Haley Jones: Social and Ideological Struggles in the Modern Muslim World

In 2001, the course of Islamic history changed forever due to the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11th, carried out by the radical Sunni organization Al-Qaeda. It began wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a new era of militant Islamic fundamentalism, today manifesting in groups such as ISIS capable of astonishing crimes against humanity. Tensions between the West and the Muslim world have increased substantially, with the threat of terrorism remaining a dominant element of political discourse in the United States and Europe. 1 Meanwhile, the way of life for the majority of Muslims is facing unprecedented changes, not only due to the pressures of fundamentalism, but also due to globalisation and modernization.

One factor that puts Islamic traditional thought at odds with modernity are the phenomenons of nationalism and urbanism. Islam is an incredibly community-minded religion, designed to bring people together in worship. This emphasis on community existed at all levels of pre-modern society: within the family unit, within the village, and within the broad umma – the Islamic nation. The modern situation has altered this model considerably. The umma is now fractured by arbitrary national borders imposed largely by colonial powers. Changing economic circumstances have, just as everywhere else in the world, brought about urbanism in the Middle East, where the close bonds formed by generations of neighboring families are no longer present. For all of these reasons, Muslims have been forced to re-imagine what community truly means, for it no longer aligns fully with Qur’anic teachings or with the pre-modern past. 2

Increasing modernization has consequences for the Islamic family unit as well. Muslim families are lauded by the Qur’an and considered to be the central nucleus of daily life around which the rest of society is organized. They are characterised by closeness, loyalty, and selflessness, in which the actions of one family member have ramifications for the family as a whole. Fathers are considered to be providers, while mothers are designated as caretakers of the home and of children. 3 Modern notions of gender equality, particularly in terms of parenting, have begun to alter the power dynamics between husbands and wives. However, in Arab countries in particular, families remain rigidly hierarchical and patriarchal, and women remain second-class citizens subordinate to men. 4

A related shift in modern thinking that fails to correspond with traditional Islam is the concept of individuality. In the European West, the autonomy of the individual is held at almost sacred esteem. The introduction of this ideology into Muslim countries is a major departure from the community-centric model that had reigned for centuries. In response, contemporary Islam has less emphasis on the “otherworldly” and more on the “this-worldly,” allowing virtues like economic prosperity and personal contentment more prominence. Sedgwick asserts that the incorporation of individualism into Islam has indirectly lead to the incorporation of outside beliefs not espoused by the Qur’an, such as yoga (from Hinduism) and reiki (from Buddhism). 5 With individuality held at high esteem, religion now has the potential to become a personal, customizable collection of beliefs, and this may be seen as a threat to the integrity of traditional Islam.

Another conflict between Muslim and the global, modern world, can be found in the issue of women’s rights and gender relations. The treatment of women in the 21st century varies tremendously across the Muslim world, including their legal rights, economic opportunities, and social position. However, troubling trends of “high rates of fertility, low literacy, high maternal mortality, and limited labor force participation” can be observed in most Muslim countries.6 Perhaps the most blatant expression of Muslim femininity, and a controversial marker of difference between modern Western women’s attire, is the hijab. In some countries, it is mandated by the government and strictly enforced, while in others, it is entirely optional. Regardless of regional differences, the act of veiling (or unveiling) can serve as a political statement. By wearing a hijab or other veil types, a woman associates herself with the ideals of traditional, “authentic” Islam, whereas the rejection of it can be a means of aligning herself with progressive, Western standards.7

Perhaps the greatest challenge for Muslims in the 21st century lies with the question of pluralism – the acceptance of disparate cultures and religious ideologies within society. Today’s global community results in the increased flow of both peoples and ideas to and from every corner of the world, requiring a redefinition and re-evaluation of what Islam should mean and how it should operate. Globalism has lead to the blurring of lines between what is “Western” and what is “Islamic,” and the identity crises brought about by this have sometimes manifested in the worst form of Islamic fundamentalism. The most extreme is Wahabbism, the rejection of any dogma other than the strict interpretation of the Qur’an, and thus the displacement of sufism, Shi’ism, theology and philosophy, and the veneration of saints.8 Under this ideology, pluralism is refused outright, as the diversity of ideology and culture is perceived to be a threat to Islam. Wahabbism has the dire consequence of leading individuals to die, and kill for, the sake of upholding and protecting Islam. 9

Such extremism has left the West critical and fearful of Islam, an unfortunate simplification of the true variety of responses to modernity. Islamic liberalism also exists in many countries, and is founded on the notion that the Qur’an itself is noticeably hospitable to diversity, and that warfare with opposing ideologies is unfavorable to “an unyielding moral and political commitment to the ongoing human struggle for justice and righteousness in the world.”10  This ideology makes it clear that the Western stereotype of Islam is incorrect, and that many Muslims actually embrace religious pluralism. The struggle of defining modern Islam will continue, and it will remain crucial to perceive not only the social and economic factors in play, but the sheer heterogeneity of competing beliefs present in the Muslim world.



I affirm that I have adhered to the Honor Code in this assignment – Haley Jones



1 – Daniel W. Brown, A New Introduction to Islam, 2nd. Ed. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. pp. 282-283

2 – Mark Sedgwick, “Islam and Popular Culture,” in Jeffrey T. Kenney and Ebrahim Moosa, Islam in the Modern World, London and New York: Routledge, 2014. pp. 282-283

3 – Barakat, Halim Isber. The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. pp. 98

4 – Ibid, 104-105

5 – Sedgwick, 284-285

6 – Ibid, 162

7 – Ibid, 158-159

8 – Brown,  285

9 – Ibid, 286-287

10 – Ibid, 289