REFORMATION OR REVOLUTION?
John L. Esposito
The twentieth century has been one of the most dynamic, explosive, and innovative in Islamic history. Within a span of a few centuries Muslim societies have passed from subjugation to European imperialism to national independence, from remnants of medieval empires to modern nation-states, from a transnational but somewhat regionally fixed community to a global community not only of Muslim-majority communities in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia but also of significant Muslim-minority communities in Europe and the United States.
At every stage the predictable has proven unpredictable: mighty European colonial powers were overthrown, artificially drawn nation-states emerged and engaged in nation building, the desert Gulf sheikhdoms discovered oil and experienced rapid development, a remote and quiescent Muslim Southeast Asia has produced an Asian tiger in Malaysia, and the secular presuppositions and expectations of modernization theory were swept aside by an Islamic tide that seemed to come out of nowhere and challenged much of the Muslim world, from North Africa to Southeast Asia to the West.
The history of contemporary Islam is a story of challenge and response, tension and conflict, atavism and creativity or renaissance, retreat and advancement, religious and intellectual retrenchment, reformation and revolution. It has been dominated by two major struggles: the first, the wars of independence at the turn of the twentieth century, when much of the Muslim world struggled to free itself from dominion by European powers; and the second, in the latter half of the century, the internal battle over religio-cultural identity and integrity associated with contemporary Islamic revivalism and the reassertion of Islam into public life.
Islam, European Colonialism, and Modernity: Renewal and Reform
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries proved to be a period of major transformation in the history of Islam: a time of humiliation and subjugation, independence and revolution, revival and reform. Islamic history had witnessed the emergence of Islam, its rapid and dynamic expansion, the spawning of vast Islamic empires and sultanates, and the florescence of a rich and varied Islamic civilization, but European colonialism seemed to bring it all to a crashing halt. The age of European expansion, penetration, and dominance (euphemistically called the Age of Discovery by Europeans) began in the sixteenth century but came to fruition in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the nineteenth century the balance of power had clearly shifted toward Europe. European governments (Great Britain, France, Spain, Russia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy) extended their political influence or domain internationally. The emergence of the West as a dominant global power proved a military, political, economic, and ideological challenge to Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim societies in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
By the nineteenth century much of the Muslim world found itself subjugated to European imperial powers, demonstrating its political, economic, and military impotence and challenging the veracity of Islam itself. Why had Europe (that is, Christendom) proved triumphant? Was it the superiority of its science and technology or of its religion and culture? Many Muslims had long believed that their historical success and florescence were due to the truth of their faith and mission, but with the political, economic, and military success of European imperial powers at hand, what were Muslims now to conclude?
For several centuries Muslims in diverse circumstances had recognized the decline in their communities as a result of both internal (domestic) and external (foreign) threats and had initiated various revival and reform movements. A sense of community disintegration and the corruption of “true Islam” generated revivalist movements in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Wahhabi, Mahdi, Fulani, Padri, and others) that stretched across the Muslim world from Africa to Southeast Asia. Muslim responses to European colonialism and imperialism were conditioned both by the source of the threat and by Islamic tradition. They ranged from holy war to emigration and noncooperation to adaptation and cultural synthesis. Faced with Christian European dominance of the Muslim world, some Muslims concluded that the only proper responses were those of the Prophet Muhammad when he faced opposition and rejection: to fight (jihad, struggle) in defense of Islam or to emigrate (hijra) as Muhammad and his early followers had done when they went from Mecca to Medina in 622 c.e. Militant resistance in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, however, proved impotent in the face of the European's modern technology and army weapons. Although emigration was possible for some, it proved impractical for many. Some religious leaders counseled cultural isolation, withdrawal, and noncooperation, to resist the Western threat to their Islamic way of life. Others, ranging from secular to Islamic modernists, pursued a path of accommodation to harness the West's scientific and technological power to revitalize the community and to regain independence.