Monday, May 17, 2010

Muslim [Ulema and Scholars] Responses to Western Modernity: 1800s to date

Dr. Muhammad Khalid Masud

Muslim responses to Western modernity range from call for reform of to call of revival of Islam, or from total rejection of either tradition or modernity to a reconstruction of Islamic religious thought.

Sayyid Ahmed Khan (d.1898) 'jadid ilm al-kalam' a new Islamic theology of modernity. Khan's approach was called 'Islamic Modernism'. Iqbal (d.1938)'s Reconstruction of Religious Thought revived the movement for the Islamic theology of modernity and its need.

The essay concludes the discussion placing Iqbal's contribution in the broader context of the debate about the movement of jadid ilm al-kalam…a quest for a theological framework to understand modernity and to interpret Islam accordingly…

Generally Jamaluddin Afghani (d.1897) and Mufti Muhammad Abduh (d.1905) are claimed as founders of Islamic modernism. Sayyid Ahmed Khan is the first to stress the need for 'jadid ilm al-kalam'.

During the Abbasid period when Greek sciences became popular among Muslims ..the Ulama in that period found ways of protecting Islam…by pursuing this..a new science originated amongst Muslims which came to be known as 'ilm al-kalam'. In Lahore in 1884 Khan said, "Today we need, as in former days, a modern 'ilm al-kalam'. '

Published in 1892  Khan wrote a commentary on the Quran to resolve what he regarded as conflicts between science and the Quran.  In al-Taqrir fi Usul al-Tafsir (a written statement on the principle of exegesis) he proposed 15 principles for the exegesis of the Quran..[which] constitute Khan's new theology.  Khan relied mostly on earlier Islamic sources in his commentary.

Khan's new theology generated a wide range of debates.

Maulana Qasim Nanawtawi (d.1879) of the School of Deoband was probably the first among the traditional scholars who developed a detailed argument against this new theology.

Shibli Naumani (d.1914), a close associate of Sayyid Ahmed Khan, and several traditional Ulama, rejected even the need for a new theology.

The bitterest opposition to Khan and his theology came from the reformist Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi (d.1943) who himself supported female education and reform of superstitious practices.

Jamaluddin Afghani wrote a strong refutation of Khan's theology published in urdu in Calcutta in 1883. Afghani's disciple Muhammad Abduh (d.1805) developed Afghani's ideas further in his treatises (popular in Egypt). Unlike Khan, who often opted for the rational arguments provided by the Mu'tazila, Muhammad Abduh stays largely close to the Salaf and Ash'aris.

Shaykh Husain al-Jisr's (a Lebanese scholar who had studied in al-Azhar and was familiar with modern Western sciences) treatise translated into Urdu in 1897 had the title "Science and Islam" with a sub-title 'jadid ilm al-kalam'. The Ulama of India and elsewhere welcomed and recommended its use. He does not mention Sayyid Ahmed Khan but his refutation of Dahriyyun (the naturists) as 'those who regard matter eternal and uncreated and who do not believe in God or Prophet' may be read as repudiation of Khan's new theology.

Akbar Allahabadi (d.1921), Suleiman Nadwi (d.1953) and Abul Kalam Azad (d.1958) played a significant role in the opposition to the movement for 'jadid ilm al-kalam'. Akbar Allahabadi's poetry and critique of Western education is quite pointedly reflected in Iqbal's poetry.  Suleiman Nadwi was essentially conservative and under his editorship, Nadwa's periodical Ma'arif, a very popular scholarly periodical, became the loudest spokesman of Muslim conservatism. Abul Kalam Azad eulogized Jamaluddin Afghani, who was committed to opposing the British, refuted vehemently Khan's 'jadid ilm al-kalam'  and stood for freedom and nationalism.

Muhammad Iqbal's Reconstruction of Religious Thought follows the path of Islamic theology of modernity initiated by Sayyid Ahmed Khan…at the same time it marks a major turning point in the growth of this theology.

The seven chapters in Iqbal's book are organized systematically to analyze and make religious experience understandable to the modern man. The concluding chapter comes back to the question "Is religion possible?" to sum up the discussion in the book and to argue that the religious and scientific processes involve different methods but they are in a sense parallel to each other.

Iqbal consulted his contemporary Ulema when he was working on the Reconstruction. Among them Suleiman Nadwi (d.1953) is particularly notable. In 1971 Ali Abbas Jalalpuri wrote a very comprehensive critique of Iqbal's theology of modernity.  He faults Iqbal for selective and arbitrary interpretation of the Quranic verses.

One of the questions with which a number of studies of Iqbal's theology of modernity remain concerned is whether it is a continuation of Sayyid Ahmed Khan's jadid ilm al-kalam.

Read full paper:  

Dr. Muhammad Khalid Masud: Chairman, Council of Islamic Ideology, Islamabad

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