Islam In The Modern World Essay

Newly revised edition of a well-considered academic study of the modern challenges to traditional Islam.

To reflect some of the staggering world developments since he published this work more than 20 years ago, Iranian-American scholar Nasr (Islamic Studies/George Washington Univ.; The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition, 2007, etc.) provides significant revisions and added material. As a deeply believing Muslim as well as a scholar, Nasr imparts a tremendous sense of the Muslim’s responsibility and worldview, organically linked to Islam’s origins as a religion of divine revelation, and only recently having endured intrusions by secularism. The author takes great pains to define the many types of Muslims, though he believes that for most, their religion defines their ethical and social code and shapes their relationships to family, friends, nation, business, etc. For the first 1,000-plus years of its existence, “Islam lived with full awareness of the truth and the realization of God’s promise to Muslims that they would be victorious if they followed His religion”—yet then succumbed to Western domination and manipulation, the latter in the form of Arab nationalism and the Taliban in Afghanistan. In response to the mutual mistrust of the West, strains of fundamentalisms have emerged, such as the Wahhabi movement, the Society of Islam in Pakistan, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and Mahdiism, whose adherents anticipate a messiah “who will destroy inequity and reestablish the rule of God on earth.” In discrete, carefully honed essays, Nasr looks at some of Islam’s thorny issues, such as jihad, which is really the “continuous exertion” of a believer to maintain equilibrium in all things; work ethics; the roles of male and female and the central divinity of erotic love; considerations of Shi’ism; and a holistic approach to education, encompassing philosophy, art and science (traditional Islamic vs. Western).

Scholarly appendices (e.g., traditional texts used in the Persian madrasas) give an idea of the erudite, wide-ranging purview of this rigorous study.

Islam in the Modern World: Miscellaneous Sites

Islam, the Modern World, and the West: General Considerations

Many students are shocked when they realize that modern Euro-American culture is the embodiment of a multi-dimensional world view or belief system that is commonly called "modernism." Some of the beliefs of modernism in comparison to Islam are discussed by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor at George Washington University and one of the foremost scholars of Islam, in his article Reflections on Islam and Modern Life.

One of the most significant political dimensions of modernism was modern Euro-American imperialism. A brief comment on this imperialism and its devastation is the note Edward Said on Imperialism. A world renown professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University, Said wrote a highly influential, paradigm shifting book Orientalism [at], which deals with Euro-American imperialism and its distorting influence on the writings of Western scholars about non-Western cultures. Subsequently Said wrote Covering Islam [at], which focuses on how Euro-American scholars and journalists slant what they write about Islam. A recent interview with Said originally published on 27 March 1999 in the International Herald Tribune is Roots of the West's Fear of Islam (Link fixed 25 August 2002; 15 March 2006).

Western attitudes to Islam are portrayed in the scholarly article The Utility of Islamic Imagery in the West, written by Prof. J. A. Progler of City University of New York (CUNY), Brooklyn College and in the excellent readings at the site Imaging Islam and Muslims (link fixed 17 August 2005).

The political significance of Islam is certainly the most important reason why Islam has been occupying center stage in the world consciousness at the outset of the 21st century. One essay published after 9/11 that can provide a useful focus in thinking about the political dimensions of Islam today is Theorizing Islam by Professor Richard Bulliet of Columbia University. This work is among the many informative articles published by the Social Science Research Council (an independent NGO which is probably the chief funding agency for all varieties of social science research in the world) on its website After September 11: Perspectives from the Social Sciences

The on-line journal ISIM Newsletter, which is produced by the International Institute for the Study of Islam in the Modern World at Leiden University is an excellent source containing numerous articles. Issue #1, Issue #2, and Issue #3. 

Unfortunately, in their writings on Islam, many Western non-Muslims have been motivated not merely by an enlightened desire to understand but rather by desires to dominate and control.

Such desires -- based somewhere between the extremes of lust for Western political and economic domination, on the one hand, and fear of Islamic domination, on the other -- may not always take on the obvious polemical overtones found in some "orientalist" discourse or the in hate/scare-literature distributed by certain Western religious or political groups. 

Sometimes, in the writings of today's post-orientalists or neo-orientalists, the anti-Islamic polemic is subtly marshalled by innuendo and by ironic comments, the metatext of which is that "We --I, the scholar, and you my Western readers -- are superior to Islam and Muslims." 

Among the various polemics flung by non-Muslims toward Islam are that Islam advocates violence and terrorism, restricts basic human rights, oppresses women, and promotes slavery. In other words, non-Muslims often criticize Islam on the grounds that it advocates beliefs and actions that perpetrate injustices. Nevertheless, Muslims base their beliefs primarily on the Qur'an, and the Qur'an states unequivocally that God does not act in unjust manner (as in the following verses: "... and not one will thy Lord treat with injustice" [Surat al-Kahf (the Cave):49], and "Allah is never unjust in the least degree: if there is any good (done), He doubleth it, and gives from His Own Self a great reward" [Surat an-Nisa (Women):40]). Hence, God cannot have revealed Islam as a force which should impose injustice on people, and Muslims must similarly neither act in an unjust manner nor formulate Islam in unjust manner. Dr. Aziza al-Hibri has concisely summed up this principle, "If something is unjust, it is un-Islamic."

  • Clearing the Sludge of Islamophobia from Legitimate Concerns , a short essay by Dr. Godlas

    Islam, Peace, Jihad, Violence, and Terrorism

    See the separate page on the issue of Islam, Peace, Jihad, Violence, and Terrorism

    Islam and Globalization

  • Globalisation Anthony Giddens first Reith Lecture, delivered in 1999. Although this article does not deal with Islam, I believe that it is useful to understand globalization per se before thinking about it in relationship to Islam. Tradition, the title of Prof. Giddens' third lecture, deals with tradition, especially fundamentalism, in a globalized world. He touches on Islam in the course of his third lecture. A sociologist described as "Britain's best-known social scientist since Keynes," Professor Giddens in 1999 was the director of the London School of Economics.
  • Islam and Globalization: Secularism, Religion, and Radicalism", a well-documented scholarly article by Sean L. Yom in Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (International Politics and Society) (April, 2002).

    Islam and Democracy

  • Islam and the Challenge of Democracy by Professor Khaled Abou El Fadl of the University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Abou El Fadl is no doubt one of the leading America-based Muslim scholars of Islamic law. Here he presents his paper, which is then followed by the responses of a number of scholars and then El Fadl's replies to them. (Boston Review, April/May 2003.)
  • Islam, Islamists, and Democracy by Prof. Ali Abootalebi, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin. Prof. Abootalebi categorizes recent Islamic movements as fundamentalist or Islamist. The key distinction he makes between the two is that the "Islamist" movements involve "progressive" 'ulama (Muslim scholars) and other intellectuals who see freedom and democracy as important dimensions of an Islamic society. The fundamentalist or traditionalist movements, on the other hand, believe that the 'ulama' should control the direction of the society. After touching on the viewpoints of some of the leaders of Islamic movements, Prof. Abootalebi discusses the issue of "Islam and civil society." He concludes by sketching out the process by which "Islamic" democracies may become established. (Linked fixed, October 10, 1999)
  • Islam and Democracy: Benazir, Hasina, and Erbakan an editorial by Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, briefly expresses the optimistic assessment of a number of scholars that Islamists (Muslim activists and fundamentalists) are becoming and capable of becoming "Islamic Democrats." This was published in Civil Society: Democratization in the Arab World, a publication of the Ibn Khaldoun Center For Development Studies, Vol. 5, #56, August, 1996. (Link fixed, July 14, 2000 and March, 2004) 
  • Civil Society in the Arab World by Martin Gilbraith, explores the concept of "civil society" and discusses the possibilities for democratization in the Arab world as well as the obstacles to it. Published in Civil Society: Democratization in the Arab World, Volume 5, Issue 58, October 1996. (Link fixed, July 14, 2000 and March, 2004) 
  • Islam and Human Rights

  • Muslim Voices in the Human Rights Debate (link fixed 17 August 2005) is a scholarly article by Professor Heiner Bielefeldt of Tubingen University in Germany. This comprehensive article is from the journal Human Rights Quarterly 17.4 (1995) 587-617. (Link fixed, March 2004)
  • Islam and Freedom of Expression, written by Dr. Fathi Osman, a Muslim thinker living in the US, argues that freedom of expression is a basic human right in Islam. (Link fixed 9 June 2001.)
  • Universal Islamic Declaration of Human Rights, which was announced at the International Conference on The Prophet Muhammad and his Message, held in London from 12 to 15 April 1980. (Link fixed, March 2004)
  • Islam, Exclusivism, and Pluralism

  • The Place of Tolerance in Islam by Khaled Abou El Fadl. Professor El Fadl, of UCLA, also responds here to a number of scholarly responses to his paper (Boston Review, Feb/March 2002).
  • On Pluralism, Intolerance, and the Quran a scholarly but easily grasped and timely article by Dr. Ali Asani, professor at Harvard University, originally published in The American Scholar volume 71, no. 1 (winter 2002), pp. 52-60.

    Islam and Women

  • Islam and Women's Rights Throughout history, the strong have oppressed the weak, and men have oppressed women. Unfortunately, Muslim men have often not been an exception to this rule. Nevertheless, Muslims assert that in such cases the fault lies not with Islam but rather with the inadequacy of Muslim men. The links compiled here--largely written by Muslim women--contradict the popular but mistaken notion held in the West that Islam is oppressive to women.
  • Islam and Slavery

  • Slavery in Islam Written by the scholars of the "The Wisdom Fund," this page contains useful source material. See also my notes on African-American Islam and slavery.
  • Islam and Ecology

  • Islam and Ecology, an on-line article from the scholarly journal, Cross Currents, written by Marjorie Hope and James Young. The bulk of this article is the text of the authors' interview with Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. In addition, the authors compare Nasr's viewpoint with that of Thomas Berry, one of today's most significant eco-philosophers.
  • Islam and AIDS

  • Positive Muslims a South African based website focusing on the issues facing HIV positive Muslims. Among other points noted on the website are that heterosexual transmission is now the main form of HIV transmission in South Africa and that a number of Muslim scholars ('ulama) are HIV positive.
  • The National Muslims AIDS Initiative is a website developed at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York through funding from the Ford Foundation. Among other things this site contains information about the Islamic perception of AIDS prevention and Islamic guidance for Muslims afflicted with AIDS.
  • Islam and Media

  • Islam, Animation, and Money: the Reception of Disney's Aladdin in Southeast Asia is a well-documented and nuanced article written by Timothy White and J. E. Winn in the on-line journal KINEMA (Spring, 1995).  
  • Islam, Business, and Economics

  • The Issue of Riba' (charging interest) in Islamic Faith and Law is a scholarly article by Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina of the University of Virginia. society, and democratization. Islam is mentioned in various places throughout the article, but is discussed in particular with regard to the relationship between ethnicity and the vision of contemporary Islamists. 

    Liberal, Post-Liberal, and Progessive Islam

  • A Liberal Islamic Website by Zeeshan Hasan (BA, Oberlin; MDiv, Harvard), a writer and "theologian at large" from Bangladesh. The site contains his spirited articles on subjects such as Islam and non-violence, feminism, human rights, Islam without Islamic law, logic and religion, sexual ethics, and Islamic economics.
  • Liberal Islam: Prospects and Challenges written by Charles Kurzman, Professor of Sociology at North Carolina State University (Chapel Hill). Professor Kurzman looks at three general categories of the approaches of Muslim advocates of liberal Islam as well as at various Muslim critiques of liberal Islam. The author's own position expressed implicitly in the article is that of advocacy of liberalism. This article was published online in MERIA, vol. 3, no. 3, September, 1999.
  • Western Orientalism and Liberal Islam, a lecture delivered at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual meeting in Providence, RI by Abdallah Laroui, Fulbright 50th Anniversary Distinguished Fellow, and reprinted from the MESA Bulletin, Vol 31, No. 1, July 1997. (Fixed 28 Oct. 1998; and fixed 5 July 2002)
  • Muslims for Progressive Values
  • Muslim Wake Up! The writers associated with Muslim Wake Up! are attempting to articulate a progressive Islam. Many Muslims will no doubt argue that some of what is included at this website is not cutting edge but over the edge.
  • Khaled Abou El Fadl Professor Abou El Fadl, an expert in Islamic law at UCLA, is most likely the leading progressive Muslim scholar in the world.
  • Progressive Muslims Network
  • Islam and Social Justice Page (link fixed 17 August 2005)
  • Dr. Jihad's Text Files About Islam consist of a number of online articles by Dr. Jeremiah MacAuliffe, an American convert to Islam. 
  • The Future of Islam

  • The Coming Transformation of the Muslim World Written by Professor Dale Eickelman, a well-respected scholar of the Anthropology and Islam at Dartmouth College, this article was originally a talk given as the 1999 Templeton Lecture on Religion and World Affairs.
  • Islamic Resurgence: Challenges, Directions & Future Perspectives (link fixed 17 August 2005) is an on-line publication of the edited transcripts of discussions between the well-known Muslim activist Professor Khurshid Ahmad and a number of prominent Western scholars of Islam. Edited by the Muslim scholar Ibrahim M. Abu-Rabi, editor of the scholarly journal The Muslim World and professor at The Hartford Seminary, this text provides readers with a well-nuanced and first-hand view of the ideology of contemporary Islamic activism. 
  • The Islam, Alterity, and Othering

    At the beginning of the 21st century, of the most significant events on the world stage is the civilizational conflict between the "West" and "Islamic civilizations." In this conflict, from the perspective of what I call "discordant relations theory," each party is actively involved in the "process of alterity (otherness)", namely in "othering" the opposing party. Such "othering" (involving psychological and socio-cultural distancing) is a key step in the downward attitudinal spiral that may be followed by dehumanizing and subsequently demonizing. These three steps: othering, dehumanizing, and demonizing are attitudinal changes that may be correlated with the downward behavioral spiral of control, exploitation (including colonization and enslavement), and violence. On the other hand, there is a less traveled road, the dialogical approach, which, from the perspective of harmonious relations theory, aims at the goal of working together to mutually solve the problems that give rise to the conflict. To this end there is the upward attitudinal spiral of differance, hermeneutical understanding (understanding of the intrasystemic coherence of one's own views-- that they fit together and make sense -and understanding the intrasystemic coherence of the views of the other), and mutual causal understanding of both parties problems. This upward attitudinal spiral may be correlated with an upward behavioral spiral leading to mutually focused action that can rectify the causes of a conflict.
  • A useful website that discusses "othering" is Definitions of Othering by Professor Melanie Ulrich of the University of Texas at Austin.
  • An article that deals with some of these issues is Representing Islam: A Critique of Language and Reality by Professor Tazim Kassam of Syracuse University.

    Islam in the Modern World: Miscellaneous Sites

  • Islam in the Modern World Written by the Muslim scholars of ISL Software, this article includes brief discussions of the situation of the Muslim world after the colonial period, Islamic revival, and education and science in the contemporary Muslim world.

  • Prince Charles on Islamic Spirituality and the Decline of the West  (link fixed 17 August 2005)
  • The Alternative, written by an American Muslim, is a fascinating and deep new Islamic novel "concerning the sweetness and sublimity of essential Islam." (Link fixed, June 12, 2003)
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