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Revival and Renewal

The Arabic terms iḥyāʿ (revival) and tajdīd (renewal) are often used concurrently, but renewal is more akin to iṣlāḥ (reform) than revival, which is more concerned with re-awakening of certain Islamic practices or ideas. Both terms are also used in the context of modern Islamic movements, but they also have important premodern roots. Premodern renewal was usually associated with a specifically designated purifier who, according to the ḥadīths (Prophetic traditions), would come at the “head of each century” to renew the faith and practice of Muslims. Many puritanical reformers were, as a result, identified by their followers as the designated renewer or mujaddid of the era. Revival had a stronger sense of a strengthening of the spiritual dimensions of faith and practice, as seen in the writings of Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111CE). In the modern era the terms refer to the attempts by Islamic modernizers and Salafīyah advocates to introduce more Islamic influences into the lives of Muslims who have been subject to Western currents of thought and practice, particularly in the wake of the Napoleonic invasion of Egypt. Shaykh Ḥasan al-ʿAṭṭār (d. 1834/35), an Egyptian cleric who worked closely with the French experts who accompanied Napoleon, may have been one of the first reformists/revivalists when he said: “Our countries should be changed and renewed [tatajaddadah] through knowledge and sciences that they do not possess.” A distinction should be made here between the strict and orthodox Salafīyah trend and the reformist trend championed by people such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905). [See Iṣlāḥ.]The early calls for revival and renewal emanated from multiple origins, depending on the local context of these different movements in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Ahmad Dallal (1993) has shown. These movements included, among others, Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb of Arabia (d. 1787), Shah Walī Allāh al-Dihlawī of India (d. 1762), ʿUthmān Ibn Fūdī (a.k.a. Usuman Dan Fodio) of West Africa (d. 1817), and Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Sanūsī of North Africa (d. 1859). The common feature of their thought was to rejuvenate the Islamic community they were living in or to carry an Islamic missionary message to non-Muslims, especially in Africa. These calls did not reflect a concern with the West at that point.

The precepts of the ultra-orthodox Wahhābīyah as preached by Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb were concerned with the very survival of religion in the face of dangerous local bidʿah (innovations that are religiously impermissible). The Wahhābiyah aimed at cleansing the alien elements from religious practice and thought to save the Muslim people from divine wrath. Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb believed that Muslims in his time were worse than the kāfirs (infidels), because they strayed very far from the right path of Muḥammad's sunnah (exemplary life and sayings). The solution of Ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, who came from the oasis-tribal but not nomadic society of the Arabian Peninsula, sought a return to the simplicity of early Islam and to the nuṣūṣ (religious texts) and their classical interpretations.

The Wahhabīyah sought to revive Islam's role in society by emphasizing tawḥīd (unity of God's qualities). Ṣūfī manifestations, permitted by the Ottomans ruling in Arabia and other parts of the Ottoman state, such as visitations of tombs and veneration of saints, were dismissed as un-Islamic and, more seriously, as polytheistic (polytheism is the only unforgivable sin in Islam). The movement stressed that Islam alone should guide the life of Muslims, and although it accepted ijtihād on its face, it did not practically see a need for reinterpretation of texts to adapt to changing times. Unlike the Wahhābīyah, the Sanūsīyah in North Africa and the Mahdīyah in Sudan were two revivalist movements that focused on forging a compromise between popular Sufism and elitist Orthodox or traditional Islamic thought and practice.The modern movements for revival and renewal in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are more closely associated with the reformist strand represented by Muḥammad ʿAbduh, Jamāl al-Dīn al-Afghānī (d. 1897), ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kawākibī (d. 1902), and many others. Khayr al-Dīn al-Tūnisī (d. 1890) represented a substrand in the same general direction, which operated within the state bureaucracy (first Tunisian and then Ottoman) and focused on modernizing the Islamic state rather than society in face of modern Western dangers.

The thrust of both strands centered around the realization that Muslim society and state were failing to catch up with the advances and progress in all facets of life that were proceeding in Europe. The reformist/revivalist movements did not call for Westernization, but for modernization, that is, the acceptance of borrowing modern knowledge from the West, but within Islamic cultural and religious frameworks. In fact, al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh bitterly criticized those in the Muslim world whom they accused of blindly imitating Western ways. They also criticized those Muslims who turned a blind eye on modern developments that Muslims needed to embrace in order to keep their independence and update their knowledge in the sciences and the arts. They were against blind imitation of earlier Muslims (taqlīd). The movement wanted to restore dignity and greatness to Muslims and Arabs through a rejuvenation of Islamic thought and practice.

Muslims were becoming aware of their underdevelopment and of the cultural stagnation that prevailed in much of the Islamic world. Although Islamic reformers were willing to acknowledge the existence of acute social and political problems in the Arab world, they strongly rejected some Orientalist arguments that attributed manifestations of backwardness to the religion of Islam. For them it was Muslims, not Islam itself, that were to blame. Muslims were not abiding by the true meaning and teachings of Islam that called upon them to consistently update their temporal and religious lives in accordance with the spirit and practice of the age they were living in. Not only did al-Afghānī and ʿAbduh deny the incompatibility of science and Islam, but they believed that progress in Europe was the result of contributions of Arab/Islamic civilization. ʿAbduh believed Islam should embrace modern science since, for him, Islam and science were compatible.

The reformist movement aimed, in the tradition of Ibn Rushd (a.k.a. Averroës, d. 1198), at recognizing the role of reason in people's lives. Muḥammad ʿAbduh and al-Afghānī refused to accept that reason is incompatible with īmān (belief). They believed that the revivalist movement would fail if Muslim clerics continued to preach the virtues of taqlīd. Taqlīd was rejected because it was seen as a major factor in perpetuating the cultural stagnation of the Arab world and because it made the believer entirely dependent on ancient interpretations of texts. Renewal, in the eyes of the reformists, entailed renewing religion itself, not, however, because Islam had any inadequacies—they would not argue that—but because interpretations and reinterpretations of texts were part of a continuous process.

Revivalists would not accept the notion that ijtihād (individual inquiry in legal matters) was no longer acceptable or necessary. They believed that the need for continuous ijtihād was dictated by the prevalent stagnation—modern problems required modern answers. Islam was seen as flexible and creative enough to adapt to the modern times.

Revivalists also rejected the Salafīyah's opposition to Sufism. ʿAbduh and his disciples made a distinction between those Ṣūfī orders that flourished in Mamlūk and Ottoman times and the classical Ṣūfī teachers, such as Ibn al-ʿArabī. The Ṣūfī orders that were obsessed with rituals and visitations of tombs were criticized by the reformists, because they were seen as part of the problem. Many of them were also either politically passive or compromising, as was the case with Algerian Ṣūfīs, who collaborated with the French. The classical Sufism of Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240) was appreciated, because it was less ritualistic and more philosophical. Ibn al-ʿArabī's Sufism was predicated on eliminating mediators between Allāh and the believers.

Advocates of revival and renewal gained momentum after the elimination of the caliphate in 1924. But in the late nineteenth century, some reformers, such as ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Kawākibī, associated renewal in religion with major political reform. The creation of an Arab caliphate alongside an Ottoman sultanate was considered necessary in order to separate religious affairs from the temporal affairs of the state. Many religious thinkers have usually associated religious reform with political reform, because Islam, in their opinion, covers in its major texts all facets of life. The restoration of an Arab caliphate was seen as a step toward bringing about the unification of Muslim ranks. This is different from late-twentieth-century calls for establishing a caliphate that would combine religious and temporal powers. See ALī ʿABD AL-RāZIQ.

Some reformers also intended to improve the status of women in society. Muḥammad ʿAbduh and, in the twentieth century, Shaykh Muḥammad al-Ghazālī have refused to attribute the legal and social inferiority of women in the Arab world to Islam. They believe that the oppressive conditions of women in most Muslim countries are the product of ignorance and of the misinterpretation of Islamic texts. ʿAbduh wanted to apply the criterion of maṣlaḥah ʿāmmah (public interest) to the application of laws, including religious laws. By his criterion, the abolishment of polygamy, which is sanctioned in the Qurʿān, could be rationalized. Similarly, the Islamic ban on usury could also be overcome.

Another concern for those who preached revival and renewal was in the area of education in general, and Islamic education in particular. Reforms of educational systems were viewed by ʿAbduh and others as the vehicle through which the Muslim world would revitalize itself. Reform of education entailed the absorption of sciences and discoveries that obscurantist Islamic scholars (some of whom occupied high positions at al-Azhar University in ʿAbduh's time) refused to incorporate into the curricula of Islamic institutions of learning. There were calls for modernizing civil education in order to contribute to national progress and to undermine the role of Christian missionary schools. Furthermore, educational reform required, in the mind of ʿAbduh, an overhaul of the structure of al-Azhar University. Al-Azhar itself was viewed as an obstacle to the goals of revival and renewal. See AZHAR, AL-; and EDUCATION, subentry on EDUCATIONAL REFORM.

Revival and renewal was also predicated on the belief that the subservience of clerics to the political authorities is harmful to the interests of Muslims. In the context of Islamic reform, revival and renewal are equated with the needs of a group of ʿulamāʿ (religious scholars) who owe their allegiance to God only, not to political authorities who control important segments of the clerical establishment and pay their salaries. Advocates of revival and renewal are often praised for the independence of their minds and for their resistance to political pressures.

Revival and renewal are often understood in national terms. During the heyday of Arab nationalism, the terms were used in reference to the Arab nation and to the interests of its people. For Islamic fundamentalists, the unit of analysis became the Islamic ummah (community) in general. For both the Pan-Islamists and the Arab nationalists, revival and renewal have elements of national independence and national resistance. The major names in the contemporary history of revival and renewal are associated with struggle against foreign control and occupation. In other words, revival and renewal have internal and external dimensions, and the two dimensions should be approached simultaneously.

The two terms are often used in the political literature of present-day Islamic fundamentalists. For Ḥasan al-Turābī (b. 1932), the influential Sudanese Islamic leader, tajdīd is required by the need for a “total revival in all aspects.” Revival here is not understood to mean modernization along Western lines. The revival of the ummah is seen as a means toward the establishment of a new society where sharīʿah (Islamic law) is applied. Renewal then becomes a prerequisite for the Islamization of all aspects of life. In specific terms, advocates of religious renewal call for the creation of a new system of thought and a new epistemology that is free of “corrupt” Western influence and is rooted in Islam. Al-Turābī calls for renewing uṣūl al-fiqh (the fundamentals of jurisprudence) to meet the needs of the community and to provide a foundation for renewal. At times, however, Islamic fundamentalist thinkers and leaders are short on details. Islamist political literature advocates renewal and revival, but it tends to lack programmatic specifics.

A discussion of revival and renewal should also take note of the emerging consensus about political reforms. Islamic fundamentalists express dissatisfaction with the prevailing political conditions in the Muslim world, and public demands for political liberalization are sometimes articulated in the fundamentalist literature. Renewal here is related to the notion of shūrā (deliberation) in the Qurʿān. Fundamentalists do not condone political repression, and they express their firm belief in the efficacy of shūrā arrangements. Al-Turābī calls for tajdīd to cover the area of political reforms by devising a mechanism for introducing a system of shūrā. [See Turābī, Hasan al-.]

In Southeast Asia, revivalist movements, both in countries where Muslims are a majority, like Malaysia and Indonesia, or in countries where they are a minority, like the Philippines and Singapore, emphasize the Islamic identity of their societies while preserving local, non-Islamic customs and practices (ʿadāt) at the same time. These countries are ethnically diverse, and Islamic revivalism has been used to give Muslims confidence and consciousness of their own cultural and religious identities.

The political popularity of some Arab movements and leaders calling for Islamic revival and renewal stems from Arab public awareness of the depth of social, economic, and political problems that afflict the Arab world. Successive military defeats at the hands of Israel have only augmented the calls for revival and renewal because people often draw analogies to the era of the Crusades, when stagnation gave way to a revival that achieves victory over enemies. What the various movements and leaders agree on is that change is needed in all facets of life in the Arab and broader Islamic world. There is no consensus on the nature of change and ways to achieve it.

The increased influence of the West, especially the United States since the demise of the Soviet Union, fuels the calls for revival. Fears of total control by the United States over the region and its affairs abound. The open dependence of several Arab and Muslim governments on U.S. military and political support increases the fears of the masses regarding attacks against the culture and religion of the region. Only through revival and renewal can the region achieve progress without undermining its religious foundations and without losing its aṣālah (authenticity).

Other contemporary movements of the al-Qaʿida type are not territorial and, therefore, have few local roots in the places they fight, such as Afghanistan and Iraq. However, their violent methods are designed, as they see them, to prevail against Western and colonial influence and are considered to be anti-imperialist. Their main ideological point is the impossibility of allowing non-Muslim foreigners to gain authority or power in Muslim lands, especially the lands that host holy Islamic sites like Mecca, the birthplace of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula. They can be described as jihādī movements seeking liberation from non-Muslim rule. [See Jihād Organizations.]

Most of the revivalist movements that appeared around the mid-twentieth century and later represented a populist trend instead of the elitist trend of the Salafīyah. They attracted, in the main, socially marginalized (though not necessarily uneducated) Muslims both inside and outside the Muslim world. The late-twentieth-century revivalist movements had a ṣaḥwah (revival) feature rather than renewal or reformist features. They underlined their Islamic identity, especially in countries where Muslims constitute a minority and emphasized Islamic ethos and practices. Although they usually speak of the universality of the Islamic message, each of these movements is molded by local and/or national frameworks.

Modern revivalist movements and modes of thought were usually believed to have, generally, an urban character. Recent research has shown that this belief is no longer sound. Different movements have different origins that could be urban, rural, or tribal. They may represent the center or the periphery depending on socio-economic, cultural, or political factors.



  • Baldauf, Ingeborg. “Jadidism in Central Asia within Reformism and Modernism in the Muslim World,”Die Welt des Islams41, no. 1 (2001): 72–88. A study of the thinking of the Islamic reformers in Central Asia.
  • Dallal, Ahmad. “The Origins and Objectives of Islamic Revivalist Thought, 1750–1850.”Journal of American Oriental Society113, no. 3 (1993): 341–359. A novel study that challenges the view that most Muslim revivalist movements stemmed from the one ideological root of the Wahhābīyah in Arabia.
  • Dessouki, Ali E. Hillal, ed.Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World. New York, 1982. Different short studies on Islamic movements in the Arab world in the 1970s.
  • Esposito, John L.Islamic Revivalism. Washington, D.C., 1985 Looks at the general reasons behind Islamic revivalism in the second half of the twentieth century.
  • Esposito, John L.Islam and Politics. 3d ed. Syracuse, N.Y., 1991. Discusses the relationship between modern Islamic movements and their perception of political activity.
  • Keddie, Nikki. “The Revolt of Islam, 1700 to 1993: Comparative Considerations and Relations to Imperialism.”Comparative Studies in Society and History36, no. 3 (1994): 463–487. A historical and contextual framework about the clash between Islamic societies and imperialism since the eighteenth century.
  • Kerr, Malcolm H.Islamic Reform: The Political and Legal Theories of Muḥammad ʿAbduh and Rashīd Riḍā. Berkeley, 1966. A textual analysis of the ideas of two prominent Arab Muslim reformers.
  • Lapidus, Ira. “Islamic Revival and Modernity: The Contemporary Movements and the Historical Reading.”Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient40, no. 4 (1997): 444–460. A study that directs our attention to the context of the rise of the Islamic movements in relation to the problems of modernity.
  • Levtzion, Nehemia, and John Obert Voll, eds.Eighteenth-Century Renewal and Reform in Islam. Syracuse, N.Y., 1987. Sundry articles that take the Islamic renewal and reform movements back to the eighteenth century instead of looking at the nineteenth century as their starting point.
  • Livingstone, John. “Muḥammad ʿAbduh on Science,”The Muslim World85, no. 3–4 (1995): 215–234. The positive ideas of a major Muslim reformer on modern science and its sanction by Islam.
  • Mutalib, Hussin. “Islamic Revivalism in ASEAN States: Political Implications.”Asian Survey30, no.9 (1990): 877–891. The phenomenon of Islamic revivalism in a region where different cultural currents intersect.
  • Voll, John Obert. “Renewal and Reform in Islamic History: Tajdīd and Iṣlāh”. In Voices of Resurgent Islam, edited by John L. Esposito, pp. 32–47. New York and Oxford, 1983. A short study on the ideologies of different reform movements in different parts of the Muslim world.
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