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Wednesday, 28 November, 2001, 11:57 GMT
Analysis: Islam's modernity question
Millions of pilgrims flock to Mecca each year
By Islamic affairs analyst Roger Hardy

The events of the 11 September have stirred up a sometimes acrimonious debate about Islam and modernity. Some commentators in the West say the two are not compatible.

Others, including many Muslims, ask why Islam lost the pre-eminence it once enjoyed as a civilisation - and whether it can ever recapture some of its former glory.

I think the challenge for contemporary Muslim societies is to create their own modernity

Zia Sardar, British Museum
Muslim schoolchildren learn in history lessons that there was once a great Islamic empire which stretched from Spain to the Great Wall of China.

These far-flung lands were conquered by Muslim armies within a century of the death of the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Islam in seventh-century Arabia.

During the period of Muslim greatness - says Zia Sardar, a British Muslim writer on science - there is a clear link between knowledge and power.

'Dominant civilisation'

"The real glorious period of Islamic science and technology is when Muslims are a global civilisation - they are the dominant civilisation of the world - and there is an enormous amount of patronage, and financial and political resources are put into science and learning," he said.

Veiled women
Islam's image to some in the West is one of austerity

For several centuries, Arabic was the world's leading language of science. Muslims made important advances in mathematics, astronomy and medicine - a legacy from which European scholars derived great benefit.

There was also a flowering of literature and architecture.

"If you look at the decoration of some of the very earliest Islamic religious buildings - say the Great Mosque of Damascus in Syria - you find mosaics in which the principal theme was fertility, was natural growth and abundance," says Robert Hillenbrand of Edinburgh University.

"You walk into these buildings and you think you are in a greenhouse. And that is not accidental. These buildings are evocations in this world of the next, of paradise," he added.

'Golden age'

The Golden Age of Islam lasted for several centuries, but by about the 12th century, a decline set in that was both political and intellectual.

Dome of the Rock
Mosaics at the Dome of the Rock undeline Islam's artistic credentials

"Once Islam becomes defined, then Muslim intellectuals are less concerned to investigate new sources of knowledge, because they feel they have their knowledge, they have worked out the answers to these questions," said Historian Hugh Kennedy.

"The intellectual endeavour now is to preserve this knowledge and maybe to refine the details, but certainly not to ask major questions that will undermine it, or could possibly challenge its."

Gradually, says Zia Sardar, the ulama, or religious scholars, became increasingly suspicious of independent reasoning, known in Arabic as "ijtihad".

"This is the period when the ulama got together and they were extremely fearful of multiple interpretations of Islam - they saw that as feeding dissension into the community," he said.

Why should modernity be defined with a single Western perspective?

Zia Sardar

"So they tried to stop what is a key instrument of Islamic thought - namely, ijtihad. What happened was the ulama got together and said the gates of ijtihad are now closed."

The heavy hand of orthodoxy descended, particularly on the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam.

The rise of European science and technology coincided with European colonial rule, a humiliating experience for Muslims conscious of their glorious past.

Question of definition

Muslims have responded to Western-style modernity in a variety of ways. Extremists like Osama Bin Laden - blamed by the US for the 11 September attacks against America - violently reject it.

But for intellectuals like Zia Sardar the challenge - the "mega-task", as he puts it - is to engage with modernity without sacrificing Muslim values.

"I think the challenge for contemporary Muslim societies is to create their own modernity. Why should modernity be defined with a single Western perspective?" he asks.

"They need to appreciate the contemporary world, use contemporary technologies, establish centres of science and learning, critique modernity and see how Muslim societies can be modern yet transform modernity from within."

See also:

26 Nov 01 | Middle East
PR firm 'to polish Arab image'
11 Oct 01 | Americas
Islam 'hijacked' by terror
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