Islam's reformers of the 19th century failed to reconcile their faith with modernity. Is there any more hope today for the emergence of political liberalism in Islamic states?by Anshuman A Mondal / January 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
The prospects for Islam’s accommodation with the liberal-democratic societies of Europe and North America is one of the most urgent questions of our times. Why, ask western commentators, does Islam appear to have a problem with democracy and liberalism? Why did Islamic societies not experience modernity in the same way as the west? Is there anything about Islam itself-as religion or culture-that precludes development along such lines?
From Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, the Islamic world’s encounter with modernity shook it with such force that it was never to be the same again. All Muslims, from peasants to pashas, would in the course of the next 200 years feel the aftershocks as the economic, political, social and cultural horizons to which they had become accustomed were changed by the new global reality of European dominance. Accompanying this was a growing sense of decline, as Muslims measured their own societies against those of the west and found them wanting.
The gloom also gave way to efforts at renewal, resulting in the greatest flurry of intellectual activity within the Islamic world since the early centuries of Islam. Thinkers such as Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, Muhammad Abduh and Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid from Egypt, Rashid Rida from Syria, Sayyid Ahmed Khan and Muhammad Iqbal in India, and the Persian Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, grappled with the new questions. They formed a transnational class of intellectuals, administrators and reformers that emerged in the early 19th century, reaching its apogee in the 1920s. They had their disagreements but collectively their efforts represent the best attempt to reconcile Islam with the principles of secular-liberal modernity.
Enthused by the overwhelming strength of Europe, they sought the secrets of that potency in detailed analysis of its political, economic and cultural history. They became aware of democracy and the institutions that supported it; they discovered new ideas concerning popular sovereignty and nationhood; they studied the rule of law and the emphasis on rationalism and intellectual enquiry. Having acquired this knowledge, they turned back to their own heritage and tried to reformulate Islamic principles with European modernity in mind.
It is a testimony to the extent of their failure that so few are nowadays even aware of this intellectual history, and such ignorance is not restricted to the west. As Fred Halliday reflected in Prospect (November 2001), almost no young Muslim in any part of the world would today recognise the names…