Camden Henzler-Lhasawa: Islamic Struggle with Modernity

Islam is a factor in the Muslim world’s disenchantment with modernity. However, this disillusionment with modernity differs throughout the Muslim world and can be seen as a backlash of colonialism. During the birth of neo-colonialism in the 1950’s and 60’s the Islamic world began to modernize, following examples set in the west. In the attempt to rid itself of economic colonialism by the West, the Muslim world underwent an Islamic revitalization during the 1970’s, culminating in the disenchantment of modernity. Resistance to modernity took two forms: active resistance seen through women’s rights and implementation of Sharia and passive resistance is seen through consumerism.  

The staunchest example of Muslim disenchantment with modernity can be seen through lack women’s rights. Unlike the Western World, the Muslim world lacks debate on the divide between “public” spaces and “private” spaces. Many time Muslim women are forced into private spaces, we see in Muslim countries “Public space is effectively monopolized by men and male activities at all levels” (Sajoo, Civil Society in the Muslim World, 46). Many countries across the Muslim world have elected Women to the highest seats in office, unlike the United States, however, the majority of political power in these countries in relegated to men. In “private” spaces as well as “public” we see women marginalized. An integral part of modernity is a woman right to divorce, a power not afforded to all women in the Muslim world. Prior to the rise of Islam divorce was widespread in Arabia with each gender having similar authority (Barakat, The Arab World, 114). In some Muslim countries women don’t have the right to divorce their husbands, while in countries such as India, a man must only say “I divorce you” three times to make this action legal. Furthermore, Women also have less economic power in the Muslim world than man. Sharia law states that women inherit less than men; even in the case where a woman is widowed, her brother in law, claims more right to the property than she does. Through the disenchantment with modernity, the Patriarchal system ingrained in the Islamic heritage have rendered women second class citizens, restricting them to “private” spaces and denying them autonomy.     

The lack of separation between religion and judicial law in Islamic countries is a key factor in the Islamic world’s disillusionment to modernity. Across the Muslim world, we see varying levels of Sharia law incorporated into state law: from the extreme, such a Saudi Arabia where theft is punishable by the cutting off of a hand, to Kazakhstan where Sharia has no role in the judicial system. While there are countries like Kazakhstan and Turkey who constitution are void of Sharia, in the majority of the Muslim world Islamic principles play a role the governance of their citizens. In Egypt for example “[The] Constitution explicitly hold that Divine Law supersedes any law elaborated on the basis of human opinion,” giving Egyptian judges the power to impose Sharia on his court if he wishes (Sajoo, Civil Society in the Muslim World, 46). In countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, the dress code is also compulsory by law for women.  The revivalism of Islamic fundamentalism has changed even historically liberal parts of the Muslim world. For women in the Indus valley for example, once a nexus of Sufism, now can be shot for not wear a traditional Islamic dress. However, in all counties where some degree of Sharia law is implemented if it is not written into law, there is still a large amount of societal pressure for women obey by the Islamic dress code. In many Islamic countries, the act of even questioning the religious authority of states will cause one to be put on trial and be imprisoned. This judicial backlash of questioning Islam influence in state law, along with state compliance to overlook violent actions committed against people who question religious authority has forced many intellectuals to self-censor. Throughout the Muslim world, we see disenchantment with modernity and the implementation of Sharia in the judicial branch of government. In extreme situations like the Taliban or ISIL violations of Sharia are punishable by death.

Consumerist culture in the Islamic world is a passive disenchantment with modernity.  Unlike the spheres of judicial law and women’s rights which are in direct opposition with modernity and the west, disenchantment with consumerism in the Muslim world is the Islamification of consumerism. We see this in the Islamic food industry though the halah certification of many products. Multinational corporations like Walmart, Nestle, and KFC produce halal food, specifically for Muslim consumers. With the Islamic revitalization of the 1970’s, we see Islamic fashion become consumerized (Kenney and Moosa, Islam in the Modern World, 290). Across the Muslim world Islamic fashion is propagated through fashion shows and mass-produced by corporations. The Financial sector has become the most Islamified by the disenchantment with modernity. Sharia specifies strike law surrounding finance which has become incorporated into the banking system of the Islamic world. Islamic banks provide services which abide by the laws of sharia while providing modern financial services like Takaful, Islamic insurance. Throughout the Islamic world, we see disenchantment of modernity though the Islamification of western services.

Beginning with Napoleon’s colonization of Egypt in 1798, the Muslim world underwent an extreme shock, which disrupted the confidence and cohesion of the Islamic world. A sense of defeat and retreat sweep the Muslim world, and Muslims begin to reconsider their domestic situation and relations to the west. The Islamic world became more and more modernized until the rise of political Islam in the 1970s and the disenchantment of modernity. This disenchantment to modernity took many forms: from active resistance in cases such as women’s rights and the judicial system, to passive resistance such as the Islamification of consumerist culture. Many in the West believe that Islam is at odd with modernity, however, this is wrong. The primary reason of Muslim disenchantment with modernity is the economic colonization and political subjugation of the Muslim world at the hand of the west. The only way these difference will ever be reckoned and Muslim disenchantment with modernity will end is through dialogue between the powers of the West and the Muslim world.   


Sajoo, Amyn. Civil Society in the Muslim World. New Work: Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2002.

Barakat, Halim. The Arab World: Society, Culture and State. Berkely: California university Press 1993

Kenney, Jeffrey., Moosa, Ibrahim. Islam in the Modern World. New York: Routledge, 2014.