InsightSeptember October 2007

Islam, Society and Modernity

Prof. Khalid Masud

During the huge public discourse, especially in the aftermath of 11 September 2001, Muslim mind-set toward modernity frequently came into question. A whole theology bas came into being on the question whether Islam and modernity are compatible to each other. Neither the question nor the arguments are new. Similar debates arose in the nineteenth century when the Western nations colonized Muslim lands. Unfortunately, the terror and violence that accompanied modernization distorted the image of modernity. Today also, the debate on modernity is deflected by the political events that are marred by violence, terror and destruction. The focus of debate shifts the emphasis from the quest of modernity to political concerns. It is in the wake of such concerns that modernity is defined in universalistic and essentialist terms and Islam and Muslims are characterized as incompatible to modernity.

I find it more fateful that some Muslims have this thesis with religious zeal and reject modernity as a Western ideology. To me, Modernity is an historical process and an outcome of a cumulative contribution by all human cultures towards the present stage of development in human history. It is in this sense that there is not one but several modernities; various traditions transform into varying modernities. Second, the Western and Muslim societies were not always as self-righteous as they are today. In fact in the early nineteenth century when the Western nations landed on the shores of Muslim lands, they were fascinated by the mystique of the orient.

In India, for instance, Warren Hastings chose the title of Nawwab Bahadur for himself. English historians are fond of telling the stories of ‘English Nabobs’ who lived and dressed like Indian Muslims. More than 500 Europeans mastered Urdu language to the extent that they are acclaimed as Urdu Poets by the historians of Urdu literature. The’ English residents of Delhi frequently visited Shah Abdul Aziz the famous scholar in the city. James Skinner requested amulets from Shah Abdul Aziz for the health of her children. Some of Shah’s contemporaries raised questions about one of the Shah’s relative who had taken employment with the British. Shah could however, satisfy these inquirers that Islam did not forbid relations with the English because they were people of the book. He could also explain that a Muslim could sit and eat with the English. I am not saying that the Muslims and the English ad no problems. Of course, on bath sides there were also people who were reluctant, but the significant fart is that an Islamic scholar and a religious leader could justify cultural relations between the Muslims and the Westerners. Today also, the number of Muslim citizens, not immigrants and temporary labour, in the Western countries is significantly higher than ever. On the other hand, the presence of Western culture in Muslim societies is equally evident in daily urban life, in schools, in media and in various cultural aspects.

In the following pages, I would like to analyze three aspects in Islamic tradition that have provided Islamic intellectual tradition the cultural flexibility sufficient to cape with contemporary challenges: secular sciences, jihad, pluralism and human rights.


We may say that Islam’s encounter with the West began quite early when Greek intellectual tradition carne to the Muslim society in the ninth century under the Abbasid caliph Mamun. It generated a debate about the legitimacy of studying Greek sciences but the fart that a movement in favour of Greek sciences continued to flourish throughout the Islamic history is by itself an evidence of Islam’ s cultural compatibility. This movement generated a controversy deep into the religious issues about the nature of the Qur’anic revelation and the role of reason. Opposition to this movement finally triumphed as “orthodoxy”, but not without recognizing the necessity of studying Greek secular sciences. Al-Ghazali, a twelfth century Muslim thinker, who wrote a refutation of this philosophical movement in Islam and who separated purely “religious” from other sciences, was also responsible for introducing Greek logic in the “pure religious sciences”. The science of Kalam (roughly, Islamic theology) born out of the need to refute foreign ideas was regarded as the science of Da’wa and Jihad. This science relied heavily on Greek logic, rhetoric and metaphysics.

The science of Kalam continued to engage Muslim philosophers in the controversy about reason and revelation in Islam. The controversy came to be known in Europe through Latin translations of Averroes. Islamic philosophical investigations into revelation attracted the European religious thought to appreciate the rationalist tradition.

No doubt, opposition in the Muslim community to rational sciences continued, but at the same time a considerable number of Greek texts or their Arabic adaptations on Astronomy, Geography, Calculus, Mechanics etc., became part of the Muslim religious curriculum. They were called “Ma’qulat” (rational sciences) in contrast to pure religious text studies, which were called “Manqulat”. Abu’l Hasan Ali Nadwi, a twentieth century Muslim educationist in India, in bis book on Islamic encounter with the West, admired the Muslim way of adapting Greek sciences to the need of Muslim society in the ninth century as a model for assimilation of modern Western sciences into Muslim education today.

The Greek sciences, especially logic and metaphysics shaped the Muslim worldview, which Muslim modernists like Jamal al-Din Afghani and Muhammad Iqbal found responsible for Muslim stagnation. Iqbal argued that the classical Greek thought of statism was opposite to the Qur’anic dynamism. It is paradoxical that some religious institutions of learning insisted in the nineteenth and twentieth century on preserving traditional curricula which include some of the Greek secular sciences, but refused to introduce new sciences. The situation is gradually changing and these institutions are adopting new secular sciences as well. Often, the modernists have argued that modern sciences are in fact Muslim sciences which came to Europe in the middle ages.

In the twentieth century the dispute about whether Muslims should learn Western sciences was settled with reference to Da ‘wa and jihad. Some Algerian students approached Mufti Abdul Aziz b. Muhammad b. al-Siddiq in Morocco in 1985. They narrated that some Ulama forbade studying secular sciences because they would influence young Muslim minds in favour of the West. The students asked if migration to Europe for work and for studies was permissible. Mufti al-Siddiq recited the Qur’anic verse “Let not the unbelievers think that they have surpassed, they could not be weakened. Against them make ready your strength to the utmost of your power (8: 59-60). He explained that the verse requires Muslims to travel to the West and learn the sciences and technology that gives west the superiority. Muslim must learn these sciences to build their strength.

I must add that this verse is very basic to the modern Jihad discourse. It is used to justify the continuous obligation of jihad. Here, the Mufti employed it to justify modernization of Islamic education. The verse is also employed to justify the need for modernization of society, state and particularly the Muslim armies.


The above mentioned verse was also cited to justify modernization of Ottoman armies, warfare and weapons. A Muslim jurist Mufti Shihabuddin Alusi (d. 1853) was reluctant to allow the use of firearms. It was, for him, against the conventional warfare. Other jurists disagreed because it would put Muslim army in a weak position. Resistance to seeking help from non-Muslims, especially hiring non-Muslim army instructors to train Muslim soldiers was also easily dismissed on similar grounds.

Rashid Rida (d. 1935) insisted on modernizing Muslim armies. How could Muslims remain restricted to the use of arrows and swords against an enemy who used guns and rifles? To Rashid Rida, the Qûr’anic verse obliged Muslims to build up strength superior to their enemies. No modern Muslim scholar is today opposed to the modernization or Westernization of Muslim armies.

In fact, the directors of a panel of researchers in the Third Mediterranean Social and Political Research Meeting, Florence March 2002 proposed to explore the reference to jihad as justification of modernizing armies in the following words:”The study of the founding discourses and the ideological controversies that presided over the creation of modern armies raises questions about the foundations of Nizam legitimating, in the light of the generic mission of Jihad”.

The notion of Jihad was thus quite naturally used for justifying modernization and reform of Muslim society. The principle of jihad was extended even to things and matters, which were other wise, prohibited. It opened space for modernization of Muslim society, especially legitimizing women’s place for women in public as nurses and teachers.

The principle of Jihad also gave birth to the movement of reform in Muslim societies in eighteenth century and afterwards. These movements condemned social practices that promoted superstition, extravagance, pessimism and annihilism. They also initiated reforms within Islam that challenged the religious authority of traditional schools of Islamic law and the Sufi orders. Some of these movements in Africa revolted against the traditional political systems and established Islamic states.

The principle of Jihad became the mainstay for the struggle for independence against the colonial rule. The traditional Ulama who were reluctant to join politics were obliged to participate in the struggle in the name of Jihad. The Western capitalism also found Jihad useful in the cold war. It became the rallying point against communism and socialism. The word Mujahidin became a common word in the Western societies. Alliance of the Mujahidin with the West introduced to them new ideas and technology and the need modernize Muslim societies.

The need for change of political system with militant force led these Mujahidin groups to reconstruct a new ideology of Jihad. It advocated militant solutions of political conflicts. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the West was no longer interested in Jihad or Mujahidin. The rise of this extremist view of Jihad led to its privatization and sectarian violence.


One of the many setbacks to Islamic law during the colonial period is its privatization. Unfortunately, this privatization continued after the independence of Muslim countries. The idea has become so entrenched in the modern Islamic thinking that it has gravely damaged the conception of its role as a public and international law. I will illustrate this point with reference to a university dissertation on Jihad.

‘Ali b. Nafi’ al-Ulyani, in his doctoral thesis in 1984, defines Jihad as follows: “The word in simple usage means killing infidels for the supremacy of the word of God and cannot be interpreted otherwise unless there is an evidence for a different meaning”. (117).

The aims and objectives of Jihad, according to him, include making people submit to God alone, protection of Islamic state, killing infidels, and terrorizing infidels and to humiliate them, among other things.

In his words: “In modern times, some persons trained by the colonialists and who have chosen the life of humiliation and helplessness to that of honor and Jihad, have doubted the role of Jihad in the spread of Islam. They assume that it was due to peaceful preaching without Jihad that Islam spread in the early period and it is the best way today as well. They have rather extended their argument to claim that spread of Islam by Jihad is an allegation against Islam that must be defended. Their teachers in this intellectual distortion are the Orientalists. The most famous among them is the evil-minded Orientalist Thomas Arnold who wrote a book entitled “Preaching of Islam”. This book was aimed to kill the spirit of Jihad among the Muslims”. (261).

Al-‘Ulyani describes that Jihad is generally divided into two types. (1). Jihad al-talab wa’l ibtida, which means to calI upon (tatallub) the infidels in their land to Islam, and fighting (killing) them if they do not submit to the rule of Islam. This type is regarded as fard kifaya (collective duty) and becomes individual duty, when there is a general declaration of war or the Imam calls for it (124). (2) Al-jihad al-difa ‘i (defensive Jihad) is the second type, which is regarded as fard ‘ayn. He questions this division and concludes that Jihad difa ‘i (defensive Jihad) is a bid’a munkara (a reprehensible innovation).

He then condemns the following as those who committed this heresy of defining Jihad to be defensive: Abd al-Wahhab al-Khallaf, Mahmud Shaltut, Muhammad Abd Allah Diraz, Wahba Zuhayli, Muhammad Izza Darwaza, Hamid Sultan; Ali Ali Mansur, Jamal al-Banna, Abd al-Khaliq al-Nawawi, Muhammad Ra’fat Uthman. I need not to stress that all of them are well known religious thinkers and are respected for their scholarship.

This trend of privatization can be traced to the inclusion of Amr bi ‘l-ma ‘ruf in the books on Islamic Criminal Law. I illustrate here with reference to ‘Abdul Qadir ‘Awda’s (shahid 1954) Al-tashri’ al-Jina’i al-Islami, which has become popular text
in law faculties.’ Awda argues that Jihad, Zakat, and enforcement of Hudud (penalties) are not only duties of a state but also of an individual. It is an individual obligation to use physical force to correct evil. He, therefore, allows an individual to
inflict punishment on convicted criminals. He argues that enforcement of Hudud is an obligation for the Muslim Umma as a whole, not only for the state. The Islamic legal principle of Ihdar (violability, meaning loss of rights and protection) is not available for non-Muslims and apostates. Islamic law provides legal protection only on the basis of Iman (faith) and Aman (pact), ‘Awda maintains. The life and property of a non-Muslim are violable if he or his people have no agreement of protection with Muslims. An apostate, a Muslim who forsakes Islam, also loses all rights and becomes violable. According to ‘Awda, any Muslim can kill a Harbi (a non-Muslim without a pact of protection) or an apostate without criminal liability.
‘A wda extends the law of violability also to persans sentenced in the Hudud crimes. If a Muslim kills a person convicted for Zina, rebellion and robbery, he is not criminally liable for murder.

‘A wda’s concept of the principle of violability (Ihdar) of life differs significantly from the classical jurists. For instance, according to Hanafi School, a person who kills an apostate must be punished for taking law into his own hands (‘Awda 1979,635). The Maliki school calls for punishment in this case in addition to diya (compensation for murder (‘Awda 1979, 635). Similarly, according to Maliki, Hanafi and Hanbali schools, the murder of a persan convicted for Zina may not be treated as homicide but may be punished for taking law in his own hands. The Shafi ‘i jurists regard the person criminally liable for murder (‘ Awda 1979,639).

‘A wda disagrees with the views of these schools and justifies, in a sense, taking law into one’s own hand: ” If courts do not sentence an apostate, as it commonly happens in Muslim countries today, these institutions have no authority to punish a person who kills an apostate (in obedience to Shari ‘a). The killer cannot be accused of violating the authority of these institutions because they have not undertaken the responsibility of enforcing Shari ‘a laws. Since they have forsaken Shari ‘a, individuals cannot be held responsible if they implement these laws on their own” (‘Awda 1979, 636).

Muslim orthodoxy condemned these views as religious extremism. Muslim governments started taking legal actions against these movements. These groups were however too well organized and financially too strong to be controlled by Muslim governments. While the governments in Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia banned these extremist Jihad organizations, the Ulama were engaged in distinguishing jihad from extremism, militarism, violence and terror.

These inner controversies in the Muslim world on Jihad came to be known to the world only after the 11 September. ln fact this debate was already going on in Muslim societies. That is why the condemnation of the terrorist attack was immediate and unanimous. Sa’id Ramadan al-Buti, in bis Al-Jihad fi ‘I Islam (1993) rejected the use of Jihad for political change, revolution, and to change the government. The right Islamic legal term for this activity was Baghy (revolt and disobedience). Islamic law allowed revolt if it could be justified rationally. The use of violence and force without specific political objective was also distinct from Jihad. Islamic law called it Haraba (terror) which was a crime and condemnable.

In Iran the Shi’i thinker Mutahhari refuted the extremist argument that Jihad was an absolute obligation and that the Muslims must always be at war with non-Muslims. Jihad was a positive concept. That is why in Iran the term Jihad was used for social reconstruction. Jihad Sazindagi (1979) aimed at modernization of rural Iran, roads, schools, health, electricity etc.


Pluralism favours the freedom of individual. It questions the traditional monopoly of certain persons, groups or institutions to prescribe ethical values authoritatively.
Pluralism derives ifs legitimacy and acceptance by justifying universal values in local contexts. This is particularly significant in today’s world of globalism. A powerful group, nation or country cannot impose its values on others without generating the feelings of frustration and resentment among the weaker groups and countries.

Globalism can succeed only on the basis of ethical pluralism.

Generally, Islamic law is regarded as the only Islamic moral tradition. Islam as a moral tradition bas never been monolithic (1). Quite early in its history, it developed several approaches to moral issues. These approaches vary in their sources of
authority, methods of interpretations and emphasis. They sometimes oppose one another but often continue to function side by side, even complementing each other. It is therefore well in order to review, even if briefly, these various moral traditions in Islam.

The Hadith literature reflects a very significant moral tradition. It offers the Prophet Muhammad and his companions as models for moral behaviour. This tradition does refer to the pre-Islamic tribal Sunna but only to elaborate its approval or disapproval by early Muslims. The outstanding aspect of this ethical tradition is that it is essentially religious and authenticity oriented. However, the fact that this tradition produced dozens of compendia, each of them accepted by Muslims as authoritative, stresses the principle of ethical pluralism within the tradition itself.

Pre-Islamic tribal values like manliness, honor, forbearance and tolerance were part of the Arab Sunna tradition that operated at the level of custom and usage in the literary moral tradition called Adab. The Adab tradition represents a humanist moral approach to morality. Most probably, writings in this tradition were initiated by Ibn Muqaffa’ (d. 756), and carried on by several other writers like Ibn Qutayba (d. 889), al-Mawardi, (d. 1058) and Qalqashandi (d. 1418). The Adab tradition expresses itself in the literary genre. The Adab literature is composed as guides for the rulers or civil servants, or mirrors for the prince. It lays down the ideal model behaviour for them. This tradition is more open as it derives its ethical values from diverse sources: pre-Islamic Arabic as well as Persian literature, Qur’an, history of Islam, ancient Persian history and Greek and Indian Literature. Ibn Muqaffa’ translated into Arabic Kalila wa Dimna, a book on moral stories originating in India. The Adab tradition continues in arts and literature but also as etiquette literature providing code of ethics for various professions such as musicians(2).

The philosophical tradition in Islam dealt with the ethical issues on a more abstract level than the Adab tradition. One of the essential questions with which this tradition engaged itself was about the question of ethical obligation and its origins. The issue was whether it was only religion that defined rights and obligations or the human reason on its own could also differentiate between ethically good and bad. The Muslim philosophers explored the nature, of Prophethood, revelation, role of reason and other such themes. From Ibn Sina (d. 1037) to Ibn Rushd (d. 1198), the Muslim philosophers generally argued that there was no conflict between reason and revelation. The most interesting example of the discussion of this problem is the treatises by the title Hayy bin Yaqzan (3) (The Living, son of Awake) by Ibn Sina and Ibn Tufayl (d. 1185). Ibn Tufayl’s story presents Hayy as a human child growing up on an island among animals, without any contact with humans. By instinct and experience he develops a moral code for himself. Later, he finds out that his moral values were not different from the religious values in the neighboring island with human habitat. Jurist philosophers like Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi (4) and Shah Waliullah (5) also hold that hum an reason reaches similar conclusions during the absence of revelation.

Rushdi Rashid has argued that Algebra presented a new rationality that provided a new intellectual strategy to find new solutions. It opened new vistas into the realm of the impossible. Algebra, employing the multidisciplinary methods of geometry and arithmetic, demonstrated that approximate and impossible solutions could also be true solutions of a problem.

The philosophical tradition developed a system of practical or applied ethics that came to be known as Akhlaq. It received its recognition as Islamic ethics proper as early as eleventh century. It is a synthesis of pre-Islamic Arab moral values, Qur’anic teachings and has Persian, Indian and Greek elements in it. Miskawayh’s (d. 1030) Tahdhib al-Akhlaq offers a comprehensive and systematic treatment of ethical values in this tradition. It is quite obviously influenced by Greek ethical literature. Miskawayh explains that Greek ethics is more in accord with Islamic teachings than the pre-Islamic Arab morality. Jalal al-Diu al-Dawwani (d. 1501) and Nasir al-Diu alTusi (d. ) followed Miskawayh in their writings on ethics. Their books, popularly known as and respectively, were used as textbooks in the religious institutions.

The Sufi moral tradition is more popular than the other Islamic moral traditions. The Sufis were critical of the literal and exoteric approach to obligations by the jurists and theologians. Al- Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857) wrote Kitab al-ri ‘ava fi huquq Allah (The book of observance of the rights of God). He treats ethical obligations as surrender to the will of God. He speaks of moral values such as Taqwa (fear of God), Tawba (retum to God), and Mahabba (love) etc. Muhasibi stresses abiding by the laws of prescription and prohibition in the Qur’an and Sunna, but he stresses on a more conscious effort to contraI the self from its propensity toward evil. Ghazali ( d.llll) also followed Miskawayh in his ethical writings. His books on ethics, namely Ihva ‘Ulum al-Din and Kimivai Sa ‘adat have been more popular among Muslim readers than bis other works.

The Sufis became more and more critical of legal and theological approach to obligations in later local traditions. The folk literature stresses on inner and humanist meanings of obligations, and on tolerance, love and sincerity.

Kalam (theology) is another tradition that dealt with the moral questions. This tradition also came to engage very early with the question whether the ethical values of good and bad were known only by revelation and religion or human reason can also discover them. The Mu’tazila school maintained that the ethical values were rational and the revelation never contradicted them. The Mu’tazila developed an entire system of theology and jurisprudence on this basis. They believed in the principle of justice to the extent that they argued that it was an obligation even for God. The revelation, specifically the Qur’an, was not sempitermal because it conformed to the findings of human reason. The Mu’tazila came into conflict with other Muslims, especially the Hadith groups who accused them of denying Divine Attributes. Asha’ira, a group of theologians that broke away from the Mu’tazila denounced the theology of human reason. The Mu’tazila lost the caliph al support they had in the initial period and other groups gained strength. The Kalam tradition, however, is not monolithic; it also developed multiple voices. It was not pluralist in the strict sense as each group c1aimed authenticity only for itself.

Fiqh (legal ethics) developed initially as multiple local customary legal traditions. The plurality of views in the Fiqh traditions is proverbial. The Hadith tradition questioned the authenticity of Fiqh traditions and described it as mere opinions ( ra ‘y) as opposed to the Hadith which was based on scientific knowledge (‘ilm). The Fiqh traditions
produced more than nineteen schools, all of them recognizing each other’s legal validity. The multiplicity of views continues within the schools and is regarded as a blessing. The principle of legal reasoning ( ijtihad) encourages difference of opinion considered religiously rewardable even in case of error. Adherence to these different
schools of law is reflected in the diverse personallaws in Muslim societies.

It is significant to note that the caliphs in early Islamic history were quite apprehensive about the conflicting views of the Muslim jurists that produced diverse court judgements. Several Abbasi caliphs and later other Muslim rulers tried to unify laws. Resistance to such attempts often came from the Muslim jurists themselves. They feared that such attempts would mean state interference in this tradition. They wanted to preserve their freedom. They did consider their works enforceable by the state, but they never agreed to codify them as state laws. As a result, Muslim societies have been continuously practicing legal pluralism before the advent of modern nation state. The rural and tribal areas continued their local customary laws, sometimes even non-Muslim laws (as for example in Mughal and Ottoman villages). ln cities as well, there were different type of courts. The courts of complaints differed from ordinary courts even in their procedural laws. Different state institutions like police also had their own legal system and procedures. The Hisba (public sensor) courts had jurisdiction in business ethics in the market as weIl as in offences against public marals.

Fiqh soon came to stand for Shari’a (Divine law) and defined moral as well as legal obligations. This position of the Fiqh came about ,mostly with the jurists functioning as Muftis. A Mufti, even today, may be asked about any matter under the sun and he is supposed to explain God’s law on the points in question. Consequently, Fiqh assumed a dominating position. A Mufti’s response, called Fatwa, offered a social construction of Shari’ a, as most often it referred to a concrete social question. Fatwa reviews a moral practice with reference to the Shari’a ideal. Most often we find Muftis also adjusting ideals to practice in view of the prevailing social conditions.

These practices are frequently assimilated in the tradition in such a way that they are sometimes hard to distinguish. I shall refer to some fatwas to illustrate this point in the next section.

To conclude, Islam as a moral tradition favours pluralism on two bases. Firstly because it appeals to human reason. The Qur’an attaches pivotal significance to individual rational choice and responsibility. “There is no coercion in religion. The truth stands out clear from Error” … (Qur’an, 2:256). “By the soul, and the order given it, He has inspired it to its wrong and to its good” (Qur’an, 91: 7-8). “To each is a goal to which he turns it. Then strive for what is good…” (2: 178). “Say, ‘The Truth is from your Lord’, then believe who wills and deny who wills (18: 29). The emphasis here is not so much that ethical values are rational and scientific but that they are reasonable to be understood as such by humans. Since the level of understanding may differ from person to person and from community to community multiplicity of views is inevitable.

The second basis of pluralism is social acceptance of these values. This basis also regulates the dissent. The Qur’an calls good Ma’ruf (well kn,own) and evil Munkar (rejected), which points to the fact that normativity is based on social acceptance or rejection. The social dialectics develop the acceptable definition of ethical values.


There are two Muslim declarations on Human rights: The Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights (UIDHR) issued by the Islamic Council, a non government Muslim organization in London, in 1981 and the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam (CDHRI), issued by the Foreign Ministers of Muslim countries in Cairo in 1990. Compared with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the area of common grounds between the Muslim documents and UDHR is larger than that where they differ. The two documents share respectively 20 and 14 themes of rights with those mentioned in the UDHR. It is also significant to note that UIDHR, which is a non-state declaration, has more in common with UDHR than CDHRI which is a state document.

The themes where the Muslim documents differ with UDHR are as follows: Freedom of thought and expression, protection of life, penal laws, marnage, and holding of public office. On the whole, I find in both documents an attempt to come closer to the global community. The same trend is reflected in numerous Muslim writings on Human rights which stress on a larger area of common perspectives (6). They suggest uniformity with an emphasis on diversity. ln other words, diversity in these writings stresses the possibility of localizing the universals. Here, universal rights are mentioned in Islamic language, often claiming that Islam is the first religion to award these human rights.

In my view, these debates on Islam and human rights have been missing a very essential point: the ethical aspect of the human rights. A movement for global ethics hopes to fill this gap. I find Muslim anxieties emerging from the perspectives of national sovereignty and security on the one band and from religious and cultural perspective on the other band. Most human rights are restricted or violated by Muslim governments in the name of national security, and they object to international criticism as a violation of their national sovereignty. Concern for national security cannot justify violation of the freedom and dignity of man. However, when the US, Britain, and Israel, to name a few current examples, violate human rights and justify them in the name of national security, the question arises: what is global, national interest or ethical principles? UDHR document is quite ambivalent; it stresses the universality of hum an rights as well as the principle of the sovereignty of the nation and nation state. I agree with Myer that it is a challenge of methodology, but it is not only for Muslims. It is a challenge for us all to define and apply human rights as truly universal principles, and not as an instrument for cultural, economic and political hegemony of the powerful. For this purpose Human Rights have to be rooted in ethics that protects the weak and the poor also.

There is a wide range of diversity among Muslim scholars on human rights. This diversity is informed by a very complex understanding of tradition and change. One notices three major trends in the Muslim writings on this subject : Neo conservative, Islamic modernists and Progressive Muslims.

Neo-conservative Muslim thinkers that emerged in probably 1970s and their full impact was visible in 1980s. They are doser to conservative in sharing same cultural values. They differ with them however, because they have developed a new jurisprudence and they frequently use modern Western thought categories presenting and justifying their conservative values. Abdul Wahhab Abdul Aziz al-Shishani’s book on Human Rights in Islam represents this group. Shishani speaks about a major paradigm shift in the concept of state in the modern period. This concept stresses protecting the rights of the individual (7). Revising the authoritative sources of Islamic law Shishani adds six more to the classical four: the Qur’an, the Sunna (the rulings and practice of Prophet Muhammad), Qiyas (analogies from the above two), and Ijma’ (consensus of the jurists). Normativity of Islamic laws is grounded on the principles that suit human nature; they are not based on customs of a people(8).

This explanation illustrates this neo-conservatism. Unlike traditional jurists, who regard revelation by itself normative, this new trend justifies it on the basis of its suitability to human nature. AIso, unlike modemists, this trend dismisses historicity and social process as an explanation for the development of Islamic law. Also, unlike traditional conservatives who insist on continuing the legal tradition of the schools of law, this new trend calls for Ijtihad (legal reasoning beyond the confines of schools).

In contrast to conservatives, Islamic modernists believe that modernity is compatible to Islam. Like Neo-conservatives they stress on Ijtihad against strict adherence to the Islamic legal tradition, but they define it as “reinterpretation” or reconstruction (9). They believe that the classicallegal doctrines were product of historical and social contexts and therefore there is a need for reform. Their methodology consists of explaining the historical and social contexts of the basic Islamic texts, including the Qur’an, and to reinterpret them in view of modern needs.

Progressive Muslims describe themselves as distinct from conservative and liberals because they regard Muslim liberals have relativised Islamic values and operate in a framework informed by the Western impact. They are committed to three basics: social justice, pluralism and gender justice.(10) A progressive Muslim engages with
tradition in light of modernity, but at the same s/he is critical of the arrogance of modernity. Progressive Muslims are contesting injustice, exposing violations of human rights and freedom, standing up to increasing hegemonic Western political, economic, and intellectual structures that perpetuate an unequal distribution of resources around the world.

Progressive Muslims distinguish themselves on the one band from conservative Muslims who adhere to the authority of the schools of law, and from neo-conservatives, including Wahhabis and neo-Wahhabis, the followers of fourteenth century Muslim Syrian thinker Ibn Taymiyya and an eighteenth century Arabian reformer Muhammad b. Abdul Wahhab. Safi describes Wahhabi as a reactionary theological movement based on a trivial ideology (11). On the other band, Progressive Muslims distinguish themselves from secularists and “modemists”, who look to the prevalent notion of Western modemity as something to be imitated and duplicated in toto.

Progressive Muslims have developed a methodology which is different from other groups. They call it “multiple critique”, because it is critical of bath tradition and modernity. For example, veiling or hijab is not subjugation of women in all cases (12). In most cases, veiling is accepted as a strategy of negotiating the rights to work. “In Iran and Egypt, for example, as in other parts of the Muslim world, the wearing of the hijab has neutralized public space for many traditional families, thus making it more acceptable for women to occupy such space” (13).


Coming back to the public discourse on modernity with which I began this essay, I must note that this discourse expressed its concern about not only the Muslim attitude but also about the Western ambiguity in its commitment to modernity. The twentieth century had seen the end of the cold war and the beginning of a peace process in the various parts of the world. The humankind was supposed to be moving in the twenty first century to an era when conflicts would be resolved by reasoning and negotiations, not by use of violence. No one could expect the 11 September colossal violence against humanity to happen in this era. Most of us could not expect a war also. The perception that Islam was not compatible with modernity and that the Muslims were opposed to the values and symbols of Western civilization, was not sufficient to justify a war against Muslims. It was claimed that the war on Afghanistan was not a war against Islam, but’ it was still a war. ln spite of this explanation and despite the fact that almost all Muslim countries allied with the USA in this war the image of Islam as the main obstruction to modernity looms large. Fortunately, this voice did not dominate the public discourse this time.

A considerably sizeable segment of this discourse remains critical of how the West, particularly the government agencies in the United States have functioned during this time of crisis. The way the wars were imposed on Afghanistan and Iraq has damaged the fragile achievements of modernity. This criticism has insisted that the resort to terrorizing the terrorists has only proved that the West also did not believe in the values of modernity. Refusal to negotiate with Afghanistan, marginalization of the United Nations, and the use of the extremely destructive weapons against a country that had been already devastated by long wars and against the people who were already on the verge of extinction by famine, do not reflect a commitment to the values of modernity. The culture of modernity upholds that killing criminals cannot eliminate crime. That is the reason why modernity opposes capital punishments. Islam’s incompatibility with modernity is also explained on the ground that Islamic penal law allows corporal punishments. The discussion in this public debate urges for investigating the causes of terrorism in order to eliminate terrorism. The debate suggested that terrorism was caused by the frustration felt on the failure of political solution. The US hegemonic foreign policy, especially its indifference to the political impasse in the Middle East, contributed to this frustration. Islam alone cannot be blamed for the failure of modernity today.

(1) See R Walzer, “Akhlak”, in The Enç;dopedia cf Islam, New Edition (Leiden, 1986), Vol. 1, pp. 325-329.
(2) Barbara D. Metcalf (Ed.), Moral Candua and Authmit:y, The Place if Adah in South Asian Islam (Berkeley. University of Califomia Press, 1984), especially Brian Silver, “The Adab of Musicians”, pp. 315-329.
(3) See A-M Goichon, “Hayy b. Yakzan”, in The Encyclopedia of Islam, New Edition (Leiden, 1986), Vol. 3, pp. 330-334.
(4) Muhammad Khalid Masud, Shatibi’s Philosophy of Islamic Law (Kuala Lumpur, 2000, Islamabad, 1995), p. 157 ff.
(5) Shah Waliullah, Huiiatullah al-Baligha (Lahore: Maktaba Salafiyya, N.D.).
(6) I would like to mention the following two books written respectively from traditional and liberal perspectives. Abd al Wahhab Abd al-Aziz al-Shishani, Huquq al-insan wa hurriyatihu al-asasiyya fi al-nizam al-Islami wa al-nuzum almu’asara (Rights of man and his basic Freedoms in the Islamic System and the Contemporary Systems, Riyadh: al-Jam’iyyat al-Ilmiyya al-malikiyya, 1980); Ali Abd al-Wahid Wafi, Huquq al-Insan fi’l Islam (Human Rights in Islam, Cairo: Nahda Misr, 1999, sixth edition).
(7) Sishani 1980, 5.
(8) Shishani 1980. 300.
(9) For instance Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), a Muslim thinker who influenced Muslim thinking in the subcontinent used the term “reconstruction”. See Muhammad Khalid Masud, Iqb:d’s reconst’Y’tlItian ifljtihad (Lahore: Iqbal Academy, 2003, second edition).
(10) Safi 2003, 2.
(11) Safi 2003, 27 f.n. 3.
(12) Ibid. 151-154.
(13) Ibid. 153, citing Ziba Mir-Hosseini.

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