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Revival and Renewal

As῾ad AbuKhalil
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World What is This? Provides global coverage of the Muslim experience from the end of the eighteenth century through the twentieth century

Revival and Renewal

The Arabic terms iḥyā' (revival) and tajdīd (renewal) are often 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. 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‐῾Aṭṭār, an Egyptian cleric who worked closely with the French experts who accompanied Napoleon, may have been one of the first reformists/revivalsts when he said: “Our countries should be changed and renewed [tatajaddada] 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 ῾Abduh.

The call for revival and renewal emanated from the detection of symptoms of backwardness and stagnation by religious thinkers in Muslim societies in the nineteenth century (and in the eighteenth century in the case of Muḥammad ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb, founder of the Wahhābīyah). Islamic thinkers realized that something must be done to achieve a degree of progress commensurate with the fast pace of development in Europe. Islam was not seen as the cause of the problem but as the problem's solution provided that Muslims approached religion in a new way. Two major movements designed to meet this challenge were the strict Salafīyah movement and the reformist movement.

The orthodox Salafīyah movement (as represented by the Wahhābīyah doctrine) did not concern itself with competing with the West. Far from that, Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb worried about the very survival of religion in the face of dangerous bid῾ah (innovations that are religiously impermissible). The Wahhābiyah aimed at cleansing religious practice and thought from all its alien elements to save the Muslim people from divine wrath. Ibn ῾Abd 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). The solution of Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb, who came from the oasis‐nomad society of the Arabian Peninsula, resided in returning to the simplicity of early Islam and to the nuṣūṣ (religious texts) and their classical interpretations.

The Salafīyah sought to revive Islam's role in society through an emphasis on tawḥīd (unity of God's qualities). Ṣūfī manifestations in Arabia, 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 it did not see a need for reinterpretation of texts to adapt to the modern life that was already affecting Middle Eastern societies. Yet the Wahhābīyah, like the Sanūsīyah in North Africa and the Mahdīyah in Sudan, is considered a Salafīyah movement, because it sought and attained dramatic changes in society and politics according to its idealization of the lives and religious practices of the salaf (the Muslim predecessors, some of whom were companions of Muḥammad).

The movement for revival and renewal is more closely associated with the reformist strand represented by Muḥammad ῾Abduh, Jamāl al‐Dīn al‐Afghānī, Khayr al‐Dīn al‐Tūnisī, ῾Abd al‐Raḥmān al‐Kawākibī, and many others. The thrust of the movement centered around the realization that Muslim society was failing to catch up with the advances and progress in all facets of life that were proceeding in Europe. Many of the reformers traveled to Europe, and some mastered foreign languages. The reformist/revivalist movement did not call for westernization. In fact, al‐Afghānī and ῾Abduh bitterly criticized those in the Muslim world whom they accused of blindly imitating Western ways. The movement wanted to restore dignity and greatness to Muslims and Arabs through a rejuvenation of Islamic thought and practice.

Revival, in the minds of nineteenth‐century Islamic reformers, was a response to the challenges posed by contact with Europe. Muslims became 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 which attributed manifestations of backwardness to Islam. Not only did al‐Afghānī and ῾Abduh deny the incompatibility of science and Islam, but they believed that progress in Europe was the result of contributions from Arab/Islamic civilization. Islamic reformers also refused to blame Islam itself for problems afflicting the lives of Muslims.

The reformist movement aimed, in the tradition of Ibn Rushd, at recognizing the role of reason in people's lives. Muḥammad ῾Abduh 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 (imitation of the thought and practice of early Muslims). 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.

Reformists 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.

Reformists also rejected the Salafīyah's opposition to Sufism. ῾Abduh and his students made a distinction between those Ṣūfī orders that flourished in Mamlūk and Ottoman times and the classical Ṣūfī teachers, such as Ibn al‐῾Arabī. 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‐῾Arabī was appreciated, because it was less ritualistic and more philosophical. Ibn al‐῾Arabī's Sufism was predicated on eliminating mediators between Allāh and the believers.

Advocates of renewal and reform gained momentum after the elimination of the caliphate in 1924. Some reformers, such as ῾Abd al‐Raḥmān al‐Kawākibī, associated renewal in religion with major political reform. The creation of an Arab caliphate was considered necessary in order to lead the process of change and reform. Religious thinkers have always associated religious reform with political reforms, because Islam, in their opinion, covers in its major texts all facets of life. The restoration of the caliphate was—and is—seen as a step toward bringing about the unification of Muslim ranks.

Some reformers also intended to improve the status of women in society. Muḥammad ῾Abduh 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. ῾Abduh wanted to apply the criterion of maṣlaḥah ῾āmmah (public interest) to the application of laws, including religious laws. By his criterion, the abolishment of polygamy, which is sanctioned in the Qur'ān, 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 ῾Abduh 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 in ῾Abduh'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 ῾Abduh, 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, article 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 ῾ulamā' (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 Hasan al‐Turābī, the influential Sudanese Islamic fundamentalist 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 sharī῾ah (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 which is free of “corrupt” Western influence and is rooted in Islam. Turābī calls for renewing usūl 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 Qur'ān. Fundamentalists do not condone political repression, and they express their firm belief in the efficacy of shūrā arrangements. Turābī calls for tajdīd to cover the area of political reforms by devising a mechanism for introducing a system of shūrā. [See the biography of Turābī.]

The political popularity of movements and leaders calling for revival and renewal stems from Arab public awareness of the depth of social, economic, and political problems that afflict the region. 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 gives 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 abound of total control by the United States over the region and its affairs. For people to refrain from revival and renewal, according to reformists, the people of the region must willingly accept their subjugation. The open dependence by several Arab 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 its progress without undermining its religious foundations and without losing its aṣālah (authenticity).

See also Fundamentalism; Iṣlāḥ; Salafīyah; Wahhābīyah; and the biographies of ῾Abduh, Afghānī, Ibn ῾Abd al‐Wahhāb, and Kawākibī.


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