Islam and modernism VI – Is Islam open to modernity
By Mohammad Reza Shalguni
There is a prevalent view of Islam that portrays it as incompatible with modernism. In its more extreme form, this is considered the main reason for the backwardness of Muslims and as the main element in inciting them against Western culture. Part six of the present study maintains that this view is neither theoretically tenable, nor fits the historic record. Furthermore, it holds dangerous political consequences, especially for the left.
The discussion began by criticising the Weberian tradition which sees modernity as inherently linked to Christian Protestantism [Part I], and rejects an interpretation of Ibn-Khaldun that presents Islam as the religion of nomadic warriors [Part II]. It went on to present undeniable evidence to refute the view that Islam, and especially Islamic jurisprudence (feqh), is inflexible and unadaptable to changing circumstances [Parts III] using the example of women [PartIV] . Part V and VI (this issue) criticises the view that fundamentalism is a natural and inevitable development of Islam, and explains that Islamic scriptualism, not unlike scripturalism in the Reformation movement in Europe, is not a return to the past, but overall directed towards modernity. Moreover, contrary arguments are based on slender evidence [Part VII]. The final part [VIII] will deal with the real reasons for the crisis of modernity, or the process of modernisation in Islamic countries. It will argue for the need for a clear position based on a Marxist analyses in relation to religion, emphasising the importance of this for a socialist strategy in these countries.
The myth of the inevitability of fundamentalism
Relations between god and man
Yet what often makes religious scripturalist movements favourably disposed to modernity, or at least open to influence by the latter, more than the content of the scriptures or even the their interpretations, is their view of the relations between god and man. Religious scripturalist movements are in general characterised by their emphasis on the intelligibility of the word of god for the faithful, without the necessity for clerical intermediaries. Their emphasis on the individual basis of faith is their common clause with modernity.
Undoubtedly the stress on the individual basis for faith does not in itself lead automatically to modernity, nor to secularism. Indeed the Qur’an clearly and unequivocally emphasises the individual foundation of faith,  without possessing an image of individualism as it is understood today. In the Qur’an individualism and equality in faith not only survive alongside various social inequalities and restrictions, but indeed provide divine blessing and sanctions for the latter.  Even the Reformation, despite all its emphasis on the individual basis for belief, showed little trace of secularism and even caused a considerable upturn in religious zeal and dogmatism.  In other words, the individualisation of faith is a tool for the formation of modern individualism, not its cause.
Thus when the necessary social conditions for the shaping of modernism and secularism are present, a religious movement which insists on the individual nature of faith would normally speed up and aid this process, or at the very least not place spokes in its wheel.
Moreover, religious scripturalist movements, at least in the phase before themselves becoming established institutions, usually form in confrontation with official religious apparatus and the dominant religious powers and dogmas. Consequently the protesting nature of their movement brings them inevitably to doubt and modify the dominant religious practices. Under certain conditions these movements create conditions for rational interpretations of the scriptures.
Whenever scripturalism took shape in Islam, these same general features can be seen. In the Islamic world of course, despite Ernest Gellner’s assertions, scripturalism was rarely able to become a powerful and broad religious movement. This is because control by a hierarchical and centralised clerical apparatus – which normally provokes the formation of scripturalist movements – was usually not evident in Islam. Yet it can be said with confidence that wherever there was a return to scriptures, it usually took on the features of a protest and highlighted the individual basis of belief.
Even with the Khavarej , perhaps Islam’s first scripturalist movement, the rising was essentially in protest at the widening inequalities during the creation of the new Islamic empire. The Khavarej opposed the growing uncontrolled power of the Caliphs, the extravagance and intimidation of the caliphate apparatus, and all forms of hereditary or tribally restricted caliphate.
It must be noted that this movement rose in the midst of the first political revolt or revolution against the newly founded Islamic Caliphate, not long after the death of the Prophet, and strongly emphasised the individual basis of belief. Similarly, in more recent times, the majority of religious scripturalist tendencies in the Islamic world have been protesting in their nature. More importantly, in different degrees, they turned to rational commentaries on the Qur’an. Indeed, almost any significant commentary on the Qur’an in the 20th Century, has in one way or another, and to a remarkable extent turned to a rational interpretation. This tendency is so remarkable that in the modern era the very act of commenting on the Qur’an has been greeted as a form of religious innovation .
Qur’an the obstacle?
There are however, no shortage of people who believe that the place occupied by the Qur’an in the belief of Muslims is one of the main obstacles to the secularisation of Islamic societies. For example, Gellner says that the three basic principles of religious and political legitimacy in Islamic societies are: the word of Allah and the imperative to obey it; consensus of the “Islamic umma” or community of believers; and scared leadership. He insists that the fact that the sharia’ and the law has been specifically compiled by God has important consequences in Islam.
Thus Islamic fundamentalists cannot agree to new laws. In Islamic societies a form of separation of powers has existed from the beginning. The executive branch has been subordinated to the divine legislative power and in practice functioned as its observer in the policing and correctness of these laws. He goes on to claim that Islam claims to be the most advanced of the Abrahamian religions and a summation of all their traditions with Mohammad the last of God’s messengers. And that all previous Abrahamian religions have been distorted. In Islam the law is inseparable from theology and the Islamic ulema are theologian-jurists .
If this thesis is correct, then it follows that any return to the scriptures, will inevitably result in fundamentalism and act as an obstacle to the secularisation of society. The truth is that the Qura’n was never a barrier against religious development. I would venture further and add that the Qur’an characteristics made religious development inevitable. There is no reason for the Qur’an to become something today’s society which it never was in the past.
Are Islamic scriptures more restrictive than the Christian?
Gellner is surely right when he says that Muslims believe the words of the Qur’an to be the exact words of God transmitted to Mohammad in the form of divine revelations, and that the Jews and Christians have misrepresented the teachings of their prophets, while Allah himself protects the Qur’an, this most complete divine message, from distortion.
Yet he fails to note that none of the Islamic sects confine themselves to the Qur’an as the sole source of sharia’. Other sources are also referred to in resolving religious and worldly questions. Furthermore, despite their belief in the superiority of the Qur’an over other sources, wherever necessary they will prefer these sources to the Qur’an, even at times ignoring the explicit directives of the latter. I have already alluded to some of these in previous articles. I will summarise the most important reasons for their contradictory approach to the Qur’an.
a. The Qur’an’s brevity: This is a book of modest length, much shorter than the Bible or even The New Testament. Moreover only a small part is devoted to giving direct instructions and commands on social questions. Over two thirds is devoted to retelling the religious stories of the Israelites, descriptions of heaven and hell, the resurrection and the day of judgement. At most one third is devoted to the verses dealing with ahkam” [commandments], and most of these are given over to prayers (ebadat), that is religious practices and observations. From the approximately 6,600 verses (ayeh) only about 200 is related to commandments on social issues.
b. Scattered nature. As its name implies , the Qur’an, was not so much a written text but, in the belief of Muslims, revelations in the form of a verbal address, revealed to the Prophet in stages over a period of 23 years under different circumstances. The collection of these pieces which, under the name of the word of Allah had been passed on to the Muslims by the Prophet was collected together by the third Caliph, Uthman [644-56] 21 years after Mohammad’s death into a codified book without even a clear chaptering. Apparently the only criterion under consideration in the collection was the size of the sura (chapters).
Therefore without any sectioning under subject matter, or even chronology, the longer suras (mostly from the later Medina period), appear before the shorter ones which mainly belong to the earlier Mecca period.  Moreover each sura does not necessarily cover a single topic, nor do topics follow a logical sequence . This has the effect of provoking different, and even contradictory, interpretations of the Qur’an. In fact one or more Qur’anic verses (ayeh) were expressed because of specific conditions and even in response to specific problems. Therefore an accurate understanding of their meaning is difficult if not impossible without consideration of the occasion for their expression (known in clerical circles as sha’ne nozul).
c. Invites different explanations: Muslims consider the Qur’an to be the immediate word of God and the expression of the most complete divine word, for all times behind every word of which lies an enlightenment. Yet the Qur’an also possesses a terrestrial expression which cannot be easily ignored. There are verses which contradict earlier ones. Most Islamic sects have been forced to recognise this point, and accept that some Qur’anic verses are abrogate previous ones, being annulled (naskh) by later revelations. For example the ban on the drinking of wine did not come in one sweep but in stages where later verses annulled the content of previous verses.  A perhaps more significant example is a verse, the source of much controversy, which divides the Qur’an into two sections: “precise” (mohkamah)” or clear verses which are the foundations of the Qur’an and distilled teachings of Islam. Others are “ambiguous” (motashabeha).  In other words this Qur’anic verse indirectly states that some of the contents of the Book are open to metaphorical interpretations to clarify the main object of Qur’anic teachings. It would therefore be misleading to stick to a literal readings of these verses.
The important and controversial point is that this very verse itself is vague and does not give any signs as to how to identify ambiguous verses. It is unclear which verses are precise and which ambiguous. The importance of the meaning of “ambiguity”, regardless of whatever interpretations are made, is that it permits a flexible reading of the Qur’an.
The same characteristic of the Qur’an can be seen in those verses which appeared in response to specific events. Obviously those verses dealing with the relations of the Prophet’s wives and their disputes are not generalisable.  These and similar verses face the Muslim with the question: is all that is in the Qur’an a divine message for all believers, and is it and valid for all time?
d. The Qur’an and religious jurisprudence: All religions undergoes transformation hand in hand with changing social relations. As time goes on it becomes mixed with novelties and innovations. For all religions a wide gulf appears between the holy scriptures (assuming one exists) and current religious practices and beliefs.
In Christianity it was this gulf that provoked the Protestant revolt against Catholicism and the Papal apparatus in the sixteenth Century. There is a clear gulf in Islam between the Qur’an and the main texts of Islamic feqh (jurisprudence). It is caused by the large historic gulf between the origin of these two. The Qur’an was shaped in a society in transition between confederated tribes to the birth of a state. Feqh is the product of the extensive Islamic empire at its height.
Their links are undeniable. Indeed feqh originated as a result of the victory of the Qur’an. Yet this victory had such a broad sweep, and gave birth to such totally different circumstances that the original Islamic manifesto – the Qur’an – became an obsolete text. The excessive weight of feqh in the overall teachings of Islam, and the important, and indeed determining, position of the Islamic jusisprudences (faghihs) among the Islamic ulema owes itself to the rapid creation of the Islamic empire that needed a substantial and codified legal system. The success of this system, to a certain extent, was dependent on the Qur’an being pushed to the sidelines.  Islamic scripturalism, therefore, normally confronts the determining role of feqh, disputes the existing divide between the Qur’an and feqh, and most importantly exposes the non-Qur’anic sources of feqh.
Qur’an unsuitability for dogma
For the above reasons cited above, the Qur’anic text was never a good tool to reinforce religious dogmas and defend dominant religious traditions. Most Islamic sects usually regarded it through the window of their former interpretations. Scripturalism or independent reading and understanding of the Qur’an was uncommon.
Let us re-examine the question: in our time does the return to the Qur’anic text necessarily leads to fundamentalism? If by fundamentalism  we mean to reinforce religious fanaticism and clash with modernity, the answer is without doubt in the negative. The reasons are two fold. Firstly, as I pointed out above, reference to the Qur’anic text rather than strengthening religious fanaticism, and especially the governing religious traditions, has conversely lead to serious questioning and doubts in ways that are new. Secondly, there is nothing in the Qur’an stranger or more restricting than can be found in the Torah or the Bible. Therefore if in the 16th an 17th Centuries Christian scripturalism had an important role for paving the way to modernity, there is no reason for Islamic scripturalism to do the opposite .
Indeed to examine the text of the Qur’an today will face the believer with more questions than ever before. In the past when referring to Qur’anic text, Muslims had to ask themselves: if everything in the Qur’an are issues that God saw fit to communicate to the Prophet and the people through revelations, does this mean that those teaching which do not appear in the Book are of lesser importance? Are other teachings of the Prophet on his own initiative or on orders from God? If they came down to Mohammad from above in the form of a revelation, then why do they not appear in the Qur’an? And if not, can they be as important as those which were passed down by revelation? Indeed, why should commands handed down through revelation abrogate and contradict earlier commands? Had God changed his commands in keeping with circumstances? If yes, then why has this conditionally not been, or should not be, extended to later times? What are the raison d’être of ambiguous verses, and which verses are ambiguous? Why was God not more explicit in identifying them? Why are some topics, which have only a specific and occasional value described in such detail in the Qur’an, while many clearly important topics are not even hinted at? For example while the story of the love of Zoleikha for Joseph, or the birth of Christ, or the wanderings of the Israelites after leaving Egypt is described in detail, there is no mention of the frequency nor number of units of prayer in the daily prayer – that is the most important article of worship for Muslims.
Even more questions
In today’s world the believer who reads the Qur’an will face even more new questions to those listed above: why is the Qur’anic world view so clearly different to what science has shown us today . Why does the Qur’an accept slavery? Or why is there no sign of equal rights between men and women?  etc.
In today’s world Muslims, like their Christian counterpart, need to turn to a contemporary interpretation of the holy text in order to keep their beliefs despite a plethora of such questions. Such an interpretation, like all commentaries, is impossible without dressing up and embellishment. In order to accommodate the holy scriptures with accepted and indisputable contemporary knowledge they are forced to ignore much that is in the holy text, and accept much that does not appear in that text. Let us examine a few examples:
Attempts are made to marry the Qur’anic descriptions of the heavens, the stars and the earth as far as possible with what we know of them today . The story of the creation of Adam and Eve are introduced as descriptions in keeping with the level of understanding of the people at the time of Mohammad; or alternatively as metaphors. Some have even tried to marry the evolution of species in some way with what appears in the Qur’an. . Others have directly or indirectly accepted that some of the teachings and edicts of the Qur’an were handed down to answer the needs of the time of the Prophet and should be set aside in our time. Yet others have explicitly demanded a rational interpretation of the Qur’an . And finally there are claims that the main aim of the Qur’an is directed at drawing man’s attention to his origin and resurrection and not to set out laws and regulations for the conduct of life in this world .
It should be obvious that neither the holding of such views necessarily lead to secularism and the separation of religion and state, nor do the majority of Muslims today inevitably turn to such interpretations. The above examples, however, show that referring to the Qur’anic text in today’s world does not necessarily lead to fundamentalism and the strengthening of religious fanaticism. Indeed, conversely, it could strengthen tendency for rational interpretations of religious teachings.
Naturally not every scrutiny of the Qur’anic text leads necessarily to rational interpretations of religious teachings, nor any rational interpretation of religious teaching necessarily takes off through referral to the Qur’anic text.
I want to show with these emphases that a rational interpretation of religious teachings without considering the mental state of the one who is contemplating the Qur’anic text is unimaginable. And the mental state of the one who is referring is a social phenomenon and the product of particular times and place.
Therefore instead of trying to discover strange qualities in the Qur’an – as some Western scholars have done – we should concentrate on the conditions for the formation of the mental state of contemporary Muslims. In that condition, and only in that condition, we can discover why a large section of today’s Muslims have turned to obscurantism and religious fanaticism and why alongside the collapse of traditional social structures and relations Islamism has been transformed into a powerful mass movement in many Muslim countries.
To be continued
1. See Qur’an Sura 2:186; 3:19; 49:13; 50:16; 99:7 and 8
2. For example while the Qur’an measures the value of the faithful in the eyes of God with their level of belief and good behaviour, and not with gender, ethnicity or social position, it reminds the believer again and again that neither is the slave the equal to the free-person, nor man with woman. This inequality is presented, at least in this world, as a natural phenomenon, a consequence of God’s will.
3. Engels reminds us that the Protestants acted even more savagely than Catholics in suppressing free thinkers. Miguel Serveto was burnt at the orders of Calvin for two hours until he was totally roasted; a savagery not seen when the Inquisition ordered the immolation of Giordano Bruno. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, Moscow 1976. Towney reminds us that “However, Catholics, Anglicans, Luther and Calvin, Latimer and Laud, John Knox and the Pilgrim Fathers are agreed that social morality is the province of the church, and are prepared both to teach it, and to enforce it, when necessary by suitable discipline.” RH Towney: Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, London 1987, p23.
4. The Khavarej (or Khariji) movement was formed in the reign of the third Caliph Uthman (544-656 AD). It was the first movement that lifted the slogan “The Book of Allah is enough for us” (hasbona ketab-o allah) against the increasing power taken up by the Caliphs.
5. A major mistake by Gellner, and analysts influenced by him, is to see the Khomeini’s movement and the contemporary Islamist movements as scripturalist. This mistake is more the result of not knowing the specific realities rather than ignoring these realities. See also Abrahamian, E, Khomeini: fundamentalist or populist, New Left Review, 186, March-April 1991
6. See E Gellner Post-modernism, Reason and Religion 1992 London p6-8
7. The Qur’an specifically states “if men and jinn combined to write the like of this Qur’an, they would surely fail to compose one like it, though they helped one another” (Chapter 17:verse 88). And also “It was We that revealed the Qur’an and we shall ourselves preserve it” (15:9). Of course it is important to be aware that these emphases are not unique to Islam but are the accompaniment of every sectarian thinking. Which religion do you know whose followers do not imagine those believing in other religions as lost souls. Do the Christians not see the Jews as misled, or conversely Jews see Christianity as a made-up religion.
8. Qur’an means “to recite” and comes from the same linguistic root.
9. The Meccan chapters are those who were sent to Mohammad while he lived in Mecca before his sojourn (hejra) to Medina in 622 AD. The Medinan chapters were revealed to him after the migration, i.e. mostly while in Madina. The Muslim calendar takes the year of the hejra as its source.
10. For example the commandments on inheritance come in Chapter 5 (Women) but not in one place. It is first expounded early in the Chapter, then other unrelated topics appear and the edicts are completed towards the end.
11. The Qur’an’s views on wine can be divided to four phases: In the first phase not only nothing negative is said on this subject but wine is introduced as one of God’s gifts. In the fourth phase, which probably came in the last years of the Prophet’s life the drinking of wine was totally prohibited. For these four phases see in turn: 16:67, 4:43, 2:219, and 5:90&91
12. “It is He who has revealed to you the Qur’an. Some of its verses are precise in meaning – they are the foundation of the Book — the others ambiguous. Those whose hearts are infected with disbelief follow the ambiguous part, so as to create dissension by seeking to explain it. But no one knows its meaning except Allah [;] those who are well grounded in knowledge say: “we believe in it: it is from our Lord”. But only the wise take heed. (3:8). There is a great deal of argument as to how this passage should be read. Some, including most Shi’i interpreters relate those “well grounded in knowledge” to “except Allah” in the previous section. They interpret this as meaning that “only Allah and those who are well grounded in knowledge can know its meaning”. From this they deduce that those “well grounded in knowledge” are no other than Mohammad’s direct descendants – the Imam’s (who the Shi’i believe are the legitimate heirs to Mohammad, rather than the Caliphs).
Most interpreters, however place a full stop between the two sentences. They therefore see the “well grounded in knowledge” as true believers who, unlike “those whose hearts are infected with disbelief” do not use these ambiguous verses to “create dissent”, and say that Qur’anic verses are all from God and we believe in them. For a detailed discussion of this particular verse see Yusef Shoar, Interpretations of Qur’an’s difficult verses (tafssir-e ayate moshgeleh Ghor’an) Teheran 1975.
13. See for example Qur’an 66:1-5
14. Those like Gellner who believe that in Islam laws emphatically originated from God, ignore the history of the origin of feqh and the obvious gulf between feqh and the Qur’an.
15. As an expression, fundamentalism is both intensely vague and even misleading. It is usually used as synonymous with religious fanaticism. In fact the origin of this term in the West, was with a branch of Protestant Christians in the early 20th Century USA. They were scripturalist in the exact meaning of the term and published pamphlets under the name of “The Fundamentals”. But even they, despite being religious fanatics, were not religious traditionalists. We know that the whole of Protestantism was in a sense fundamentalist – meaning a return to the early Christianity. Yet we also know that that this return to early Christianity was not a real return, but a break with the traditional Christianity dominating Europe, i.e. Catholicism under the leadership of the Papal apparatus. We also know that the formation of Protestantism was part of the process of the modernisation in Western Europe and had an important role in smoothing its path.
16. Of course an Islamic religious reform movement at the beginning of the 21st Century is unlikely to follow the same path as its Christian predecessor in the 16th and 17th C. A sudden burst of Islamic scripturalism is neither inevitable or even probable.
17. For example in the Qur’anic world view there is no concept of the solar system. Instead we have seven heavens and seven earths(65:12); the lowest heaven has been “decked with constellations” (37:6); the sun rises in the morning from the East and sets in the evening in the West in a “pool of black mud” (18:85-90).
18. The Qur’an not only does not allow equal rights for men and women, but considers her more feeble in its mental capacity: she is presented as a creature “powerless in disputation” (43:18) with a more feeble memory than men (2:282).
19. For example see Tafsir al-Maraqi by Sheikh Mostafa Maraqi (Sheikh at Al-Azhar University 1935-45) or The Light from the Qur’an (Partovi az Qur’an) by Ayatollah Talaghani. Both have tried to interpret the seven heavens in the Qur’an as the orbit of the planets.
20. Dr Yadollah Sahabi (one of the founders of the Freedom Movement of Iran) who as a geologist and a firm believer had to reconcile Darwin’s theory of evolution with the Qur’an. By ignoring many verses and a very broad interpretation of others his book Takamol az nazar-e Qur’an (Evolution from the point of view of the Qur’an) tries to show that the Qur’an has no conflict with the theory of evolution. In another pamphlet, he defended his views in answer the criticisms of Ayatollah Mohammad Hossein Tabatabai (author of the Qur’anic interpretation al-Mizan) by reminding the reader that to ignore scientific knowledge is to turn away the young from Islam.
21. For example Abdol-Karim Sorush considers the existing text of the Qur’an as the product of a certain time. He writes in the Extension of the Prophetic Experience, Kian no 39 (in Farsi Teheran) “if the Prophet had lived longer, and more incidents had befallen him… the Qur’an could be much more than this… if the accusation of adultery had not been levied on Ayesheh would the first verses of the chapter Light (24:1-19) have been revealed? If the war of confederate tribes had not taken place would the Chapter on it (Ch 33) be revealed? If there was no Abu-Lahb, would the Chapter Abu-Lahab (Ch 111) had arrived? These are all unimportant historic events whose occurrence or non-occurrence would be the same. There a record of them in the Qur’an only because these events took place is.”. Mohammad Shabastari in Hemeneutic, Book and Tradition (Teheran 1986) explains that all those who refer to the Qur’an interpret these with the help of the pre-conceptions. Therefore no one can claim to an exclusive right to interpret the will of Allah. No theological fatwa or feqh is sacred and every Muslim has the right, within the limits of their understanding, to acquire a sensible vision of God, Prophet, afterlife, and religion. A permanent ijtihad (re-interpretation) in sharia’, without a permanent ijtihad in theology and anthropology is impossible, and these two are not possible without a continuous use of the science and learning of mankind of each era.
22. For example Bazargan, who played such a key role in the early formation of the Islamic Republic, reaches this conclusion at the end of his life. He tries to prove it by reference to the Qur’an: “if we see the afterlife and God as the main programme of the prophetic mission of the prophets, and the organisation of this worlds is not the task or aim of divine religions, then there is no fault or objections to religions to say that that in the edicts and principles of religion there are not enough answers to the questions of life and complete and comprehensive political, social and economic directives. Or to say that a purely religious ideology can in the form of politics and management and economics or in general world view, and human, philosophical, and technical world view incomplete and inadequate” The Afterlife and God: the aim of the prophetic mission of the prophets (Akherat va khoda, hadaf-e be’sat-e anbia) Kian number 28.
Islam and Modernism by Mohammad Reza Shalguni – overview
Part I Discusses how Islam is no more incompatible with modernisation or even modern culture than other religions.
Part II continues with a critique of Ibn-Khaldun’s influential historic views:
q Islamic civilisation is not principally that of desert tribes.
q The steppe or the desert was not the birthplace of many radical Islamic revolts.
q Many nomadic uprisings were non-Islamic, and many in fact came to the aid of monarchies in wealthy urban lands.
n The historical materialist perspective on Ibn-Khaldun’s and related views on history
Part III Examines Islamic teachings and compares them to other religions to demonstrate they are no more, or less, rigid and immutable.
Part IV Uses the issue of women in Islam to argues that the mechanisms through which modernisation was introduced to Islamic lands caused the current crisis rather than the innate resistance of Islam as a religion.
Part V Reviews racist-imperialist, anti-democratic and radical ways of confronting the question of modernisation in Muslim lands.
Part VI Argues that despite some views Islam is open to modernity.
Part VII Is a discussion of Ernest Gellner and his thinly disguised historic idealism
Part VIII Is dedicated to a critique if the positions of the left