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Modernization and Development

Dominic T. Bocci
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

Modernization and Development

Currently situated in larger discourses on postmodernity and globalization, modernization and development are two terms that fuel the contemporary global imperative to increase the economic, political, and social rights of an individual, striving to maximize human potential and economic capacity. On its own, the term “modernization” has many definitions but can generally be taken to assume a linear progression and evolution from the premodern to the modern. The term is often taken to characterize movement from some previously hindered beginning toward a realized potential. Frequently associated with urbanization and industrialization, modernization is achieved through various techniques of “development.” Implying growth and advancement, development, whether economic (i.e., increased gross domestic product) or political (i.e., active participatory democracy), is achieved through a multiplicity of techniques and institutions used to facilitate social change and reform. Put simply, development is geared toward increasing an individual's choice and freedom in society, while modernity is a description of the future state seeking to be realized.

Historical Overview.

Both terms are rooted in European Enlightenment logic and ideals—highlighting faith, tradition, and political authority as hindrances to progressive development towards modernity. For European philosophers, modernity was to be achieved through independent reasoning, science, and democratic participation. It was this emphasis on the individual that counters state abuses which act as impediments to societal potential.

Discourses of modernization often focus on the early modern period of Europe (1600–1800 CE). However, these analyses frequently overlook the immense international network of seafarers and global trade that controlled much of the world. At a time when European women were not allowed to control their property if they even had any at all, women throughout premodern Arabia and North Africa actively participated in commercial transactions and in public social, religious, and political life. Take, for example, Khadījah bint Khuwaylid (b. c. 555 1800 CE–d. c. 619 CE), the first wife of the Prophet Muḥammad, who was a wealthy business owner and merchant. In addition, Fatima al-Fihri (d. 880 CE) was said to have inherited her family's fortune, which she devoted to pious work, as well as erecting the Qarawīyīn Mosque in Morocco. The Islamic Golden Age (800–1400 CE) is replete with examples of Muslim women actively participating in thriving societies, as well as various examples of the Islamic charitable trust (waqf, pl. awqāf). These trusts, or religious endowments, devoted their profits or value to charity for the poor and other philanthropic endeavors, including the funding of schools and hospitals.

However, with the increased wealth of European colonial powers, land and economic resources were being claimed throughout Africa, Asia, and the Americas and and the profits sent to colonial metropoles. Extraction of immense wealth throughout colonial territories brought immense benefits to the imperial power, including a huge disparity of political and economic control. Captured most accurately, satirically or not, by Rudyard Kipling, growing Western powers suffered from “White Man's Burden,” the belief by those in the West in the benefits and obligation to aide in the development and modernizing of the local populations throughout the colonial world. These modernization efforts started with the building of colonial administrative institutions, that is, courts, universities, hospitals. The salvation-oriented tones of development and modernization campaigns by colonial administrations were echoed in the missionary efforts of American and European Christian groups. Particularly in Africa, these missionary campaigns primarily provided medical and educational services to underserved communities throughout the developing world.

Postcolonial Identity and Arab Independence.

With the slow European decolonization of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and the rise of international governance, development and modernization prerogatives became enshrined, on the one hand, in international human-rights documents and, on the other, in foreign policy–informed trade agreements facilitated by global powers.

Largely based on Enlightenment ideals, the concept of natural rights and political developments of the American and French Revolutions, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. Many have argued that human rights are an exclusively Western concept, but this overlooks many other cultural traditions’ emphasis on personal dignity and the rights of others. Much of this discourse has focused on whether the teachings of Islam espouse similar rights.

Calls for modernization and development in the Muslim world continued to be adopted and discussed among Muslim intellectuals and leaders. With declared independence from colonial powers, Arab intellectuals actively discussed reform measures. Figures such as Jamāl al-Dīn al- Afghānī, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and Rashīd Riḍā actively debated reform measures with Muslim intellectuals, many of whom believed that a return to the Islamic tradition was key to development toward modernity after colonial rule. It was Qāsim Amīn, who, in his work The Liberation of Women, advocated for legal reform of those laws affecting divorce, polygamy, and women's dress.

While government reform measures in the Muslim world have often been justified by religious texts, the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI) is often looked to as the Islamic perspective on human rights. Issued by the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), now the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, in 1990, the declaration affirms human rights, starting by forbidding “discrimination on the basis of race, colour, language, belief, sex, religion, political affiliation, social status or other considerations,” but only as prescribed by Sharīʿah. The CDHRI has been criticized for being subject to Sharīʿah, which many feel restricts the rights of religious minorities, women, and other vulnerable populations.

September 11th and the “Fight to Save Muslim Women.”

Despite this affirmation of human rights as central to Islam, governments citing Islam as a primary source of their laws, as well as Muslim communities throughout the world, are critical sites of major human-rights violations. Whether refusing to recognize the rights of the LGBT community, severely limiting freedom of speech through government censorship, or directly targeting ethnic and religious minority communities, Islam has been implicitly, if not explicitly, portrayed as one of the primary impediments to modernization in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. This view that Islam is incompatible with modern capitalism and democratic governance has been a major assumption behind many perspectives influencing international foreign policy and economic trade.

This pervasive sentiment overlooks much of the nuance necessitated by state-specific human-rights violations. The term “Muslim world,” referring to those countries that have a Muslim-majority population, applies to over fifty countries scattered throughout Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. However, categorizing these countries on the basis of faith traditions ignores vast disparities in economic resources, geopolitical realities, and local cultural customs; each of which inversely relate to the status of each state's development. For example, despite immense economic resources and modernization efforts, Saudi Arabia severely restricts women's mobility, and religious freedom is virtually non-existent. On the other hand, the international community expressed concern when Turkey, often deemed modern and praised for its secular politics, lifted the ban on headscarves in school.

However, despite poverty, illiteracy, famine, and disease, much of the discourse surrounding modernization and development throughout the Muslim world focuses on two overlapping and inextricable themes: the treatment of Muslim women and Muslim religious and political extremists.

Shortly after the United States’ invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, academics actively debated the delicate relationship between neo-imperialism, modernization, and Islam. In her now famous article “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?” Lila Abu-Lughod quotes former first lady Laura Bush, “Because of our recent military gains in much of Afghanistan, women are no longer imprisoned in their homes…. The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights of women” (2002). The events of September 11, 2001, exhumed many colonial arguments and impressions that the Muslim world is backwardly un-modern and in severe need of development.

Monitoring the status of modernization and development, the Arab Human Development Reports (AHDRs), independent reports published by the United Nations Development Programme, detail the economic and political weaknesses of much of the Muslim world. The first report was published in 2002 and provided an account of the major shortfalls in the area of human development, noting knowledge, women's empowerment, and freedom as the three main impediments to the region's progress. Published in 2006, the AHDR report titled Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World, which was co-led by prominent Palestinian academic and feminist Islah Jad, recommends for the benefit of all of Arab society that countries fully ratify and implement the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In addition, the report recognizes the significant achievements in the advancement of women throughout the Arab world but notes that much remains to be accomplished in developing and utilizing their human capacities, as well as recognizing the human rights of women.

In addition to the active campaign to empower Muslim women, development professionals at the international level are actively promoting good governance in the Muslim world. As opposed to human-rights advocacy, which frequently roots its arguments in aspirations of social justice and those rights documented in international law, good-governance standards tend to focus on economic stability and political transparency. Frequently described as rule-of-law programs, these projects traditionally focus on institution- and capacity-building for high-level government figures. Much like the discussion of whether human rights are compatible within the Islamic legal tradition, scholars have vehemently upheld that the aspirations articulated by the rule of law are fully upheld by the Sharīʿah.

In conjunction with the Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS), which also facilitates publication of the AHDR, the UNDP Programme on Governance in the Arab Region (POGAR) actively seeks to increase citizen participation in government processes, while promoting the rule of law, government accountability, and transparency. It remains to be seen what role POGAR will play in the post–Arab Spring Middle East, particularly given that millions across the Muslim world continue to support some form of Islamic governance. To what extent the modern instantiation of the nation-state is compatible with contemporary Islamic notions of good governance remains to be seen.


  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. “The Active Social Life of ‘Muslim Women's Rights’: A Plea for Ethnography, Not Polemic, with Cases from Egypt and Palestine.” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 6, no. 1 (Winter 2010): 1–45. Find it in your Library
  • Abu-Lughod, Lila. “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others.” American Anthropologist n.s. 104, no. 3 (September 2002): 783–790. Find it in your Library
  • Amīn, Qāsim. The Liberation of Women and the New Woman: Two Documents in the History of Egyptian Feminism. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000. Find it in your Library
  • Kipling, Rudyard. “White Man's Burden: The United States and the Philippine Islands.” McClure's Magazine, February 1899, p. 12. Find it in your Library
  • Mattei, Ugo, and Laura Nader. Plunder: When the Rule of Law Is Illegal. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2008. Find it in your Library
  • Organization of Islamic Conference. “Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam.” www.oic-oci.org/english/article/human.htm. Find it in your Library
  • Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. New York: Simon & Schuster/Touchstone, 1967. Find it in your Library
  • United Nations Development Programme. The Arab Human Development Report 2005: Towards the Rise of Women in the Arab World. New York: Regional Bureau of Arab States, 2006. Find it in your Library
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