Rethinking Modernity in the Islamic World

October 27, 2008

For many years, scholars have viewed modernity as a category exclusive to the Western world while non-Western states ostensibly remain in a near inert, pre-modern stage of political, social, and economic development. These traditional academics contend that in recognizing their backwards state, non-Western states engage in a continuous process of borrowing “modern” concepts and ways of life from the West, since modernity originated in the West, in an effort to bridge the divide between modernity and pre-modernity. Well established academics of the Islamic world, such as James Gelvin, have contributed to the prevalence of the traditionalist discourse, asserting that the Islamic world continuously looked westward, borrowing “modern” ideas in an attempt to bridge its various disparities with Europe and stave off Western domination. In his examination of the region in The Modern Middle East: A History, Gelvin labels the western orientation “defensive developmentalism.”[1]

In A Modern History of the Islamic World, however, Reinhardt Schulze departs from the mainstream perspective and analyzes the political discourse surrounding the social, political, and economic changes in the 20th Century Islamic world without resorting to the archaic and Orientalist notion of modernity. Instead, Schulze founds his argument upon a belief of a universal modernity defined as “universal time”. To put it more precisely, his modernity occurs in global simultaneity, irregardless of socio-political and geographic location.[2] Modernity is a set of conditions to which nations, as a collective, must respond; thus, no nation or region maintains a monopoly over modernity. For example, the prevalence of ideas such as nationalism, constitutionalism, and civil law in the Islamic world’s political discourse in the early 20th century does not, Schulze suggests, indicate an acceptance of “Western” concepts as there is nothing inherently “Western” about them. These concepts could have equally originated elsewhere. Further contributing to the common miscategorization of the non-Western world, and the Islamic world in particular, as pre-modern is the West’s inability to correctly translate the Islamic world’s approach to modernity, which has been often shrouded in an Islamic discourse. When the Western conception of modernity has been defined to a significant extent by secularism in social and political affairs, a reliance on religious, and in this case a specifically Islamic, justification for contemporary responses to modernity become difficult for western observers to comprehend as modern. This lack of cross-cultural synchronicity, and the shortcomings of Gelvin’s approach, becomes apparent when examining primary sources from nationalist thinkers from the Islamic word.

During the Islamic world’s nationalist era, Schulze identifies competing discourses of nationalism, the most popular of those providing reasoning for nationalist and constitutionalist movements through a return to the organic values of Islam. Typifying these ideas were the Salafists, who believed that deviations were the result of the fracturing of Islamic theology resulting from the end of the reign of the rightly guided caliphs. For instance, Muhammad ‘Abduh, an Egyptian proponent of modernist Islam, contends the uniqueness of Islam rests in the Qur’an’s promotion of rational judgment, but the variety of interpretations of the Holy Book since the death of ‘Uthman have been diluted by other philosophies, which lack the rationality Islam provides.[3] He writes, “A glimmer of Islam, it is said, illuminated the west, but its full light is in the east. Yet precisely there its own people lie in the deepest glom [sic] and cannot see.”[4] In his argument, ‘Abduh implies that a unification of Islamic world behind a purified conception of the faith would allow it to respond “rationally” to the challenges posed by modernity. The argument complements his essay on the change of laws in the Islamic world from arbitrary law to of civil law, which purportedly occurs only when polities gain a capacity to challenge habits that are anachronistic within the prevailing zeitgeist. It is safe to assume that ‘Abduh perceives Islam as central to the transformation of his society.[5] It is important to note that references to western ideas and values are absent from his work, which directly contribute to a refutation of Gelvin’s assertion regarding “defensive developmentalism” as the driving force of the modern Middle East, which of course includes the nationalist era.[6] Moreover, Gelvin’s sweeping categorization of the nationalists under the rubric of “defensive developmentalism” homogenizes what was, as Schulze recognizes, a plurality of movements espousing complex and varying nationalist programs.

Abduh’s mutually influential contemporary ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, a Syrian born journalist, found an outlet for his disdain for the adulterated state of the Islamic world in a fictional account of meetings in Mecca. He too identifies a “stagnation” resulting from theological, political, and moral divisions in the Muslim civilization that must be remedied through pan-Arabism and a return to Arab-centric interpretations of the faith. Notably, al-Kawakibi, like Abduh and, as I will mention momentarily, Na’ini, advocates the implementation of civil law and accountable rulers.[7] To make this example concise, Al-Kawakibi provides another instance where Gelvin’s argument falls short. The diffusion of interpretations of Islam, according to Al-Kawakibi, was identified as the central reason for the “stagnation” of the Muslim world. The inculcation of a purified Islam among the masses was again seen as the sole way in which the Islamic could be institutionally modern.

The Iranian religious scholar Muhammad Husayn Na’ini also advocated a return to Islamic scholarship, yet while ‘Abduh and al-Kawakibi explicated their belief that a return to the fundamentals of Islam would guide the path towards confronting general issues of modernity and promote pan-Arabic or pan-national Islamic unity, Na’ini utilized Islamic theology to directly influence Iran’s 1906 constitutional revolution. In his political tract, Na’ini argues in favor of constitutionalism insisting that absolute power, as a tyrant on Earth possesses, belongs solely to God; thus, for a man to wield such power is an “affront to the Creator and His creation.”[8] Furthermore, he attributes the weakness of Islamic society in the modern world to tyrannical – or “possessive”, as he labels it – rule. The absolute and arbitrary rule of the tyrant is juxtaposed against a government in which a ruler is restricted by the citizens’ participation in the decision-making processes of government – ensuring that citizens’ rights are not violated by the ruler.[9] Na’ini frequently borrows from the Qu’ran and the hadith to bolster the Islamic foundation of his denunciation of tyrannical rule and oppression, appropriating verses referencing the Pharaoh and the Israelites. “So let the Israelites come with us and do not oppress them,”[10] he recites while placing it within the modern context. To end the scourge of absolutism, Na’ini writes, the people must recognize its un-Islamic quality and enter into a cooperative pact with the government protected by a constitution. Again, he quotes the Holy Book: “Verily, God does not change the state of a people til they change themselves.”[11]

For these three reformists, the first step towards achieving a common good, which they identify as the construction of legal-governmental orders that are responsive to the demands imposed by modernity, is a realization by the masses of historically-located deviation from the fundamentals of Islam. To be modern, in their sense, is to possess a government justifiable under traditional Islamic teachings. If a common good is central to the modern nationalist movements as Schulze contends, [12] the reasons for dissynchronicity between Western and non-Western understandings of modernity is elucidated. The utilization of an Islamic discourse for the purposes of promoting the ideas embodied in the nationalist fervor of the early to mid 20th century does not, as the West has assumed, indicate that the Islamic world is anti-secular and pre-modern. Instead, the return to Islam was the catalyst for the region’s drive to modernity and the foundation of nationalisms.

When examining primary sources emanating from the Islamic world’s nationalist era, Schulze’s nuanced argument ultimately prevails over that of Gelvin. By recognizing the importance of reintegrating the notion of “universal time” in the historiography of the modern Islamic world, Schulze has accurately represented the internal dynamics of that civilization and produced universal intelligibility concerning the modern Islam world.


[1] James Gelvin, The Modern Middle East: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 74.

[2] Reinhardt Schulze, A Modern History of the Islamic World (New York: New York University Press, 2002) 3.

[3] Muhammad ‘Abduh, “Laws Should Change in Accordance with the Conditions of Nations and The Theology of Unity,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 58.

[4] Ibid, 60.

[5] Ibid, 54.

[6] Gelvin, 203.

[7] Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, “Summary of the Causes of Stagnation,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 153.

[8] Muhammad Husayn Na’ini, “Government in the Islamic Perspective,” in Modernist Islam, 1840-1940: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 117.

[9] Ibid, 119.

[10] Ibid, 123.

[11] Ibid, 121.

[12] Gelvin, 198.

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