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Modernization of Women’s Role in Islamic Society

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A common worry among the Islamic modernists and those living in Muslim societies during the late 19th century was, how far can the cultural renaissance progress and how much of their traditions will be swept away along with it? Charles Kurzman notes a modernist Islamic scholar in his Modernist Islam saying, “The truth is that among the Muslim nations of today, Turkey alone has shaken off its dogmatic slumber, and attained self-consciousness. She alone has claimed her right of intellectual freedom”.

Similar to Amin, this author is of the opinion that this awakening in intellectual thought, the questioning of tradition, is what allows for progression into the new century and the opportunity to be considered a true equal of Europe in terms of development and advancement. Amin assures his readers that there are differences in the cultures and mannerisms of French, American, German, and Russian women, yet their similarity is in their independence. This idea of being comparable to the West, yet remaining different at the core was central to modernist thought at the time. Amin promotes a cultural revival, one that spurs conversation about the liberation of Islamic women, yet that remains true to the tenets of Islam.

Modernity offered newer ways to interpret Islam and perhaps influence the underlying traditions that he felt were uncivilized and barbaric. He used this distinction to note the differences in the barbaric tribes of the Americas and Africa, contrasted to the more enlightened societies of Europe; his goal was to influence Muslims in Egypt to follow the European example in their treatment of women. This was featured prominently by modernists according to both Kurzman and Makdisi, in which racial distinction and separation by comparing “stages in their social evolution”. However, due to the quotes by Amin’s contemporaries, who saw his ideas as “a crime against the country and against religion”, we can surmise that this particular blend of modernist Islam was not universally accepted at this time. It is clear that the difference in thought among modernists of this time was crucial for understanding the movement as a whole. While many conservatives agreed that modernists went too far and infringed on the traditional view of Islam, many modernists themselves could not agree on the extent to reform or revise traditions and long-held customs. Many, like Amin, argued for using the Qur’an as a basis for their reforms, and found issue with traditions underlying the religion instead.

Amin’s calls for the education and emancipation of women, as seen in the Western countries, show an admiration for this culture, yet there is a desire to remain Islamic. Due to his long Western education, his time spent in Europe, and the people that he interacted with there, he developed a western-centric view that idolized Europe over Egyptian and Ottoman society. Western woman’s independence is not due to Christianity, as nothing explicitly in the Christian religion calls for their rights, but instead is due to the proliferation of Western thought and ideas. Amin’s essay illuminates the degree of difference among the modernist Islamic scholars, and shows the level of inclination towards Western customs that some of these new modernists accepted, and the parts that they wanted to keep as Islamic.

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