Islam and much of the Muslim world are often seen, by its opponents and critics (both Muslims and non-Muslims), as “medieval” for many reasons: cultural (for example, the existence of strong patriarchal societies and the veiling and seclusion of women), political (authoritarianism on the one hand and fundamentalism on the other) and economic (lack of development and failed economies). Yet, in truth, today as in the past Muslims interpret Islam in many different ways. Like their Abrahamic brothers and sisters, Muslims exhibit a wide range of approaches and orientations, ranging from ultraconservative and fundamentalist to progressive or reformist.
The forces of tradition and the authority of the past have been reinforced in Islam by a variety of historic forces and experiences. For four centuries (the seventeenth through the twentieth), much of the Islamic world was dominated by European colonialism. Religions, like countries, under siege tend to focus on survival, preserving and protecting what they have, rather than seeking and accepting change. Thus Islamic calls for reform are often labelled by opponents as simply attempts to “Westernise Islam.”
When conservatives try to preserve Islam, they often do not distinguish between revealed sources of faith and socially conditioned human interpretations historically preserved in manuals of Islamic law and theology. In contrast, reformers stress the difference between divinely mandated beliefs, practices, and laws and human interpretations from the past as they engage in a bold process of reinterpretation and reform that reapplies Islamic guidelines to problems in the modern world.
Amidst these differing religious interpretations and orientations, “change” has occurred and continues to occur in a process that sometimes seems to take two steps forward and one step back. Secular and religious reformers have promoted changes affecting religious understanding and education, family laws (marriage, divorce, and inheritance), broader opportunities for women’s education and employment, democratisation, pluralism, and human rights. On the other hand, more conservative voices among religious leaders as well as some ultraconservative Islamic activists and organisations have often attempted to implement or impose rigid, militant, puritanical, and intolerant beliefs, values, and attitudes.
Moreover, many authoritarian governments (secular and religious) use religion to restrict freedom of thought and expression. They limit or prohibit an independent press, media, political parties, and trade unions in the name of religion.
Muslims today, thus, seem to be at the “critical crossroads.” They are faced with making radical social, political, and economic changes that the Western world has had many decades to implement gradually. Amidst increasing globalisation, Muslims strive to survive and compete, often with limited resources, and to preserve their identity in a world dominated culturally as well as politically and economically by the West. For many, the role of religion is critical in the preservation of their personal and national identities. It provides a sense of continuity between their Islamic heritage and modern life. For some, the temptation is to cling to the authority and security of the past. Others seek to follow new paths, convinced that their faith and a tradition of Islamic reform that has existed throughout the ages can play a critical role in restoring the vitality of Muslim societies.
Incompatibility with modernisation is a misconception
The Muslim world is popularly pictured as lacking development. While some attribute this to Islam, lack of development in the Muslim world, as elsewhere, is in fact primarily due to issues of economy, limited resources, and education rather than religion. In Muslim societies around the world today, it is evident that modernisation is seen as a goal worthy of pursuit and implementation. Travellers are often surprised to see television antennae or satellite dishes even in the remotest villages. The skylines of major cities are ‘business hubs or business corporations’ etc, modern factories, and corporations. People—secular and conservative, fundamentalists and reformers—equally take advantage of modern technology: cell phones, computers, the Internet, fax machine, automobiles, and planes.
The absence of certain technologies such as the Internet in some Muslim countries is not due to resistance from the people but the fears of authoritarian rulers that the Internet will take away their control.
Belief in an inherent conflict between Islam and modernisation has arisen when modernisation is equated with the Westernisation and secularisation of society. One Western expert said that Muslims must choose between Makkah and mechanisation, implying that modernisation necessarily threatened and eroded faith. This attitude reflects a belief that faith and reason, religion and science, are ultimately incompatible. Thus to become modern intellectually, politically, and religiously would mean a loss or watering down of faith, identity, and values.
Secular Muslims and Islamic activists exist side by side in societies and in the professions. Their opposing views regarding the relationship of religious belief to society and politics do give rise to conflict. If some believe that a viable modern nation-state requires a separation of religion and politics, or mosque and state, others advocate governments and societies that are more informed by Islamic principles and values. Yet as examples from around the Muslim world (Egypt, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia) and other countries such as Japan or China have demonstrated, modernisation does not have to mean the “wholesale Westernisation” or secularisation of society. Nowhere is this clearer than among the so-called fundamentalists, or Islamic activists, who are also graduates of modern universities, majoring in science, medicine, law, engineering, journalism, business, and the social sciences. Many hold prominent positions in their respective professions, functioning effectively and contributing to the on-going modernisation of their societies.
—The author holds a PhD in Islamic Studies from Aligarh