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.


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.

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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.

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