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Book Review

Presenting non-political version of Islam suits the west

ISLAM AND MODERNITY - MUSLIM INTELLECTUALS RESPOND edited by John Cooper et al, London, I B Taurus 1998. pp: 228. Price: UK37.50.
Iqbal Siddiqui

‘The twentieth century,’ Derek Hopwood tells us in the introduction to this volume, ‘has brought change to the world at a rapid and unprecedented rate. No area has remained unaffected... the problem, for many of us largely unresolved, is how to integrate change into society and into our lives...

‘Change is brought about by many factors, but tension is usually caused when a traditional society is faced with challenges posed either by the outside world or by decisions to modernize from within. In the Middle East, change was initiated, at least in the first place, under European influence and colonization... The challenge had come in the name of the modern outside world, and this raised the question in the minds of Middle Eastern intellectuals of what it was to be modern.

‘There was no general agreement; but here the distinction should be made between modernization and modernity. Modernization is the introduction into society of the artefacts of contemporary life - railways, communications, industry (less often nowadays), technology, household equipment. Modernity (modernism) is a general term for the political and cultural processes set in motion by integrating new ideas, an economic system, or education into society. It is a way of thought, of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change.’

This extract, abridged from the first three paragraphs of the book, demonstrates two major weapons which the west uses against Islam (and all other non-western modes of thought, such as survive) in order to try and consolidate its own position and degrade alternative points of view. First is the classical western view/assumption that there is no distinction between ‘western’ and ‘modern’. Often, a better reading and understanding of such essays can be achieved by carefully replacing the words ‘modern’, ‘modernization’ and ‘modernity’ with ‘western’, ‘westernization’ and ‘westernity’.

The second is the assumption/assertion that the only possible or acceptable course of progress is westernization, which, of course, is what is meant when they say ‘modernization’. Anything which is not western, according to this view, is inherently un-modern and backward.

An extension of this view is the assumption/assertion that any opposition to, or even querying of, the processes of modernization/westernization is automatically and unthinkingly to be condemned and regarded as superstitious, conservatism. And this attitude is particularly strong if the opposition comes from a non-western source such as Islam, in which case it is automatically taken as a threat.

Change and progress, Dr Kalim Siddiqui used to emphasize, are endemic to human society, and essential parts of the Islamic experience. The task of the Islamic movement is not to ‘go back’ to some past ideal, but to implement the principles and values of Islam in the contemporary world. Dr Siddiqui’s work is a good, English language example by which the progressive and forward-looking nature of the contemporary Islamic movement - in both its intellectual and political aspects - can be highlighted, but is by no means exceptional in this regard. The same point can be made by looking at the works of virtually all Islamic movement thinkers of the last 100 years or more; but you wouldn’t know that from reading western writings on Islam and ‘modernity’.

This is clearly a politically motivated tendency, linked to another western assumption which is implicit in Hopwood’s introduction, although not in the extract given above. This is that the spread of western-defined modernity at the global level is a natural phenomenon. After his nod to colonization in his opening paragraph, Hopwood gives no sign whatever of any political aspect to modernization.

In fact, the globalization of ‘westernity’ is the result of a deliberate, brutal campaign of imperialism and post-colonial neo-imperialism on the part of the west, a very deliberate aspect of which is the destruction of all local structures and institutions with the potential to promote or develop non-western forms of societal progress. This strategy remains very much alive in the only parts of the world where the potential of a non-western alternative remains, hence the force of the west’s campaign against the Islamic movement.

A cursory glance at the west’s strategy for westernizing Muslim societies demonstrates also the importance of political power in this process. It is by possessing the instruments of the State, or by securing them for its local agents, that the west has been able to control policy in every other aspect of society, such as education and economics, in order to ensure they are westernized. It is only within this framework of total political power that the west is trying to implement its social, cultural and intellectual strategies for westernizing the world.

The reverse of this is that the west, by and large, has no objection to non-political forms of non-western ideologies. Islamic ideas and movements are welcome in the fields of education, economics or social policy, as long as there is no hint of politics. This is because the west is basically confident that it can effectively counter such movements as long as it controls the State; it is when western control of the State is threatened that the west reacts most viciously.

The essays in this book - a mixed lot inevitably - carefully reflect the face of Islam ‘acceptable’ to the west. Thinkers represented include the Iranian Abdul Karim Soroush; the Syrian Shaikh Muhammad Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, who is close to Hafiz al-Assad’s regime; the Egyptian Husayn Ahmad Amin; Mahmud Muhammad Taha, the Sudanese who was executed for apostasy in Khartoum in 1985; the Tunisian Mohamed Talbi; and Mohamed Abed Jabri, a disciple and friend of Muhammad Abduh. What all of them have in common is that they tend to think within western terms rather than looking past them to Islamic terms; and, in particular, they are non-political in their approach to Islam.

The point which Muslims must understand is that the Islamic movement must be political because the mechanics for changing a society are dependent on political pwer. Social change cannot be a phenomenon independent of political considerations. This is what the ‘acceptable’ Muslims do not understand. The argument that western dominance is a permanent feature which Muslims cannot change but rather must work within is a key part of the western strategy against Islam.

Just as the western drive for power was power-led, so must the Islamic movement’s drive to re-assert Islamic principles, values and civilization. The ‘Islamization’ of our societies is not a prerequisite to political change, political change is a prerequisite to the restructuring of our societies.

This cannot be brought about, despite western academic and propaganda entreaties, without first securing control of political structures and the ability to exercise political power and authority - not for the suppression of opposition, as the west would imply, but for the promotion of good. This, as Dr Kalim Siddiqui showed in his last paper, ‘Political dimensions of the Seerah,’ is also a key lesson from the Sunnah and the Seerah of the Prophet, peace be upon him.

The western demand that we use only peaceful means of change is a weapon to ensure that we are unsuccessful. And too many Muslims use apoliticism as an excuse for not acting, for committing their lives to apparently worthy efforts in non-committal areas of action, with little risk of personal cost and even less chance of meaningful success.

The way in which the west presents their ideas in books such as these, to promote a version of Islam which is harmless and non-threatening to themselves, is a demonstration of the risk such Muslims face, inadvertently or otherwise, that their works, far from being neutral, will become a weapon against Islam.

Muslimedia: January 1-15, 1999

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 27, No. 21

Ramadan 13, 14191999-01-01

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