Ashley Belohlavek: Muslim Frustration with Modernity

In the aftermath of the reign of colonialism within MENA states, a large portion of the Muslim community began searching for new ways to reform their disrupted society and way of life, and these reform movements included the birth of fundamentalist ideologies or simply resistance from the Muslim community to change their long held traditions of personal identity and familial structure. Whether they are invading modernist ideals or radical homegrown values, several emerging concepts lead to major pushback from the greater Muslim community. While clashes between different Islamic perspectives appeared in increasingly unstable periods of time for MENA countries, factors that really seem to have ruptured Islam’s relationship with modernity are nationalism, fundamentalism, secularism and the evolution of the family.

Colonialism and foreign intervention, arguably the overarching reason for Muslim discontentment with modernity, have lead to different branches of problems within Muslim concentrated countries. European and American powers swept through predominantly Muslim controlled states and restructured their way of life, leaving Muslims with great motive to fight back against their invaders. This can be seen clearly in America’s continuous financial donations to Pakistan each year for military expansion, despite the fact that a whopping majority of Pakistanis do not want a military dictatorship nor do they want foreign assistance in the form of military support.[1][2] Nationalism, an undying concept that can still be seen across the globe today, is a particularly troublesome concept that came out of colonialist influence. In 20th century Egypt, for example, nationality became a much more important characteristic than one’s faith. One nationalist, Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid, proclaimed, “our Egyptianness demands that our fatherland be our qibla and that we not turn our face to any other”.[3] In other words, patriotism and national pride became such a priority in Egyptian culture that there was hardly enough room for the same kind of devotion to Islam as well, drawing a lot of its importance away from Muslim society. The abolition of the caliphate in the previously Ottoman controlled territory of Turkey contributed to this chipping away at Islamic hold within law and society as well.[4]

Speaking of Western concepts that had no place in Islamic ideology to date, the sanctity of self-autonomy in the West was not widely received in Muslim communities who had for so long held the unity of family as the highest priority. The family unit and roles within were beginning to change, and while feminist movements positively contributed to this, pushback from Western power for self-autonomous ideals created problems for Muslim communities who had been comfortable with the idea of putting their family first, not necessarily being more concerned for the individual.[5] The key to maintaining a sacred, successful family was keeping the women in line by strictly limiting their abilities and responsibilities.[6] While this may seem well-intended, making sure women keep the family in shape by having very little wiggle-room to work outside the home or dress outside in a less than tasteful fashion, it actually places accountability of all family members’ actions on the matriarchal figure of the household, oppressing her more than anything. Lots of misinterpretations of the Qur’an have lead to rifts amongst Muslim attitude towards progression and change of modern times.[7] Feminism can clearly be seen growing and fighting for equality for women in Muslim society, but tradition and contradicting interpretations of Quranic texts continue to create disagreements and rifts between family values and gender roles within Muslim cultures.

Fundamentalism, arguably a product of European colonialism and foreign occupation in the Middle East, greatly flourished from the rubble of Muslim societies left by outside powers. Several fundamentalist groups and ideologies such as the Taliban or Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia share a common desire to return to the golden age of Islam, during the Prophet Muhammad’s guidance. Members of these groups or ideals are frustrated with modern culture and practices and view them as blasphemous and unacceptable in the eyes of Allah. While everyone has the right to their own values and opinions, these extreme thinkers unfortunately view any contradicting belief as wrong and pervert many core concepts in Islam such as jihad, turning it into a mandatory act of violence instead of its more modern and widely accepted interpretation of peaceful acceptance of pluralism as well as freedom of religious thought for all.

Secularism also became a rather loathsome concept in countries largely governed by Shari’a or heavily religious legislation. With modernity comes liberalism and progression, at least it does in the West, and these new ideas began to ripple into Muslim society and clash with previously dominant traditions. While secularism is meant to be an indifference to religion, not favoring one over another, the idea of integrating a secular society to replace a theocratic government immediately appeared to be an attack on religious life in current Muslim societies. This hostile secularism can be seen in the French’s attitude towards scarves with their laws to actively ban women from wearing them, in their effort to “raise women up” and “protect them.” All this has done is create Muslim resentment towards secularism (and the French), which is somehow why Muslims view the U.S. as relatively more religiously tolerant than France.[8]

As time progresses, new ideas are born and cultures grow, and Islam is no exception to this phenomenon. Of course, not all ideas are met with open arms, and that’s okay. Some of these modern concepts, however, have shaken up Muslim thought and tradition in some negative ways, causing disenchantment with the direction of today’s society as well as feelings of alienation from the Islamic faith itself for some. There are countless different Muslim ideologies, and it is expected that once customs have been in place for so long, they will be hard to budge. For better or for worse, modernity and Muslim society have met head on and they will continue to ebb and flow with the passing of time.


Works Cited:

Mahallati, M. Jafar. RELG 275, Week 9c Lecture. 11-4-16

Cole, Juan. Engaging the Muslim World. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009. Print.

Brown, Daniel W. A New Introduction To Islam. 2nd ed. Oxford, UK. Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print

Mahallati, M. Jafar. RELG 270, Week 10b Lecture. 11-9-16

Barakat, Halim. The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Berkley: California University Press. 1993.

Kersten, Carool. Islam in Indonesia: The Contest for Society, Ideas and Values. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2015.


[1] Mahallati, RELG 275 lecture 9c

[2] Cole, pg 164

[3] Brown, pg 263

[4] Brown, pg 262

[5] Mahallati, RELG 270 lecture 10b

[6] Barakat, pg 104

[7] Barakat, pg 103

[8] Kersten, pg 150