Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, in a trend that had begun at the 18th, many thinkers in the Muslim world felt that Islam was going through a period of social decline, political weakness and economic disintegration, expressing itself in different regions where reform movements and schools, while taking into account spiritual and environmental differences of each region, showed an essentially similar character.
This pushed those thinkers to propose projects of deep reform in beliefs, ideas and practices based on them.
These reformers were convinced that their opinions, policies and programmes were fundamentally similar to those of early Islam, and among the reformist phenomena there were clear differences as to the main theme: some insisted more on purification than others, some were more proactive; and their forms also varied according to local differences and different religious historical experiences.
However, the general view presented a clearly defined character: an invitation to return to primitive Islam, the end of moral and social abuses, the general deterioration which the umma (the global Muslim community) had undergone over the centuries, since the fall of Baghdad in 1258 at the hands of the Mongols, and, as a proposed solution to these problems, the adoption of an attitude of moral and religious positivism.
The second half of the 19th century was a period of great richness in the history of the modern Islamic movement, when a group of Muslim intellectuals, in different parts of the world, rigorously examined the fundamentals of Islamic jurisprudence.
The central theological problems at the core of these examinations focused on the validity of the knowledge derived from sources external to the Qur’an and the methodology of traditional sources of jurisprudence: the Qur’an, the hadith (traditions of the Prophet Muhammad), ijma (consensus of the Muslim community), and qiyas (analogical reasoning).
The epistemological step adopted was to reinterpret the first two, the Qur’an and the hadith, and to transform the last two, ijma and qiyas, in the light of scientific rationalism.
Among those who had a strong impact were al?Afghani (1838?1897), Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817?1898), Muhammad ‘Abduh (1849?1905) and Amir ‘Ali (1849?1928), who presented Islam in a way that was consistent with modern ideas and rational sciences.
They were fascinated with what the West had achieved in technological and scientific progress: the Newtonian conception of the Universe, Spencer’s sociology, Darwinian ideas and even Western style of life.