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Islamic Modernism Series I: Traditional Islam



By Halil Bilecen

June 04, 2014

At the outset, I should note that addressing a religion or a belief with a time-dependent concept may fall short in covering everything regarding that religion or belief, or may cause blurred conceptualization of it. For instance, if we aim to compare the Church and the state in the modern and middle ages, we should take all the circumstances in both eras into account to put the entire picture of the relation between the Church and the state on the table. The same can be thought for Islam too. While religions have their theoretical structure per se, they have also some characteristics that are traditional, but that may be changed or reinterpreted over time.

In these series, I will argue about the Islamic modernism in the context of Islamic tradition, Islamic understanding of modernism, thoughts on Islamic modernism in 20th century, and political Islam.

As one of the most prominent scholars in the field of Islamic tradition, Seyyed Hossein Nasr simply defines Islamic tradition as a “single tree of Divine Origin whose roots are the Quran and the Hadith, and whose trunk and branches constitute that body of tradition that has grown from those roots over some fourteen centuries in nearly every inhabited quester of the globe” (in “What is Traditional Islam?”). However, as the Islam has spread all around the world modified or revised understandings or practices appeared in the Islamic world.

Traditional Islam does accept the Quran as the word of God in both content and form, and also does see the Hadith as the words and behaviours of the Blessed Prophet, by relying upon oral transmission as well as upon written commentaries. To Nasr, traditional Islam advocates Shariah completely as the Divine Law as it has been understood and interpreted over the centuries. In addition, it accepts the possibility of giving fresh ideas on the basis of legal principles, which are Ijtihad, Qiyas, Ijma and Istihsan. In this regard, all morality is also derived from the main sources of Islam, which are the Quran and Hadith.

There are of course many traditional schools such as Kalam that see some aspects of traditional Islam, its thoughts and philosophy in a different way. While some schools oppose science and philosophy, to which I shall turn later, some others on the other hand see these concepts as the light of the Islamic worldview.

As illustrations of traditional Islamic thought, Islamic art for instance is directly related to Islamic spirituality. Nasr says that traditional Islam insists upon the Islamicity of Islamic art, and its crystallization of the spiritual treasures of the religion in visible and audible forms. As far as social life is concerned, traditional Islam insists on Shariah's institutions and units like the family and the village. Economics on the other hand is seen as married to morality in the light of a human situation which preserves personal ties and trust between individuals.

In the political domain, the traditional perspective always insists on realism based upon Islamic norms; and the classical caliphate and the other political institutions such as the sultanate are accepted as the forms of government. Lastly, taking Islam as an ideology in Nasr's understanding is somewhat different than what is understood in the modernist interpretations. Nasr states that “the traditional Islam refuses ever to accept Islam as an ideology and it is only when the traditional order succumbs to the modern world that the understanding of religion as ideology comes to the fore, with momentous consequences for religion itself, not to speak of the society which is ruled in the name of religious ideology rather than according to the dicta of the Shariah, as traditionally understood.”

These were the main roots of the Islamic tradition in the eyes of Nasr. These ideas would be helpful to truly interpret the modernist understanding of Islam, which could be seen as one of the controversial issues of modern Islamic world.

I will continue to discuss modernism, science and Islam in coming articles.