Concept of Modernity in Islam

Vol 3- Issue 3  Concept of modernitySome Muslims feel that anything new or modern is good. But is this really the case? How should we understand modernity as Muslims? First, let us understand what modernization meant to the West.

David Lyon defines modernity:

“The term refers to the social order that emerged following the Enlightenment. Though its roots may be traced further back, the modern world is marked by its unprecedented dynamism, its dismissal or marginalizing of tradition, and by its global consequences.  Time seemed to speed up, and space to open up. Modernity’s forward-looking thrust relates strongly to belief in progress and the power of human reason to produce freedom.”

Lyon mentions that modernization dismisses or marginalizes tradition. He describes tradition as “a set of rules given by the village community, religious cultic life, or the elders or kings who held sway.” I will briefly discuss the benefits and shortcomings of modernization, as defined by the three proclaimed founders of sociology- Karl Marx, Emil Durkheim, and Max Weber – and give the Islamic view on modernization or progress.

Benefits of Modernization

Technological and Industrial Advancement

A major benefit of modernization was the growth of technology and industry. Such technological advances as the steam engine, machine tools, textile mills, and mass production of cars and computers are signs that a society is advancing or progressing – materialistically at least. Technology makes our lives easier and more expansive.

Division of Labor and Increased Individuality

To Emil Durkheim (1858-1917), modernization meant the division of labor (part of the industrial revolution). It relates to a differentiation and specialization of society in general: I specialize in making tires, while you specialize in making engines – we both depend on each other for benefits. The family and the individual have their separate spheres in society. This is linked to an increase in individuality.


One of the benefits of modernization, according to Max Weber (1864-1918), is the transformation from traditional or religious dogma to scientific or rational thinking. By modernization and rationalization Weber meant the gradual adoption of a calculating attitude towards nearly all aspects of life. Having pushed what he saw as the ‘spirits and demons’ of traditional culture into the wings, the rational approach of science found its dynamic expression in the capitalist economy and took the centre stage, systematically infusing every sector of society.

Here, Weber’s concept of modernity corresponds with the Enlightenment view, which pushes aside the religious leaders and gives the authority and legitimacy to science and human reasoning. This suggests clues about the mindset of the modern western thinker or intellectual. Generally speaking, he rejects any kind of religion on the basis that it is ‘blindness’ and dogma.

Shortcomings of Modernization

Class Struggle and Capitalism

Karl Marx (1818-83) believed that the capitalists (the owners of production) would exploit the workers because of conflict of interests. Marx argued that the capitalists’ increasing wealth (surplus money) would create class consciousness that would divide society: I am higher than you, because I come from the city, while you come from the village. Marx did not discuss, how race and colour are related to class in western societies. Generally, being dark is linked to belonging to a lower class.

Anomie and Loneliness

According to Durkheim, when people become so much different from each other, they have the potential of falling into anomie – a pathological state of modernity, in which one looses connection with others in society. For example, rock stars take their lives, because they feel that no one understands or really cares about them; people commit suicide, because they get lonely during the holidays.

Modernization from Islamic Perspective

Islam is Enlightenment

First and foremost, secular capitalistic democratic modernization is not successful, because it was created by humans, who are limited in their ability to judge, reason, and comprehend creation. Allah (swt), the Creator of all that exists, says:

“Such is Alah, your Lord! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), the Creator of all things. So worship Him (Alone), and He is the Wakil (Trustee, Disposer of affairs, Guardian) over all things.” (Al-Anam 6:102)

Because He is the Creator, He is in a better position to tell us, how we should live for our benefit and progress.

Islam’s birth was the light for humanity and the world at large. Allah (swt) says:

“Then if they reject you (O Muhammad), so were Messengers rejected before you, who came with Al-Bayyinat (clear signs, proofs, evidences) and the Scripture and the Book of Enlightenment.” (Al-Imran 3:184)

“Allah is the Wali (Protector or Guardian) of those who believe. He brings them out from darkness into light. But as for those who disbelieve, their Auliya (supporters and helpers) are Taghut [false deities and false leaders], they bring them out from light into darkness. Those are the dwellers of the Fire, and they will abide therein forever.” (Al-Baqarah 2:257)

These beautiful words remind us that Allah (swt) led us out of the darkness of Kufr to the light of Islam. Many converts to Islam can testify to this. Before, we did not have dignity or respect for ourselves. Our thoughts were shallow and limited to our desires. We saw only races and colours in our fellow human beings, blinded to the potentials of brotherhood.  Truly, Islam enlightens us today, as it did the pagan Arabs of yesterday.

Progress and Advancement in Islam     

Progress is not limited to material advancement, but is holistic in nature. A civilization cannot be called developed, if its creed does not address the greatest questions of the humankind: where do we come from? what is the purpose of life? what happens after the life of this world? Islam profoundly answers these questions – thus, it can be truly called enlightened. Islam deals with a changing world through Ijtihad (exerting effort in understanding a reality, so that it can be judged by Islam to be permitted or not).

Islam’s Motives Differ from Capitalism

Islam does not allow the hoarding of wealth and privatization of natural resources. The Islamic State (which does not exist today) administers the natural resources for the benefit of the people. Allah (swt) says about spending:

“O you who believe! Spend of that with which We have provided for you, before a Day comes when there will be no bargaining, nor friendships, nor intercession. And it is the disbelievers who are the Zalimun (wrong-doers).” (Al-Baqarah 2:254)

“And spend in the Cause of Allah (i.e. Jihad of all kinds) and do not throw yourselves into destruction (by not spending your wealth in the Cause of Allah), and do good. Truly, Allah (swt) loves Al-Muhsinun (the good-doers).” (Al-Baqarah 2:195)

To Allah (swt) we all will return, so it is better to keep our eyes on the objective of life, when it comes to our wealth. If we can alleviate some of the pain of the poor, we should do it. The objective of modern capitalism, however, is to gain more and more wealth, while the masses live in poverty.

Family Ties and Community in Islam

An extreme emphasis on individuality has stripped society of the feeling of community, especially in the West. One is not to ‘cut the ties of the womb’ in Islam. Muslims must take care of their parents and visit their relatives. Muslims must be aware of being a part of one Ummah, which, according to Prophet Muhammad (sa), feels pain as if one body-not nation states.

Finally, many of us are professionals, who learned what we know from theorists and scientists of the West. We must understand that the roots of western ideologies are based only on worldly wisdom. It does not mean that technology, industry, medicine, and research cannot be benefited from. However, we should not depart from Allah (swt) in the process, as the West did.

Allah (swt) says:

“And so judge (you o Muhammad) among them by what Allah has revealed and follow not their vain desires, but beware of them lest they turn you (O Muhammad) far away from some of that which Allah has sent down to you. And if they turn away, then know that Allah’s Will is to punish them for some sins of theirs. And truly, most of men are Fasiqun (rebellious and disobedient to Allah).” (Al-Maidah 5:49)

The problem of today’s world is not in one symptom or many symptoms. The problem is the root cause – going away from Allah (swt). I pray to Allah (swt) to forgive my sins and make this short essay benefit our Ummah. Ameen.

Modernity for Young Muslim Women

Vol 3- Issue 3 Modernity for young Muslim womenThe place of modernity in Islam is a controversial issue, often dividing Muslims into those, who condemn anything modern as incompatible with the ethos of Islam, and those, who claim that Muslims must embrace modernity in order to survive and grow.

Being a Muslim woman, I am faced with the same question of modernity. However, for me as a convert Muslim, this question takes on new dimensions, because I stepped into Islam right out of the western modernity.

In order to address the dilemma of modernity for Muslim women, it is first necessary to define what modernity is. For society in general, modernity means progress, advancement of technology, rise of secularism, and emphasis on reason and free will. For women in particular, modernity holds liberation and equality.

For western women, liberation and equality essentially means exercising the same social, legal, and personal rights as men are enjoying. The history of the first modern western woman dates back to the 1920s in the US, when American women got their right to vote, asserted their presence in society by stepping out of their homes, and gradually began breaking the taboos their mothers hardly dared to talk about. During these years, the American women (who were more advanced than their European counterparts) discovered their sexuality and began insisting on the same freedoms as men in choosing personal habits, including smoking, drinking, dancing, and dressing provocatively.

What can modernity offer to a Muslim woman?  Basically the same- liberation and equality. How so? Modernity doesn’t necessarily have to be defined from a single western perspective. The truth is women’s liberation movements didn’t begin at the end of the nineteenth century as western historians claim. Its roots can be traced back to the seventh century – the time of the Prophet Muhammad (sa). Many Muslim women don’t realize that Islam upgraded their status equal to that of men’s about 1400 years ago – the Quran clearly states that men and women are equal in whatever deeds they do. (An-Nahl 16:97, Al-Ahzab 33:35) It is important, however, to understand the distinctions that Islam makes between genders.

“The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of a man but they are not necessarily identical with them. Equality and sameness are two quite different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical but they are created equals. Equality is desirable, just, fair; but sameness is not. With this distinction in mind, there is no room to imagine that woman is inferior to man. There is no ground to assume that she is less important than he, just because her rights are not identically the same as his. Had her status been identical with his, she would have been simply a duplicate of him, which she is not. The fact that Islam gives her equal rights – but not identical – shows that it takes her into due consideration, acknowledges her, and recognizes her independent personality.” (Abdul-Ati)

I personally feel that the true liberation for Muslim women lies in recognizing the temporary nature of this world – we will meet Allah (swt) and face the actual reality of life only after our worldly death. This intellectual freedom raises Muslim women above the mundane ‘freedoms’ western women so persistently struggle for – we submit to nothing and none but Allah (swt) and His teachings. Thus, with a complete peace of mind we can enjoy the equality with men granted to us by Allah (swt), not worrying about being the same with them.

Have I betrayed the female sex by converting to Islam or have I become any less modern than other western women? My answer is a definite ‘no.’