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Religion Library: Islam

Modern Age

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

Others advocated a search for a positive synthesis with the modern world, arguing that Islam can and should be reinterpreted in light of modern issues and concerns. In their writing, they built bridges between the traditional teachings of Islam and the modern challenges of secularism, nationalism, multiculturalism, and democracy. These modernists—such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, Qasim Amin,  Syed Ahmed Khan (1817-1898). Source: Public DomainSayyid Ahmad Khan, and Muhammad Iqbal—were popular with the educated classes of the Middle East and south Asia.

In the 1950s and 1960s, most of the Muslim world won independence from the European colonial powers.  Many of the newly-independent states had not existed in their present forms prior to European intervention, including Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Iraq, and Pakistan. Pursuing their own interests, the European powers had created these states by drawing artificial borders on maps and appointing European allies as rulers. Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938). Source: Public DomainAs a result, the anti-colonial struggle was replaced by another prolonged struggle, this time over national identity and political legitimacy. Who is Lebanese, and who is Syrian? Who is Pakistani, and who is Indian? Should the Arabs all be unified into one state? Why should former colonies continue within national borders imposed from London or Paris? Who is responsible for the Palestinians? Who has the right to lead the countries, and how should the leader be chosen? Struggles to find consensus on the answers to these intractable questions were conducted in the context of the Cold War and the American and Soviet tendencies to conduct that war by proxy, in a strategy the United States called "low-intensity warfare." As a result, political conflict was frequently conducted through wars instead of public debate, with a bewildering number of local and foreign interests influencing critical national events.

In this context, Islamic revivalists and Islamic liberal modernists competed with communist and other secular nationalist movements. Many Muslims who participated in and defended Islamic culture and practices nonetheless argued on behalf of the modern thesis of separation of religious and state functions, and for democracy founded in universal suffrage. They too joined political parties and social movements and campaigned for secular, national democracies. Secular governments neglected the role of Islam in the public life of Muslim societies and jailed Islamic revivalists and secular nationalists alike, because of the different challenges they presented to these governments. Many Muslim countries became one-party states or military regimes, or a combination of both. Political repression and uneven economic development contributed to growing popular unrest.


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