Islam’s Modernization: How Plausible Is It?
No. 4 2003 October/December

There is a widespread perception shared by Muslims and
non-Muslims alike that Islam is a uniform denomination; it has no
multiple ethnic, geographic or any other differing forms.
Ironically, this perception may interweave with the exactly
opposite view that nations develop their own Islamic

The world consists of many different nations which fail to merge
even when they have the same faith. The Koran says: “And among His
Signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth, and the
variations in your languages and your colors” [30:22].1 If it was the Allah’s will, He could make us
one nation speaking in one tongue.

Shiites and Sunnis (including their four schools of theology and
law – the Hanbalites, Hanifites, Malakites and Shafiis),
Ismailites, Sufis, etc., are groups representing particular trends
within Islam which emerged in different historical epochs in order
to suit the needs of rulers and certain social groups. The
Hanbalites rejected rationalism and provided a traditional
narration about the Prophet Mohammad, or the Sunnah, which acquired
the status of Islamic jurisprudence, thus ranking it with the
Koran. At a later point, their teaching, so hostile to changes, was
taken up by Wahhabites.  

Hanifites adopted a more flexible doctrine which permitted
common law to be used in addition to the Shariah law. This
doctrine, tolerant toward other ethnic traditions, made the
day-to-day dealings with other nations much easier.

Each of the four Sunni schools of theology and law (mazhabs)
developed its own distinctive features while appealing to certain
nations or ethnic groups. Interestingly, the Tatars opted for
Hanifism, which came to them from Asia, their major trading
partner. In 922, the Baghdad caliphate sent the envoy Ibn-Fadlan to
Bulgar on the Volga to persuade the Tatars to accept their version
of Islam. The trip proved to be in vain, and pragmatic
considerations gained the upper hand. The great interest that the
Tatar rulers had in bolstering trade with Bukhara and Khorezm
dictated their religious preference.

The mazhabs appeared in the 9th-11th centuries as part of
Islam’s natural evolution and were subsequently canonized. Since
then, Islam’s main emphasis has been on maintaining unquestioning
loyalty to the authority of the schools (this approach is known as
taklid) and prohibiting new interpretations of the Koran. This
worked to ossify thought and society; progress became a foreign
concept to Islam. Medieval Europe admired the learning and wisdom
of the Muslim scholars. But as time passed, the concepts of
creativity, rationalism and renewal were dropped from the Muslim
vocabulary. Diversions and innovations were punishable by death
despite the fact that the Prophet Mohammad preached: “Verily, Allah
will send the ummah [the human race] a man early each century to
renew the religion.” How is it possible to reconcile these words
with an uncritical interpretation of the tradition, i.e., taklid?
One thing negates the other. Renewal goes hand-in-hand with
independent thinking and critical analysis, i.e., ijtihad.

In Islam’s formative years criticism was employed even in
relation to the Sunnah. However, critical analytical thinking was
finally forbidden in the 10th century. As Muslim theologians put
it, “the gates of ijtihad were closed,” implying that there was no
longer a need for new interpretations since the mazhabs had already
interpreted everything. Even the renowned contemporary Turkish
theologian, Haydar Bas, believes that the mazhabs have concluded
the analysis of all religious issues based on the most trustworthy
principles.2  This statement is
predicated on the assumption that human development has come to a
standstill and there is nothing new in the whole world to discover.
The Koran permits slavery, while Shariah law treats slaves as
camels, or any other property. In order to conform to the
interpretations of the mazhabs we should have reinstated slavery,
otherwise this norm, along with many others, needs to be

Actually, it is not human development that has come to a
standstill but Islamic thought. Muslim countries have fallen behind
in basic research, high technologies and engineering, which are now
traditionally regarded as the West’s domain.

Islamic reformers who have occasionally appeared in the
spotlight in different Muslim countries were unable to turn the
tide. They put their lives on the line but remained isolated
anomalies that few people cared to talk about. Nonetheless, the
Tatar nation witnessed Islam reform in both theory and

In 1804, Tatar theologian Kursavi wrote in his treatise calling
for Islam’s modernization: “You are not the true and faithful
Muslims. You have given up the Koran of Allah and the tradition of
the Prophet.” He repudiated the schools’ teachings and suggested
that Muslims turn to the Holy Book itself and critically assess the
existing trends. At the same time, Kursavi discarded public opinion
as a criterion of truth. He argued that a scholar, certain of the
correctness of his position and its full conformity with the
“direct path,” could speak on behalf of Muslim society. He could
use his own discretion even if the majority disapproved of his
behavior. This idea was revolutionary since it forwarded the notion
that the position of an individual with that of the community is
one and the same. Kursavi was the founder of the religious trend of
Djadidism (from the Arabic al-djadid, which means renewal, or

The whole thrust of Djadidism was upon the encouragement of
critical thinking, as opposed to an insistence on unquestioning
loyalty. It also supported increasing education for Muslims and
promoting equality among the sexes; it advocated a tolerance for
other faiths and openness to Europe’s cultural legacy. The whole
modern Tatar culture has its roots in Djadidism. Following the 1917
revolution Djadidism’s influence was felt in Mirsaid
Sultan-Galeyev’s theory of ’Islamic socialism.’ The Bolsheviks,
however, found this theory unpalatable and its author became a
victim to the Stalin purges. However, his ideas were widely
recognized throughout the Arab world. The last Tatar reformist
theologian, Musa Bigiyev, was forced to leave the country in

Tatar reformers contending with stubborn medieval traditions
presented yet another episode in the ongoing battle between the
progressive and reactionary forces. Today, at the beginning of the
21st century, and in the face of new challenges, Islam needs to
tackle the very same problem of modernization.


Contrary to popular opinion, Islam is quite far from being
monolithic. The Koran verses, which originated in the Meccan
period, address humanity as a whole, “O mankind! We created you
from a single (pair) male and female, and made you into nations and
tribes, that ye may know each other” [49:13]. The Meccan verses do
not differentiate between men’s and women’s rights. Furthermore, it
forbids the use of force in gaining converts to Islam and is
explicitly tolerant of other creeds.

The Koran ayats (verses) that date back to the Medina period
were written primarily for the 7th-century Arabs. They declare war
on pagans, commanding them to “slay them wherever ye catch them,
and turn them out from where they have turned you out” [2:191].
Women are considered subordinate to men: “Men are the protectors
and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more
(strength) than the other, and because they support them from their
means” [4:34].

The inconsistencies between the verses of the Mecca and Medina
periods are self-evident and irretrievable. Therefore, Muslim
experts in law declare that the Medina verses supersede the earlier
Meccan ones. But the Prophet Mohammad presented the Meccan verses
as the Koran’s integral part. As we know, the original high-ranking
teachers of the Koran received their instruction under the direct
supervision of the prophet, and Mohammad saw to it with the
greatest efficacy that the Koran’s surahs be learnt without

Interpretations of the Meccan and Medina verses should not
center on their effectiveness or ineffectiveness, but rather on the
dissimilarities in their targeted audiences and historical epochs.
Putting things into historical perspective is paramount in today’s
interpretation of the ayats.

Wahhabism, for example, espouses violence in its relations with
other religions and separate trends within Islam. This zeal for
“pure” Islam is a variation of Hanbalism driven to its irrational
extreme: it asserts that rational thinking is useless since the
Koran is something that cannot be understood; it can only be
believed. This is an apology for traditionalism with its fear of
the new. But the old interpretation has aged, thus necessitating
new commentaries that are comprehensible to a modern person.

For example, during the Middle Ages war against the unfaithful
was an accepted norm since the use of force in politics was also
commonplace. Mohammad made the distinction between ’minor’ djihad
that presupposes the use of force and ’supreme’ djihad that allows
the spread of Islam solely by non-violent means, primarily through
preaching the Koran: “Therefore listen not to the Unbelievers, but
strive against them with the utmost strenuousness, with the
[Koran]” [25:52]. The minor djihad was justified when Muslims were
at risk of invasion by non-Muslims, or when the Muslims made the
decision to invade new territories. Such behavior was considered
normal in the Middle Ages. But today we approach the issues of war
and peace differently. That is why we should take djihad for what
it literally means, ’zeal,’ i.e., the battle of the spirit against
the material world, against the lack of faith within ourselves. The
Lord read this meaning into the word djihad, therefore it is
immutable. Minor djihad is fair if it is pursued in self-defense or
to curb violence and tyranny. Such an interpretation fits in well
not only with the Koran, but international law as well.

The era of the Prophet Mohammad knew no weapons of mass
destruction. In his day the call for war against the infidels
carried a completely different meaning using entirely different
means. Today, Muslims should adhere to the everlasting idea of
universal solidarity, revealed to humanity in the Meccan period.
For humanity pursuing good is one of the manifestations of


The Tatars were historically part of the Russian Empire and
placed considerable strain on the nation’s intellectual and
physical resources. The Orthodox state tolerated these Muslims only
because it had no other choice, and it curtailed their rights as
far as it was possible. In particular, the Tatars were not allowed
to set up their own secular educational establishments, while the
Tatar language could be used only for religious education. This
helped make the leading madrasahs (Muslim schools) the breeding
ground for progressive thought.

Economically and legally, the Tatars were at a disadvantage when
it came to competing with the Russians. The Russian government did
not feel obliged to provide funding for the Tatar educational
system; this burden fell entirely upon the shoulders of the Tatar
entrepreneurs. To their credit, the literacy rate among Tatars
reached 100 percent at the turn of the 20th century.

Finally, Islam’s influence on the Tatars was reinforced by the
Russian policy of religious toleration. The Russian government,
concerned with the Orthodox Church, placed no constraints on the
development of Tatar theology. This situation was unique because in
Muslim countries councils of ulems (theology scholars) had to
comply with government policies and cater to the powers-that-be.
Thus, Islam’s modernization was something that came rather
naturally to the Tatar Muslims.

For the millions of Tatar Muslims who grew up in Russia, living
in a secular state and being part of its centuries-old culture was
just a matter of course. Today’s Tatarstan, together with Russia,
manufactures many high-technology products, which requires the
development of intensive research capabilities, as well as a system
of higher education. Since our main competitors derive from the
Western countries, we must keep up with their standards. In this
respect, Tatarstan cannot look to Muslim countries such as Sudan,
Pakistan, Iran, etc. These nations do not produce heavy trucks,
planes, helicopters and so on, but consume them and, therefore,
cannot directly assist us in becoming more competitive in the
global marketplace.

The Muslim ummah is a civilization uniting believers of the same
faith. It coexists with separate nations, respecting their
sovereignty. Each nation develops individually within a certain
context that is governed by their climate, environment and other
factors. Fate has made Tatarstan Islam’s northern outpost, while,
at the same time, placing it geographically and culturally between
the West and the East. This fact accounts in large measure for
singular Muslim subcivilization in Tatarstan and in Russia.3


According to a survey conducted to study trends among young
Tatars, over 80 percent identify themselves as Muslims, but only
two percent attend mosque at least once a week; four percent attend
once a month. Confirmed atheists make up less than one percent of
the population in Tatarstan, yet the number of those who obey all
religious instructions is also dismal. One to three percent of the
respondents attend lessons involving the basics of Islam or

Young Tatars are enthusiastic about receiving a university
education, and many favor studying abroad in Europe. They indicate
a preference to the English language as a means of communication in
business, politics and science. Thirteen percent of the Tatar urban
residents and 25 percent of the villagers would like their children
to have a sound command of the Arabic language. In regard to the
Turkish language this ratio is 10 and 19 percent; for the West
European languages, the numbers are 74 and 33 percent respectively.
The preponderance in the demand for West European languages is even
more overwhelming among the younger generations. The use of the
Arabic language tends to be reserved explicitly for religious
functions or some specific professional activity.

A Tatar citizen may have a poor command of his mother tongue,
not practice his faith and know little about the Shariah law and
yet still identify with Muslims, as well as feel a cultural kinship
with Islam. By the same token, the Tatars have an equal
appreciation for the cultures of Europe and Asia; this applies
equally to secular as well as religious elements. The Tatar
civilization, inherently open to other cultures, erects no barriers
between the West and the East.

The term ’Euroislam’ denotes a modern form of Djadidism, or
Neo-Djadidism. It applies rather to Islam’s cultural aspect, as
opposed to its ritual, leaving this practice to the discretion of
the individual. Ijtihad plays a pivotal role in Euroislam. As a
method of Koran interpretation, it secures the sustained progress
of Muslim culture.

According to some Muslim theologians, a critical analysis of the
Koran is a privilege for only those who are worthy of it. Egyptian
scholar Yusuf al-Kardawi, despite his commitment to free thinking,
maintains: “We should not tolerate the situation when ijtihad can
be employed by anyone who might wish it, for it will bring about
anarchy and discord.”5 He argues that
an ignorant mob should be barred from interpreting the Koran, which
is a preserve of the chosen. Theologians refer to prominent
medieval thinkers, who believed that it is necessary to limit the
number of those entitled to independent thinking. Their motives are
easy to understand as education standards were relatively poor in
those days. Since then, the situation has greatly improved: total
literacy and easy access to a higher education have given everyone
a strong foundation for making an individual study of the Koran in
its original or translated versions.

Islam’s original language, Arabic, has been gradually giving way
to national languages. This is right and proper as the Lord listens
to our hearts and innermost thoughts, which our native language can
best help us to put into words. Malaysian theologian Syed Muhammad
Naquib al-Attas introduced the notion of a Muslim language, which
is the “basic vocabulary of Muslim theology”6 common to the languages of most Muslim
nations. Indeed, words of Arabic origin abound in the Tatar
language. Their prevalence in religious terminology spares most of
the Tatar faithful the need to learn Arabic. Further infiltration
of Arabic religious terms into the national languages seems
inevitable in the 21st century.

Islam is often judged by its rites and rituals, which were laden
with vital social functions, particularly in medieval Arabia.
Presently, a lot of norms have lost their meaning. For example, the
ban against making images was introduced in the context of the
fight against idol-worshipping. Today nobody needs to destroy
statues of Buddha as the Talibs did to exhibit their loyalty to
Islam. Savagery is not compatible with Islam, nor can blind
worshipping please Allah. The Prophet Mohammad says: “Allah does
not approve of unnecessary fanaticism and extremes in expressing
one’s faith.”

Rituals do not provide the criterion for distinguishing between
believers and non-believers. Imam Abu Hanifa an-Numan ibn Sabit
stated that “We should not take people to be believers or
non-believers judging from what we hear them accept or reject on
the basis of their religious norms and ceremonies. If we meet
strangers, whom we only know attend mosque and pray the way we do,
with their faces directed to the Kiblah, we assume they are
believers… We think that what we see gives us enough ground to
decide whether someone is a believer or not. Yet for Allah such a
person may well be as good as a non-believer. We may contend that
someone is unfaithful based upon outward deficiencies in his faith,
while for Allah this person may well be a true believer.”7 Anyone who says “There is no other god
except Allah, and Mohammad is his Prophet,” immediately passes as a
believer. It must be remembered that the observance of rites and
rituals strengthens one’s faith but does not necessarily testify to
its candor.

There is an evolution occurring in the perception of religion:
the focus tends to shift from religion as a social institution to
religion as one’s private affair. People increasingly resent any
intrusion of their privacy, as well as an infringement on their
freedom of conscience.

Being righteous means assimilating cultural values, educational
values and finally, the values associated with civilization. The
Prophet Mohammad states: “There is a way to everything. Knowledge
opens the way to paradise.” The acquisition of knowledge is a moral
imperative for every Muslim. The true Muslim is a well-educated
person who respects learning and engages in it. The aspiration to
know oneself, the world and the Universe is but a reflection of a
thirst to know the Truth, i.e. Allah. The Holy Book says: “Allah
comprehends all things in (His) Knowledge” [65:12]. Allah
comprehends all things because Allah is the Universe itself. Thus,
delving into a science or other knowledge makes us closer to the
Lord, who does not seek blind worshipping, but the fruit of man’s
labor. The Prophet Mohammad taught: “To him who obtains scientific
knowledge in the purpose of transferring it to others, God will
grant the salvation of 70 saints.” It would be wrong to dismiss the
importance of Muslim prayers performed five times a day. But it
would be equally wrong to concentrate on rites at the expense of
learning. Both of these extremes are alien to Islam.

In the light of the Koran the faithful are not slaves to Allah.
They possess the freedom of choice and follow religious precepts
voluntarily. Islam is the religion of a free person.

There is no mediator between man and the Lord. In the words of
the Prophet, “the whole world was made a place for prayer.” The
clergy and the community are mere assistants or tutors. When the
Lord calls upon the faithful on Judgment Day, there will be no
imam, nor mufti, nor community, nor anyone else to intercede. “Then
guard yourselves against a day,” it is written in the Koran, “when
one soul shall not avail another nor shall intercession be accepted
for her, nor shall compensation be taken from her, nor shall anyone
be helped (from outside)” [2:48].

Islam calls for justice, but this is unthinkable without
equality between the sexes. The Koran’s verses in the surahs
“Women,” “Light” and “Allies” make women unequal in rights. They
date from the Medina period. At that time, the attitude toward
women codified in the Shariah law was the most progressive.
Nowadays these verses look anachronistic.

The Koran recognizes man’s precedence over woman on condition
that man provides for her security and supports her [4:34]. In a
society where the woman is protected by social institutions, as
well as enjoying the opportunity for becoming economically
independent, the grounds for inequality cease to exist. In the
Middle Ages it was the man’s lot to earn the bread through hard
physical labor; women were in a vulnerable position and required
the protection of the Shariah law. But the division of labor
according to sex is disappearing in the contemporary world.

Muslim legislation on marriage, which permits polygamy,
inheritance rights, as well as divorce, places women at a distinct
disadvantage. Equality of the sexes is a prerequisite for justice,
which is the essence of Islam. All people are born equal and free,
regardless of their physiology, origin, race, language, religion or

The Koran’s verses that were set down to humanity in the Meccan
period make no distinction between the rights of men and women.
This principle must be built into the Shariah law of the 21st
century. The legal status of women in a given society is a sure
indicator of its viability.

Islam is a tolerant creed. The Koran says that there is one God
but many religions. Their rites are the most conspicuous ingredient
that makes them different from each other. If we put aside the
Medina verses, which addressed the needs of the Muslim community in
a hostile environment, the Koran’s tolerant disposition toward
anyone doing good is obvious.  It is stated: “Those who
believe [in the Koran], and those who follow the Jewish
[scriptures], and the Christians and the Sabians – any who believe
in God and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their
reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they
grieve”[2:62]. Being among the faithful is preferable in the eyes
of the Lord. But the precept of doing good is paramount and
incumbent upon every human being.

While safeguarding the monotheistic tradition, the Prophet
Mohammad urged respect for other faiths. Islam does not claim that
only their faithful have an exclusive right to God’s gifts. Allah
endows all nations and all people without exception, for He is
merciful and compassionate. Musa Bigiyev, a prominent theologian,
wrote: “So that not a single poor thing feels passed over by this
endless mercy and the wide open gates of His boundless charity
remain open to people, I declare that the whole of humanity will be
saved.” According to Bigiyev’s theory of God’s absolute mercy, the
Lord’s grace embraces all His creatures, regardless of their faith:
“Our Lord! Thy Reach is over all things, in Mercy and Knowledge”
[40:7]. This verse proves that the Lord shows His mercy not only to
Muslims, but to everyone.

All faiths have known periods of bellicosity in their history:
Muslims imposed caliphates by the sword; European Christians set
out on crusades; Catholics and Protestants made war on each other
with frantic enthusiasm. But now the sword is sheathed. We are to
discern the call for good and mercy in every faith. This unifies
the humanity into ummah – the single community. Today,
international norms take precedence over the interests of
individual countries and communities, and the Shariah law needs to
be brought into conformity with them.

Those who expect to find favor with God by waging war on
non-Muslims are wrong. They are playing into the hands of
terrorists, who have no insight into the Koran. Everyone who does
good and has faith is acceptable to the Lord who says: “Whoever
works any act of righteousness and has faith, – His endeavor will
not be rejected: We shall record it in his favor” [21:94].

The events of September 11 triggered an upsurge of Islamophobia
throughout the world, although terrorism has no religious notion
behind it. The gap between Christians, Jews and Muslims is
threatening to grow into a chasm. Only liberal and unorthodox
Islamic values can unite the divided world. As a stepping stone of
liberal thinking, ijtihad can provide a key to rapprochement
between the West and the East. The commitment to personal freedoms,
education, science and social progress constitutes the common
ground for the European and Muslim cultures.

1 The numbers of Koran surahs and ayats
are indicated in parentheses; the Koran’s translation by Abdullah

2 Haydar Bas. Makalat. Yaroslavl, 2000,
p.161. – Russ. Ed.

3 The traditions developed by Muslims
in the North Caucasus differ from those prevalent among Muslims in
the European part of Russia and in Siberia.

4 R.N. Musina. Ethnoconfessional
Processes in the Republic of Tatarstan. In: Islam and
 Christianity in the Dialog of Cultures at the Turn of the
Millennium. Kazan, 2001, pp. 261-264. – Russ. Ed.

5 Yusuf al-Kardawi. Modern Ijtihad:
From Disorder to Order. Iman, Kazan, 2001, p. 67. – Russ. Ed.

6 Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas.
Introduction to the Metaphysics of Islam – An Outline of
 Islam’s Key Concepts. Moscow – Kuala Lumpur, 2001, p.36. –
Russ. Ed.

7 Abu Hanifa an-Numan ibn Sabit.
Treatises. Moscow, 2001, p. 55. – Russ. Ed.