Modernization of the Islamic World

The historical forces that produced Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and a look at U.S. involvement in the Muslim world.

BY: Ibrahim Abu-Rabi'

 

Professor Abu-Rabi wrote these thoughts on the issue of modernity in reply to a post on the "Understanding Islam" dialogue group that he is moderating.

The Muslim religious phenomenon is a complex one that traverses more than 14 centuries of human history, and the Muslim world itself is a multi-ethnic, multi-glot and multi-cultural world which has been formed against a number of social, historical, and religious backgrounds. The Muslim world is far from monolithic. It is very diverse; it is very complex. Because of the complex Islamic civilization, we must be careful in the choice of terms when describing or analyzing the Muslim world. We must use the proper terms of Jihad.

From the very beginning, Muslim civilization responded to a great number of forces. In the formative phase of Islam, in the first five centuries or so, the Muslim world was busy assimilating and acting creatively upon the philosophical, scientific, medical, literary, and religious achievements of the Greeks, the Persian, Indians, Christians and Jews. The basic foundations or principles of the Islamic world view get written down in this formative phase of Islam. Because of this complex process of assimilation, a huge tension arose in the first Islamic centuries between what we roughly call nowadays, Modernity and Tradition, between innovation and traditionalism, or between the old and the new.

The early modern period in the Muslim world, around the 15th and 16th centuries, responded to a different set of challenges, and in order to meet that challenge the Muslim world created three major Empires, so that Islam was no longer a simple religious phenomenon: The Ottoman Empire, based in Istanbul; the Safavid empire, based in Persia; and the Mughal Empire, based in India.

All of these empires were complex manifestations of the Islamic entity. The world of Islam is no longer the pristine simple world of the Prophet and his disciples. All of these empires were multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-glot empires which understood globalization in their own terms. However, these empires still took Islam to be their starting point.

In the modern period, especially in the 19th century, all of these Empires begin to decline, to weaken, to wane. And one simple manifestation of this decline was the Western colonization of many parts of the Muslim world. The Western world penetrated every aspect of Muslim society in the 19th century to the extent that it is impossible to speak of modern Islamic history without speaking about the West at the same time and all the major movements in the Western world from the Reformation to the Industrial revolution to the Enlightenment and the theories of progress current in European societies in the 19th century.

The Muslim World gets colonized in a major way; the Dutch go to Indonesia, the British to India and later to Malaysia and the Middle East, and the French go to North Africa and West Africa. The colonial presence is a major fact in modern Muslim societies, a fact that has had a major impact on the Muslim faith, practice, and way of life.

The Muslim response to European colonialism took many forms. In the case of the Ottoman Empire, it was Tanzimat, a total modernization of society. This answers your query in part, at least. However, it was too late to modernize and save the Empire.

Another response took the form of nationalism. Nationalism is a limited imagining of the nation, much more limited, let us say, than Christendom or the Muslim ummah. The nationalist movement in the Muslim world led the nation in a struggle against colonialism and led to the creation of several nation-states in the Muslim world. In Indonesia, Sukarno; in Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah; in Turkey, Kemal Ataturk; in Egypt, Jamal Abdul Nasser. Most of these figures were highly charismatic figures, figures who fought for their political independence, but people who were, at the same time, very impressed with the Western notions of democracy, civil society, modernity, etc. Although they fought the political domination of the West, they opted to model their societies according to the Western philosophy of life.

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