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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Modern Age

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Since the end of the colonial era, reformists have greatly shaped the nature of contemporary Sunni Islam. Educational, doctrinal, and social movements have all played a role in formulating Sunni doctrine and shaping contemporary practice in the post-colonial age. From Egypt to Saudi Arabia to the United States and Europe, the Sunni view has become truly global.

Most reformist movements, religious or otherwise, are founded on a notion of return to original sources or foundational principles. As such, Islamic reform movements place a good degree of emphasis on the lifetime of Muhammad and the first decades of Islam's existence.  There is even one hadith  in which Muhammad describes that each generation will contain a renewer of the faith (a mujaddid) who will inspire and institute reform. A formal name for Sunni movements that espouse a return to the values and models of the first generations of Islamic society is Salafism, from the Arabic word for pious ancestors, or predecessors.

In a series of reactions to European expansion and commercial and material dominance, one theme that recurred in Islamic reform movements was of a restoration of the Islamic world in the period following colonial occupation. In North Africa, for example, Islam was seen as the proper source for establishing coherent, authentic, and independent national identities in countries like Egypt. This impulse also occurred in Bengal, India, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. Not all reform movements relied solely on appeals to the past, or to an early Golden Age with which to reestablish the legitimacy and strength of Islam, however. Reformists of various stripes also looked to how to join Islamic tradition with progressive values, including gender equality and liberalism, though these values took on a series of different forms and meanings in various contexts. 

One highly influential reform in the modern era was founded by 18th-century scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, in Saudi Arabia. Although the philosophy he espoused, Wahhabism, is often considered interchangeable with Salafism, the term Wahhabi is sometimes considered derogatory. A basic tenet of Wahhabism is the expulsion and eradication from Islam of anything deemed to be an innovation. As such, it also encapsulates a spirit of return to foundational values, but, perhaps because of its Saudi Arabian manifestation, is often seen as harsh and restrictive, especially toward women. One way of distinguishing between Salafism in general and Wahhabism in particular is to think of Wahhabism as a subset of Salafism, one that is occasionally called "ultra-conservative" or "ultra-orthodox," though these are not technical terms. The impact of Wahhabism on modern Islamic education is enormous, as the Saudi government has the resources to disseminate books widely throughout the Islamic world.


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