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Premodern, Antimodern or Postmodern? Islamic and Western Critiques of Modernity

  • Roxanne L. Euben

The steadily increasing appeal of Islamic fundamentalist ideas has often been characterized as a premodern, antimodern or, more recently, as a postmodern phenomenon. To explore the relationship of Islamist political thought to modernity, and the usefulness of the terminology of “modernity” to situate and understand it, this article explores two comparisons. The first is a comparison across time, and involves the juxtaposition of a prominent nineteenth century Islamic “modernist” and the critique of modernity by an influential twentieth century Islamic fundamentalist thinker. The second is a comparison across cultures, and involves the juxtaposition of this Islamic fundamentalist critique and many Western theorists similarly critical of “the modern condition.” These comparisons suggest that Islamic fundamentalist political thought is part of a transcultural and multivocal reassessment of the value and definition of “modernity.” Such reassessments should be understood in terms of a dialectical relationship to “modernity,” one that entails not the negation of modernity but an attempt to simultaneously abolish, transcend, preserve and transform it.

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1 This is implicit in Fukuyama's, FrancisThe End of History?National Interest 16 (1989): 318 and The End of History and the last Man (New York: The Free Press,1992).

2 Lawrence, Bruce,Defenders of God(San Francisco: Harper& Row, 1989), p.232.

3 Falk, Richard,“Religion and Politics: Verging on the Postmodern”, Alternatives 8(1988):380.

4 Ahmed, Akbar,Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and Promise (London:Routledge,1992), p,13.

5 Falk, ,“Religion and Politics”, p379. Lawrence rightly insists on differentiating between “modernity” from “modernism”, arguing that the former encompasses the processes associated with modernization, including but not limited to the “increasing bureaucratization and rationalization as well as technical capacity and global exchange,” the latter signaling the “search for individual autonomy driven by a set of socially encoded values emphasizing change over continuity; quantity over quality; efficient production, power, and profit over sympathy for traditional values or vocations, in both the public and private spheres” (Lawrence, Defenders of God, p. 27. “Modernism” is thus the ideology of the “objective, structural givens” that constitute “modernity” (p. 2).

6 ibid., p. 3.

7 Indeed, there is no word for fundamentalism in Arabic: the closest word in Arabic,usuliyya, was coined specifically to approximate the English ”fundamentalism” usul can be translated to mean fundamentals, or roots). For a powerfully argued case against the use of “fundamentalism” to describe Islamic revival, see Hassan's, Riffat “The Burgeoning of Islamic Fundamentalism; Toward an Understanding of the Phenomenon” The Fundamentalist Phenomenon, ed. Cohen, Norman J. (Grand Rapids, MI:William B. Eerdmans Co.,1991), pp.151–71..

8 Voll, John O., “Fundamentalism in the Sunni Arab World: Egypt and the Sudan,” in fundamentalism Observed, ed.Marty, Martin E. and Scott, R. Appleby (Chicago:University of Chicago,1991), p.347

9 Weber's distinction between “this-worldly” and “other-worldly” orientations rests upon the requirements for salvation. In “world-rejecting asceticism”, participation in worldly affairs may lead to alienation from God, so salvation requires withdrawal from the world. In “inner-worldly asceticism” salvation is achieved through participation in the world: “the world is presented to the religious virtuoso as his responsibility” (Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion, trans. Fischoff, Ephraim [Boston: Beacon Press,1964], p. 166..

10 Of course, as Marty, Martin and Scott, R. Appleby note, sacred texts do not play “the same constitutive role in South Asian and Far Eastern traditions as they do in the Abrahamic faiths.” Yet it is all the more striking that in their study on comparative fundamentalism they find that at least four of the six South Asian or Far Eastern “fundamentalist—like movements…do in fact privilege a sacred text and presume to draw certain fundamentals—beliefs ajid behaviors—from it“Marty and Appleby,Fundamentalism Observed, p.820). This is part of why the editors of “The Fundamentalism Project” find the term fundamentalism fruitful although not without problems (they list several persuasive reasons for the usefulness of the term on pp. viii–ix)

11 Qutb's political thought is, of course, only one perspective among many that today travel under the rubric of “Islamist political thought.” For example, Qutb's militant version of Islamism competed early on with the more gradualist approach of Hasan Ismail Hudaybi. Although the more militant interpretation of Islamic fundamentalism is currently ascendant, there are reformist wings of the Muslim Brotherhood which stress the power of the word as opposed to radicals who emphasize the power of the sword. I concentrate on Qutb, because his systematic analysis of Islam, modernity and political action has shaped the commitments of a generation of Sunni fundamentalists, from spokesmen for the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria to Sheikh Omar abdel-Rahman of Egypt, the cleric convicted of “seditious conspiracy” in connection with the bombing of the World Trade Center. See Haddad, Yvonne, “Sayyid Qutb: Ideologue of Islamic Revival,” in Voices of Resurgent Islam, ed. Esposito, John (New York: Oxford University Press,1983); Allah, Mahdi Fadl, Ma'a Sayyid Qutb fi fikrihi al-siyasi wa'i dini (With Sayyid Qutb and his political and religious thought) (Beirut, 1979).

12 'Abduh, , Al-Islam wa al-Nasraniyyah (Islam and Christianity), p. 149. Unless noted, translations are my own from the original Arabic.

13 As my analysis of 'Abduh is delimited by my focus on this contrast, this discussion does not include an analysis of'Abduh's life and thought in full, nor does it aspire to be an account of Islamic “modernism”. In addition, it is worth emphasizing the fact that while 'Abduh is almost universally acknowledged as one of the most influential thinkers in this tradition, his work neither exhausts nor fully represents Islamic “modernism”.

14 This is a collection of lectures on theology 'Abduh had originally delivered during his years in Beirut; they were revised and given again at Al-Azhar, Egypt's preeminent mosque and university. The lectures were then compiled by his student Rashid Rida and published as Risalat al-Tawhid(Theology of unity) in 1897.

15 Risalat al-Tawhid (Cairo, 1966), p. 176.

16 Ibid.,, p. 143.

17 Ibid.,, p. 83.

18 Ibid.,, p. 20.

19 'Abduh, Muhammad, Al-Manar, vii, p. 292, cited in Adams, Charles C.,Islam and Modernism in Egypt (New York:Russell and Russell,1968), p. 136.

20 Hourani, , Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 144.

21 See Hourani's, chapter on “'Abduh's Disciples: Islam and Modern Civilization”, ibid.,, pp. 161–92 for an illuminating discussion of the successors to 'Abduh's reformism.

22 Risalat, pp. 143–45.

23 Ibid.,, pp. 26–32, 122.

24 Ibid.,, p. 122; Kerr, Malcolm H., Islamic Reform: The Political and legal Theories of Muhammad 'Abduh and Rashid Rida (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 110..

25 Risatat, p. 181.

26 Ibid.,, p. 55. 'Abduh argues that there are levels of knowing, or kinds of truths, some of which are accessible to human understanding, others of which are entirely inaccessible, and those which require confirmation by an authority other than reason. For example, reason can lead us to belief in the existence of God, an understanding of some of his attributes, awareness of the afterlife, distinctions between good and evil, and the authority of prophecy. Reason can thus lead us to accept the authority of revelation whose truths are therefore consistent with the products of rational inquiry. Such revelation—disclosed by the Prophet whose authority has been established by reason—provides the means to accept truths which reason cannot reach.

27 'Abduh sees in human nature wide variations in intellectual ability and concludes that most people are either deficient in, or are incapable of fully exercising, their reason. While the elite may after long reflection respond to the authority of rational argumentation, the limited intelligence of most requires the deployment of myths and examples designed to speak to emotion, fear, tradition, and that which is familiar. Risalat, pp. 118–19. Thus while some truths cannot be known by reason at all, other limits upon reason are related to defects in human nature.

28 Kerr, , Islamic Reform, p. 127..

29 Qutb's formulation of jahiliyya has proven to be a powerful critical weapon for Islamic fundamentalists from Algeria to Egypt. It is primarily although not solely advanced in Maáalim fi-l Tariq (Signposts along the road) originally published in 1964, and Al-Khasa'is al-Tasawwur al-Islami wa Muqawwamatihi (the Islamic concept and its characteristics) originally published in 1960. Qutb's writings grew increasingly radical over time; these two books represent the final stage of his thought, one described by Muhammad Tawfiq Barakat as his distinctively “Islamist” phase (from the late 1940's on), as opposed to his earliest “liberal phase”, and an interim phase where he began formulating moderate texts on Islamic thought (Barakat, Sayyid Qutb, khulasat hayatihi, manhajahu fi al-haraka, al-naqd al-muwajah ilayhi [Beirut, 1970], p. 11).

30 I have made this argument in more detail in “Comparative Political Theory: An Islamic Fundamentalist Critique of RationalismJournal of Politics 59 (1997): 2855.

31 Qutb, , Al-Khasaáis al-Tasaunvur al-Islami wa Muqawwamatihi, pp. 188–89.

32 Importantly, this view is not idiosyncratic. For example, Ziauudin Sardar explicitly condemns what he terms as Western “epistemological imperialism” (Sardar, Islamic Futures: The Shape of Ideas to Come [London: Mansell Publishers, Ltd., 1985], p. 85.) Indeed, Syed M. argues that the core of the threat from the West is primarily epistemological, and argues in response“[t]he holy Qurx0155;an is the complete and final revelation … and there is no other knowledge—except based upon it and pointing to it—that can guide and save man” (Al-Attas, , Islam, Secularism and the Philosophy of the Future[London:Mansell Publishers, Ltd., 1985], pp. 127,138).

33 Qutb, ,Al-Khasaáis al-Tasawwur al-Islami wa Muqawwamatihi, pp. 1720. In this book, Qutb singles ’Abduh out in his discussion of “modernism” as well as 'Abduh's student, RashidRida. Qutb's view in many ways continues to define the attitude of many contemporary Islamic fundamentalists toward Islamic “modernists” and all other thinkers seen as insufficiently attuned to challenges to Islamic authenticity

34 Qutb, , Maáalimfi-l Tariq, p. 159.

35 Qutb, ,Al-Khasaáis al-Tasawwur al-lslami wa Muqawwamatihi, p. 20

36 Importantly, the classes most drawn to Islamic fundamentalism are themselves the product of such modern processes as urbanization, industrialization and the expansion of educational opportunities. Indeed, it is recognized in almost all studies of Islamic fundamentalism—and of Christian fundamentalism as well— that the petite bourgeoisie is the class most consistently drawn to fundamentalist movements, and to leadership positions in particular. See Fischer, Michael, “Islam and the Revolt of the Petit Bourgeoisie”,Daedalus 3 (1982): 101–22; see also Kepel, Gilles,The Revenge of God: The Resurgence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism in the Modern World, trans. Braley, Alan (University Park, PA; Pennsylvania State University Press,1994).

37 Tibi, Bassam,“ Culture and Knowledge: The Politics of Islamization of Knowledge as a Postmodern Project? The Fundamentalist Claim to De-Westernization”, Theory, Cultureand Society 12 (1995):20.

38 See, for example, Robertson, Pat, The New Millennium in The Collected Works of Pat Robertson (New York:Inspirational Press,1994), pp. 50, 67; and Marsden, George,Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism, 1870–1925 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980).

39 , Kepel,Revenge of God, p. 192.

40 , Marsden,Fundamentalism and American Culture, pp. 148, 160, 166, 169.

41 Bernstein, Richard, “The Rage Against Reason”, Philosophy and Literature 10 (1986):186210.

42 This focus on the critique of modernity necessarily excludes those whom Taylor would call the “boosters” or supporters of modern culture. Taylor, Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 22. In keeping with the attempt to illuminate a perspective, I do not judge these views on intellectual and political grounds but rather use them to elaborate broader theoretical commonalities. For useful critiques and/or analyses of some of these positions and those of their opponents see Gutmann, AmyCommunitarian Critics of LiberalismPhilosophy and Public Affairs 14 (1985); and Taylor, Charles “Cross Purposes: The Liberal-Communitarian Debate” in Liberalism and the Moral Life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

43 Maclntyre, Alasdair,After Virtue (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984).

44 Of course, the presence of foundations or traditions that provide common standards to adjudicate between points of view does not end serious debates over interpretation; as centuries of scriptural commentary show, prior to the culture of “Demotivism” real and often interminable debates over meaning and interpretation raged among those who ostensibly shared a belief in common foundations.

45 Taylor, , Ethics of Authenticity.

46 Taylor, , however, argues that the ethic of authenticity was originally actuated by a laudable concern for increased individual responsibility and the insistence, against utilitarian theory, that morality had a voice within, that “human beings are endowed with a moral sense, an intuitive feeling for what is right and wrong” (Taylor, ibid.,, p.26). By contrast, there is no non-debased form of emotivism for Maclntyre.

47 Maclntyre, ,After Virtue, p.52.

48 ibid.,, p. 82.

49 Arendt, Hannah,“What is Authority?” in Between Past and Future (New York: Penguin Books, 1968). Interestingly enough, Arendt's critique of modernity raises some of the same broad questions about what it means to be a “modernist” or an “antimodernist” that frame the arguments of this article. For example, while George Kateb argues that Arendt's critique is ultimately an expression of “antimodernist” nostalgia, Seyla Benhabib suggests that Arendt is a “reluctant modernist” (Kateb, , Hannah Arendt: Politics, Conscience, Evil[Totowa: Rowman and Allanheld, 1984], p. 183; Benhabib, , The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt [Albany, NY: Sage Publications, Inc., 1996]). Dana Villa argues that Arendt's “‘faith in action’ does not rest on the futile desire to resurrect the agora in contemporary society; rather it reflects a continuing wonder at the fact that political action persists in the various ‘defeated causes’ our political historians relegate to the dustbin of history… For some, this state of affairs may be a source of untempered regret; for Hannah Arendt, however, it signifies both loss and hope” (Villa, , Arendt and Heidegger: The Fate of the Political [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996], p. 270).

50 Bellah, Robert N., Madsen, Richard, Sullivan, William M., Swidler, Ann and Tipton, Steven M., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1985).

51 Maclntyre, , After Virtue, p.250.

52 This list could obviously include many other voices and works such as Strauss's, LeoNatural Right and History(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953); Bell, Daniel, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1976); Schaar, John H., Legitimacy in the Modern State (New Brunswick NJ:, Transaction Books, 1981); Spragens, Thomas A., The Irony of Liberal Reason (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1981); and Lasch, Christopher, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in An Age of Diminishing Expectations (New York: W. W. Norton &Company, 1991), to name but a few.

53 Spragens, , The Irony of Liberal Reason.

54 Such reevaluation comes from a variety of quarters, including the critique of rationalism and positivism from postmodernist and critical theorists. For example, in Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno have argued that enlightenment is not characterized either by a teleological ascent to freedom or decay, but rather by a dialectical process whereby enlightenment returns to myth and back again. Horkheimer and Adorno suggest that modern bureaucracy in particular has given birth to its own peculiar forms of “irrationality” in a dialectical process they describe as a barbarous combination of myth and enlightenment. Having set out to discover “why mankind, instead of entering into a truly human condition, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism”, they conclude that the Holocaust was not an isolated descent into barbarism but rather an expression of the organizing principle of modern civilization: the “irrationalism”of anti-Semitism is “deduced from the nature of the dominant ratio itself, and the world which corresponds to its image” (Horkheimer, and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, trans, by Cumming, John [New York: Herder and Herder, 1972], pp. xi, xvii).

55 Indeed, Qutb's critique of modernity could be fruitfully contrasted with, for example, the work of Joseph de Maistre, and his engagement with the tension between reason and revealed truth could also be placed in the context of theological arguments about the place of rationalism in a divinely ordered cosmos engaged in by thinkers such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas.

56 It is interesting to note that Foucault found in the Iranian Revolution (at least through early 1979) a quasi-Dionysian uprising against Western Imperialism and rationalization, and thrilled to what he took to be an Iranian challenge to global hegemony, a challenge that revealed “an intensity of courage” (Foucault, , “Is it Useless to Revolt?” Le Monde, May 1979).

57 Bull, , “Who was the First to Make a Pact with the Devil?”,London Review of Books, 14 05 1992, pp. 2223.

58 Ahmed, , Postmodernism and Islam, p. 13.

59 Falk, , “Religion and Politics: Verging on the Postmodern” p. 380.

60 Lyotard, Jean-François, “Lessons in Paganism” ed. Benjamin, AndrewThe Lyotard Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp.122–55..

61 Shadow of Spirit: Postmodernism and Religion, ed. Berry, Philippa and Wernick, Andrew (New York: Routledge, 1992).

62 Tibi, , “Culture and Knowledge” p. 13.

63 Although William Connolly points out “momentary points of convergence” between communitarians such as Taylor, and “antiteleologists” such as Connolly, Foucault, “Beyond Good and Evil: The Ethical Sensibility of Michel FoucaultPolitical Theory 21 (1993): 370.

64 I am grateful to Shlomo Avineri for this point

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