The Infamous Gap between Islam and Modernity

By: Sohaib Baig
Posted: 29 Jumada al Akhirah 1434, 10 May 2013

It is time for Muslims to stop playing catch-up.


Egypt in 1826. It was about a quarter of a century since Napoleon ’s invasion. Egypt was under the control of Muhammad Pasha, an ambitious, power-hungry Albanian who sought to establish his own empire in these Ottoman lands. Caught in the tangle of European networks of power, he sought to enhance his own standing amongst them by putting Egypt on the path of modernization and industrialization. Like so many others since then, who have been and continue to be enthralled by European power, he aspired to learn and apply their secrets to power and sophistication.

It was thus perfectly logical for Muhammad Pasha to send groups of students to Paris in the 1820s, to study the sciences of Western civilization. Accompanying one of these batches in 1826, was Imam Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi. Imam Tahtawi had been educated at Jami’at Al-Azhar in Cairo, and his role in this batch was primarily to provide religious guidance for the rest of the students. Nevertheless, his own thoughts and ideas began to evolve as he witnessed and participated in French culture. He kept a diary that was later published to much acclaim from the governing elite (whom Tahtawi had also praised). His diary was interestingly very “pro-Western” for the day, even if it still retained a somewhat critical approach. He criticized the moral debauchery that he saw amongst the French, but he remained mostly awe-inspired by the learning and the civil, political, and educational institutions that existed in France. Thus, he praised the modernization activities that Muhammad Pasha initiated in Egypt, including his efforts to industrialize and establish new, modern schools.

Once he returned, Tahtawi busied himself with heading many of these new schools and in translating French works into Arabic. This was unsurprising – obviously, the fastest way to learn from Europe would be to directly translate and teach its treasures. In his lifetime, he translated works ranging from military science to geography and from history to political science – showing not only his wide scope, but his near complete adulation of French intellectual works.

Tahtawi ultimately carved out an important legacy as a key pioneer of the Nahda - the Arab cultural and intellectual “renaissance” that saw many new “modernist” reinterpretations of Islam. Disoriented by the weakening political clout of the Muslims, many of these thinkers focused on the issue they considered to be of utmost importance: of reconciling Islam and modernity, as if these were somehow two distinct, monolithic entities that had fought long battles. Tahtawi arguably precipitated many of these newfound campaigns and efforts.


Perhaps Tahtawi’s story could have ended right there, but given our challenges today, it simply cannot. It is extremely striking how similar the concerns Tahtawi had are to our own concerns. Although Tahtawi lived in the 19th century, it is commonplace to still hear such rhetoric today regarding the need to progress and build bridges between Islam and modernity. Indeed, the student group which Tahtawi accompanied to Paris perhaps can be said to have been 19h century manifestations of the “we must learn the Western sciences to progress and modernize” paradigm that continues to thrive. Tahtawi himself then represented those who tried to apply an Islamic filter – the idea that Muslims must take the “good” and leave the “bad” of Western civilization in order to “progress and modernize.”

The persistence of this rhetoric today poses an extremely important question: Why haven’t Muslims succeeded in “advancing” or “modernizing” in these two centuries since Tahtawi? Why have the efforts of educators and intellectuals like Tahtawi failed to bring the Muslim world into a “modernized” state of being?

In reality, this “failure” simply testifies to the longevity and powerful grip of Western notions of progress and civilization. The persistence of this rhetoric today is not an accident or a mistake – it stems directly from the problematic nature of the quest to modernize itself. Few seemed to realize the very exercise of building a bridge itself can create its own ruptures, that it could perpetuate forever the fundamental differences between two artificially separated entities. Even fewer seemed to have reevaluated the basic underpinnings of their visions. What made something modern and something un-modern – if they existed simultaneously, at the same time? Who decided what it meant to be advanced or civilized anyways? Why was “progress” or “advancement” even such a pressing concern? How had one culture established its own monopoly of what it meant to be advanced and modernized?

Thus, despite all his efforts to utilize and filter Western knowledge in the cause of Egypt or Islam, Tahtawi still remained entrapped by Western categories of understanding. At the core, he was still attempting to adapt Islam to Western notions of progress and modernity, without even probing the value of such notions in the first place. Much of his thought, from his emphasis on education as a means for the ideology of development, to his endorsement of parliamentary systems stemmed from a worldview which had not completely interrogated its Western underpinnings. It was Islam that was transformed – not Western learning. Thus, in reality, it was Islam he ultimately interrogated with a Western lens, as seen in the efforts to “open” the minds of those who remained opposed to Western education.

Tahtawi serves as an important reminder of the risks inherent in engaging within Western epistemologies, of the deep power-broking involved in importing Western sciences. Indeed, it is common nowadays to hear Muslims from almost all segments of society speak about the need to give the social sciences and humanities proper attention and importance. Muslims must go into history, psychology, political science, sociology, communications, international relations, marketing, fashion, film, gender studies, global studies, literature, English – into every study and discipline that is in the Western academy. This, many argue, is not only how we will tap into the joys and fruits of Western learning, but how we will make Muslims up to par with the Western world in terms of culture and civilization.

In reality, we must question every single task that we set forth before ourselves – and we must question the tools and concepts that we use to judge them. To avoid making the mistakes that have been made countless times in the last few centuries, we must interrogate them and chart out their scope, to see if they lead like Tahtawi’s did to a self-perpetuation of foreign categories of understanding, or if they lead to something more organic and integrative at the same time. In practical terms, we have to understand the deeper implications of what it means to be engaged in anthropology, in film studies, in women’s studies, in media, in political science, in economics, in anything. We have to realize that every time we embrace these, we cross real epistemological zones and embrace different paradigms of conceiving and living life – just as we did, with disastrous consequences (and still do) with science and its underlying scientism.

This is not to set up new walls or boundaries between what is Islamic and Western. This is only to suggest that we must be aware of the power-broking inherent in the act of “learning from” and in the purposes of “modernizing” and “catching up.” Two centuries have not seen this process completed, not because this process somehow still needs more time, but because this process is precisely set upon concepts and categories which will forever sustain these imbalances. For too long, Muslims have been imprisoned by the idea that their Present is simply the West’s Past, and that their Future can only lead to the West’s Present. To actually fulfill Tahtawi’s real vision, we must tap into the deep, rich bodies of knowledge produced by Muslims over the centuries, and unchain ourselves from Western hegemonizing categories of understanding. This is how we can produce a fresh and liberating engagement with Western traditions of knowledge.

Originally posted at