Debating Civilization and Modernization vis-à-vis Muslim World in 21st Century

Debating Civilization and Modernization vis-à-vis Muslim World in 21st Century
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By Dr Tauseef Ahmad Parray

Islam is a religion that has been discussed and debated, throughout history, from numerous perspectives, including social, political, civilization and so on. Such debates indeed increased in the 19th and 20th centuries, when Muslim world was gripped in the issues of Modernity and Modernization. Such issues/ debates have highly intensified in the post-9/11 era, and have been continuously debated from then with more rigor, force, and intensity. One such critical and crucial debate that has seen an increased acceleration is the debate revolving around the themes of Modernization, Globalization, and Civilization.
It is also true that ‘civilization’ plays a significant role in today’s world; however it is a term that has been discussed and debated through the ages, including the present times. And, being used in a broad context, different levels and contexts—from historical, cultural, and political—the term civilization is, among others, used to describe ‘the entirety of collective human values’; ‘consequential behavior against barbarism’ (or simply ‘the idea of being civilized’); as a ‘vision of existence and order’; and above all, the concept of civilization is viewed as ‘being an abstraction of modernity and secularism’. Moreover, in the social sciences, ‘civilization’ is one of the most oft-debated concepts, which is framed by the Western assumptions and concerns largely; though there are non-Western perspectives (including Muslims) on it as well.
A latest addition to this multi-faceted debate on Civilization and Modernization vis-à-vis Muslim World is Lutfi Sunar’s Debates on Civilization in the Muslim World: Critical Perspectives on Islam and Modernity (2017). Edited by Lutfi Sunar, a Turkish sociologist, who teaches at Istanbul University, Turkey—this volume is an attempt in same direction: in this volume the contributors, who are predominantly young Muslim scholars, evaluate Muslim views in the concept of civilization by challenging the “embedded prejudices within the social theory” and offer “alternative viewpoints” on this issue (p. vii). To achieve this aim, the work (consisting of 14 chapters and a brief Preface and a long Introduction of 25 pages) is divided into three main parts: Part 1, ‘Defining and Discussing Civilization’, consists of three chapters (1-3, contributed respectively by Anthony Pagden, Lutfi Sunar, and Mustafa Demirici).

Editor: Lutfi Sunar
Title: Debates on Civilization in the Muslim World: Critical Perspectives on Islam and Modernity
Publisher: New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2017
Pages: 444; ISBN: 9780199466887; Price: 1195/-

These chapters collectively review, analyze, and discuss definitions of civilization and modernity, and the “Eurocentric” understanding of these issues. Part 2, ‘Debates on the Civilization in the Contemporary Muslim World’ (consisting of 7 chapters, 4-10), examines non-Western civilizations’ efforts of resistance against assimilation of Western perspectives and dominance. These chapters are contributed, respectively by, Vahdettin Isik, Cemil Aydin, Necmettin Dogan, Halil Ibrahim Yenigun, Seyed Javad Miri, Mahmud Hakki Akin, and Driss Habti. Part 3 focuses, and discusses in a broader context, ‘Modernization, Globalization, and the Future of Civilization Debate’ (chapters 11-14). These are contributed by Syed Farid Alatas, Yunus Kaya, Murat Cemrek, and Khosrow Bagheri Noaparast, respectively. The overall theme and objective of this volume is “to expose complex issues for further discussion pertaining to modernization, globalization, (de) colonization, and multiculturalism” (p. vii). Here is provided a brief assessment of some major arguments put forth in some of its chapters.
For instance, in chapter 3, “The Question of Ages in Islamic Civilization” (pp. 79-114), Mustafa Demirici (Professor of History, Selcuk University, Turkey) states that each and every civilization has its own phases of development, historical periods, different rhythms, and types “depending on their internal dynamics and the interactions they have faced” (p. 85). Thus, Demirici realizes and proposes “the need for a special periodization of the history and civilization of Islam” (p. 85). The four (4) phases of Islamic history (pp. 92-111) proposed by him are: “The Age of Conquests and Formation (610-750 [CE])”; “The Classical Age of Islam (750-1258 [CE])”; “The Zenith of the Material Power of Islam and the Age of Empires (1258-1800 [CE]”; and “Colonization by the West and the Age of Depression (1800-…[CE])”. He proposes this periodization and “holistic perspective” of Islamic history “not only on the basis of political developments, but also takes cultural, intellectual, and social factors into consideration” (p. 112).
In chapter 4, “The Vision of Order and Al-‘Umran as an Explanatory Concept in the Debates on Civilization” (pp. 119-143), Vahdettin Isik (Secretary General, Fatih Sultan Mehmet Waqf University) contributes to the critique of the modern understanding of civilization by showing the possibility of an alternative non-reductive system of thought, with the support from Ibn Khaldun’s Muqadimmah, and his concept of ‘umran as a ‘social system’, to understand the concept of ‘civilization’. The main goal of Isik is “to demonstrate the possibility of the existence of a social system other than the one that imposes a singular way of life defined by the modern West” (p. 119). He thus emphasizes that unlike ‘umran the concept of civilization has been “immersed in discussions of progress and modernization”; and thus concludes, among others, that “social life is a phenomenon which is constructed through the human agency and which can manifest itself in different forms under different circumstances” (p. 140).
In chapter 7, “The Rise and Demise of Civilizational Thinking in Contemporary Muslim Political Thought” (pp. 195-225), Halil Ibrahim Yenigun (Fellow of Europe in Middle East—Middle East in Europe [EUME], Berlin) begins by the argument that very few “modern political concepts have gained such a degree of near-consensus among Muslim political thinkers as has civilization”; and puts forth the view that Muslim thinkers’ (ranging from fundamentalists to liberals) attitude towards this concept—which is also a borrowed term like the concepts of nation, democracy, liberty, etc.—has remained ‘unique’ for having not fluctuated (pp. 195, 196). He thus attempts to “trace civilization’s trajectory throughout the cotemporary era, beginning with Rifa’a Rafi’ al-Tahtawi (1801-1873) up to and including Hamid Dabashi” by using ‘comparative political theory (CPT)’. He centers on the “rise and demise of this concept” with a much focus on this concept’s “descriptive and normative value” (pp. 196-7). He maintains that “the term civilization has possessed a primarily rhetorical value” and has functioned as a tool “to perpetuate colonial domination” (p. 197). Focusing much on the thought of al-Tahtawi, al-Afghani, Sayyid Qutb, Ali Shariati, Ismet Ozel, and Hamid Dabashi, he reaches the conclusion that “‘Islamic Civilization’ itself seems to be nothing more than a defensive discourse constructed by Muslim apologists to counteract the project of the ‘West’, which constructed ‘the Orient’ to serve as its distinct and inferior ‘other’” (p. 218).
In chapter 12, “Civilizations in an Era of Globalization” (pp. 350-369), Yunus Kaya (Associate Professor of Political Science and IR, Istanbul University) focuses on bridging the gaps between the debates on Civilization and Globalization, which have come to the forefront through Samuel Huntington’s 1996 seminal work ‘Clash of Civilizations’ (1996) and ‘the period following the collapse of the communist bloc’ respectively. It also discusses the “impact of the globalization on cultures and identities around the world” (p. 351).
Besides these, the remaining chapters also provide fruitful discussions on various aspects of the debating on Civilization and Modernization vis-à-vis Muslim World. However, due to space constrains they are left unstated and unexpressed here.
In sum, keeping in view the coverage and diversity of the topics covered, Lutfi Sunar’s edited volume, ‘Debates on Civilization in the Muslim World’ is a significant contribution on evaluating the views of young Muslim scholars’ on the concept of civilization imp Islam/ Muslim world and its relation with modernization, globalization, and other inter-related issues. It indeed has lived to, and has fairly substantiated, its claim/ objective that the volume tries to ‘expose complex issues’ pertaining to ‘modernization, globalization, (de) colonization, and multiculturalism’ vis-à-vis Islam and Muslim World.

—The author is an Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies, at GDC Pulwama, Kashmir. He can be reached at:


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