Is it Possible to Reconcile Islam and Modernity?



The question which I have posed about the possibility of reconciling Islam and modernity is a very complicated puzzle not only in terms of the massive discourse around it but also how both Islam and modernity as a social category is lived and then experienced in different settings. However, Islam’s particular inimical response to modernity has to be understood in a more focused manner by looking at modernity as a process of scientific rationality that is either irreconcilable or reconcilable with Islam both textual and lived. There is a need to problematize the conventional binary of Islam and modernity by navigating the South Asian responses to modernity and by a constant revision and restructuring of textual Islam. I would apply Paul Ricoeur’s ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’ to reach meta-critical speculations. A basic tension between modernity and Islam arises, when philosophically modernity privileges reason as the main source of knowledge and the source of law and ethics in human beings, while Islam relies on revelation as the primary source of knowledge and on God as the source of law and ethics (Hunter, 2009). Despite the conflict, Islamic modernists like Muhammad Iqbal, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Jamal ud-din Afghani and Fazlur Rehman, among others, have tried to free modernity from the dominance of the West and rethink what constitutes the modern, thereby inducing a call to think about Islam as the most modern religion that accords a lot of primacy to human reason. In other words, how Islam fits compatibly with modernity. However, Islamic modernists have discounted a substantive portion of Islamic commandments.

Understanding Islamic response to modernity

There is certainly an invitation from Islamic modernists to think about multiple modernities based on diverging spatio-temporal dimensions. While addressing the question of Islam and modernity, the famous cleric of Pakistan, Mufti Taqi Usmani, argues that Islam has not objected to modernity but encouraged it. He refers to a particular Islamic event where, Salman Farsi, the companion of Prophet Muhammad, suggested a new technique for the defense of their army by digging a trench around the city, which was hailed by the prophet himself (Usmani, 2005). Thus, Usmani claims that the nature of modernity becomes contextual based on different socio-cultural settings. While debating this question, Fazlur Rehman’s book Islam and Modernity states that Islamic modernism could afford to be partial and unsystematic and could even afford to be slow because at the theoretical level it was mostly a “defense of Islam” and hence chose to respond to those problems that the western critics had raised. At the practical level, the urgency for a speedy and systematic reform was often difficult to feel owing to the absence of ultimate and concrete responsibilities for problem solving.

Nonetheless, the process of modernization has not influenced all societies at the same time       and there is a simultaneity of both pre-modern and modern in the contemporary time. Here Habermasian Modernity as an unfinished project remains relevant in most modern societies. However, Shireen P. Hunter, an expert on Islam and Modernity, has argued about three distinctive differentiations in terms of foundational principles of modernity and their relations to religion:

  • The most important characteristic that distinguishes modernity is the emphasis on reason and rational thought as the means to knowledge rather than revelation. The importance is given to what is rational and tangible, instead of what remains unseen.
  • Secondly, a greater emphasis on the here and now, or in a sense this world rather than the hereafter. This is why the birth of the modern is dated to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and the ensuing scientific and industrial revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Europe, the birth of the modern was accompanied by a gradual, but steady, erosion of the role of religion in social and political life. This was quite natural because the rationalist thinkers were to varying degrees reacting to the abuses of the established churches due to which French Enlightenment was sharply defined as being against religion. A Weberian perspective terms this process of the reduction of religion’s sociopolitical role as “Secularization”, which is considered a major distinguishing characteristic of modern societies. According to Max Weber, societies become modern as they become “disenchanted,” or when rational thought replaces religion as the guiding principle of social life (Hunter, 2009).
  • The third principle of modernity is its emphasis on the people as the source of political legitimacy rather than a divine or divinely ordained source such as the church or the king. Similarly, modernity posits the source of individual rights in nature rather than God. Furthermore, modern society is a rights-based society whereas a religious society is essentially based on duties and the rights are an outcome of duties. For example, the right to life is an outcome of the injunction, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, or the right to property results from the injunction, ‘Thou shalt not steal’, etc. (Hunter, 2009).

Hunter maintains that there is a possible space to reconcile Islam and modernity, only if modernity is not viewed as inherently anti-Islamic. In the journal, Tahzib ul-Akhlaq, Sir Syed redefined Islam in the face of colonial modernity thus:

By the ancient period [zamana-e qadim] we would like to mean our history [zamana e ma] before the Prophet’s advent. But since Muslims very quickly returned to that period and closed their eyes to the light of modern times [zamana-e jadid], we were forced to extend the ancient period into the thirteenth-hundredth year of the Prophet’s advent.

This understanding of Sir Syed may be taken as an example of what came to be the standard account of Islam’s modernity, one whose apologetic reasoning is endlessly repeated to this day. It claims that modernity, defined in the usual loose terms as rationality, science and the like, emerged with Islam, was forgotten, and must now be rediscovered in Europe. This reasoning is apologetic because its concept of modernity is taken from European thought in a partial or unsystematic manner and read back to early Islam. But such anachronistic forms of justification, resulting entirely from the political weakness of a colonized population, also betray unsuspected depths, making for a novel history of the modern in Muslim India (Devji, 2005). It also states that while modernity emerged with Islam, it was forgotten because Muslims retreated to the traditional world, only to rediscover this modernity in nineteenth-century Europe. What strikes one immediately is the fact that Sir Syed’s history of Islam contains not one but two accounts of the beginning of modernity. What is more, in the first one – the rise of Islam – tradition follows modernity rather than the other way around. With its second coming – the rise of Europe – modernity certainly follows tradition, but in a curious way, since the latter becomes something deprived of any real presence. Sandwiched between two moments of modernity, tradition suggests only the inability of the modern to constitute a real universality, or rather a systematic totality binding together both Europe and Asia in a single unity – exactly the system of relations between conquerors and conquered that Muslim modernists could not achieve politically, and which was therefore shattered into oppositions like East and West, Islam and Christianity. Hence, Modernity and Islam are coeval (Devji, 2005).

The question of reason or “aqal” remained central to redefining Islam and modernity and, for someone like Sir Syed, reason had a pivotal role in his philosophy and methodology and bringing the rationalist mindset was partly due to his interest in Mu‘tazili thought. He maintained that if there was an apparent contradiction between a scientific fact and a religious rule, then the latter had to be reinterpreted according to scientific evidence.

A Constant Quest for the Alternate Modernity: Perspectives of South Asian Islamic Modernists

My focus would remain mainly on Sir Syed, Allama Iqbal and Fazlur Rehman and the way they redefined Islam in response to modernity. Sir Syed, whose family had lost its privileged position following the demise of the Mughal Empire, had been greatly impressed by the Europeans’ scientific, technological, economic, and educational achievements and their military and political successes. He wanted to show that Islam is compatible with scientific inquiry and hence capable of progress attained by Europe. He also correctly concluded that, without mastering modern sciences, Muslims would suffer further degradation (Hassan, 2008). However, from a purely conservative Islamic perspective, Sir Syed denied, for example, the validity of miracles by rejecting their very possibility in the interests of safeguarding the sanctity of natural law. Applying his naturalistic rationalism in his exegesis of the Qur’an, Sir Syed arrived at fifty-two points of divergence from traditionally accepted Sunni Islam. The scientific teachings of Sir Syed met with a much more disastrous fate and his efforts to introduce modern western lay education achieved a remarkable measure of success but the content of his religious thought was generally rejected in toto (Rehman, 1966). In keeping with his rationalist mindset, Sir Syed      stressed the importance of ijtihad and a rational interpretation of the sources of Islamic religious thought. He considered this necessary because he believed that unless Islam was presented in a rational way it would not be understood or accepted by modern Muslims. He also stressed the importance of relying on the Qur’an and sifting the false hadith from the reliable ones. He tried to remove “the corrosive elements” and accretions that he believed were seriously detrimental to Islam in his day. Sir Syed believed in the compatibility of religion and science, and he considered natural law and divine law to be the same, because he believed that there could not be disagreement between the word and the work of God. Applying his naturalistic rationalism in his exegesis of the Qur’an, Sir Syed arrived at fifty-two points of divergence from traditionally accepted Sunni Islam. On the basis of his research, Sir Syed came to the conclusion that “if we keep in view the principles deducible from the Qur’an itself, we shall find that there is no contradiction between the modern sciences, on the one hand, and the Qur’an and Islam, on the other.” He considered it absurd to believe that God’s prophets appeared only in Arabia and Palestine and that other peoples were denied knowledge of the divine.

Similarly, Fazlur Rahman argues that the story of the Prophet’s Ascension (miraj) is an example of such superstition which finds little support in the Quran, which in several places speaks of certain expansive experiences of the Prophet wherein his religious personality broke the normal limits and became identified with the entire expanse of reality. But the Quran not only does not speak of a physical ascension of the Prophet but even describes it as an “act of the heart” and, in two places, far from speaking of the Prophet as ascending, it speaks of God as descending to him. It seems, however, that when Muslims confronted Christians outside the Arabian Peninsula and particularly in Iraq, they were forced to interpret this experience as that of an ascension in answer to the Christian dogma of the Assumption of Jesus (Rahman, 1966). He looked at Islam very critically in response to modernity and urged for a change in the fundamental premises within Islam. While emphasizing the importance of “context” in understanding the real intent of the Qur’an and even hadith, Rahman observed that the Prophet’s biographers, the collectors of the hadith (Imam Bukhari and Imam Muslim) and those who wrote commentaries on the Qur’an (Imam Tabari, Imam Ibn Katheer, Abbas) would not have preserved “the general social-historical background of the Qur’an and the Prophet’s activity and, in particular, the background (shu’un al-nuzul) of the particular passages, if they had not strongly believed that this background was necessary for understanding the Qur’an” (Rahman, 1982). Therefore, Rahman proposed a contextualist perspective as a process of interpretation that consists of “a double movement” from the present times to Quranic times, then back to the present situation: (a) Understanding the meaning of the Qur’an as a whole as well as in terms of the specific tenets that constitute specific responses to specific situations and generalizing those specific answers and enunciating them as statements of general moral-social objectives that can be “distilled” from specific texts in light of the socio-historical background; (b) The second movement takes one from the general principles of the Qur’an to the specific concrete socio-historical context in which the former have to be applied. He believed that if the two movements are achieved successfully, “the Qur’an’s imperatives will become alive and effective once again.” Rahman characterized the intellectual element in both movements as ijtihad.

In “The Impact of Modernity of Islam”, Rahman (1976) writes:

As I feared, the most crucial issue for controversy was about the nature of the Qur’an as Revealed Book. I defended the idea of the verbal revelation of the Qur’an, which is the universal Islamic belief. However, it seemed to me that the standard orthodox accounts of revelation give a mechanical and externalistic picture of the relationship between Muhammad and the Qur’an—Gabriel coming and delivering God’s messages to him almost like a postman delivering letters. The Qur’an itself says that the Angel “comes down to the heart of Muhammad.” I stated that the Qur’an is entirely the Word of God insofar as it is infallible and absolutely free from falsehood, but, insofar as it comes to the Prophet’s heart and then at his tongue, it was entirely his word.

This view of Rahman is highly criticized and labeled as a Murtad; he was excommunicated from       Islam and forced to leave the country due to the basic discounts in redefining Islam in reference to modernity. The Urdu translation of his view of revelation made it appear as if he was stating that the Qur’an was the collaborative work of God and Muhammad (Hassan, 2009).

However, Iqbal took a more critical approach to Western ideas and institutions than did Sir Syed.      Iqbal did not reject positive aspects of Western civilization, but he did not support their blind emulation by Muslims. Instead, he wanted to create a new intellectual framework for a more authentic Islamic modernity and searched for ways to regenerate Muslims and their civilization on the basis of their own religious and cultural heritage. Iqbal’s reconstruction of religious thought in Islam was part of the ongoing narrative of redefining Islam in response to colonial modernity and reconsider the intellectual foundations of Islam and their universal religious significance. Iqbal certainly de-temporalizes the history of thought in order to put thinkers of different traditions in dialogue with each other and presenting them as contemporaries. Therefore, Iqbal worked to meet the demand for a scientific form of religious knowledge and to reconstruct Muslim religious philosophy with due regard to the philosophical traditions of Islam and the most recent developments of human knowledge. Iqbal’s reconstructing Islam along the Occidental line of thought has negotiated a lot with the majority of Islamic methodology. Iqbal had a great desire to reinterpret Islam which is reflected when he says, “The claim of the present generation of Muslim liberals to reinterpret the foundational legal principles, in the light of their own experience and the altered condition of modern life is in my opinion perfectly justified” (Reconstruction, 134). Iqbal refers to ijtihad which “literally means to exert” as “the principle of movement in the structure of Islam” seeking “the re-valuation and recodification of the Islamic Fiqh” (Reconstruction, 149). He stressed the critical need for ijtihad by contemporary Muslims. Iqbal pointed out that the Muslim ulema wanted to exclude innovations in classical Islamic law in order to have a uniform social life, forgetting that in an over-organized society, individuals, on whom the fate of the community ultimately rests, are altogether crushed.

Concluding Reflections

Islam is not inherently anti-democratic or anti-secular and therefore not in hostility with modernity. But the way the epistemology of Islam is stretched and defined and redefined in the presence of modernity depicts the possibility of solving the puzzle of reconciling Islam and modernity. There are many Islamic reformers and modernists who have advocated a sense of “alternate modernity” in redefining Islam in the face of modernity in South Asia. But again for somebody like Zizek alternate modernity is problematic because in Nazi Germany alternate modernity became barbaric fascism, where technological enhancement was elevated but anti-semitism became predominant. The question is: how can that modernity survive which departs from the conventional roots of modernity itself? Sir Syed, Iqbal and many Islamic modernists primarily tried to create a sense of multiple modernity and share some salient characteristics. First, they all have struggled with issues of power and powerlessness, identity and assimilation, and modernity and traditionalism. Second, they have been determined to stimulate new thinking on contemporary issues and to demonstrate that Islam is a dynamic religion that calls for continuing intellectual review of both “normative” and “historical” Islam, in order to construct modern, enlightened, just, forward-looking, and life affirming Muslim societies. Nevertheless, these thinkers faced a lot of criticism from the conservative ulema, who considered some of them      deviants.


Devji, F. (2007). Apologetic ModernityModern Intellectual History. 4(1):61-76.

Hunter, S. T. (2009). Can Islam and Modernity be Reconciled? Insight Turkey, 11(3), 1–12.

Iqbal, M., & In Sheikh, M.S. (2013). The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2013.

Maskovi, A. A.(1890). Tehzeeb ul Akhlaq. Fazal ul Din Tajar Kutab.

Rahman, F. (2017). Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rahman, F. (1966). The Impact of Modernity of Islam. Islamic Studies, 5(2), 113–128.

Usmani, T. (2008). Islam and Modernism. Adam Publishers & Distributors.

Weber, M. (1969). The Sociology of Religion. 5th ed. Boston: Beacon Press, pp. 263-65.

Moosa Khan is pursuing a Master’s in Sociology from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Ethnicity and Minority, Political Anthropology, Religion and Politics, Indian Political Thought, Sociology, Urban Studies and Gender Sensitization. Besides, he is pursuing a second Master’s in Philosophy with explicit focus on continental line of thought.


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