Islam and Modernity: Are They
Modernity is an equivocal term. In the West, where the term developed, "modernity" is often confused with "modernism," although the two are not synonymous. "Modernity" generally refers to the sociopolitical transformation of Europe that accompanied the scientific and technological developments ensuing from the Enlightenment. That transformation resulted from a shift from reliance on religion as the basis of political legitimacy to a reliance on democracy, and was accompanied by the separation of church and state and the emergence of secularism. "Modernism" refers to a philosophical approach to certainty that relies primarily on reason rather than revelation. It began with Descartes' effort to overcome doubt by identifying self-evident principles, but it is usually identified with Kant's critical analysis of epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic judgments. This intellectual approach to certainty is recognized as the basis for the development of modernity. However, in everyday usage, the meanings of "modernism" and "modernity" are merged. This is particularly evident in the Islamists' discussion of modernity. The Arabic term 'asriya is commonly used to translate "modernity" and "modernism."
In Islamic discourse, modernity/modernism often includes modernization, as well as scientific and technological development. But overall Islamic discussions of modernity focus on the fundamental issues of rationalism, secularism, and democracy. Islamic attitudes toward democracy are discussed elsewhere in this work. (See Chapter 6 in this volume by John O. Voll.) This discussion will focus on Islamic discourse on rationalism and secularism. It will demonstrate that, while there are no inherent barriers in Islam to these elements of Western modernity, the expressions of these phenomena are not necessarily identical in Western and Islamic societies. In particular, Islam's ideology and historical experience result in distinctly Islamic approaches to secularism.