By Roy Oksnevad
I sat down with my friend at a restaurant as we talked about the various voices of Islam in light of modernity. He had no idea where it would all end. He noticed that his nephew and nieces recently changed their dress to identify more as a Muslim. They were going to the Internet for fiqh rulings (see http://www.fiqhcouncil.org) and wanted to study the Qur’an though their parents were not that religious. What is happening?
The process of industrialization, modernization, and globalization has occurred irrespective of the influence of religion. Muslims wrestling with modernity are confronted with issues that do not have historical Islamic solutions. The crisis within Islam created through modernization has resulted in a variety of responses. One response is a further entrenchment in an uncritical and dogmatic reliance on religious traditions which they believe to be holistic, complete, and immutable. On the other extreme, secularists choose to live in the modern world with a type of disconnect between belief and practical reality. In order better understand the Muslim response to these global forces, it would be expedient to try to categorize some of the major types of responses in light of the major issues of conflict between Islam and modernity.
Ahmad delineates four impacts of modernism. First is secularization of the state, its political, economic, and social institutions. Divine guidance was made irrelevant in light of secularism. Second is the new pattern of Western dominance through political rule, institutional changes, and dependence upon the West. Third is the bifurcation of education into two parallel mainstreams of secular and modern education and religious and traditional education. Fourth is the crisis of leadership. “Traditional leadership of the Muslim society was systematically destroyed.” (Ahmad 1983:218-219) There is a strong dissatisfaction with the experiments with secularism and secular ideologies of nationalism, capitalism, and socialism. The major response has been the rediscovery of Islam as an all-embracing system of life.
Sherin Sadaalah (2004, 38) delineates four different responses to modernization within Islam: secularism, traditionalism, modernism, and fundamentalism. Saeed and Saeed (2004, 33) makes a nuanced difference naming five main trends: Islamists, Puritans, Traditionalists, Ijtihadis, and Secularists. Bennett uses the following four main trends in describing Muslims:
Progressives – Some argue for the separation of Islam from the state but accept that a state whose majority is Muslim will want Islamic values to inform its laws and systems. This can have constitutional status. Some want an Islamic State, even a global Islamic entity. However, they want to reinterpret Islam’s sources, distinguishing eternal values or principles from time specific applications. Thus, even particular rules found in the Qur’an need not be applied today without reinterpretation. The ideal Islam lies in the future not the past.
Neo-Traditionalists – Conservative view of Islamic Law but open to reinterpretation in some areas when not directly contrary to the Qur’an or Hadith. Use the vocabulary of reform. Advocate unity of religion and politics, and campaign for the creation of an Islamic Sate, but using constitutional methods such as standing for election, propaganda, and education. Engage in dialogue with the West, but reject Western solutions as non-Islamic. Call for recognition of Islamic autonomy and freedom to develop its own standards. The West is not the arbiter of human rights and political legitimacy. Ultimate aim is a world Islamic order.
Traditionalists – Want to rebuild the lost, ideal Islam of the past obscured by colonial rule as well as by Muslims who have deviated from the ideal.
Share with the neo-traditionalists a conservative understanding of Islamic Law. Tend to support elitist forms of government rather than constitutional systems, perceiving monarchy or rule by an elite as closer to what they see in Islam’s past—the first Khalifs were all members of Muhammad’s inner circle. Later Khalifs were from a royal dynasty. The West is not the source of all wisdom but pragmatically many traditionalists are its military and commercial allies. May be compared with the Murjites.
Radical Revisionists – Share much the same view as their partners on the right on such issues as Shari’ah, status of women, minorities. Tend to agree with the traditionalists that an elite should govern, although in their view this would consist of jurists and others qualified to apply the Shari’ah. Radically oppose the West as Islam’s enemy and denounce many Muslim regimes as infidel. Call for jihad against them. Engage in what they call military action against their enemies—usually called terrorism by the West—and by those whose regimes they oppose. Often compared with the Kharijites of early Islam. (Bennet 2005:23)
It should be noted that none of these categories are fixed with any particular group. Therefore, one might be identified on the left and at the same time on particular views be aligned with the right.
There are a variety of voices screaming to be heard in the Muslim community. These voices are seeking authentic Islamic expressions. Some do not want to deal with the issues brought up in a global world, particularly when there are no clear Islamic responses. Others genuinely want to modernize Islam to compete in the world today. What is evident is Muslims are discovering Islam and wanting to carve out a unique identity in contra-distinction with the rest of the world. These voices and experiments are trying to make Islam relevant for today.
Though many seem to be more religious, they are searching for authenticity. This is where we Christians can share the authentic life we have found in Christ. Let us not be put off with outward expressions of religion or the rhetoric that follows. We have the true faith, hope, and love that they are seeking.