The Principles of Compatibility of Islam and Modernity


 1.Modernity is such a dominant culture of the day that has influenced all cultures and sub-cultures in a way. Although modernity in one sense contains the greatest human achievements and has made changes which have embraced all the angles of human societies, to the extent that it has now turned to a turning point in all man’s individual as well as collective affairs ; but this does not mean that modernity is to be considered as the ideal goal or supreme virtue, taking it as a measure to evaluate the correctness and validity of human affairs.

So while welcoming many consequences of modernity, one should not neglect shortcomings and criticisms imposed on this; and as Jurgen Habermas puts it is “an In-completed project” and a transitional path rather than the destination itself. Modernization is a gradual process and requires reaching the special cultural, economical, political, and social situations. There is no need for this procedure to be alike in various societies, or that all societies reach the current situation the European and American societies. Every society is entitled to take its special path towards modernity and more important, to reach the modernity they believe.

Therefore I should make it clear right from the beginning that by “Compatibility of Islam and Modernity” I don’t mean that Islam as a variable should adapt itself with Modernity as a constant, so that the outcome would be a “Modern Islam”, and every affair in Islam inconsistent with Modernity should change,  and all Islamic precepts and criteria follow Modernity, and all regulations and criteria of Modernity fully and unquestionably be accepted in Islam, and thus Modernity becomes the touchstone and measure against which all Islamic criteria must be checked.

Nor do I mean that Modernity as a variable should adapt itself with Islam as a constant, so that the outcome would be an “Islamic Modernity” , and every affair in Modernity inconsistent with Islam be regarded as rejected, and Islam becomes the measure against which all Modern criteria should be checked. In the former case Islam would vanish in Modernity, and Modernity in Islam in the latter.

So if the above said condition is not considered, what do we mean by compatibility? What I would like to explain in this article is whether it is possible for some interpretation of Islam to be compatible with a version of Modernity. In other words the possibility of having Islam and modernity in one single society at the same time. A society whose members believe in Islam, have Islamic thoughts and Islamic conduct, meanwhile criteria of Modernity is observed. The affairs of the society are managed based on collective wisdom as well as freedom and rights of all classes of the society. In brief I would like to say it is possible to gather Islam and Modernity together.


2.This does not  mean that every interpretation of Islam can be combined with every version of Modernity and no incompatibility takes place in between. On the contrary, now there are some interpretations  of  Islam which are absolutely incompatible with modernity. So whoever talks of the possibility of Islam and Modernity being compatible, has in advance declared that both of them are criticizable, although the manner and angle of critique are different. On one hand criticisms  made by thinkers such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Post-Modern scholars are appreciated, and on the other hand evaluates “Historic Islam” far from the principal message of Islam which is the focus of this article.

Islam as one of the three great religions , actually the last of them, is now such mingled with its followers’ customs and traditions after fourteen centuries that it is not so easy a task to distinguish its principal message. In “Historic Islam” the text of the Holy Book, the Qur’an, the tradition of the holy Prophet Mohammad  and the behavior of the authorities of religion, and consensus among Moslem scholars are considered as constant precepts which are beyond time and space. Thus they regards as uncriticizable and unquestionable holiness. In this approach while believing religious rationality, referred to as “wisdom”, the said rationality is not always necessarily understandable by human mind. So due to its low capacity, the human mind is not so outstanding in inferring divine precepts and understanding religion is “text centered”, and textual implications and transparency  equals understanding the religion.

In understanding the religion formalism is dominant. This formalism never allows the goals of religious deeds, which due to low capacity of human mind are not so reliable, to manifest fully. So for the same reason although practice religious jurisprudence (al-Ijtihad) has been accepted in some Islamic sects in general, yet it has been limited to particles. In Historic Islam – which can also be referred to as “Traditional Islam” – execution of precepts of Law is the measure against which a society is checked as being Islamic.

Since in this approach human rights have been considered in precepts of Law, there is no need to stick to such matters as International Declaration of Human Rights. Also in Public domain there is no room for democracy because the ruler or the jurisprudent with guardianship (al-Khalifah or Velaiete el-Faqih) observes people’s interest better that they do. There is no need of freedom of opinion and religion with precept of Law in Historic Islam. Upon the discretion of the Islamic rulers or Moslem jurists, violence can be applied to execute the Law or to develop the religion. There is no need to acquire others’ consent in order to perform the precepts of the Law or to practice the religion. Everybody is bound to observe these precepts and commandments. Accepting Islam or living in an Islamic society is the prerequisite of all its precepts. And once you accept them basically, there is no room for later violation.

From this aspect, the best time had been the time of the holy Prophet, and Moslems are bound to adapt their society with that of the time of revelation. In cases of inconsistency between modern phenomena and models of the time of the holy Prophet, it is the modern  phenomena which is wrong. They must either be eliminated or filled with sacred models. There is no room for interpretation of the text when in contrast with the reason since nearly all precepts of the reason are probable and there is little trace of absolute and certain reason.

what I briefly mentioned was an abstract based on Historic or Traditional Islam which includes a wide range of Islamic sects such as Salafie, Akbarie, Hanbalie, and Wahhabies rather than other official readings of Islamic schools. Although there are many people believing this approach – and that they are definitely Moslems – and respecting their interpretation, we should say that this approach is in contrast with Modernity, and in case such approach be implemented, there will be no room for Modernity in the society. If anyone limits Islam to the official reading, there will be no room for compatibility of Islam with modernity.

Although the followers of Historic Islam have no problem observing Islamic criteria in their private lives, yet nowadays they face serious problems to implement Islamic precepts in the society. So they must either  overlook observing the precepts of Law in the society and about the others, and accept to stop practicing religion in the society; or stick to force and violence to execute religious criteria in the society. Traditionalist Moslems often accepted the first solution while Fundamentalist Moslems referred to the second. Applying the first solution leads to  the surrender of the Traditional Islam to Modernity in the society and its withdrawal towards a private life. But this is by no means the end, since Traditionalist Moslems have no convincing proof not to practice social precepts of Islam and those of the Law as against the other people, which to them are within the scope of fixed and permanent precepts of Islam. Yet the   problems of Fundamentalist Moslems using force to implement the precepts of Law are far more numerous, and thus leads to introducing an unpleasant and fearful face of Islam. And the solution used by Traditionalist Moslems introduces Islam as weak and feeble.


  The Principles of Compatibility of Islam and Modernity

  Now its time to study another reading of Islam and comparing it with Modernity. This growing reading is the outcome of a group of Moslem thinkers who are known as “the religious intellectuals” in Islamic societies, and they think they have gathered enlightenment and Modernity with Islam. In this procedure, rationality and belief, human rights and divine obligation, individual and social justice, collective reason and religious morality, human mind and divine revelation are living peacefully together. The religious intellectuals have accepted the message of Islam along with the essence of Modernity. Characteristics of“Intellectual  Islam” or the principles of compatibility of Islam and Modernity can be mentioned as follows:


First Principle:

Comparing with the Official Islam which had been “Formalist”, the Intellectual Islam is “Teleological”, and believes that all religious precepts, holy rites and propositions are in the service of a lofty goal. Generally speaking, this lofty goal is “Human Dignity” which is also referred to as nearness to God or final prosperity. All Islamic commandments, prohibitions, rites, precepts and propositions are partial goals which are align with that final goal and lofty ambition. Religion in its entirety is moving towards a lofty ambition to the deliverance and perfection of man. The value of religious acts and rites is known only when this alignment is secured. In other words, the appearance is a covering through which one can arrive at the core. Religious goals are constant, permanent, beyond time and space, but the tools and precepts carrying these goals differ in various circumstances.
So it is quite natural that those precepts which could fulfill the need of religion’s final goal at the advent of Islam and the following centuries, cannot now fulfil such need. So these precepts are time-bound and temporary. These temporary precepts can be found both within the precepts issued by Moslem jurists that may be known as consensus precepts and those issued by the holy Prophet . It means that not all traditions of the holy Prophet contain constant and permanent precepts of Islam. The Prophet has also issued precepts bound to his time and circumstance. Following him sincerely by no means mean following these type of precepts in different circumstances, but saving the core massage of his precepts.
On this basis even the Holy Book – the Holy Qur’an – contains both types of Islamic precepts. In other words the Holy Qur’an  abounds in constant, universal, beyond-time and space precepts, yet not all its sayings and propositions are of this type. There are also some propositions in the holy Qur’an which only refer to the time that had been sent down. The holy Qur’an and the Prophet had to have an eye on the problems of the advent of Islam, and there is no evidence that the problems belonging to the advent of Islam can be applied to all times and circumstances. A posteriori study and logical deduction show that there are temporary precepts and sayings which are bound to the time the holy Qur’an had been sent down. Precepts of slavery, forms of punishments, some forms of crusade (al-Jihad), some forms of discrimination in women’s rights and non-Moslem rights are among these temporary precepts.
From another point of view, language is also a historic phenomenon. There are some limitations on the language such as being bound to history even if the divine revelation and the word of God are amalgamated into the language.
Anyway there is a need for every religious precept, which is said constant, permanent and beyond time to be proved; yet it is a difficult job. The religious intellectuals believe Moslem jurists had treated temporary precepts available in verses and traditions as constant and permanent ones, and most problems Moslems have in contemporary time have been derived from this point.

Second Principle:

Although in some Islamic schools of religion the “reason” is explicitly considered as one of the sources of inference, but in “Historic Islam” reason does not play a considerable role. Reason at its best can discover the religious precept,  and nothing more, and since certain rational precepts are rare, and due to incompetence of probable reason there is no prominent role for reason in the present manifestation of religion. The religious intellectuals referring to the probable nature textual implications of religious sources (the Book, the Tradition, the Consensus), criticize the aforesaid approach, and do not accept the rejection of reason because it is probable. They believe that this statement “The goal of no religious precept could not  be understood by human reason” is not right. Of course they don’t claim they have understood the ration of all religious precepts, but most religious precepts especially nearly all non-ritual precepts can  be discussed rationally.
Religious precepts had been rational justifiable at the time of their coming down, understood and justified based on that time’s rational custom, not accepted simply because God or the Prophet had said them, but had been accepted because they had by nature been rational. Many of these propositions in the form of Qur’anic verses or traditions of the Prophet had caused the infidels to accept Islam. They accepted them due to their rational and correct content, and the validity of these saying had proved the validity of those who said them and not the reverse. Those who received Islamic precepts at the advent of Islam had found these precepts consistent with those days’ custom, just and superior to all other solutions. If nowadays a precept is supposed to be attributed to religion and be considered as an “Islamic precept”, then it should be evaluated as rational justifiable, just and superior to all other solutions, based on today’s rational custom.
This word means that religious propositions can be discussed about, and more important point is they are criticizable, comparable and measurable. Moslems must be able to defend the criteria and precepts of their religion in a rational justifiable way, and have enough rational justifiability for their religious precepts when they encounter other solutions. Every religious precept, which is considered as unjust today or in contradiction the precept of the certain reason is invalid, even if it had once been regarded as religious precept. So as it is possible to cancel a religious precept by textual arguments such as the Book and the Tradition, it is also possible to cancel it by rational arguments. In fact cancellation of the religious precept indicates that the validity of the precept is temporary and ending.
If one does not accept such validity for rational argument, and denies the outstanding role of reason religious inference and understanding religious propositions, then this means that he considers precept of Law and religious propositions as acts of worship, imitation, rationally  unjustifiable, and also not the subject to research and discussion. Should such an approach have a room in traditional and historic Islam, it was not accepted in intellectual Islam. The religious intellectuals believe that the diversion of the Islamic culture and civilization started when rationalist movement of Mu’tazili  was crushed by the conservative manners of Ash’ari. The Islamic intellectuality  is in fact the continuation of the same Mu’tazili rationalism.
The holy Book – The Qur’an – has frequently emphasized rationality, and asked its critics to offer “arguments”. So it is quite reasonable that others have the same expectation from Moslems to prove the bases of their religion through argumentation. Argumentation is nothing but arriving at a rational interaction; offering arguments means accepting the rationality. The scholars of the traditional Islam also believe that imitation is not allowed within the scope of beliefs, and a Moslem should offer argument to what he believes. In other words there is no doubt in rationality of the beliefs. Rites and worshipping matters also follow the rule of love and sympathy. But the difference between traditional Islam and intellectual Islam appears in non-worshipping precepts of Law which in jurisprudence referred to as “affairs”(al-Moa’melat) and includes all legal affairs such as civil law, trade law, criminal law, constitutional law, and international law.
To the intellectual Islam, this part of religion (rules of affairs or legal part) is not merely related to imitation and absolute obeying, and believe that rational perception is also valid in this area. In other words they consider this important part of religion as  function  of rational justifiable rules, and regards many of the religious precepts in this area such as temporary, changing and abolished, through implementing this rule and its related rule, i.e. justice. On the contrary, traditional Islam accepts one as a Moslem only when he practices the legal rules of the time of the Prophet through assuming all the precepts as constant and permanent. It is clear that intellectual Islam requires another new discipline of principals of jurisprudence to generalize the rational justifiable method over the legal part of the religion. The discipline, which will be the basis of the rational justifiably   of Law. In fact, this rational justifiably is the driving force behind the new exertion.
It is clear that definition of such rational justifiably, as well as boundaries of its validity, and the method of evaluating it, are subjects which require technical investigation apart from epical addresses. To which approach of Modern rationality is this rationality closer and to which is it farther? How can the justice, which is the axis of precepts of Law, be defined, and where does it stand among the new classifications of justice? In this run, the intellectual Islam  has a long way off, it’s just the beginning.

Third principle:

One of the most important differences between traditional Islam and intellectual Islam is the amount of interfering with other people’s belief in religion. If one member of the society does not observe Islamic criteria, are the other members of the society allowed to make him to observe such criteria? Can force be also used in this regard and the Law be performed at any price? Sticking to religious precepts such as commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong (al-Amro bel-Ma’rouf va annahyo anel-Monkar), crusade (al-Jihad), and religious punishments whether determined by Law (al-Hodoud) or upon the discretion of the Islamic ruler (Ta’zirat), the traditional Islam argues that where people don’t practice their religious duties,  it is allowed to use threat, force and even violence, to a necessary extent, to make them do so.  Divine criteria and commandments must be observed anyway.
Intellectual Islam regards the society made by the traditional Islam as a closed society which is founded on the basis of compulsion and pressure, and believes that what is performed through compulsion is the outward form of religion, hollow inside. Religious faith is not attained through force. Faith has a nature of love, and circulars and orders cannot make people lovers. Through compulsion and pressure the outcome would be hypocrisy and double-dealing instead of religious faith; and a sort of La’icity and indifference towards religious obligations instead of performing the religious obligations will arise.
Everyone is entitled to be hard on himself so far as he requires, but on the “others”, we are not allowed to impose anything – though quite right to us – so far as he or she is not willing to. The relation “I-Other” is one requiring freedom and freewill. Use of force and violence is absolutely forbidden in such a relation. As I am free to choose my religion and style of life, so is the “other”. If I find the others’ choice as incorrect then I am not allowed to force him to accept what I believe as right. In such a case I can, and let’s say even it is my duty to provide situations in which he gets convinced and corrects his way freely on his own accord. But in case he or she is not satisfied, I am not allowed to use force or violence to convince him or her. He has knowingly chosen what I consider as wrong and will pay for that in the other world. Commanding what is right and forbidding what is wrong means nothing but the need for providing cultural and social conditions required for doing good deeds and making the utmost cultural and legal barrier to prevent evil deeds. No citizen is allowed to use force and violence to guide or correct people so far as the government exists. “Convincing Islam” is the outcome prescribed by the intellectual Moslems and the result of traditional Islam is “compulsory Islam”.
The intellectual Moslems say that without respecting the individuality and freedom of choice human dignity cannot be respected. It is clear that based on the freedom of choice, what have been chosen by others, may not necessarily be right to us. The only thing, which can limit this freedom of choice, is a just law;  a law which is laid down by every member of the society, i.e. a democratic law. So any exercise of force and compulsion on people in the name of religion or Law is forbidden. On this basis individuals’ freedom of choice will remain secure from others’ aggression, and no one is entitled to interfere in others’ lives, supposing it his religious duty, let alone assault and battery. We should bear in mind that the right of freedom of choice is a disposable matter, so that one can say once they chose something, they have to keep themselves observing it forever. Rather it is a permanent right, people can annul their previous choice, or choose some parts of the whole religion to act upon. The title merely means being allowed and does not necessarily mean correctness. It is their right, but it doesn’t mean they are right. Not recognizing this right means prescribing force, violence and compulsion in the religion which is inconsistent with the perpetual rule of “There is no Compulsion in Religion” (Qur’an 2/256).

Forth Principle:

Now it is the time we posed a more difficult question. The three mentioned questions indicated the differences between intellectual Islam and traditional Islam. The intellectual Moslem rejected dogmatism in interpreting the holy text, accepted rational justifiably in understanding religion, and recognized individuals’ freedom of choice, and thus entered into the modern world. The forth point distinguishes between religious and non-religious intellectuals The intellectual religious are distinguished from La’ic(non-religious) intellectuals at least in three cases:

First, religious people including religious intellectuals (Moslem, Christian or Jewish) are living faithfully in their private lives, believe in God and in the other world, and follow religious styles in their moralities and are people of prayer, following God and religious rites.
  Secondly, the religious intellectuals are bound to religious morality in public domain and in interaction with the others. What is more important, is their practical adherence to religious criteria. If thought, temperament and style of the religious intellectuals are welcomed by the members of a society,  and the majority of this society are convinced that through this method they can attain prosperity much more, then on one hand these type of religious intellectuals and believers will democratically be the agents in public domain, and on the other hand the society will freely and willingly accepts to respect religious criteria and values in their rules and regulations – which are welcomed by the members of the society. For example in such a society homosexuality, extra marital affairs, especially sex before marriage, generalizing sex and violence through mass media, and abortion except in emergency cases are forbidden through democratic ways, or legally defend teaching religious thoughts in public primary schools.
Thirdly, in such a society public policy making is definitely influenced by religious values and criteria. Public policy making is a different issue from law making and is even beyond that. The religious people and the believers try to observe human dignity, justice and morality in public policy making. Solutions such as democracy and human rights have not been able to compensate for morality, justice and dignity. These solutions are necessary, but not enough. This is exactly where Alexis de Tocqueville(1805-1859), the French thinker, has reiterated the need of democracy in religion. Where national interests are inconsistent with human rights, justice, morality and human dignity, what is there other than religious faith and moral conscience to put these high human values over national interests? Or where Gross Domestic Product of a country is attained at the price of reducing to poverty of  other countries, what is there to denounce such development other than  religious conscience and morality?

In the first case (pious private life),  non-religious intellectuals have no problem with  the believers, but in the second and third cases (observing religious criteria and values in law making and public policy making), they strongly oppose and insist that Modernity requires that we consider religion as a private affair and keep it away from interfering in public domain absolutely. So modernity is inseparable essential to Secularism. It means that law making and public policy making are completely separated from the religion. The nature of Modernity is of a Secular nature and accepts no religion and creed even if the majority of the society ask for such values and regulations to be observed, since in such a case the right of the minority who don’t believe in that religion will be trampled. So no one is entitled to violate the essence and nature of Modernity which is Secular rationality.
On the contrary, the religious intellectuals argue that this the right of all individuals of the society to enact the law in whatsoever way they desire or draw up the public policy making. It is clear that firstly the minority must be able to change himself into the majority, and when they are welcomed by the society, they are entitled to draw up the law and public policy making based on their own regulations and values.Secondly the basic rights including right to life, right to freedom of opinion, right to determine one’s own destiny, right to just legal procedure are preserved for all people. So dictatorship of the majority and violation of the rights of minority have never taken place.
There is no unique rationality accepted by religious and non-religious intellectuals in their different points of view. Several examples of these differences were mentioned regarding law making and public policy making. Philosophically speaking, the reasons are correspondent. Each party offers their own rational proofs, which are not acceptable to the other and do not convince them anyway. In such cases the practical solution – not the theoretical one – as to which method should govern the society is the democratic solution, which is referring to the majority. That the religious people have no right to attend to their own religious values and criteria in law making and public policy making in cases where the rational proofs are correspondent –  although they assume power through democratic ways and for a determined period of time and supported by the majority of the society on that time – is a “Modern Taboo” , a “Dogma” which is not proved at all. That the red line for Modernity is Secularism, and religious societies are bound to accept rules and political policies which they believe are totally wrong, is nothing but sticking to force and imposing postulates as rationality. There is no essence and nature for Modernity that one should be worried about losing them. If there is essence or nature for something, they belong to real matters not nominal ones. Besides, modernity is not sacred that one may concern about trampling its holiness.
We should bear in mind that the Modernity- which is available in the West- requires such condition as being Secular. But is it necessary that the Islamic societies follow the same way the American and European countries have taken? Critical encounter with Modernity (rather than being absorbed in it) requires that intellectual Moslems   stress the important point that, as mentioned before, they deeply regard themselves as Moslems and also quite modern – although based on their own method. Islam is neither the property of traditional Moslems, so that we may concern about losing Islam if they oppose; nor is Modernity the exclusive property of the Laic and non-religious intellectuals, so that we may worry about losing Modernity if they oppose. The intellectual Islam is growing in all Islamic societies, though traditionalists, fundamentalists and the Laic intellectuals may oppose. No one can ignore that. It is a fact.



  • Habermas, Jurgen; Modernity, An In-completed Project ;(Waugh,Patricia; Postmodernism :A Reader; London, Edward Arnold, 1994, Ch.15.
  • MacIntyre, Alasdair C.; Whose Justice? Which Rationality? ;University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, Indiana; 1988.
  • Tocqueville, Alexis de; Democracy In America; Translated by George Lawrence, Edited by Max Learner, J.P.Mayer, New Haven, Conn., 1960, Sec.2, Chapter 7.
  • Cahoone, Lawrence (Editor); From Modernism To Postmodernism, An Anthology; Blackwell Publisher; 1996; Sec. 2&3.


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