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The Impact of Colonialism on Contemporary Islamic Experience

Anthropology of Islam: The Impact of Colonialism on Contemporary Islamic Experience

Muhammad Sameel ‘Abd al-Haqq


Many modern Muslim social movements and developments can be seen as reaction not only to emerging modernity, but also as reactions to challenges brought about by European colonialism. The period extending from the beginning of the 13th century to the late 19th century has had a major impact on these emergent and emerging social movements and social trends in the Muslim world. Some cynical western observers, during the period extending from the end of the 19th century to present day, almost believed that Islam, as a world political force and military power was breathing its last breath. The religion itself was soon to follow, powerless in the face of the Western advance, colonialism, neo-colonialism, modernization, westernization and globalization all factors of that imminent decline. Other skeptics and concerned Muslims began expressing, through writing and speeches, the seemingly inevitable transformation of Islam into something more palatable to most Westerners, a “domesticated Islam” ; an Islam devoid of its menacing, destructive potential to bring down Western civilization.

Instead Muslim social movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, reformist movements such as the Salafiyya, Wahhabi, Neo-Khwarijite and Taliban-style movements abound. Without degenerating into terrorism apologetics or blindly accepting the Western anti-Islamic narratives that not only mislabel extremist groups, but misidentify their motives, we can ask why do these movements arise and abound. Why the resistance? Why does another group inevitably arise when one is destroyed? What exactly are they resisting? Some Muslim societies, especially those in the West, began to reinterpret Islam as a result of what was perceived as a threat to Islam, the Muslim way of life, and Muslim control of historically Muslim-majority lands. Others began to fear a sociocultural, if not spiritual incursion on the part of the West that would eventually lead, it was feared, to an Islam unrecognizable to the faithful.

As a result, direct and indirect challenges to this perceived threat have risen and continue to rise the world over. Reactions include attempts at formulating or reformulating an alternative to the “western way of life”, one that met the challenges of globalization and modernization in a post-colonial environment. This of course was done to maintain Islamic traditions, or so the reformers believed, in the context of “creating” or articulating an Islam more compatible with “western ideas such as democracy, human rights within the context of the nation-state, the global village, and modern scientific developments. Yet other reactionary movements saw these movements as traitorous, displaying an inordinate love for all things Western. This love, they accused, manifested itself in the belief that the Muslim world must incorporate or copy certain Western elements in order to remain relevant in the modern world. The ideas and achievements of the Western world seemed to be the frame of reference for all these Muslim reform groups. Indeed terrorist movements are seen as a relatively modern development in Islam.

The results of these reactionary developments, in hindsight probably, were inevitable. Violent conflicts continue to escalate without a viable solution in sight. Movements that began as non-violent,  intellectual activity, increasingly began to resort to violence to realize poorly articulated goals. Religio-spiritual confusion arose among Muslims who believed that Islam must be triumphant, so the cultural, political, and military ascendancy and supremacy of the West was seen as a failure of Muslims to follow Islam correctly. Muslim reformers, later to be called revivalists, began an attempt to purge from Islam all of the unIslamic elements that accrued over the centuries. We will attempt to analyze these movements as well as certain sociocultural trends that arose in the Muslim world as a direct result of colonialism.

Categories: Anthropology of Islam
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