Islam in the Modern Age
Writer: Harry Zhao
Editor: Alma Samocha
Graphic Designer: Betty Zeng
From an outside perspective, Islam might appear as a conservative and restrictive religion, which fails to align with modern progressive values such as personal liberty, gender equality, and so on. Associations between Islam and terrorism, especially in the USA post-9/11, have greatly worsened public attitudes towards Islam - and often by extension towards Muslim communities. In a survey conducted in 2015, 61% of Americans expressed unfavourable views towards Islam.
Meanwhile an inadequate or misinformed understanding of the Islamic faith acts as a further contributing factor to the unfaourable perception of Islam, one that is reinforced by Islamophobic media and stereotypes. In another poll from ABC News conducted two years after the events of 9/11, those previously unfamiliar with Islam were much less likely to say that Islam respects other religious beliefs, or to identify Islam as a peaceful religion.
Are these views accurate about Islam in the modern period, or are they distorted and outdated? What is Islam really like in the present day, and how has the religion evolved?
Different Muslim communities and individuals hold different interpretations of Islam, and therefore have their own ways of practising in accordance to their beliefs.
According to the data in a report published by the Pew Research Center in 2012, 57% of American Muslims claim that Islam can be understood in more than one way - yet only 23% of Muslims worldwide share the same opinion; this data identifies a lack of universal consensus on the modern views on Islam, or how Islamic beliefs should be interpreted.
Modern interpretations of Islam range from Islamic modernism, to secularism, to fundamentalism, along with many other more nuanced approaches to Islam. The different movements can be broadly categorized into two more simplified interpretations. Islamic fundamentalism - also known as Islamism - identifies its key beliefs as lying in a strict and literal interpretation of the Quran and Sharia, which lay the foundations for the Islamic faith; fundementalists seek to "purify" and "revive" Islam by returning to traditional interpretations of the sacred scripture. Islamism is generally the interpretation of Islam associated to extremism and violent terrorist groups, such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Not all Muslims interpret Islam in such a way, and indeed, more than half of Muslims worldwide express concern and contempt for terrorist organisations, believing that violence targeting civilians is never justified.
Another interpretation of Islam is Islamic modernism; this school of thought looks to engage with Western values, criticisms of Islam, and modern-day issues from an Islamic standpoint. Advocates of Islamic modernism are generally considered more progressive, standing for peaceful coexistence between religious groups and pushing to restrict the influence of traditional Islamic law on the legal system. Islamic modernism argues that Islam is not a static religion, but can instead adapt to changing social and political ideas. A related movement is secularism, which argues for the separation of religion from government, resisting the idea of creating Islamic states.
The development of numerous interpretations of Islam emerged in the mid-19th century, as European colonisation began to introduce Western ideas into the Muslim world. Muslim thinkers in the Ottoman Empire pioneered the movement of Islamic modernism, advocating for a secular government and equal treatment for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. Other thinkers criticized modernists for "emulating Europeans" and sought to preserve traditional structures of power under the Ottoman Sultan.
One notable intellectual figure in the modernist movement was Muhammad Abduh, who attempted to modernise and revitalise Islam through education and his own writing. However, the movement went into decline following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of Western colonisation, which sparked Arab nationalism, pan-Islamism, and Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim territories. Later scholars such as Muhammad Rashid Rida turned away from reformist ideas, and instead promoted the superiority of Islamic culture in resistance against Westernisation.
As mentioned above, the opinions of Muslim individuals on modern-day issues are divided; this broad range of views may be influenced by the personal values of a community and how they interpret Islamic teachings . Below are the debates in Muslim circles surrounding certain controversial issues:
A survey conducted in 2013 on Muslims worldwide found that opinions about the roles and rights of women largely depend on the participant's gender, location, and whether they support sharia law or not. Muslim women and participants who did not favour sharia law were more likely to believe that Muslim women should have more individual liberties.
Overall, a majority of participants believe that a Muslim woman has the right to choose whether or not to wear a veil - although most participants also believe that wives are obligated to obey their husbands. Participants in Southeast Asia were more likely to believe that a woman does not have the right to divorce her husband, and those in South Asia were more likely to say that sons and daughters do not have equal inheritance rights.
However, over the years, Muslim women have also gained more opportunities, including access to education. Figures such as Malala Yousafzai have championed the rights for girls' education in countries where it has been outlawed or restricted. There still remains much controversy surrounding the topic of abortion within Muslim communities, although many Muslim majority countries permit abortion if there is a risk to the mother's life.
Following the rise of Islamist movements in the Muslim world, discrimination and hate towards LGBTQ+ people have been greatly exacerbated. In a number of countries, homosexual activity is outlawed; and in some, including Afghanistan and the UAE, it is punishable by death. In the predominantly Muslim region of Chechnya, over 100 men who were suspected to be gay or bisexual were detained and tortured in an anti-LGBTQ+ purge, which was subsequently denied by the regional authority.
However, homosexuality is legal in many Muslim majority countries, with some countries having anti-discrimination laws in place, whereas in some others only same-sex relations between men are illegal. Conversion therapy has been banned in Albania, and Pakistan has also passed an act to legally protect the rights of transgender people. Many activists and LGBTQ+-inclusive groups, mainly based in the West and in Southern Asia, have advocated for the rights and equal treatment of LGBTQ+ people. Such groups include Muslims for Progressive Values and the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity.
Tolerance towards other religions:
Although the Quran preaches the tolerance and acceptance of other religions, Islamist groups such as ISIS have often persecuted people of other religions, or even those from a different sect of Islam, as seen in the ISIS attacks on the Druze community in As-Suwayda and on Shia Muslims in the Camp Speicher massacre. In countries such as Jordan and Egypt, over 80% of the population believe that blasphemy (disrespecting what is deemed sacred) and apostasy (renouncing one's religion) should be punished. The same opinion is much less common in other countries like Turkey and Lebanon. This piece of data indicates that tolerance towards other religions depends not only on the teachings of Islam, but also the social context of the community.
For example, in Sub-Saharan Africa, a study found that Islam, Christianity, and indigenous African faiths coexist and generally tolerate each other - although Christians in the area were more likely to hold a negative opinion of Muslims as violent.
Islam is a complex religion that is practised all over the world in many different ways. Having been influenced by social movements - both internal and external - Islam has also evolved in response. While problems such as religious extremism and restrictions on the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people do exist and need to be acknowledged and resolved, Muslim communities and Islam should not stereotyped as "violent" and "backwards". Proponents of Islamic modernism and Muslim human rights activists have been pushing for equal rights, and major improvements in the treatment of marginalised groups have been made. Islam and progressivism are not mutually exclusive, and we should support Muslim communities without attacking their beliefs.