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Islam & modernism

Published Aug 29, 2014 01:33am

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The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.
The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

THERE are many examples of questionable traditions and interpretations of Quranic verses offered by obliging divines. In such conditions it is the duty of individuals with conscience and sensitivity to truth, to try and distinguish between wheat and chaff.

It is a right which Islam has given to all — the right of personal interpretation. The need for thinking in depth (fikr) as well as in breadth (dhikr) has been stressed in the Quran.

There have been many forces and agencies in history — social, political, economic, philosophical and religious — which have attempted to cripple human intelligence in order to exploit men either for vested interests of the self or of persons in power.

Take, for instance, the despicable drama in Nigeria where some 200 schoolgirls were taken captive in April by the extremist militant group Boko Haram, reportedly to be sold as slaves. Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, declared that he had abducted the girls and will continue to do so. “By Allah I will sell them in the marketplace,” he boasted.


Islam does not reject science and rationalism.


What is one to make of such religious interpretations by extremists when the Quran unequivocally declares “Read in the name of your Lord, Who created man from a clot of congealed blood. Read! And Your Lord is the Most Generous Who taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know”. (Surah Alaq). In the same spirit is the hadith of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) that urges believers “to go to China [then a remote destination] to gain knowledge” if necessary.

Boko Haram is of the opinion that Western education is evil. It is mystifying how acquiring knowledge and education in any language or about any culture can be ‘evil’. One reason for the contradiction is that religious leaders have attached less importance to the essentials such as faith in God and the eternal moral code and given more importance to accidental features and later accretions, in which they radically differed.

Narrow-mindedness of the clergy was also faced by Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, who is considered the first Muslim voice of reform in India. He appeared on the scene at a time when Muslim society was sunk in obscurantism and inertia and showed no desire to emerge out of its medieval grooves. The unwholesome influence of the clergy had made Muslims of the time view education as hostile to religion.

Syed Ahmed Khan wrote: “I reflected on the decadence of the Muslim community and came to the conclusion that modern education alone is the remedy of the ills they suffer from. I decided on a strategy to disabuse their minds of strong communal belief that the study of European literature and science is anti-religion and promotes disbelief.”

The objectives of Sir Syed were educational and social reform and he did not wish to dabble in matters of religion. In fact, conscious of clerical hostility, he offered not to have any role in religious curriculum in his college and invited leading clerics to do the needful.

But the maulvis of Deoband shot down the proposal and reportedly said they would not associate themselves with an educational institution that had Shia students on its rolls. In his biography of Sir Syed, Altaf Husain Hali wrote that 60 maulvis and alims signed a fatwa accusing Sir Syed of disbelief and apostasy.

But even as voices of clerical hostility rose from Kanpur and Lucknow, Agra and Allahabad, Rampur and Bareilly and Maulvi Ali Baksh travelled to Makkah and Madina to seek a fatwa for beheading the great educationist and social reformer, he continued in his mission of setting up a college. “For,” wrote he, “my heart is overflowing with the idea of welfare of my people in which there is no room for any anger or rancour.” History proved that Sir Syed, founder of Aligarh Muslim University, was right and the clergy utterly wrong.

Has Islam come in the way of modernisation? I venture to suggest that there is no inherent conflict between Islam and modernism. Neither science nor rationalism has ever been rejected by Islam. As a matter of fact, as modernism seeks social and economic justice it is working in the direction that Islam has always favoured.

There is nothing in Islam or in Muslim history to suggest that it is averse to change. In fact, the ease and confidence with which Muslims adapted themselves to new conditions which they found in the countries that came under their sway shows that they do possess adaptability.

Present-day Muslim scholars should present Islam in a way that stresses the universality of its values, the tolerance of its outlook and the compassion of its thoughts, so that the faith is not associated with a hostile approach and taking irretrievable positions.

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

Published in Dawn, August 29th, 2014

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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


Comments (20) Closed



genesis Aug 29, 2014 03:33am

The problem is, it is seeking 21 century tools to go back in time the glorious dys of 7th century and how incompatible can it get.

Pragmatist Aug 29, 2014 04:51am

I agree with the author completely. He has mentioned some examples of religious bigotry by mullahs and religious fanatics from last 200 years. But the hateful beliefs of Muslims against non believers and concept of Jihad to kill non muslims goes back to about 1000 AD. Historically, that is the time when Islamic renaissance stopped and the religion took a turn against modernity and advancement to its present form.

I do not see the end of this trend unless muslims at large emphatically oppose the Mullahs and Extremists wholeheartedly and loudly and make their leaders to do the same.

jbrl Aug 29, 2014 05:32am

"In fact, the ease and confidence with which Muslims adapted themselves to new conditions which they found in the countries that came under their sway shows that they do possess adaptability."

But those countries were also traditional as opposed to modern societies. The essential question remains whether Islam can adapt to modernity - that has proven to be a much more difficult task and so far has not been done, whether good or ill, by any Islamic country.
It may well be that the Maulvis were right to distrust Western education with its emphasis on critical thinking, and the free expression of ideas - Islam may well rue the day if and when science and rational thinking were to blossom in Islamic lands.

Zaighum Abbas Ranjha Aug 29, 2014 05:47am

Very solid article. The problem we Muslims are having is that we are chasing shadows most of the time or we run in circles and that only brings us back where it all started earlier.

Check out my little effort at www.islamichistoryandtravel.com Thanks

Ghulam Abbas Aug 29, 2014 07:11am

The problem with the clergy is that they discuss and learn only belief-based knowledge and are not willing to accommodate ' a balanced input of knowledge' which guarantees their welfare in both the worlds. Obviously, the root cause is curriculum and discriminatory education system which is polluting the minds of coming generations.

Nadir Aug 29, 2014 07:39am

Sir Syed Ahmed Khan was a Great leader. We need more people to follow in his footsteps. Islam is the religion of the Space Age. Mullahs and Hardliners have no place in Islam.

sumant Aug 29, 2014 08:10am

Is there a reason that the Islamic societies of Malaysia and Indonesia have modernised and displayed reason and toleration whereas the Muslims of middle east and Af Pak rejected moderation and conciliation in favor of extremism? Could it be the presence of a significant minority that can not be bullied and pushed around? Points to ponder.

Niddercalling Aug 29, 2014 12:04pm

@genesis I agree. If we look around, only faiths which have reformed have become most successful, economically and peacefully. So much so that millions of Muslims are flocking there to settle permanently. Not only because they are rich but even poor countries like South Africa and some Asian countries. The author may be right that Islam allows tolerance, but I would like to know which 'Islamic' country is practising those tolerant ideas.

Ikbal buland Aug 29, 2014 05:10pm

Islamic scholars oppose modern education, because it would destroy many pillars of faith and may strike at the very root.

shouat sheikh Aug 29, 2014 06:11pm

Sir what kind of change are you suggesting? No current Maulvi or Muslim scholars has ever mentioned not to get education. But they have also suggested to balance the regular education with true Islamic education so our Muslim children know how to behave in a Muslim society not become what we see in the West.

I am not sure why secular forces keep bringing the bad of few Muslims as opposed to the good done by many Muslims around the world?

In the United States many small example to Muslims of all walk of lives making difference even though Muslims get beat up in the Western media as well as much they do in DAWN.

S.P.Das Aug 29, 2014 06:25pm

I fully agree with the contents. But the stark reality of the hour is that Muslims as a whole are miliions of light years away from Islam.

Amit-Atlanta-USA Aug 29, 2014 06:31pm

The author declares "There is nothing in Islam or in MUSLIM HISTORY to suggest that it is averse to change." !!!!!!!!

The article is just a pack of lies & half-truths !

NORI Aug 29, 2014 07:11pm

Dear Anwar, Science or Modernism has developed itself through questioning. The age-old traditions/practices were questioned and those found to be illogical or irrational were discarded. Logic or rational explanation became the first step towards belief. That said, just want to know whether Islam allows questioning ? When I say Islam, it's NOT a physical entity, but it's represented by those who proclaim to be followers of Islam - Muslims. Hene, if Islam permits modernism and Mullahs resist, then Mullahs are NOT Muslims, but can you say that loudly in any Islamic society ?

pathanoo Aug 29, 2014 09:55pm

@Pragmatist So eloquently and truthfully said. Couldn't have said my self any better. Thanks.

farooq kakar Aug 29, 2014 10:11pm

Absolutely right But unfortunately Islam has been always hijacked by fundamentalist and Conservative Muslim Scholars however Islamic teaching focussed on rationalism rather than blindly supported views .

kuku Aug 29, 2014 10:48pm

One trend I see in Dawn article is talking about Muslims, why do Pakistanis care so much about Muslims around the world, nobody gives a damn about them.

I think the problem Pakistan other Islamic nation face is that they are not focusing on humans, everything is looked from religious point of view which has many flavors hence constant conflict. What difference does it make if somebody does not think like you about God and religion as long as he/she is a good human being and making positive contribution to society?

Muslims, Christian and other people who believe their path is the only right path will never focus on the basic human happiness their ego is tied to proving themselves superior and converting others.

Have we not seen enough that religion cannot be basis of a society? We need to focus and teach that spiritual part of religion is same in all religions only that will bring change in society driven by bigotry.

I can say the only reason India existing as country though there are different view about God and religion, is the basic tenant that there are multiple path to the same goal.

kuku Aug 29, 2014 10:52pm

@sumant I think the reason is that they are nation not created in name of Islam, so there is no need for them to show holier-then-thou attitude.

Other is way back it was Indian influence in that area which teaches that all multiple paths sooner or later can take you to same destination and each is free to choose one that appeals to his/her nature. Which Pakistan had, but after 1971 the brainwashed many generation and we see the result of seed of hatred today.

Roohi Ahmad Aug 29, 2014 11:07pm

I really liked your notion of "depth (fikar) and breadth (zikar)". I appreciate your views that Islam does not prohibits of modernism: sciences and rationalism. I also believe if we need to bring Islam from state of "inertia", we have to incorporate them in learning Islam.

Roohi Ahmad Aug 29, 2014 11:08pm

You are absolutely right.

Vish Aug 30, 2014 08:19am

The author claims that Islam has given everyone the right of personal interpretation. Then where is the need for mullahs and fatwas?