Can Islam and Modernity Be Reconciled?

By Hunter, Shireen T. | Insight Turkey, July 2009 | Go to article overview
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Can Islam and Modernity Be Reconciled?


Hunter, Shireen T., Insight Turkey


The birth of modernity in northwest Europe is generally dated to the middle of the eighteenth century, although sometimes it is considered to have begun in the seventeenth century with the publication of Rene Descartes's Discourse on the Method in 1637. However, the advent of modernity was not as abrupt as the above may indicate. Rather, it was the outcome of a long process beginning as early as the Renaissance. Nevertheless, intellectual movements of the late seventeenth and early to mid eighteenth centuries known as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason were the main wellspring of modernity (1)

Modernity is an equivocal term, and is often confused or conflated with modernism, or even modernization. In the context of this paper, however "modernity" refers to a philosophical approach to certainty that relies on reason rather than revelation and the legal, political and ethical values emanating from it and the socio-political and economic systems build upon them.

Today, with the advantage of perspective, students of this phenomenon can see far more organic connections among disparate developments that led to the birth of the modern. However, those whose acts in various intellectual, religious, cultural and economic spheres led to the birth of the modern did not do so with a clear intention of ushering into a new age. The conscious efforts to embrace the modern and to modernize belong to those societies that were not involved in the early intellectual and socio-economic processes which culminated in the birth of the modern.

This time lag between the birth of the modern in north-western Europe in the mid eighteenth century, and its spread to other parts of the European continent, the new world in the Americas, and much later to the non-European world, accounts for vast differences in various countries's and cultures's experience of the modern and the way they have tried to embed it in their own cultural environment.

For example, in Europe, although the Protestant movement in Germany under the inspiration of Martin Luther is considered as being a main factor behind the birth of the modern, the German experience with aspects of modernity began later than that of England and Holland, and in some respects, to that of France. In fact, Germany, in terms of economic and industrial modernization, had to achieve in fifty years what Britain had achieved in 200 years. This lapse in the timing of modernization and hence the speed in which it had to be achieved has considerable socio-economic consequences, most of which are disruptive. This time difference in the modernizing experience of southern European countries has been more pronounced and their consequences more disruptive. One important characteristic of the late modernizing countries has been the lack of the democratic and participatory dimensions of modernity until quite late. For instance, countries like Spain, Portugal, and Greece were dictatorships well into the 1970s. Some south-eastern European countries even today cannot be considered fully modern. (2)

The encounter and experiences of Russia and non-European countries, including Japan which for a long time was seen as perfect and successful blending of traditional values and virtues and modernity, have been even more complex. Even today, countries like China and Russia cannot be considered fully modern because democratic and participatory politics and an emphasis on the natural rights of the individuals are essential components of modernity.

Moreover, in countries that were the birthplace of the modern, notably England, the process occurred gradually, with the physical and intellectual aspects of modernity evolving in an organic fashion. Consequently, the process of modernization was not excessively disruptive and negative reactions to its disruptive dimensions were muted. By contrast, in late modernizing countries where modernization was an imitative process and carried in a more compressed time frame, the process has been more disruptive and negative reactions to it stronger, and this has led to socio-political movements based on the idea of return to traditional ways of life.

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