RELIGION LIBRARY

Sunni Islam

History

Modern Age

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.

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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