Why Muslims reject modernity

What Muslims are in fact rejecting is the process of suiting themselves to changing circumstances.

Khaled Ahmed August 14, 2010

It is often said that Muslims in the 21st century have rejected modernity. What they are in fact rejecting is the process of suiting themselves to changing circumstances. There are two kinds of thinking: one that seeks to change in order to relate to times and one that seeks to change the world to suit its tenets. There are two ways principles can be formulated. One is to establish them on the basis of facts; the other, on the basis of doctrine. The latter necessitates coercion.

In the 20th century Muslims embraced modernity by accepting the nation-state. In the 21st century they are rejecting the nation-state through a free-wheeling jihad. (Read Ayman Al Zawahiri’s 65-page rejectionist treatise on the Constitution of Pakistan: The Morning and the Lamp.) Their laws increasingly reflect this rejection. The ‘rational’ is being replaced by the ‘doctrinal’. And the popular furore against this or that foe is propelled by the urge to change the world to suit it to doctrine.

A very interesting book Muslim Modernities: Expressions of the Civil Imagination, Edited by Amyn B Sajoo, (IB Tauris 2008), discusses the Muslim attitude towards modernity. Each Muslim country has rejected modernity by first rejecting some of its thinkers. In the case of Pakistan, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal have had to be rejected to pave the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Modernity in the West is based on an inductive assessment of the world. The book traces this modernity to Max Weber (1864-1920) and his classic book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), providing a rational account of the cultural and social convergences taken to be formative in Western modernity. Later, “rationality” became attached to the idea of secularism or separation of religion from the nation-state.

It is by rejecting this “separation” that the Muslims take their first step towards dismissing modernity from their universe. Since doctrine is impervious to experiment, no amount of evidence against the “religious state” can lead to self-correction. Let us see how we have rejected Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, as pointed out by a Pakistani intellectual, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi. Pakistan as a state has ignored his following insights:

1) Nothing in the Holy Quran can be wrong or incorrect or ahistorical; 2) Nothing in the Quran can be contrary to the laws of nature; 3) There is no such thing as abrogation (naskh), using a later text to trump an earlier one with which it seems to disagree; 4) Bank interest is not the same as “riba”; and 5) Hudood punishments must be reassessed in the light of changing times.

The rejection of Allama Iqbal took place formally during a national seminar presided over by General Ziaul Haq in Karachi on 25 December 1986, the birth anniversary of Jinnah. The topic was ‘What is the Problem Number One of Pakistan?’ Justice Javid Iqbal, then a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, got up during the conference and said that the “hudood” enforced by General Zia had been set aside by Allama Iqbal in his Sixth Lecture.

Needless to say, General Zia announced that he had to ignore Allama Iqbal. Later, the Appellate Shariat Bench of the Supreme Court also rejected his view of bank interest which Iqbal shared with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Javid Iqbal in his latest book Khutbaat-e-Iqbal (Sang-e-Meel 2008) adds more of Iqbal that we have rejected: divorce by wives, contraception, monogamy, shares markets and insurance companies (p.212).

Today, nothing negates modernity more than jihad. It undermines the nation-state, and destroys the state that organises it. The scattering of the Pakistani state is owed to it.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2010.


Hikmatyar Wali | 11 years ago | Reply Khalid: This is a wonderful article, though after going through the comments, it seems to me these two great thinkers could have been done more justice if you had placed their arguments in the context of the causes that they were forwarding at that time. Both Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal believed in a modern re-interpretation of the Islamic sources of law i.e. conceive laws, ways of being, analyzing modern phenomena using Islam as an ethical basis. Insofar as Sir Syed Ahmad Khan is concerned - I think a broader context on the fighting that he was living would be instructive. In my view, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan was proposing the primacy of Quran as the main basis of ethics in Islam, over and above any other modes of instruction that came later (mainly the Ahadith), particularly when there was a contradiction between the two. Further, since the Quran is ahistorical in nature, his was a call for us to take cue from the Quran as we set out to chalk out our way of life within the particular set of conditions that we find today, using it as our ethical guidepost. This is primarily the means through which Quran will always stay relevant for the ages. Khalid, I am glad that you have brought this issue to the fore. I have been thinking about these issues quite a bit lately - we have failed to build upon the ideas of the great thinkers behind the state of Pakistan, and their vision for what the country was meant to be. As a result, today we find ourselves lost insofar as who we are and what we want to be. Iqbal's thoughts on the political philosophy of an Islamic state, Jinnah's views on nationhood and governance, and Sir Syed Ahmad Khan's views on modernity and Islam would be able guide posts for us to find our center, our identity, and a sense of what kind of a country we want to be. The question is ... are we willing to ?
jean | 11 years ago | Reply Mr Khaled Ahmed, You seem to be a senior journalist. Your comparaison between two historical personnes on the issue is a misfit. Allama Muhammad Iqbal and Sir Syed Ahmed Khan were both modernist. But as you know sir Syed Ahmed Khan didn't accept Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s traditions (ahadiths)and interpreted The Qur'an in a so-called rationale way in order to justify indeed explain logically the miracles. That's the point where he erred and made his masters happy over his interpretation. Allama Iqbal, On the other hand, was not a negator of Prophet's traditions. He was a true open minded modernist muslim. Neither Islam nor Iqbal reject modernity: 'A hikmat (wisdom) is a lost object of the muslims'. Islam has always encouraged its followers to ponder(Read surat Al Imran on modernity), Allah Almighty surveiled Noah to construct the arche (boat), encouraged to discover new horizon be that scientific or other. Its the way we interpret, represent indeed practice and label our religion through our acts and deeds. I do not endorse Al Qaeda or Talibanisation, but I do believe in religious identity of a society. Even the west have it. Does your modernity mean gay marriages and preasts' role in it?
Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ


Most Read