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Political thought, modern Islamic

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S111-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2009
Retrieved March 27, 2019, from

Article Summary

For Islamic thought, the problem of modernity is inseparable from the problem of the relative power imbalance between the West and the lands of Islam. The variety of intellectual trends within Islamic thought all have as their primary stimulus (in some form or another) the imperative of providing authentic ‘Islamic answers’ to the problems of Western colonialism and imperialism and the corresponding Muslim political and economic weakness. All of the main debates which form the contours of modern Islamic political thought – the relative status of reason versus revelation, the immutability versus the reformability of Islamic law, the moral status of national or regional versus pan-Islamic political membership, the status of non-Muslim states and relationships with non-Muslims, the legitimacy of democratic forms of rule, the laws of warfare and political violence, the place of technology – have taken place in reaction to Western ascendancy and hegemony.

For the purposes of studying Islamic political thought it is therefore appropriate to date the onset of modernity as late as the mid-nineteenth century. We may thus mark the beginning of a distinctly modern Islamic political intellectual tradition with the school of Islamic Modernism. This movement represents the first attempt to deal with the challenge of Western ascendancy in a non-traditionalist or purely conservative manner. While Islamic Modernism never succeeded in creating a mass political consciousness or defending a coherent intellectual and political position between outright secularism and Islamic revivalism, it marks the break between late medieval traditionalism and twentieth-century Islamic fundamentalism. The latter movement – whether known as Revivalism, fundamentalism or Salafism – represents a rejection of Modernism’s attempts to reform Islamic law and willingness to borrow from the West in mundane matters, but possesses a mass character and intellectual vitality not characteristic of traditional scholastic Islam in the nineteenth century.

Islamic Modernism emerged as an elite movement in the later part of the nineteenth century as an attempt to bridge Islamic theological and epistemological commitments with Western modernity. It was an attempt both to rehabilitate Islam as a source of knowledge, identity and inspiration for Muslims, and to allow Muslims to incorporate those cultural and intellectual aspects of European modernity seen as necessary for competing with Western political and economic power. The core tenet of Islamic Modernism was that Islam itself was not the cause of nineteenth-century Muslim stagnation, but that certain theological and canonical reforms were necessary to awaken Muslims from their submissiveness and quietism.

Islamic Revivalism is the broad ideological trend which insists on the centrality of religion in all aspects of Muslim family, social, economic and political life. It emerged as an explicit rejection of both inter-war secularist trends and Islamic Modernism. For revivalists, the latter represent an apologetic, pro-Western betrayal of core Islamic commitments, although Revivalism in some manifestations shares Modernism’s rejection of what it perceives as the conservative, quietist, passive nature of traditional orthodox scholarship and the insistence on direct engagement with the Qur’an. While rejecting many of Modernism’s reforms and openness to change, and reverting to many of the doctrinal positions of the medieval legal schools, Revivalism has as its central raison d’être the provision of authentic ‘Islamic solutions’ to modern social problems and the weakness of Muslim lands; this aspiration to popular support and tangible results leaves Revivalism at times at odds with the self-restraint, caution and concern with methodology which characterized the medieval religious scholars.

Citing this article:
March, Andrew F.. Political thought, modern Islamic, 2009, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S111-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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