Islam’s Modernization: How Plausible Is It?

1 december 2003

Rafael Khakimov

Resume: Medieval Europe admired the learning and wisdom of Muslim scholars. But as time passed, the concepts of creativity, rationalism and renewal were dropped from the Muslim vocabulary. Critical analytical thinking was forbidden. The taboo on new interpretations of the Koran ossified thought and society.


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 traditions.

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 revised.

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 practice.

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 reform).

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 1930.

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 omissions.

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 Allah.


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 Orthodoxy.4

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 country.

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 Yusufali.

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.

Last updated 1 december 2003, 22:50

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