Islam & Modernity
Since the dreadful events of September 11, 2001, Americans have been living in a world riven by antagonism between Muslims and non-Muslims, a polarization arguably not seen since the medieval period and the Crusades of Christian Europe. In the face of this antipathy, it’s important to acknowledge that just as the West today is more religiously diverse than was Europe when Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade almost a thousand years ago, so too is the Muslim world. Too many talking heads in the American media want to reduce the Islamic tradition to its most politicized and militant version. Such a simplification insults the richness of that religious tradition.
When I recently read through the names of those who died in the World Trade Center that September morning, I was struck by how many were identifiably Muslim. In this regard it seems wholly suitable that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf wishes to build, on a site two blocks from Ground Zero, a community center and mosque. Like us, our Muslim neighbors need a place to pray and mourn for their relatives and friends who died on that terrible day. But the willingness, even the ability, to extend sympathetic support for such a need depends on a knowledge of Islam many Americans lack.
To understand Muslims today one needs to recognize three strands of faith—in effect three different cultures—among Sunni Muslims, who account for nearly nine-tenths of the world’s Muslims. (In discussing these subgroups, I do not wish to slight the 10 percent of the world’s Muslims who are Shiite, nor the 1 percent who are neither Sunni nor Shiite.) First is the relatively small but intense Sunni minority that advocates a radically countercultural understanding of Islam. These are the people characterized in the West as Islamists (formerly referred to as Muslim fundamentalists), and most have been influenced by the conservative understanding of Islam propagated in and by Saudi Arabia. A second, larger population participates in the Islamic tradition but can be characterized as culturally secularized, often more influenced by socioeconomic and political forces than by the Qur’an. Most of these culturally secularized Muslims live in Turkey, the Balkans, the former Soviet Asian republics, and parts of Africa. But the largest bloc of Muslims are people of faith participating in a centrist tradition whose understanding of Islam engages with the many nonreligious factors in their world; they can best be described as inculturating their faith in a world that is only partly Islamic. These are Muslims for whom faith and culture are not completely coextensive. Most Arabs (Saudis excepted) and most South Asian Muslims fit into this category.
The Sunni Muslims I characterize as countercultural sometimes trace their ideas back to key passages in the Qur’an. The Qur’an came to historical birth in the two decades before Muhammad’s death in 632, and in its original setting it was in some sense markedly countercultural, critical of Muhammad’s contemporaries and their faithless ways. The Qur’an refers derisively to elements of pre-Islamic Arabian culture as jahiliyya, a term usually translated as “ignorance” but more akin to “barbarism.” Jahiliyya appears only four times in the Qur’an, each time in a passage of revelation received by Muhammad when he was attempting to establish an ideal Islamic rule in Medina. For instance, during a battle with the Meccans in the year 625, when some of Muhammad’s army broke ranks to take booty—standard practice for the pre-Islamic Arabs—many were killed and others wounded; and the Qur’an excoriates them for falling back into pagan Arab ways, “entertaining wrong suppositions about God, suppositions typical of barbarism” (Qur’an 3:154).
The Qur’anic term jahiliyya provided the rigorist Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328) with a useful category for condemning the Mongols, converts to Islam who invaded the Middle East, destroyed the ailing Sunni caliphate, and established a rule that owed more to their own legal tradition, the Great Yasa of Genghis Khan, than it did to Islamic sharia. In turn, much of what is called Islamism today stems from the work of twentieth-century writers who studied Ibn Taymiyya. Two of the most influential are the Indian-born journalist Sayyid Abul A‘la Maududi (1903–79) and Sayyid Qutb (1906–66), an Egyptian novelist radicalized by his experiences as a student in the United States in the late 1940s. Undoubtedly the most influential Islamic rigorist in the Arab world, especially since his execution by the Nasser government in 1966, Sayyid Qutb embraced a pristine vision of Islam based less on history than on a catechetical idealization of history. In this he was much affected not only by Ibn Taymiyya’s denunciation of the Muslim Mongols, but also by the writings of Maududi. Both Sayyid Qutb and Maududi were autodidacts, as far as Islamic legal tradition is concerned. The countercultural vision of Islam they espoused, divorced from any past concrete cultural expression of Islamic faith, was a reactionary schematization, conspicuously lacking the historical and cultural depth that might have informed a more humane vision. Their writings, translated into English, have gained them a following among other Muslim autodidacts throughout the world.
These examples of post-Qur’anic invocation of jahiliyya reveal an expansion of the term well beyond its original sense. The jahiliyya of the Mongols had to do with their reliance on the Yasa of Genghis Khan alongside Islamic legal sources. Yet far more significant than any injury to Islam by the Mongols was the benefit to Islam brought by their conversion—the greatest eastward expansion of Islam in its history. Indeed, the historic genius of Islam has been its ability to penetrate non-Arab cultural settings and to bring to them, if only gradually, a deepening sense of the oneness of God and the moral demands that Islamic monotheism involves. Ibn Taymiyya, a Syrian Arab, had little historical perspective on the extraordinary process of Islamization that was going on in Central Asia in his lifetime. The countercultural Muslims holed up in Afghanistan’s Tora Bora caves today share this shortsightedness. For us it is important to realize that such countercultural Muslims remain a small minority of the world’s total Muslim population. To be sure, they are a very dangerous small minority. But the threat they pose is not only to non-Muslims, but also to other Muslims whose relationship to outside cultures is more benign.
The Muslims I have characterized as culturally secularized also trace a history back to the beginnings of the Islamic tradition. An early Qur’anic passage hints at a certain harmonizing of revelation with the surrounding culture of pre-Islamic Mecca. Two brief suras (105 and 106) indicate a deeply ingrained sympathy for at least one aspect of pre-Islamic culture, the religious cultus at the Ka‘ba. This cubic shrine at the center of Mecca was polytheistic by the time of Muhammad’s birth (though Muslim tradition maintains it had been built as a monotheistic sanctuary centuries earlier by Abraham and Ishmael). When the Christian Ethiopian army of Abraha, armed with an elephant, laid siege to Mecca in the year 570, divine intervention, apparently in the form of flying insects, saved the polytheistic Ka‘ba: “Have you not seen what your Lord did with the people of the elephant? Did he not make their plans go awry?” (Qur’an 105:1–2)
The Sura of Quraysh, probably referring to God’s frustration of this Ethiopian attempt to conquer the Arabs of Mecca (the Quraysh), alludes as well to the centrality of the Ka‘ba “for making the Quraysh secure” (106:1). In this passage God assures Muhammad of the continued importance of this shrine, even if the shrine remained (until purified by Muhammad on the day of Mecca’s conquest in 630) polluted by idolatrous practice. This Qur’anic benevolence towards the Ka‘ba encouraged converts, assuring them that the cubic shrine—often visited by pilgrims who also traded in Mecca—would continue to guarantee the town’s prosperity when the Ka‘ba returned to monotheism. Of course, both the Qur’an itself and the written accounts of what Muhammad said and did (the literary corpus called Hadith) deplore the polytheism of preconquest Mecca. Yet none of these sources proposes a permanent replacement for the Ka‘ba; and the continued socioeconomic and political importance of the Quraysh and the Ka‘ba, carried on from pre-Islamic into Islamic times, may serve symbolically for other forms of continuation and transformation in the later history of Islam.
Part of this later history centered on a relatively small coterie of medieval Muslim philosophers, who viewed the religious intellectuality of Hellenism as parallel or even superior to that of the Qur’an. (It is no surprise that most modern Muslims of a countercultural bent utterly reject the intellectual contributions of these Hellenists.) Their practice of falsafa, a word borrowed from the Greek philosophia, encompassed much more than what we call philosophy today: not only logic and metaphysics, but also mathematics, astronomy and astrology, medicine, and even alchemy. Falsafa never had a large following, but it did provide some Arab Muslims (and more Iranian and Turkish ones) with an alternative worldview. Some of its most prominent practitioners tried to reconcile the revealed Qur’an with their Greek-derived thought, suggesting that the Qur’an provided for the non-philosopher the basic insights of what falsafa taught the cognoscenti. Abu Nasr al-Farabi (d. ca. 950), though more devout than some later Muslim philosophers, maintained that the ideal ruler could not be guided only by revealed images—for example, the Qur’an—but needed to study Greek wisdom to equip himself as a kind of Platonic philosopher-king. The late-twelfth-century Spanish-Moroccan philosopher Ibn Tufayl wrote a philosophical novella, Hayy ibn Yaqzan (“Alive, the Son of Awake”), which tells of two men who try to preach philosophical religion in a country ruled by religious literalists. They give up and withdraw to a life of contemplation on an otherwise uninhabited island.
Falsafa persisted in the Sunni Muslim world in the notable career of Ibn Tufayl’s illustrious disciple (and successor as a court functionary in Morocco), Ibn Rushd, known in the West as Averroës. The discreet Aristotelianism practiced by these late-twelfth-century philosophers in Spain and Morocco found worthy inheritors in thirteenth-century Paris, most notably the Latin Averroists contemporary with Aquinas. Centuries later, the Muslim Aristotelians’ wedding of Hellenism and the Qur’an would provide a model for Jamal al-din al-Afghani (1838–97), an Iranian Shiite who hid his identity in pursuit of a grand scheme to unite Muslims against European hegemony in the Muslim world. From Afghani derives not only the so-called Muslim Modernism of the turn of the last century, but also some of the more radical Muslim anticolonial movements that followed. In 1871, during one of his sojourns in Egypt, Afghani took private students from among the religious scholars at the staid Azhar University, including the man who became the father of Muslim Modernism in Egypt, Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849–1905). Afghani introduced ‘Abduh to falsafa, by then long out of intellectual fashion in the Sunni world. ‘Abduh went on to become famous for his rationalistic explanation of all things miraculous in the Qur’an, in effect presenting the whole of Islam as a philosophical religion. (He also sufficiently distanced himself from Afghani’s anticolonialism to become the Grand Mufti in Egypt during the British Consular period.)
Afghani and ‘Abduh shared a somewhat instrumental conception of Islamic faith, viewing it as an ideology that could be used to modernize the Muslim world. The Qur’an had to be interpreted in such a way as to make it an instrument of modernization and scientific advancement. Like the Muslim philosophers who were their intellectual forebears, Afghani and ‘Abduh were quite capable of excerpting from the Qur’an words and phrases that fitted their modernizing cultural agenda. Not every later admirer of Afghani and ‘Abduh has shared their enthusiasm for rationalist explanations. Yet even if their brand of modernism is somewhat out of fashion today, their intellectual quest to find the relevance of Islam in contemporary societies continues.
It is important to emphasize that Islam also has a tradition lying somewhere between the two varieties described above. This centrist tradition of Muslims who inculturate their faith recognizes the importance of cultural elements with little or no connection to Islam. This centrist tradition suggests that God’s self-revelation, the Qur’an, speaks to all forms of culture. For such Muslims the Qur’an recognizes something profoundly important—something deeply in tune with the revelation given to Muhammad—even in matters, events, and circumstances not specifically derived from Muhammad’s unique experience of God: modern science, the arts, secular economic and political developments.
The Qur’an contains many indications of sympathy for elements in pre- and non-Islamic cultures. One of its earliest passages looks sympathetically on the Christian Byzantines in their struggle with the Sasanian Persians. The Sura of the Romans assures Muhammad and the first Muslims of Mecca, who sympathized with their fellow-monotheist Greek Christians, that the Eastern Roman army’s defeat in Syria in 613–14 is not the end: “The Romans have been conquered in a nearby land, but after their defeat they will conquer within a few years” (Qur’an 30:2–6). Qur’anic sympathy for Byzantine Rome in its struggle with the Persians did not prevent the caliphs who succeeded Muhammad from conquering Byzantine territories and including them in the burgeoning Arab empire. Yet there remained in the subsequent Islamic tradition a certain sympathy for the faith of fellow monotheists, especially Jews and Christians, though relations with actual Jews and Christians Muhammad encountered in Medina soured after the year 624. Such sympathies make clear that the tensions of the modern Middle East should not be retrojected wholesale into the past. Not every Muslim society has been equally generous in dealing with the “protected people” of other monotheistic faiths; but compared to the way Byzantine and Latin Christians treated Jews and Muslims, the Muslim empires of the medieval era were much more generous with, and accommodating to, Jews and Christians.
Finally, although modern times have produced many well-known countercultural Muslims—and certain Western commentators on things Islamic tend to be obsessed with these thinkers—there are notable examples of Muslim scholars today who have managed to integrate their Islamic faith with the best in the liberal tradition of the West. Many of these younger Muslim scholars have found a congenial academic setting in Europe and North America. Two of the most important are Tariq Ramadan (b. 1962) and Khaled Abou El Fadl (b. 1963).
Ramadan, whose appointment to a professorship at Notre Dame in 2004 was voided by a State Department directive denying him a visa to enter the United States—a directive happily reversed in January 2010—has written extensively on the experience of being a European Muslim. A grandson of the famous Egyptian founder of the very countercultural Muslim Brothers, Hassan al-Banna, Ramadan takes a much more nuanced attitude toward secular culture than did his grandfather (see “Fellow Travelers?” Commonweal, July 16). Contrary to much contemporary Muslim countercultural thought, he insists that “Islam is not a culture,” but rather a faith tradition that can coexist with and interpenetrate an array of cultural settings. “The ‘way of faithfulness’ integrates all the knowledge, arts, and skills for people’s well-being that humankind has been able to produce,” Ramadan writes. “This principle of integration, as we have defined it, has made it possible for Muslims to live in very varied cultural environments and to feel at home.”
Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at the UCLA School of Law, noted for his critique of the Saudi version of Islam, has a view on the relationship between Islam and culture very similar to Ramadan’s. “According to one Prophetic tradition,” he writes, “wisdom and knowledge have no nationality and therefore, regardless of the source, Muslims are free to learn as long as they use this knowledge to serve God and pursue Godliness on this earth.” One of the “distinguishing attributes” of Muslim moderates, Abou El Fadl asserts, “is that they take full advantage of the scientific advances in the social sciences and humanities.”
What needs underlining in modern times, and especially here and now in the United States, is the variety of ways in which Muslims past and present have understood the relationship of their faith to culture. Only when we understand this variety will we begin to grasp the richness of that religious tradition, a richness not exhausted by the proponents of any one particular school of thought. Jews and Christians, in particular, must learn how to interact creatively with all three types of Muslims. We might start by welcoming Muslims to pray in the mosque next door—and even in a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero.
Funding for this essay was provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
Related: Groundless, by the Editors
Wrong Then, Wrong Now and
The 'Ground Zero Mosque' & the K of C's Mother Church, by Paul Moses
Topic Page: Muslim-Christian Relations
About the Author
Patrick J. Ryan, SJ, is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Religion and Society at Fordham University.