Modernising Islam


Slavs and Tartars Presents Molla NasreddinPerhaps the events of the so-called Arab Spring will put paid to the common misperception that Islamic societies are resistant to or incapable of reform and that, by extension, Muslims in general are unwilling to embrace 'modernity'. At the heart of the uprisings that have spread across North Africa and the Middle East is a popular desire for change. These are examples of Muslim peoples railing against the status quo, using peaceful protest as a means to demand a better future.

Various quarters have attempted to claim credit for catalysing these popular uprisings. The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, heralded the protests across the Middle East as an 'Islamic awakening' inspired by Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution. Closer to home, former prime minister John Howard remarked that the Arab Spring 'might' have been encouraged by the ouster of Saddam Hussein.

Neither claim is convincing: why has it taken so long for any 'awakening' to ripple outwards from Tehran, and how do the travails that Iraq has endured since 2003 amount to an inspiring model?

An alternative explanation can be found within the Middle East. It is perhaps no coincidence that the Arab Spring followed closely on the heels of widespread popular protests in Iran in 2009, following a presidential election widely regarded to have been manipulated to ensure the Islamic regime's then-preferred candidate won.

The popular imagination holds that Islamic societies are gripped by a 'seventh-century mindset' that smothers innovation and reviles change, so that if change is to come to the Muslim world it must be imposed or catalysed from outside. Yet as even conservative commentator Daniel Pipes recently remarked, Islam is not static. Widely overlooked in Islamic history are repeated instances of home-grown attempts at reform, political and religious.

From the mid-19th century, intellectuals across the Islamic world, stung by comparisons with a rapidly modernising Europe, sought to address the shortcomings that beset their societies. Later known as the Islamic Modernists, these intellectuals advocated political, economic and cultural change.

Here the example of Europe was a guiding light, but not one to be slavishly imitated. The Islamic Modernists warned against a propensity for taqlid (imitation), whether of Muslim tradition or European example; rather they highlighted ijtihad (reasoned interpretation), a principle applicable equally to Islamic scriptures or imported social models, and a process that would allow the recalibration of European modernity so that it could become compatible with the social and cultural milieu of Islamic societies.

One of the weapons in the armoury of the Islamic Modernists was the then relatively new medium of the press. Here was a means to reach out to the broader populace, informing, educating, promoting debate and advocating change. Amongst the profusion of periodicals that sprung up from Mombasa to Malabar, was the Azeri weekly periodical Molla Nasreddin.

First appearing in Tbilisi in 1906, Molla Nasreddin was an immediate success. Published in Azeri Turkish it captured an audience across the Caucasus, Central Asia (both then part of the Russian Empire) and Iran. Named after the legendary wise man-cum-fool revered across Eurasia, Molla Nasreddin displayed, in its illustrations, cartoons and commentary, a satirical and sardonic take on the issues of the day.

A new publication, Slavs and Tartars Presents Molla Nasreddin, brings together a collection of the periodical's covers and artwork. Lively, sometimes garish, two-colour cartoons reveal an impish sense of humour and highlight the editors' concerns: women's rights, the interference of foreign powers, the role of religion in society and government, press freedom, conservatives aiming to forestall progress, education.

Molla Nasreddin did not long survive the arrival of the Communist regime, ceasing publication in 1930.

One doesn't need to be an astute observer to realise that in parts of the Islamic world little progress has been made on the issues that the periodical raised. Indeed, the residents of the modern Azeri capital, Baku, remark that Molla Nasreddin is as relevant today as it was in its heyday.

And for all the intellectual passion of the Islamic Modernists, they too were overcome by new political currents — Arab nationalism, the Cold War — that swept the region.

Nonetheless, the Islamic Modernist movement, and the lively press that it spawned, constitute a powerful attempt from within the Muslim world to address contemporary societal and political ills. Reform is a difficult and slow process. Protests continue in post-Mubarak Egypt, unemployment is rising in Tunisia, and violence is ongoing in Syria and Libya, but it would appear that popular momentum is on the side of those desiring change.

And while the periodical has been replaced by the mobile phone as the medium of choice for the modern reformer, it would seem that the ethos of the writers of Molla Nasreddin of a century ago persists, that change can come from within to create an indigenous modernity and a brighter future. 


William GourlayWilliam Gourlay is a post-graduate student at the Centre for Islam and the Modern World, Monash University, Melbourne. Over the last 20 years, as backpacker, teacher and journalist, he has been a serial visitor to Turkey.

Topic tags: William Gourlay, Arab Spring, Islam, Middle East


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Existing comments

Why then are so many Christians being murdered, bashed, churches bombed, set fire to, etc. at this time?

Catholicism is the one and only foundation of personal and social order. All other religions are false and a great offence against God and are a direct violation against the First Commandment

It is our mandate, given to the Catholic Church alone by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to convert all nations to the one true Catholic Faith.

Trent | 18 October 2011

In this so called 'Arab spring' Christians are being persecuted and killed, the fundamentalist Muslim brotherhood [who call for Israel's extermination] is gaining ground. I appreciate that many ordinary people are hoping for peace and more freedom - but it seems it is mainly for Muslims not for Christians. The Australian parliament UNANIMOUSLY passed a motion condemning the persecution of Christians in the Egypt where this presumed spring is occurring. Read on:

Skye | 18 October 2011

Trent:- Regarding your post

Catholicism is the one and only foundation of personal and social order. All other religions are false and a great offence against God and are a direct violation against the First Commandment

It is our mandate, given to the Catholic Church alone by Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to convert all nations to the one true Catholic Faith.

Change a few words, a few belief parameters and names and it sounds just like the so called Muslim Fundamentalism.

Fanaticism remains fanatics no matter which way you paint it; the only difference is which side of the divide you are standing on.

Josh | 18 October 2011

@Josh, a fundamentalist Christian loves those who hate him, he does good to those who would do him harm. He will forgive anyone anything. He will never repay evil for evil. He will turn the other check to those who strike him. He will attempt to convert you, but never by force. A fundamentalist Muslim will chop people's hands off for theft, stone a woman for committing adultery, kill those who leave Islam, beat his wife if he is unhappy with her, and convert you by the sword if required.

Fundamentalist is an accusation too often thrown around assuming that one who is a fundamentalist in one creed believes and does the same things of a fundamentalist of another creed. Check the fundamentals of the creed before you think that fundamentalists are all of the same hue. They are not.
John Ryan | 18 October 2011

Josh, Catholicism is completely different to any false religion. If everyone in the world was baptised in the Catholic church, learnt their Faith and was true to it, we would have the Social Reign of our Lord, Jesus Christ and no-one (if they remain true) would sin and the world would be at peace and true social justice would prevail. No cheating, no lying, no immorality, no stealing, no murder or assaults etc. But of course God has given men free will and sin abounds because men don't want to be bound to God even if it means spending eternity in hell. There is no other religion other than the Catholic Church and all false religions are advanced by the Devil. No true Catholic can be a fanatic or a fundamentalist when they do God's Will and say no to the world of sin and vice. You cannot love God The Father, The Son and The Holy Ghost too much. The problem is that men don't love God enough!
Trent | 18 October 2011

Islam as a whole has had few if any problems with rationality in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, the preservation of literary and philosophical texts etc but it has always been deeply reluctant to examine it own theological origins. Robert Fisk has long argued that this is a major flaw in Islam as holistic faith-culture. They/it has never had, unlike Western religious/ philosophical, a true renaissance. Its apologists continue to this day to argue, like the old Marxist theoreticians, that it is the bearer of definitive truth and doctrine. The real test for Islam lies in preparedness to submit itself to the rigorous discipline of rational examination of its spiritual and theological origins. The Western Renaissance provided Christianity and some movements within Judaism with the opportunity to examine their belief systems against the methods of historical, source, literary and redaction criticism. They were freed by this experience to separate faith from ideology, core beliefs from accrued piety and superstition. Sadly, though, there are indications of a return of unexamined doctrinal fundamentalism even within Catholicism (Josh's caveat to Trent)! This signals the rebirth of Byzantium - heaven on earth. I seriously doubt if Islam in most of its forms will ever have the nerve, self-confidence and sheer intellectual robustness to embark on this kind of 'modernisation.'
David Timbs | 18 October 2011

Josh, it must upset you no end that in hiatory Jesus was a Jew in a pre-'catholic'world.
Pauline | 18 October 2011

Trent - Jesus was Baptised - this was a Jewish practice amongst some sectors of Judaism at the time - But he was never a Catholic - so by inference, and approaching the matter from a purely human perspective, was h misguided by the teachings of his upbringing?

John Ryan - in a Book called the "Last of the Aztecs" – there is an illustration of a South American Indian King being burnt at the stake while a Monk raises the Cross over him and blesses his soul in the early 1500’s. The illustration is by a Spanish (Catholic) Artist of the time – an example of how Spain was spreading the faith - need I say more?

I am not defending Islamic fundamentalism; I point out that being Human, Creations of G-d, and practitioners of HIS word in whatever form or shape that may take, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, or Islam, we are all flawed. We cannot accuse others of missing the meaning of His word - there is no one religion which can say it is the only pure one - we all still have a great deal to learn about love, tolerance, and the meaning of His words.

Josh | 18 October 2011

My understanding was that the 'Arab Spring' was largely organised and led by educated younger men and women who came from a more secular base. They did not want Islam getting in the way of it all. The social media has also had a huge impact re the organisation of the changes.
Jorie | 18 October 2011

@Trent - Christian people aren't perfect either. Just look at Ireland? Catholics killing Protestants. Islam is a perfect religion with imperfect people, like Christianity and Judaism (the uncorrupted versions at least).

Just said "Our Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God" - I don't get it. You call Jesus "Lord" and then "Son of God". Please clarify.
Eli | 18 October 2011

Trent and John Ryan can't be serious, surely. Have they forgotten the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, the Spanish invasion of South and Central America, the religious wars in Europe, Luther's virulent anti-semetism, Mormon atrocities in Utah, the KKK, church-sanctioned apartheid in South Africa, sectarian violence in Ireland, the intimidation and murder of Hindus by Christian extremists in India, or Christian extremism in Sri Lanka? All religions all capable of committing atrocities, just as those without religion are also capable.

The author of this article is discussing the possibility that change in Islam will come from within, just as change in Christianity has come from within. It will be difficult and resisted, just as change in Christianity or any other revealed religion is always difficult and still vigorously resisted by those in power or by those who cannot tolerate uncertainty. But it has happened, is happening, and more is possible.

Ginger Meggs | 18 October 2011

Josh – I take your point about us all being flawed beings, however, that was not my point. Try to find one quote from the New Testament that justifies ripping the heart out of an infidel. The words and life of Jesus show that these “Christians” were acting directly contrary to how he would have us live. When it comes to Islam and Mohammed, I can quote you many lines from the Quran and the hadith that show that all the practices I listed in my earlier post were sanctioned by Mohammed on behalf of Allah. More worryingly, there are many modern day Muslims who will quote them as well and then put them into practice.
John Ryan | 19 October 2011

Pauline - No - I am not upset that Jesus was a Jew in a pre-Catholic world.

There are historical facts; this is one of them. That the Catholic Church became the Catholic Church more than 1,000 years AFTER Jesus is another historical fact. Then there is Dogma, a personal issue as to whether one wishes to follow it. There is intolerance which, unfortunately, ALL religions are guilty of. There is the “Word” and there is the interpretation of the “WORD.”

Had there been no Jesus there would be no Christianity in its many forms. I admit that Christianity, in its many forms is not actually fractured, for this structure enables us blind humans to explore the WORD from a multitude of angles – be that a blessing or a curse is for the individual believer to judge. My approach to the fractured approach to the TRUTH of G-d’s words is that of a Religious Democrat – for me they all have a degree of Truths; but seen from their own perspective of location, time, and Divine Inspiration.

Josh | 19 October 2011

John Ryan - Everything you have said I have no argument with - HOWEVER - What Jesus preached He preached for His TIME & His Place in time when he preached it - Mohammed did likewise; he preached for his time in human history, and his place in his historical society - since both corresponed to the Societies they grew up in, there is a great gulf between what each said. Had Jesus walked the earth at another given time period in human history, what he preached, what he uttered to his followers and listeners MAY have been totally different to what is actually recorded - and Christianity may not even have existed since Paul would not have been around to interpret, and to spread the words Jesus uttered. In the world of living flesh we can only try and find some kind of understanding in the light of the reality of human history. Such as it is - for better or for worse.
Josh | 19 October 2011

And I seriously thought that we're in the 21st Century where the Trents of this world are forgotten nightmares of the past. I'm obviously mistaken. Trents are alive and well, like the Daleks! Humankind beware!
Alex Njoo | 20 October 2011

Sharia Law is not an equivalent to Fundamentalist Moslem, although some fundamentalist Moslems may support it.

The Q'ran has many components regarding charity and acceptance which make the bible look like a nice story without socially structured content.

These are factual observations. The 'truth' is a different matter. The truth is determined by our emotive interpretation of information based on each of our levels of consciousness at any given moment.

As such, all commentary here is the truth for each speaker. Until we can understand those that profess to speak of familiar factual data in a vastly different way to our own interpretation, we will not be able to understand the variances of the interpretations of factual data which is unfamiliar to us.

From this angle, it is curious that a religion which is so against modernising itself has speakers wishing to see just that happen in other religions.
SCOTT | 21 October 2011

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