Is Modernism Bad?

What is ‘modernism’ in the Islamic context?

The term ‘modernist’ has become a sloppy critique that religious Muslims use to dismiss views they feel are too ‘liberal’ or see as catering too willingly to the Western world and its beneficiaries.

But the vast majority of people who make this accusation don’t understand what it means to be a modernist, or what modernism in the Islamic context exactly is. Ask someone who uses it to define it and extrapolate analogies from it and their explanation will often fall apart at its core.

In my understanding, ‘modernism’ in the Islamic context can mean one of three things:

1) Modern ontologies imposed onto Islam – this would entail seeing religion itself as backwards, or belief in God as irrational, outdated and unnecessary. It would also involve imposing epistemic ontologies like naturalism, scientism and positivism, or social ontologies like secularism or liberalism to displace Islamic ontologies.

A Muslim embracing this brand of modernism usually results in them leaving Islam or at the very least adopting very strange ideas and understandings that even the average Muslim can distinguish as being ‘unIslamic’ or contradictory to plainsense meanings of the Qur’an and Sunnah.

2) Modern non-traditionalism – this is better than the previous one, but in my view still problematic. Many academics in Islamic Studies from both the East and West, even some famous Muslim scholars from the Middle East would be under this category. Included here are also what are called ‘Salafi’ understandings of Islam that attempt to backproject onto texts from current understandings and concerns.

What these kinds of ‘modernists’ share is a dismissal of many traditional understandings of Islam as being outdated or corrupted. There is also usually an effort among them to reinterpret Islam and project it back onto the earliest generations. This may not seem like modernism at first, but it technically still is because the motivations to backproject are often contemporary to modern times, and the dismissal of traditional thought is characteristic of modernism.

For the most part, many Muslims would accept such Muslims as being within normative Islam and perhaps only a traditionalist scholar would be critical of their neglect or abandonment of scholarly tradition.

3) Modern traditionalism – Many contemporary, traditionally trained fuqaha fall in this category. If you recognize that traditional principles or secondary issues need to made relevant to our times or brought up to date with modern knowledge or modern circumstances, you are automatically in this category.

What differentiates you from the last category is that you have a deep respect and adherence to a millenium plus of Islamic intellectual tradition in understanding HOW to ‘update’ traditional understandings, for example reforming theological and fiqh madhhabs within their own rules and texts, and especially a respect for consensus.

Of course, one could even argue whether or not the ‘modernist’ label should apply in this last category, especially if it is believed that traditional knowledge is still in a state of growth and development as it has always been. But the consideration of some modernist ideas as being valid – which is what leads to the motivation to ‘update’ or ‘move the tradition forward’ would make the modernist label valid to some extent.

So is Islamic modernism ‘bad’? And are Muslim modernists ‘bad’?

The answer is that it depends.

The first category are obviously the most problematic. Most Muslims let alone scholars would disagree with their understandings and conclusions. Often they violate consensus and orthodox Islamic beliefs.

The second category are usually criticized by traditionalist scholars however they have largely been accepted as being representative of normative Islamic thought among most Muslims. Most budding traditionalist seekers of knowledge wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from traditionalists, and are usually surprised when they realize the difference. Some traditionalists may even be tolerant of them because many of them still respect issues of consensus even if they are dismissive of the importance of tradition.

The third category are sometimes barely distinguishable from pure traditionalists, if not distinguishable at all. As traditionalist circles have gained a greater appreciation for the non-Islamic subjects and modern academic method, they have all embraced this sort of thinking in one way or another.

A classic example of this last category is that of Islamic Finance and how it is rooted in traditional fiqh madhhabs. But at the same time it is concerned not just with safeguarding Muslims and their transactions from impermissible acts, it is also concerned with updating the Islamic understanding of finance and how to fine-tune & apply it in a world that is vastly different in its financial landscape from just a century or so ago.

In contrast, a pure anti-modern traditionalist would be one who would not deviate at all from the tradition and traditionalist texts, adhering to their positions and understandings without any consideration for context or circumstances. Such an individual would not only run into serious difficulties in integrating Islam into their lives (unless they are living in a village somewhere in the Muslim world), but they would also have to explain why scholars of the tradition themselves saw the need to reassess and adjust fatawa over changing contexts and circumstances.

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