بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
وصلى الله وسلم وبارك على نبينا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين
The fitna (tribulation) of modernism that has affected the Muslim world entirely reared its ugly head in the nineteenth century: “According to the widely accepted account, Egyptian modernization in the nineteenth century had devastating and lasting effects on the status and significance of the Egyptian ulama. The regime of Muhammad Ali (1805-49) was a major blow to the power of the Egyptian ulama. Muhammad Ali’s regime embarked on a centralization process, bringing under its supervision all major endowments and resources that had served as financial support for the ulama and their institutions for many years. As a result, under Muhammad Ali’s regime the religious institutions, the wellspring of the vast influence the ulama possessed, entered a period of rapid decline. Subsequently, the ulama began to lose their source of power and influence.” (The Making of Modern Egypt: The Egyptian Ulama as Custodians of Change and Guardians of Muslim Culture, p.14)
The emergence of the modern nation state was a huge factor in the transformation of Muslim societies from traditional, conservative ones, where the Ulama and the Sufis wielded great influence, to increasingly secularized ones where the institutions of religion are almost entirely under the corrosive control of the irreligious and anti-religious rulers. Throughout our history, we have been victims of the tyranny of dynastic rulers who always tried to subvert Islam for their own interests and opposed the pious Imams who spoke out or rose up against them. But with the onsought of the modern nation state, that tyranny only worsened because the state became omnipresent and interfering a lot more in the personal and religious affairs of the citizenry. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) prophesied:
ثُمَّ تَكُونُ مُلْكًا جَبْرِيَّةً
“Then there will be coercive rule”
(Musnad Ahmad bin Hanbal)
I interpret this as referring to the modern nation state, manifested as autocratic, dictatorial rule over the Arabs in particular in countries like Egypt and Syria. The modern nation state is only one manifestation of modernism that was forced upon the Muslim world. Modernism was promoted in the Indian subcontinent by Sir Syed Ahmad Khan throughout the nineteenth century. The Aligarh movement, associated with the English university he founded in that town, highly encouraged Muslims to seek modern, secular education so as to adapt to the traumatic changes that had been forced upon Muslim society because of European colonialism. This Aligarh movement was the engine behind the demand and eventual establishment of Pakistan. The traditionalist and conservative Ulama opposed the idea of Pakistan in great part because of the modernist tendency of the leadership that was spearheading its demand. They were correct in predicting that the establishment of Pakistan would not mean a pure Islamic state, but a modern nation state with secular tendencies that pays mere lip service to Islam. Furthermore, it would be a state dominated by irreligious feudalists and industrialists who were empowered by and greatly benefited from British rule. One could hardly expect any zeal for Islam from such a ruling class. History has proven such reservations of the traditionalist Ulama regarding Pakistan entirely right. Being a minority in Hindu India, the Muslims naturally look to their Ulama and religious leaders for leadership in the socio-political realm. But in Pakistan, the influence of the Ulama and the Sufi mystics is eclipsed by that of the feudalist and industrialist politicians and their corrupt political parties.
Egypt became a republic in 1953, following a coup by the Free Officers Movement. As president, Gamal Abdel Nasser promoted nationalism and pan-Arabism in his country, further sidelining the influence of religion. His harsh, secular regime nationalized the prestigious al-Azhar University, once considered the most influential institute of religious learning in Sunni Islam. As a result of this nationalization, al-Azhar University declined, lost its independence, and became totally subservient to the whims of the irreligious rulers of Egypt.
Because of the toxic influence of modernism, Muslims by and large abandoned the Prophet’s Sunna and adapted European customs and dress. Moderist ideas were likewise propagated by the freemason Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, and his disciple, Muhammad Abduh in Egypt. Their modernism penetrated the halls of al-Azhar University to such an extent that that institution is now completely a modernist one and has little connection with traditional Islam.
In India, a reaction to modernism was manifested in the school of Deoband. Although the theology and creed of the Deobandi school is quite problematic, it must nevertheless be appreciated for its firm stance against modernism, and for bringing about a cultural revival among the Muslims of the Indian subcontinent who were in great danger of being almost completely Europeanized, or worse, apostating from Islam altogether. The efforts of Deobandi outreach in the form of Jama’at at-Tabligh was originally to counter the threat posed by the Shuddhi movement, which sought to reconvert ignorant, largely rural Muslims back to Hinduism. The Deobandi school emphasizes the role of the madrassa as a means of solidifying Islamic identity among Muslims, and keeping them away from the poisonous influence of their largely Hindu setting as well as encroaching Europeanization. The madrassa is indeed the answer to modern, European education.
Unlike Deobandis, Salafis emphasize purification of creed and consequently have neglected the battle against modernism and European cultural influence among Muslims. In fact, many Salafis are open to modernism to a certain degree. Hence we often see a typical Salafi man with a long beard but clothed in a European suit. This is the unique product of Salafism - openness toward the modern, European lifestyle while strictly adhering to the fundamental rulings of Islam.