Islam, Modernity and a New Millennium

Themes from a Critical Rationalist Reading of Islam

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Ali Paya
  • New York, NY: 
    , February
     284 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The claim of universality on the part of Islam coupled with the ever-changing nature of human society has given rise to a vast area of intellectual engagements and discussions under the rubric of “Islam and modernity.” While the founding fathers of sociology—Marx, Durkheim, and Weber—grappled with the shift of human society from the pre-industrial to industrial era, anticipating its future course and thereby theorizing about modernity and the consequences of modernization, Muslim engagement with modernity was triggered by the Muslim colonial experience. A rich corpus of literature has been produced on modernity in general, and “Islam and modernity” in particular, of which the book under review is a part.     

Islam, Modernity and a New Millennium with the subtitle Themes from a Critical Rationalist Reading of Islam aptly sums up the content of the book. The author, Ali Paya, a professor in the Department of Philosophy at Islamia College in London, engages with several themes related to Islam and modernity, drawing upon the critical rationalism of Karl Popper and his ilk. In the introductory chapter, Paya summarizes different conceptions of the arrival of modernity in Muslim lands, different responses on the part of Muslims to modernity, and varied classificatory schemes of categorizing these responses adopted by earlier scholars of Islam and modernity. In addition, Paya presents a faithful account of the fundamental premises of critical rationalism. Another significant discussion consists of the differences between science and technology, which briefly yet conclusively deals with the subject at the epistemological, ontological, and pragmatic levels. 

The book has ten main chapters (chapters 2-11), along with a rich bibliography (238-264) and two indices (name index: 265-68; subject index: 269-72). The second chapter of the book is concerned with an introduction to the study of the Qur’an through the lens of critical rationalism. In addition to highlighting the importance of the Qur’an for Muslims, it discusses the notions of “algorithmic compressibility,” “complex systems,” and “logical depth,” which heavily impinge upon the study of all sorts of texts, including the Qur’an. Paya argues that “the Quran is a complex system with a significant logical depth and that its message can be understood with a critical rationalist approach” (36). Paya discusses possible criticisms of the critical-rationalist approach to the study of Qur’an that he advocates, which is reflective of his unbiased treatment of the subject as well as his own academic integrity and intellectual honesty. Regarding the main objective of the chapter—understanding what and how can we learn from the Qur’an—Paya arrives at some insightful observations: The Qur’an’s rich content can best help us in advancing our knowledge of the human condition either by “acting as a judge to expose the defects in our conjectures”; by providing “general directions/frameworks for possible solutions for the problems related to the human condition”; or as “a source for introducing new problems related to the category of the human condition” (37). Another important observation made by the author is that the Qur’an does not provide straightforward solutions to human problems. Paya argues that theories are human constructs. The Qur’an should be made to act as the judge to expose the limitations of man-made theories. Paya has justly taken into account both those who uphold the Qur’an as the direct word of God as well as those who maintain that the Qur’an is God’s revelation reconstructed by the Prophet. 

In the third chapter of the book, Paya seeks to establish that critical rationalism is amenable to yielding an approach towards religion that can address the sensibilities of a Muslim believer. For him, such a critical rationalist approach to religion can serve as the best theoretical framework for the reformist Muslims who aim at a synthesis of modernity and tradition acceptable to both conservative and progressive Muslims. Paya proposes a bi-partite structure of religions, especially Abrahamic religions—an ontological-epistemological part and a technological part. The discussion is so engaging and intellectually stimulating that, in my opinion, no amount of careful and thoughtful scanning, skimming, and consequent summarizing can do any justice to the rich content of this chapter. No serious student of religion who finds a place for religion in modern society while remaining faithful to ideals and values (like democracy) that humans have arrived at through centuries of reasoning and intellection can afford to miss the study of this important chapter in Paya’s book. 

The fourth chapter seeks to expose the failure of the program of Islamization of science/knowledge. The fifth chapter brings forth the epistemological status of Fiqh, arguing that exaggerating its status from a problem-solving science to a theoretical science has contributed to the dominance of legalistic approaches. The next chapter revolves around the insightful observation that the “interpretation of the Qur’an by the Qur’an” is not actually what it literally implies but is rather “a method of applying the exegetes’ favorite theoretical models/theories to make sense of the Quran.” The remaining chapters engage with the anti-intellectual Tafkiki School in Shi‘i thought and explore the present state of Islamic philosophy, the relationship of doctrinal certainty with religious and secular violence, and the theoretical and practical grounds for peaceful co-existence of the Abrahamic faiths. 

Islam, Modernity and a New Millenium is a masterpiece of rationalist reading of Islam vis-à-vis a diversity of themes. Its approach is philosophical, the content informative, and the presentation appealing and attractive. It is a must read for students and scholars of Islamic studies in general, and researchers on Islam and modernity in particular.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Gowhar Quadir Wani is Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Islamic Studies at Aligarh Muslim University.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ali Paya is Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Islamic College London, UK. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilisations (UK) and Azad University (Iran). He has published widely on modern Islam including the book Iraq, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World (2012) and The Misty Land of Ideas and the Light of Dialogue: An Anthology of Comparative Philosophy- Western & Islamic (2013). Heis on the editorial board for the Journal of Dialogue Studies, Journal of Shi‘a Islamic Studies and International Journal of Islam.


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