Religion: A ‘modernist’ Muslim for all those who think they’ve never existed

Saiyid Ahmad Khan was the founder of Islamic modernism, that is, the development in Islamic thought which bears comparison with the development of higher criticism and modernism in Christian thought. He was deeply concerned that Islam should make sense in the light of Western science; he was no less concerned that Muslims should be reconciled to Western civilization and British rule. A largely self taught scholar, Saiyid Ahmad explored the Islamic tradition for himself. He also explored contemporary Western science and biblical criticism. He knew William Paley’s Natural Theology and John Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy. He approved of Unitarians such as Spinoza and Toland, but disapproved of radical German theologies of the Tubingen school such as David Strauss and Ferdinand Baur. He was certainly aware of the great achievements in natural history of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, if not directly, at leas tthourgh their impact on Bishop Colenso’s questioning of the historical nature of the Pentateuch. Saiyid Ahmad remains the only Muslim, to my knowledge, to have produced a commentary on the Bible. He also produced his own vast commentary on the Quran. In developing a new Islamic theology, he echoed the natural theorlogies amongst the Christians of his time: the word of God and the work of God cannot be in conflict. If they seemed to be in conflict it was the fault of Muslim understanding. With a new sense of history, he drew a distinction between the essence of the Quran and what belong to the time when it was revealed. At the heart of his modernist approach was his concern to draw this essence, the intention of revelation, into the modern world and to cut away the shackles of the past. Now Islam could fearlessly keep in step with the advance of modern science and of social change. It was an Islamic understanding which could never have been generated in the madrasas with their oral systems for transmitting knowledge. It was entirely a product of the world of print. To this day it fluourishes only amongst those subject to Western-style systems of education.

Source: Robinson, Francis.  Islam and Muslim History in South Asia.  Oxford Press: Delhi, 2000

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