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Written by Louay Safi   
Apr 18, 1994 at 09:40 AM
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Developmental Trends in Contemporary Society
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Although the early reforms led by the Ottoman Sultan and his gover­nor were directed almost exclusively towards the military establishment, the two Muslim rulers soon realized that to keep the Ottoman military forces competitive with their European rivals, they had to introduce modern sci­ences to the education system, and hence decided to establish technical schools to teach pure sciences, such as mathematics and physics, since these sciences were excluded from the curricula of regular schools. Evidently both Muhammad Ali and his patron were driven towards reform by the desire to maintain or expand their power base. For not only were their reformist efforts directed, almost exclusively, at the military and the bureaucracy, but they showed no interest whatever in social and political reform.[13]

Yet despite the Ottoman rulers’ desire to confine modernization to technical spheres, and the many precautionary measures they took to safeguard against European cultural influences, the separation between the technical and cultural spheres of Western civilization proved untenable. Quickly, European ideas, customs, and habits began to penetrate the Otto­man society, creating social divisions and cultural tensions. Cultural tension and polarization became increasingly evident when those who received train­ing in Europe came back to assume leading positions in the Ottoman bureau­cracy. Having been exposed to a superior civilization, the European-educated students were deeply impressed by the advanced political and social institu­tions of Europe, and by the vigor and skills of Europeans.

The first Muslim intellectual to point out the flaws of the Ottoman and Khedivate project of modernization was Jamal al-Din al-Afghani. While emphasizing the need for developing the scientific and technological capacities of the Muslims, al-Afghani realized that scientific development could not be achieved merely by training Muslims to use Western technology. For technology and scientific innovations are but artifacts, reflecting the ethos of a people and their philosophical outlook. What was needed by the Muslims to progress was a new spirit and direction. As he put it:

If a community did not have a philosophy, and all the individuals of that community were learned in the sciences with particular subjects, those sciences could not last in that community for a century. . . The Ottoman government and the Khedivate of Egypt have been opening schools for the teaching of the new sciences for a period of sixty years, and they are yet to receive any benefit from those sci­ences.[14]

Al-Afghani ascribed the Muslim failure to catch up with the West in science and technology to their deficient outlook and faulty perspective, arguing that Islam had created in the early Muslims the desire to acquire knowledge. Thus, they quickly assumed a leading role in scientific research, first by appropriating the sciences of the Greeks, Persians, and Indians, and later by moving these sciences to new frontiers.[15] He accused contemporary Muslim scholars (‘ulama) of wasting time and energy on trivial matters, instead of addressing the important questions and issues of the time.

Evidently, al-Afghani, along with those who supported his reformist project, most notably Muhammad ‘Abduh and Muhammad Rashid Rida, believed that genuine technological and economic reforms must be combined with cultural reform. People’s attitude and conception have to be reformed if the locus of the organizational and technological development was to be located within the Muslim society itself. Al-Afghani endeavored, therefore, to combat fatalism, which plagued the bulk of Muslim societies by the turn of the nineteenth century. It was widely accepted then that Muslim decadence was natural, as it reflected an advanced stage in the continuous moral decline since the time of the Prophet. It was also believed that this trend was inevitable and beyond human control.[16] Al-Afghani rejected this interpreta­tion of history, which was advocated by traditionalists, insisting that Muslim decadence has been precipitated by moral and intellectual decline, and that the superiority of the West, and its triumph over the Muslims, was a tempor­ary stage in the continual struggle between the East and the West.

The reformist school put the blame for Muslim backwardness in par­ticular on Muslim scholars, traditionalist ‘ulama. AI-Afghani, for instance, argued that the ‘ulama, rather than providing strong leadership for the community, had become obstacles hindering its development. By dividing science, which has a universal nature, into Islamic and European, the ‘ulama had deprived the ummah of technology, allowing the West thereby to surpass the Muslims in military capacity. “Ignorance had no alternative”, he wrote, “but to prostrate itself humbly before science and to acknowledge its submission.[17]

Similarly, Muhammad ‘Abduh held the ‘ulama’ responsible for the Muslim decline for failing to confront the serious problems facing the ummah, and to enlighten the people as to how they can go about solving them.[18] Even worse, the ‘ulama’ have adopted a fatalistic outlook, believing that nothing can be done to overcome the plague encompassing the Muslim community. ‘Abduh explains:

Those idle and stagnant say, repeating the saying of the enemy of the Qur’an: the end of time has arrived, and the day of judgment is about to start, and that corruption which has befallen the people and the recession which has inflicted religion are only signs of the age. It is, therefore, useless to work to [rectify these deviations], for all efforts [in this regard] are fruitless, and all movements [in this direc­tion] are pointless.[19]

The fatalistic attitude of Muslim scholars was reflected in their resis­tance to innovation and creativity, as well as in their blind adherence to the opinions of their forefathers. To prevent contemporary Muslims from resort­ing to original reasoning and to inhibit fresh reading of the divine revelation, traditionalist ‘ulama raised the early generation of Muslims to the level of sanctity and infallibility, and resorted to all repressive measures to combat original minds.[20] Abduh went farther to openly accuse traditionalist ‘ulama of being the enemies of Islam; they kept the Muslims weak by depicting natural sciences as perverted, admonishing Muslims to refrain from learning them. “The truth is where there is proof’, Abduh wrote, “and those who forbid science and knowledge to protect religion are really the enemies of religion.”[21]

But rather than bringing about an Islamic reform, the critique of Muhammad ‘Abduh led to strengthening the forces of secularization in Egypt. This is due mainly to the fact that the work of Abduh helped reveal the flaws of the traditionalist models without offering an alternative. His students and followers, including Sa’d Zaghlul and Mustafa Kamil, substi­tuted Western models for the traditional.


The secular model of development is epitomized in the work of Taha Hussein. Hussein, and other secularists, shared the reform school’s belief in the need for cultural reform in order to achieve organizational and technolog­ical development. His solution, however, was not geared towards developing contemporary social forms on the basis of Islamic principles and norms, but to wholeheartedly embrace Western forms and institutions. To achieve this objective Hussein endeavored to prove that Egypt belonged culturally to the West, and to deny the significance of Islamic influence on Egyptian society.


The Qur'anic Narrative
The Qur'anic Narrative

Leading with Compassion
Leading with Compassion


Tensions and Transitions
in the Muslim World

Peace and the Limits of War

The Challenge of Modernity 


Blaming Islam

Foundation of Knowledge

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