Islamic perspective

Islam and modernity

What is the relation between Islam and modernity? Generally it is thought to be negative. But it is very superficial approach. In fact one has to go deeper both into Islamic theology and history as well as into the meaning and significance of the term ‘modernity'.

Modernism and modernity have evoked great deal of controversy in India as well as in the Islamic world. The response of the Islamic world also has not been uniform to the project of modernity. Before we go into the question of response of the Islamic world to modernity, we should discuss the meaning and significance of modernity. Modernity has several dimensions. It is unfortunate that some people begin to worship modernity as blindly as some other people reject it blindly. Modernity is neither all boon for everyone (except perhaps for the West to some extent) nor unmitigated bane as staunch supporters of traditions make it out to be. One must thoroughly and critically examine the concept of modernity as propounded by the Western scholars.

Bernard Lewis, a noted American scholar has attempted to give definition of modernity. In his article, “The West and the Middle East” published in Foreign Affairs (1997). According to Madhavi Santanam Sondhi, Lewis “uses a definition of modernity designed to dissipate the reservations of non-Western, particularly Islamic cultures, to enable them to shed their inhibitions and embrace much of modern Western civilisation.”

If one reads Lewis's article carefully, it emerges that in one way or the other modernisation implies Westernisation. Though European modernity has Graceo-Roman origins, it owes much to Judeo-Christian civilisation too. Europe reached its destination of modernity via complex route which also included impact of Islam.

Islam, Lewis points out, was first to create a multi-racial, multi-cultural, inter-continental civilisation and to “borrow, adapt and incorporate significant elements from the remoter civilisations of Asia.” Bernard Lewis includes in his definition of Western modernity, experimental sciences, aspects of commerce and banking, mathematics and astronomy.

Enriched by other cultures

Then he concludes: “In every era of human history, modernity, or some equivalent term, has meant the ways, norms and standards of the dominant and expanding civilisation. Every dominant civilization has its own modernity in its prime...over a wide area and radiated (its) influence over a much broader one still, far beyond (its) imperial frontiers...Today, for the time being...the dominant civilisation is Western, and Western standards therefore, define modernity.”

He also suggests, therefore, “There have been other dominant civilisations in the past, there will doubtless be others in the future. Western civilisation incorporates many previous modernities, that is to say, it is enriched by the contributions and influences of other cultures which preceded it in leadership. It will itself bequeath a Western cultural legacy to other cultures yet to mature.”

In other words Bernard Lewis emphasises two important aspects of Western modernity: its science and technology, commerce and banking and its domination over non-Western cultures and civilisations. While the former i.e. science and technology and commerce and banking have been readily accepted by Islamic countries (as well as other countries), the latter i.e. its dominance is being rejected by many countries both Islamic and non-Islamic in Asia and Africa though the response, as pointed out above, has been far from uniform.

Some other Western scholars have also included democracy, human rights, individual freedom and gender equality among the criteria for modernity. Prof. Huntington lays emphasis on these aspects of modernity. He, however, does not mention scientific experimentation or technology among the parameters of modernity of his concept. Keeping these criteria in mind, there are fundamental differences between various Islamic countries.

Before we take up the question of Islamic countries and their varied response to Western modernity, we would like to consider Islam and its attitude to modernity. The most important question is: is Islam opposed to modernity? Again there might be different responses from different people depending on their own bent of mind. In a way such questions are quite subjective and their responses too.

If a person is rigid and orthodox in his/her approach the response will be that Islam is opposed to modernity as modernity or objective inquiry into someone's beliefs leads to ‘atheism', according to them. Someone else with a liberal bent of mind may respond favourably and may find modernity in conformity with Islam with some conditions. Interestingly, a person on the other extreme, i.e. an atheist, might also dismiss Islam as opposed to modernity.

As I subscribe to liberalism, I feel, Islam is not opposed to modernism. Modernism cannot be separated from change. In fact Islam, like many other religions, was a product of fundamental social and economic changes which were occurring in the Arab society. Tribal relations were breaking down in and around Mecca and a trans-tribal mercantile class was emerging on the scene quite greedy for wealth and totally neglectful of higher human values like compassion, alleviation of poverty and misery of weaker sections of society, mitigation of woes of slavery, recognition of socio-legal status of women, equality of all human beings transcending all barriers of caste, creed, colour, race and tribe.

Islam laid great emphasis on these values while welcoming the change taking place in the society. But it provided human face for the change and exhorted people not to neglect their duty towards human suffering. It not only accepted mercantile operations as opposed to tribal socio-economic structure, it laid down proper guidelines for honest mercantile transactions. The Qur'an also laid down proper procedure for taking loan, insisting on writing with two witnesses so as to avoid disputes. Before that, loan operations, as in any tribal society, were verbally transacted.

Education is highly necessary for any modern society. Even scientific experiments cannot be conducted without ability to read and write. In pre-Islamic society literacy was extremely low, some historians even maintain that before Islam there were only 17 persons in Mecca (the birth place of Islam) who could read and write. Though this appears to be an exaggeration, the fact remains that the percentage of literacy was very low. The Qur'an, through its first revealed verse, encouraged reading and writing. Allah also swears by qalam (pen) giving it great importance, making it sacred to swear by.

Also, as pointed out by philosopher-poet Iqbal in his Reconstruction of Religious Thought, in Islam the Qur'anic approach is inductive (as opposed to the deductive approach of Greek philosophy) While inductive approach leads to encouragement of scientific observations of the universe, deductive approach leads to speculative thinking. While Western philosophers like Descartes stuck to deductive reasoning, Western scientists like Darwin and others adopted inductive approach which led to great discoveries.

Physics, astronomy, chemistry, biology and their different branches all depend on observations and the process of induction. Using Bernard Lewis's criteria of modernity mentioned at the outset of this paper, i.e. scientific experimentation etc., is quite in keeping with the Qur'anic spirit. In some chapters of the Qur'an crucial questions have been raised about this universe and the faithfuls have been encouraged to observe the animals, plants, moon, sun, stars and other heavenly bodies


For example see verses like: 2:164; 3:190; 10:6; 30:22; 35:27; 2:22; 25:49; 80:25; 86:6 etc. It is true the language of these verses is theological and naturally so. The Qur'an, after all, is the book of religious guidance. It is not fundamentally a book of science. But the point which is being made here is that it is not against scientific observations and experimentations; on the other hand it encourages it. And in the verse 3:190, it encourages people to reflect on the creation of God. And it is only through this reflection and study that they can conclude that nothing has been created in vain; everything has been created with a purpose.

Scientific developments in the early history of Islam

No wonder then, that, we see a spurt of scientific activities in the early period of Islam. The Abbasid empire in its early period gave full impetus to flowering of knowledge, particularly secular knowledge. A house of wisdom Bait al-Hikmah was established in Baghdad. This institution became a centre of learning in philosophy and various natural sciences.

The Greek works of Plato, Aristotle and other great thinkers, scientists, philosophers, mathematicians, astronomers and others were translated into Arabic and it was through Arabs that this knowledge reached Europe. The noted historian H.G.Wells calls the Arabs the ‘foster fathers of knowledge'. The medieval universities of Europe taught the works of Arab philosophers like Avicena (Ibn Sina), Averros (Ibn Rushd) and others who borrowed much from Greek thought and also enriched it through their own creative and critical thinking.

The M'utazelites were rationalists of Islam and in a political fight between the Umayyads and the Abbasids, they sided with the Abbasids. When the Abbasids came to power they gave important positions in administration to M'utazelites. Since the M'utazelites were rationalists, they started the controversy about the Qur'an's creation. They maintained that the holy Book is a created one and not co-eternal with God. The orthodox Muslims argued, on the other hand, that it is not created but co-eternal with God. The M'utazelites thought that since it is God's speech, it cannot be eternal. Only God is eternal, not His speech.

The M'utazelites were widely known as a party of tawhid and 'adl (i.e. Unity of Godhood and justice). They believed in rational interpretation of the Word of God. They also believed that a human being is a free agent as against the Jabriyas (i.e. determinists) who thought a human person is not a free agent. It is interesting to note that this debate between the Jabriyas and Qadriyas (i.e. those who believed a human person is not a free agent and those who believed he/she is) was not merely a philosophical debate but basically a political debate.

Oppressive regime of Umayyads

Those who opposed freedom of human agent were supporters of highly exploitative and oppressive regime of the Umayyads and those who upheld human freedom were supporters of those who opposed Umayyads. Hasan al-Basri, a great Islamic savant and a Sufi saint of great eminence, supported the cause of human freedom as he was opposed to the Umayyad regime. He cited a letter of Imam Hasan, the grandson of the holy Prophet in support of his position.

The M'utazelites, as pointed out above, were also opposed to the Umayyads and supported the Abbasid's struggle against them and hence they also supported those who upheld human person to be a free agent. Both the parties quoted the relevant Qur'anic verses in their support. The political nature of the debate can be understood from the position some of the Jabriyas took. They maintained that since everything happens as per the will of God, oppression and exploitation too, is in keeping with His Will and hence one cannot question it.

They thus concluded that even if the Umayyads are tyrants and oppressors, their actions are determined by God and hence we should accept them as they are, and not try to overthrow them. The Qadriyas on the other hand dismissed this argument.

M'utazelites, the rationalists of Islam, sided with the Abbasids in their struggle and fully supported the point of view of human freedom. Later on, this debate became purely philosophical after the political controversy was over. In fact it is rationalists in Islam i.e. M'utazelites who persecuted their detractors. The Orthodox Imams who rejected the M'utazelite contention that the Qur'an is created by God and not co-eternal with Him, were flogged publicly and jailed. However, later on, when the Abbasid regime began to decline, al-Mutawakkil became Caliph and began to support the orthodox position and then the rationalists came to be on the receiving end.

Bernard Lewis maintains in his essay in Foreign Affairs (1997) that one which is dominant and in power represents modernity. Thus he says, “In every era of human history, modernity, or some equivalent term, has meant the ways, norms and standards of the dominant and expanding civilization. Every dominant civilisation has its own modernity in its prime...over a wide area and radiated (its) influence over a much broader one still, far beyond (its) imperial frontiers.”

Thus from what Bernard defines, and what Prof.Toynbee calls Abbasid state as the Universal State of Islam, it (the Abbasid state) had all the elements of modernity. Though the Abbasid state declined and its caliphs adopted Islamic orthodoxy as their creed, its influence extended far beyond its imperial frontiers and far beyond its being in political power.

The great philosophers of Islam like al-Farabi, Averros and Avicina rose to the height of their fame after the Abbasid power began to decline. Of course, the encyclopedic work like Ikhwanus Safa (The Brethren of Purity) was written and compiled during the heydays of the Abbasids. There is a great deal of controversy as to who compiled the work which could be described as most modern of its time for its liberalism, openness and sweep. The Isma'ilis claim that the work was compiled by their Imam Husain al-Mastur to effectively reply to the Abbasids through their own weapon.

However, others feel that there was a society in Basra which met secretly and discussed the most burning religious and philosophical questions of the time and written records of these were maintained and these records were later on compiled under the title Ikhwanus Safa. Whatever the truth, the fact is that this encyclopedic work was very comprehensive and it runs into 52 volumes, each volume devoted to some subject or the other. It adopted the then most modern approach to the problems and discussed everything in the light of reason and proved their contentions, even of faith, by use of intellect and not blind belief.

It will be interesting to quote here from some philosophical and theological works to show how philosophical and theological controversies were debated in the light of reason. Even most orthodox theological propositions were examined in the light of reason. I quote passages from Al-Ghazali's Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (i.e. That Which Delivers from Error) to show the nature of debates. It should be borne in mind that al-Ghazali was an orthodox theologian and opposed to philosophical reasoning.

He wrote a book Tahafut al-Falasifa (i.e. Bewilderment of Philosophers). Ibn Rushd, a great philosopher and the contemporary of Ghazali replied by writing Tahafut, Tahafut al-Falasifa (i.e. Stupefication of the Bewilderment of Philosophers).

Thus al-Ghazali says in one of his passages in his Munqidh min al-Dalal: “In this and similar cases of sense-perception the sense as judge forms his judgments, but another judge, the intellect, shows him repeatedly to be wrong; and charge of falsity cannot be rebutted.

“To this I said: ‘My reliance on sense-perception also has been destroyed. Perhaps only those intellectual truths which are first principles (or derived from first principles) are to be relied upon, such as the assertion that ten are more than three, that the same thing cannot be both affirmed and denied at one time, that one thing is not both generated in time and eternal, nor both existent and non-existent, nor both necessary and imposs