Islam, Modernity and the New Millenium: Themes from a Critical Rationalist Reading of Islam

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By Gowhar Quadir Wani

The claim of universality on the part of Islam coupled with the ever-changing nature of human society has given rise to a vast area of intellectual engagements and discussions under the rubric of ‘Islam and modernity’. While the founding fathers of Sociology—Marx, Durkheim and Weber—grappled with the shift of human society from pre-industrial to industrial era anticipating its future course thereby theorizing modernity and consequences of modernization, the Muslim engagement with modernity was triggered by the colonial experience of the Muslims. A rich corpus of literature has been produced on modernity, in general, and ‘Islam and modernity, in particular. The subject of the present review is a recent book (2018) on ‘Islam and modernity’.
The present book under review is aptly titled as “Islam, Modernity and a New Millennium” with the subtitle “Themes from a Critical Rationalist Reading of Islam”. The title and the subtitle are convincingly and satisfactorily in consonance with the content of the book. The author, Ali Paya, Professor, Department of Philosophy, Islamia College, London, United Kingdom has engaged with several themes related to Islam and modernity drawing upon the critical rationalism of Karl Popper and his ilk.

Book Review
PP. XII+272. ISBN: 9781138087750.

In the introductory chapter of the book, the author has well summarized the different conceptions of the arrival of modernity in the Muslim lands, the different responses on the part of Muslims to modernity and the varied classificatory schemes of categorizing the same adopted by earlier scholars who have written on Islam and modernity. Besides, the author has presented a faithful account of the fundamental premises of critical rationalism. Another significant discussion consists of the differences between science and technology which, though briefly yet conclusively, deals with the subject at the epistemological, ontological and pragmatic levels.
Apart from the Introduction (Chapter 1), the book bears ten main chapters (2-11) along with a rich bibliography (pp. 238-264) and two indices (name index: pp.265-268; subject index: pp. 269-272). The nine main chapters of the book deal with such diverse themes as ‘ a critical rationalist perspective on what and how can we learn from the Quran’, ‘a critical rationalist approach to religion’, ‘a critical assessment of ‘Islamic Science’ and ‘Islamisation of Science/Knowledge’’, ‘the epistemological status of Fiqh’, and so on. All these themes, though diverse and encompassing a wide range of scope, are, in one way or the other, related to the key issues and debates in the ‘Islam and modernity’ discourse. Besides, the connecting thread of all these wide-ranging themes is the critical rationalist approach adopted by the author in dealing with them.
The second chapter of the book is concerned with an introduction to the study of the Quran from the lens of critical rationalism. Besides highlighting the importance of the Quran for Muslims, it discusses the notions of ‘algorithmic compressibility’, ‘complex systems’ and ‘logical depth’ which heavily impinge upon the study of all sorts of texts including the text of the Quran. The author argues that “the Quran is a complex system with a significant logical depth and that its message can be understood with a critical rationalist approach.” (p.36).
Moreover, he has explored the possible similarities between the critical rationalist approach and the method of istintaq (interrogation) to study the Quran. The discussion of the possible criticisms of the critical rationalist approach to the study of Quran which the author advocates is reflective of his unbiased treatment of the subject as well as his own academic integrity and intellectual honesty. Regarding the main objective of the chapter—understanding what and how can we learn from the Quran—the author has arrived at some insightful observations: The Quran’s rich content can best help us in advancing our knowledge of the human condition either by “acting as a judge to expose the defects in our conjectures” or by providing “general directions/frameworks for possible solutions for the problems related to the human condition” or as “a source for introducing new problems related to the category of the human condition.” (p.37). Another important observation made by the author is that the Quran does not provides straightforward theories as solutions to the human problems. He argues that theories are human constructs and must be made by the human beings while grappling with their problems. The Quran should be made to act as the judge to expose the limitations of man-made theories. What is worth-appreciating on the part of the author is that he has justly taken into account both those who uphold the Quran as the direct word of God as well as those who maintain that the Quran is God’s revelation revealed to the Prophet(SAW)
In the third chapter of the book, the author seeks to establish that critical rationalism is amenable to yield an approach towards religion that can well address the sensibilities of a Muslim believer. For him, such a critical rationalist approach to religion can serve as the best theoretical framework for reformist Muslims who aim at the syntheses of modernity and tradition acceptable to both conservative and progressive Muslims. The author has proposed a bi-partite structure of religions, especially Abrahamic religions—ontological-epistemological part and technological part. The discussion is so engaging and intellectually stimulating that, in my humble opinion, no amount of careful and thoughtful scanning and skimming and the consequent summarizing can do any justice to the rich content of this chapter. No serious student of religion who aspires for a role for religion in the modern societies while remaining faithful to the ideals and values (like democracy) humans have arrived at through the centuries of reasoning and intellection should afford missing the study of this important chapter in Ali Paya’s book.
The fourth chapter seeks to expose the failure of the programmes of Islamisation of Science//Knowledge. The fifth chapter brings forth the epistemological status of Fiqh arguing that exaggerating its status from a problem-solving science to a theoretical science has contributed towards the dominance of legalistic approaches. The next chapter revolves around the insightful observation that the “interpretation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an” is not actually what it literally implies but “a method of applying the exegetes’ favourite theoretical models/theories to make sense of the Quran.” The remaining chapters engage, respectively, with the anti-intellectual Tafkiki School in Shi‘i thought, present state of Islamic philosophy, relationship of doctrinal certainty with religious and secular violence and exploring the theoretical and practical grounds for peaceful co-existence of the Abrahamic faiths.
In sum, the book qualifies as a masterpiece of the rationalist reading of Islam vis-à-vis a diversity of themes. It is an important addition to the literature on ‘Islam and modernity’ discourse. The approach is philosophical, the content informative and the presentation appealing and attractive. In my humble opinion, it is a must read for the students and scholars of Islamic Studies, in general, and researchers on ‘Islam and modernity’, in particular.

Note: Republished with the permission of Reading Religion: A Publication of the American Academy of Religion.

The author is Senior Research Fellow at the Department of Islamic Studies, AMU, Aligarh. He can be reached at: