Islam, Modernity and Justice for Women

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Islam, Modernity and Justice for Women1
                                       Lily Zakiyah Munir 2

Understanding Islam
       To understand the relationship between Islam and modernity, it is important to
begin with an understanding of the religion itself. Generically, Islam is a religion which
brings the mission of liberation and salvation. Islam came to the world in order to bring
a set of new morality because of its metaphysical and humanitarian characters. It brings
not only vertical dimension teachings, but also horizontal aspects for humanity. It is a
teaching deriving from God and oriented toward humanity (Imarah 1998).
       Thus, Islam highly respects the dimension of humanity. The presence of Islam as a
moral source can be observed in its achievement in transforming pre-Islamic Arabic
nomads into civilized communities with values and morality. With the presence of
Islam, these communities, being used to living in open deserts and highly susceptible to
inter-tribal wars and conflicts, achieved success becoming sensitized to elevated values
and morality. Inter-tribal wars and conflict occurred because of their lack of values and
morality, which terminated after Islam spread its teachings. The Koran, Muslims' holy
book and reference, has manifested itself in a language laden with aesthetics, which has
the power to influence the nomads' emotions and awareness in shaping society's
humanitarian vision.
       Linguistically, Islam derives from the root words implying the meaning of peace,
salvation, maslahah (well-being) and justice. Islam is a metamorphosis of a three-letter
root word (tsulatsi), i.e. salima-yaslamu-salaaman, meaning safe and peaceful. The
four-letter root word (ruba'i) namely aslama-yuslimu-islaman means to save and to
bring peace.
       Linguistically speaking, Islam has a very fundamental concern for peace, justice,
and well-being. These values should be inwardly internalized by each and every Muslim
in the first place. The feeling of being secure and safe in the mind of every Muslim
individual is a basic capital for transcending the same feeling to others, making them
sensitized to society's needs and interests. This feeling generally grows along with the
process of ritualism and ritual practices, which will strengthen one's commitment and
vision on the equality of all human beings. Islam teaches that there is no hierarchical
structure among Muslims, all are equal before God. The combination of spiritual and
ritual practices will produce Muslims who have balanced personalities, inwardly and
outwardly, vertically and horizontally.

Islam, modernity and modernization
     Is Islam compatible with modernity? How do Muslims respond to the continuous
change of the world which has grown at a rapid and unprecedented rate in the last

    Paper presented at the Islam and Human Rights Fellow Lecture, October 14, 2003, organized by the
    Islam and Human Rights Project, School of Law, Emory University, Atlanta, GA.
    Founder and Director, Center for Pesantren and Democracy Studies (CePDeS), Indonesia; Chair,
    International Relations Department, MUSLIMAT NAHDLATUL ULAMA, Indonesia

century? How do we resolve the problem of maintaining the legacy of the past in our
religious tradition and integrate change into society and our lives? How do we introduce
change smoothly, which is rare and difficult, without disrupting societies and dislocating
values? These are some questions that may trigger a discussion on the relations between
Islam and modernity. There are various responses to this problem, depending on our
point of view. An economist has one kind of answer, a sociologist perhaps another. A
secularist has a certain type of answer, which may be different from a fundamentalist's.
       Modernity and modernization are words that are continuously contested in
contemporary Islamic discourse. Modernization, the introduction into society of the
artifacts of contemporary life such as communications, technology, or household
equipment, has permeated into virtually all societies including Muslims. But modernity,
a way of thought and of living in the contemporary world and of accepting change, as
part of political and cultural processes by integrating new ideas into society, may not
always be present. One may be using modern technologies and modern communication
system, but maintains a past-oriented closed mindset and resists new ideas of modernity
such as democracy or pluralism. The opposite can be true; one may lack modern
facilities and live traditionally but adopt the attitudes of modernity. These people
assume an attitude of enquiry into how people make choices, be they moral, personal,
economic, or political. This problem of rational choice is central to modern people.
Choice, query and doubt--which imply rationality, debate, discussion and
disagreement--are part and parcel of modern mindset. 1

Muslims' responses to modernity

      How do Muslims react to modernity? There are several forms of reactions, but for
simplicity purpose they will be grouped into two: the reformist/modernist and the
fundamentalist. The modernists are devout, knowledgeable Muslims whose mission is
threefold: first, to define Islam by bringing out the fundamentals in a rational and liberal
manner; second, to emphasize, among others, the basic ideals of Islamic brotherhood,
tolerance, and social justice; and third, to interpret the teaching of Islam in such a way as
to bring out its dynamic character in the context of the intellectual and scientific progress
of the modern world. 2 The modernists sincerely endeavour to reconcile differences
between traditional religious doctrine and secular scientific rationalism, between
unquestioning faith and reasoned logic, and between continuity of Islamic tradition and

      Many consider Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1838-1897) as the father of Islamic
modernism. He was foremost a belief in in the transcendence of God and in reason.
Independent judgment and interpretation, the so-called ijtihad, is a necessity and the duty
of man is to apply the principles of the Qur'an afresh to the problems of the time. He
extremely critical of traditional ulama (religious scholars) who discouraged any new and
creative thought and convinced that this type of medieval mentality was primarily
responsible for the decline of Muslim power and influence in the world.
      Islam must be active and energetic. Al-Afghani supported this principle by quoting
the Qur'an that "God changes not what is in a people until they change what is in
themselves.' He argued that Europeans had integrated change, and Muslims must do it

in their own way by becoming better Muslims. He thought that Europeans had
modernized because they were no longer really Christian; and Muslims, conversely, were
weak because they were not really Muslims. 3
        He questioned the division of knowledge into two categories: Muslim knowledge
and European knowledge. He argued that knowledge, which is a noble thing, has no
connection with any particular group. Islam is the closest religion to knowledge and
learning and there is no contradiction between (modern) knowledge and the basic
principles of Islam. Al-Afghani strongly recommended acquiring Western knowledge,
technology, and services, as long as borrowing from the West was selective and served
the basic needs and aspirations of the Muslim people. In this undertaking, which he
believed would raise the standard of living of all Muslims, al-Afghani struggled to
initiate an Islamic reformation similar to the successful Christian Reformation sparked
by Martin Luther. 4
       The seeds for ijtihad (logical reasoning) planted by al-Afghani were sustained by
his most prominent Egyptian student and ardent follower, Muhammad Abduh (1849-
1905), who insisted that Muslims could improve their lives and their society only by
carefully studying the Qur'an in the light of reason and rationality. He taught that the
Qur'an gives all Muslims the right to differ even with the ulama, if the latter were
unreasonable or irrational. Abduh constantly encouraged Muslims to approach problems
in the true spirit of Islam: through analysis, reason and logic. Because of his emphasis
on reason and rationality, he considered Islam and constructive science twin offspring of
reason, which "God gave to guide us in the right path." 5
       The reformers of Islamic thought and practice such as al-Afghan, Abduh, or the
more contemporary like Mahmud Muhammad Taha of Sudan, Muhammad Abed Al-
Jabri, Ali Shariati of Iran or Abdurrahman Wahid of Indonesia, are knowledgeable not
only about Islam but also about modern non-Islamic Western ideas. They believe in the
convergence of Islamic and universal ethics and eager to introduce them into their own
societies. Hence, unlike the fundamentalists, modernists do not fear or dislike Western
ideas and practices. On the contrary, they welcome non-Islamic ideas and practices that
they consider beneficial to the progress and prosperity of Muslim societies. They
imaginatively synthesize Islamic and Western ideas to produce a reasonable and relevant
reinterpretation of Islamic thought with enlightened cosmopolitan, liberal, and realistic
perspectives. Modernists believe that this tolerance for diversity and willingness to
adjust rapidly to a changing environment contributes to the emancipation of the
individual Muslim and to the progress of Muslim societies. 6

       Firstly referred to in the U.S. in the early 1920's in connection with the battles of
leading evangelical Protestants against liberal and progressive spirits of the age,
fundamentalism is now observed to exist in all religions. The term has recently been
used reluctantly and apologetically to describe new radical Islamic movements, or to
offer substitute terms such as `revivalists,' `religious nationalists,' `Islamic radicals,'
`political Islam,' `Islamists,' or `extremists.'
       For all the controversy, it is clear that fundamentalism can lead to superficiality
and reductionism in one's understanding of the religion. Deeper spiritual dimension of
the religion cannot be captured and reflected because fundamentalisms tend to refer to
religious texts rigidly and literally. Fundamentalist thinking is no more relevant in the
currently fast changing world because human problems are so complex and diverse.

Religious texts need to be reinterpreted by putting at the forefront the goal of the religion
(maqasid al-syari'ah)..
       Two tasks are relevant in understanding fundamentalism: to ascertain why it has
emerged in the larger cultural-historical sense--what is the common cause with which
fundamentalism is associated; and to explain the particularities of its emergence--why
here and not there, why now and not then, why among these groups and not those, and so
on (Almond 2003). 7 Almond et all categorize fundamentalist movements into four: 1)
world conqueror, 2) world transformer, 3) world creator, and 4) world renouncer. To the
first group they classify, on top, Al-Qaeda. Others include, inter alia, the Revolutionary
Shi'ism in Iran, the Sunni radical movements in Egypt (Muslim Brotherhood), the Ulster
Protestants (sparked by the entrenched ethnic conflict between Scot and English-derived
Protestants and Irish Catholics), the Sikh militants, and the Sri Lankan Buddhist
extremists. Meanwhile, the world transformer group comprises among others of the U.S.
Protestant fundamentalism and the Pentecostalism in Guatemala.
       Ideologically, fundamentalism is marked by several characteristics. 8 First, it reacts
against marginalization of the religion. Fundamentalist movements form in reaction to,
and in defense against, the processes and consequences of secularization and
modernization that have penetrated the larger religious community. Protestants,
Catholics, Muslim, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists are losing their members to the
secular world outright or to relativism--the assumption that any given religion is culture-
bound and thus relatively true or false. Second, fundamentalists demonstrate moral
Manichaeanism, a dualistic worldview which uncompromisingly divides the world into
two: the light (the world of the spirit and of the good) and the darkness (the evil). Third,
they are selective. For example, they accept much of the modern science and modern
technology such as radio, television, computer, and so on but refuse the concepts arising
out of modernity such as democracy. Fourth, fundamentalists are absolutist and inerrant.
They steadfastly believe in the infallibility of certain religious interpretation and oppose
hermeneutical methods developed by secularized philosophers or critics.
        Modernity is the common denominator of the outside forces, which is often
viewed as an external threat by the fundamentalists. Failure of modernizing secular state
is evident by political decay, the decline of politics into authoritarianism, patrimonialism,
corruption, and the dissatisfaction with the project of the post colonial secular states.
The growing saliency of religion in the politics of countries throughout the world is a
struggle for cultural liberation in search for authentic identity, political representation,
and more equitable development in third world countries.
        The unbalanced pace of modernization and development has led many Muslim
countries into developmental crises. The rapid changes through a process of
technological, economic, political, social, and cultural innovation, however, have not
been followed by the development of their people. In contrast to modernization,
development denotes the relative welfare of a nation's population. In most Muslim
countries, appropriate development has not happened because it is neither holistic nor
healthy. Modernization and development have become paradoxical. Modernization has
occurred rapidly, while appropriate development has not. In the West, modernization
accompanied the growth of a middle class. Because of its relative success in the West,
modernization has become identified with Westernization and secularization.
       The unhappy predicament of the nation-building, modernizing, and secularizing
Muslim world has given rise to a number of crises, afflicting the fragile nation states of
developing world. 9 Of the five developmental crises--identity, legitimacy, penetration,

distribution, participation--the identity crises is often the precipitating crisis, triggering
political chaos and national catastrophe. Rapid modernization has broken the familiarity
of traditional society, uprooting people from their traditional communities and moving
them to new social environments where they oft become victims of the development.
These conditions are fertile grounds for the breeding of fundamentalism.

Needs to focus on women
       During the last three decades the world has witnessed a growing process of
Islamization or re-Islamization, the application of Islamic principles and values to
personal and public life. Along with greater religious observance among many
individuals of their prayer, fasting, dress code and so on, there grows as well as the
creation of new institution such as Islamic banking, insurance companies, and finance
houses. Although many speak of the failure of political Islam, a more widespread and
significant reality exists. Islam is becoming a more visible and dynamic force in Muslim
life and societies.
       While this growing Islamization has had an impact on states, societies, and
communities, women seem to be impacted the most. More than anything else, gender-
related issues present some of the most difficult and complicated challenges to
contemporary Islamic law. Islamic legal system regulating women-related issues, the
family law (al-akhwal al-syakhsyiyyah), has remained static and immutable since its
codification a thousand years ago. Time and space have changed, and Muslims are
currently living in a completely different socio-cultural and political context, but the
conventional shari'a on gender and women remain unchanged. This same law has been
used as a reference on issues like gender relations, polygamy, divorce, inheritance,
women's leadership role, etc. which, unsurprisingly, reaffirms the already patriarchal
attitudes of many Muslim males. Under the guise of uplifting Islamic law, the war
against women is launched demonstrating the misuse and abuse of God's authority in
order to impose a suffocating patriarchy among Muslim society. It is imperative that
Muslim legal specialists develop critical ways of dealing with these issues.
       The resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in the last decades has been signified
most obviously by its perseverance in reviving Islamic doctrines on women's status.
Fundamentalists appear to share a common sense of threat from changes in gender
relations, triggered by the spread of capitalism and modern concepts of feminism. They
believe in the doctrines that put restrictions on women. On the basis of shari'a and
kodrat (nature) women have to be controlled, subjugated and live in the domestic sphere.
Hasan al-Bana, founder of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, expresses his fear of women's
liberation and equality by saying that women's place is the home, and their primary roles
are mother, wife, and housekeeper. Social mixing between men and women is
prohibited. Another fundamentalist Muslim, Abul A'la al-Mawdudi, founder of Jamiat-I
Islami from Pakistan, says that one of the basic human rights is respect for women's
chastity. To preserve chastity women must be kept household and in purdah.
       Cases of discrimination and violence against women in the name of Islam can be
documented from worldwide. Experiences of formalization of shari'a in Muslim
countries like Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Sudan, Iran, and other gulf countries show that
women are systematically marginalized, forced to veil themselves, may not go out
without a guardian, or work in public places. Women are made to become detainees in
their husbands' homes.

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