Islamic Studies Modernism
John O. Voll
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0051


The term modernism refers to efforts to create a synthesis combining existing and continuing traditions of culture and society with the new perspectives, methodologies, and structures of modernity. Modernism represents one distinctive approach among the many possible types of intellectual, religious, and ideological approaches by individuals and groups in the modern era. It is part of a broad spectrum of perspectives ranging from a rejection of the continuities of tradition to a rejection of the changes represented by “modernity.” Modernism and debates about “the modern” are an important part of religious life and thought in the modern era. These experiences are not limited to one or two religions, but instead, as was argued in the prescient and well-informed "Modernism as a World-wide Movement", written in 1925 by A. Eustace Haydon, “all the religions of the world have been shocked into awareness of a strange and startling transformation of the religious problem of the planet. Modernism is now a world-issue.” Haydon also gave a clear, if emotive, definition of modernism: “In one sense modernism is the struggle of the future to free itself from the clinging hands of a dying past; in another it is the anxious effort to adjust old values to a new era of larger knowledge and more complex activity.”

Early Studies

The foundations for Islamic modernism were laid by a group of important scholars and public intellectuals in the second half of the 19th century. Although the major centers where the new perspectives and methods were being articulated were in the eastern Arab world, especially in Egypt and British India, there were other important beginnings in the Ottoman Empire (outside of Egypt), Russian Central Asia, and Iran. Some of the most important groups came to be identified as “Salafiyah” (or “Salafiyya”), although 21st-century journalistic accounts use this term to refer to groups far removed from these early Islamic modernists. The detailed discussion of the historical Salafiyah provided in Shinar and Ende 1995 is a necessary antidote to current journalistic usage. The conception of “modernity” has also evolved from being identified exclusively with Western civilization and “Westernization.” Early Islamic modernists accepted this identity, but later, many came to think that modernity could take different forms, and many scholars began to think in terms of “multiple modernities.” This concept was articulated by S. N. Eisenstadt and developed in terms of an “Islamic modernity” by a number of scholars (see Multiple Modernities 2000 and Lapidus 1987). Important analyses of Islamic modernism in the middle of the 20th century, such as Gibb 1947 and Smith 1957, tend to view the movements within the framework of a Westernizing modernity. The important transition to understanding the possibility of a distinctively Islamic modernity can be seen in Lichtenstadter 1958.

  • Gibb, H. A. R. Modern Trends in Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947.

    This study was very influential in shaping the assessment of Islamic modernism following World War II. Gibb spoke of the “paralyzing romanticism” of the modernists of that time, but he was confident that Muslim scholars would create an effective synthesis of Islam and modernity.

  • Haydon, A. Eustace. “Modernism as a World-wide Movement.” Journal of Religion 5, no. 1 (1925): 1–13.

    DOI: 10.1086/480480

    Provides a very helpful introduction to the debates about “the modern” in the major world religions during the 1920s, when the issues were being clearly defined and Western-style modernity seemed triumphant. Concentrates on issues raised by “modern science” and “machine-driven civilization.”

  • Lapidus, I. M. “Islam and Modernity.” In Patterns of Modernity. Vol. 2, Beyond the West. Edited by S. N. Eisenstadt, 89–116. New York: New York University Press, 1987.

    Provides an important portrait of Islamic modernity and the issues involved in understanding the cultural dynamics of Islamic modernisms.

  • Lichtenstadter, Ilse. Islam and the Modern Age: An Analysis and an Appraisal. New York: Bookman, 1958.

    An early analysis of the shift from viewing modernism as a necessary process of borrowing Western modes to seeing it as part of the process of creating an “Islamic modernity.”

  • “Multiple Modernities.” Special issue, Daedalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 129, no. 1 (Winter 2000).

    Includes an essay by S. N. Eisenstadt defining “multiple modernities” and essays by Nilüfer Göle and Dale Eickelman on Islamic developments within the frameworks of multiple modernities.

  • Shinar, P., and W. Ende. “Salafiyya.” In The Encyclopaedia of Islam. Vol. 8. 2d ed. Edited by C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W. P. Heinrichs and G. Lecomte, 900–909. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1995.

    Provides a careful and thoroughly documented discussion of the original Salafiyah movement as a modernist movement. Deals with North Africa and the eastern Arab world.

  • Smith, Wilfred Cantwell. Islam in Modern History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957.

    An important study emphasizing the importance of religious reformers at a time when the advocates of modernization theory (both in the West and in the Muslim world) were predicting the decline of “religion.” Smith examines the challenges faced by both “religious” modernists and “secularist” modernizers.

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