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Thinking about Renewal in Islam: Towards a History of Islamic Ideas on Modernization and

Author(s): Michel Hoebink
Source: Arabica, T. 46, Fasc. 1 (1999), pp. 29-62
Published by: BRILL
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4057249
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Utrecht University
ONE central theme running consistently through academic studies
on classical as well as modern Islam is the question as to whether
Islam is compatible with modernization and renewal. Debates about
this question have intensified with the rise of political Islam since the
mid 1970s. In the last decade in particular, Western as well as Muslim
academics have produced a sizeable body of literature in which they
discuss whether the teachings of Islam can be reconciled with modernity
or with related issues such as development, rationalism, humanism, sec-
ularization, democracy, and globalization. Such debates do not take
place in an ideological void. Within the Muslim world they constitute
part of a dispute about the intellectual and religious capital of Islam,
whereas in the context of the relations between the formerly colonizing
West and the formerly colonized Muslim world, they are part of a dis-
pute about the intellectual capital of modernity, the so-called "orientalism-
debate". Currently, the Western academic debate about Islam and
modernity appears to be locked in a polarization between essentialist
and reductionist approaches. Orientalists argue that the essential teach-
ings of Islam are irreconcilable with modernization, secularization and
democracy, whereas others, often from a perspective of social science,
counter that Islam does not have an essence at all, that its teachings
can be interpreted in countless different ways and that each interpre-
tation is determined by its historical social and political context.
A shortened and popularized version of this article has appeared in Dutch:
H. Driessen (ed.), In het Huis van de Islam (Nijmegen, 1997), 199-217.
C Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 1998 Arabica, tome XLVI
The present article is an attempt to develop an analytical framework
for the description and explanation of Islamic thought concerning
renewal, modernization and secularization. The central question under-
lying this attempt is how modern Islamic thought on these issues has
been conditioned by classical Islamic thought and how it has been
shaped by the experience of European domination since the 19th cen-
tury. By placing modern and classical Islamic thought into one system-
atic perspective, it will be tried to answer this question in a way that
avoids both essentialism and reductionism. Rather than being a fixed
and monolithic doctrine, Islamic thought on modernization and secu-
larization is viewed here as a debate that has developed and changed
throughout Islamic history and in which many different views have
been taken, some favouring and others opposing renewal and modern-
ization. On the other hand, however, contemporary Muslim attitudes
towards modernization and secularization are not viewed as mere
reflections of an underlying social and political reality. Such attitudes,
it is contended here, can only be adequately understood if they are
regarded as partly determined by the cultural vocabulary within which
they have developed. Contrary to the implications of many anti-
essentialists, this need not necessarily imply that such Muslim attitudes
are unchanging and cannot develop, nor that Muslims are prisoners of
some or other cultural essence.
and the Muslim moral
The term "modernization" is usually understood as referring to cer-
tain social and cultural changes in Europe since the Enlightenment. In
a more general theoretical sense, however, this term refers to cultural
adaptation to social change-a process which occurs continuously and
in all cultures.' To understand Islamic thought on such issues of cul-
tural adaptation and renewal, it is helpful to view Islam as an effort
to establish a moral community on a divinely revealed text. A moral
community is a community based on an ethical ideal. The ethical ideal
functions as a standard set of moral references on the basis of which
individuals and different social and ethnic groups are able to commu-
nicate effectively with one another and come to agreements in their
conflicting interests. In the case of the Muslim community this ethical
l D. Lerner, "Modernization" in D.L. Sills (ed.), Int. Encycl. of the Social Sciences, Vol. 10
(NY, London, 1968), 386-94.
ideal is contained in a text: the text of the Koran. The Muslim moral
community is founded on the assumption that the ultimate source of
moral knowledge is God and that God has revealed His Will, for the
last time, through the Prophet in the Koran.
However, such a moral community based on a text contains an
inherent and inevitable dillemma that I will call here the dilemma of
renewal and authority. In order to maintain its relevance for the com-
munity, the ethical ideal must, on the one hand, be flexible and open to
continuous adaptation and interpretation in the changing and different
conditions of time and place. On the other hand, however, the adap-
tation and interpretation of the ethical ideal carries with it the danger
of monopolization by groups or individuals wishing to manipulate it
to suit their own ends. Throughout the history of Islam this dilemma
has inspired a fundamental debate on human moral autonomy and
the legitimacy of the interpretation of the ethical ideal of the Koran.
Schematically speaking, three ideal-type positions have been taken in
this debate both in the classical and modern periods: modernism, fun-
damentalism and traditionalism.
1. Modernism, or renewalism, stands for a continuous re-interpreta-
tion of the ethical ideal. Modernists are often motivated by a desire to
make the ethical ideal relevant in the changing conditions of their soci-
eties. But no less often modernism is inspired by the desire of political
actors to mould the ethical ideal to justify their worldly ambitions. In
their advocacy of interpretation, the modernists emphasize the "inner-
worldliness" of the Koranic ethics as well as human moral autonomy
and freedom. According to this view, the following of the commands
and prescriptions of the Koran leads to advantage in this world in a
way that humans can understand by using their own mental faculties.
2. Fundamentalism resists or even completely rejects the interpreta-
tion of the ethical ideal. The fundamentalists' opposition to interpreta-
tion is often motivated by a desire to safeguard the ethical ideal of
Islam against corruption by rulers and other politicians seeking to manip-
ulate it to legitimize their political aims. In this connection, funda-
mentalists tend to emphasize the transcendence of God as well as the
limitations and subjectivity of human judgement. The ethical truth of
the Koran is beyond human understanding; human efforts to under-
stand it that go beyond the literal meaning of the text are necessarily
inadequate and subjective and always reflect individual human worldly
3. The third position, traditionalism, permits interpretation of the
ethical ideal, but on the condition that once this interpretation has
taken place and is confirmed by the general agreement of the commu-
nity, it can never be altered or rejected. Under this regime, the author-
itative text of Islam continuously expands as each generation adds its
own interpretations to those of earlier generations. Traditionalism can
be viewed as a compromise between the extreme positions of funda-
mentalism and renewalism. By prohibiting re-interpretation and allow-
ing interpretation only in novel cases, traditionalism tries to meet the
demands for both stability and flexibility.
The above positions of must be regarded as ideal-types, theoretical
reference-points that serve to determine the positions of existing move-
ments and thinkers. Existing
are located in a continuum
between these extremes and often are a blending of more than one of
them. The relevant question in what follows is therefore not whether
at all, but rather to what extent and relative to whom a particular
movement is fundamentalist, renewalist or traditionalist.2
in classical Islam
Less than a century after the beginning of Muhammad's mission,
the Arabs had conquered an enormous empire in which they encoun-
tered ethical and legal problems which went far beyond the imagina-
tive horizons of the society in which the Koran had been revealed.
The early religious scholars who started to elaborate and interpret the
ethical ideal of Islam in the concrete and specific circumstances prevail-
ing in the various regions of the empire,3 may be considered the first
renewalists of Islam. These "protagonists of reason" (ahl
For reasons explained below (see note 16), the term "fundamentalism" has been
defined in the context of Islam both as opposition to and as advocacy of renewal and
interpretation. In what follows I will try to demonstrate that this term defined as oppo-
sition to interpretation is a useful category to describe the Islamic debates in question.
Compare E. Geilner, Postmnodernism, Reason and Religon (London, 1992), vii, 2-6; A.S.
Moussalli, "Two Tendencies in Modern Islamic Political Thought: Modernism and
Fundamentalism," Hamdard Islamicus, 16, 2 (1993), 59-69; R. Peters, "Islamischer Funda-
mentalismus: Glaube, Handeln, Fuhrung" in W. Schluchter (Hrsg.), Max Webers Sicht
des Islams (Frankfurt, 1987), 220-4; id., "Idjtihad and Taqlid in 18th and 19th Century
Islam," Die Welt des Islams, XX, 3-4 (1980), 131-3; W.E. Shepard, "Islam and Ideology:
towards a Typology,"
19 (1987), 314-6; F. Steppat, "Die Politische Rolle des
Islam" in F. Steppat (Hrsg.), Vortrage der XXI. Deutscher Orientahstentag (Wiesbaden, 1983),
24-5; J.O. Voll, "The Sudanese Mahdi: Frontier Fundamentalist," JJMES, 10, 2 May
3 J. Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford, 1964), 28ff.; NJ. Coulson, A
Islamic Law
(Edinburgh, 1964),
support from a group of rationalist theologians, the Mu'tazilites, who
were inspired by the heritage of Greek philosophy. The Mu'tazilites
saw themselves as the true defenders of the Islamic principle of mono-
theism (taw4id),
which led them to argue that the Koran was created
in time and had to be interpreted metaphorically. To understand it as
literally applicable in all times and places amounted to idolatry (sirk),
since Muslims would then be worshipping not God, but the Koran as
a transcendent entity.4
Initially, the early renewalists of Islam managed to operate relatively
independent from the political authorities, but soon their doctrines on
the freedom of interpretation revealed their less liberal potential: as
doctrines that enabled the political authorities to adapt the religious
truth to their political ambitions. This paradox became particularly
manifest during the period of the "Inquisition" (833-48) when the caliph
al-Ma'miin declared the views of the Mu'tazilites to be state doctrine
and started to persecute those who dissented. Such efforts of the rulers
to monopolize legislation and interpretation met a stubborn funda-
mentalist opposition from a group of scholars led by Ahmad ibn Hanbal
(d. 855). In their resistance to the political manipulation of the Koran
the followers of Ibn Hanbal declared themselves against any form of
interpretation.5 The Hanbalites realized, however, that the Koran alone
did not suffice as a legal code in the complicated society of the Islamic
empire. Thus the alternative doctrine was developed that legislation
should be based not on human interpretation but on a Tradition (4adt)
of the Prophet, a reported action or saying of the Prophet aside from
revelation. Although some of the Traditions that were collected by these
early traditionalists (ahl al-hadit) may be authentic, Western historians
now agree that most in fact concern interpretations of the early legists
which were retrospectively ascribed to the Prophet. In this way inter-
pretation was restricted while simultaneously the interpretations of the
Prophet and of the early legists were added to the authoritative text of
Islam. The protagonists of Tradition eventually prevailed and the accept-
ance of their doctrine by the political rulers led to the consolidation of
Sunni Islam as we know it today.6
4 I. Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology & Law (Princeton, 1981), 88ff.; J.L.
Esposito, Islam, the Strazght Pathi (Oxford, 1988), 71.
5 Ira M. Lapidus, "The Separation of State and Religion in the Development of
Early Islamic Society," IJMES, 6 (1975), 370-83;
G.F. Hourani, Reason and Tradition in
Islamic Ethics (Cambridge, 1985), 60-1; Schacht, Introduction, 56.
6 Schacht, Introduction, 34; Coulson, Histo!y, 41-3; W.M. Watt, Islamic Philosophy and
Theology (Edinburgh, 1962), 72-81.
The authoritative text of Sunni Islam now consisted of the Koran
and the Sunna, the sum of the Prophetic Traditions. On the basis of
this expanded text a new controversy soon sparked between advocates
and opponents of interpretation. Two of the five legal schools that
developed within Sunni Islam-the Hanbalites and the Zahirites-took
a fundamentalist position. Such fundamentalists thought in a strict oppo-
sition between authentic practice (sunna) and innovation (bid'a). Claiming
that all ethical knowledge was literally available in the text of Koran
and Sunna, any form of human reasoning or interpretation in legisla-
tion was
as innovation.'
The main source of intellectual inspiration for the renewalist ten-
dencies that developed in the following centuries was the thought of
the philosophers and mystics of Islam. The protagonists of these schools
took the view that the real "inner" (b&tin) meaning of revelation was
often concealed behind its literal
meaning, and could only be
understood through allegorical interpretation (ta'wil). Though arguing
on the premise of the revelation as a superior and infallible source of
moral truth, both philosophers and mystics thus recognized a high
degree of human moral autonomy. Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sind
(d. 1037) and Ibn Rusd (d. 1198) believed that, as long as the correct
philosophical method was used, the real intentions of God could be
demonstrated, with objective certainty, by human reason.8
As early as the 9th century a compromise emerged between the
extreme positions of fundamentalists and renewalists, with the rise of
Sunni traditionalism. Adherents of the Malikite,
and Safi'ite
legal schools agreed that, in addition to the authoritative text of Koran
and Sunna, also individual interpretation (igtih&d) had to be recognized
as a source of ethical knowledge. It was emphasized, however, that
individual interpretation merely led to probable knowledge
that its results could only become certain knowledge through the con-
of the community, which in the view of most of these
traditionalists was represented by the consensus of the scholars. The
concept of community consensus as a source of moral authority had
already been put forward by the early scholars and was in itself not
new. The traditionalists believed, however, that, once established, this
7 Schacht, Intoduction, 62; Coulson, History, 71; Goldziher, Introduction, 232ff.
I. Goldziher, Richtungen der Islamischen Koranauslegung (Leiden, 1952), 180ff.; id.,
Introduction, 138-9; G.F. Hourani, Averroes on the Harmony of Relign and Philosophy (London,
1976), 23.
consensus could not be re-interpreted any more and that it was bind-
ing for later generations. The essential doctrine of Sunni traditionalism
was the duty to follow the decisions of earlier generations of scholars
(taqlzd).9 Sunni traditionalism was systematically elaborated by al-Gazdl1
(d. 1111). Al-Gaza1i recognized the reason of the philosophers and espe-
cially the intuition or gnosis of the mystics as legitimate and indis-
pensable sources of ethical knowledge, but he strongly rejected the
claims of some philosophers and mystics that these human sources could
yield certain and objective knowledge of God's Will. In al-Gazal!'s view,
individual human effort merely resulted in subjective and probable
knowledge, which could only be raised to the level of certain knowl-
edge by the consensus of the believers.'"
From the tenth century onwards, traditionalism became the domi-
nant trend in Sunni Islam. Although this doctrine recognized the neces-
sity of interpretation in principle, it nevertheless exerted a stifling-influence
on its practice. As time progressed, the duty to follow the consensus of
earlier scholars led both to a progressive accumulation of jurisprudence
(fiqh) and to a restriction of the domain of interpretation to increas-
ingly detailed levels of moral and legal problems. The accumulating
burden of jurisprudence came to weigh so heavily on the traditionalist
scholars, that they gradually started to believe that one day mugahid-s,
persons qualified to practise interpretation, might become extinct. Initially
this was only considered to be a theoretical possibility, but by the 18th
century many traditionalists believed that in their time mutahid-s had
indeed disappeared and that, as they expressed it, "the gate of iWih&d
had closed".11
Schacht, Introduction, 59; Coulson, Histoy, 78-80; G.F. Hourani, "The Basis of
Authority of Consensus in Sunnite Islam," Studia Islamica, 21 (1964), 24.
Julius Obermann may have been too radical in arguing that al-Gaz51 was a sub-
jectivist in the ontological sense that he denied the existence of an ethical truth outside
the human mind. However, al-Gazali can nevertheless be regarded a subjectivist in the
epistemological sense that he believed that all human understanding of an externally
existing moral truth is necessarily fallible and
Logically speaking, also com-
munity consensus is fallible, according to al-Gazali, but in the case of the Muslim com-
munity it is turned into infallible, objective knowledge by force of a divine miracle. See
W.M. Watt, Muslim Intellectua4l A Study of al-Ghazali (Edinburgh, 1963), 58-68, 164-5;
G.F. Hourani, "Authority of Consensus," 32; W.B. Hallaq, "Was the Gate of Ijtihad
Closed?," MES, 16 (1984), 16-7; F. Shehadi, Ghazali's Unique Unknowable God (Leiden,
1964); J. Obermann, Der religidse und philosophische Subjectivismus Ghazzalis (Leipzig, 1921).
Academic controversy concerning the issue of the "closure of the gate of itihaud"
may largely be attributed to a misunderstanding of the position of Islamic traditional-
ism. Authors such as Schacht and Coulson point to the traditionalists' rejection of re-
interpretation and conclude that they rejected ihW/d, whereupon Watt and Hallaq point
In spite of the dominance of traditionalism, there always remained
an anti-traditionalist opposition, particularly among adherents of the
Hanbali school. This
Hanbalism, however,
had meanwhile
a remarkable development. The original radical fundamentalist assump-
tion that the text of Koran and Sunna provided a literal answer for
every conceivable moral question had proved untenable in practice.
From the 9th century onwards, IlanbaIl scholars reluctantly began to
admit the inevitability of interpretation. Hanbali opposition to tradi-
tionalism was thus not directed against the use of interpretation as such,
but against the doctrine that interpretations, once agreed upon, were
binding for later generations. The more that traditionalist doctrine
ossified and became an obstacle to fresh interpretations, the more the
anti-traditionalists took the role of renewalists upon themselves. It was
in this context that later Hanbalites came to believe that every century
a renewer (mugaddid) of religion would appear.'2 The original Hanbalr
insistence on the authentic practice (sunna) as opposed to innovation
(bid'a) acquired a new meaning in the context of their opposition to
traditionalism. It came to imply a dismissal of the debris of historical
interpretations and a restoration of contact with the original sources,
the Koran and the Sunna. Understood in this way, the demand for a
return to the authentic practice no longer stood in opposition to renewal
and interpretation (igtihdd).'3
The most important representative of this moderate Hanbalism is
the 14th century theologian Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328). In much the same
way as al-Gaza1i, Ibn Taymiyya recognized the human mental facul-
ties of reason and mystical intuition as sources of moral knowledge
while rejecting the claims of certain philosophers and mystics that these
sources were infallible and absolutely reliable, equal to the revelation.
Unlike al-Gazal!, however, Ibn Taymiyya denied the duty to follow the
consensus of previous generations (taqlid). The only consensus Ibn
Taymiyya accepted as final was that of the Companions of the Prophet.'4
to their recognition of interpretation in novel cases and argue that they were in favor
of igtihd. See Schacht, Introduction, 69-75; Coulson,
80-4; W.M. Watt, "The
Closing of the Door of I tihad," Orientalia Hispanica 1 (Leiden, 1974), 675-8; Hallaq,
"Gate of Ijtihad Closed?"; M. Hoebink, "Two Halves of the Same Truth; Schacht,
Hallaq and the Gate of Ijtihad," MERA Occasional Paper, 24, Dec. (1994).
Schacht, Introduction, 62-3; Coulson,
72-3; Hallaq, "Gate of Ijtihad Closed?,"
8-10, 27-30.
13 Vol, "The Sudanese Mahd," 147-52; Peters, "Idjtihad and Taqlid," 131-2; id.,
"Islamischer Fundamentalismus," 217; Goldziher, Introduction, 230-45.
F. Meier, "Das Sauberste uber die Vorbestimmung; Ein Stuck Ibn Taimiyya,"
Saeculum, XXXII, 1 (1981), 75-7; G. Makdisi, "Ibn Taymiyya: a Siift from the Qadiriyya
In the centuries after Ibn Taymiyya the anti-traditionalist opposi-
tion seems to become less and less vocal, but at the end of the 18th
and the beginning of the 19th centuries an anti-traditionalist revival
occurred. Different scholars such as Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-9awkdny
(d. 1832), Muhammad ibn 'Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) and Muhammad
ibn 'Ali al-Santisi (d. 1859) denied the supposed disappearance of muta-
hid-s and the closure of the gate of itihdd. Similar to Ibn Taymiyya,
the opposition of these scholars was primarily directed against the tra-
ditionalist doctrine of binding consensus and taqlzd.15 What is impor-
tant for our discussion is that the classical Islamic debate on renewal
and interpretation was just going through a phase of resurgence when
the impact of Europe began to be felt in the Muslim world.
Modem Islam: two debates
In the course of the 19th century the Muslim world increasingly
came under the direct or indirect influence of European expansion and
colonialism. Along with political and economic domination came the
social and cultural impact of post-Enlightenment Europe. Western laws,
systems of education and political institutions were introduced in most
of the Muslim world and formed a parallel network that increasingly
competed with the traditional religiously legitimated institutions such as
sarf'a law, religious education and so forth. The single most dramatic
event in these developments was the abolition of the Caliphate by the
nationalist dominated Turkish National Assembly in 1924.
A significant doctrine that accompanied all these new institutions and
ideas was called secularism: it advocated human moral autonomy and
a retreat of the moral authority of religion-particularly that of reli-
gious institutions-from the public into the private sphere. Such a
process of "secularization" was believed to have been an essential com-
ponent of the modernization process in Europe and now it was viewed
as a necessary precondition for the modernization of Muslim society.
In the context of our discussion of renewal this increasing Western
influence can be viewed as a surge of social and cultural change that
swept through the Muslim world. But there was something particular
Order," Amercan Journal of Arabic Studies, 1 (1973), 118-29; T. Michel, "Ibn Taymiyya's
Sharh of the Futidh al-Ghayb of 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilant," Hamdard Islamicus, IV, 2 (1981),
3-12; Hallaq, "Gate of Ijtihad Closed?," 9-10; G.F. Hourani, "Authority of Consen-
sus," 36.
Hallaq, "Gate of Ijtihad Closed?," 31-2; Peters, "Idjtihad and Taqlfd."
about these changes: they were imposed on the Muslim world
by a
dominant imperialist power. Of course, the Muslim world had been ex-
posed to alien cultural influences before, but those influences had
come from regions in which the Muslims held
political power them-
selves. Also, the Islamic world had often been invaded by alien con-
querors, but they had in most cases
eventually converted to Islam. It
was now for the first time, however, that the Muslim world was con-
fronted with an alien power that tried to dominate the Muslims not
only politically but also culturally and that, by propagating the doctrine
of secularism, explicitly put to discussion the status of the Koran as the
ultimate source of moral knowledge and legitimacy for social life.
This situation made the position of Muslim intellectuals very pre-
carious and fundamentally different from that of both their classical
predecessors and their Western contemporaries. The difference was that
modern Muslims had to determine their position towards not only one
but two cultural traditions: their own and that of the West. On the
one hand many felt attracted not only to the technological innovations
coming from the West but also to modern Western social institutions
and ideas like democracy, human rights and the emancipation of women.
On the other hand it was felt that if the Muslims were to forget their
own tradition and start to think in the vocabulary of another culture
they would marginalize themselves spiritually and condemn themselves
to a secondary position in the global community. The question that
confronted the modern Muslim was, in other words, whether it would
be possible to modernize without having to westernize.
In order to grasp the complex ideological landscape that thus devel-
oped, I will describe it in terms of two interrelated but separate debates:
the first concerning secularization and westernization, the second renewal
and modernization. In the debate about secularization, islamists and
secularists disagree as to whether an Islamic law and state are desirable
at all. This debate is relatively new, since it is a response to a rela-
tively novel situation brought about by Western colonial domination
and the subsequent process of decolonization. The second debate on
renewal and modernization is mainly conducted among the islamists
and concerns the exact nature of an Islamic state and law. This debate
is not new: it is a continuation of the classical Islamic debate between
renewalists, fundamentalists and traditionalists about the adaptation and
interpretation of the ethical ideal of the Koran.'6
The fact that many modern Islamic movements and thinkers have simultaneously
The debate about secularization
In order to understand what made the idea of secularism so con-
troversial in the Muslim world we must begin with taking a closer look
at its content. As indicated above, the term secularism refers to a doc-
trine that advocates human autonomy and freedom towards the moral
authority of God and of religious doctrines. Sometimes, however, it is
also used in a narrower sense to refer to a doctrine that seeks the sep-
aration of religious authority from political power, particularly the state-
a doctrine that is in fact more accurately called laicism.'7 In the pre-
vious section it has been shown that both these aspects of secularism
were in fact advocated in classical Islam, by renewalists and funda-
mentalists respectively. It is therefore important to keep in mind that,
in the context of Islamic thought, the idea of secularism was a novelty
only insofar as it propagated a complete break with religion as a source
of legitimacy in worldly affairs.
From the moment of its introduction, the idea of secularism had its
advocates in the Muslim world. Such thinkers understood secularism
('almanyya; worldliness) in both senses described above: as a quest for
moral and intellectual freedom vis-a-vis religious doctrines, and as an
insistence on a separation between religious authority and the power
of the state. 'Ali 'Abd al-Raziq (d. 1966), who is generally viewed as
the first and most important advocate of Muslim secularism, argued
that neither the Koran nor the Sunna prescribe an Islamic govern-
ment, and that therefore the business of politics and government must
be regarded as belonging to the domain of human reason. Present-day
Muslim secularists generally view themselves as the opponents of a
theocracy in which the few impose their will on the many in the name
rejected secularization and demanded renewal and igtihdd, has created academic confu-
sion about whether to view them as opponents or as advocates of modernization. This
confusion, in turn, has led to contradictory definitions of fundamentalism (see note 2).
Only recently, a number of Western authors have come to realize that Islamic anti-
secularism cannot be understood within the classical modernization paradigm, in which
modernization necessarily entails secularization. To my knowledge, Shepard was the first
to describe modern Islam in terms of two separate debates on modernization and on
secularization. See Shepard, "Islarn and Ideology"; M.H. Kerr, Islamic Reform, the Political
and Legal Theories of Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashtd Rid& (Cambridge, 1966), 16; F. Burgat
and W. Dowell, 7he Islamic Movement in North Africa (Austin, 1993); G. Kramer, "Islamische
Reform und Erneuerung; Geschichte, Thesen, Kontroversen" Politischer Islam, Kursein-
heit 1 (Hagen, 1994), 32-8.
'7 E.S. Waterhouse, "Secularism" inJ. Hastings (ed.), Encycl. of Reliogn
and Ethics, Vol. XI
(Edinburgh, NY, 1934), 347-8.
of religion. The only way to prevent this and to safeguard a democ-
ratic order is in their view to maintain a strict separation between reli-
gion and the state.18
On the other hand, the process of secularization and the idea of sec-
ularism were also outspokenly opposed from the very start, for instance
by thinkers such as Namik Kemal (d. 1888), Oamrl al-Din al-AfMan!
(d. 1897), Muhammad 'Abduih (d. 1905), Muhammad Ras'id Rida
(d. 1935) and Muhammad Iqba1 (d. 1938). In what follows, these Islamic
opponents of secularism will be called "islamists".'9 What exactly were
the objections of these islamists to secularization and secularism?
To understand the islamist argument it is important to realize that
it is built on what would in Western social science be called an "ide-
alist" perspective. A basic premise of islamism is the idea that the source
of strength of a society is primarily located, not in its economic or mil-
itary power, but in its culture and in the consciousness of its members.
This cultural analysis is further related by the islamists to an insistence
on the importance of authenticity (asala). The basic idea here is that
it is of vital importance for a society to remain loyal to its authentic
cultural self. If it does not, it will lose its self-confidence which is the
source of its power, and it is bound to fall prey to disintegration and
decay. Departing from this perspective, the islamists have analysed the
different problems and crises of the Muslim world-such as domina-
tion by the West, the strivings for national unity and independence and
later problems of military defeat and underdevelopment-primarily in
terms of loyalty to what they view as their authentic cultural identity.
(All 'Abd al-Raziq, Al-isldm wa usul al-h4um (Cairo, 1925). Cf. A. Hourani, Arabic
in the Liberal Age 1798-1939 (Cambridge, 1962), 183-9; F. Zakaria, "Sakularisierung
eine historische Notwendigkeit" in M. Luders (Hrsg.), Der Islam im
1992), 228-45; $adiq 6al5l al-'Azm, "Wider den fundamentalistischen Ungeist" in Luders,
Islam im
(1992), 246-60.
Instead of "fundamentalism," the term "islamism" is now increasingly used by
Western academics to refer to Islamic anti-secularism. Francois Burgat, for instance,
uses the term to describe a movement that seeks cultural differentiation from the West
and reconnection with the pre-colonial symbolic universe. Burgat refers to Habib Boulares'
definition of islamism as "the whole body of thought which seeks to invest society with
Islam (...) which may be integrist, but may also be traditionalist, reform-minded or
revolutionary." This term is also used by Islamic anti-secularists to refer to them-
selves. Muhammad 'Amara thus uses it (Ar.:
referring to those who, oppos-
ing secularism and Western hegemony, are "committed to the Islamic colouring and
the Islamic standard." See F. Burgat, Islamic Movement, 39-41, 67-71, 309; Habib Boulares,
interview in Grand Maghreb, 30 April (1984); M. cArnara, "Al-hiwar bayna al-islamiyytn
wa-l-'almaniyyin," Al-Hildl, Sept. (1990), 95.
Western imperialism was thus understood by the islamists in the first
place as a cultural invasion (gazw
In the idealist view of the
islamists, society is held together not by material wealth but by moral
solidarity, by loyalty to a generally agreed body of values and norms.
The institutions of society-the law, the system of education and so
on-are viewed as organically related to these cultural values. Efforts
to replace such authentic, indigenous institutions by others based on
alien, non-indigenous values would inevitably result in a separation
between the outward institutional structure of society and the internal
structure of the consciousness of its members, a mental cleavage that
would lead to alienation and eventually to the disintegration of society.
And that was exactly what the imperialists had in mind: the West was
trying to subject Muslim society by weakening its cultural foundations.20
The doctrine of secularism came to appear very different within the
premises of the discourse of authenticity. Secularism was understood by
the islamists as one of the imperialists' shrewdest devices. It was under
the pretext of this doctrine, with its deceitful promises of freedom and
progress, that Western values, laws and institutions were forced upon
the Muslim world, with the underlying aim of destroying the vital moral
basis of the Muslim community and thus establishing Muslim depend-
ency on the West.2'
All of this could only add up to one conclusion. The only way in
which the Muslims could combat imperialism and regain their lost unity
and independence was by building their lives on their own authentic
values and principles; that is, by a return to Islamic roots.
Although a novel response to a novel situation, the islamist discourse
of authenticity has its origins in classical Islam.22 It has developed out
of the classical notion of a return to the authentic practice (sunna), par-
ticularly in the later anti-traditionalist sense of a rejection of the accu-
mulated medieval jurisprudence and a restoration of contact with the
original sources of inspiration. In modern Islam this notion acquired a
R.P. Mitchell, The Societ of the Muslim Brothers (London, 1969), 222-37; A. Hourani,
Arabic 7hought, 113-38; H. Enayat, Modern Islamic Political Thought (London, 1982), 78.
A. Hourani, Arabic Thought, 241; Pursuing the same argument, a more recent critic
of 'Ali 'Abd al-Riziq's Muslim secularism, Diya' al-Din al-Rayyis, has tried to demon-
strate that al-Raziq's book Al-islam wa usurl al-hukn was in fact not written by al-Ra.ziq
himself but by a British orientalist. See Diya' al-Din al-Rayyis, Al-islam wa-l-4ildfa ft al-
'asr al-hadtl: naqd kitdb al-islam wa usal al-hukm (Cairo, 1972). Cf. L. Binder, Islamic
Liberalism. A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago, 1988), 150-2.
I disagree here with Aziz al-Azmeh who claims that the ideal of authenticity is
basically alien to Islam. See Aziz al-Azmeh, Islams and Modernities (London, 1993), 43-4.
new dimension: aside from its anti-traditionalist connotation it now also
came to
a rejection of Western cultural
hegemony. Muslim sub-
mission to Western hegemony was rejected, just like traditionalism, as
imitation (taqhzd) and idolatry (sirk). The notion of tawhid in this con-
text came to imply a rejection of cultural dualism.
It may be observed here that the islamist insistence on cultural authen-
ticity as an indispensable ingredient of a strong and coherent society
is remarkably un-religious, worldly and utilitarian. The assumption that
the following of the moral directives of religion should lead to ad-
vantage in this world is in itself not new: it lies at the basis of all
renewalist efforts to increase the relevance of Islamic teachings in the
changing historical conditions. The novel challenge of European dom-
ination, however, provoked a new element in this "innerworldly" util-
itarian approach. Since on this occasion not the specific teachings of
religion, but the status of religion itself was brought under discussion,
the argument was logically extended to apply to religion in general:
religion as such was now put to the test of worldly utility. This new
element in the utilitarian approach produced a paradox concerning the
exclusive validity of Islam as a religion: the modern authenticity argu-
ment applied not only to Islam, but would in principle be valid for
any other cultural or religious tradition as well. Fundamentalist islamists
such as the Egyptian Sayyid
have therefore come forward with
a second, more religious argument emphasizing the exclusive superior-
ity of Islam. According to Qutb, all humanly devised ideologies, such
as Christianity, marxism, liberalism etc., are deficient because they over-
emphasize one aspect of human existence at the expense of other aspects
whereas only the divinely given "method" of Islam incorporates all
aspects into a balanced whole.23
In one way or another, the notions of cultural authenticity, cul-
tural unity and independence and cultural imperialism lay at the basis
of the arguments of the great majority of islamists, from early pioneers
and 'Abduih to more recent thinkers like Sayyid
Haddad argues that during the sixties the emphasis in Qutb's argument shifted
from a perception of Islam as "one alternative among others" towards an exclusivist
view of Islam as an absolute given, standing in judgement over all other ideologies.
Qutb, however, did not exchange the one view for the other. In his later work, both
views appear simultaneously. Compare, for instance, Sayyid Qutb, This Religion of Islam
(Damascus, 1977), 21; id., Islam, the Religion of the Future (Delhi, 1974), 23; Y.Y. Haddad,
"Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival" in J.L. Esposito (ed.), Voices of Resurgent
Islam (Oxford, 1983), 78-9.
Hasan Hanafi and Tariq al-BisrL.24 It was in this connection, that two
other notions developed that gradually acquired a central place in the
ideological programme of the islamists: firstly, the idea of Islam as an
all-embracing ethical system and, secondly, the notion of the necessity
of the application of Islamic law (sarz'a) and the establishment of an
Islamic state.25
The Indian/Pakistani thinker Muhammad Iqbal was one of the first
to emphasize the comprehensiveness of the Islamic world-view and the
need for an Islamic state. Referring to the principle of divine unity
(tawh4d), he claims that Islam demands the recognition of God as the
spiritual basis of all aspects of life, among which are also the law and
the state. According to Iqbal, the state must be viewed as an attempt
to realize the spiritual ideal of Islam in a concrete human organiza-
tion.26 The concept of an Islamic state was particularly elaborated by
Muhammad Rasid Rida, a pupil of Muhammad 'Abdiih. For Rida, as
for all later islamists, the establishment of an Islamic state meant in
the first place the application of Islamic law.27
From the late 1920s onward, the demands for an Islamic state and
the application of Islamic law were given political expression by move-
ments such as the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928 by
Hasan al-Banna
(d. 1949),
and the Indian/Pakistani
founded in 1941 by Abiu-l-A'la al-Mawdiidi (d. 1979). In the first de-
cades of their existence, these organizations took part in the struggle
for independence from European colonialism. After independence, how-
ever, political power in most Muslim countries passed to secular nation-
alists, such as the Nasserists in Egypt, the Ba'tists in Iraq and Muhammad
'AliJinnah's Muslim League in Pakistan. The opposition of the islamists
N. Keddie, An Islamic Response to Imperialism Political
Religious Writings of Sayyid
al-Din al-Afghani (Berkeley, 1968); M. Raild Rida, Ta'rt4 al-ustdd al-imam
Muhammad 'Abdz7h, 2nd ed. (Cairo, 1925-6), 97, 103, 157ff.;
Qutb, Relion of the Future,
23; Ijasan Hanafi, "The Origin of Modem Conservatism and Islamic Fundamentalism"
in E. Gellner (ed.), Islamic Dilemmas; Reformers Nationalists and Industrialization (Y, 1985),
96-7; Tariq al-Biurn, Introduction to the 2nd edition of Al-haraka
misr 1945-
52 (Cairo, 1983), 1-68.
25 The contemporary demand for an Islamic state can thus be explained as a his-
torical Muslim response to the encounter with Western expansion rather than viewing
it as the inevitable expression of an ahistorical Islamic essence, as Lewis does. See
B. Lewis, Islam and the [/Vest (NY, Oxford, 1993), 133-6; D.F. Eickelman, "Changing
Interpretations of Islamic Movements" in W.R.
Islam and the Political Economy of
Meaning (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987), 16-20.
M. Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Lahore, 1951), 147-66.
M. Ragid Rida, Al-hildfa aw al-imama
(Cairo, 1922-3); Mitchell, Society, 234-5.
now shifted towards these "domestic imperialists"28 whose policies were
viewed as a mere continuation of the westernization-policies of the for-
mer alien rulers. The islamist reply, however, remained
basically the
same. Sayyid
(d. 1966), one of the main ideologues of the
Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and '60s, speaks of a conflict between
the legislation that is imported from the West and the ethos of the
masses on whom these laws are imposed. The people are alienated
from these laws, which leads to anomie and will finally result in the
disintegration of society. The Islamic answer to this problem lies, accord-
ing to Qutb, in the principle of divine unity (taw4d), which demands
that all spheres of life-including the law and the institutions of the
state-be united under the ultimate sovereignty (4dkimyya) of God.29
From the mid 1970s onwards, the significance of islamism as a polit-
ical alternative has grown dramatically throughout the Muslim world.
Among the factors that contributed to this Islamic resurgence were
the military defeat of the Arab armies by Israel, the failure of other
ideologies to deliver their promises of economic development and the
1978-79 Islamic revolution in Iran. Military defeat and problems of
underdevelopment took a central place in the writings of a new gen-
eration of islamists. The islamist analysis, however, remained basically
According to the contemporary Egyptian thinker Hasan Hanafi,
Western models and strategies of modernization and development, as
well as Western secular ideologies such as liberalism, marxism and
nationalism, have failed in the Islamic world because they failed to rec-
ognize the role of culture and consciousness. Underdevelopment, Hanafi
argues, cannot be understood only in economic terms and solved by
building factories and laboratories; it also has an important cultural
component. Traditional societies like those of the Islamic world are
dominated by a mythical consciousness. To ignore the contents of this
"unscientific" way of thinking is itself unscientific. New developments
can only succeed in the Islamic world if they present themselves in the
language of tradition: rationalism, democracy and humanism will only
be accepted by the Islamic masses if they appear as metamorphoses of
indigenous beliefs. An indispensable condition for the "renaissance" of
the Islamic world is therefore, according to Hanafi, the return to tra-
2 Sayyid Qutb, "Islamic Approach to Social Justice" in Khurshid Ahmad (ed.), Islam,
its Meaning and Message (London, 1975), 117-25; Haddad, "Sayyid
dition. This brings him to demand the islamization of society and the
integration of religion and state.30
In the foregoing it has been shown how the term secularism, from
the moment of its introduction, acquired different, almost contradictory
meanings for the islamists and for the Muslim secularists. To the Muslim
secularists it implied modernization and liberation from both authori-
tarian structures in society and from the shackles of religion. To the
islamists, however, secularism came to mean westernization and the
subjection of Muslim lands to the hegemony of Western imperialism.
Much of the debate between the islamists and the Muslim secularists
can therefore be characterized as a dialogue of the deaf. The islamists
accuse the secularists of being agents of Western imperialism and the
secularists in turn accuse the islamists of wanting to establish a dicta-
torship in the name of religion. The interesting question is now, of
course, to what extent and how both parties do take one another's
views into consideration?
Of particular interest in this regard is the thought of "postmodernist"
thinkers such as Edward Said and Muhammad Arkoun who share some
of the idealist analysis of the islamists, but strongly oppose their demand
for an Islamic state. Both Arkoun and Said view human conduct as
determined not only by material circumstances but also by the ideas
that govern the understanding of these circumstances.3' As a conse-
quence, an aspect of all competition over political power is a struggle
on the level of language and ideas to gain hegemony over the con-
sciousness of the other.
In his well-known book Orientalism Said exposes the presumably value
free academic study of the Orient in the West as an ideological dis-
course that presents East and West as two essentially different static
identities whereby the West is depicted as progressive, rational and
democratic and the East as backward, irrational and despotic. This ori-
entalist discourse, Said argues, serves to justify the Western expansion
at home and to pacify the subjected Orient into the belief that Western
domination is to its own benefit. Said thus recognizes the existence of
cultural imperialism but he rejects the islamist reply to it as inadequate.
Hasan Hanafi, "Origin of Modern Conservatism," 96-7; M. van den Boom, "De
Denker als Profeet: Hasan Hanaf-i" in: R. Peters & R. Meijer (eds.), Inspiratie en Kritiek,
Mosli7se Intellectuekn over de Islam (Muiderberg, 1992), 27-31.
R.D. Lee, Overcoming Tradition and
the Search for Islamic Authenticit (Oxford,
1997), 155.
Instead of deconstructing the thesis of orientalism, the islamists con-
struct their own hegemonic discourse based on the same opposition of
two static identities, but now in favour of the Orient: they reply to ori-
entalism with occidentalism.32
Muhammad Arkoun argues similarly but with a greater emphasis on
authenticity. According to Arkoun, Western secular reason was used in
the Muslim World as a hegemonic discourse to gain control over the
consciousness of the Muslim masses. In Arkoun's view, humanism,
modernity and rationalism are universal mental attitudes that may
develop within different cultural environments, also within a mythical-
religious consciousness like that of the Muslim world. The Western
hegemonic discourse of secular reason, however, defined all the attrib-
utes of modernity, such as humanism, rationalism and development, as
exclusive achievements of the secular West, leading the Muslims to
believe that they had the choice between either their traditional reli-
gious identity or a secular Western modernity. The encounter with this
discourse had such a profound impact on the consciousness of Muslim
intellectuals that until today their replies to it have been conditioned
on its very premises. The elites that took power after independence
swore by the ideals of secular reason, not realizing that these ideals
were responsible for the loss of identity in their societies and isolated
them from the mythical-religious consciousness of the Muslim masses.
Present-day islamists, on the other hand, oppose Western hegemony
but only to replace it with the hegemony of an anti-modern tradition-
alist Lslam. Arkoun thus recognizes the danger of cultural imperialism
but, like Said, he does not believe that cultural independence can be
achieved by the establishment of an Islamic state. The islamist ideal of
an Islamic state is undemocratic and a perpetuation of the privileged
authority of the traditionalist scholars. Western cultural domination, like
any hegemonic discourse, must be confronted and deconstructed by
critical reason which can only take place in an atmosphere of democ-
ratic freedoms.33
The question remaining, then, is how the islamists reply to the sec-
ularist objections that their Islamic state is necessarily undemocratic and
against modernization and human moral and intellectual freedom?
E. Said, Orientalism (London, 1978), 328; id., Culture and Imperialism (London, 1993),
3 M. Arkoun, "'Westliche' Vernunft kontra 'islamische' Vernunft? Versuch einer kri-
tischen Annaherung" in Luders, Islam im
Aujbruch? (1992), 261-74; id., Rethinking Islam
(Oxford, 1994), 24-6. See also note 54.
Renewal and author4i in modern Islam
Thus far, the islamists have argued why the establishment of an
Islamic state and the application of Islamic law are necessary, but they
have not clarified what exactly they have in mind when they speak of
Islamic law and an Islamic state. Where the islamists discuss these ques-
tions, a second essential component of islamist thought becomes visi-
ble: apart from their rejection of European cultural
hegemony, the
islamists also strive to reform Muslim consciousness and society. This call
for reform is usually expressed as a demand for a "return to the sources".
In the previous section it has been shown how the islamists related the
weakness of Muslim society in their time to the cultural invasion of the
West and how this was to be remedied by a return to the authentic
self. The deeper cause of the relative weakness of Muslim society, how-
ever, was felt to lie in the decadent state of the Muslim community
itself which, so it was generally believed, had started already at an early
stage, just after the first generations of Muslims. If the Muslim commu-
nity wanted to regain its strength, it had to return to the authentic
practice (sunna) of these excellent ancestors (al-salaf al-salih). The islamists
strongly disagree, however, as to what exactly this practice was and
who exactly these excellent early generations were. It is in this demand
for reform that islamist views start to diverge and that islamist ideol-
ogy links up with the classical Islamic controversy about
religious renewal,
human moral autonomy and the authority to interpret revelation.
A predominant theme in the modern discussions about renewal and
interpretation is opposition to traditionalism. Continuing the argument
of Ibn
Taymiyya and the reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries,
islamists have generally identified the decay of Muslim society with the
doctrine of taqlid, the duty to follow the consensus of earlier genera-
tions of scholars. The return to the authentic practice of the ancients
in this context signified a rejection of the accumulated jurisprudence
of the medieval jurists and a restoration of contact with the original
sources, the Koran and the Sunna.
According to Muhammad 'Abdiih and Ra'sd Rida, the doctrine of
taqlid was a perversion that had distorted the original meaning of the
Koran. The rejection of taqlfd for them implied a return to the notion
of community consensus as it had been understood by the early legists.
This meant that they still considered consensus a legitimate source of
ethical knowledge, but it was not binding and could never be allowed
to stop the process of living interpretation which was a duty that was
to be performed anew by each successive generation.34 In the context
of this anti-traditionalism, later islamists have often distinguished between
sari'a and fiqh. According to this view, S'ari'a is the infallible and fixed
(tibit) expression of God's Will in the Koran and the Sunna, whereas
is the fallible human understanding of it which is continually chang-
according to the historical conditions. The rejection of
the eternal validity of medieval jurisprudence had far-reaching conse-
quences for the islamists' conception of an Islamic state: it implied that
the medieval institutions of the Caliphate were considered historical and
not necessarily binding for the present.35 However, the rejection of tra-
ditionalism exposed a dilemma it had covered for centuries: the dispute
among islamists is basically a dispute between modernists and fundamen-
talists about the interpretation of the revelation.
The first islamists, like
Ahmad Khan, (Tamal al-Din al-AfMani,
Muhammad 'Abduih and Muhammad Iqbal, were essentially modernists.
Aside from their attempts to defend the Islamic way of life against the
inroads of cultural imperialism, they were primarily motivated by a
desire to adapt Islamic teachings and make them relevant in the rapidly
changing conditions of modern life. This brought them to emphasize
human moral autonomy and the necessity of a radical re-interpretation
of the Koran and the Sunna. In claiming all this, they referred to a
great variety of classical predecessors like the rationalist Mu'tazilites and
philosophers, and the Muslim mystics, but also to "enlightened" Hanbalites
like Ibn Taymiyya and his followers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Beside that, there was also a certain influence from the rationalist
thinkers of the European Enlightenment.36
It is within the theology of Muhammad 'Abduih that the position of
these early modernists is explicated most systematically.37 In order to
34 A. Hourani, Arabic 7hought, 147, 234-5.
35 Iqbal, Reconstruction, 168; Al-Sayyid Sabiq, Fiqh al-sunna (1954), 17-24. Cf. Mitchell,
Society, 237-9; Sayyid
Qutb, NJazwa mujtama' islamt (Beirut, 1975), 47ff. Cf. Haddad,
"Sayyid Qutb," 71; Hasan al-Turabi, Tojdid al-fikr al-islamt (Jedda, 1987), 183-94;
G. Kramer, "Kritik und Selbskritik: Reformistisches Denken im Islam" in Luders, Islam
(1992), 219-22.
36 Although the early modernists were definitely exposed to European Enlightenment
rationalism, authors such as A. Hourani and W.C. Smith may have over-emphasized
its influence on Islamic modernist rationalism. See A. al-Shamlan, "Beyond Apologetics;
towards a Relationist Approach to Islamist Movements," Democracy in the Middle East.
Proceedings of the BRISMES conference, 8-10 July (1992), 532-40; A. Hourani, Arabic Thought,
37 M.
The 7heology of
Unity (London, 1966); A. Hourani, Arabic Thought, 130-
60; Kerr, Islamic Reform, 103-53.
mark the borderline between human moral autonomy and the ultimate
sovereignty of God, 'Abduih makes use of two categories from the clas-
sical legal literature: the 'ibddat and the mu'dmaldt. The 'ibd&t are the
rules in the Koran that pertain to the Hereafter and the relationship
between human beings and their Creator; the muc&maldt are the Koranic
rules that concern human life in this world and the relationships between
fellow human-beings. Since humans simply do not have access to
sufficient information to be able to judge what could lead to their
benefit in the Hereafter, God has revealed the cibdddt in the Koran to
the smallest detail. These detailed rules must be obeyed and accepted
without asking why. The utility and relevance of the Koranic rules that
deal with human life in this world, however, can be understood by
human reason. According to 'Abduih, it is not only possible but even
of vital importance that Muslims try to do this. Human society is in
constant motion and continuously generates new moral problems. The
mu'dmal&t were therefore revealed, at least for the most part, in the
form of general moral principles which must continuously be re-applied
in the changing conditions of life with the help of human reason. In
'Abduih's view, the decay of Muslim society was simply due to the fact
that at a certain point Muslims had stopped to use their reason. To
him, a return to the authentic practice of the ancients basically meant
a return to the practice of rational interpretation of the early legists.
The notion of monotheism (tawhfd) in such modernist thinking became
a dynamic principle referring to a continuous human effort to re-unite
the eternal ideal with the evolving reality.38
Muh.ammad 'Abdiih thus formulated the position of modernist islamism
as it is still advocated today by thinkers such as Muhammad 'Amara
and Ras'id al-Gannasi!. Modernist islamists seek to establish an Islamic
state which in their view is basically synonymous with the application
of Islamic law. The substance of this Islamic law, however, is largely
for humans to determine, according to the circumstances in which they
find themselves. Some of the later modernists have endowed human-
ity with such a large degree of moral and social autonomy, that one
could ask oneself what the practical difference is between their Islamic
state and the socio-political order advocated by the Muslim secularists.39
Iqbal, Reconstruction, 147; Turabi, Tagdid al-fikr, 188-9.
3 See for instance Muhammad
Al-islam wa usiul al-hulmn li-'Ali 'Abd al-Raziq
(Beirut, 1972); Rasid al-Ganniigi, Al-humydt al-ammaft al-dawla al-isldmiya (Beirut, 1993);
Muhammad Salim al-'Awa, On the Political System of the Islamic State
In such cases, the remaining difference seems merely one of language:
what is called secularist ('almdnf) by Muslim secularists is called "civil"
(madanf) by modernist islamists; what secularists call human sovereignty,
modernist islamists call human vicegerency (hilafa).
But also the weaknesses of 'Abdulh's arguments have left their mark
on the later discussions. Perhaps the most important weakness of 'Abdiih's
argument is his blithe neglect of the fact that the Koran certainly does
contain some very explicit and detailed rules for inter-human relations.
Only two immediate examples are the Koranic rules for inheritance
that grant men twice as big a share as women and the Koranic penal
laws that prescribe detailed punishments (4udiud)
for transgressions such
as theft and adultery. In spite of their relatively small number, these
explicit Koranic rules for social life confront the believer with an essen-
tial problem in the understanding of the revelation: are these rules to
be taken as eternally valid truths that must be literally applied at all
times and in all places, or are they to be understood as historically
conditioned and therefore changeable expressions of an underlying eter-
nal divine ethic? By refusing to come out with explicit statements on
this subject, 'Abdiih left a crucial problem untouched: the problem of
the historicity of the Koran.40 It was 'Abdiih's pupil Rasid Rida who
made the choice that 'Abduih himself had tried to avoid: in Rida's view,
the explicit prescriptions of the Koran, including those dealing with
social relations, had to be understood and obeyed literally.4' The mod-
ernist Rasid Rida thus made the first move towards a fundamentalist
turn in islamist thought.
Until the 1950s the islamists' primary adversary was a colonial power
that tried to portray Islam as rigid and as a major obstacle to develop-
ment and the achievement of modernity. The reply to this challenge
had been the Islamic modernism of thinkers such as
'Abdah who denied exclusive Western claims on rationality and moder-
nity and tried to demonstrate that Islam, if properly understood, was
flexible, rational and modern. After independence, however, the situation
(Indianapolis, 1980);
Ijalid Muhammad Halid,
al-isldm (Cairo, 1981). For an
interesting example of a border-dispute between secularists and modernist islamists see
N. Gallagher, "Islam v. Secularism in Cairo: An Account of the Dar al-Hikma Debate"
MES, 25, 2 April (1989), 208-16.
40 The fact that a statement in favour of the Mu'tazilite thesis of the created Koran
in the first edition of his Theology
(Risa.lat al-tawzthd. Cairo, 1897) was removed
in later editions, indicates 'Abdiuh's evasiveness. See A. Hourani, Arabic Thought, 142.
M. Ralid Rida, Muhdwarat al-musih wa-l-muqallid (Cairo, 1906-7), 126. Cf. A. Hourani,
Arabic Thought, 233.
was different. Now the islamists found themselves opposing secular
fellow Muslims who soon started to repress them more vio-
lently than the colonial rulers had ever done. In practice, the "secular-
ism" of these nationalists often implied less a separation of religion and
politics than an effort to gain government control over religion. Notwith-
standing their avowed secularism, most of these regimes kept legit-
imizing their legislation and policies with religion.42 The modernism of
and 'Abdiih now revealed its autocratic face: it proved a useful
doctrine which offered the new rulers the flexibility they needed to
adapt Islamic teachings to their political demands. However, similar to
the period of the "Inquisition" by al-Ma'muin in the ninth century,
these efforts of the rulers to gain control over the process of interpre-
tation provoked a fundamentalist reaction.
The most important spokesman of this new fundamentalist trend
among the islamists was the Egyptian Muslim Brother Sayyid Qutb,
who was strongly influenced by the Pakistani thinker and politician
Abiu-l-Acla al-Mawdtidi (d. 1979).43
shocked the religious estab-
lishment by declaring that all the Muslim regimes of his day had to
be considered un-Islamic: not only the secularist regimes, which openly
negated their relationships with religion, but also those which paid
respect to Islam with their mouths but in practice had completely aban-
doned it. Such regimes, writes Qutb, make whatever laws they please
and then say: "This is the s'arfia of God." But "God's religion," warns
"is not a maze, nor is its way of life a fluid thing!""
The writings of both Mawdtidi and Qutb are pervaded with a char-
acteristic fundamentalist emphasis on the limitations and subjectivity
of human judgement. By themselves, humans are unable to develop a
world-view that does justice to the endless complexity of reality. Their
"rational" judgement is always fragmentary, emphasizing certain aspects
of reality at the expense of other aspects. In all its limitations, human
judgement is furthermore strongly dominated by all kinds of passions
D. Crecelius, "The Course of Secularization in Modem Egypt" in J.L. Esposito
(ed.), Islam and Development (Syracuse, 1980), 49-70; EJ. Zurcher, Turkey: a Modern
(London, 1993).
43 This account is based on Abu!-l-A'la al-Mawdiidi, The Islamic Law and Constitution
(Lahore, 1980); id., "Political Theory of Islam" in A. Khurshid (ed.), Islam, its Meaning
and Message (London, 1975), 147-71; Sayyid
Milestones (Beirut, 1978); id., This
Religion; id., "SocialJustice"; CJ. Adams, "Mawdudi and the Islamic State" in Esposito,
Voices (1983), 99-131; W.E. Shepard, "Islam as a 'System' in the Later Writings of
Sayyid Qutb," MES, 25, 1 Jan. (1989), 31-50; Haddad, "Sayyid Qutb."
Milestones, 154-7.
and worldly interests, particularly by the desire to rule over others. It
is for these reasons, according to Mawdidl and Qutb, that every human-
made system of values or laws inevitably reflects the interests of some
at the expense of those of others. As long as some legislate for others,
some will therefore dominate others and there will be no equality or
among humanity.
This condition of injustice and slavery Mawdtsdi and Qutb call
gahiliyya (ignorance), a term until then only used in a historical sense,
to refer to pre-Islamic Arab society. The opposite of gahilya is h&kim'yya,
a term referring to the exclusive sovereignty of God. The only way to
escape ignorance and to gain freedom and equality is to surrender all
sovereignty to God and to recognize God's revelation as the only real
authority in all legal and moral questions. The concepts of hdki4myya
gdhilyya are echoes of the classical Islamic notions of tawh4d and
sirk, monotheism and idolatry. In Qutb's words, gahil culture is the ele-
vation of human thought to the status of God, whereas the Islamic
principle of tawh4d means to assert that there is no ruler save God and
from Him alone is received all guidance and legislation.45
Because of his sharp juxtaposition of
and his
claim that even those rulers in the Islamic world who considered them-
selves Muslims were in fact unbelievers, Qutb's work strongly suggests
that God's revelation enables the believer to distinguish, sharply and
beyond any doubt, between good and bad conduct, true and false belief,
without having to resort to fallible human interpretations. It is this rad-
ical fundamentalist assumption of a sharp and obvious dividing line
between belief and unbelief which often lies at the basis of the ten-
dencies towards separation and violence of extremist islamist groups.
In Egypt, for instance, such a radical fundamentalist reading of Qutb's
writings inspired a number of extremist groups since the 1970s to declare
the whole society to be unbelievers
(takftr), to physically separate them-
selves from the kdfir society and use violence against it.46 The radical
fundamentalism of such groups is reminiscent of that of the early
Hanbalites and especially the Harigites, who also assumed an obvious
distinction between People of Paradise and Hell, and often considered
it legitimate to kill the latter. This similarity is noticed by a number
of more moderate islamist authors who have criticized it as such. The
Qutb, Milestones, 207-8, 248; Haddad, "Sayyid
Qutb," 77.
G. Kepel, The Prophet and the Pharaoh. Muslim Extremism in
Egypt (London, 1985);
E. Sivan, Radical Islam, Medieval Theology and Modern Politics (London, 1985).
Egyptian Muslim Brother Hasan Hudaybi, for instance, argues that,
contrary to what the notion of h4kimyya implies, God has endowed
humans with a certain autonomy to interpret the sari'a in the various
circumstances of their lives, and that because such human interpretations
are fallible, they can never be the basis of a declaration of unbelief.47
However important such debates may be, they do no justice to the
writings of Sayyid
whose thought is in reality much more ambigu-
ous than both his extremist admirers and his moderate critics seem to
believe. Although the dominant theme in the writings of Mawdfidr and
Qutb is a fundamentalist emphasis on the fallibility and subjectivity of
human judgement, both authors in fact do recognize the inevitability
of interpretation. This becomes clear where they use the notion of
human vicegerency
as complementary to God's exclusive sover-
eignty (4dkim'yya).48 Despite their rejection of human legislation, both
Mawdiidi and Qutb admit that the revelation does not provide a lit-
eral and unambiguous answer for every situation in life. In such cases
humans, as the vicegerents of God on earth, can rely on their own fal-
lible and subjective interpretations of the divine Will. But, however
moderate their fundamentalism, both authors hasten to emphasize the
restrictions on the scope of this human
Just like Rasid
Rida, Mawdfidi and Qutb argue that the detailed and specific pre-
scriptions of the Koran, also when they concern social life, are eter-
nally valid and must be applied literally. Whenever there is an explicit
text (nass), there is no room for interpretation.49
of the Koran
With both modemists and moderate fundamentalists accepting degrees
of interpretation, what remains as the focus of the contemporary de-
bates is the issue of the historicity of the literal prescriptions of the
Koran regarding social affairs, as opposed to their literal applicability.
Sharply contrasting with the clarity of the fundamentalists, the majority
of modernists have, ever since Muhammad 'Abdiih remained vague
and evasive on this issue.
Several modernists have tried to work out what could be termed a
middle position. One example of such a positon are the views on the
47 Hasan Hudaybi, Du'dt, Id qu.dat (Cairo, 1969).
Milestones, 210; Adams, "Mawdudi," 116.
Milestones, 157; MawdOdi, Islamic Law, 85.
Koranic hudad punishments for theft and
adultery expressed by the
Sudanese author al-Sadiq al-Mahdi. These
punishments, argues al-
Mahdi, are meant to be applied only in a
perfect Islamic
society where
everybody is free of material needs and where marriage is accessible
to all. As long as this ideal situation is not achieved, the hudiud are not
to be applied. And even if such an ideal situation occurs, the conditions
for the application of the hrudid are still so difficult to meet that they
will hardly ever be applied in practice. Similar views have been
by some Egyptian Muslim Brothers in the 1950s and by many contem-
porary Egyptian modernists.50
A historical understanding of the Koran, as a text conditioned by
the historical conditions in which it appeared, has proven a highly
volatile issue. Although the Egyptian author TahaI Husayn (d. 1973)
pioneered this view already in the 1920s,5' only a handful of modernist
authors today clearly commit themselves to such a historical approach;
among them are Nasr Hamid Abui Zayd, Ilasan Hanafi, Muhammad
Arkoun and Fazlur Rahman. Such authors argue very much the oppo-
site of those advocating a middle position: instead of arguing that the
hudud can only be applied in a perfect Islamic society, they maintain
that society has developed since the time of the Prophet and for that
reason the hudiud, as well as other social prescriptions in the Koran,
have become obsolete in their literal wording.
According to the Pakistani thinker Fazlur Rahman (d. 1988) the
decay of the Muslim world had set in from the moment that the Muslim
scholars lost sight of the rational coherence and the historical charac-
ter of the Koran and started to approach the Koranic verses in isola-
tion from one another and from their historical context. This atomistic
and ahistorical approach has continued in modern Islam. To overcome
this methodological deadlock, Rahman pleads for a theory of inter-
pretation that involves a double movement: first from the historically
specific to the general and then back to the specific. First the historical
situations in which the different Koranic verses were revealed must be
studied, so that the eternal and transcendent ethical laws on which the
Al-Sayyid al-Sadiq al-Mahdi, Al-'uqubdt al-sar'iya wa mawqi'uhd min al-niz&-m al-
gtimd't al-isldmt (Cairo, 1987), 18, 34-7; Mitchell, Societ, 240-1.
Husayn applied
the method of historical criticism to pre-Islamic
thereby implying that this could also be done with the religious texts. See Taha Husayn,
Fi al-si'r al-ghill (Cairo, 1928); A. Hourani, Arabic 7hought, 327.
historical verses are based can be deduced; then these general and tran-
scendent laws must be re-applied in the specific situations of the pre-
sent time. Throughout this process, Islamic authenticity is safeguarded
by the rational coherence of the Koran and the Sunna. In Fazlur
Rahman's view, a doctrine or institution is "truly Islamic" to the extent
that it flows from the total teaching of Koran and Sunna.52
The Egyptian scholar Nasr Hamid Abiu Zayd elucidates the poten-
tial of a rational and historical approach of the Koran with a telling
example. In light of the social conditions prevailing in pre-Islamic times,
the Koranic injunction that granted a woman half the share of inher-
itance of a man was a step forward, since before that she was entitled
to nothing at all. If the underlying intention of this historically condi-
tioned injunction is re-applied in the present, it tells us to assume the
total equality of man and woman before the law.53
The French Algerian thinker Muhammad Arkoun argues for an
Islamic humanism based on a historical approach to the Koran. According
to Arkoun, such an Islamic humanism developed in the first centuries
of Islam in the thought of the Mu'tazilites and the Muslim philoso-
phers. By arguing the createdness of the Koran, the Mu'tazilites viewed
the Koran as historical and liable to critical human examination, but
without denying its divine origin. However, when the traditionalist schol-
ars established their hegemony and replaced the doctrine of the cre-
ated Koran by an insistence on the literal and ahistorical truth of the
Koran and of their own interpretations, this Islamic humanism fell into
decay. In the 19th century, this condition made the Muslims an easy
prey for the European hegemonic discourse of secular reason, which
led Muslims to believe that they had to choose between being either
traditional and religious or modern and secular. As a result, Muslim
intellect was locked in a polarization between two hegemonic discourses:
that of Western secular reason and that of traditionalist Islam. According
to Arkoun, present-day islamists have not managed to think beyond
the premises of traditionalist Islam. In spite of their rejection of taqlzd,
they stick to the ahistorical, literalist understanding of the Koran, which
inevitably sustains the monopoly of the scholars. Arkoun believes that
Muslim consciousness can liberate itself from this polarization by a re-
evaluation of the Islamic humanism of the Mu'tazilites. A new way of
F. Rahman, Islam
(Chicago and London, 1982).
53 Nasr Hamid Aba Zayd, interview in NRC-Handelsblad, 9 Dec. (1995).
thinking should be developed in which mythical and rational con-
sciousness do not exclude each other and in which the Koran can be
understood historically without denying its divine origin.54
One remaining point of disagreement among the advocates of a
historical interpretation of the Koran concerns the fallibility and objec-
tivity of such efforts. Fazlur Rahman counts himself here to the "objec-
tivity school", disagreeing with Hans Georg Gadamer's thesis that there
is "no question of any objective understanding of anything at all."55
Thinkers such as Muhammad Arkoun and the Egyptian philosopher
Hasan Hanafi, on the other hand, seem to believe that the liberation
of Muslim consciousness from human institutions claiming divine author-
ity can only be achieved by a recognition of the total subjectivity of
all human understanding and knowledge. The subjectivism of Hanafr
and Arkoun is located at a junction of different currents in both Western
and Islamic thought. It represents, for a start, a departure from the
ethical positivism of the Mu'tazilites and the Muslim philosophers. As
such, it further represents a convergence of the Islamic fundamentalist
criticism of modernist reason
with the Western postmodernist
criticism of Enlightenment reason. However, whereas for the funda-
mentalists the subjectivity of human judgement always implied hege-
mony and domination, only to be avoided by taking refuge in the lit-
eral text of the Koran, in the thought of these "postmodernists" -it has
evolved into an essential characteristic of human freedom, from which
there is no refuge.
Hanafi takes the more extreme position. The central theme in Hanafi's
writings is the subjective nature of all meaning and truth. Islam in the
20th century should be renewed through replacing the belief in absolute
truth and a transcendent God by a subjectivist concept of truth, the
belief in an immanent God and a strictly historical and anthropocen-
tric reading of the Koran. Following Heidegger and Gadamer, IHanafi
holds that meaning is not inherent in texts; it is produced in the
54 Also Nasr Hamid Abhi Zayd is careful to emphasize that studying the revelation
as conditioned by its historical context does not necessarily deny its divine origin. See
Nasr Hamid Abii Zayd, Vernieuwing in het Islamitisch Denken (Amsterdam, 1996), 74;
M. Arkoun, Pour une Critique de la Raison Islamique (Paris, 1984); id., Europa en de Islam,
guest-lectures University of Amsterdam, Jan.-June 1992 (Amsterdam, 1993), 63-73; id.,
Rethinking Islam; id., "Westliche Vernunft," 261-74; R. Haleber, Islam en Humanisme; de
Wereld van Mohammed Arkoun (Amsterdam, 1992); L. Binder, Islamic Liberalism, 161-6; Lee,
Overcoming Tradition and Modernity, 143-74.
Rahman, Islam and
Modernity, 8-9.
encounter between texts and human beings in their particular social
and political contexts. HanafiVs radical subjectivism leads him to reduce
all knowledge to power and all truth to ideology. For Hanaff, the only
remaining criterion to know the true meaning of the Koran is his con-
viction that the original aim of monotheism is the liberation of human
consciousness from tyrannical powers. Following Marx, he locates "true
consciousness" in the proletariat, which leads him to support the islamism
of Mawdadi, Qutb and Khomeini as a manifestation of popular soli-
darity. in the struggle for freedom, social justice and brotherhood.56
On the spectrum between objectivism and subjectivism, Muhammad
Arkoun represents a middle position. On the one hand Arkoun empha-
sizes that the historical text analysis he proposes does not deny that
the Koran contains an essential, divine meaning. On the other hand,
however, he asserts that every human understanding or expression of
this transcendent truth, even the Koran itself, is historical and subjec-
tive. Understood in this way, the recognition of human subjectivity does
not imply that one should give up the effort to be objective altogether.
Unlike Hanafi, Arkoun refuses to let go the distinction between scientific
truth and ideology or, as he calls it, between critical and hegemonic
reason. Although complete objectivity is beyond its reach, critical rea-
son can reduce error to a minimum by a relentless effort to turn crit-
icism back upon itself. The impossibility of complete objectivity does
not deny the possibility to be more and less objective.57
Although Arkoun rejects the islamist ideal of an Islamic state, it may
well be argued that, with his Islamic humanism, he brings the mod-
ernist islamist project as initiated by Afghan! and 'Abduih to its radical
conclusion: that a religious order does not necessarily rule out a secu-
lar order; that it is possible to possess a particular identity and at the
same time participate in a universal modernity, to guard Islamic authen-
ticity without locking oneself up in a static Islamic essence. It is on this
Hanaf, "Origin of Modern Conservatism"; M. van den Boom,
van de
Mens in Islamitisch
M.'A. Lahbdbf and H. Hanafi (Amsterdam, 1984); R.C. Martin,
M.R. Woodward and D.S. Atmaja, Defenders of Reason in Islamn; Mu'tazilisrm from Medieval
School to Modern
Symbol (Oxford, 1997), 21 1.
57 It is tempting to compare Arkoun's position in this respect with that of al-Gaz&1i,
who coupled epistemological subjectivism with a belief in a divine truth existing out-
side the human mind (see note 10). Interesting in this regard is al-Gazdl!'s doctrine
that the impossibility to reach union with God did not deny the possibility to achieve
various degrees of proximity (qurb) to Him. See Arkoun, Critique, 150; id., "Westliche
Vernunft," 268; Lee, Overcoming Tradition and
Modemiy, 152-3; Haleber, Islam et Humanisme,
182.; M. Fakhry, Ethical Theories in Islam (Leiden, 1991), 196-7.
point that more radical secularists such as Aziz al-Azmeh and Sadiq
(}alal al-'Azm distinguish themselves from the advocates of a historical
interpretation of the Koran, who, in their view, are trying to reconcile
things that are essentially irreconcilable. For such thinkers the whole
notion of authenticity, not only its historical expression of islamism, is
by its nature essentialist and antithetical to a universal modernity. Aziz
al-Azmeh thus argues that the discourse of authenticity is ultimately an
exclusivist and essentialist discourse, much like the reverse it finds in
orientalism. The Syrian philosopher Sadiq Galal al-'Azm maintains that
although throughout most of its history Islam has reconciled itself with
a secular state of affairs, dogmatically Islam does not accept secular-
ization. Al-'Azm asks himself what is wrong with contemporary post-
modernist thought in Europe which plays so carelessly into the hands
of the islamists. For Sadiq al-'Azm the discourse of authenticity is an
essentiallist discourse and as such it is "orientalism in reverse". To call
for Islamic authenticity means to replace the ideas of universal objec-
tive truth and development by those of cultural subjectivity, a static
Islam and a return to a medieval theocracy.58
So far it has been shown that although the islamists demand an
Islamic state and the application of Islamic law, they recognize different
degrees of human autonomy in the determination of this law and the
institutions of the Islamic state. The question that now presses itself to
the foreground is how the islamists believe that this human sovereignty
is to be distributed among the people. This brings us to the question
of democracy. The discussions among the islamists about democracy
are very complicated and cannot be treated exhaustively here. However,
this article cannot be concluded without at least a sketchy treatment
of this issue. First of all it should be noted that an analysis of islamist
views on democracy is hindered by the fact that the vocabulary of
democracy, just like that of secularism, is associated by the islamists
The claim of these authors that the notion of authenticity is essentialist appears
to me as a circular argument based on their own essentialist premise that authenticity
and modernity are incompatible. See Aziz al-Azmeh, Islams and Modernities, 39-59;
(a1h. al-'Azm, "Orientalism and Orientalism in Reverse," IKiamsin, 8 (London, 1981),
5-26; id., Kritiek op Godsdienst en Wetenschap; vjf Essays over Islamitische Cultuur (Amsterdam,
1996), 38-48; id., "Wider den fundamentalistischen Ungeist," 246-60.
with Western hegemony and domination. Fundamentalist islamists in
particular have thus tended to forcefully reject democracy as being a
Western decadence. Similar to the case of secularism, it is therefore
useful to look beyond this anti-democratic rhetoric and examine the
substance of islamist views on political participation.
A good starting point for such an investigation are the objections of
the secularists who claim that an Islamic state is by necessity theocratic
and irreconcilable with democracy. In this secularist view, the islamists
are merely aiming to establish a dictatorship in the name of religion.
Islamist replies to such allegations are diverse. Some islamists indeed
argue that the process of igtih/d and legislation should be conducted by
a small group of learned persons. However, the standard islamist reply
is that theocracy, in the sense of religious rule by either one person or
a clergy, is contrary to the Islamic notion of monotheism (tawhkd). Such
views are expressed by modernists as well as fundamentalists. Various
islamists such as
Rida, Iqbal, Mawduidi, Qutb and 'Amara
argue that Islam does not recognize a religious authority aside from
the revelation and that all believers have an equal right to consult and
interpret the sources without intermediaries. The monopoly on inter-
preting the sources is not the prerogative of a few but lies in the hands
of the whole community of believers.59
Some modernists have related their ideas about popular participa-
tion to the notion of community consensus
as it was understood
by the early religious scholars. In the view of Muhammad Iqbdl, for
instance, the notion of consensus refers to nothing less than the ulti-
mate Islamic ideal of spiritual democracy. In the course of history, this
original ideal had decayed and consensus became restricted to the agree-
ment of the scholars which was then regarded binding for later gen-
erations. But now the time had come, according to Iqbal, to revive the
original notion of consensus and transfer the power of igtihad to a mod-
ern legislative assembly.60
The central notion in the modern discussion about popular partici-
pation, however,, is not
but the Koranic injunction of s'u-ra, or
mutual consultation between the ruler and the believers. In the modern
cAmnra, Al-is'lm, 32-5 (on cAbdfih and himself); M. IqbM, "Islam as a Moral and
Political Idea" in S.A. Vahid (ed.), 7houghts and
of Iqbal (Lahore, 1973), 51-3;
Al-bilafa, 124-5; Mawdfidi, "Political
Theory" 160-1; A.S. Moussalli, Radical Islamic
Fundamentalism: the Ideological and Political I)iscourse of Sayyid Qutb (Beirut, 1992), 156-68.
Iqbal, Reconstruction, 168, 173-80.
discussions about s'ura opinions diverge particularly about the ques-
tions as to who is entitled to participate in this consultation and whether
its results are binding or only advisory.6' A fundamentalist author like,
for instance, 'Abd al-Hamid Mutawalli maintains that surd must be
understood as non-binding advice to the ruler of a select group of
qualified persons. On the other hand, modernist thinkers such as
Muhammad 'Abduh, Muhammad al-Gazali and Halid Muhammad
Hliid claim that the command of s'urd refers to the rulers' obligation
to consult the totality of believers, directly or through their elected rep-
resentatives, and that the ruler can be deposed if he does not act in
accordance with the popular will as it has been established by this
process of consultation.62
Yet even if the power of legislation is thus granted to the community,
one important question remains unanswered by the islamists: the ques-
tion as to who exactly should belong to this community. Of particular
concern in this respect are the positions of women and non-Muslims
in the Islamic state. One important focus of the Muslim secularists'
criticism of the notion of an Islamic state is that they believe it to be
irreconcilable with an equal citizenship of non-Muslims and women.
Although some modernists have gone as far as arguing for the right of
women and non-Muslims to vote and to hold important positions in
the Islamic state, very few of their designs have indeed met the require-
ments of a modern secular constitution, for example by granting non-
Muslims the right to be elected as the head of state.63 One problem
with modernist efforts to guarantee women and non-Muslims an equal
position with Muslim men as citizens of an Islamic state is that the
Koran in a number of places explicitly prescribes an inferior status for
them-for instance by demanding non-Muslims to pay a special tax
F. Rahman, "A Recent Controversy over the Interpretation of Shura,"
Religions, 20, 4 May (1981), 292-3.
292-300 (on Mutawalli and al-Gazdlji; M. 'Amara, Al-isldm,
32-5 (on 'AbduTh and himself); Hjalid Muhammad Halid,
Al-dawlaft al-islam; M. Salim
al-'Awa, Political System, 86-97; Ilasan al-Turabi, "Al-siira wa-l-dimuqrtiyya: askalat
al-mustalah wa-l-mafhfim" in: Al-Mustaqbal al-'Arabf, 75 (1985), 12-3; id., Tagdid al-fikr,
27-31, 87-90.
63 See for instance Muhammad Salim al-'Awa, "Al-nizam al-islami wa wad' gayr al-
muslimin" in Turabi and al-'Awa (eds.), Min ma'dlim al-nizdm al-isldmt (Khartoum, 1987),
Pj. Vatikiotis, "Non-Muslims in Muslim Society: A Preliminary Consideration of
the Problem on the Basis of Recent Published Works by Muslim Authors," in
Esman and I. Rabinovich (eds.), Ethniity, Pluralism and the State in the Middle East (London,
1988), 54-70.
(giZzya, Koran 9:29) and by stating that the testimony of a woman has
only half the validity of that of a man (Koran 2:282). Some have there-
fore argued that the recognition of the historicity of the social pre-
scriptions in the Koran is the only way to guarantee non-Muslims and
women the same rights as Muslim men within an Islamic state. It is
here that the dividing-line emerges again between radical modernists
such as Nasr Hamid Abui Zayd and secularists such as Ghassan Ascha
and Sadiq Oal'1 al-cAzm, who simply do not believe that Islam can be
convincingly reformed in such a way. As long as Islam is used as a
source of legitimacy for social life and politics, such radical secularists
*argue, women and non-Muslims will be in danger of being discrimi-
In the above article, I have suggested a framework for the descrip-
tion and analysis of the history of Islamic ideas concerning renewal,
modernization and secularization. Avoiding both essentialism and reduc-
tionism, I have tried to demonstrate how modern Islamic thought on
these issues has developed out of classical Islamic thought, and how it
has been shaped by a modernity that is strongly associated with Western
The development of the classical Islamic debate about renewal and
modernization has been described within a continuum of three ideal-
type positions. Modernists stand for a belief in human moral auton-
omy and for the freedom of interpretation of the moral ideal of Islam
in the changing conditions of life. Fundamentalists emphasize the sub-
jectivity of human moral judgements and resist interpretation of the
moral ideal for fear of its manipulation by worldly powers. Traditionalism
allows interpretation only in novel cases but forbids it in cases that
have already been interpreted by earlier generations. Historically, Islamic
traditionalism emerged as a compromise between the demands of the
advocates and opponents of interpretation. In the long run, however,
this compromise did not hold because, as some sort of unintended side-
effect, the doctrine of traditionalism produced an accumulating body
As long as the Koran is used as a source of legitimacy for social life, Ascha argues,
the fundamentalists will always have the better arguments; modernists, on the other
hand, are often apologists who try to reconcile things that are essentially irreconcilable.
See Ghassan Ascha, Du Statut Inferieur de la Femme en Islam (Paris, 1987).
of jurisprudence that gradually suffocated its flexibility and capacity for
new interpretations. An inevitable reaction to traditionalism stirred
already in the 18th century and then fully developed in response to
the rapid social changes that accompanied Western expansion since the
19th century.
Modem ideological and political thought in Islam, it has been argued,
can most consistently be described in terms of two separate but inter-
related debates, one about secularism and westernization; the other
about religious renewal and modernization. The first debate is rela-
tively new as it developed in response to the novel challenge of West-
ern expansion. Influenced by European thought of the time, Muslim
secularists argued that a complete break with religion as a source of
legitimacy for social and political life was a precondition for human
autonomy and freedom and for the modernization of society. Their
opponents, the islamists, rejected secularism as a form of Western dom-
ination and, therefore, as an obstacle to Muslim freedom and devel-
opment. The islamist demand for an Islamic order must primarily be
viewed, not as a rejection of modernization, but as a rejection of the
cultural hegemony of the West and of westernized elites in the Muslim
world. The issue of modernization is discussed among the islamists in
a second debate which, conditioned on the premise of the Koran as
the ultimate source of social legitimacy, takes the shape of a debate on
religious renewal, reform and interpretation. This second debate is
not new: it is a continuation of the classical Islamic debate concerning
human moral autonomy and the authority to interpret the ethical ideal
of the Koran.
With the receding importance of traditionalism among the islamists,
the old contradiction between fundamentalists and modernists re-emerged
to the surface. However, the fundamentalists and modernists that were
now facing one another were more moderate than their predecessors.
Fundamentalists had learnt in the course of time to admit the inevitabil-
ity of interpretation while modernists were more ready than they were
before to recognize the limitations and subjectivity of human moral
judgements and interpretations of the Koran. For the moment, how-
ever, Muslim secularists, modernists and fundamentalists remain divided
by one central issue: the recognition of the historicity of the literal text
of the Koranic revelation and its potential to reconcile the demands
for authenticity with those of an emerging global modernity.