It was one of several Islamic movements - including secularism, Islamism and Salafism - that emerged in the middle of the 19th Century in reaction to the rapid changes of the time, especially the perceived onslaught of Western Civilization and colonialism on the Muslim world.
Modernism differs from secularism in that it insists on the importance of secular faith in public life, and from Salafism or Islamism in that it embraces contemporary European institutions, social processes and values.
Modernists are said to use three approaches in their advocacy of a revised body of jurisprudence:
· Restricting traditional Islamic law by limiting its basis to the Quran and authentic Sunnah, limiting the Sunna with radical Hadith criticism. A few, such as Parwez in Pakistan, go further and treat only the Quran as absolutely binding.
· A more or less radical (re)interpretation of the authoritative sources. This is particularly the case with the Quranic texts on polygyny, the hadd (penal) punishments, jihad, and treatment of unbelievers, which conflict with "modern" views. In some cases modernist (re)interpretation can find support in the text, such as the requirement of four witnesses to adultery, which may have the effect of voiding the hadd in practice, or the permission of four wives conditioned on the ability of the husband to treat them fairly, which is argued as denied by another passage.
· An apologetic which links aspects of the Islamic tradition with Western ideas and practices, and claims Western practices in question were originally derived from Islam. Modernist apologetic has however been severely criticized by many scholars as superficial, tendentious and even psychologically destructive, so much so that the term "apologetics" has almost become a term of abuse in the literature on modern Islam.
Critics have described the modernist positions on politcs in Islam as ideological stances.
They argue politics is inherently embedded in Islam, a rejection of the secular principle, "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's". A review of Muslim political jurisprudence, philosophy and practice indicates a consensus on the Caliphate form of government with a clear structure comprising a Caliph, assistants (mu’awinoon), governors (wulaat), judges (qudaat) and administrators (mudeeroon).
Furthermore, it is argued Muslim history has shown leading jurists worked with governments of their times: Abu Yusuf, Mohammed Ibn al-Hasan, Shafi’i, Yahya bin Said, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ismail bin Yasa, Ibn Tulun, Abu Zura, Abu Hasan al-Mawardi and Tabari. Furthermore, prominent theologians would write moral advice literature to help the Caliph discharge his Islamic duties, often on the request of the incumbent Caliph. Many rulers provided patronage to scholars across all disciplines, the most famous being the Abassids who funded extensive translation programmes and building of libraries.