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April 2006
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Is Islam Compatible with Modern Civilisation?
By Dr. Fathi Osman

Our Muslim ancestors were more aware of the succession of civilisations than we are today.

It may be obvious now that the Islamic law or Shariah, through the spacious room allowed for human intellectual efforts to cope with change (itjihad), can benefit from any contemporary experience, especially that of the developed Western countries in their political, administrative and economical systems. An essential question may be raised by some Islamists (Islamic ideologists or activists): how can Muslims rely on the products of a civilization that has denied God and has opposed or ignored any collective practice of religion from the society as a whole?

In the beginning of the 18th century, when the Europeans colonised Muslim lands, the people experienced shocking material and moral changes and found themselves in a puzzling dilemma. On the one hand, the humiliation of invasion and suppression created strong feelings of anger and resentment. On the other hand, the inhabitants of the Muslim lands were dazzled by modern European civilisation with its advanced technology and organisation, a sentiment that had not been strongly felt during previous confrontation with the west. There is a great difference, for example, between the impression which the Crusaders left on the Muslim knight Usama ibn Munqidh (d. 1188), as recorded in his memoirs Al-I’tibar, and that which the French invaders of Egypt left on Muslim scholar and historian al-Jabarti (d. 1825) as reported in his Aja’ib al-Athar.

Usama witnessed the European Crusaders who appeared strange to him in their way of life. He might have found them militarily strong and victorious but he did not feel for a second that they were representatives of a civilisation superior, or even equal to his, in military or civil life. For al-Jabarti, on the other hand, the impact of the French invaders was tremendous. Not only did they have superior military technology, but also better organisation and administration.

Colonialism left Muslims with mixed feelings of hatred and admiration. Muslim reaction to colonial occupation varied. Some Muslims believed that they should swallow the bitterness of colonialism and adopt a positive attitude for the sake of progress. This attitude was emphasised by successive generations of Muslim thinkers and writers such as Shaykh Rifa’a al Tahtawi (d.1873), Shaykh Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905), Qasim Amin (d.1908), Lufti al-Sayyid (d. 1963) and Taha Husayn (d. 1974) in Egypt, Medhat Pasha (d. 1883) in the Ottoman Sultanate, Khayr ul-Din Pasha (d.1879) in Tunisia and Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d.1889) in India.

In spite of the benefits of the application of Greek logic to Arabic linguistics and Islamic theology and jurisprudence, the classical argument of some Islamic scholars such as Ibn Hazm and Ibn Taymiyya against it, as well as the argument of al-Ghazali against Greek philosophy in general, were revived to prove that any foreign epistemological approach could damage genuine Islamic knowledge. Some supporters of such an attitude went further to restrict the genuine Islamic civilisation that truly represented the teachings of Islam to the period of the early four caliphs (al-Rashidin).

As soon as the Second World War came to an end, national frustration fuelled by external Western pressures and internal Westernized leaders increased the hostility of Muslims against the West. This provided a suitable climate for the Islamists to carry on their campaign against Western civilisation on cultural and ideological grounds.

Robin W. Winks in his book, Western Civilisation, explains that the Enlightenment, which is said to run from 1687, the date that Newton’s work was published, to the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789, was seen an age of light, of special wisdom about human nature.

There was no longer any need for a God as the Creator of all things. There no longer was either need or justification for miracles, for all so-called miracles should be capable of scientific explanation. The universe was governed by precise mechanical laws that were capable of mathematical proof; this universe could run for eternity without the intervention of God. The world was a machine. In such a psychological and intellectual climate, arose the modern European civilization.

The suspicious attitude of Islamists towards modern civilization in the early decades of the 20th century can be understood and justified. However, continued adherence to such a standpoint should be revised as Western civilisation has become global, spreading over the world with its various denominations, cultures, social structures and political systems.

Islamists have to realise that there is a place for cultural and ideological differences within its global and dynamic civilisation itself, and therefore any rigid rejection of it would be against the interests of Muslims in their practical life.

The Islamists should realise that they cannot create a contemporary Islamic civilization in a vacuum. Without a positive approach and active participation, it is impossible to graft Islamic values onto the present civilisation.

Our Muslim ancestors were more aware of the succession of civilisations than we are today. They adopted what was useful in the achievements of existing civilisations in science, mathematics, philosophy and humanities, as well as in state organisation and administration. The intellectual heritage of Greeks, Persians and Indians was translated and systems of administrative organisation (dawawin), land-taxation (kharaj), customs (ushur), police and prisons were introduced.

We should think seriously and concretely about the Islamic civilisation which we believe in. Adhering always to the rejection of others’ achievements is a very poor means of confirming one’s identity.

(Excerpts from Dr. Fathi Osman’s book, Sharia in Contemporary Society - The Dynamics of Change in the Islamic Law)