Jackson Zinn-Rowthorn: Conflicting Notions of Islam in Modernity

Jackson Zinn-Rowthorn
RELG 272
Response Paper 6

Conflicting Notions of Islam in Modernity

In the increasingly secular landscape of contemporary global society, institutions of religion must make an existential choice: tweak outmoded doctrines and practices to adapt to modernity, or stand steadfast in the face of great change and try to force modernity to reverse its course. Of course, no religion is an ideological monolith, so in every tradition one finds contentious disagreement over the proper path forward. With a huge canon of divergent ideas, Islam is perhaps the best example of this — on one side, a handful of liberal theologians propagating imaginative Qur’anic and tradition-based ideas to justify evolving their faith; on the other, radical reactionary fundamentalists attempting to quell what they see as a destructive tide of moral corruption and terrorize modernity into submission.

The so-called father of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism is Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian religio-political activist and firebrand.1 Once a prospective scholar of literature, Qutb’s tafsir accentuates the drama and “dynamism” of the Qur’an. His authorial style of emotionalism and urgency — a sort of cultish charisma of the written word — elicited from his readers a potent zeal that ballooned into romantic fanaticism and served as the ideological underpinning of the burgeoning extremist movement.2 Foundational to Qutb’s vision of Islam is a virulent anti-Western sentiment, which he developed during a two-year residence in America. The veneration of wealth, secular mores, and tendency toward “egoistic individualism” he witnessed there “filled [him] with revulsion” and “hatred”. He saw these as products of a pluralistic society and capitalist economy — inherent characteristics of any non-Islamic culture. He therefore believed that Islamic command of the world was absolutely necessary for the creation of a “just and perfect society”.

Despite his repugnance toward modernity, he was not cynical about the future. Instead, his ideology is tinged with an optimistic, almost Marxist, determinism. He believed that human society is indeed in a state of decay, and has been since the time of the Prophet. But this is, in his estimation, the “pre-Islamic” era — soon the world will be conquered by the foot-soldiers of Allah and reformed into a global Islamic utopia as detailed in the Qur’an.3 Integral to his utopian vision is the absolute authority of shari’a. He viewed shari’a as the Divinely constructed system of inimitable laws governing the entire cosmos. It follows, then, that in order to actualize the coalescence of man and God, shari’a must be imposed on human society in full, just as it had been in Medina for the first Muslim community.4 Qutb considered Medinan society under the Prophet’s authority to be the Divine ideal, and the only sacred part of history — any “tradition” built upon it is inherently a distillation of true Islam, a deviation from its immaculate point of origin. Therefore, it should be discarded en masse. In Qutb’s estimation, a cultural overhaul any less exhaustive is an affront to God.

Mahmoud Mohammad Taha (1909-1985), another determinist reformer, proclaims an entirely different vision of the future for Islam. Whereas Qutb’s fundamentalism regards the authoritarian absolutism of Medinan Islam as the model for a perfect society, Taha believes that the Islamic utopia to which Muslims should aspire has never been realized, nor can it be realized in the present day. Like Qutb, he considers the current state of human civilization (especially in the West) to be “lost and bankrupt.” But he sees this cultural “wilderness” as fertile ground for positive global reform, namely, the integration of “Western material progress with a new spirit … of Islam.” This fusion, he hopes, will be of great mutual benefit, mitigating the problematic aspects of Islam (in its current manifestation) and the Western world’s propensity for destruction and injustice.5

Much of Taha’s ideology can be traced back to the notion that humanity, in its present state, is ill-equipped to interpret and apply the word of God. This is self-evident, he says, because “the [true] religion with God is Islam” (3:19), and “God is beyond time and space. Progress into Islam by means of the Qur’an is progress toward God in infinitude. As such it has not been, and can never be, fully and conclusively explained.” Likewise, when God says to Muhammad, “and we have revealed to you the Reminder [Qur’an] so that you may explain to mankind that which has been sent down to them” (16:44), the implication is that the Prophet was selected as a singularly pious man to impart Divine law to a community of human beings of lesser capacity for subservience. This notion is, of course, in direct conflict with Qutb’s assertion that 7th century Muslims represent an ideal class of believers.6

Something all Muslim exegetes must wrestle with is the tonal dissonance between the softer, moralistic Meccan suras and the harsher, legalistic Medinan suras. Taha regards this dissonance not as a scriptural hiccup, but as a Divinely orchestrated reformation of the Message in response to humanity’s incompetence in Mecca. Essentially, the Meccan Qur’an is the “ultimate” or “true” Islam, but when it was conveyed to early Muslims, “they persisted in … abusing their freedom and rendering it liable to be withdrawn.”7 Thus, in Medina, Qur’anic revelations were regulatory and severe. Taha believes that adherence to Medinan Islam and enforcement of legalistic shari’a are still necessary to sustain a Muslim society, as human beings have not yet achieved the level of piety or spiritual awareness required for the abrogation of codified shari’a. But when the ultimate Islam, revealed in Mecca, manifests on Earth, every man will have his own shari’a, in accordance with his individual nature and personal capacities.8

Another approach to Islamic adaptation is the “inclusive reformism” of Muhammad Shahrour (b.1938), which argues that the Divine word of the Qur’an is indeed immutable, but its resultant religion (Islam) is actualized by humankind, which, by its nature, cannot produce something of equivalent divinity.9 Thus it is in direct conflict with basic theological notions — namely, that the Divine is inherently perfect and humanity is inherently imperfect — to enforce any single conception of Islam as “pure” and dismiss others as false. Because of this, debate among Islamic philosophers is not only futile, but sometimes damaging to the faith. According to Shahrour, Islam flourishes when a multitude of interpretations and approaches exist alongside each other, mutually supportive and in constant conversation. Furthermore, expanding on Taha’s notion that early Muslims were flawed believers, Shahrour believes that “the human capacity to grasp the complex realm of the Divine” is strengthened by the advancement of the sciences and the collective wisdom accrued therefrom.10 It follows, then, that the tafsir of modernity is not diluted by the passage of time — instead, it has the potential to be more sophisticated, more enlightened, and more pious than ever before.


1. A. H. Johns, “Let My People Go! Sayyid Qutb and the Vocation of Moses,” Islam and Christian Muslim Relations 1, no. 2 (December 1990): 145.
2. Ibid., 148.
3. Ibid., 146-147.
4. Ibid., 148.
5. Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, “The Second Message of Islam,” in Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, ed. Charles Kurzman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 279.
6. Ibid., 277.
7. Ibid., 274.
8. Ibid., 280.
9. Andreas Christmann, “”The Form Is Permanent But The Content Moves”: The Qur’anic Text and its Interpretation(s) in Mohamad Shahrour’s al-Kitab wal-Qur’an,” in Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, ed. Suha Taji-Faruqi (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004), 268.
10. Ibid., 269.
Works Cited:

Christmann, Andreas. “‘The Form Is Permanent But The Content Moves’: The Qur’anic Text and its Interpretation(s) in Mohamad Shahrour’s al-Kitab wal-Qur’an.” In Modern Muslim Intellectuals and the Qur’an, edited by Suha Taji-Faruqi, 263-95. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2004.
Johns, A. H. “Let My People Go! Sayyid Qutb and the Vocation of Moses.” Islam and Christian Muslim Relations 1, no. 2 (December 1990): 143-69.
Taha, Mahmoud Mohamed. “The Second Message of Islam.” In Liberal Islam: A Sourcebook, edited by Charles Kurzman, 270-83. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.