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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Modern Age

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Important 19th-century reformers include Shah Wali Allah al-Dihlawi in India (d. 1762), Uthman Dan Fodio in West Africa (d. 1817), Jamal al-Din al-Afghani in Egypt (d. 1897) and his student Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905) and Muhammad ibn Ali al-Sanusi in North Africa (d. 1859).  Each struggled to find ways of balancing their philosophy of Islam with different strains of thought, from socialism to rationalism to fierce anti-imperialism. 

Muslim Brotherhood EmblemSayyid Qutb (d. 1966), an early member of the group known as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (founded by Hassan al-Banna, Egyptian, who died in 1949) is one example of a 20th-century reformer who was heavily impacted by his travels to the United States and his conviction that the so-called "Western milieu" contrasted with Islamic values.  Milestones, a manifesto of sorts published in 1964, encapsulated his worldview, which included a return to the values of Sunni Islam, especially the social values of sexual conservatism and adherence to Islamic law.

It was Qutb's exposure to so-called Western culture as a student in the United States that solidified Qutb's commitment to what he considered traditional Islamic values. It was his belief that the shariah provided answers and solutions to what he saw as social ills: materialism, sexual laxity, and corruption. He argued for a religiously based government and social system, a philosophy for which he was imprisoned repeatedly toward the end of his life. The Egyptian government cited Qutb and his allies for their opposition to its policies, which were never sufficiently (according to Qutb) compatible with the Brotherhood's.

A more recent incarnation of Islamic reform, this time in the U.S., was the Progressive Muslim Union (PMU), which began as a coherent group funded in 2004 but quickly disbanded in 2006. The original founders, sensing that the movement had grown in directions inconsistent with their earlier vision, felt it best to allow the movement to continue without their official support. In spite of the original movement's failure to endure, however, the label "Progressive Islam" remains vibrant, and has been taken up by various groups espousing a belief in, according to former co-founder Omid Safi, "A number of themes: striving to realize a just and pluralistic society through a critical engagement with Islam, a relentless pursuit of social justice, an emphasis on gender equality as a foundation of human rights, and a vision of religious and ethnic pluralism." None of these issues was cause for the initial controversy surrounding the Progressive Muslim Union, which, according to reports from former members posted publicly, arose out of disagreement over the degree to which the PMU should interact and collaborate with more traditional Muslim groups. There are now Progressive Muslim groups all over the world, especially in the U.S. and U.K.


Study Questions:
     1.    What is Salafism?
     2.    How is colonialism viewed within the reform movement?
     3.    Why is Wahhabi considered a derogatory term?
     4.    How did Sayyid Qutb’s visit to the United States influence his position on Islam within contemporary society?

 

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