Emily Hamlin: Clash Between the Muslim and Western Worlds

Emily Hamlin



Throughout the 20th century, the west has had a strong influence on Muslim thought and culture. As western influence grew, it became more and more clear that Islam and Muslim culture did not match western values and culture. Islam itself is not the cause of Muslim disenchantment with modernity, but rather the clash between Islam and western culture. The spread of western ideas has led Muslims to examine their own religion and culture in a new light.


Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 marked the beginning of European colonization, and by the late 1800s, the entire Muslim world was under European control [1]. Muslims responded to western colonization with several different schools of thought. Fundamentalists believe that the problem and solution are both domestic; the west was able to conquer them because they were not strong enough, so Muslims must return to earlier forms of Islam and adjust the world to fit themselves. Anti-colonialists feel that the problem is foreign, and the solution involves both domestic and foreign improvement. Accomodationists feel that the problem lies with Islam (domestic), and that instead of returning to earlier Islamic tradition, they should look to the west to improve their society [2, 3]. These modes of response are also seen in Muslim response to western influence in the modern (20th and 21st century) world.


One manifestation of the clash between Muslim and western ideas is the emergence of Islamic feminism. As western feminist ideas spread to the Muslim world, and Muslim women gained more access to education, leading them to question the norms of Islam concerning women. Secular feminists feel that many Islamic norms and laws are harmful to women and impede progress towards gender equality [4]. These feminists are aligned with the west rather than with Islam.

Many Islamic feminists base their argument on the idea that “Islam, rightly understood, does not and cannot support gender inequality” [5]. According to this argument, any Islamic laws that support gender inequality, as well as the sources that support them, are not Islamic. This argument works for sources such as the hadith, which can be shown to have come from disreputable sources (Fatima Mernissi showed this in her book on women’s rights in Islam by tracing most of the problematic hadiths to one person in particular) [6]. However, the Quran itself contains several passages that seem to refer to women as lesser. The only way to get around this is to reinterpret these passages as pertaining only to certain situations, which again is dangerous: making the argument that the Quran should be read differently in different eras indicates that God’s word is not timeless.

Some Muslims, such as Sayyid Ahmad Kahn, tackles the question of women’s rights by claiming that Islam, if implemented correctly, is in fact very supportive of gender equality. He attacks western treatment of women by arguing that while the west speaks highly of gender equality, their actual laws give little autonomy to women [7]. He claims that bad laws, not Islam itself, are to blame for the bad treatment of women in Muslim countries. Muslim countries must “correct their conduct” in order to prove to the west that they are enlightened and not backwards [8].

These ways of handling the emergence of Islamic feminism, where some groups abandon Islamic practices altogether, some try to change them to fit with western ideas, and some wish to return Islam to a purer fundamental state, are also seen as responses to many other manifestations of the Islamic-western clash.


One important modern development that has caused issues for the Muslim world is the creation of a world market economy. The world market economy has contributed to the increased wealth, education, and urbanization of Islamic countries, as well as an increase in production of goods and services [9]. As Muslims gained increasing access to goods, services, and media from around the world, they had to decide whether to consume those products that do not accord with Islamic law. One example of this is the issue of food. For Muslims living in non-Muslim countries, as well as for any Muslim wishing to consume food made in foreign countries, there is the question of whether the food includes ingredients that are not halal. Some Muslims simply worry about avoiding ingredients that are clearly not prepared correctly, but don’t concern themselves with specific ingredients such as gelatin. Others simply choose not to consume anything with any ingredients not known to be halal. The Islamic food industry in general addresses this by certifying halal foods. Many large international companies produce halal versions of their foods [10]. Once again, we are presented with several ways in which people approach the problem: by bending the rules of Islamic law and eating some foods with non-halal ingredients, by not engaging with any suspicious non-Muslim food, or by working as an industry to ensure that halal food options are available and discoverable.

The fashion industry also had a significant effect on Muslim clothing choice. By the 1960s, western fashion had become influential throughout the Muslim world. In cities, women’s clothing became more revealing, and traditional clothing (i.e. the face-veil) were worn mostly by the poor. Demand for clothing that was fashionable but Islamic lead to the growth of the Islamic fashion industry [11]. The Islamic fashion industry acts as a bridge between western and Muslim cultural identity.

Contrary to the Islamic fashion industry is the influence of fundamentalist ideas from certain Islamic governments. The spread of ideas spreads in two main ways: from the west into the Muslim world, and from cities to rural areas within the Muslim world. A main center of Islamic ideas is Saudi Arabia, and these ideas are often strict and harsh towards actions that are seen as non-pious. Saudi interpretations of Islam push for the veiling of women and other practices that move the Muslim world even further from the ideals of the west [12].

Muslims also “Islamize” certain foreign practices in order to make them acceptable. For example, yoga, which is a Hindu practice, can be Islamized by replacing the syllable “Om” with “Allah” [13]. I find this interesting, because the west also does this. We Americanize food, fashion, traditions, etc. from other countries, stripping away its original cultural meaning in order to use it in the way we prefer. The fact that the Muslim world does this as well is interesting – the colonizers are not the only ones who can appropriate the culture of others, although the west certainly does it much more.


Modernity has caused issues within the Muslim world. This is not because of Islam itself, but because of the domination of the west which requires Muslims to reconcile their religion with the west or else reject western culture altogether. The clash of cultures manifests in struggles concerning treatment of women, dress, the economy, and other important aspects of Muslim culture and life.


[1] Brown 249

[2] Class Lecture 9/26/16

[3] Class Lecture 11/2/16

[4] Moghadam 152

[5] Brown 294

[6] Brown 295

[7] McAuliffe 598

[8] McAuliffe 600

[9] Sedgwick 288

[10] Sedgwick 289

[11] Sedgwick 290

[12] Sedgwick 287

[13] Sedgwick 285


Works Cited

Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009

Jane Damen McAuliffe, The Norton Anthology of World Religions, New York, London, W.W. Norton & Company Ltd., 2015

Velentine Moghadam, “Women and Gender in the Muslim World,” in Jeffrey T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa, Islam in the Modern World, pp. 151-177

Mark Sedgwick, “Islam and Popular Culture,” in Jeffrey T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa, Islam in the Modern World, pp. 279-299