslim thinkers and political activists in Iran and other Islamic societies have responded to Western-style modernity in a variety of ways. However, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, there has been a sharpened distinction between two general approaches or orientations toward modernization: the traditionalists and the reformists. The key difference between traditionalists and reformists is their understanding and interpretations of the Koran, Islamic history, and prophet traditions. (It must be noted that this categorization is somewhat arbitrary and that individuals and groups may overlap from one orientation to another.)
Traditionalists define Islam in a narrow and restrictive sense. They maintain that Islamic traditions are fixed and fully articulated in the past. Therefore, any change is regarded as a departure from what they call the “straight path” of Islam. The traditionalists emphasize the total self-sufficiency and comprehensiveness of Islam, and when they speak of Islamization, they mean a reinstituting of the Shariah, or traditional Islamic law. The traditionalists reject modernity, which they perceive to mean Western secularism and popular sovereignty. They believe Islam is the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. However, whereas modernity as a general process is rejected, selective modernization in the areas of science and technology is not. The basic tenet of traditionalists is a demand for a return to “pure” Islam, if not the “original” Islam. This orientation has its roots in the fiercely independent traditionalist interpretation of Islam by the Wahhabists in modern Saudi Arabia.
The reformists’ view is in sharp contrast to views held by the traditionalists, particularly the conservative Ulema, who have historically preoccupied themselves with the literal interpretation of the Koran. The reformists believe that Islamic principles and values can be applied to meet modernity. Whatever the differences in orientation and agenda, reformists believe that Islam is compatible with the core values of modernity, such as individual freedom and democratic values. Leading reformists have argued that there is no inherent contradiction between Islam and democracy. They view the traditionalists’ view on Islam and politics as too rigid and not workable for the realities of modern life. Moreover, the reformists maintain that Islam itself is evolving as a religion and that the will and beliefs of the majority must shape the Islamic state. However, the reformists do not think of modernity in terms of a total break from the past or historical Islamic culture. To reformists, modernity implies not only new and better technologies and improved standards of living but also a political culture in which Islamic values are cherished and individual rights are protected.
Today, a combination of mass education, mass communication, and political awareness is dramatically transforming the Muslim-majority world. While the conflict between the traditionalists and reformists persists, the reformists have expanded the ongoing debate of modernity and Islam to include democratic issues such as pluralism, women’s rights, and human rights. However, the central proposal of the reformists continues to be a demand for the reopening of the door of Ijtihad (modern Islamic interpretation), to allow for the adaptation of Islamic laws to the realities of modern life.
Despite setbacks in recent years, particularly the politicization of Islam by extremist groups (radical Islamists), there is compelling evidence that the reformist movement is growing. Recent developments in Iran, Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Egypt offer an even more striking indication of Muslim interest in modernity, democracy, and civic pluralism. The quest for modernity and democracy among Muslims today is one of the most prominent and transformative issues of our time. Today, an increasing number of Muslim thinkers in these countries have concluded that no contradiction between Islam and modernity exists if conceived as the emergence of new kinds of public space and a greater sense of autonomy for both men and women. However, the political realities of most Islamic societies cannot be overlooked, as most Islamic countries still remain largely nondemocratic and authoritarian. At the present time, we are still watching a process of experimentation and changes unfold.
- Armstrong, Karen. 2002. Islam: A Short History. New York: Modern Library.
- Esposito, John L. 2004. Islam: The Straight Path. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Glasse, Cyril. 2003. The New Encyclopedia of Islam. Lanham, MD: AltaMira.
- Murata, Sachiko and William Chittick. 1994. The Vision of Islam. New York: Cragon.
- Rahman, Fazlur. 2002. Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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