Is Islam compatible with Modern Civilization
Dr. Fathi Osman, March 18, 2006

It may be obvious now that the Islamic law or Sharia, through the spacious room allowed for human intellectual efforts to cope with change (itjihad), can benefit from any contemporary experience, especially that of the developed Western countries in their political, administrative and economical systems. An essential question may be raised by some Islamists (Islamic ideologists or activists): how can Muslims rely on the products of a civilization that has denied God and has opposed or ignored any collective practice of religion from the society as a whole?

In the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the Europeans colonized Muslim lands, the people experienced shocking material and moral changes and found themselves in a puzzling dilemma. On the one hand, the humiliation of invasion and suppression created strong feelings of anger and resentment. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the Muslim lands were dazzled by modern European civilization with its advanced technology and organization, a sentiment that had not been strongly felt during previous confrontation with the west. There is a great difference, for example, between the impression which the Crusaders left on the Muslim knight Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188), as recorded in his memoirs Al-I’tibar, and that which the French invaders of Egypt left on Muslim scholar and historian al-Jabarti (d. 1825) as reported in his Aja’ib al-Athar.

Usama witnessed the European Crusaders who appeared strange to him in their way of life. He might have found them militarily strong and victorious but he did not feel for a second that they were representatives of a civilization superior, or even equal to his, in military or civil life. For al-Jabarti, on the other hand, the impact of the French invaders was tremendous. Not only did they have superior military technology but also better organization and administration.

Colonialism left Muslims with mixed feelings of hatred and admiration. Muslim reaction to colonial occupation varied. Some Muslims believed that they should swallow the bitterness of colonialism and adopt a positive attitude for the sake of progress. This attitude was emphasized by successive generations of Muslim thinkers and writers such as Shaykh Rifa’a al Tahtawi (d.1873), Shaykh Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), Qasim Amin (d.1908), Lufti al-Sayyid (d. 1963) and Taha Husayn (d. 1974) in Egypt, Medhat Pasha (d. 1883) in the Ottoman Sultanate, Khayr ul-Din Pasha (d.1879) in Tunisia and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d.1889) in India.

Muslim preachers, thinkers and activists began their efforts by emphasizing that all the merits of European progress could be supported by the teachings of Islam. But later such apologetics were followed by a critical approach towards European civilization, whether in its ancient roots or in its modern products, which aimed to undermine its credibility among Muslims.

In spite of the benefits of the application of Greek logic to Arabic linguistics and Islamic theology and jurisprudence, the classical argument of some Islamic scholars such as Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taymiyya against it, as well as the argument of al-Ghazali against Greek philosophy in general, were revived to prove that any foreign epistemological approach could damage genuine Islamic knowledge. Some supporters of such an attitude went further to restrict the genuine Islamic civilization that truly represented the teachings of Islam to the period of the early four caliphs (al-Rashidin).

As soon as the Second World War came to an end, national frustration fuelled by external Western pressures and internal Westernized leaders increased the hostility of Muslims against the West. This provided a suitable climate for the Islamists to carry on their campaign against Western civilization on cultural and ideological grounds. The intellectual and psychological roots of the West that did not care about religion or were hostile to it were used to support moderate criticism (e.g., views of Muhammad Iqbal, Muhammad Asad, Abul Hasn Ali Nadwi, Malik Ibn Nabi) or absolute rejection (e.g., al-Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb). Western historians themselves did not conceal such roots.


Robin W. Winks in his book Western Civilization, explains that the Enlightenment, which is said to run from 1687, the date that Newton’s work was published, to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, was seen an age of light, of special wisdom about human nature.


There was no longer any need for a God as the Creator of all things Universal gravitation provided the First Cause. There no longer was either need or justification for miracles, for all so-called miracles should be capable of scientific explanation. The universe was governed by precise mechanical laws that were capable of mathematical proof; this universe could run for eternity without the intervention of God. The world was a machine.


In such a psychological and intellectual climate arose the modern European civilization. Through the development of education and information, the advocates of Islam became aware of the philosophical basis of modern civilization that averts religion and restricts objective knowledge to the sensory. Since religious faith is based on the belief in the existence of that which is beyond the human perception (e.g., Quran 2:3), the modern epistemological approach has been labeled as material, and thus anti-religion or even atheistic.


Many Islamists have come to believe that the evils of modern civilization cannot be described merely by certain emerging ideas or practices, for, they believe, these evils lie deep within the very nucleus and basis of that civilization. According to these Islamists, Muslims should make use of Western technological achievements, but they should reject Western values and ideas. Muslims should stay close to the concrete facts and abide by them within the general Islamic scope of God as the Almighty Sovereign and the Creator of the universe.


The suspicious attitude of Islamists towards modern civilization in the early decades of the twentieth century can be understood and justified. However, continued adherence to such a standpoint should be revised as Western civilization has become global, spreading over the world with its various denominations, cultures, social structures and political systems. The technological revolution in the fields of transportation and mass communication has spread Western civilization everywhere, and thus maintaining cultural isolation has become impossible. The countries of Europe and North America are now no more representative of this civilization than Japan or even Taiwan, China and South Korea.


The assumption that modern civilization must be accepted as a whole, forcing us to take both what we may like and what we may not, is an exaggerated determinism. Islamists have to realize that there is a place for cultural and ideological differences within its global and dynamic civilization itself, and therefore any rigid rejection of it would be against the interests of Muslims in their practical life.


On several occasions, these Western societies have shown their support for international cooperation, and they present from time to time strong voices and movements devoted to universal welfare. Well-known scientists and artists in various fields have in large numbers increasingly emphasized their faith in a Creator. Increasing disasters of unemployment, economic hardships, pollution and environmental deterioration, drought and famine, emerging unknown diseases, in addition to looming nuclear holocaust and self-destruction have shaken the previous certitude about the future according to the doctrine of permanent and continuous progress, which was “the most original aspect of the Enlightenment, since taken for granted,” as John Bowle stated in his book History of Europe. Under such pressures, societies that seemed most steeped in individualism and materialism have shown an increasingly positive attitude toward religion as they became aware of the growing spiritual emptiness in contemporary civilization.


The Islamists should realize that they cannot create a contemporary Islamic civilization in a vacuum. They have no choice but to be a living part of contemporary civilization if they want to suggest another direction. Without a positive approach and active participation, it is impossible to graft Islamic values onto the present civilization.


Our Muslim ancestors were more aware of the succession of civilizations that we are today. They adopted what was useful in the achievements of existing civilizations in science, mathematics, philosophy and humanities, as well as in state organization and administration. The intellectual heritage of Greeks, Persians and Indian was translated and systems of administrative organization (dawawin), land-taxation (kharaj), customs (ushur), police and prisons were introduced.


We should think seriously and concretely about the Islamic civilization which we believe in and look for. Adhering only and always to the rejection of others’ achievements is a very poor means of confirming one’s identity. The Prophet of Islam emphatically taught self-confidence and human universality in such inspiring and well-accepted traditions as that reported by al-Tirmidhi: “The believer should search always for wisdom, wherever he/she may find it: he/she is the most deserving of it.”


Excerpts from Dr. Fathi Osman's book 'Sharia in Contemporary Society - The Dynamics of Change in the Islamic Law'.