Max Condon: Modernity and Islamic Cultures

In discussing Muslim disenchantment with modernity, it can be tempting to single out religion as the root cause of this disillusionment.  By examining modernity from a historical perspective, a more nuanced understanding is achieved.  If it can be shown that there is no innate resistance to modernity in Islam as a religion, then the question at the root of disenchantment is one of the colonial context of the Western modernity.  In this new context, the aversion to modernity becomes reflective of a reactionary cultural clash against imperial forces. 

To take apart the notion that Islam is, by its nature, opposed progressive change or new forms of thinking, one must only look at the Islamic Golden Age.  The Golden Age represented an explosion of philosophic, scientific, and cultural development born out of a love of knowledge.  This love was firmly rooted in Quranic teachings on the importance of education.[1]  At the time of the Golden Age, Islamic countries represented the pinnacle of global progress in countless scientific fields as well as areas of philosophy.   It is also crucial to note that these developments did not happen in isolation from outside influence.  Many works of the Golden Age were founded in Greek texts, and scholarly thought adapted to these sources and built off of them.  The efforts of the Golden Age show us that cultures founded in Islam are not innately hostile to new ideas, unable to adapt to changing forms of thought.  In fact, it shows us a culture flourishing as the front line of modernity.  Clearly disillusionment with modernity is not an ingrained characteristic of Islam.  From here, we must turn our attention to the systems of modernization of the contemporary era.  What are the true roots of disillusionment?

The rise of European Enlightenment and the industrial revolution led to a rapid shift in the power dynamic between Islamic empires such as the Ottoman Empire and its European counterparts.  This shift meant that the introduction of Enlightenment concepts to the muslim world was heralded with war, occupation, and colonization.  The conditions of this period of transition put the muslim world at odds with western influence and promote a reactionary sentiment.  The tenants of Enlightenment were grounded in a challenge to the traditional authority of God in Christianity.  This was a necessary starting point, because scientific thought was viewed as being a challenge to the authority of the church through the middle ages and into the Renaissance.  The grounding of progressive thought in Enlightenment thinking was born out of the combative context of the European church, not the nurturing context of Islam in the Golden Age.  When the Enlightenment was brought to the Ottomans in the form of the French occupation, it was a form of social and scientific progressivism packaged in an anti-religious way due to the European context of its origin.  Al-Jabarti, a theologian who witnessed the occupation, called the French “materialists, who deny all God’s attributes”.[2]  The Muslim disenchantment with modernity seems to be rooted not in a religious resistance to progressive themes and ideals of the Enlightenment, but a reactionary cultural isolation in response to violent sociopolitical domination by Western Civilization.

The main effect of this disenchantment with modernity is that elements of the culture built around Islam can be resistant to progressive change.  This manifests itself in issues such as women’s rights where a narrative of moral backwardness is pushed onto Muslim nations.  Of course, the treatment of women is a global issue that is handled differently in each nation regardless of religion.  It seems that even when moral positions are backed in Quranic text, the real strength of the position can come from broader cultural interpretation.  In places where disenchantment with modernism are at the most extreme, there is an extremist reactionary culture  of fundamentalism.  The resistance to progressive change in these areas is not a religious resistance to contemporary standards of human rights, but a strict cultural response of wariness and resistance against what becomes labeled as western agents of change.  In these environments progressive movements are seen as threatening to cultural institutions which have managed to preserve a faith through centuries of hostile Western influence. 

The only way to actually promote change would be to shift the narrative of progress and create a newfound feeling of global trust through cultural exchange.  A narrative that euro-centric globalism is going to be the sole force to enact positive change in the world isn’t just inaccurate, it’s actively harmful to real progress.  It works against real change and causes reactionary isolation in cultures that have long been maligned and harmed by Western nations.  Cooperation and understanding are needed to achieve progress that we all desire.

Works Cited

  1. Salam, Abdus. Renaissance of Sciences in Islamic Countries. p. 9.
  2. Rogan, Eugene (2009). The Arabs: A History. Basic Books. p. 62.