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Islam And Modernity: Muslims Need To Understand Differences Between Islam's Divine Orders And Prevalent Social And Political Norms That Evolved Over Centuries

By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam

April 12, 2022

Main Points:

1.    This article argues that in the modern period Muslim scholars mixed the social and political norms with the divine orders, that is, Islam.

2.    It illustrates the situation by offering different examples.

3.    It suggests that Muslim scholars should try to understand the difference between religion and social and political practices, which will help them to resolve the conflict between modernity and Islam


As the world entered the modern age, religion started losing its grip on societies. People had something new to believe in: science and technology. With their proliferation over time, science and technology transformed our understanding of the world we live in. Our beliefs, values, and norms, all were affected by it. The impact was so huge that in our idiomatic expression the ‘modern’ or ‘new’ as a product of the modern age was only regarded to be worthy of imitation and believing in. Whereas the ‘old’ was considered as the reminiscence of the past, thus, discarded. This dichotomy of ‘modern’ and ‘old’ represents a hostile view when it is deemed as a fence that is erected between our past and present, allowing nothing to enter from the other side. I think it should rather be viewed as flowing, like a river, from one side to another, an analogy that helps us imagine that our past is informing our present.

The transformation that occurred due to science and technology affected religion gravely since it was religion that was entwined with every shred in the fabric of society. As a result, great social scientists, like Weber, Durkheim, and Marx, started believing that as modernity in societies advances, the role of religion will decline. But some argued that it was not completely true, for there was one major exception, Islam. In the last century, the hold of Islam over Muslims has not diminished but rather increased. This news can be satisfying for Muslims. But it is also true, and unfortunate, indeed, that Muslims find it difficult to follow Islam in the modern world. There are some reasons behind it—one of them is that we retain, at least conceptually, the old worldview that clashes with the modern one—that we, Muslims, need to understand in order to accommodate comfortably in this world.

There are two Islams that we practice today: the one that was revealed to our Prophet Muhammad and the other that we have evolved out of our norms and customs over centuries, that also vary from place to place. Casteism in Islam is, for instance, an entirely Indian phenomenon that clearly violates Islam's divine exhortations.

Here, I would like to refer to Dr. Ali al-Omari, a professor of Ilm-e-Kalam at Fatih Sultan Mehmet University in Istanbul, Turkey, to illustrate this point. In one of his lectures, Dr. al-Omari poses a hypothetical question: what is meant by religious beliefs that are ascribed to the religion our Prophet Muhammad was sent with? He answers the question by saying that they are divine orders. And the meaning of divine orders, he further explains, is that they are established or created solely by God. No human efforts can possibly create them. Human intellect might discover them, but it cannot create them. If there is any interference of human intellect in creating such orders, they cannot be called divine. 

It is an excellent distinction. For a Muslim, abiding by divine orders or Islam is an obligation, and a violation of any of its injunctions may lead to divine punishment in the Hereafter. And if something is not a religious obligation, i.e., not commanded by Islam, then Muslims are not obligated to do it, therefore, its violation cannot be termed as haram, prohibited. But, as al-Omari pointed out, we confuse divine orders, i.e., Islam, with non-divine orders.

Let me explain it a little more. Islam is very specific in explaining its fundamental articles that provide the foundations for the Muslim faith. For instance, the doctrines of tawhid, risalat, and akhirah. Then there are some practices that are related to social and political norms, but they are not specified in the Quran or in the sound traditions ascribed to the Prophet Muhammad. Rather, they are deduced by scholars of Islam under certain circumstances which are defined by their social and political environment. But due to practicing them for centuries, Muslims came to believe them as part of their religion, as if God commanded them to do so. Since these practices originated in the past and were in sync with the society of that time, Muslims had no problems practicing them. But when the world changed, Muslims, instead of reorganizing their social and political norms, insisted on clinging to those practices of the past. Discarding our past completely or insisting on bringing it into the present, both are misguided notions. Neither should our past be discarded completely nor should it be insisted upon in the present. As I said earlier, our past should be seen as a flowing river, a tradition, which we need to reorganize as time passes.

For example, for many Muslims, child marriage is allowed in Islam. In 1929, when the British government in India passed an act, Child Marriage Restraint Act, also known as Sharda Act, fixing a certain age for marriage for boys and girls. Muslim organizations of that time, such as Jamiat Ulama-e-Hind, viewed this act as anti-Islamic and an assault on Shariah. They argued that in Islam marriage is a religious issue, therefore, an interference in it would be regarded as interference in Islam itself. In protest of the act, these ulama organized child marriages across the subcontinent and appealed to their followers to do so. They reacted this way because they were confused between divine orders and social norms. In order to establish a healthy society, Islam does direct its followers to seek union through marriage. But other things related to marriage, such as rituals as well as the suitable age for the bride or groom are established by social norms. In the past, norms were different. And the suitable age of the groom and bride in Muslim societies was established by the norm of the time which came to be believed as something which is established by divine order. But this was not true. Today, such confusion is causing serious problems for Muslim societies across the world.

While reading modern Muslim history, it becomes clear how this confusion caused intellectual chaos in the Muslim world. Early in the British Raj, there were fatwas against wearing paints, ties, using cutlery, and so on. This cultural and social change was deemed as a threat to Islamic values. However, this change was inevitable and made a forced entry into Muslim societies. We do not have any problem observing them anymore. Similarly, there are examples of clashes that occurred due to the change in political norms. The call for jihad or the establishment of an Islamic government by using violence is caused by the same confusion between divine orders and political norms. The real task for scholars today is to identify this difference and when they feel or are asked for their opinion about such matters it is important for them that they do not mix the two things together: Islam and social norms. They should not get provoked if some practices are subjected to change. Rather they should guide the masses towards a proper reorganization.


Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses.



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