Islamic Modernism

Muhammad Abduh
Muhammad Abduh: Founding Father of Islamic Modernism

Islamic modernism is a phenomenon and trend of thought that has become widespread among Muslim theologians and in Muslim society, starting with the first “modernists” Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh and ending with the modern neo-modernists Mahmoud Taha and Muhammad Arkoun. In the modern era, the Muslim world which in the Middle Ages was self-sufficient and influenced the philosophical and social thought of the West is faced Western expansion.

Already in the late era of the Sublime Port (Ottoman Empire) (18th-19th centuries CE), the technical progress of Western countries began to put pressure on the order and foundations of the Muslim world. One simple example is the construction of the first railroad in Turkey in 1856. It clearly demonstrates this pressure to us. Railway transport has an undoubted advantage over horse-drawn transport, the first railway was invented in England in 1825, for the construction of the Turkish railway Sultan Abdul-Majid invited English specialists, purchased English steam locomotives, and invited English machinists. Technological progress has put Ottoman society in direct contact with the Western world, a world of convenience, comfort, a world of things and material values. In 1883, the Paris-Istanbul Orient Express railway was opened. Now the “technocratic” West could freely penetrate the Muslim East. First of all, it was a test for the world of the spiritual values of the Muslim faith and the world of the precepts and rules of Islam, which were alien to the Western world.

The response to this historical process was two opposite phenomena of the modern world, namely Islamic modernism and Islamic fundamentalism. Islamic modernism was an attempt to reconcile Western social concepts of civil rights, democracy, rationalism, equality, progress with traditional Islam, and Islamic fundamentalism believed that one should “hold the ground to the end” and “not succumb to Western influence”, trying instead to influence the western world as it did in the Middle Ages,.

The proposals of the modernists primarily concerned the methods of Muslim law (madhhabs), theological rethinking of the world order in accordance with modern concepts and a new approach to exegesis (interpretation of the Quran, tafsir). Mahathir Mohamad, the long serving (for 50 years until February 2020) Prime Minister of Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion, says: “Only when Islam is interpreted so as to be relevant in a world which is different from what it was 1,400 years ago can Islam be regarded as a religion for all ages. ”

Islamic modernism primarily relies on the rationalism of the philosophical school of the Mutazillites, who believed that any question from the field of the Muslim faith can be explained by a rational mind. Therefore, first of all, you need to give up following traditional madhhabs. This was one of the main theses of Muhammad Abduh (Grand Mufti of Egypt in 1899-1905, rector of the largest Muslim university in the world, Al-Azhari in Cairo). Non-madhhab jurisprudence allowed to stop using the authority of the sheikhs of the Middle Ages and “use your own brains.”

An example is the distribution of sadaqa (additional charity besides obligatory zakat) on the day of the breaking of the fast after the end of the month of Ramadan: “Allah’s Messenger has made Sadaqat-ul-Fitr obligatory, and it was either one Sa’ (measure) of barley or one Sa’ (measure) of dates and its payment was obligatory on young and old people, and on free men as well as on slaves.” (“Sahih al-Bukhari”, Hadith No. 1512) Muhammad Abduh believed that in a situation like this one has no need to leaf through the fatwas of the sheikhs of this or that madhhab but rather ‘use his own brains’ and conclude that in medieval Arabia, barley and dates served as food for the whole family, and getting them on the day of the breaking of the fast meant a well-fed existence for several days. In our modern, especially urban, society, especially in countries with a different climate and different food traditions, a person prepares his own food in a different way. What would he do with barley and dates? Wouldn’t it be better to give him money so that he can buy what he needs?

The influence of Islamic modernism is that of bringing the whole Muslim world ‘up to speed’. We see this happening throughout many countries starting with Pakistan and ending with Turkey. However, the answer to the question of its place in history and its value for the promotion of Islam remains open.