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Other-Worldly and This-Worldly Islam and the Islamic Revival: A Memorial Lecture for Wilfred Cantwell Smith Delivered at the Royal Asiatic Society on 10 April 2003

  • Francis Robinson (a1)

In his Islam in Modern History, published in 1957, yet still a work remarkable for its insights, Wilfred Cantwell Smith refers to the extraordinary energy which had surged through the Muslim world with increasing force in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He talks of:

dynamism, the appreciation of activity for its own sake, and at the level of feeling a stirring of intense, even violent, emotionalism…The transmutation of Muslim society from its early nineteenth-century stolidity to its twentieth-century ebullience is no mean achievement. The change has been everywhere in evidence.

This surge of energy is closely associated with a shift in the balance of Muslim piety from an other-worldly towards a this-worldly focus. By this I mean a devaluing of a faith of contemplation of God's mysteries and of belief in His will to shape human life, and a valuing instead of a faith in which Muslims were increasingly aware that it was they, and only they, who could act to fashion an Islamic society on earth. This shift of emphasis has been closely associated with a new idea of great power, the caliphate of man. In the absence of Muslim power, in the absence, for the Sunnis at least, of a caliph, however symbolic, to guide, shape and protect the community, this awesome task now fell to each individual Muslim. I hazard to suggest that this shift towards a this-worldly piety, and the new responsibilities for Muslims that came with it, is the most important change that Muslims have wrought in the practice of their faith over the past one thousand years. It is a change full of possibilities for the future.

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Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
  • ISSN: 1356-1863
  • EISSN: 1474-0591
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-the-royal-asiatic-society
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