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Islam and Modernity – Are They Really Compatible?

Modernity signifies “both a historical period as well as the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in post-medieval Europe and have developed since, in various ways and at various times, around the world.

While it includes a wide range of interrelated historical processes and cultural phenomena, it can also refer to the subjective or existential experience of the conditions they produce, and their ongoing impact on human culture, institutions, and politics.”[1]

Modernity is the quality of being modern, contemporary or up-to-date, implying a modern or contemporary way of living or thinking.

Modernity is often depicted as a period marked by a questioning or rejection of tradition and its normative uniformity as well as structural homogeneity, in favor of such novel or burgeoning standards and systems as rationalism, personal freedom, individualism, social, scientific and technological progress, industrialization, professionalization, secularization, representative democracy, public education, etc.

At the heart of modernity stand cultural and intellectual self-realization, self-consciousness and re-birth, that is, deliverance and liberation from the fetters of Middle Ages stained with ignorance and superstition, and when the voice of religious authorities was imposed over personal experience and rational activity.

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Hence, the appellations of some of the major cultural, intellectual, social and philosophical currents of the day, especially those of the early modern period from the 15th to the 18th centuries, featured such catchy terms as re-birth, reason, enlightenment, discovery, revolution, etc., so as to unmistakably draw attention to the omnipresent exuberance.

The word modern comes from the Latin words modo, meaning just now, and modus, meaning now, but the term modernity has a stronger meaning, suggesting the possibility of a new beginning based on human autonomy and the consciousness of the legitimacy of the present time. Modernity is also said to imply that everything is open to query and to testing; everything is subject to rational scrutiny and refuted by argument.[2]

While the term modernity was firstly coined in the 19th century, the first known use of the adjective modern was in the late 16th century.[3]

However, according to some, the first use of the term modern goes back to the early Christian Church in the 5th century when it was used to distinguish the Christian era from the pagan age. However, the term did not gain widespread currency until the 17th century.[4]

The initial emergence of the concepts of tradition, modern and modernity had nothing to do with Islamic scholarship and the world of Islam.

However, since one of the most important features of the early European modern period was its globalized character, the Islamic world, which never ceased its close cultural, social and military interactions with the West, was quickly affected by the large-scale changes that were sweeping across Europe.

The matter was further exacerbated by the fact that while the Western world was in its dramatic cultural and intellectual ascendancy, the Islamic world was in its dramatic and swift decadence.

One of the most painful corollaries of those developments was the subsequent colonization of Muslim Land by the leading Western Powers. Thus, insatiable quest for modernity in Europe turned for Muslims into colonization, and the latter soon became a lengthy process of Westernization of Islamic personality and culture.

Consequently, there has been a tendency in the Islamic world since the late 19th century to explore more systematically the prevalent calamity and try to put forth some comprehensive, authoritative and well-structured solutions.

As a result, what could be called Islamic modernism emerged in the middle of the 19th century as a response to European colonialism.

Islamic modernism was a movement that aimed to reconcile Islamic faith with some modern values and trends such as democracy, rights, nationalism, rationality, science, equality and progress.

As explained by Tauseef Ahmad Parray, it “generated a series of novel institutions, including schools that combined Islamic education with modern subjects and pedagogies; newspapers that carried modernist Islamic ideas across continents; constitutions that sought to limit state power; and social welfare agencies that brought state power into even more sectors of social life.

Thus, Islamic modernism began as a response of Muslim intellectuals to European modernity, who argued that Islam, science and progress, revelation and reason, were indeed compatible.

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[1] Modernity, (accessed on October 31, 2017).

[2] Gerard Delanty, Modernity, (accessed on October 31, 2017).

[3] Modernity, (accessed on October 31, 2017).

[4] Gerard Delanty, Modernity, (accessed on October 31, 2017).

About Dr. Spahic Omer
Dr. Spahic Omer, an award-winning author, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences, International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. In the year 2000, he obtained his PhD from the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur in the field of Islamic history and civilization. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and theory of Islamic built environment. He can be reached at: [email protected].