Islamic modernism—the reform of Islamic tradition through emphasis on the Quran and Sunnah to meet the needs of modern society, including its institutions and technology—arose in the nineteenth century. Its goal was to restore the strength, dynamism, and flexibility of Muslim societies. A selective approach to borrowing from Western developments was used to prevent Western culture from replacing Islamic culture. Modernists claimed that the adoption of modern science and technology actually meant reclaiming the Islamic heritage, since modern European science had its origins in classical Islamic learning. They distinguished between revealed knowledge and knowledge acquired through reason, but taught that reason did not clash with revelation.
The most important modernist movements arose in Egypt, India, and Indonesia, typically focusing on educational reforms to include the study of modern science and technology within the standard curriculum and legal reforms and codification of the law. Activism and resistance to European imperialism became part of modernist thought through the teachings of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (d. 1897). Al-Afghani asserted that Muslims had to take charge of their own welfare rather than passively accepting foreign domination.
Islamic modernism underwent its richest development in the Middle East under al-Afghani's Egyptian disciple Muhammad Abduh (d. 1905). Abduh's teachings in law, education, and theology provided the intellectual basis for the assertion of the harmony of Islam and reason by demonstrating that all rational knowledge, including modern science, is in accord with Islamic principles. Abduh taught that Muslims could overcome European dominance only by embracing science and modern learning in conjunction with modernized religious education and a gradual reformation of society. Abduh's teachings created a tension between adherence to the authority of religion and a willingness to accommodate the demands of modernity. His followers called for a return to the dynamism, tolerance, and flexibility of the first generation of Muslims through close study of the Quran and Sunnah. Abduh's associate Muhammad Rashid Rida (d. 1935) sought to safeguard Islam's integrity and scriptural authority by demonstrating the compatibility of Islamic law and modern government.
In India, European domination after the 1857 Indian Mutiny and European missionaries' criticism of Islam sparked the development of the modernist movement. Indian modernism is exemplified by the works of Sayyid Ahmad Khan (d. 1898), who tried to convince the British to overcome their distrust of Muslims and to persuade the Muslims to open their minds to Western ideas. Typical of modernists, Ahmad Khan taught that Islam's teachings about God, the Prophet, and the Quran are compatible with modern science, and he placed a heavy emphasis on education. In the first half of the twentieth century Indian modernists had to address the question of how to sustain the Muslim community under a non-Muslim regime. One group, led by Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938), argued that Indian Muslims comprised a distinct nation and must live in a Muslim state. This group struggled for the creation of Pakistan as a separate Muslim polity. The other group, led by Abu al-Kalam Azad (d. 1958), held that Muslims should join with Hindus in combating British rule and struggling for a unified, composite nation. Both sides supported democracy.