Finding An Opening: Placing Islamic Modernism In An Eroding Postmodernist Landscape

Finding An Opening: Placing Islamic Modernism In An Eroding Postmodernist Landscape
Islamism as a postmodernist critique

In Pakistani films of the 1960s, men returning from Western countries (after getting degrees from universities) were often portrayed as becoming well-informed, wise and armed with the power of reason (aql) to reform and modernise the Pakistani society. The uneducated lot were depicted as being simple and innocent, and therefore vulnerable to the exploitative ways of feudal lords and clerics (mullahs) who wanted to keep them illiterate. As characters, the clerics were exhibited as relics of a bygone age and thus, enemies of social and economic progress. They were ‘anti-modern.’

However, by the mid-1970s, the ‘foreign-return’ men (and sometimes women) in Pakistani films suddenly became long-haired, guitar-slinging and dope-smoking buffoons. In contrast, characters believing in ‘Eastern values’ became the wise ones. Increasingly, the clerics too became wise, often with long flowing beards, and an empathetic tone of voice.

Modernism, once seen as an unstoppable force, had begun to recede. Apparently, the world was entering a ‘postmodern age.’

Ideas that formulated modernism had dominated various economic, political, scientific and cultural fields between the 18th and mid-20th centuries. Modernism was a product of the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ — a European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries in which ideas concerning God, reason, nature and humanity were synthesised into a universal worldview. Modernism was thus an anti-thesis of traditionalism, which it denounced as being dogmatic, conservative, anti-change, superstitious and dominated by religious, royal and landed elites.

Modernist theories and actions inspired to be progressive, democratic, revolutionary, scientific, rational, secular and individualistic. Modernism exhibited a contagious confidence and optimism. It attempted to create rational societies shaped by science, bold economic manoeuvres, universal human rights, and new forms of art and literature. Through grand theories and meta-narratives, it devised universal ways to achieve this, no matter in which part of the world one was based.

Modernism did achieve a lot in this respect. But it floundered when its critics questioned its optimism in the event of the two World Wars, the rise of totalitarian dictatorships, and the continuing racial prejudices and economic inequalities in modernised societies. The critique began in the 1960s and gained momentum from the 1970s onwards. In 1979, the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard announced that the world had entered a postmodern age.

Postmodernist scholars launched an all-out assault on modernism. Scepticism was their main weapon, as they ‘deconstructed’ modernist ideas in all fields. The early modernist aphorism ‘knowledge is power’ was critiqued from a negativist point-of-view, in which this power was understood as something that was sinister (because it was used to exploit large sections of society and undermine the rights of marginalised communities). In time, emotions, language, meta-narratives, mental illnesses, science, gender, all began to be seen as ‘social constructs’ designed by an ‘elite’ to retain power. Postmodernism then engulfed the universities. Students were encouraged to deconstruct everything. It was like deconstructing an orange. First the peels, then the pulp, then the seeds, until there was nothing left. Postmodernism insisted that there were no universal truths, but only perceived, localised truths, no matter how absurd they sounded to science and reason. Questioning claims that could not withstand the logic of science became an ‘offensive’ act.

Qutb: from anti-modern to postmodern

Politically, postmodernist ideas were adopted by right-wing and left-wing fringe groups that culminated in many of them becoming large populist movements. The question is, how much did postmodernism contribute in aiding Islamism’s surge? Islamism is a vehement critique of modernism. But till the 1960s, this critique struggled to find traction in a world shaped by modernism. The critiques were often rejected as being regressive. In the early 1960s, the Egyptian Islamist Sayyid Qutb decided to formulate a more jolting attack against modernism. To him, modernism had created a new kind of jahiliyya. He plucked this word from the Quran, something the Pakistani Islamist ideologue Abul Ala Maududi had already done in his own critique of modernism.

But Qutb’s usage was more political in nature. In the Quran, jahiliyya was a condition of a people who were ignorant because they had yet to receive the divine truth which was later revealed to Islam’s Prophet. To Qutb, this condition had returned when Muslim societies began to adopt modernism and tried to modernise Islam itself. Qutb encouraged an open rebellion against Muslim leaders who were imposing modernism and thus, shaping a new jahiliyya. He raged against the primacy of human will in the modern societies and the relegation of divine will. It bothered him that despite receiving the divine truth, Muslim societies were imitating their decadent, secular Western counterparts in a bid to become modern.

Qutb was executed in 1966. But writings by him when he was in jail, began to get a lot more traction when in 1967 Egypt lost a war against Israel and then, from 1973 onwards, it began to roll back its modernisation project. So Qutb, from being a regressive figure, suddenly became an important and insightful critic of modernism and advocate of an ‘indigenous’ Islamic alternative. This sat well with what would soon become postmodernism. But it would be the prolific French philosopher and one of the pioneers of postmodernism Michel Foucault who would romanticise Islamism as a powerful critique of modernity and a valid postmodernist idea. From a ‘regressive’ anti-modern critique, Islamism became a glorified postmodernist critique.

Looking for a spiritual Superman: Foucault in Iran

Foucault was fascinated by various counter-Enlightenment ideas. He embarked on a search to look for men who were willing to push the limits of rationality and transcend the established ideas of ‘sanity.’ In his first major work, 1961’s Madness and Civilisation, Foucault posited that the idea of mental illness was a social construct that was wielded as a tool to exclude those who refused to conform to the established ideas of rationality that were developed by the Enlightenment philosophers to monopolise the definitions of sanity and madness.

He was also fascinated by the founder of communist China, Mao Zedong. He saw great passion being enacted in Mao’s Cultural Revolution, a decade-long period of political and social chaos caused by Mao’s bid to use the Chinese masses to reassert his control over the ruling Communist party.

As Mao came under increasing criticism in the West for flouting human rights and instigating violence, Foucault declared that the idea of universal human rights was meaningless because the concept of rights changed from culture to culture. He insisted that specific philosophers were needed to explore specific cultures and specific truths. This was, of course, an attack on the whole idea of universal truths and the concept of the universal principles of human rights that were products of the Enlightenment. A rejection of the concept of universality in this regard would become an important plank of postmodernism, replaced by the exploration of specific understanding of specific cultures about their specific ‘truths.’

Fascination with Maoism among many European intellectuals increasingly fell away. In fact, by 1977, when the last remnants of the 1960s left radicalism had called it a day, Foucault suddenly became a champion of universal/international human rights. Thus began a shift in European left from eulogising those who had inspired millions to partake in the acts of collective (political) passion, to becoming relativist cultural beings, detached from Realpolitik and divorced from ideologies weaved from meta-narratives.
Whether metamodernism establishes itself as a strong intellectual current or is able to go beyond being just another attractive term, there is no doubt that postmodernism is rapidly eroding

The 19th-century German counter-Enlightenment philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche became a favourite of early postmodernists. He was soon given a makeover. It is true that Nietzsche was never anti-Semitic and that his writings were distorted by his sister after his death (in 1900) to make his ideas fit Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, there was always enough in Nietzsche’s writings to inspire acts of genocide, tyranny, the creation of a ‘master race’ and a relentless war ethos (R. Wolin: The Seduction of Unreason). One shouldn’t be surprised, really, that Nietzsche was moulded into a prophet of sorts by the Nazis.

Yet, such disturbing realisations were casually ignored by the early harbingers of postmodernism. They began to venerate Nietzsch as a thinker who was ‘anti-politics’ and an ascetic who was raging against the corruptions of modernism and the hypocrisy of both religious as well as secular morality. If so, then what exactly did Nietzsche mean by ‘Great Politics?’

To Foucault, the answer came in the shape of the 1979 ‘Islamic revolution’ in Iran. Whereas he almost completely ignored the leftist Sandinista Revolution of 1979 in Nicaragua that had toppled a corrupt US-backed dictatorship, he exhibited extraordinary interest in the events that led to the fall of another US-backed tyrant in Iran. The fallen tyrant was the monarch Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

The spiritual Übermensch

In Mao, Foucault saw a man who had pushed the limits of rationality to lay bare the tyranny of the sterile and conformist notions of ‘Western modernity’ and the statist rationality of Soviet communism. By the late 1970s, movements within the left that had challenged mainstream leftist ideas had all but dissolved into becoming postmodernism. Early postmodernists began to look for inspiration outside the contexts of Western thought, and communism. Being relativists, they scoffed at the universal notions of rationality and truth, insisting that every culture had its own truths produced by its own realities.

In other words, if many of these ‘truths’ contradicted the universal ideas of rationality and even science, this did not mean they were untruths. It just meant that they had rejected the notions of truth constructed and monopolised by the Enlightenment and the West and peddled as being universal. No wonder then, Foucault fell head-over-heels over men such as the charismatic Shia cleric Ayatollah Khomeini.

Nietzsche may have been anti-religion, but in one of his most compelling works, 1883’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, it was a ‘prophet’ (Zarathustra) who had ‘taught the coming of an Übermensch.’ An ‘overman’ who will rise to fill the void created by the ‘death of god.’ He would mould a new system of morals that would not be weighed down by Christian beliefs and values, nor by the humanitarian principles of the Enlightenment which, to Nietzsche, were just another form of religious morality, devoid of passion, greatness and creativity.

Modernism reached a peak in the mid-20th century. However, by the 1970s, religion was making a comeback. Especially in the Muslim world. Foucault and his early postmodernist contemporaries began to perceive the Übermensch as a spiritual being. And so, Foucault travelled to Iran in September 1978. He closely studied the works of the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati. Shariati is widely hailed as the father of Iran’s 1979 revolution, even though he died two years earlier.

He was suspected to have been poisoned by the Shah’s secret police. Shariati was not a cleric. In fact, just as the ‘New Left’ had done in the West in the 1960s, Shariati reworked Marxism so it could be liberated from dogma and was able to address a wider range of issues. Shariati did this by expressing reworked Marxist ideas in the language of revolutionary Shi’ism. He projected these ideas as being already present in the events of the ‘Battle of Karbala’ (680 AD) when Husayn (AS), the grandson of Islam’s Prophet (PBUH), refused to give allegiance to the caliph Yazid because Husayn considered him to be a tyrant and a usurper.
Foucault and his early postmodernist contemporaries began to perceive the Übermensch as a spiritual being. And so, Foucault travelled to Iran in September 1978. He closely studied the works of the Iranian scholar Ali Shariati

A small army led by Husayn was surrounded and slaughtered by Yazid. The massacre shaped Shi’ism as we know it today. But according to Shariati, the revolutionary and defiant spirt of Husayn were toned down by Shia monarchs and by the clerics on the payroll of the monarchs. Khomeini adopted Shariati’s narrative and worked it to mean a passionate and fearless uprising against the ‘tyrant’ and ‘usurper’ (the Shah), and that would establish an Islamic theocracy navigated by ‘pious men’ (such as himself). This was Khomeini’s interpretation of Shariati. But the fact is: this was a Shia version of what Sunni Islamists such as Pakistan’s Abul Ala Maududi and Egypt’s Syed Qutb had already conceptualised as a way to oust the modernist ideas that they believed had become prevalent in Muslim societies and were undermining the primacy of Islam.

Foucault studied the ideas of Shariati who was referencing the early 20th-century South Asian philosopher-poet Muhammad Iqbal’s idea of ‘khudi;’ and/or a powerful self-realisation that would lead to a new understanding of Islam as being a viable political and spiritual means to a revolution. It was the spiritual bit that fascinated Foucault the most. To him, Christianity had been overcome by secularism because it became decadent and corrupt and devoid of any spirituality. This, to Foucault, had left the rational West ‘spiritually bankrupt.’ But now, here he was in a non-Western country, watching a revolution unfold, inspired by what Foucault called ‘political spirituality.’ In a way, to Foucault, Khomeini became this revolution’s Übermensch.

In his writings from Tehran, Foucault claimed to be witnessing the birth of powerful ideas that Western intellectuals had not known about or had thought did not exist. As he saw Khomeini ‘push the limits of rationality’ in declaring the creation of a theocracy that had shunned secular ideas from both the left and the right, Foucault wrote that this had the potential of initiating new forms of creativity.

He excitedly declared that political spirituality had the potential of destroying Western philosophy and even engulf Western politics that had been under the sway of Enlightenment ideas for far too long. Foucault did not hide his enthusiasm of being at the epicentre of a revolution, which he claimed was unlike any other. To Foucault, the Iranian revolution was a passionate onslaught against the idea of modernism that had been imposed on non-European and ‘spiritual societies’ such as Iran.

Foucault came under increasing attack by his contemporaries in the European intellectual circles for being swept away by the flood of emotions that was sweeping the streets of Iran. Some of his most vocal critics were Western and Iranian feminists who warned that the revolution would increasingly take a ‘fundamentalist’ turn and spell disaster for women. Khomeini was preaching a return to an idealised premodern past. Foucault was okay with that because romanticised pasts had also attracted Nietzsche who saw great empires thriving in them. Yet, Foucault had only surface knowledge of a (largely imagined) premodern past that the Islamists had begun to peddle from the early 20th century onwards.

Like earlier counter-Enlightenment thinkers, Foucault too had come to romanticise the ‘passion’ (untempered by reason) of premodern societies and was excited to see it return in the shape of the 1979 revolution in Iran. He saw it as a creative force. But he suddenly went quiet when news of mass executions of anti-Khomeini activists and the oppression of women began to pour out from Iran. The experiment of rebelling against modernism through premodern impulses that Foucault excitedly saw taking shape in Iran, had become as violent as the modernism he was raging against. What’s more, his sudden silence got quieter still when the theocracy that Foucault’s spiritual Übermensch had constructed, began to also systematically execute gays. Foucault was a declared homosexual.

Foucault had been taken in by the nostalgia of a romanticised past that he, or those promising it, were never a part of. We have seen this happening over and over again after the 1970s, especially in Muslim-majority countries: nostalgia of a romanticised and misconstrued past offered as a solution to a complicated present.


Orientalising the self

Islamism, when it became a postmodernist critique, developed a ‘self-orientalist’ dimension. In his hugely influential book Orientalism (1978), Edward Said demonstrated how the West had been concocting distorted views of Eastern cultures, especially ever since the 18th century. According to Said, ‘Orientalism’ was related to and informed by the West’s colonial politics and ambitions. To Said, Western portrayals of Muslims were a political exercise in which the non-Western subjects were viewed and explained narrowly to self-affirm the West’s cultural superiority.

Edward Said

Said lamented that the West presented Eastern subjects as ‘the other,’ and/or as people and cultures operating outside the context of political, social and economic modernity. They were depicted as being ‘exotic,’ impulsive, emotional, dogmatic and irrational. And thus, ‘backwards.’ Said wrote that these were false portrayals.

Said’s insights prompted the formation of robust intellectual tools in the fields of sociology, anthropology and cultural studies, with which the depictions of the East and its subjects in Western cultural products were more objectively explored. But his ideas also came in for some severe criticism. He was accused of treating the West the same way that he accused the West of treating the East. According to Said’s critics, he saw the West as a monolithic whole, ignoring the different cultures and races which reside in this whole. They also argued that Said cherry-picked his way through to develop his thesis, disregarding the fact that many Eastern cultures willingly adopt a variety of political, economic and social ideas introduced by the West. According to his critics, Said also ignored the more objective studies of Eastern societies by Western authors that had no political agendas.

Said’s assessments sound postmodernist. But his was not really a critique of modernism, but of colonialism which, however, is often seen as a product of early modernism. Nevertheless, If Western portrayals of the East were not to be believed, and nor should Western culture be treated as being superior and then adopted, then what should be? If local/indigenous cultures and traditions need to be reinforced in the East, how were they to function in a world that has been dominated by Western economic and political systems and technologies for over two centuries? The situation in certain Eastern societies has come to a point that even science is now derided as a Western tool of oppression.

Nevertheless, today, one can say that the Muslim world has surpassed being Orientalised in the old-fashioned colonial way. But it has begun to self-orientalise itself. This happens when cultures that have allegedly been Orientalised by the West become full participants in the process. Instead of leaving the act and imagination of portraying the East solely to the West, the East becomes an active participant in the exercise.

Giving the spiritually bankrupt West some soul

For example, if the West has developed a certain perception about an Eastern culture, the Eastern culture becomes a conscious partner in this endeavour. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the colonial-era perception of India being a region of exotic spiritualists and gurus reached a peak in the West, many Indians became participants in strengthening this perception. It attracted tourism to India, and opportunities for Indians to set up ‘spiritual centres’ in Europe and the US. These centres operated like business enterprises. The perception also worked on a political level, because it suggested that Indians were ‘peaceful and spiritual people’ compared to their more aggressive Muslim neighbours in Pakistan.

In the early 1970s, a young man Uxi Mufti, son of the famous Pakistani intellectual Mumtaz Mufti, began constructing the building blocks of what would become Lok Virsa — a government-funded organisation committed to promoting the country’s folk culture. Having been a student in Prague, Uxi had seen how ‘Hindu gurus’ whetted the interests of thousands of Europeans and Americans. He advised the Pakistani government to promote Sufism and Pakistan’s folk arts in the West. Across the late 1960s and the 1970s, Pakistani folk singers were sent to perform in Western countries.

Before postmodernism begin to believe the same, Indians and Pakistanis had already perceived Westerners to be ‘spiritually bankrupt.’ So, they reached out to fill this ‘void’ by delivering to the ‘empty Westerners’ forms of spirituality that were outside the more orthodox contexts of Hinduism and Islam, and thus more approachable. Both were self-orientalising themselves by appealing to the Orientalist idea of the Subcontinent being a region of exotic spiritualists, gurus and Sufi masters.

This went on for decades, even though, ironically, societies in both India and Pakistan were increasingly becoming ‘fundamentalist’ in their religious beliefs. In 1985, when as an 18-year-old college student I first visited India, I met a group of Belgian and Dutch tourists who had arrived in Bombay from Pakistan. They said they were extremely disappointed to see that the people of both the countries were nothing like the ‘Pakistani Sufi masters’ and ‘Indian gurus’ that they had encountered in Amsterdam and Brussels. One of them complained that an Indian tourist guide had taken them to a guru’s place which was ‘clearly constructed to please white Europeans.’ He said the same thing about Thailand, where there were Buddhist temples constructed precisely for this reason. There, they had seen Buddhist monks who were not real monks, but employees of Thailand’s tourism department.

During a visit to Istanbul in 2007, when I saw a performance by the ‘whirling dervishes,’ I felt cheated. But I wasn’t the target audience. The target audience were the Westerners with more euros and dollars to spend. I was told by a Turk that the ‘dervishes’ were simply salaried performers who had nothing to do with any Sufi order. This was self-orientalism enacted to draw financial benefits.

But self-orientalism is not just about dressing up to appease Orientalist perceptions to boost the tourism industry. When it interacted with postmodernism, it also became a way to form an identity for deeper reasons, even though the audience remains to be the West (and the Westernised). Let’s take the example of Muslims in general, and of Pakistan in particular.
Professor Emeritus Bichara Khader, in his essay for the 2016 book The Search for Europe wrote that Islamophobia in Europe and in the US is, of course, linked to migrants from Muslim countries that are seen as a threat to Western culture and security. But he added that migration was not an issue at all in the West till the mid-1960s

In 2022, a Twitter account called ‘Pakistan Travel Guide’ tweeted an image of two young women in niqabs standing in front of the Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. The tweet claimed that ‘halal tourism’ could generate millions of tourists. This was a case of self-orientalism enacted to attract financial benefits, but one that is also a product of ‘identity politics.’ Identity politics, as one understands it today, first appeared in the US. It has come to signify a wide range of political activity and theorising found in the shared experiences of injustice of members of certain social groups. It first emerged in 1977 among black feminist groups in the US. Identity politics is based on the belief that some social groups are oppressed, making them vulnerable to ‘cultural imperialism’ (including stereotyping, erasure, or appropriation of a group’s identity).

In Europe and the US, women, black, gay and transgender communities have been prominent exponents of identity politics. Muslim communities living in the West entered the fray in the early 2000s, especially after the 9/11 attacks in the US. Indeed, the most immediate reason for this was the scrutiny that Muslims residing in the West were put under after 9/11. But some cultural movements that first emerged in certain Muslim regions from the mid-1970s contributed in building what Muslims in the West are using today to advance their identity politics.

For example, in Egypt, as the idea of Arab Nationalism/Islamic modernism began to wither away, especially after Israeli forces decimated the Egyptian military and air force in 1967, the once suppressed and sidelined Islamist groups began to resurface. They first constructed social movements in Egypt’s urban lower-middle-and-working-class areas and on the country’s university campuses. Mosques were built on campuses and the w

Pakistani migrants in London in the mid-1970s

earing of Western clothes discouraged. Students (mostly male) handed out niqabs and hijabs to female students.

They viewed social modernity – once encouraged by Egypt’s Arab nationalist government – as devoid of spirituality and a way to discourage people from embracing ‘Islamic apparel,’ rituals, and thus, identity. Similar sentiments and social movements also began to emerge in Iran in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution. However, such movements at the time were not present in Muslim communities residing in Europe and the US.

Till the late 1970s, Pakistani and Indian Muslim migrants in the West were almost entirely immersed in European ways of life. There were hardly any purpose-built mosques nor any urgency to acquire ‘Islamic attire.’ A majority of South Asian Muslim migrants in the West were male.

Most of these migrants had become integral components of the European working-classes. A lot of their time was spent working in factories, after which they would frequent pubs. Professor Emeritus Bichara Khader, in his essay for the 2016 book The Search for Europe wrote that Islamophobia in Europe and in the US is, of course, linked to migrants from Muslim countries that are seen as a threat to Western culture and security. But he added that migration was not an issue at all in the West till the mid-1960s. From the 1950s, thousands of Muslims from South Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East and North Africa had been arriving in various European cities. They were looking for work and higher wages. Khader writes that as post-World-War-2 economies boomed in Europe, these migrants were seen as vital contributors to this boom.

Race riots in England, 1981: bands of African, Caribbean and South Asian youth fought battles with white neo-fascist groups and the police

It was only when the economies of Europe began to recede, especially after the 1973 international oil crisis, that the term ‘migration problem’ really came into play. Yet, it was still not linked to a ‘Muslim problem’ as it is today. Khader wrote that the economic turmoil of the 1970s and early 1980s triggered riots involving migrants and locals, especially in England. These were explained as ‘race riots’ that involved white locals, black migrants from the Caribbean islands, and Muslim and non-Muslim Pakistanis, Indians and Bangladeshi. The reasons were economic. Neo-fascist outfits accused their government of allowing non-white migrants to steal ‘white jobs.’ It really wasn’t a clash of cultures as such. Or not yet.

Till the early 1980s, Muslim migrants were not very exhibitionistic about their faith. For example, they were happy with a few basement mosques. But once settled, they began to marry women from their own countries. They then brought them to Europe, even though it wasn’t uncommon for some to marry European women as well. Khader wrote that most of these women who came as wives were from rural and semi-rural areas of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Egypt, etc. They had been impacted by the aforementioned ‘Islamic’ social movements which were initiated from the mid-1970s in their countries. Their influence changed the settlers’ attitude towards their religion and cultural values. Whereas once they were fine with their small basement mosques, they now began to demand purpose-built mosques.

The change in behaviour attracted an influx of Muslim preachers who began to set up shop in various European cities. They were particularly appealing to second-generation Muslim migrants, especially from families who had failed to be fully assimilated by European integration policies. This generation began to adopt ‘Islamic’ ideas popularised by Islamic evangelical outfits. They used these to invent an identity for themselves as Muslims in non-Muslim countries. As the presence of veiled women and mosques grew, this is when the ‘migration problem’ began to be seen as a ‘Muslim problem’, triggering episodes of Islamophobia.

Between the 1950s and early 1970s, as more and more women began to join the work force, they started to view veiling as an impediment

The Iranian theocracy and Saudi monarchy played a major role. Social and evangelical Islamist movements were bankrolled by the two in their respective Shia and Sunni domains of influence. The traditional black chador – that was made compulsory for women in Iran after the revolution – was enthusiastically adopted by many Shia women in various Muslim and Western countries. The niqab and hijab that became compulsory for women in Saudi Arabia in 1980 were vigorously promoted through Saudi-funded governments and programs in Sunni-majority countries and among the Sunni Muslim diasporas in the West. Men, too, were encouraged to adopt an ‘Islamic look,’ by letting their beards grow. Saudi Arabia also bankrolled the construction of mosques, not only in Muslim countries, but in European countries and in the US as well.

The Islamic cultural products that a lot of Muslims began to acquire and admire, especially in Western countries, were pushed to them as expressions that were rooted in an ancient Islamic past which, apparently, modernism had conspired to erode. The hijab is an example. But according to the Egyptian scholar Leila Ahmed her book Women and Gender in Islam, it was a misconception that the practice of veiling was first introduced in the ancient Islamic world. According to Ahmed, the roots of niqab, hijab and the burqa can be found in how ‘elite women in ancient Mesopotamia and in the Byzantine, Greek, and Persian empires wore the veil as a sign of respectability and high status.’ Therefore, the perception that the practice of veiling is rooted in some pristine Islamic past is not the creation of the West, but of the Muslims.

The image of a veiled Muslim woman and a bearded Muslim man, for example, eclipsed the previous Orientalist depictions of Muslims as being part of ‘exotic’ and ‘mystical’ cultures. The new image reflected conservatism and expressions of high morality. This image got embedded in the Western mind from the 1990s, and especially after 9/11. It was also used by many Muslims in the West to flex their bit of identity politics.

Those who were aggressively building an identity by adopting a look deemed ‘Islamic’ were using it as a signaller of identity whose history was supposedly rooted in a ‘pristine’ past. To do this, they also made sure that a more immediate (and less imaginary) past was erased.

In A Quiet Revolution, Leila Ahmad wrote that by the early 1960s, veiling in the Muslim world had receded so much that only a handful of women practised it. The tradition of veiling in most Muslim regions had begun to decline from the 1930s. According to Ahmad, by the 1960s, even women belonging to the ‘conservative lower-middle classes’ had begun to discard it.

The British historian Stephanie Cronin in her book Anti-Veiling Campaigns in the Muslim World wrote that the unveiling was the result of a ‘modernist gender discourse’ in the Muslim world. The discourse was initiated by the impact of European modernity in colonised regions. Local intelligentsias began to investigate the reasons behind the decline of their civilisations and the rise of the one that had colonised them.

Science, modern education, integrated economies powered by industrialisation, and religious reform were identified as the main drivers of Western ascendancy. According to Cronin, Muslim nationalists wanted to provide the same to their communities. They immediately adopted economic and social ‘modernisation’ models developed by the ascending Western powers. One of the learnings that had emerged from the modernist gender discourse in the Muslim regions was that economic progress in the modern world required an educated workforce which could not exclude women.

This meant women had to attend educational institutions so that they too, could become part of the workforce alongside men. This is one reason why the tradition of veiling began to recede. The modernist-nationalist governments in many Muslim countries posited that Islam was a progressive faith and that the idea of veiling in it was a metaphor for upholding modesty by both men and women. Between the 1920s and early 1970s, regimes in Muslim-majority countries such as Turkey, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan and Albania actively discouraged veiling.

In most other Muslim-majority nation-states where veiling was also in decline, regimes had left it to the women to decide, even though the need for them to get a modern education and enter the workforce was greatly emphasised. But this past is either actively erased or aggressively derided today. In her study of Al Huda — a Pakistan-based Islamic school for (mostly well-to-do) women — Sadaf Ahmad interviewed a young member of Al Huda who reacted to the type of clothes that her mother wore in the 1970s. The young woman was shocked and claimed that the women of her mother’s generation didn’t know much about Islam.
After economies in Europe and the US began to come under stress in 2008, the intensity of complaints against ‘Islamophobia’ there increased. A majority of Muslims who had firmly adopted the identity that was first formulated by Iran-and-Saudi-funded-programmes, and then solidified in the West by postmodernist ideas, found themselves in a quagmire

Most probably, she believed that unlike her own generation which, apparently, has reclaimed its true identity, her mother’s generation was lost and too smitten by modernism. But in many cases, this so-called reclaimed identity, especially among middle-and-upper-middle-class women, is adopted so that it could be exhibited for an audience that is largely Western or Westernised. This identity had risen from the political and economic turmoil that many Muslim regions plunged into in the early and mid-1970s. They were then faced with a world that had ‘entered a postmodern age’ or where modernism, even in the West, was being questioned, and in which ‘multiculturalism’ had begun to be championed. This meant that a non-Western community (in the West) didn’t have to completely immerse itself in the cultural values of the West, as long as it was knitted to a global neoliberal economy and remained productive.

But what happens when such an economy begins to struggle? A publicly-asserted cultural identity (especially that of a diaspora) becomes that much harder to be accepted, and it often comes under scrutiny, and is criticised for being purposely alien and even provocative. After economies in Europe and the US began to come under stress in 2008, the intensity of complaints against ‘Islamophobia’ there increased. A majority of Muslims who had firmly adopted the identity that was first formulated by Iran-and-Saudi-funded-programmes, and then solidified in the West by postmodernist ideas, found themselves in a quagmire. The way that they looked or practiced their faith had been accepted by a multicultural West, but now the West was changing again.

In 2003, the former chief of the mainstream Pakistani Islamist party Jamat-e-Islami (JI), the late Qazi Hussain Ahmad, was quoted in the Urdu daily Nawa-i-Waqt as saying that Westerners now respect those Muslims more who have shunned Western values and adopted Islamic ones. He said there was nothing wrong in behaving or looking ‘religious’ because the West is more appreciative of this than of those behaving like Westerners. This is a classic case of self-orientalism, because here a subject had constructed a more ‘authentic’ new identity which was positioned against unauthentic dictates of modernism or of Orientalism, but it was still looking towards the West for validation.

During my experience of heading the media department of a British educational and cultural organisation between 2010 and 2015 (in Karachi), I noticed that the organisation kept using hijab-wearing women to depict Muslim women. Yet, non-Muslims were never defined in this context through the apparel of their respective faiths. A Hindu or a Christian, for example, were never shown in their ‘religious dresses.’ Nevertheless, the whole ‘Islamic look’ had turned into a caricature of sorts. And the identity based on it began to run into trouble. Muslims jumped off the Orientalist stage decades ago, but the era of Qazi Sahib’s self-orientalism, too, is receding.

Syed Ahmad Khan: one of the main architects of Islamic Modernism in South Asia


Revival of Islamic Modernism as a ‘Metamodernist’ initiative?

In the 19th century, many Muslim intellectuals in regions colonised by European powers began working towards building ‘modern’ Muslim communities that were to be ‘a sacred but admitting human will, and secular admitting sacred will’ (AU.Qasmi, Modern Asian Studies, 2010).

It was a ‘middle path’ between theocracy and secular republicanism – a path that was initially imagined in various forms by reformist Muslim intellectuals active in East and South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Jolted by the juggernaut of European colonialism, these intellectuals not only took to task colonialism and the disruption that it had caused in colonised societies, but they also questioned the Muslim response to it. They believed that the response was entirely ill-equipped to face Europe’s military and economic might.

They located Europe’s rise in its willingness to radically overturn modes of thinking rooted in static traditions, and in a ritualistic, ‘superstitious’ and enchanted understanding of Christianity. To the Muslim reformists, this, and the manner in which the human ability to reason had gained supremacy over emotion in Europe, had given birth to ideas that led to a great many medical, military, economic and political inventions. These empowered Europe to overtake traditional Muslim societies, leaving them vulnerable to conquest and unable to comprehend a world that was being turned on its head.

This line of thinking was manifested in multiple ways by the ‘modernist’ Muslim intelligentsias, giving birth to what became to be known as ‘Islamic modernism.’ It sought to liberate Islam from the clutches of ancient and medieval interpretations of the faith’s sacred texts and reinterpret them according to new realities in a world that was entering a ‘modern age’ and in which all that was considered premodern was eroding.

Islamic modernists understood the European Enlightenment as a product of reformed Christianity and/or the disenchantment of the faith so it could be understood in a rational manner, allowing human will to determine the political and economic fate of nations, but without completely rejecting the concept of divine will. However, divine will was not to be manifested by monarchs and clerics anymore, but through the human will to progress in a rational and scientific manner.

The Islamic modernists sought to do the same. Faced by accusations by colonialists that Islam was not compatible with modernity, the modernists first reminded the critics that Muslims were exploring philosophies and sciences (that were evolved by the Europeans during the Enlightenment) long before there was anything called the Enlightenment. But they agreed that after the 12th century, this intellectual tradition in the Islamic world began to dwindle when some influential Islamic scholars created an orthodoxy, fearing that rational intellectual inquiry had become detrimental to the core doctrines of the faith.

Islamic modernists then began to challenge the orthodoxy, criticising it as being frozen in the past. To them, orthodoxy was against the true spirit of Islam. They reinterpreted Islam’s holy texts to demonstrate that God encouraged humans to understand His creations in a rational manner to fully appreciate them, and this required the application of the modern sciences and philosophies.

The modernists sought flexible states which could move freely between the sacred and the secular without being weighed down by the demands of theocracy or those of secularism. To them, being Muslim was good enough to sustain a national and political identity rather than being theocratic which would require imposing Shariah laws. The latter was particularly hard to do in a country such as Pakistan which was not only multiethnic, but also had multiple Islamic sects and sub-sects with their own distinct ideas of what constituted the Shariah.

Ideas formulated by the modernists succeeded in running past the seekers of an Islamic State in the first 25 years or so of Pakistan. But the state was of the view that the modernist project required a strong centralised political setup overseen by a ‘benevolent’ dictator and a likeminded bureaucracy and national intelligentsia serving him. As the population of the country increased and the state failed to address challenges triggered by the increase, the lack of democratic outlets left many impacted by these challenges to seek political change.

Ayub Khan: the modernist dictator

Islamic modernism increasingly came to be seen as an authoritarian idea enforced by a ruling and economic elite. In Pakistan, the idea began to be challenged from three fronts: The secular ethno-nationalists accused it of being hegemonic and a way to undermine non-Punjabi ethnic groups by imposing upon them a cosmetic and anti-democratic idea of Muslim nationalism. The left saw it as a project of ‘neo-colonialism,’ and of unhinged capitalism. And the Islamists alleged that it was designed to advance secularism and was pitched against the ‘Islamic character’ of Pakistan’s polity.

The years between 1972 and 1977 or right after the country lost its eastern wing in a civil war, can be seen as the period of transition from modernist Muslim nationalism towards Islamic nationalism. Weary of the manner in which the modernist dictatorship of Ayub Khan (1958-1969) had been ousted by a violent movement, the otherwise left-leaning ZA Bhutto regime (1971-77) began moving to the right, creating enough space for the Islamists to sneak in.

Once fully in the mainstream, these outfits launched intense campaigns against any remnants of Islamic modernism. The campaigns were quietly supported by sitting governments as a way to deflect the energies of the Islamists towards attacking cultural ‘modernity’ and leftist sentiments on campuses. But in hindsight, one can see that it was naive to believe that the campaigns would stay away from becoming militantly political.

They moved from campuses to the mosques, and from mosques to the streets.The mosques and campuses became the epicentres of activity of Islamist outfits who eventually turned their energies towards challenging sitting governments that they accused of being ‘fake Muslims.’

As a response, by the late 1970s, governments in many Muslim countries began adopting ideas formulated by Islamists as a way to usurp them. These ideas of building an Islamic State had been floating around for decades, but they were repressed and sidelined by the State and governments who were building Muslim nationalisms on the intellectual foundations erected by the modernists.

Zia-ul-Haq as Islamist dictator

Many of these foundations had begun to erode from the late 1960s. In the 1980s, they completely collapsed, unable to withstand political and intellectual onslaughts of the Islamists. On many occasions, the State absorbed the onslaught by co-opting Islamist ideas. Pakistan and Sudan are two examples in which the once modernist State became increasingly Islamist. But this was happening in various other Muslim-majority countries as well.

The idea was to keep at bay Islamist uprisings (like the one that erupted in Iran in 1979). Saudi and US money aided Muslim countries in doing this. This way, the State and governments were able to synchronise economic prosperity with piety, keeping the seekers of an Islamic State busy enjoying their newfound political and economic gains, and mostly interested in aiding (instead of challenging) the State in ‘Islamising’ the society. The US was satisfied with this arrangement because it feared that Islamic modernism had eventually led to countries gravitating towards the Soviet camp.

The celebrated Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad was one of the first Muslim scholars to warn the US that this approach would become extremely problematic, especially regarding US decision to bankroll a ‘jihad’ in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But Muslim modernist critiques of ideas floated by the seekers of an Islamic State were systematically repressed and even demonised. They were tossed in the dustbin of history.

Ideas of the Islamist lot proliferated. Any attempt to look for a middle path between the sacred and the secular, divine and human will was abandoned. Islamists, clerics, the State and even non-Islamist politicians, all now claimed to be manifesting divine will. Debates thus became about who was doing this better. But such debates often flared up and triggered violence. Many variations of the idea of an Islamic State began to compete against each other. These conflicts poured out on the streets in the shape of sectarian riots, assassinations, counter-assassinations, mob violence and ultimately anti-State militancy. The State had no clue how to neutralise them.

In the early 20th century, Islamism took shape as a critique of modernism. This critique had its roots in the 19th century when Ulema began to ‘reform’ Islamic theology to counter European colonialism. The reform in this context was aimed to not only challenge colonialism, but also the populist variants of Islam (such as Sufism) that had been prominent in a majority of Muslim societies, especially from the 12th century onwards. The Islamic modernists too became targets of the Ulema because they saw the modernists as local extensions of colonialism and modernism.

By the early 20th century, a strong political dimension was added to the critique which saw the actual birth of Islamism and/or of ‘Political Islam.’ Modernism began being seen as a political onslaught against Islam especially when the idea of nationalism began being adopted by Muslim intellectuals and politicians. Islamists understood nationalism as a secular formation that negated Islam’s universality and the assertion of human will as opposed to that of divine will.

Ironically, Islamism quickly adopted modern political constructs such as the State, but claimed that by this it meant the building of an ‘Islamic State’ that had once existed in Arabia in the 7th century AD. Of course, that ‘State’ was nothing like the States that began to emerge from the 18th century onwards in Europe. But the inability of Islamism to convincingly substantiate the existence of a 7th century State that operated like an all-encompassing modern State, did not deter early 20th century Islamists from continuing to speak about its contemporary revival. They offered the creation of an Islamic State as an alternative to a modern nation-state.

Till the 1960s, Islamism was often understood as an anti-modern idea that wanted to push Muslim societies back in the 7th century. Modernists lamented that Islamists were frozen in a past that they had misconstrued because Islam was inherently modern and fluent and nothing like the social and political dogma it had been turned into by the Islamists. Things began to change in this context when the modernist project in various Muslim countries began to collapse. Suddenly, various variants of Islamism emerged in the mainstream as ‘indigenous’ alternatives.


When the early European postmodernists began to accept the variants as valid local alternatives to the hegemony of Western modernism, Islamism began to be treated as powerful postmodernist critique of modernism and also an equally strong ‘anti-colonial’ current. This is also when many social expressions of Islamism embraced self-orientalism. Islamism became very much part of the ‘postmodernist condition’ and age. But postmodernism is a dying. Is Islamism dying as well?

Populist politics that rose around the world in the 2010s, was postmodernism’s last hurrah. Postmodernism had posed itself as a critique of modernism. Lurching forward to completely damn modernism, it ended eating itself. Scholars are now talking about an ‘intellectual movement’ that is replacing postmodernism. They call it, ‘metamodernism’. But postmodernism had its strengths. It began by asking the right questions. It excelled as a sharp critique of modernism. But a critique is all that it ever was. It had no solutions. It was always ready to pounce on a ‘slight’, rip it apart, but only to leave behind a void before moving to the next target. The cacophonous ‘cultural wars’ between the loud ‘left’ and the populist ‘right’ are an example.

Postmodernism saw itself as the voice of marginalised people. But since postmodernism was inherently deconstructive, the voice fragmented into factions that turned against each other, looking for enemies within. In the early 2010s, little pockets of scholars began to operate outside universities that had been swarmed by postmodernist dogmas, or rather, anti-dogma dogmas. Robin van den Akker and Timotheus Vermeulen began to investigate responses to economic, environmental and political crises that were universal in nature and could not be resolved through localised resources. For example, the whole world is being impacted by climate change. The problem is global.

Akker and Vermeulen noticed an emerging need to formulate a grand vision to resolve these crises. This is how modernism had operated. But its grand theories and visions were castigated by postmodernists as being naive and unconcerned about local cultures. Akker and Vermeulen were not advocating a wholesale return to modernism. Neither was their critique of postmodernism sweepingly disparaging. They saw something new emerging from the tensions between modernism and postmodernism. A synthesis. They called it ‘metamodernism’.

A good amount of scholarly work has appeared as academics continue to evolve metamodernism. At the core of it is a conscious decision not to be anti-modernism nor anti-postmodernism. To the metamodernists, a synthesis emerges from two competing ideas and, if the synthesis too becomes a competing party, then the result is an intellectual dead-end. Metamodernism is still a work-in-progress. But its general principles are now in place. It is conceptualising new responses to problems that require universal solutions, but which are tempered by concerns raised against universalism by postmodernists.

Metamodernism calls for an ‘informed naivety, a pragmatic idealism, and an ironic sincerity.’ To metamodernism, opposites can co-exist in the same moment, without diminishing each other. Metamodernism is an optimistic idea that believes there is enough in modernism and postmodernism to work together towards resolving emerging global crises that require a coherent collective consciousness instead of varied consciousnesses fighting each other to a standstill.

Whether metamodernism establishes itself as a strong intellectual current or is able to go beyond being just another attractive term, there is no doubt that postmodernism is rapidly eroding. The fact that metamodernism has gone ahead and advised the revival of various aspects of modernism, indicates that postmodernism as a counter-Enlightenment movement failed. It was obsessed with the word ‘disruption,’ and this is all that it created. But out of the chaos that it triggered, no new order emerged but an anti-order in which disorder was romanticised as a creative force. Whereas this force was good for the arts, it was disastrous for mainstream politics and the academia which requires an evolving rational order to produce outcomes that are progressive and constructive.

The demise of postmodernism should be seen as an opening from which an evolved version of Islamic modernism has every chance of returning as a prominent contributor to the religious, social and political discourses taking shape in Muslim communities. To determine what this evolved version can be, we will need to investigate the history of Islamic modernism. I shall do this specifically of the variant that evolved in South Asia.

The writer is a journalist, author, cultural critic, satirist and historian.