Sample Essay on Islam in the Modern World


Modernism and Islam have been explored and analyzed by many scholars. Andrew Rippin, a professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, Canada explores different scholars and their opinions on contemporary life and Islam. The paper discusses Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s biography of Muhammad as an important modern attempt to retrieve the example of the Prophet Muhammad for life in modern society. It also discusses the significance of Muhammad ‘Abduh for bringing about Islamic renewal as a vehicle to create a modern Egyptian society.

Key Words: Islam, modern

Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s biography of Muhammad as a retrieve of the Prophet Muhammad

Muhammad as a source of authority and what he did in his whole life is summed up in the word ‘sunna’. In modern concept, Muhammad is discussed in both implicit and explicit positions. Admiration of Muhammad within the context of the modern world can be taken as one of the elements defining Islam. Writing biographies of Muhammad is therefore viewed as a necessary enterprise. The biographies allow one to gain insight into the notion of the prophet by the modern Muslim. It reflects the standards, ideas and concept of an era.

Muhammad’s role in Islam was one of a teacher and exemplar. Different biographers have tried to capture different relevancies in regard to the prophet’s life. Some encourage pursing education and encouraging the use of reason.

Haykal regarded Islam as a way of fully keeping with modern life and reason. He wrote that modern rational standards may be identified as originally and inherently Muslim, Egyptian and Greek. He stated that Greek philosophy and literature was a contribution from Egypt. The new rational idea convinced people that miracles do not entail any argument at all. Therefore God decreed that the Prophet of Islam would rise and He would call men to the truth through reason.

Haykal’s biography of Muhammad is guided by spirit and ideals of Islam, with the basis of things ‘must have been’ a certain way. He viewed his approach as one that rejected Muslim conservative elements. He embraces the modern way of life as opposed to conservative aspects.

The Life of Muhammad, Haykal’s work aimed to provide a modern biography, one that echoes modern scientific reason. Haykal uses scientific reason to explain the happenings in Muhammad’s life. He downplays miracles and is more invested in the logical and things that can be explained. In the modern world, scientific reasoning drives people. People want to understand more and not follow or accept concepts and beliefs blindly.

The biography covers Muhammad’s marriages portraying seduction and lust. The modern world is full of lust and seduction, portraying Muhammad as one who experienced the same emotions is key in connecting to the modern times. People can identify with the prophet and he is not too aloof from the normal person.

He minimizes Muhammad’s use of violence as much as possible. Muhammad’s fighting is usually viewed as one of his successful strategy, it is noted that fighting took place under God’s command. Violence is frowned upon in modern times. No one wants to glorify war or fighting that is not justified. Downplaying the use of violence in Muhammad’s life gives the notion that he was not consumed by war.

He speaks of democracy, reflecting that such ideals originated from the time of Muhammad. Haykal identifies the democracy in Egypt, which is a link to modernism. The world today is demanding for democracy from all corners, religion and race.

His sense of rationality minimizes miracles in the life of Muhammad, putting emphasis on the natural process of life to explain some of them. Opting for rational explanation other than miracles propels the argument on contemporary times. The modern society is much more interested in explanations and proof than blind following and acceptance.

He paints a picture of Muhammad in terms of modern ideals, forgiving, loving and perfect. The ideal qualities in the modern society include loving and forgiving traits. The traditional society leaned on power and brutality in ruling, instilling as much fear as they could to their subjects.

Significance of Muhammad ‘Abduh’s Islamic renewal as a vehicle to create a modern Egyptian society

Muhammad Abduh is considered the most significant Modernist figure in the developments in Egypt. Abduh saw the main problem as the decay of the Islamic society due to changing circumstances which were unforeseen to Muhammad. These unforeseen changes included imposition of new codes of law, emergence of new institutions and schools in the society and changes in social circumstances.

Abduh brought together modern education and Islam. This was significant in incorporating Islam to the modern world and ensuring that it continued with the changing times. He knew that change was inevitable and could yield to more benefits, but he also saw the dangers that came with increasing separation of Islamic spheres and areas controlled by the modern sense of human reason. While the modern schools were lacking in religious ethics and the Islamic schools stagnant, Abduh’s answer was to link the principles of change to Islam. Islam would therefore be used as a tool for measure for what was good and what was necessary in the modern society. He hoped to show the more secular groups that it was possible to be spiritual in the modern times.

The Theology of Unity outlined an articulate new, rational and revitalized Islam. He uses rationality and explanations that appeal to a rational mind to convince people that Islam can be practiced in modern times. Islam, in his view did not have to be abandoned in favor of modernism. In the book, he emphasizes on logical arguments in order for all rational people to accept that Islam is the one true religion.

Abduh identified the elements of traditional Islam which were consonant with modern thought. He helped bring about Qur’an texts that could be understood by anyone. Under his guidance, Islam was to be viewed as a civilization. He argued for the need to make commentary on the Qur’an available to all. He therefore embarked on a commentary that would avoid the theological speculations. His commentary was then published, titled ‘Tafsir al-Manar’.  He significantly changed the reading of the Qur’an by a small group, expanding it to anyone and many people could now access it.

Abduh saw the Qur’an as tolerating scientific investigation. This was significant as it allowed Islam to merge with the modern world of science, making it comfortable for people in Islam to also undertake modern studies in science.

Abduh also explained that polygamy may not necessarily mean order in the house. He related to the modern values of one man one wife, without necessarily throwing out the premise of polygamy. He points out that ‘Polygamy is like one of the necessities permitted to the one whom it is allowed with stipulation that he act fairly with trustworthiness and he be immune from injustice’. He noted that corruption plagues even polygamous homes and that no beneficial situation and order prevails.