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Muslims, modernity and change
By Asghar Ali Engineer

It is generally assumed that Islam is opposed to change and rejects modernity. Those who think like this are found both among Muslims as well as non-Muslims. In fact this debate has been raging among Muslims since nineteenth century i.e. since colonial experience began. However, there is tendency to stereotype Islam and simplistic assumptions are made. Those who know would agree that the matter is much more complex than generally realized. The debate goes on generally on theological grounds ignoring sociological aspects of the phenomenon. For some it is only theological that is important and for others theological phenomenon has to be placed in sociological perspective for better comprehension. 

Thus it would be more appropriate to say that there are Islams, not Islam as different societies develop different Islamic traditions. The modernity too is generally stereotyped. Modernity also has to be understood in sociological, rather than rational perspective. Thus there are modernities rather than modernity. Also, those who work for change and for modernization, are often selective, emphasizing certain aspects and rejecting certain others, depending on chances of acceptability or rejection in their own society. It would be relevant to give some examples. 

Sir Syed, a great reformer of nineteenth century India, was a great modernist in his own right and worked tirelessly for modernizing the Muslim society of nineteenth century India. He emphasized the importance of science and interpreted the Qur’an in a way to show that it was not against promotion of science. He even coined an interesting slogan and popularized it that the word of God (the Qur’an) cannot contradict the work of God (nature which science studies). He also emphasized the importance of modern education and even established an institution to promote it. However, he rejected social reforms in favour of women. When his admirer and colleague Maulvi Mumtaz Ali Khan wrote a book Huquq al-Niswan (Rights of Women), he not only advised him not to publish it but also opposed his views. Sir Syed also advised Muslims to keep away from politics, an important aspect of realizing modern democratic rights. Thus Sir Syed’s whole emphasis was on modern education and proper understanding of the Qur’an. Sir Syed’s modernity had no place for promoting women’s rights (whether he was opposed to women’s rights or not, is debatable). 

Maulvi Mumtaz Ali, on the other hand, though Sir Syed’s contemporary, and a co-worker, was great advocate of women’s rights. For him, the concept of modernity or for that matter, that of Islam could not be complete without empowering women. He worked for women’s rights as tirelessly as Sir Syed worked for modern education. Though both were champions of modernity their modernity visions differed, considerably. For Sir Syed, women’s rights were hardly of any significance for ushering in modernity in the Muslim society whereas education was. For the Maulvi, on the other hand, empowering women was quite a significant aspect of modernity. 

Many Muslim theologians until today not only reject modernity but also reject the idea about the plurality of Islam. For them Islam is a monolithic phenomenon and anyone talking of plurality is on the path of error. Anyone accepting plurality may even be denounced as kafir. These theologians consider society as of no consequence. For them only theology is central, every thing else being peripheral. Society, for them, must conform to theological vision and society should not have any impact on theological vision. Thus sociological plurality must be rejected outright. For them Islam is Islam, monolithic in structure. Thus one cannot talk of Indian Islam or Malaysian or Persian or Indonesian Islam. All local traditions are impurities and have no place in Islam. However, there are theologians who would concede the importance of local traditions and would acknowledge the significance of local customs called aadat. Shah Waliyullah, for example, maintains that if the Islamic injunctions based on Arab social customs bring hardships to non Arab nations and cultures they can be modified in the light of the universal principles and be adapted to the customs of a particular nation. Shah Waliyullah formulates very progressive principle in this regard. He says in his magnum opus Hujjat-ul-lahil Balighah, ‘There is no method of legislation regarding injunctions and penalties better and easier than that taking into consideration the customs of the peoples in which the Prophet (pbuh) has been sent. It must also be taken into consideration that these laws are not so rigid as to create hardships for future generations.’ 

Shah Waliyullah, a great theological thinker of eighteenth century India thus concedes the possibility of Islamic pluralism depending on the local social realities and societal desideratum. One will find many different traditions in different societies which, over a period of time, get assimilated with religion practised by the people of that area and it is in that sense that one talks about Indian or Persian or Indonesian Islam. Strictly speaking it is anthropological and not theological term. Also, in post-modern societies the significance of pluralism is being universally realized and ideological monolith is being rejected. Thus one should not talk of Islam but Islams and modernity but modernities. 

There is one significant aspect of modernity, besides plurality, which is quite significant. The modernity uses the idiom of rights whereas theological discourse is entirely built around the idiom of duties. Thus the traditional Islam imposes duties and rejects the idea of rights. The Ulama, as well as some traditional political leaders in the Islamic world reject the discourse of rights. Mahathir Mohammad, prime minister of Malaysia, for example, said in a statement that the concept of human rights is a western concept and is alien to eastern societies. Many Ulama would readily support him in this regard. 

This was also pointed out by a noted writer of Iran Abdul Karim Suroush in a seminar in Amsterdam on ‘Islam and the Modern World’. Dr. Suroush maintained that the clergy in Iran talks only of duties and is not prepared to concede rights to the people. They want all rights for themselves including the right to interpret Islam. The concept of Wilayat-e-Faqih (the authority of the jurist) which Ayatullah Khomeini claimed for himself and now his successor Ayatullah Khamenei claims for himself places entire authority in the hands of the Faqih (the jurist). People will have no right whatsoever at all. And if the elected representatives of the people make any law it will also be subject to the approval of the Jurist who is not even elected by the people. 

Some other modernist Muslim thinkers, on the other hand, give right to the elected representatives of people to legislate and usher in necessary changes. The noted poet and thinker Dr.Muhammad Iqbal wrote in early twenties of twentieth century and essay on ijtihad (creative interpretation) in Islam and maintains that ijtihad is a principle of dynamism, it means independent opinion and decision and means complete authority in law making. According to him an elected assembly of representatives of people constitute ijma` (consensus) of the people and thus any law made by such an elected assembly will be a valid exercise. 

It is important to note that Iqbal wrote this essay taking all caution and after consultation with many prominent Ulama of his time. It took more than 4 years for him to complete this essay which is included in his well known work Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam. In this book he makes an interesting observation which is worth quoting here. Iqbal says, ‘It (society) must possess eternal principles to regulate its collective life, for the eternal gives us a foothold in the world of perpetual change. But eternal principles, when they are understood to exclude all possibilities of change, which, according to the Qur’an, is one of the greatest ‘signs’ of God, tend to immobilize what is essentially mobile in its nature. The failure of Europe in political and social sciences illustrate the former principle, the immobility of Islam during the last five hundred years illustrates the latter. What then is the principle of movement in the structure of Islam? This is known as ijtihad. 

Iqbal has put the whole problem of change and modernity quite succinctly in the above passage. What some theologians do not realize is that though the principles are eternal and immutable there application is not. What constitutes justice in a feudal society (justice being an eternal principle) may not be just at all in a democratic society. The feudal society is essentially an authoritarian society and only discourse of duties would be an acceptable discourse in such an authoritarian society. A democratic society, on the other hand, is an open society and people, not a central authority, are at the centre of political power, and hence the discourse of ‘rights’ is the most acceptable discourse. To demand duties and deny rights will constitute injustice in a democratic society. 

Thus while accepting the eternity of principles one should not deny the possibility of change in application of the principles. There are several advocates of change in the Islamic world today. It would be grievous error to think that the Islamic world is totally static and immobile. The processes of change may be slower or faster depending on the objective conditions in a particular country, but its signs are unmistakable. No society can be immobile in the modern world. The process of change is of course a complex process and related to the prevailing conditions in a society. The principle of gender justice is very emphatic in Islam but it could not be realized in feudal societies in which Islam subsequently spread. And in the Islamic world the transformation from feudal to democratic society is far from complete and hence empowerment of people, particularly women remain incomplete. Gender justice again is a highly sensitive issue and while other changes may be more easily acceptable, the one related to women’s empowerment will be very difficult to realize. 

Dr. Iqbal had enthusiastically welcomed the changes in the gender laws in Turkey during the Kemalist revolution and a great admirer of Zia Gokulp, the poet and sociologist who was enthusiastic advocate of gender justice, he, however, cautioned that such changes may not be acceptable by the Indian Muslims as prevailing conditions are very different. Iqbal has proved to be prophetic in this matter.

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