How is the Koran different from modern science?

Dialogue of Cultures

Wolfgang Günter Lerch

To person

Born in 1946; studied philosophy, Islamic studies and religious studies in Tübingen; Editor of the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (FAZ). FAZ, 60267 Frankfurt / M.
Email: [email protected]


Stoning of adulterers in Pakistan, beheading of those sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia, murders of followers of the Baha'i religion in Iran, threats and persecution up to the murder of critical writers or intellectuals in several countries of the Islamic hemisphere, "honor killings" and forced marriages Turkish Muslims in Germany, Feme crimes according to the rules of blood revenge in Turkey, fatal quarrel over Mohammed cartoons - these are just a few recent keywords that raise the question of whether Islam and modernity go together at all. This also includes the repeatedly asked question of whether Islam and democracy are compatible with one another.

Under the impression of September 11, 2001 and the influence of Islamists and jihadists inside and outside of dar-al-islam ("House of Islam"; the Muslim world), some in Western countries may believe that modernity - an essentially in Europe and America, based on secularization, mechanization and rational discourse in a pluralistic-liberal, increasingly individualistic "civil society" that has now even reached Japan, South Korea and other countries - has not yet reached the Islamic Orient. This view is wrong, but it does give a correct impression: In the Islamic world there has been a bitter struggle between innovators and traditionalists for several decades, which also finds its intellectual arena in the confrontation with the West.

The phenomenon of Islamism or ideologized Islam, the militant form of which is breaking into the terror of jihadism, has occasionally been characterized by Western analysts as "revolt against the west" (Hedley Bull) - and thus against modernity. The "clash of civilizations" diagnosed by Samuel Huntington more than a decade ago definitely takes place in Islam itself. Justified attempts to break up the prevailing image of a monolithic Islam cannot hide the fact that the protagonists of a reconciliation between modernity and Islam, the not so small number of Islamic reform thinkers, are currently having a difficult time. Many of them live in exile in the West, while others are exposed to pressure from Islamists or the regimes themselves in their countries. Some were even murdered.

What is striking in many Islamic countries is the stark contrast between the external appearance of civilization and, in some cases, extremely traditional ways of thinking and behaving that shape public awareness and often also the politics of these countries. This also applies where worlds seem to have torn a wide rift in historical development - for example between "westernized" Turkey and Yemen or Pakistan. This has led some to say that Islam, by and large, has only produced "half modernity" (Bassam Tibi): Western civilizational achievements have been adopted, as can be seen in the image of cities, as well as some institutions in the educational system and in the Economy, especially in the military; But none of this reflects the actual state of cultural and civilizational development. A prime example of this may be Saudi Arabia, which has immensely modernized itself within two generations with the help of enormous oil revenues, up to a futuristic architecture, which nevertheless follows the strict, unchanged Wahhabi teaching of Islam, which even many Muslims in their joyless austerity seems archaic.

Most recently, the third United Nations report on human development in the Arab world (Arab Human Development Report 2004) identified blatant deficits and obstacles to progress in the Middle East in many areas, from education to the field of technical innovation. Above all, the report complained that Muslim women were still at a great disadvantage in society. One has to face the fact: The Islamic civilization, which once, about a thousand years ago, was the most highly developed in the world, has subsequently experienced long epochs of spiritual torpor, which led to the Muslims in taqlid, the spiritually and politically rather sterile imitation of the ancestors, saw their ideal and fought religious and intellectual innovations as "forbidden innovation" (bid'a). This theological maxim, which Sunni Islam called "closing the gate to the free interpretation of the Koran" (bab al-idschtihad), also had an impact on civilization. Despite some high points that this culture still reached in the Ottoman Empire or in the Empire of the Indian Mughals, the Islamic Orient was pushed more and more to the edge by the Christian, but reforming and increasingly secularizing Europe.

It was a rude shock that tore the Orient out of its lethargy: Bonaparte's military invasion of Egypt. Napoleon's attack in 1798 brought neither democracy nor human rights to the Egyptians, but it made the land on the Nile the gateway for modernity to the Orient. Under the subsequent rule of Mehmet Ali, who ruled for many decades, and his descendants who ruled until 1952, Egypt experienced a surge in modernization, which the rulers owed primarily to foreign experts from the most varied of areas, who they hired. Western techniques and methods came to the region. Another focus of modernization (whatever Westernization meant) was around the same time Constantinople / Istanbul, the seat of the Ottoman sultan and caliph, to which Egypt was nominally still subordinate at that time. Since Sultan Selim III. (1789 - 1807), the Turkish rulers tried not only to modernize the army, but also the state and its outdated institutions. This was promoted by the two reforms of the so-called Tanzimat era, which were published in 1839 and 1856 under Sultan Abdulmedschid. Both in Mehmet Ali's Egypt and in the realm of the Sultan there was resistance from the ulema, the scribes, and the softalar, the students in the theological schools, against that part of the modernization efforts which they considered suitable to affect the Islamic character of society.

In addition, modernization ran parallel to the efforts of the most important Western powers to directly or indirectly dominate the Islamic Orient. Between Algeria, where the French landed in 1830/31, and India, where the British had ruled since the 18th century, a system of European-ruled dependent dynasties, colonies or later, in the 20th century, League of Nations protectorates emerged, with its negative effect to the present day poses a problem for the local population in the perception of the West, its politics and its goals and values. Not least because of this, the modernization of Islam is understood primarily as "westernization", which some Islamic reformers and modernizers definitely affirm, while others - especially if they are close to Islamism - resolutely reject it.

The penetration of modernity into the Islamic world as well as the imperialist foreign determination by external powers triggered several ideological reactions in the region, which I refer to with the terms "pan-Islamism", "nationalism" and "Islamism". They are all the result of the clash between Islamic civilization and European modernity, but in terms of content they are attempts at indigenous self-determination in a changed time, although it did not go away without external borrowings.