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Is Islam Compatible with Modernity?

Firas A. 2007


1. Introduction ...................................................................................................................... 3

2. Different Responses to Modernity ................................................................................. 5

3. Islam and Democracy ...................................................................................................... 6

4. Separating State and Religion in Islamic Countries .................................................... 8

5. Islam and Individual Rights ........................................................................................... 9

6. Conclusion....................................................................................................................... 11

7. References........................................................................................................................ 12

Firas A. 2007

1. Introduction

He [the prophet Muhammad] must be called the Saviour of Humanity. I believe that if a
man like him were to assume the dictatorship of the modern world, he would succeed in
solving its problems in a way that would bring it much needed peace and happiness
(Shaw, 1936) in (Munir, 2003).

The question whether (or not) Islam is compatible with modernity is not a new one. During
the 19th century similar debates arose. The reason at that time was the colonization of Muslim
lands by Western nations. In the past few years the same question regained tremendous
significance again. However, this time the reasons for the revival of this debate were the
unfortunate events of 9/11.

This paper shall examine the question whether (or not) Islam is compatible with modernity. In
order to do so arguments from Islamic and non-Islamic scholars are taken into consideration
and then evaluated. This process of examination and evaluation of both viewpoints (pro and
contra) allows for a balanced conclusion.

Islamic textual sources such as the Koran and the Sunna1 shall be used to provide evidence on
various matters. This could mean the extraction of specific verses from the Koran to support a
claim. However, it is important to note the limitations of such sources of evidence. Religious
scripts are often interpretable in several, very differing (or even opposing) ways. Thus to keep
the noise arising from such differences to a minimum (and insure a certain level of objectivity
necessary for the analysis at hand), the citations and definitions are based on interpretations
from leading mainstream scholars worldwide.

Having mentioned the limitations of this paper, the definitions of important key words shall
be established – in the process of creating a common ground for a valid discussion.

The way of life prescribed as normative for Muslims on the basis of the teachings and practices of Muhammad and interpretations of the
Koran (WordNet, 2006).

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Firstly, it is important to clarify what exactly Islam is. According to Princeton University’s
WordNet 3.0 database (2006) Islam is “the monotheistic religious system of Muslims founded
in Arabia in the 7th century and based on the teachings of Muhammad as laid down in the
Koran (WordNet, 2006).

Another definition gives necessary insight into the historical aspect of Islam and the precise
meaning and purpose of it:

Islam is derived from the Arabic word for peace, and it is harmony and submission to
the laws of Allah and thus the teachings of Islam are based on the nature of mankind.
Islam is a set of teachings that has been revealed by Allah to mankind. The revelation
of Islam has taken place, at various times, through different messengers of Allah such
as Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and finally Muhammad (ISW, 2006).

Secondly, it is essential to define what exactly modernity is. In this particular context Prof.
Masud’s (2004) definition of modernity seems suitable. According to him “modernity is an
historical process and an outcome of a cumulative contribution by all human cultures towards
the present stage of development in human history. It is in this sense that there are not one but
several modernities; various traditions transform into varying modernities” (Masud, 2004).
In another definition of modernity put forward by Hunter & Malik (2005) the following is

Modernity generally refers to the sociopolitical transformation of Europe that

accompanied the scientific and technological developments ensuing from the
Enlightenment. That transformation resulted from a shift from reliance on religion as
the basis of political legitimacy to a reliance on democracy, and was accompanied by
the separation of church and state and the emergence of secularism.

Arising from the definitions above, the main pillars of modernity can be identified as
democracy, secularism and the support of individual rights (i.e. human rights).

As modernity is an ambiguous term it is necessary to clearly distinguish between modernity

and modernism. Thus contrary to modernity, the concept of modernism “refers to a
philosophical approach to certainty that relies primarily on reason rather than revelation”
(Hunter & Malik, 2005).

Firas A. 2007

Thirdly, the term compatible needs to be defined. According to Princeton University’s

WordNet 3.0 database (2006) compatible means being “able to exist and perform in
harmonious or agreeable combination.” The University of South Alabama (2007) defines
compatible as being “capable of coexistence without injury.”

Having established the definition of the three key words, the main pillars of modernity
(democracy, secularism, individual rights) shall be examined separately with respect to their
compatibility with Islam.

2. Different Responses to Modernity

First of all it should be noted that different Muslims respond differently to modernity.
Therefore it seems appropriate to divide Muslims into two distinct groups – modernists and

The modernists are well educated and committed Muslims with a threefold mission:

first, to define Islam by bringing out the fundamentals in a rational and liberal manner;
second, to emphasize, among others, the basic ideals of Islamic brotherhood,
tolerance, and social justice; and third, to interpret the teaching of Islam in such a way
as to bring out its dynamic character in the context of the intellectual and scientific
progress of the modern world (Husain, 1995).

The modernists put serious effort in reconciling “differences between traditional religious
doctrine and secular scientific rationalism, between unquestioning faith and reasoned logic,
and between continuity of Islamic tradition and modernity” (Munir, 2003). They tolerate
diversity and adjust to changing circumstances. Furthermore, according to Tariq Ramadan

their universal principles teach them [the modernists] that wherever the law respects
their integrity and their freedom of conscience and worship, they are at home and must
consider the attainments of these societies as their own and must involve themselves,
with their fellow-citizens, in making it good and better (Ramadan, 2004).

Firas A. 2007

Fundamentalism on the other hand may lead to reduced and even superficial understanding of
the religion. The concept of fundamentalism was firstly referred to during the conflicts
between leading evangelical Protestants and progressive figures of the early 1920s (Masud,
2004). Fundamentalism is proven to exist in all world religions. However, in these days a new
trend towards associating the term fundamentalism with Islam has emerged. This becomes
quickly evident when observing the news where the term fundamentalist is frequently being
used as a substitute for extremists, Islamic radicals or Islamists.

Fundamentalism acts as an active barrier towards understanding the religion in its true sense
and dynamic spirit. Fundamentalists often refer to religious texts strictly and literally, lacking
interpretations adjusted to modern times or changing circumstances. This is where their
problem lies, as today in a world dominated by problems of increasing complexity and
diversity what is needed most they lack: flexibility.

Flexibility in this context means being able to reinterpret religious texts in the light of
changing circumstances – while giving major priority to the main aim of the religion. Tariq
Ramadan (2004) describes this type of Muslims possessing this flexibility as “faithful to the
principles of Islam, dressed in European and American cultures”.

3. Islam and Democracy

Democracy, being central to modernity, is often claimed to be necessary in order to achieve

modernity. Therefore the question of whether Islam is compatible with democracy should be
dealt with thoroughly. Answering this question brings this discussion significantly closer to
the answer of the main research question.

Democracy itself is not entirely new to Islam. Something similar existed under the Arabic
name of shura ever since the Koran was revealed to the prophet Muhammad.
Shura (democratic consultation) is of course not identical to present-day democracy.
However, it shares fundamental principles with present-day democracy. The significance of
the concept of shura becomes evident considering that even the prophet Muhammad himself
was required to consult his people in secular affairs. In fact the principle of consultation

Firas A. 2007

applies to each and every Muslim. Therefore, any form of authoritarianism or (military)
dictatorship would pose a violation to the Koranic verses 42:382 and 3:1593.

However, oftentimes the Koranic verse 4:594 is (deliberately) misinterpreted and used by
people such as monarchs and (military) dictators to justify their undemocratic ways of ruling.
To understand the Koranic verse 4:59 in its true sense it is vital to consider the historical
context in which this verse was revealed. This verse was specifically directed towards
Bedouins, who were nomads at those times. Representatives sent by the prophet to inform the
Bedouins were violently rejected. They were refusing to submit to any kind of authority,
while leading uncontrolled tribal wards amongst each other. As a consequence this verse was
revealed, urging them to submit themselves to the ruling authorities – setting an end to tribal
wars and anarchy.

Therefore, it is not possible to use this verse to justify unlawfully comprised authority, as this
would mean taking Koranic verses out of their context and altering their meaning.
Additionally, looking at the verse 4:59 in conjunction with verses 42:38 and 3:159 reveals the
necessity to obey democratically comprised authorities. Here the constitution and
legitimization of an authority is of central importance. Thus, the concept of shura can be
reinterpreted to support modern democratic procedures, including the establishment of various
democratic bodies of which democratic elections are compulsory.

However, regardless of such interpretations, authorities acquired using the force of weapons
(or similar) cannot considered to be legitimate according to Islamic law. This might explain
why during the lifetime of the prophet there was no single institution of (military) dictatorship
or monarchy. The question of why today so many Islamic countries are lacking any form of
democracy poses itself at this point. This phenomenon can be explained considering
historical, political and cultural factors – rather than religious ones.

And those who respond to their Lord and keep up prayer, and their rule is to take counsel among themselves, and who spend out of what
We have given them (The Koran, 2000).
Thus it is due to mercy from Allah that you deal with them gently, and had you been rough, hard hearted, they would certainly have
dispersed from around you; pardon them therefore and ask pardon for them, and take counsel with them in the affair; so when you have
decided, then place your trust in Allah; surely Allah loves those who trust (The Koran, 2000).
O you who believe! obey Allah and obey the Apostle and those in authority from among you; then if you quarrel about anything, refer it to
Allah and the Apostle, if you believe in Allah and the last day; this is better and very good in the end (The Koran, 2000).

Firas A. 2007

One historical example involves Ulama5 legitimizing monarchy in the process of preventing
anarchy. This decision was not of religious nature, nor did it happen in the name of Islam.
Today in countries such as Saudi-Arabia, Ulama have become solid part of the power
structure. Their pronouncements have lost any Islamic authenticity, whereas their main task
became legitimizing whatever Saudi-Arabian rulers do.

Another reason for the overwhelming number of Muslim countries lacking democracy can be
found considering further historical events. As the Islamic capital moved from Medina to
Damascus it was highly suspect to Roman influence. This Roman influence on the Islamic
capital in Damascus allowed for the institution of monarchy to sneak in. It was Muawiah6
who obtained the power, ruling from Damascus – actively adopting Roman monarchical ways
of ruling.

By this example again, it can be shown what an important role cultural, political and historical
aspects played in shaping today’s political institutions of many Muslim countries. Today the
demand for a popular government and democracy is extremely high in Muslim countries such
as Egypt and Saudi-Arabia. In fact acting as a barrier to democracy today are aggressive
authoritarian rulers. Islam does not hinder the establishment of democratic authorities in
Muslim countries. It is rather the opposite – Islam encourages democracy and justice, even in
the modern sense (Engineer, 2003).

4. Separating State and Religion in Islamic Countries

First of all it might be important to mention that from the fundamentalist’s point of view
everything that would imply the slightest exclusion of religion from the state is against
Islamic law. Thus the reaction of the fundamentalists takes shape in the process of reacting to
the various developments and effects of modernization/secularization. Even though those
developments have found acceptance amongst the larger part of the religious society,
fundamentalists do not cease to oppose them.

Orthodox religious scholars within Islam; pressed for a more conservative and restrictive theology; increasingly opposed to non-Islamic
ideas and scientific thinking (Peter N. Stearns, 2007).
Muawiah was a companion of Muhammad and after his death the Umayyad caliph in Damascus (Wiki, 2007).

Firas A. 2007

There has been an old trend towards strongly believing that Islamic religion can by no means
be separated from the state. Many Muslims take this old-fashioned thought as mere rule and
consider it as no subject for discussion. It is as if this rule was engraved in stone.
The reality however looks quite different: if going by the holy Koran, then the concept of
state is not even given to begin with. The only concept given is the concept of a morally and
legally correct society.

Here again, the historical background explains why today Islam is often associated with the
lack of secularization: during the time of the appearance of Islam there was no state. The
prophet Muhammad provided the skeleton for the framework of a functioning administration.
This happened in the light of a newly emerging society. Bureaucracy, a paid army or police
was none existent at this time in history. It was not until the 2nd Calpih Umar came into power
that the organization of commercial soldiers started.

While in Arabia there was a complete lack of legal regulations, Shariah law7 was seen to be
the solution. It provided the urgently needed legal structure, being consistent and logical in
nature. This indeed was a great step forward. However, the state structure coming along with
a new religious movement can be considered to be mere coincidence. This means that the
integration of state and religion happened due to historical coincidence. Religion was not the
decisive factor in this case.

One example of a Muslim country where the separation between state and religion exists is
Turkey. However, the forceful separation of state and religion along with modernization in
Muslim countries may backfire with dramatic consequences. One example is Afghanistan
during the 1930s, where the dramatic consequences appeared in the form of Islamic
revolution combined with the enforcement of stagnant Shariah law on all (Engineer, 2003).

5. Islam and Individual Rights

It is generally accepted that individual rights pose a fundamental aspect to the possible
existence of liberal democracy. The whole idea of individual rights arose parallel to the
development of democratic forms of power. Lacking individual rights (e.g. human rights) in

The code of law derived from the Koran and from the teachings and example of Mohammed (WordNet, 2006).

Firas A. 2007

Muslim countries can therefore be attributed to the absence of any real democracy. Instead of
embracing individual rights, as it is in the true spirit of the Koran, they are completely
rejected. This rejection of individual and human rights is justified by calling them secular and
western in nature. In fact human rights activists in Muslim countries are often punished for
doing their work. The majority sees them as western agents and this is how they are treated.
In Saudi-Arabia the list of imprisoned human rights activists is growing, and there is no end in
sight. Why all this?

Neither the Koran nor the prophet has taught any form of suppression of differences in
opinions. The freedom of speech was at no point denied by either the Koran or the prophet. It
was rather the opposite: according to the prophet difference of opinion “is matter of grace and
mercy” (Engineer, 2003).

Islam actively taught that men and women were equal. It granted women the rights of equality
and equity (e.g. Koranic verse 33:358). Amongst them were the rights of property ownership
and the right to inheritance. Additionally, with the introduction of Islam infanticide and the
inhumane treatment of slaves came towards an end. War prisoners were given comprehensive
rights, and it did not stop there. Even trees and animals were given a comprehensive set of
rights. It was not until monarchical and feudal culture evolved that difference in thought and
opinion became forbidden and suppressed. Rights were taken away from people who became
slaves in this process.

Hence, it all comes back to one thing: the lack of democracy in Muslim countries. Therefore,
the first step towards Muslim countries respecting individual rights (e.g. human rights) is the
demolishment of authoritarian power structures, which must then be replaced by democratic
power structures (Engineer, 2003). As discussed in section 3 (Islam and Democracy) of this
paper, does Islam not act as a barrier for the establishment of democratic authorities. Since the
lack of individual rights can be attributed to the lack of democracy, and the lack of democracy
cannot be attributed to Islam, it is safe to conclude that Islam is not responsible for the lack of
individual rights in Islamic countries.

Surely the men who submit and the women who submit, and the believing men and the believing women, and the obeying men and the
obeying women, and the truthful men and the truthful women, and the patient men and the patient women and the humble men and the
humble women, and the almsgiving men and the almsgiving women, and the fasting men and the fasting women, and the men who guard
their private parts and the women who guard, and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember-- Allah has prepared
for them forgiveness and a mighty reward (The Koran, 2000).

Firas A. 2007

6. Conclusion

The main aim of this paper was to examine whether (or not) Islam is compatible with
modernity by breaking down the term modernity into its main pillars: democracy, secularism
and individual rights. After having examined the main pillars of modernity with respect to
Islam, it becomes evident how Islam is not only compatible but does in fact encourage
modernity in the sense of the definitions of the key words provided in the introduction of this

However, it is important to keep in mind the limitations to this paper. One limitation, clearly
mentioned in the introduction, involves the role of the interpretation of evidence collected
from Islamic textual sources and the possible associated lack of objectivity. Another
limitation worth introducing involves the selection of definitions used in the introduction.
Such definitions could be said to have set the framework of this paper at an early stage,
influencing the answer to the main research question from the very beginning. Different
definitions of key words might have resulted in a different answer. Nevertheless, regardless of
definitions and interpretations, Islam can be said to be “pathway to peaceful co-existence and
tolerance” (Seyit, 2003).

Firas A. 2007

7. References
Engineer, A. A. (2003, September 4). YaleGolbal Online. Retrieved October 8, 2007, from

Hunter, S., & Malik, H. (2005). Modernization, Democracy, And Islam. Washington, D.C.:

Husain, M. Z. (1995). Global Islamic Politics. New York: HarperCollins College Publishers.

ISW, F. (2006, November 21). Imam Shirazi World Foundation. Retrieved October 17, 2007,
from http://www.shirazi.org.uk/glossary.htm

Masud, P. K. (2004). Islam, Society and Modernity. Retrieved October 25, 2007, from

Munir, L. Z. (2003, October 14). Retrieved October 24, 2007, from Emory University
Website: http://www.law.emory.edu/ihr/worddocs/lily1.doc

Peter N. Stearns, M. A. (2007). World Civilizations: The Global Experience. New York:
Pearson Education (US).

Ramadan, T. (2004). Western Muslims and the Future of Islam. New York: Oxford University

Seyit, K. (2003). ANU E Press. Retrieved October 15, 2007, from


Shaw, G. B. (1936). The Genuine Islam. Singapore.

The Koran. (2000, January 7). Retrieved October 21, 2007, from

Wiki. (2007, October 12). Wikipedia. Retrieved October 25, 2007, from

WordNet. (2006). Princeton University. Retrieved October 25, 2007, from



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