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Islamic modernists advocate flexible, continuous reinterpretation of Islam so that Muslims may develop institutions of education, law, and politics suitable to modern conditions. Modernizing tendencies appeared in the last decades of the nineteenth century in response to westernizing regimes and European rule. Elite Muslim culture was evolving into separate westernized and traditional spheres that modernists sought to unify. To validate their reexamination of Islam 's sources among traditionalists, Muslim modernists declared that modernism constituted a return to true Islam as originally preached and practiced, a claim put forth by many reform movements throughout Islamic history. Modernism 's distinction among such movements lies in the philosophical and political liberalism displayed by its expositors, in contrast to the tendency in late-twentieth-century Islamist discourse to regard liberalism as alien to Islam. To win the support of Muslims attracted to Western culture, modernists argued that the recovery of true Islam would generate the requisite dynamism needed to restore Muslim societies to an honored place in the world. Modernism, then, begins with the assumption widely held by nineteenth- and twentieth-century Muslims that the Muslim world had become backward in relation to the West and that in order to restore equilibrium between the two societies, it was necessary to adapt the practices, institutions, and artifacts associated with European power to an Islamic milieu.

Nineteenth-Century Beginnings.

Such adaptation began in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire during the first half of the nineteenth century. In the 1860s, some Muslims objected to the inclusion of manners and customs in the inventory of items borrowed from Europe. Such Muslims anticipated that indiscriminate imitation of Europe would lead to Western culture supplanting Muslim culture and to the erasure of Islam. These Muslims argued for a more judicious selection of features to be adopted, for distinguishing between the kernel of modern practices and the husk of Western culture. They held that the scientific and technological underpinnings of European power were reducible to categories of knowledge and practice that Muslims could learn without damaging Islam 's integrity. Moreover, these modernists asserted that modern European science had developed on the basis of classical Islamic learning transmitted to Europe through Muslim Spain. Therefore, were Muslims to learn modern sciences, they would reclaim their own heritage.

This reference to Islam 's Golden Age of learning is related to another element in modernist thought, namely, the revival of Islam 's rationalist philosophical tradition, which distinguished between knowledge attained from revelation and knowledge acquired through the exercise of reason. Since Islamic beliefs and practices derived from revelation, they could not clash with any conclusions acquired through rational thought. One strain within modernism even asserted that revealed knowledge is essentially rational, that is, it could be attained by the exercise of reason.

Modernists authenticated their ideas with yet another appeal to Islamic history by claiming to return to Islam 's original principles. In this respect they were putting their own stamp on the eighteenth-century tendency to emphasize strict adherence to beliefs and practices as defined by scripture: the Qurʿān and the sunnah. Early modern scripturalist movements included the Wahhābīs in Arabia, Shāh Walī Allāh 's circle in India, and reformist Ṣūfī orders throughout the Muslim world. In modernist hands, the scriptural orientation legitimized criticism of current beliefs and practices as deviations from the pristine Islam of al-salaf al-sāliḥ (the pious ancestors).

Early Proponents in Government.

The earliest formulations of Islamic modernism issued from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, the first Muslim lands to initiate reforms of bureaucratic and military institutions along European lines. In the 1860s Rifāʿah Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī (1801–1873), a leading Egyptian education official, restated classical Islamic philosophy 's view on the complementary relationship between reason and revelation, thereby giving Islamic sanction to the study of European sciences, the striving for technological progress, and the rationalization of government institutions for the sake of advancing society. Al-Ṭahṭāwī also wrote that Muslims who studied modern science and technology would be retrieving knowledge Arabs had imparted to Europe centuries earlier. With respect to Islamic law, he urged religious scholars to exercise ijtihād (independent reasoning) in order to adapt religious law to changing conditions. Furthermore, al-Ṭahṭāwī called for educational reform, in particular the provision of primary education for all boys and girls. He argued that educating girls would benefit society, because educated women would be more suitable wives and better mothers, and they would contribute to economic production.

In North Africa, Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnīsī 's (1810–1889) position as a high minister in the reforming autonomous regime of Tunisia during the 1870s was comparable to al-Ṭahṭāwī 's in Egypt. In 1875 Khayr al-Dīn established Sadiki College, one of the first schools to combine Islamic and modern scientific topics. Its graduates provided the core of Tunisia 's small modernist movement for the next few decades. In addition, Khayr al-Dīn introduced liberal political thought to modernism by claiming that parliamentary government and a free press accorded with Islam.

While Khayr al-Dīn and al-Ṭahṭāwī advanced modernist ideas as high officials in modernizing states, the modernist movement known as the Young Ottomans in Istanbul represented lower-level bureaucrats. The Ottoman movement to rationalize bureaucratic and military institutions, known as the Tanzimat (1839–1876), was dominated by a handful of high-ranking officials. The Young Ottomans agreed with the Tanzimat programs designed to rationalize administration in order to enable the Ottoman Empire to fend off European encroachments, but they objected to high officials ’ adoption of Western manners. In the late 1860s, the Young Ottomans called for a liberal political regime similar to European constitutional monarchies that limited sovereigns ’ powers with elected parliaments. Given their opposition to wholesale adoption of European ways, the Young Ottomans justified the introduction of liberal political principles by claiming that they were part of Islam. Thus, their leading writer, Mehmet Namık Kemal (1840–1888), interpreted the Islamic concepts of shūrā (consultation) and bayʿah (oath of allegiance) to mean an elected parliament and popular sovereignty.

Modernist Intellectuals.

Modernist ideas were taken up by men outside official circles in the Ottoman Empire 's Arab provinces toward the end of the nineteenth century. In Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad a handful of progressive religious scholars (Jamāl al-Dīn al-Qāsimī [1866–1914], Ṭāhir al-Jazāʿirī [1852–1920], ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Maghribī [1867–1956], and Maḥmūd Shukrī al-Ālūsī [1857–1924]) called for educational and legal reform, upheld the compatibility of Islam and reason, and favored a liberal political system in terms similar to those laid out by the Young Ottomans. The major impetus for modernism in these circles was alarm at the marginalization of religious scholars in the new Ottoman order. Their aim was to demonstrate the relevance of their expertise in Islamic law to a modernizing Ottoman state.

Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (1838–1897) brought to modernism a new sense of activism and political resistance to European domination. Born in Iran, he did not belong to any Muslim state 's reformist bureaucracy or to a local corps of religious scholars; rather, he restlessly roamed from India to Istanbul spreading his call for an activist ethos and a positive attitude to modern science. Like al-Ṭahṭāwī, al-Afghānī drew on classical Islamic philosophy and promoted its revival to open Muslims ’ minds to the necessity of acquiring modern knowledge. His chief contribution to modernism was to imbue it with an anti-imperialist strain, because he lived during an era when European armies were conquering Muslim lands from Tunisia to Central Asia. To combat European aggression, Muslims had to shake off fatalistic attitudes and embrace an activist ethos, individually and collectively. This voluntaristic spirit became characteristic of modernism in the assertion that Muslims must take responsibility for their own welfare rather than passively accept foreign domination as a fate decreed by God. Al-Afghānī succeeded in spreading his views and reputation through political journalism and teaching, but he failed in his bids to gain influence over Muslim rulers. Without an organized base or institutional backing, his conspiratorial approach to political agitation proved fruitless.


Islamic modernism underwent its richest development in a Middle Eastern context at the hands of al-Afghānī 's Egyptian disciple Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1849–1905). His formulations of modernist thought in the fields of law, education, and theology provided the intellectual bases for modernist trends throughout the Muslim world. ʿAbduh believed that European wealth and power stemmed from achievements in education and science. Consequently, Muslims could overcome European domination only by promoting a positive attitude to modern learning and its application in society. A few years after Great Britain occupied Egypt in 1882, his gradualist approach gained the support of British authorities, who secured his appointment to official positions to promote educational and legal reform. Serving on an administrative supervisory committee of al-Azhar (the Arab world 's most prestigious center of Islamic learning), ʿAbduh attempted to bring together customary religious education and modern learning, but his opponents thwarted him. His theological writings asserted the harmony of reason and Islam, demonstrating that all rational knowledge, including modern science, accords with Islam. To substantiate this view, ʿAbduh 's Qurʿānic exegesis claimed that the Qurʿān anticipated modern scientific knowledge: for instance, the prohibition of alcohol accords with modern medicine 's conclusions about alcohol 's damaging effects on health. As for such classic Islamic theological issues as the nature of God and His attributes, ʿAbduh discouraged speculation, because their subject lay beyond the limits of rational comprehension. In the legal sphere, where ʿAbduh served as chief jurisprudent (muftī) of Egypt, he flexibly interpreted Islamic law to show that Muslims could adapt to modern circumstances and still remain true to their faith.

ʿAbduh 's thought contained a tension between scrupulous adherence to the authority of religion and a willingness to accommodate to the demands of modernity. The generation of Muslims in Egypt influenced by ʿAbduh tended to emphasize one or another of these elements. Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865–1935), who came to Egypt from Syria in 1897 to join ʿAbduh 's reformist circle, developed the religious element in his influential journal, al-Manār. In the first three decades of the twentieth century, Egypt 's political and cultural elites leaned toward secularism, as they sought to separate religion from politics. Rashīd Riḍā reacted by reinforcing scriptural authority, thereby safeguarding the integrity of Islam. He particularly sought to demonstrate the suitability of Islamic law to modern government, and he stressed the reform of religious practices and beliefs. Most of ʿAbduh 's disciples (lawyers, teachers, and government officials), however, traveled down the path to secularism, bending their interpretation of Islam to demonstrate its compatibility with modern life. It seems as though this split stemmed from opposing sources of authority: Islamic scripture and the exigencies of modern life. A second source for this split lay in modernists ’ call for a return to the way of the first generation of Muslims, the salaf. Modernists validated their views by calling for a return to Islam 's scriptural sources, the Qurʿān and the sunnah. For Rashīd Riḍā, this meant close study of those sources to define a core of concepts that would safeguard Islam 's integrity. This method, however, gave secularists license to interpret the sources to suit their liberal temperament. Hence, in 1925 ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq (1888–1966) cited scripture to justify Turkey 's abolition of the caliphate and the separation of religion and politics. Islamic scripture contains enough general statements and ambiguities to allow for both secular and religious interpretations.


As in the Middle East, Muslims in India confronted European domination, which became virtually complete when Great Britain abolished the Mughal dynasty following the 1857 Revolt. A second impetus to modernism in India lay in missionaries ’ criticisms of Islam, which led to a tradition of public debates between missionaries and Muslim scholars. Indian modernism emerged in full bloom in the works of Sayyid Aḥmad Khān (1817–1898), who aimed to convince the British to overcome their distrust of Muslims in the wake of the 1857 Revolt and to persuade Muslims to open their minds to Western ideas. Aḥmad Khān argued that Islam 's teachings concerning God, the Prophet, and the Qurʿān are compatible with modern science, which involves discovery of “the work of God” in natural laws. Since God is the author of both natural laws and the Qurʿān, the two exist in harmony. In general, Aḥmad Khān would bend the meaning of scripture to suit the conclusions of reason to a greater extent than ʿAbduh, who often declared that only God knows the truth when reason and revelation appear to conflict.

Aḥmad Khān 's major achievement was the establishment in 1875 of the Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh, which was intended to train Muslims for government service, thereby restoring them to the roles they filled in Mughal times as administrators and officials. Because Aḥmad Khān 's religious ideas were so controversial, however, the task of teaching Islamic subjects was entrusted to more orthodox scholars, and the desired blend of modern learning with a modernist religious orientation did not emerge. Other Aligarh modernists introduced ʿAbduh 's and Rashīd Riḍā 's writings to the curriculum, worked for the flexible interpretation of Islamic law, and advocated improvements in women's status in matters of education, veiling, seclusion, and marriage.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Indian modernists had to face the question of how to sustain the Muslim community under a non-Muslim regime, be it the existing British one or an envisioned Hindu-majority state. One group, led by Muhammad Iqbal (1875–1938), argued that Indian Muslims comprise a distinct nation and must live in a Muslim state. Followers of this view struggled for the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim polity. The other group, whose spokesman was Abū al-Kalām Āzād (1888–1958), held that Muslims should join with Hindus to combat British rule and struggle for a unified, composite nation. Although this fundamental issue divided them, both groups interpreted the juridical concept of ijmāʿ (consensus) to indicate that whether Muslims form a separate state or live in a Hindu majority state, they should live under a democracy.


Indonesia, at the eastern end of the Muslim world, gradually came under Dutch rule during the nineteenth century. Once again European domination and missionary activities stimulated rethinking among Muslims, and a modernist movement emerged. In addition, more regular steamship service to the Middle East increased the flow of Indonesian Muslims traveling for pilgrimage and study. On their return, many Indonesians brought with them the new reformist teachings circulating in Cairo and Mecca. Indonesia 's most important modernist movement, the Muhammadiyah, was founded in 1912 in Jogjakarta by Hadji Ahmad Dahlan (1868–1923), who had resided in Egypt during the 1890s and met Muḥammad ʿAbduh. He resembled ʿAbduh and Aḥmad Khān in avoiding involvement in nationalist politics in order to avoid suppression by colonial authorities. The Muhammadiyah established a network of modernist schools to combine instruction in religion and modern sciences. To demonstrate support for improving women's status, it set up schools for girls. The Muhammadiyah also advocated legal reform through a return to the Qurʿān and the sunnah and the exercise of ijtihād. Because Indonesian Islam confronted local animist and Hindu traditions that survived among nominal Muslims, the Muhammadiyah tended over time to focus more on purifying religious practices and beliefs than on spreading modernist interpretations.

Conflicts with Other Ideologies.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, modernists in Egypt, India, and Indonesia accommodated themselves to European rule because of their conviction that it was futile to seek independence until Muslims had thoroughly assimilated true Islam. Nationalists in each land would accuse the modernists of compromising with European powers and thereby prolonging foreign rule. This criticism cost the modernists dearly in the contest to influence popular opinion. In the first half of the twentieth century, nationalist forces grew stronger and eclipsed modernist influence. In large measure, modernism 's limitations stemmed from its character as an elitist intellectual response to Western power, whereas nationalists used symbols and rhetoric designed to appeal to a broader spectrum of society.

In the 1920s, Islamic modernism began to split into three distinct movements. One of them, secularism, aimed to push Islam out of the public sphere and to limit expressions of private spiritual devotion. The most famous secularist leader, Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) of Turkey, banned headscarves, Sūfī orders, and other Islamic practices in the 1920s, while bringing the religious establishment under stricter control of the state than it had been under Ottoman rulers. A second movement, Islamic liberalism, sought to reconcile Islamic faith and modern liberal norms such as democracy and human rights. Among the most famous early exponents of this position was ʿAlī ʿAbd al-Rāziq, a scholar at al-Azhar in Eygpt who argued in the 1920s that Islamic sources left methods of governance for humans to devise. A third movement, Islamic revivalism, adopted modern ideals such as human equality, republicanism, and socioeconomic development—as well as modern methods of administration and communication—in an attempt to reconstruct the honor and glory they saw in the early Islamic period. Among the most famous revivalist leaders of the twentieth century were Hasan al-Bannā of Egypt and Sayyid Abū al-ʿAlā Mawdūdī of India (and later Pakistan), who founded the first large-scale Islamist organizations in the late 1920s and early 1930s, respectively.

Current State of Modernism.

Today, Islamic modernism remains splintered into these mutually hostile movements. At the same time, its offshoots have grown to dominate the political and social lives of most Islamic societies. By the end of the twentieth century, relatively few Muslims adhered to the traditional positions that modernists had campaigned against a century earlier, such as monarchism, suspicion of mass education, loyalty to jurisprudential precedent, and disregard for Western technology. But as modernist principles carried the day, modernism itself came to be derided as overly Western-oriented and insufficiently authentic, even by some Muslim intellectuals who themselves espouse Western-derived global norms such as democracy and human rights. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Islamic modernists argued that aspects of Islam, if properly understood, were consistent with European models. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, by contrast, the inheritors of modernism argue that aspects of global norms, if properly understood, are consistent with Islamic models.



  • Commins, David Dean. Islamic Reform: Politics and Social Change in Late Ottoman Syria. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. An examination of the modernist Islamic movement and its challenges in the Levant.
  • Khalid, Adeeb. The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. A path-breaking investigation of Islamic modernism in early-twentieth-century Central Asia.
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed.Liberal Islam: A Source Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. Essays by thirty-two influential Muslim authors of the twentieth century on topics such as democracy, rights, and coexistence.
  • Kurzman, Charles, ed.Modernist Islam, 1840–1940: A Source Book. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Translations of writings by fifty-two influential figures of the modernist Islamic movement.
  • Moaddel, Mansoor. Islamic Modernism, Nationalism, and Fundamentalism: Episode and Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. A sociological inquiry into the interaction between ideologies in a variety of Islamic regions.
  • Weismann, Itzchak. Taste of Modernity: Sufism and Salafiyya, and Arabism in Late Ottoman Damascus. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2001. A strong companion volume to Commins 's book on modernism in late Ottoman Syria.
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