Modernism in Islam: Views and Dangers

Modernism in Islam: Views and Dangers

The basic view of modernism in all religions is that: the religion should change according to the circumstances, and that it is not fixed.

What is modernism and where did it come from?

We can relate, ideologically, the modernist movement spreading these days to one sect in the past. This sect is called the Mu`tazila, which is dated back to the third Islamic century. Although those people accepted the Qur’an and Sunnah they made ta’wil (their own interpretation of the Qur’an) and said that `aql (intelligence) takes precedence over naql (guidance of the Prophet). However, this school died out. The modernist movement did not evolve from them, but they are very similar to them. The modernist movement actually originated in Europe (middle-ages). At the time when the scientific method came about in Spain, it was seen that what the church was teaching was not true. This led to a slow revolt.

The basic view of modernism (in all religions) is that: the religion should change according to the circumstances, and that it is not fixed. There is no such thing as absolute truth. The Jewish and Christian modernist response in Europe tried to explain how the religion was still relevant for the people. They made innovations to keep people interested in the religion (such as singing in church, introduced only in the 1900’s). They tried to say the divine and the human is mixed in the Bible and that the parts that are true must be the ones that are not out of date. Also, the religion is improving over time and there is no absolute truth in the Bible. This is the time in history when many Muslims were looking to Europe. This led to three choices for those Muslims: accept the West; reject the West; or mix the two (reform Islam). Those who followed the third (the modernist) judge Islam according to their `aql. Some of their faults in regard to it are:

1) Use it for things which it can’t comprehend;

2) Refer everything to it: accept what agrees with it, reject what does not;

3) Judge the revelation by it. However, Ahl As-Sunnah wal Jama`ah (Muslim mainstream) believes that using the sound `aql should lead one to the conclusion that the Qur’an and the Prophet are true and that their teachings should take precedence over pure `aql.

The influence of modernism in America

Modernists are saying that the West and the world have changed, and that Islam must become “civilized”. Modernism has spread the most in the U.S. because:

1) There are no scholars available to refute them, or they won’t refute them because people don’t want to criticize them;

2) It allows Muslims from overseas to become part of the American society and they do not have to be recognized as Muslim. Also, new American Muslims will not have to change their old lifestyle;

3) Much of the literature, scholars, and institutions in the U.S. reflect the modernist thinking.

Some of their views

Modernists influence the thinking of people, and that person spreads their views on unknowingly. Their way of thinking is the most dangerous thing about them. None discuss `aqidah (belief) because it is not important to them (`aql judges naqal). They are also trying to remove the Sunnah and say that the system of the old muhaddithun (scholars of hadith) is insufficient. Most say (as do critics of the Bible) that we need a “higher criticism” of hadith and the earlier conclusions (ijma`) of scholars are not sufficient, yet they give no new way to judge hadith. However, we as Muslims understand that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was guided by Allah and that we may not be able to understand everything in the hadith with our `aql. It is common for the modernists to question the role of the Sunnah in the Shari`ah. One said all of the Sunnah is of this world and not religion, even in the Prophet’s time, therefore it is all a matter of shura (consultation) and ijtihad (juristic reasoning), therefore changeable. Another says we need to make ijtihad for what is to be followed, and changes of time and place make Sunnah difficult to use. All of this is mentioned to weaken the view of the Sunnah. The Jews and Christians tried to differ the human from the divine. Modernists try to point out the differences between the Messenger as a human and as a Prophet. They also avoid following the Sunnah by dividing his life into parts (Imam, judge, military leader, Prophet, etc.), saying some are not divine teachings and not law. Some say everyone is free to make ijtihad, and later restrictions on it were imposed by the people. Another said a ruling may change even if it is from the Qur’an and Sunnah.

How do modernists go astray?

The observer can easily point out the following points as the driving force for this trend:

1) Their premises and assumptions are wrong

Modernists look to the West and try to reinterpret the “old religion” with modern science and modern times. They assume that:

  1. a) The present situation is advanced or different (i.e. “this is not the Prophet’s time!”). However, the idea of progress and that things are better now is Marxian and Hegelian. It is against the hadith, as the Prophet said each generation is getting worse. They must prove that there has been progression (no definition of it given). Islamically, the advanced society is the one that comes closer to Allah, and understands and applies Islam better (such as the Companions of the Prophet). In fact, the current societies have the things of the old societies (such as homosexuality, etc.) as mentioned in the Qur’an.
  2. b) Religion is relative to time and place (i.e. “therefore we need to judge Islam in light of modern science”). Modernists are “people of science” and judge Islam according to modern science. They think that the West is based on science, but they fail to notice that not all science is based on fact. In reality, much of science is only hypothesis (not a fact). Also, every science has its own philosophy, which will lead to its own conclusions;
  3. c) The way of thinking of a society is based on (is a product of) its environment. Modernists say most of religion is from the people and their environment and it can be judged by later times, and hadith are related to that time only. However, there is no proof for the modernist hypothesis that religious truth is relative. Allah says the Qur’an is Haqq (truth). Modernists are saying (by inference) that if the Qur’an is not true now, then it was never true.

2) The methodology they use is wrong. The methodology of the modernists is the way they mislead people to the wrong conclusions. They claim to be scientific, but they are usually inconsistent or have no proof or foundation for their beliefs. Some of the means and principles they use include:

  1. a) Sunnah and Hadith. They claim the Qur’an is authentic and they only follow “authentic” hadith. This implies that they have a way to judge hadith (different from that of the traditional scholars), yet most give no new way to judge hadith, and are using their `aql (intelligence) to determine this (like the female ruler hadith). Modernists especially dislike hadith which have specific meanings and prefer ones which only have general principles.
  2. b) Use of weak hadith to help their points and arguments (while they are calling for the use of authentic hadith). For example, in the area of women in Islam (the two areas the modernists try to change the most are the Sunnah and women) they like to quote two stories from the time of `Umar:

1) When `Umar was giving a khutbah he tried to restrict the amount of dowry, a woman opposed, and Umar corrected himself and thanked the woman, and

2) Umar appointed Umm Shifaa’ as a market-regulator (used by modernist to say women can work in the government). However, both of these stories are not authentic.

  1. c) Use vague terms without defining them. Modernists use terms like democracy, freedom, and equality, but they do not define what they mean by them. The danger in using vague terms is that a knowledgeable person will pass over the word or concept, thinking they meant the Islamic or acceptable definition while in fact they did not, while others may believe what they are saying is true.
  2. d) Do not present all of the relevant information that is available on the subject. That is, from Qur’an, Sunnah, etc. They only present that which will support their views. This tactic is used to avoid unlike beliefs, so they just do not mention them.
  3. e) Force their interpretation onto the text. This is what the Mu`tazilah did, when they said `aql takes precedence over what is from the Prophet. Many modernists say Islam is the “rational” religion. This is true if you mean everything is from Allah and there is no contradiction, but to say that we can study everything in Islam by judging it with only our intellect is unacceptable and there is also no proof for this. To avoid implementing what the Qur’an and Sunnah says, the modernists say we need to follow the “spirit” of Islam and not worry about the laws specifically. But it is clear from the Qur’an and Sunnah that we are to take both. They will argue that the text of the Qur’an only says for women to dress modestly and they do not like to talk about the specific details of hijab and say we only need to follow the “spirit” of the law.
  4. f) They tend to oppose scholars by saying they meant something else. They say that the door to ijtihad is open, which is something accepted by the Ahl As-Sunnah wal Jama`ah. However, it is not open to everybody on any subject. Modernists claim that anyone would make ijtihad until Imam Shafi`i narrowed the qualifications (not true), and today anyone can do it. In one magazine, on the question of polygamy and divorce, some said that these two can be restricted by ijtihad. They often misquote scholars and give their own meanings for what they said.
  5. g) Often follow strange and rejected opinions. They try to revive some of the old opinions because they like it and say that this writer said it in the past. Modernists try to open the door to these opinions and choose what is the most suitable and easy to follow. However, we are supposed to look for the fiqh opinions that are the closest to the truth. They usually bring bad hadith such as “The difference in my Ummah is a mercy” or reject authentic hadith such as the one about the breakup of the Ummah into 73 sects.
  6. h) Follow their desires. They often make rulings and fatwas without permissible evidence. One said that music is permissible because he did not see something wrong with it, so it is halal. But he did not check what the Qur’an and the Sunnah say about this subject.

Islam and modernism

Ahl As-Sunnah wal Jama`ah believes that there is only one true Islam. This is proven in Qur’an and Hadith. One hadith shows the straight line as leading to Allah, and branching paths leading off it with a devil at each one calling to it. Also, the Ummah will break into 73 sects, and the true way is the one who follows Muhammad and his companions. Modernists are differing from Ahl As-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah in:

1) Everything in accordance with Qur’an and Sunnah is truth and what disagrees with it is false (some modernists disagree with this). Also, statements consistent with the Qur’an and Sunnah are accepted;

2) Ijma` (consensus) of the Companions (and early generations) is a proof for all Muslims. Modernists say Companions are men and we are men, and even matters agreed on by them are open to ijtihad;

3) Anything in the Qur’an and Sunnah cannot be opposed by `aql, rational thought, opinion, or qiyas. This is supported in the Qur’an and is not open to discussion or vote. One of the modernists said the cutting of the hand of the thief is a “Khomeni Islam” and is unethical;

4) There are constants in Islam related to belief, worship, etc. and these are good, sound, proper, and correct for all places and times. This view is accepted by the Ahl Sunnah, but not by many of the modernists, saying that all truth is relative and there is no constant. However, these constant principles are basic aspects of the Ahl Sunnah and are traced to the Qur’an and Sunnah and Companions. They are not questionable or changeable things. In many of these things, modernists say we need ijtihad and renewal.


1) The modernists movement as a whole (what it is based on) is from Bid`ah (innovation in religion). They have their own principles and ways, which contradict that of Ahl al-Sunnah. They say we want ijtihad in the basic principles of the deen (religion) which are constant.

2) They are very willing to reject and contradict the ijma` of the companions on clear points (such as stoning of the adulterer and the apostate is to be killed) and hadith are dealt with as if they are not important (women ruler hadith is common).

3) One of the main points of modernism is to change the role of women. They say it is permissible to mix men and women and to not wear hijab. The modernists are impressed by the West and their conclusions always seem to agree with the views of the West.


Source: Taken with modifications from

Related Post