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Modernism and Traditionalism in the sense of basic life attitudes are universal concepts. Every religion in every age has its modernists and traditionalists. In this paper, however, I propose (a) to elucidate the contemporary western meaning of modernity and traditionalism in the sphere of religion and then show how far this conception of religious modernity applies to Islamic modernism and traditionalism; (b) in the place of the 2-dimensional modernist-traditionalist framework suggest a multi-dimensional framework for accommodating the different religious approaches found in contemporary Islam; (c) elucidate the relationship between traditionalism and modernism in general with special reference to Islam.

The word 'modernism' was first used to describe certain tendencies in late 19th Century Protestant Christianity. Ever since then considerable progress has been made in the philosophy, sociology and semantics of religion. Thus modernity in religion now signifies something more than modernism in the original Christian sense, namely (a) emphasis on rationalism and the scientific method, (b) abjuration of dogma and supernaturalism, (c) higher criticism of the Bible. Religious modernity in the contemporary sense is a development of the above line of thinking.


The following points constitute its essential features:

(1) Stress on the fully integrated human personality as distinguished from a fragmented or compartmentalized one. This integration takes into account all the dimensions of human experience like reason, feeling, morality, etc. without suppressing any basic existential or personality need.

(2) Distinction between religious experience and its conceptual interpretation.

(3) Distinction between the essential core and the concrete gestalt of a religion.

(4) Distinction between salvation in the sense of continuous spiritual growth and in the sense of the 'saving' of souls in life after death.

(5) Distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values.

(6) Stress on the cultivation of basic spirituality rather than any one of its diverse forms as represented by particular religions.

(7) Emphasis on spiritual autonomy and the reconciliation of any possible conflict with religious authority.

(8) Emphasis on ceaseless creativity of values and extra dimensional progress as distinguished from the conservation of values and intra-dimensional progress. In other words, the stress is on creative fidelity rather than mechanical conformity to the past.

The above-mentioned eight points sum up the essential features of religious modernity in the West and are more or less self-explanatory. I shall however, comment on the first three points which are foundational:

The concept of the dimensional integration of personality is a much more inclusive and richer concept than of rationalism. Full integration includes the cultivation of reason but is not reducible to it. The hallmark of 19th century religious modernity in the West was rationalism, which was a legacy of the previous age of reason and enlightenment in Europe. But this mono-dimensional approach has given way to a multi-dimensional approach.

The second basic feature of religious modernity is the distinction between religious experience and its conceptual interpretation. This distinction applies to all forms of human experience and not merely the religious. Religious modernity emphasizes the significance and role of both experience and interpretation in the religious sphere. But, it insists that the two should not be confused as is actually the case with most popular conceptions of different religions. Religious experience is sui-generis and cannot be reduced without remainder to other forms of experience like the aesthetic, the moral and the logical etc. Hence, religious modernity is hot synonymous with pure ethecism or humanism, which are attempts to reduce religion to the purely ethical dimensions of human experience. Religious modernity does not accept humanism or ethical religion as fully adequate, because of their reductionist approach to the purely religious dimension of human experience. Man's growth remains incomplete without the flowering of his potential spirituality or spiritual sense as distinguished from his moral potentiality or moral sense. The distinction between the spiritual and the moral sense is analogous to the distinction between the moral and the aesthetic sense. The quest for the existential interpretation of man's experience is a deeply engrained human personality need. Like religious experience, this quest is also sui-generis and different from the quest of scientific explanation. Mere descriptive knowledge and scientific explanation do not fully satisfy man's yearning for an existential interpretation or significance of the human situation within the total cosmic context. This interpretation, however, is a distinct activity from the original and primary religious experience of man as such. Most religious persons do not make any distinction between religious experience and its interpretation. Consequently, they suppose that the denial of their particular interpretation amounts to a denial of the experience as such. Moreover, they are not aware of the essential relativity of all interpretation to socio-cultural space-time. In other words the popular traditionalist believers of different religions remain unaware of (a) the distinction between experience and interpretation, (b) the organic connection of the interpretation with the socio-cultural conditions and the inherited conceptual framework of the society in which a particular religion grows.

The systematic conceptual interpretation of religious experience is essential and indispensable. The supposed self-sufficiency of mere morality or even religious experience is a romantic illusion born of difficulties or rather man's despair at arriving at a final and universally acceptable conceptual interpretation of the human situation.

Sober religious modernists in the West like Whitehead, Bergson, Hocking, Tillich, Niebuhr, Marcel and Buber etc. thus do not reject a metaphysical or philosophical theology, as superfluous, but attempt to reconstruct the basic religious concepts of the Christian or Jewish tradition. Their aim is to remove the conceptual difficulties that flow from the traditional meaning given to such concepts as God, son of God, creation, revelation, prophecy, providence, and grace, etcetera. Such reconstruction has always been attempted by all creative interpreters of the different religious traditions. But the distinguishing feature of modern and contemporary religious reconstruction is that it must be done under the umbrella of science and the scientific method.

(3) The third foundational feature of religious modernity concerns the distinction between the essential core and the concrete gestalt of a religion. This distinction has been suggested and developed as a result of the growth of sociology of religion on the one hand, and the phenomenology of religion on the other. The sociology of religion shows that all religious traditions have socio-economic determinants as well as dimensions. The phenomenology, of religion, on the other hand, draws our attention to the nature of the essential core of the total religious gestalt. This core consists of a thought-cum-value system in organic interaction with the general conceptual framework prevalent in the parent society in which the religion originates. This thought system is the same as the conceptual interpretation mentioned above.

The value system underlies concrete rules, regulations and precepts of a particular religion and should not be equated with these concrete rules etc. The thought system and the value system jointly entail the precept system of a particular religion and give meaning to its symbolic life. The concrete gestalt of a religion, on the other hand, is influenced by the concrete conceptual and social soil in which the religion grows. The concrete personality or gestalt of different religions however includes a system of institutions over and above the thought-cum-value system, even as a living organism has secondary qualities distinct from its essential attributes.

The practical significance of this apparently academic distinction is crucial. Once this distinction is conceptually registered, we are at once liberated, as it were, from an emotional fixation upon a particular cultural gestalt whether Islamic, Christian or Hindu. The confusion between the pure essence and the accidents of its concrete exemplification in social space-time is removed. The 'Idea of Islam' in the Platonic sense generates both conceptual space and an inner freedom of movement without thereby repudiating Islam. The possibility of conflict between loyalty to the past and aspirations for the future is reconciled. As a member of the kingdom of ceaseless growth, man is liberated from enslavement to the past as distinguished from a creative fidelity to his religious tradition.

The foregoing analysis of Western religious modernity should also throw into relief the profile of its contrary, i.e., religious traditionalism. But the difference between the two is a matter of degrees, rather than of kind, at least as far as Protestant Christianity is concerned. Consequently, the concepts of religious modernity are not totally absent from the traditionalist frame of reference, but are only much less emphasized.


Let us see to what extent the foregoing account of religious modernity applies to Islam. For obvious reasons I shall concentrate on the Indian scene.

All Islamic modernists accept in varying degrees the first three foundational points of Western religious modernity. But in general they are much more cautious and conservative than their Western counterparts, whatever the reason may be,

All Islamic modernists have put a question mark against the traditional or popular Islamic thought system. Sir Syed's Quranic exegesis and commentary represents his attempted reconstruction in the religious thought of Islam, under the impact of Western science and rationalism. Iqbal and Azad also reconstruct the thought-cum-value system in the light of modern Conditions.

The approaches of Sir Syed, Iqbal and Azad in this matter show significant differences. Sir Syed assumes, on the one hand that the Quran as the word of God, could not contain any error and, on the other, he also holds the scientific propositions of his time as indisputable. Consequently, he tried to reconcile any apparent conflict between the two as best as he could. Iqbal and Azad, on the other hand, were never bothered by any such problem, since they held the Quran to be primarily an inspirational document rather than a text book of physics or geography. The portions of the Quran dealing with facts of nature deliberately presupposed the scientific frame of reference prevalent in the age of revelation. Any deviation from that framework would have baffled and mystified the people concerned, instead of helping, them in their religious quest. The spheres of revelation and of scientific knowledge being different, no clash arises between the two. The Quran is the infallible source of value judgments and the fount of wisdom, while the scientific method is the source of all factual judgments and the laws of nature. The later modernists like Sindhi and others accept Azad's standpoint.

Valuable and ambitious as these reconstructions are, they nevertheless fall short of the depth and range of the reconstructive essays of a Whitehead or a Tillich etc. Perhaps one of the reasons for this general shortcoming of Islamic modernism is the lack of pure and professional practitioners among the Islamic modernists. Sir Syed, Afghani, 'Abduh, Iqbal, Azad all were public figures, engaged in extensive political work, unlike their much greater counterparts in the West or classical Islam. Perhaps no Islamic modernist with the exception of Sindhi would accept all the implications or rather the philosophical foundations of the Western concepts of democracy, spiritual autonomy and sovereignty of the people. In the full Western sense of these terms, they cannot be reconciled with the traditional Islamic concept of revelation. The modernist reconstruction of this concept at the hands of Sir Syed, Azad and even Iqbal fails to overcome the conflict or incompatibility between the claims of revelation and man's spiritual autonomy which is the basis of democracy and the sovereignty of the people. Possibly only Sindhi comes to grips with this very delicate problem. May be Waliyu’llah in the 18th century had also done so. But unfortunately my very meager study of Waliyu'llah prevents me from being positive about it. However, the thought system of classical Muslim philosophers like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd etc. embraced this delicate theme of revelation. The concepts of Nous, Agent Intellect, First Intellect etc. and the grades of emanation and illumination etc. were nothing but their bold and honest attempts to construct a critical theory of revelation and its relationship with reason. In this respect these medieval Muslim thinkers are much more modernist than Islamic modernists like 'Abduh, Sir Syed, Iqbal, etc.

The main tasks that Islamic modernists have set for themselves are concerned more with a critique of the status of Hadith on the one hand, and on the other, with the implications of the distinction between the core and gestalt of Islam. Here their approach and achievements are creditable. Let us consider these two points separately.

All modernists concede that while Hadith is very important for living the good life, it is not binding in the sense in which the Quran is. All Islamic modernists would perhaps vacillate in their attitude, should any part of the Quran may contradict plain commonsense, clear observation, or one's conscience. But they would not hesitate to reject any Hadith that may come in this category even if it satisfied all the canons of authenticity prescribed by the science of Hadith.

Theoretically, the status of the word of the prophet has always been lower than that of the word of God. It is significant that for the first almost two hundred years no attention was paid to the collection and arrangement of Hadith. In this period Islamic jurisprudence (Fiqh) was the only discipline that supplemented the Quran. It is also significant that the school of the greatest Muslim jurist Imam Abu Hanifa (d. 767) was known as the school of reasoned opinion (Ahlu'r-Ra'y). But later on when the other schools of jurisprudence emerged and differences of opinion arose, the attention of scholars and theologians was naturally drawn to the possibility of using Hadith as a criterion of validity. It was in the period after Bukhari (d. 870) that the concept of revelation or Wahy was developed. This led to the distinction (in my humble opinion extremely uncalled for and invalid) between the 'open' and 'implicit' revelation (Wahy-'i-Khafi and Wahy-i-Jali). Be this as it may, the logic of these theological developments is quite clear. The interpretation of Hadith as an implicit revelation certainly raises the status of the word of the prophet, making it barely distinguishable from the word of God. If the Quran was openly revealed, while the Hadith was implicitly revealed, then for all practical purposes, the Quran and the Sunna become the joint final authority. In other words, Quran and Hadith become the ultimate court of appeal and the infallible criterion of validity.

Bukhari and other traditionalists certainly held that in the case of an irresolvable conflict between the word of the prophet and the word of God, the latter was to prevail. But since the Quran confines itself to general principles, broad precepts and value judgments, numerous concrete details of hadith could not possibly be judged according to the above criterion. Consequently, they tended to acquire practically the same status as the word of God. It was at this time that the doors of re-interpretation or Ijtihad were closed. One of the essential features of Islamic modernism is, therefore, a vigorous protest against this closure, as well as against the practical nullification of the distinction between the word of God and the word of the prophet. Different modernists may differ in their assessment of the status of Hadith; but they certainly agree that it cannot be accepted as infallible in the sense in which the Quran is infallible.

Let us now turn to the distinction between the essence and total gestalt of Islam. All Islamic modernists have attempted the task of the distillation of the pure essence of Islam.

The medieval version of Islam had a considerably strong puritanical flavor, resulting in either the prohibition or the discouragement of music, dancing, sculpture, most forms of painting etc. Islamic modernists protest against this Puritanism, and opt for aesthetic liberalism. They stand for the harmonious growth of the human personality without suppressing the aesthetic impulse in man. It is significant that this approach of aesthetic liberalism is not something foreign to the Quran. Rather the contrary approach was foreign to the spirit of the Quran.

Sir Syed was quite clear that dress, food and living habits, marriage customs etc. of the prophet were the accidents of time and place. Certainly, Sir Syed would not have gone to the extent of questioning the validity of social laws expressly found in the Quran. But he insisted that contemporary conditions be taken into account while applying Quranic laws. Sir Syed, thus, would have distinguished between eternal Islam and temporal Mohammadanism. Following this distinction, one could say that the followers of Abraham or Jesus were Muslims without being Mohammadans.

For all his liberalism, however, Sir Syed was acutely class conscious and biased in favor of the upper and middle classes. Even the prospect of adult franchise and equality of opportunity was too heavy a democratic dose for his way of thinking.

Similarly, Iqbal criticized democracy based on the counting rather than the weighing of heads. In spite of his intellectual attainments, Iqbal’s approach to social problems, particularly the position and status of women was out of tune with his dynamic approach in other spheres of life. He shrank back from the full reconstruction of the value system and institutional system of Islam. There was some inexplicable resistance in his mind on this score. To say that his approach to the question of the status of women and other related matters, was influenced by Nietzsche, can be no justification of his stand.

Azad on the other hand, had a more liberal outlook on social matters. Perhaps this was due in large measure to his political affiliations after the First World War. But since he did not write much on such matters during the last twenty-five years of his life, it is difficult to assess the exact degree of his religious modernity.

The names of ‘Ubaydu’llah Sindhi, Niyaz Fatehpuri (d. 1965) Akbarabadi, K. G. Saiyidain, Ajmal Khan, A. A. A. Fyzee, Khalifa Hakim (d. 1959) and Gulam Ahmad Parvez of Pakistan must be mentioned in this context. All the above have a very modernist approach specially Sindhi, who deserves the utmost attention.


In view of what has already been said about Islamic Modernism, only some brief comments will be made on Islamic Traditionalism.

Contemporary Islamic traditionalists like Abu'l Hasan ‘Ali an-Nadwi, Maulana Tayyib, Mawdudi and others are certainly aware of some of the distinctions and concepts that constitute the core of religious modernity. But they do not concern themselves with the implications of these concepts. The traditionalists often chide Muslims for verbally professing beliefs without understanding their implications or acting in accordance with them.  It appears to me that the traditionalists are guilty of the same charge, though the concepts or beliefs may differ in the two instances. Mawdudi, for example, does make a distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values, and also between essence and gestalt, even though his conception of essence may be rather crude.  Yet he totally fails to deduce their implications, or to apply them to the human situation. This is due to his views about Hadith and Sunna. He may allow a few superficial changes or modifications here and there, but he is essentially fixated upon the concrete gestalt of medieval Islam. Hence the revivalist strand in his thought, as distinguished from the traces of conservatism, found in certain aspects of Sir Syed's or Iqbal's outlook. It is a pity that in the estimation of his followers and admirers, Mawdudi, stands for a dynamic Islam.  Unfortunately the word dynamic is a prize or prestige word like democracy, justice, humanism, equality, etc. and hence used very loosely.

The basic limitation of all Muslim traditionalists is their rather uncritical and crude conceptual framework for dealing with religious experience, and relating it with other dimensions of human experience. Their phenomenology and sociology of religion and the conceptual tools, which they habitually employ for the interpretation of religious experience, i.e., their conceptions of God, revelation, creation, etc. fail to remove the intellectual difficulties or dissonances that flow from these concepts. To begin with, the traditionalists are not even aware of all the difficulties. But even when they do register these difficulties, and attempt to overcome them through the reconstruction of these concepts, their attempts lead to patch work structures and half way houses. Due to their lack of consistency and organic unity, they fail in evoking an integrated conceptual response to the mystery of man in the universe. The traditionalists are too involved with the conceptual models of the past to be able to look at them with a measure of critical detachment. Moreover, they presuppose that the slightest change in those models must inevitably destroy or weaken the value structure of Islam. Consequently, in spite of making the distinction between the core and the gestalt of Islam, they fail to see that the core itself is not static or inert like Democritus' or Dalton's atom. The core is rather like the Rutherford's atomic nucleus consisting of a charge of electricity. The implication is that no conceptual model employed by man for the interpretation of his experience can be accepted as final.  But the traditionalists sit conceptually idle. Even our modernists, barring one or two are not sufficiently aware of the depth and range of modifications necessary in the tradition, in order to effect a real break-through in Muslim society. Even the basic values of Islam, like brotherhood, equality, etc. as understood in the ancient and medieval period of Islam require a thorough revision to become alive again for contemporary man exposed to the thought of Marx, Freud and Rostov, etcetera. Unless this is done, many new socio-political and economic patterns are liable to be rejected straightaway by Islamic societies, even though they may be for more effective promoters of the basic intrinsic values of Islam, than the traditional patterns hallowed by time.  It is therefore a matter of deep regret that reputed traditionalists like Abu'l-Hasan ‘Ali an-Nadwi, Tayyib and others should continue to declare that it is not Islam, but the individual Muslim that stand in need of reformation or reconstruction.


The two-dimensional modernist-traditionalist framework though valid in its own way, fails to draw our attention to the different responses or approaches to Islam or any other religion. I have suggested an 8-dimensional framework for this purpose. This scheme can be applied to different religions at every stage of their history. But it applies primarily to the later stage of a religion, when sufficient growth has already taken place. In a sense, there is a tension between modernity and traditionalism at every stage of human history. But the early period of every religion is taken up by the articulation and crystallization of the different facets and strands of the tradition, rather than by the tension between modernity and traditionalism. The reason is that traditionalism presupposes an antecedent tradition which takes time to grow. The tension between modernity and traditionalism does not result in a simple unilinear movement either towards or away from a given tradition. There are separate cycles or spirals of modernity-traditionalism, each cycle consisting of the following stages:

•Felt disvalues of given tradition t1.

•Articulation of protest.

•Growth of momentum of protest.

•Crystallization of new values.

•Inception of a new tradition t2.

•Growth of the new tradition t2.

•Felt disvalues of given tradition t2.

In one sense, the process of crystallization or the formative period of Islam ended in 632 A.D. In another sense, it ended with al-Ghazzali's magnum opus. Ihya’u’l-'Ulum (near 1100 A.D.) which attempted to combine the three major strands or impulses in Islam, after their prolonged crystallization over a period of about 400 years. These are the impulses of rationalism, mysticism and legalism. Each of these impulses took about 150 years for its full unfolding. In yet another sense the formative period of Islam will, or at least, should last forever. There is a very striking analogy between the above three senses of development on the one hand, and the three or four stages of human development on the other. In one sense man is complete at the moment of birth, in another sense he is complete only after the attainment of puberty, while in another and the most important sense, man is never complete, but always continues to grow.

It is thus about 1100 A.D. that the process of articulation of the Islamic genius was completed. At this stage the 8-point scheme becomes fully applicable. The situation remains the same ever since then with the exception of one major or rather crucial development, namely the scientific revolution of the West. The impact of science on Islam is however beyond the scope of this paper.

The following are the patterns of religious response in Islam:

•Selective Reduction.

•Pietistic Conservation.

•Activist Conservation.

•Piecemeal Adjustment.




•Cultural Emergence.

I will make extremely brief explanatory comments on the above types of religious attitudes.

Selective reductionism means that the individual reduces the tradition to a few selected features of the tradition without creating or adding any new features. In other words, he prunes the tradition. An example is 'Abdu'l-Wahhab in the 17th century.

Pietistic conservatism: The individual tries to conserve the tradition as it exists in his age and believes in simple piety and the sincere practice of faith without much ado about socio-political improvements in the environment. Examples are the members of the Tablighi Jamat  in present day India.

Activist Conservatism: The individual believes in not only conservation of the tradition and simple piety etc., but maintains that an active participation in socio-political movements calculated to reform society is a part of their religious duty. Examples are the members of the Jama'at-i-Islami.

Piecemeal adjustment: The individual is dissatisfied with some feature or features of the tradition, but hesitates to undertake any systematic and sustained thinking with a view to come to a definite conclusion. Under-pressure of circumstances however he just makes piecemeal adjustments to remove his difficulties, e.g., the average Indian Muslim today.

Transformationism: The individual is not only highly dissatisfied with the tradition but is also skilful and gifted enough to think independently. In the process, he completely transforms the tradition. Examples are the members of the Baha’i faith.

Substitutionism: The individual is so much attracted by another tradition that he substitutes it entirely, in place of his original religious tradition. Examples are those Muslims who are converted to some other secular or religious faith like Christianity, Communism, etc.

Agnosticism-Nihilism: The individual is utterly perplexed. Nihilism is only the ultimate stage of despair. The individual has no faith left in any system of values. Examples are the Muslim Beatniks, etc.

Emergentism: The individual appreciates the elements of value in the tradition but is dissatisfied with the elements of disvalue. But instead of merely pruning the tradition, he also believes in its creative growth. Cultural emergents combine continuity with change and thus represent the fusion of conservation and creativity. Examples are Sir Syed, Iqbal, 'Ubaydu'llah Sindhi, etcetera.


The creation of new values and the conservation of the old that have stood the test of time are both equally necessary. In fact they depend upon each other. The creation of new values pre-supposes a valuational base or support. Similarly, the effective maintenance of this base demands awareness of the subtle changes in the nuances and rhythms of human experience. Eternal and intelligent vigilance is the price of keeping old values alive in the condition of dynamic interaction with the environment rather than as show pieces in the museum of man's heritage.

Creativity ever spun man to go ahead in the realm of values and to yearn for the better rather than be content with the good. The function of tradition on the other hand, is to strike a note of caution, lest the pace of change increase to the point of giving diminishing returns. The function of tradition is not the stoppage of growth but only the regulation of the speed of growth. The conservative approach thus, has its own function in the economy of human progress, provided it does not over-reach itself.

Creativity and conservation should therefore dovetail into and supplement each other. Without creativity conservation leads to fossilization, while without conservation, creativity leads to irresponsible experimentation. While such adventures in the realm of art and literature may not be injurious, they could prove catastrophic in the realm of moral and social relationships. The new sex morality of Western Europe and America, according to which the game of sex may be played between any two willing parties without any mutual obligation arising there from, has played havoc with the spiritual growth of the contemporary western man. It appears to me that the west is gradually realizing its fallacy and that a more balanced interpretation of sex is in the process of crystallization. Similarly the limitations of different movements like nationalism, capitalism, socialism, scientism, etc. are being acknowledged. Humanity would have been spared countless tears, had the human judgment been more balanced and well informed. But man is neither a mathematician nor a fly in the fly bottle, or a rat in a maze. He is an honest evaluator who commits errors of evaluation. He blunders and pays the penalty in the course of time and gradually forges ahead.

It is precisely man's constant blundering that grips the imagination of the champions of the traditional interpretation of Divine Revelation. They constantly reiterate man's incapacity to regulate his own affairs and point out that the only way open to man is the complete submission to the word of God and the example of His Prophet. These persons are however, not aware of the different meanings of submission to God. They accept only one conceptual model or meaning, namely the model of the dutiful son or subject submitting himself completely to the will of the authoritarian father or king who acts through his agent.

Similarly the traditionalists do not realize that their concept of revelation is based on the conceptual model of human communication through the spoken language.  This model generates its own conceptual difficulties, which the traditionalists tend to ignore in the interest of preserving the integrity of their faith. This evasion of conceptual difficulties has, however, very harmful consequences, though apparently it may serve to keep the faith alive. This type of conceptual pain killing, as it were, leaves man with no intellectual motivation to explore other possible conceptual models for the interpretation of the Prophet's religious or mystical experience of which the Quran is the concrete product. Thus the traditionalist Islamic approach remains unconvincing to the mind alive to the complexities of the human situation. Those individuals whose conceptual framework has kept pace with the continual developments in the natural and social sciences of the modern west have outgrown the conceptual clothes or models which appealed to medieval man whether Muslim, Hindu or Christian. These are the people who yearn for a new language and idiom for the articulation of their own authentic religious experience. It appears to me however, that the Islamic tradition is not a monolithic mausoleum but a garden where a hundred flowers have bloomed, and may still bloom. While getting depressed at the arid deserts of extreme orthodoxy and conservatism that we have to cross in the 1400 year old journey of Islam, we must not lose sight of the magnificent mountains and deep rivers that also greet and cheer the traveler. I refer to such liberal intellectuals as al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ghazali, Ibn-Rushd, Ibn Khaldun, Rumi, Ibnu'l-'Arabi, Khayyam, al-Biruni, etc.  Islamic modernists or those who may reject the Islamic tradition outright, unnecessarily deprive themselves of the resources that ought to have been judiciously harnessed for cultural growth, instead of being indiscriminately spurned.

Every age must look afresh and reinterpret its heritage of concepts and values. The task of revaluation and reconstruction of the Islamic thought-cum-value system will ever remain incomplete as long as man continues to grow and exercise the privilege and the duty of the ceaseless creativity of values.

In the context of Indian Islam such a fresh look by Indian Muslim intellectuals is absolutely essential for giving enlightenment and guidance to the common Muslim who stands totally baffled and perplexed by the antagonistic pulls of theocracy and democracy, clericalism, and secularism, traditionalism and modernity. The average Indian Muslim is more or less a split personality and must be helped to integrate himself. There can be no doubt that the integration promises to be oriented towards modernity rather than traditionalism. Like, it or not, the human family, as a whole is steadily moving in this direction. The angularities and imbalances that are inevitably generated in different societies are also in the process of being corrected, although this process is bound to take a fairly long time to be completed. Different religions are at different stages of modernization, and within the same religion, different groups are likewise at different stages. Even within these groups individual differences obviously exist. But the push of science and the pull of theology are definitely working to the advantage of modernization.

The need of the age is an authentic dialogue between Islamic modernists and traditionalists. The spirit of polemics only generates mutual resistance in both the quarters helping neither the cause of modernity nor the cause of traditionalism. Unfortunately, many Muslim modernists and traditionalists have a genius for giving offence to each other through various devices. The traditionalist is prone to lament over the opportunism and disloyalty on the part of the modernist. The modernist, on the other hand, is irritated at the fixation or rather fossilization of the conservative or traditionalist mind. The way out of this unfortunate predicament lies in greater tolerance and an authentic dialogue between modernity and traditionalism. The outcome of such a dialogue, to my mind, should be the reconciliation between the two through the liberating concept of 'cultural emergents' that combine continuity with change. The effective promotion of this approach is much more difficult than the downright denunciation of modernism or traditionalism, just as, in a very important sense, living the good life is much more difficult than rejecting life through suicide.

The study of the history of other religions is very useful for a deeper insight into our own religion. It is always easier to detect the psychological defense mechanisms and motives of self-interest, etc. in the case of others than in one’s own. The same applies to groups. The limitations of other religions are much more easily grasped than those of one's own. Consequently a critical sociological survey of other religions helps us in a better understanding of the stages and laws of growth of our own culture or religion, its strength and its' limitations. This comparative sociology of religions tends to dissolve our natural ethnocentricity and group self-conceit. Self-conceit prompts us to treat our own religion as a class by itself, and hence exempt from sociological laws that apply only to religions other than our own. Having outgrown this natural ethnocentricity and 'group snobbery', if I may call it, we are in a much better position to appreciate the points of excellence of our own religion and its unique contribution in the economy of the human family at large. Moreover, the realization of the variegated changes wrought by time in the fabric of the religious tradition, sets our creative imagination at work. Fresh visions are stirred that make us forward-looking, and growth-oriented as distinguished from backward looking and tradition-oriented.

Creative growth, however, implies the conservation of the values of the past. Cultural borrowing from others is one of the means of such growth. Early Islam was conspicuous for its spirit of assimilation of Greek, Iranian and Indian cultures. The cross-fertilization of intercultural concepts and values is an ever-recurring world process, though it usually operates at the unconscious level. Its conscious practice, however, does not render it any the least objectionable.

Cultural assimilation need not be confused with imitation or a patchwork synthesis. At its best, cultural assimilation is neither imitative nor synthetic but creative. It pre-supposes a critical evaluation of the culture of others no less than one's own. It is precisely this creative fusion that leads to 'cultural emergents'.

The basic ingredients of the different world religions are essentially the same, namely a thought-cum-value system, a precept system and an institutional system that is certainly an organic part of the total cultural gestalt but not included in the religious core. Provided the genius of a particular religion has been grasped, its basic nuclear content can be preserved and cherished in the midst of a conscious assimilation of other concepts and values without impairing the basic integrity and personality of that religion.

The concepts and values, which to my mind, need to be consciously integrated into a dynamic Islam are the basic concepts and values of Western modernity, and one or two concepts or values of Indian culture. I have described the concepts and values of Western modernity in a paper: What is Modernity? I shall therefore not repeat them here. But the value of 'authenticity' as it has emerged in Western Europe under the stimulus of existentialist thought, was-not included in that paper. Hence, a brief elucidation of this value would not be out of place here, in view of the crucial need for the cultivation of this value irrespective of one's religious denomination.

The contemporary age is the age of spiritual crisis and nihilism. A simple faith, whether in religious or secular values, has become more or less impossible for the sensitive and informed person, unless he first goes through a period of intense self-searching. One is, therefore, sorely tempted to cut short this arduous and long journey in the dark night of the soul in order to reach quickly the haven of faith and certitude. Man is eager to end the painfulness, nay the torture and agony involved in the loss of faith and a naked exposure to a total nihilism. The value of authenticity is an appeal to man not to fall a prey to intellectual dishonesty, self-alienation, and the compartmentalization of his personality, in order to escape doubts or the awareness of conflict between his different attitudes and beliefs.


There is no unbridgeable chasm between modernism and traditionalism. The ideal is to be a growth-oriented person rather than be a traditionalist or modernist in the chronological sense. The growth-oriented approach implies that no one vision, whether of a Ghazali, a Waliyu'llah, or Sir Syed or an Iqbal, or for that matter, Gandhi, Tagore, Russell, Marx or Mao, can be accepted as final. Ghazali’s great synthesis in the 11th century between the strands of rationalism, mysticism and legalism was an achievement even as the Summa of St. Thomas was in later Christendom. Similarly, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Ibn Taymiya, Ibn Khaldun and Waliyu'llah each in his own way has left us with a synoptic vision. But no vision or interpretation can be allowed to become static.

The conceptual interpretation of the totality of human experience is a collective and progressive enterprise that should transcend the barriers of region and time, language and religion. The task of interpretation can never be completed. Human experience grows, yielding fresh factual data. This, in its turn, reacts or should react upon the conceptual interpretation in the lap of which the data first confronted man. This dialogue between experience and interpretation (leading at times to the discovery of fresh facts and at others to the formulation of fresh interpretations) is a part of the unending human adventure or men's quest of value. To give only one example of this dialogue, the conquest of poverty and disease and the control of human population are profoundly modifying, in the Christian framework of ideas, the conception of a Personal God, and, by implication, of revelation. On the other hand, it was the concept of a Supreme and Just Creator that had centuries earlier helped in the emergence of the concepts of cosmos and science. The important thing to note is the organic character of the interpretative framework, which attracts data from every dimension of human experience. This interaction between science and religion is rather marginal in Islam, since the impact of science and technology has just begun. The moment it gains momentum, similar changes are most likely to follow in Islam.

The reconstruction in the meaning of traditional symbols and images' takes time. There may said to be a 'conceptual lag’, just as there is a cultural lag: The concept of conceptual lag makes us tolerant towards the tradition-oriented person. In this respect, the methodological approach of some Western philosophers is also relevant. These philosophers avoid philosophical disputes, holding that different philosophical theories are merely varying formulations of the same set of facts. They differ because they select different facts for emphasis: Hence the important thing is not the verbal formulation but rather the full awareness of the complexity of the situation concerned. Provided this complexity is grasped, any formulation may be retained. This principle may aptly be called the 'principle of formulational tolerance'. This principle together with the concept of conceptual lag should help our modernists in carrying out an authentic and fruitful dialogue with the traditionalists, as recommended above.

The principle of formulational tolerance is not an innovation in the cultural tradition of either Islam or Hinduism. The well-known story of Moses and the Shepherd, in the Mathnawi of Maulana Rumi (d. 1273), is perhaps the most striking and pregnant recommendation for the acceptance of this principle. Indeed, Rumi goes on to say that the violation of this principle leads one to 'conceptual idolatry’, i.e., the worship of one's conception of God, rather than God Himself. Similarly, Waliyu'llah's concept of Tatbiq’ is very fruitful.

Earlier still, both Ghazali and Ibn Rushd had posited the principle of 'formulational dualism'. According to this principle, truth must be communicated to suit the mental level of the hearer. This dualism must lead us to what I call 'formulational pluralism'. This concept releases us from the monopolistic grip of traditional formulations on the one hand, and the formulations or jargon of our own pet interpretative systems, whether Marxism, Positivism, Idealism, Theism, Vedantism or what not, on the other.

Every interpretative or value system no matter who the individual or which the historical tradition has limitations which must be acknowledged and overcome. These limitations are due to the spatio-temporal traces, which cling to the very individual in spite of this creative dynamism. This applies to every historical individual and epoch including the Prophet and the Khilafat-i-Rashida.

The quest of growth must not however blind us to the power of the symbols and images of a tradition. These symbols must be retained and at the same time they must be reconstructed. If the symbols are discarded, the new ideas and values have no legs to stand upon, or no vessels to be poured into. If on the other hand, the symbols are retained, it becomes very difficult to make them first absorb or assimilate and then convey the new ideas and values in question. The symbols cast their shadows and tend to obscure and distort the fresh strings of the human soul. Moreover, even if this difficulty be overcome, there is another dilemma. If the symbols are retained in their traditional sense, the reformer is heard and understood by the group, but the group does not move forward or towards the vision of the leader. If the symbols are nominally or formally retained but their meaning or significance radically altered, he is liable to be charged with hypocrisy by these members of the group who rightly or wrongly have no reason to feel dissatisfied with the traditional meanings of the symbols in question. Every creative individual, therefore, has to solve this predicament. The fear of the charge of hypocrisy should not deprive him of the advantages of his membership of living church or tradition. Provided he feels an emotional involvement with the tradition and genuinely finds many elements of value in the historical personalities and events of that tradition, he should go ahead in the task of the reconstruction of the tradition in question. The charge of hypocrisy cannot after all be treated as more discouraging or demoralizing than the charge of Kufr or apostasy that was the order of the day in medieval times nay, right up to our own.

The charge of hypocrisy will be valid only if the individual distorts his authentic meanings in order to get an audience. But, if the recommended changes in the meanings of the traditional symbols are not concealed but fully and frankly acknowledged, then their employment for facilitating the genuine and creative growth of the community can never be regarded as hypocrisy. Indeed this is the only way to further the cause of Cultural Revolution or emergence. Socrates, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad and Gandhi, and in an important sense even Marx, all have followed the same principle.

Modernism and Traditionalism in Islam
BY Jamal Khwaja

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Jamal Khwaja studied Philosophy in India & Europe. He was elected to the Indian Parliament in 1957. He retired as Professor and Chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Aligarh Muslim University. He is the author of seven major books. 

Khwaja’s work seeks to answer three inter-related questions: Firstly, What does it mean to be an authentic Muslim? Secondly, How should a believer understand and interpret the Holy Quran in the 21st century?  And finally, What is the role of Islam in a pluralistic society? 

Khwaja believes in judiciously creative modernization rooted in the Quran and firmly opposes shallow, unprincipled imitation of the West. His mission is to stimulate serious rethinking and informed dialog between tradition and modernity in Islam. 

Khwaja’s work is the definitive contemporary discussion regarding the collision of Islam and Modernity. Readers of his work will be in turn, informed, inspired, and intellectually liberated.