Islamic modernism

Islamic modernism is a movement that has been described as "the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge"[Note 1] attempting to reconcile the Islamic faith with modern values such as democracy, civil rights, rationality, equality, and progress.[2] It featured a "critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence" and a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis (Tafsir).[1] A contemporary definition describes it as an "effort to re-read Islam's fundamental sources—the Qur'an and the Sunna, (the practice of the Prophet) —by placing them in their historical context, and then reinterpreting them, non-literally, in the light of the modern context."[3]

It was one of the of several Islamic movements – including Islamic secularism, Islamism, and Salafism – that emerged in the middle of the 19th century in reaction to the rapid changes of the time, especially the perceived onslaught of Western civilization and colonialism on the Muslim world.[2] Prominent leaders of the movement include Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan, Namik Kemal, Rifa'a al-Tahtawi, Muhammad Abduh (former Sheikh of Al-Azhar University), Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani and South Asian poet Muhammad Iqbal. In the Indian subcontinent, the movement is also known as Farahi, and is mainly regarded as the school of thought named after Hamiduddin Farahi.[4]

Since its inception, Islamic modernism has suffered from co-option of its original reformism by both secularist rulers and by "the official ulama" whose "task it is to legitimise" rulers' actions in religious terms.[5]

Islamic modernism differs from secularism in that it insists on the importance of religious faith in public life, and from Salafism or Islamism in that it embraces contemporary European institutions, social processes, and values.[2] One expression of Islamic modernism, formulated by Mahathir Mohammed, is that "only when Islam is interpreted so as to be relevant in a world which is different from what it was 1400 years ago, can Islam be regarded as a religion for all ages."[6]


Egyptian Grand Mufti, Islamic jurist and theologian Muhammad Abduh.
Indian educationist and philosopher Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898)

Relations with Arab Salafism

During the second half of the 19th century, numerous Muslim reformers began efforts to reconcile Islamic values with the social and intellectual ideas of the Age of Enlightenment by purging Islam from alleged alterations and adhering to the basic tenets held during the Rashidun era. Their movement is regarded as the precursor to Islamic Modernism.[7] The origins of Arab Salafiyya movement from the modernist movement of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh is mentioned by some authors,[8][9][10][11] although other scholars note that Modernism only influenced Salafism.[12] According to Quintan Wiktorowicz:

There has been some confusion in recent years because both the Islamic modernists and the contemporary Salafis refer (referred) to themselves as al-salafiyya, leading some observers to erroneously conclude a common ideological lineage. The earlier salafiyya (modernists), however, were predominantly rationalist Asharis.[13]

Muhammad 'Abduh and his movement have sometimes been referred to as "Neo-Mu'tazilites" in reference to the Mu'tazila school of theology.[14] Some have said Abduh's ideas are congruent to Mu'tazilism.[15] Abduh himself denied being either Ash'ari or a Mu'tazilite, although he only denied being a Mu'tazilite on the basis that he rejected strict taqlid (conformity) to one group.[16]

Egyptian Islamic jurist and scholar Mahmud Shaltut.

According to Oxford Bibliographies, the early Islamic Modernists (al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu) used the term "salafiyya"[17] to refer to their attempt at renovation of Islamic thought,[18] and this movement is often known in the West as "Islamic modernism," although it is very different from what is called the Salafiyya, which generally refers to movements such as Ahl-i Hadith, Wahhabism, etc.[Note 2] Associate Professor of Middle Eastern History at Northwestern University[19] Henri Lauziere disputes the notion that al-Afghani and 'Abduh advocated a modernist movement of Salafism.[20] According to Lauziere:

"...based on what the technical term Salafism meant to Muslim religious specialists until the early twentieth century, al-Afghani and Abduh were hardly Salafis to begin with. No wonder they never claimed the label for themselves.[21]

Islamic Modernism began as an intellectual movement during the Tanzimat era and was part of the Ottoman constitutional movement and newly emerging patriotic trends of Ottomanism during the mid-19th century. It advocated for novel redefinitions of Ottoman imperial structure, bureaucratic reforms, implementing liberal constitution, centralisation, parliamentary system and was supportive of the Young Ottoman movement. Although modernist activists agreed with the conservative Ottoman clergy in emphasising the Muslim character of the empire, they also had fierce disputes with them. While the Ottoman clerical establishment called for Muslim unity through the preservation of the dynastic authority and unquestionable allegiance to the Ottoman Sultan; modernist intellectuals argued that imperial unity was better served through parliamentary reforms and enshrining equal treatment of all Ottoman subjects; Muslim and non-Muslim. The modernist elites frequently invoked religious slogans to gain support for cultural and educational efforts as well as their political efforts to unite the Ottoman empire under a secular constitutional order.[22]

On the other hand, Salafiyya movement emerged as an independent revivalist trend in Syria amongst the scholarly circles of scripture-oriented Damascene ulema during the 1890s. Although Salafis shared many of the socio-political grievances of the modernist activists, they held different objectives from both the modernist and the wider constitutionalist movements. While the Salafis opposed the autocratic policies of the Sultan Abdul Hamid II and the Ottoman clergy; they also intensely denounced the secularising and centralising tendencies of Tanzimat reforms brought forth by the Constitutionalist activists, accusing them of emulating Europeans. Set apart by their status as Ulema, Salafi scholars called for an Islamic solution to the social, political and technological challenges faced by Muslims; by directly turning to the Scriptures. Opposing monarchy and despotism, Salafis envisioned an Islamic state based on Shura (consultative system) and guided by qualified Ulema (Islamic scholars); whose duty was to uphold the pristine Islam of the Salaf al-Salih (pious forebears). Salafi scholars stood for decentralisation, demanded more autonomy to Arab provinces and called for the integration of reformist Ulema to the Syrian political leadership. Both the Salafis and the Ottoman clerical elite were locked in bitter political and religious rivalry throughout the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries, with their fierce polemical feuds often ending in violent clashes. Some of the famous encounters include "Mujtahids incident" of 1896 in which leading Salafi figures like Jamal al-Din Qasimi was put to trial for their claims of Ijtihad, a mob attack by supporters of a Sufi Shaykh on Rashid Rida at the Umayyad Mosque in 1908, detention and arrest of Abd al Hamid al-Zahrawi, raids conducted on the homes of various Salafi scholars like Tahir al-Jaza'iri, etc.[23]


Some themes in modern Islamic thought include:

  • The acknowledgement "with varying degrees of criticism or emulation", of the technological, scientific and legal achievements of the West; while at the same time objecting "to Western colonial exploitation of Muslim countries and the imposition of Western secular values" and aiming to develop a modern and dynamic understanding of science among Muslims that would strengthen the Muslim world and prevent further exploitation.[24]
  • Denying that "the Islamic code of law is unalterable and unchangeable", and instead claiming it can "adapt itself to the social and political revolutions going on around it". (Cheragh Ali in 1883)[25]
  • Invocation of the "objectives" of Islamic law (maqasid al-sharia) in support of "public interest", (or maslahah, a secondary source for Islamic jurisprudence).[26][27] This was done by Islamic reformists in "many parts of the globe to justify initiatives not addressed in classical commentaries but regarded as of urgent political and ethical concern."[28][29][30]
  • Reinterpreting traditional Islamic law using the four traditional sources of Islamic jurisprudence – the Quran, the reported deeds and sayings of Muhammad (hadith), consensus of the theologians (ijma) and juristic reasoning by analogy (qiyas), plus another source ijtihad (independent reasoning to find a solution to a legal question).[31]
    • Taking and reinterpreting the first two sources (the Quran and ahadith) "to transform the last two [(ijma and qiyas)] in order to formulate a reformist project in light of the prevailing standards of scientific rationality and modern social theory."[1]
    • Restricting traditional Islamic law by limiting its basis to the Quran and authentic Sunnah, limiting the Sunna with radical hadith criticism.[Note 3][33]
    • Employing ijtihad not to only in the traditional, narrow way to arrive at legal rulings in unprecedented cases (where Quran, hadith, and rulings of earlier jurists are silent), but for critical independent reasoning in all domains of thought, and perhaps even approving of its use by non-jurists.[34]
  • A more or less radical (re)interpretation of the authoritative sources. This is particularly the case with the Quranic verses on polygyny, the hadd (penal) punishments, jihad, and treatment of unbelievers, banning of usury or interest on loans (riba), which conflict with "modern" views.[Note 4]
    • On the topic of Jihad, Islamic scholars like Ibn al-Amir al-San'ani, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Ubaidullah Sindhi, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, Shibli Nomani, etc. distinguished between defensive Jihad (Jihad al-daf) and offensive Jihad (Jihad al-talab or Jihad of choice). They refuted the notion of consensus on Jihad al-talab being a communal obligation (fard kifaya). In support of this view, these scholars referred to the works of classical scholars such as Al-Jassas, Ibn Taymiyya, etc. According to Ibn Taymiyya, the reason for Jihad against non-Muslims is not their disbelief, but the threat they pose to Muslims. Citing Ibn Taymiyya, scholars like Rashid Rida, Al San'ani, Qaradawi, etc. argues that unbelievers need not be fought unless they pose a threat to Muslims. Thus, Jihad is obligatory only as a defensive warfare to respond to aggression or "perfidy" against the Muslim community, and that the "normal and desired state" between Islamic and non-Islamic territories was one of "peaceful coexistence."[36][37][38] Similarly the 18th-century Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhabdefined Jihad as a defensive military action to protect the Muslim community, and emphasized its defensive aspect in synchrony with later 20th century Islamic writers.[39] According to Mahmud Shaltut and other modernists, unbelief was not sufficient cause for declaring jihad.[38][40] The conversion to Islam by unbelievers in fear of death at the hands of jihadists (mujahideen) was unlikely to prove sincere or lasting.[38][41] Much preferable means of conversion was education.[38][42] They pointed to the verse "No compulsion is there in religion"[Quran 2:256][43]
    • On the topic of riba, Syed Ahmad Khan, Fazlur Rahman Malik, Muhammad Abduh, Rashid Rida, Abd El-Razzak El-Sanhuri, Muhammad Asad, Mahmoud Shaltout all took issue with the jurist orthodoxy that any and all interest was riba and forbidden, believing that there was a difference between interest and usury.[44] These jurists took precedent for their position from the classical scholar Ibn Taymiyya who argued in his treatise "The Removal of Blames from the Great Imams", that scholars are divided on the prohibition of riba al-fadl.[45] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, the student of Ibn Taymiyya, also distinguished between riba al-nasi'ah and riba al-fadl, maintaining that only rib al-nasi'ah was prohibited by Qur'an and Sunnah definitively while the latter was only prohibited in order to stop the charging of interest. According to him, the prohibition of riba al-fadl was less severe and it could be allowed in dire need or greater public interest (maslaha). Hence under a compelling need, an item may be sold with delay in return for dirhams or for another weighed substance despite implicating riba al-nasi'ah.[46]
  • An apologetic which links aspects of the Islamic tradition with Western ideas and practices, and claims Western practices in question were originally derived from Islam.[47] Islamic apologetics has however been severely criticized by many scholars as superficial, tendentious and even psychologically destructive, so much so that the term "apologetics" has almost become a term of abuse in the literature on modern Islam.[Note 5]

History of Modernism


Ottoman intellectual and activist Namık Kemal (d. 1888)

Islamic modernist discourse emerged as an intellectual movement in the second quarter of nineteenth century; during an era of wide-ranging reforms initiated across the Ottoman empire known as the Tanzimat (1839–1876 C.E). The movement sought to harmonise classical Islamic theological concepts with liberal constitutional ideas and advocated the reformulation of religious values in light of drastic social, political and technological changes. Intellectuals like Namik Kemal (1840–1888 C.E) called for popular sovereignty and "natural rights" of citizens. Major scholarly figures of this movement included the Grand Imam of al-Azhar Hassan al-Attar (d. 1835), Ottoman Vizier Mehmed Emin Âli Pasha (d. 1871), South Asian philosopher Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), Jamal al-Din Afghani (d. 1897), etc. Inspired by their understanding of classical Islamic thought, these rationalist scholars regarded Islam as a religion compatible with Western philosophy and modern science. Eventually the modernist intellectuals formed a secret society known as Ittıfak-ı Hamiyet (Patriotic Alliance) in 1865; which advocated political liberalism and modern constitutionalist ideals of popular sovereignty through religious discourse.[50][51] During this era, numerous intellectuals and social activists like Muhammad Iqbal (1877-1938 C.E), Egyptian Nahda figure Rifaa al-Tahtawi (1801-1873), etc. introduced Western ideological themes and ethical notions into local Muslim communities and religious seminaries.[52]


English-educated South Asian lawyer and Islamic poet Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938 CE) called for a reconstruction of Islamic religious thought by differentiating Qur'anic values from its practical expositions in daily life[53]

The theological views of the Azharite scholar Muhammad 'Abduh (d. 1905) were greatly shaped by the 19th century Ottoman intellectual discourse. Similar to the early Ottoman modernists, Abduh tried to bridge the gap between Enlightenment ideals and traditional religious values. He believed that classical Islamic theology was intellectually vigorous and portrayed Kalam (speculative theology) as a logical methodology that demonstrated the rational spirit and vitality of Islam.[54] Key themes of modernists would eventually be adopted by the Ottoman clerical elite who underpinned liberty as a basic Islamic principle. Portraying Islam as a religion that exemplified national development, human societal progress and evolution; Ottoman Shaykh al-Islam Musa Kazim Efendi (d. 1920) wrote in his article "Islam and Progress" published in 1904:

"the religion of Islam is not an obstacle to progress. On the contrary, it is that which commands and encourages progress; it is the very reason for progress itself"[55]

Azharite philosopher 'Ali Abd al-Raziq (1888-1966 C.E), one of the earliest modernist intellectuals who theorized the separation of state from Islamic religion

Commencing in the late nineteenth century and impacting the twentieth-century, Muhammed Abduh and his followers undertook an educational and social project to defend, modernize and revitalize Islam to match Western institutions and social processes. Its most prominent intellectual founder, Muhammad Abduh (d. 1323 AH/1905 CE), was Sheikh of Al-Azhar University for a brief period before his death. This project superimposed the world of the nineteenth century on the extensive body of Islamic knowledge that had accumulated in a different milieu.[2] These efforts had little impact at first. After Abduh's death, his movement was catalysed by the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and promotion of secular liberalism – particularly with a new breed of writers being pushed to the fore including Egyptian Ali Abd al-Raziq's publication attacking Islamic politics for the first time in Muslim history.[2] Subsequent secular writers of this trend including Farag Foda, al-Ashmawi, Muhamed Khalafallah, Taha Husayn, Husayn Amin, et al., have argued in similar tones.[2]

Abduh was skeptical towards many Hadith (or "Traditions"), i.e. towards the body of reports of the teachings, doings, and sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Particularly towards those Traditions that are reported through few chains of transmission, even if they are deemed rigorously authenticated in any of the six canonical books of Hadith (known as the Kutub al-Sittah). Furthermore, he advocated a reassessment of traditional assumptions even in Hadith studies, though he did not devise a systematic methodology before his death.[56]

Tunisian judge Ibn Ashur, author of the work "Maqasid al-Shari'ah al-Islamiyyah" (Objectives of Islamic Law)

Ibn Ashur's Maqasid al-Sharia

Tunisian Maliki scholar Muhammad al-Tahir ibn Ashur (1879-1973 C.E) who rose to the position of chief judge at Zaytuna university was a major student of Muhammad 'Abduh. He met 'Abduh in 1903 during his visit to Tunisia and thereafter became a passionate advocate of 'Abduh's modernist vision. He called for a revamping of the educational curriculum and became noteworthy for his role in revitalising the discourse of Maqasid al-Sharia (Higher Objectives of Islamic Law) in scholarly and intellectual ciricles. Ibn Ashur authored the book "Maqasid al-Shari'ah al-Islamiyyah" in 1946 which was widely accepted by modernist intellectuals and writers. In his treatise, Ibn Ashur called for a legal theory that is flexible towards 'urf (local customs) and adopted contextualised approach towards re-interpretation of hadiths based on applying the principle of Maqasid (objectives).[57][58]


After its peak during the early 20th century, the modernist movement would gradually decline after the Dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s and eventually lost ground to conservative reform movements such as Salafism. From 1919, Western Oriental scholars like Louis Massignon began categorising broad swathes of scripture-oriented rationalist scholars and modernists as part of the paradigm of "Salafiyya"; a theological term which was erroneously perceived as a "reformist slogan".[59][60] Following the First World War, Western colonialism of Muslim lands and the advancement of secularist trends; Islamic reformers felt betrayed by the Arab nationalists and underwent a crisis. This schism was epitomised by the ideological transformation of Sayyid Rashid Rida, a pupil of 'Abduh, who began to resuscitate the treatises of Hanbali theologian Ibn Taymiyyah and became the "forerunner of Islamist thought" by popularising his ideals. Unlike 'Abduh and Afghani, Rida and his disciples susbcribed to the Hanbali theology. They would openly campaign against adherents of other schools, like the Shi'ites, who were critical of Wahhabi doctrines. Rida transformed the Reformation into a puritanical movement that advanced Muslim identitarianism, pan-Islamism and preached the superiority of Islamic culture while attacking Westernisation. One of the major hallmarks of Rida's movement was his advocacy of a theological doctrine that obligated the establishment of an Islamic state led by the Ulema (Islamic scholars).[61][62]

Rida's fundamentalist doctrines would later be adopted by Islamic scholars and Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. According to the German scholar Bassam Tibi:

"Rida's Islamic fundamentalism has been taken up by the Muslim Brethren, a right wing radical movement founded in 1928, which has ever since been in inexorable opposition to secular nationalism."[63]

Contemporary Era

Contemporary Muslim modernism is charactarised by its emphasis on the doctrine of "Maqasid al-sharia" to navigate the currents of modernity and address issues related to international human rights. Another aspect is its promotion of Fiqh al-Aqalliyat (minority jurisprudence) during the late 20th century to answer the challenges facing the growing Muslim minority populations in the West. Islamic scholar Abdullah Bin Bayyah, professor of Islamic studies at King Abdul Aziz University in Jiddah, is one of the major proponents of Fiqh al-Aqalliyat and advocates remodelling the legal system based on the principles of Maqasid al-Sharia to suit the sensitivities of the modern era.[64][65]

Influence on Revivalist movements

Muslim Brotherhood

Islamist movements like Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwān al-Muslimūn) were highly influenced by both Islamic Modernism and Salafism.[66][67][68] Its founder Hassan Al-Banna was influenced by Muhammad Abduh and his Salafi student Rashid Rida. Al-Banna attacked the taqlid of the official ulama and insisted only the Qur'an and the best-attested ahadith should be sources of the Sharia.[69] However, it was the Syrian Salafi scholar Rashid Rida who influenced Al-Banna the most. He was a dedicated reader of the writings of Rashid Rida and the magazine that Rida published, Al-Manar. Sharing Rida's central concern with the decline of Islamic civilization, Al-Banna too believed that this trend could be reversed only by returning to a pure, unadulterated form of Islam. Like Rida, (and unlike the Islamic modernists) Al-Banna viewed Western secular ideas as the main danger to Islam in the modern age.[70] As Islamic Modernist beliefs were co-opted by secularist rulers and official `ulama, the Brotherhood moved in a traditionalist and conservative direction, "being the only available outlet for those whose religious and cultural sensibilities had been outraged by the impact of Westernisation".[71] The Brotherhood argued for a Salafist solution to the contemporary challenges faced by the Muslims, advocating the establishment of an Islamic state through implementation of the Shari'ah, based on Salafi revivalism.[72]

Although the Muslim Brotherhood officially describes itself as a Salafi movement, the Quietist Salafis often contest their Salafist credentials. The Brotherhood differs from the Purists in their strategy for combating the challenge of modernity, and is focused on gaining control of the government. Despite this, both the Brotherhood and Salafists advocate the implementation of sharia and emphasizes strict doctrinal adherence to the teachings of Prophet Muhammad and the Salaf al-Salih.[73]

The Salafi-Activists who have a long tradition of political involvement; are highly active in Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood and its various branches and affiliates.[74] According to the Brotherhood affiliated former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi:

"the Koran is our constitution, the Prophet Muhammad is our leader, jihad is our path, and death for the sake of Allah is our most lofty aspiration...sharia, sharia, and then finally sharia. This nation will enjoy blessing and revival only through the Islamic sharia."[73]


The Indonesian Islamic organization Muhammadiyah was founded in 1912. Often Described as Salafist,[75][76][77] and sometimes as Islamic Modernist,[78] it emphasized the authority of the Qur'an and the Hadiths, opposing syncretism and taqlid (blind-conformity) to the ulema. As of 2006, it is said to have "veered sharply toward a more conservative brand of Islam" under the leadership of Din Syamsuddin, the head of the Indonesian Ulema Council.[79]

Salafiyya Movement

Jamal Al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad 'Abduh, Muhammad al-Tahir ibn Ashur, Syed Ahmad Khan and, to a lesser extent, Mohammed al-Ghazali took some ideals of Wahhabism, such as endeavor to "return" to the Islamic understanding of the first Muslim generations (Salaf) by reopening the doors of juristic deduction (ijtihad) that they saw as closed.[56] Some historians believe modernists used the term "Salafiyya" for their movement (although this is strongly disputed by at least one scholar – Henri Lauzière).[80] American scholar Nuh Ha Mim Keller writes:

The term Salafi was revived as a slogan and movement, among latter-day Muslims, by the followers of Muhammad Abduh.[81]

In popular Western discourse during the early twentieth century; the term "Salafiyya" stood for a wide range of revivalist, reformist and rationalist movements in the Arab World that sought a reconciliation of Islamic faith with various aspects modernity. The rise of pan-Islamism across the Muslim World after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, would herald the emergence of Salafi religious purism that fervently opposed modernist trends. The anti-colonial struggle to restore the Khilafah would become the top priority; manifesting in the formation of the Muslim Brotherhood, a revolutionary movement established in 1928 by the Egyptian school teacher Hassan al-Banna. Backed by the Wahhabi clerical elites of Saudi Arabia, Salafis who advocated pan-Islamism and religious conservatism across the Muslim World emerged dominant and gradually replaced the modernists during the decolonisation period.[82] According to Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi:

Rashid Rida popularized the term 'Salafī' to describe a particular movement that he spearheaded. That movement sought to reject the ossification of the madhhabs, and rethink through the standard issues of fiqh and modernity, at times in very liberal ways. A young scholar by the name of Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani read an article by Rida, and then took this term and used it to describe another, completely different movement. Ironically, the movement that Rida spearheaded eventually became Modernist Islam and dropped the 'Salafī' label, and the legal methodology that al-Albānī championed – with a very minimal overlap with Rida's vision of Islam – retained the appellation 'Salafī'. Eventually, al-Albānī's label was adopted by the Najdī daʿwah as well, until it spread in all trends of the movement. Otherwise, before this century, the term 'Salafī' was not used as a common label and proper noun. Therefore, the term 'Salafī' has attached itself to an age-old school of theology, the Atharī school.[12]

Historian Henri Lauzière asserts that modernist intellectuals like Abduh and Afghani had not identified their movement with "Salafiyya". On the other hand, Islamic revivalists like Mahmud Shukri Al-Alusi (1856–1924 C.E), Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865–1935 C.E), Jamal al-Din al-Qasimi (1866–1914 C.E), etc. used "Salafiyya" as a term primarily to denote the traditionalist Sunni theology, Atharism. Rida also regarded the Wahhabi movement as part of the Salafiyya trend.[83][84] Apart from the Wahhabis of Najd, Athari theology could also be traced back to the Alusi family in Iraq, Ahl-i Hadith in India, and scholars such as Rashid Rida in Egypt.[85] After 1905, Rida steered his reformist programme towards the path of fundamentalist counter-reformation. This tendency led by Rida emphasized following the salaf al-salih (pious predecessors) and became known as the Salafiyya movement, which advocated a re-generation of pristine religious teachings of the early Muslim community.[86] The propagation of the flawed (yet once conventional) notion in the Western scholarship, wherein the Islamic modernist movement of 'Abduh and Afghani was equated with Salafiyya is first attributed to the French intellectual Louis Massignon.[87]

The progressive views of the early modernists Afghani and Abduh were soon replaced by the puritan Athari tradition espoused by their students; which zealously denounced the ideas of non-Muslims and secular ideologies like liberalism. This theological transformation was led by Syed Rashid Rida who adopted the strict Athari creedal doctrines of Ibn Taymiyyah during the early twentieth century. The Salafiyya movement popularised by Rida would advocate for an Athari-Wahhabi theology. Their promotion of Ijtihad was based on referring back to a strictly textual methodology.[88] Its traditionalist vision was adopted by the Wahhabi clerical establishment and championed by influential figures such as the Syrian-Albanian Hadith scholar Muhammad Nasiruddin al-Albani (d. 1999 C.E/ 1420 A.H).[89]

As a scholarly movement, "Enlightened Salafism" had begun declining some time after the death of Muhammad ʿAbduh in 1905. The Puritanical stances of Rashid Rida, accelerated by his support to the Wahhabi movement; transformed Salafiyya movement incrementally and became commonly regarded as "traditional Salafism". The divisions between "Enlightened Salafis" inspired by ʿAbduh, and traditional Salafis represented by Rashid Rida and his disciples would eventually exacerbate. Gradually, the modernist Salafis became totally disassociated from the "Salafi" label in popular discourse and would identify as tanwiris (enlightened) or Islamic modernists.[90]

Islamic modernists

Although not all of the figures named below are from the above-mentioned movement, they all share a more or less modernist thought or/and approach.

Contemporary Modernists

Contemporary use


The logo of 'Diyanet', the directorate of religious affairs in Turkey.

Turkey has reconcile the Islamic faith with modernism. in 2008, its state directorate of religious affairs (Diyanet) launched the review of all the hadiths, the sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The school of theology at Ankara University undertook this forensic examination with the aim of removing the centuries-old conservative cultural burden and rediscovering the spirit of reason in the original message of Islam. Fadi Hakura of Chatham House in London supported these revisions to the Reformation that occurred in Protestant Christianity in the 16th century.[99] Turkey has also trained the women as the theologians, and sent them as the senior imams known as 'vaizes' all over the country, to explain these re-interpretations.[99]


According to at least one source (Charles Kennedy), in Pakistan the range of views on the "appropriate role of Islam" in that country (as of 1992), contains "Islamic Modernists" at one end of the spectrum and "Islamic activists" at the other.

"Islamic activists" support the expansion of "Islamic law and Islamic practices", "Islamic Modernists" are lukewarm to this expansion and "some may even advocate development along the secularist lines of the West."[100]


Many orthodox, fundamentalist, and traditionalist Muslims strongly opposed modernism as bid'ah and the most dangerous heresy of the day, for its association with Westernization and Western education,[101] whereas other orthodox/traditionalist Muslims, even some orthodox Muslim scholars think that modernisation of Islamic law is not violating the principles of fiqh and it is a form of going back to the Qur'an and the Sunnah.

Supporters of Salafi movement considered modernists Neo-Mu'tazila, after the medieval Islamic school of theology based on rationalism, Mu'tazila. Critics argue that the modernist thought is little more than the fusion of Western Secularism with spiritual aspects of Islam. Other critics have described the modernist positions on politics in Islam as ideological stances.[102]

One of the leading Islamist thinkers and Islamic revivalists, Abul A'la Maududi agreed with Islamic modernists that Islam contained nothing contrary to reason, and was superior in rational terms to all other religious systems. However he disagreed with them in their examination of the Quran and the Sunna using reason as the standard. Maududi, instead started from the proposition that "true reason is Islamic", and accepted the Book and the Sunna, not reason, as the final authority. Modernists erred in examining rather than simply obeying the Quran and the Sunna.[Note 6]

Critics argue politics is inherently embedded in Islam, a rejection of the Christian and secular principle of "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". They claim that there is a consensus in Muslim political jurisprudence, philosophy and practice with regard to the Caliphate form of government with a clear structure comprising a Caliph, assistants (mu'awinoon), governors (wulaat), judges (qudaat) and administrators (mudeeroon).[104][105] It is argued that Muslim jurists have tended to work with the governments of their times. Notable examples are Abu Yusuf, Mohammed Ibn al-Hasan, Shafi'i, Yahya bin Said, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ismail bin Yasa, Ibn Tulun, Abu Zura, Abu Hasan al-Mawardi and Tabari.[106][107] Prominent theologians would counsel the Caliph in discharging his Islamic duties, often on the request of the incumbent Caliph. Many rulers provided patronage to scholars across all disciplines, the most famous being the Abassids who funded extensive translation programmes and the building of libraries.

See also


  1. "Islamic modernism was the first Muslim ideological response to the Western cultural challenge. Started in India and Egypt in the second part of the 19th century [...] reflected in the work of a group of like-minded Muslim scholars, featuring a critical reexamination of the classical conceptions and methods of jurisprudence and a formulation of a new approach to Islamic theology and Quranic exegesis. This new approach, which was nothing short of an outright rebellion against Islamic orthodoxy, displayed astonishing compatibility with the ideas of the Enlightenment."[1]
  2. "Salafism is, therefore, a modern phenomenon, being the desire of contemporary Muslims to rediscover what they see as the pure, original and authentic Islam, [...] However, there is a difference between two profoundly different trends which sought inspiration from the concept of salafiyya. Indeed, between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of 20th century, intellectuals such as Jamal Edin al-Afghani and Muhammad Abdu used salafiyya to mean a renovation of Islamic thought, with features that would today be described as rationalist, modernist and even progressive. This salafiyya movement is often known in the West as "Islamic modernism." However, the term salafism is today generally employed to signify ideologies such as Wahhabism, the puritanical ideology of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia."[18]
  3. Muhammad 'Abduh, for example, said a Muslim was obliged to accept only mutawatir hadith, and was free to reject others about which he had doubts.[32] Ahmad Amin, in his popular series on Islamic cultural history, cautiously suggested that there were few if any mutawatir hadith (especially, Fajr al-Islam, 10th edition Cairo: Maktabat al-Nahda al-Misriyya, 1965, p. 218; see also G. H. A. Juynboll, The Authenticity of the Tradition Literature: Discussions in Modern Egypt (Leiden: Brill, 1969), and my Faith of a Modern Muslim Intellectual, p. 113.
  4. See Quran 4:3 on polygyny in Islam, Quran 5:38 on cutting off the hand of the thief, Quran 24:2, 24:3, 24:4, and 24:5 on whipping for fornication (the provision of stoning for adultery is in the hadith). On jihad and the treatment of unbelievers, the difficult passages for modernists are the so-called "Verses of the Sword", such as Quran 9:5 on the Arab Pagans and Quran 9:29 on the People of the Book.[35]
  5. Smith's criticism of Farid Wajdi in Islam in Modern History[48] and Gibb's complaint about "the intellectual confusions and the paralyzing romanticism which cloud the minds of the modernists of today"[49]
  6. "He agreed with them [Islamic Modernists] in holding that Islam required the exercise of reason by the community to understand God's decrees, in believing, therefore, that Islam contains nothing contrary to reason, and in being convinced that Islam as revealed in the Book and the Sunna is superior in purely rational terms to all other systems. But he thought they had gone wrong in allowing themselves to judge the Book and the Sunna by the standard of reason. They had busied themselves trying to demonstrate that "Islam is truly reasonable" instead of starting, as he did, from the proposition that "true reason is Islamic". Therefore they were not sincerely accepting the Book and the Sunna as the final authority, because implicitly they were setting up human reason as a higher authority (the old error of the Mu'tazilites). In Maududi's view, once one has become a Muslim, reason no longer has any function of judgement. From then on its legitimate task is simply to spell out the implications of Islam's clear commands, the rationality of which requires no demonstration."[103]


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  39. J. DeLong-Bas, Natana (2004). Wahhabi Islam: From Revival and Reform to Global Jihad. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 230, 235, 241. ISBN 0-19-516991-3. In Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's writings, jihad is a special and specific type of warfare, which can be declared only by the religious leader (imam) and whose purpose is the defense of the Muslim community from aggression." .. "What Shaltut calls for here is not only a defensive response but also the right to live peacefully without fear for life, home, or possessions, all of which is consistent with Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's assertion of jihad as a defensive activity designed to restore order and preserve life and property."... "Ibn Abd al-Wahhab's definition of jihad is restricted to a defensive military action designed to protect and preserve the Muslim community and its right to practice its faith".. "For Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, jihad is always a defensive military action. Here he is synchronous with Islamic modernist writers, who narrow the confines of jihad to defensive action..
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  59. Robert Rabil Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism Georgetown University Press 2014 ISBN 978-1-62616-118-4 chapter: "Doctrine"
  60. Lauziere, Henri (2016). The Making of Salafism: ISLAMIC REFORM IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press. pp. 231–232. ISBN 978-0-231-17550-0. Beginning with Louis Massignon in 1919, it is true that Westerners played a leading role in labeling Islamic modernists as Salafis, even though the term was a misnomer. At the time, European and American scholars felt the need for a useful conceptual box in which to place Muslim figures such as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, Muhammad Abduh, and their epigones, who all seemed inclined toward a scripturalist understanding of Islam but proved open to rationalism and Western modernity .. They chose to adopt salafiyya—a technical term of theology, which they mistook for a reformist slogan and wrongly associated with all kinds of modernist Muslim intellectuals.
  61. Lauziere, Henri (2016). The Making of Salafism: ISLAMIC REFORM IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. New York, Chichester, West Sussex: Columbia University Press. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-231-17550-0. Prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire, leading reformers who happened to be Salafi in creed were surprisingly open-minded: although they adhered to neo-Hanbali theology,.. The aftermath of the First World War and the expansion of European colonialism, however, paved the way for a series of shifts in thought and attitude. The experiences of Rida offer many examples... he turned against the Shi'is who dared, with reason, to express doubts about the Saudi-Wahhabi project... . Shi'is were not the only victims: Rida and his associates showed their readiness to turn against fellow Salafis who questioned some of the Wahhabis' religious interpretations.
  62. G. Rabil, Robert (2014). Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism. Washington DC, USA: Georgetown University Press. pp. 32–33. ISBN 978-1-62616-116-0. Western colonialists established in these countries political orders... that, even though not professing enmity to Islam and its institutions, left no role for Islam in society. This caused a crisis among Muslim reformists, who felt betrayed not only by the West but also by those nationalists, many of whom were brought to power by the West... Nothing reflects this crisis more than the ideological transformation of Rashid Rida (1865–1935)... He also revived the works of Ibn Taymiyah by publishing his writings and promoting his ideas. Subsequently, taking note of the cataclysmic events brought about by Western policies in the Muslim world and shocked by the abolition of the caliphate, he transformed into a Muslim intellectual mostly concerned about protecting Muslim culture, identity, and politics from Western influence. He supported a theory that essentially emphasized the necessity of an Islamic state in which the scholars of Islam would have a leading role... Rida was a forerunner of Islamist thought. He apparently intended to provide a theoretical platform for a modern Islamic state. His ideas were later incorporated in the works of Islamic scholars.
  63. G. Rabil, Robert (2014). Salafism in Lebanon: From Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism. Washington DC, USA: Georgetown University Press. p. 33. ISBN 978-1-62616-116-0.
  64. Khalid Masud, Jalloul Muro, Muhammad, Hana (2022). "Introduction". Sharia Law in the 21st Century. London, UK: World Scientific Publishing Europe Ltd. pp. xxxxiii–xxxxiv. ISBN 9781800611672.
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  69. Ruthven, Malise (1984). Islam in the World (first ed.). Penguin. p. 311. Theologically, Banna's views were fairly close to those of Abduh and his Salafi disciple, Rashid Rida. He attacked the taqlid of the official 'ulama, insisting that only the Quran and the best-attested hadiths should be the sources of the Sharia.
  70. "HASAN AL-BANNA AND HIS POLITICAL THOUGHT OF ISLAMIC BROTHERHOOD". IKHWANWEB The Muslim Brotherhood Official English Website. 13 May 2008. Archived from the original on 15 Feb 2016. But it was Abduh's disciple, the Syrian Rashid Rida (1865-1935), who most influenced Al-Banna... He shared Rida's central concern with the decline of Islamic civilization relative to the West. He too believed that this trend could be reversed only by returning to an unadulterated form of Islam.. Like Rida at the end of his life — but unlike Abduh and other Islamic modernists — Al-Banna felt that the main danger to Islam's survival in the modern age stemmed... from the ascendancy of Western secular ideas.
  71. Ruthven, Malise (1984). Islam in the World (first ed.). Penguin. p. 317.
  72. Sageman, Marc (2004). "Chapter 1: The Origins of the Jihad". UNDERSTANDING TERROR NETWORKS. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 7. ISBN 0-8122-3808-7.
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  76. "Muhammadiyah Itu Golongan Ahlus Sunnah was Salafiyyah" [Muhammadiyah The Ahlus Sunnah was Salafiyyah]. Pwmu. 3 November 2017. Archived from the original on 18 October 2021.
  77. Muhtaroom, Ali (August 2017). "The Study of Indonesian Moslem Responses on Salafy- Shia Transnational Islamic Education Institution, Shiashia". Ilmia Islam Futuria. 17 (1): 73–95. doi:10.22373/jiif.v17i1.1645 via Research Gate. the development ofSalafi in Indonesia has inspired the emergence of anumber of organizations reformers of modern Islam in Indonesia. Organizationssuchas Muhammadiyah, Al-Irsyad,shared similar intentions to purify faith with the call back to the Quran and Sunnah, and leave many traditional customs that are claimed to be contaminated by heresy,tahayyul, and superstition... For Muhammadiyah, the purification of faith and the return to the Quran and Sunnah is an obligation... Muhammadiyah doctrine theology agrees with salafi, namely puritanist by going back to Al-Quran and As-Sunnah...
  78. Palmier, Leslie H. (September 1954). "Modern Islam in Indonesia: The Muhammadiyah After Independence". Pacific Affairs. 27 (3): 257. JSTOR 2753021.
  79. In Indonesia, Islam loves democracy| Michael Vatikiotis | New York Times |6 February 6, 2006
  80. Lauzière, Henri (2015-12-08). "1. Being Salafi in the Early Twentieth Century". The Making of Salafism: Islamic Reform in the Twentieth Century. Columbia University Press. ISBN 9780231540179.
  81. Who or what is a Salafi? Is their approach valid?| © Nuh Ha Mim Keller | | 1995
  82. "The past ten day Salafi led unrest in reaction to an anti-Islamic video spread through the Muslim world, here a look at who is behind it". World news research. 21 September 2012. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the term "Salafiyya" was linked to a transnational movement of Islamic reform whose proponents strove to reconcile their faith with the Enlightenment and modernity. Toward the end of the twentieth century, however, the Salafi movement became inexplicably antithetical to Islamic modernism. Its epicenter moved closer to Saudi Arabia and the term Salafiyya became virtually synonymous with Wahhabism... the rise of a transnational and generic Islamic consciousness, especially after the First World War, facilitated the growth of religious purism within key Salafi circles. The Salafis who most emphasized religious unity and conformism across boundaries usually developed puristic inclinations.. they survived the postcolonial transition and kept thriving while the modernist Salafis eventually disappeared.
  83. Lauzière, Henri (2016). The Making of Salafism:ISLAMIC REFORM IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 40, 239. As Rida explained in 1914, "the appellation 'reform,' as well as its understanding, is broad; it varies over time and from place to place." It also varied from individual to individual. Indeed, some balanced reformers considered Salafi theology to be a pillar of their multifaceted reform program. Chief among them were al-Qasimi, Mahmud Shukri al-Alusi, and, to some extent from 1905 onward, Rida (all of whom identified themselves as Salafi in creed at one point or another)"... "Unlike al-Afghani and Abduh, Rida did refer to himself as a Salafi in creed and law..
  84. Lauzière, Henri (15 July 2010). ""THE CONSTRUCTION OF SALAFIYYA:RECONSIDERING SALAFISM FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF CONCEPTUAL HISTORY"". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 42 3: 375–376. In the most explicit passages of their correspondence, both al-Qasimi and al-Alusi continue to use Salafi epithets in a purely theological sense. While the former distinguishes the Salafis from the Jahmis and the Mutazilis, the latter describes a Moroccan scholar as "Salafi in creed and athari in law" (al-salaf¯ı –aq¯ıdatan al-athar¯ı madhhaban).It is interesting to note that this is how Rashid Rida first used and understood Salafi epithets as well. In 1905, he spoke of the Salafis (al-salafiyya) as a collective noun, in contradistinction with the Ash'aris (al-asha'ira). Although he and some of his disciples later declared themselves to be Salafis with respect to fiqh (in 1928 Rida even acknowledged his passage from being a Hanafi to becoming a Salafi), the available evidence suggests that the broadening of Salafi epithets to encompass the realm of the law was a gradual development that did not bloom in full until the 1920s."... "This is why, in 1905, Rida casually referred to the Wahhabis as Salafis (al-wahhabiyya al-salafiyya )
  85. R. Halverson, Jeffrey (2010). Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 49. ISBN 978-0-230-10279-8. The ideas of the Atharis of the Najd were not limited to Wahhabites either, but can be traced elsewhere, especially to Iraq (e.g., al-Alusi family), India, as well as to the figures such as Rashid Rida (d. 1935 CE) and Hasan al-Banna (d. 1949 CE) in Egypt.
  86. Achcar, Gilbert (2010). The Arabs and the Holocaust:The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. 26 Westbourne Grove, London w2 5RH, UK: Actes Sud. pp. 104–105. ISBN 978-0-86356-835-0. (Rida) was initially a disciple of Abduh's, pushing his reformist enterprise - after Abduh's death in 1905 and especially from the 1920s on – in the direction of a fundamentalist counter-reformation... Islamic counter-reformation was far more reactionary than its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic predecessor, a development the more paradoxical in that the Islamic version seems to have emerged as a mutation from the reformist movement itself rather than being, as in the Christian case, the product of a frontal assault on it. This mutation, engineered by Rida, explains the double meaning of what is known as Salafism (salafiyya)... it eventually came to designate literalist, fundamentalist adhesion to the legacy of early Islam{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location (link)
  87. Lauziere, Henri (15 July 2010). "The Construction Ofsalafiyya: Reconsidering Salafism from the Perspective of Conceptual History". International Journal of Middle East Studies. 42 (3): 374. doi:10.1017/S0020743810000401. Although it long served as a paradigm, this conception of Salafism is flawed in many respects, especially because it is based on claims that remain unsubstantiated. The firstknown association between al-Afghani, Abduh, and a movement called "the salafiyya" appeared in 1919 in a short notice that French scholar Louis Massignon (d. 1962) wrote in Revue du monde musulman. Massignon did not initially claim that the two reformers founded the movement, but this idea gained momentum and found its formal expression in 1925, at which time Massignon added Rashid Rida to the narrative and presented him as the leader of the salafiyya. Since then, Massignon's narrative and its resulting typology have been reiterated in countless works through a chain of Western scholars who trusted each other's authority, thereby becoming one of the fundamental postulates on which the study of modern Islamic thought is based. Although it is true that al-Afghani and Abduh provided the initial elan for a type of Islamic reformism that later ´ became known as modernist Salafism, primary sources do not corroborate the claim that they either coined the term or used it to identify themselves in the late 19th century.
  88. R. Halverson, Jeffrey (2010). Theology and Creed in Sunni Islam. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. pp. 61–62, 71. ISBN 978-0-230-10279-8. These thinkers, which included Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897) and Muhammad ' Abduh (d. 1905),... the early progressive liberalism of these modernists quickly gave way to the arch-conservatism of Athari thinkers who held even greater contempt for the ideas of the nonbelievers (as well as liberals). This shift was most pronounced in the person of Rashid Rida (d. 1935), once a close student of 'Abduh, who increasingly moved to rigid Athari thought under Wahhabite influences in the early twentieth century. From Rida onward, the "Salafism"... became increasingly Athari-Wahhabite in nature, as it remains today.
  89. Khan, Rehan (5 February 2020). "Salafi Islam and its Reincarnations- Analysis". Eurasia Review. Archived from the original on 5 Feb 2020.
  90. Ismail, Raihan (2021). Rethinking Salafism: The Transnational Networks of Salafi ʿUlama in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 18, 30–31, 145. ISBN 9780190948955. ʿAbduh was critical of the Wahhabis and made no attempt to cultivate them. However, his disciple Rashid Rida,.. published the works of Najdi and classical Salafi scholars.... Enlightened Salafism as a movement faded away with the death of ʿAbduh and with Rida's flirtation with the Wahhabism that came to be identified with traditional Salafism.. Within Salafi circles, it is widely accepted that Rida directed Salafism away from the Islamic modernism espoused by Afghani and Abduh and brought it closer to the puritanical approaches to Islam... the divide between enlightened Salafis, who largely followed Muhammad ʿAbduh and Jamaluddin al-Afghani's modernist ideals, and the increasingly puritanical Rida and his disciples. Over time, the enlightened Salafis became disassociated from the Salafi label (which they had never assumed anyway) and became identified as tanwiris (enlightened) or modernists.
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