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Islam and Globalization
Jul 1, 2003

The relationship between Islam and globalization has been open to much interpretation and acrimonious debate. At the crux of the current debate is the idea that Islam is somehow opposed to the process of globalization. In this article, I will illustrate why this debate should more accurately be deemed as a debate between Islam and Westernization. I argue that Islam is not against the process of globalization per se, but rather that the tension is due to the process of Westernization. 

Globalization or Westernization?

As the mere terminology surrounding the debate has led to a considerable amount of confusion and misunderstanding, we need to define our terms. Globalization is the spread and exchange of people, goods, and ideas across the globe. Characteristically, it is directly associated with change, or transformation, modernity, and an increasingly interdependent relationship between different regions of the world. "Globalization is an aspect of human life that has always been there since the beginning of humanity. It corresponds with the natural human instinct and man's tendency towards being a 'social animal.' It is the tendency with which God has created man to live on exchanging his sources and experiences with others around him, in order to achieve and realize the best chances of life." (1)

However, globalization is frequently associated with the liberal classical economic theory, and since the mid-1970s with neo-liberalism, which has its roots in the classical economic theory. More specifically, globalization is considered a reflection of the classical economic theory's principle of comparative advantage, which promotes an open economic system and free trade in order to achieve and realize the best chances of life.

Although the process of globalization has been linked with concepts of comparative advantage, free trade, and open economy, its origins can be traced to a time long before such ideas appeared. In order to develop a more comprehensive and accurate understanding of the so called "Islam-globalization" debate, it is critical to distinguish between the process of globalization in its original sense and such relatively more contemporary processes, like Westernization, that are masked as globalization and yet are fundamentally different.

"Globalization targets the narrowing of the gaps separating different communities. This is done by exchanging benefits in all aspects of life -- economic, social, scientific, and political governance. That is, they exchange information, understand each other's values and codes of ethics and build a common ground." (2) In contrast, Westernization does not consider such an understanding or building of such common ground to be worthwhile enterprises. Globalization is a process in which "the whole world becomes like a small village, where the less advanced communities can develop their capacities" and that "tends to be a two-way street process, which makes it possible for each community to take as well as to give." (3) Westernization, on the other hand, tends to be a one-way street, meaning that one region attempts to dominate and control other regions in the name of globalization. Moreover, while globalization occurs through the free will of different communities, Westernization is characteristically imposed upon other regions. 

Islam's role

Having clarified the difference between globalization and Westernization, the Islam-globalization debate can be assessed more accurately. Islam is not anti-globalization (or modernity, which is considered to be a by-product of globalization) in its original sense, but Muslims do have a problem with Westernization. "Although Westernization of society is condemned, modernization as such is not. Science and technology are accepted, but they are to be subordinated to Islamic belief and values in order to guard against the Westernization and secularization of Muslim society." (4) Based upon historical precedence and contemporary evidence, Islam clearly embraces globalization in its original form, which is based upon free-will and not upon the aggressive imposition of the West upon the East.

First of all, it is important to note that Islam orders people to cooperate, to be helpful to one another according to goodness and piety, and not to be helpful in evil and malice (Qur'an 5:2). This principle is fully endorsed by Prophet Muhammad on the local level, regardless if your neighbor is a Muslim or not. Surely this principle can be extended into the international level, where a neighboring country can be defined as any country that has normal economic and political relations with the Islamic world.(5)

Other factors illustrate Islam's acceptance and predominant role in the process of globalization. "For several centuries, Arabic was the world's leading language in sciences. Muslims made important advances in mathematics, astronomy and medicine -- a legacy from which European scholars derived great benefit," and which led to the Renaissance. (6) Globalization is not only a Western phenomenon, for "the agents of globalization are neither European nor exclusively Western, nor are they necessarily linked to Western dominance. Indeed, Europe would have been a lot poorer -- economically, culturally, and scientifically -- had it resisted the globalization of mathematics, science, and technology [from the East]..."(7)

We have to differentiate between the gifts of globalization and the products of Westernization. More specifically, the Islam-globalization debate in itself is built upon a number of mistaken diagnoses that misconstrue Islam's place in the globalized world -- one that has been quite productive in the past and has the potential to be productive in the future. The misguided assumption that Islam opposes globalization and modernization is dangerous, because it could potentially result in the loss of Islam's significant contributions to the rest of the world.

Muslim attitudes toward Westernization

The Muslim world's reaction to Westernization, and the West's emergence as the dominant force transforming the world, must be assessed. "It is similar to the emergence of the Arab Muslims as a major world power in the seventh and eighth centuries..."(8) It is important to note that "the Muslim weakness at the end of the eighteenth century coincided with the rise of an entirely different type of civilization in the West, and this time the Muslim world would find it far more difficult to meet the challenge."(9) In the past, Muslim communities were able to revitalize Islam's role and power in the world. However, the impact of Westernization was an unprecedented experience that significantly challenged Islam and created a bi-polar dichotomy that separated the West from the rest -- and specifically from Islam.

From a historical perspective, Westernization minimized Islam's role and made it dependent upon the Western way of doing things. "The Islamic world has been convulsed by the modernization process. Instead of being one of the leaders of world civilization, Islamdom was quickly and permanently reduced to a dependent bloc by European powers."(10) As a result, resentment toward the West emerged. Muslims questioned whether they would have to accept Western-style modernization or be deemed as being anti-globalization. "From this point, a growing number of Muslims would wrestle with these questions, and their attempts to put Muslim history back on the straight path would sometimes appear desperate and even despairing. The suicide bomber -- an almost unparalleled phenomenon in Islamic history -- shows that some Muslims are convinced that they are pitted against hopeless odds."(11)

The emergence and rise of extremism can be directly attributed to the resulting resentment toward the Western style of globalization -- a one-way process that does not strive to create a common ground between the West and other regions, and hence the desire and perceived need to pursue religious revivalism. However, we should realize that violence and extremism are not exclusively Islamic phenomena. "The Western media often gives the impression that the embattled and occasionally violent form of religiosity known as fundamentalism is a purely Islamic phenomenon. This is not the case. Fundamentalism is a global fact and has surfaced in every major faith in response to the problems of our modernity."(12)

"For Islamic society, the underlying concerns regarding globalization are: how to protect a unique heritage in the face of global pressure; to uphold religious traditions; to preserve linguistic purity; to defend social institutions; and ultimately, to maintain a viable identity in the midst of a rapidly changing global environment."(13) According to Islam, complete submission to God is the first and foremost priority for all Muslims. Anything that undermines Islamic principles is considered a threat to Islam's longevity and power in the world. More importantly, we should be aware of the fact that despite the Islam-West bi-polarization, Islam is rapidly becoming a global phenomenon that transcends the boundaries that once separated the West from the rest. 

Global Islam: The growing phenomenon and implications for the future

Islam is the second largest religion and the fastest growing religion in the world. Islam began to spread in Arabia around the year 610 A.D. when Prophet Muhammad began receiving revelations from God through Archangel Gabriel, sharing with others what he had been told. Today, Islam is a global phenomenon represented by Muslims across the world. "Fifteen million Muslims reside in Europe, and seven to eight million in the United States. There are now about a thousand mosques each in Germany and France, and five hundred in the United Kingdom."(14) One factor that may explain the rapid spread of Islam is the process of globalization itself.

Islam's future depends upon its ability to wed Western-style modernism with Islamic principles, or, in other words, whether it can develop an Islamic-style modernism. The challenge is to engage in modernity without sacrificing Muslim values or undermining Islamic principles. "As we are only slowly realizing, Islam is truly a world religion, increasingly visible in Europe and the United States as well as Asia, Africa, and the Middle East."(15) It is significant for the future of Islam that "the capitals and major cities of Islam are not only Cairo, Istanbul, Mecca, but equally Paris, London, New York."(16)

Given that Islam has become a global phenomenon, it is increasingly important that its principles are respected and not made irrelevant in the modern world. "All religious people in any age have to make their traditions address the challenge of their particular modernity..."(17) Rather than provoking the bi-polarization of the world, separating Islamic values from Western values, the goal of globalization is to develop an understanding of each other's values and codes of ethics and to establish a common ground. Establishing a common ground is vital for ensuring the progress of globalization and allowing the world to reach its full potential. Modernization and globalization need to respect the identities of all regions and respect religion as a natural necessity for humanity.


The struggle for religion to remain relevant in the world is common to all religions at some point in history. Much of the literature surrounding the current Islam-globalization debate provides an inadequate and fragmented view of religion's role in the process of globalization. Secularization, which is promoted in the current forms of globalization, is a new concept. In fact, based upon historical precedence, religion has played a key role in contributing to globalization and, more specifically, Islam has had a predominant role. The challenge for the future of a globalized world, and not just for Islam, is to be helpful to one another according to goodness and piety, and not to be helpful in evil and malice (Qur'an 5:2). 

This article is available in Romanian in the following link:


  4. John Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 3d ed. (Oxford University Press, 1998), 165.
  5. Choudhury,
  6. Hardy,
  7. Sen,
  8. Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, (Modern Library: 2002), 141.
  9. Ibid., 138.
  10. Ibid.,
  11. 146.
  12. Ibid., 153.
  13. Ibid., 164.
  14. Dr. Ahmed Kamal Aboulmagd, The Middle East Times,
  15. Armstrong, Islam, 176.
  16. Esposito, Islam, xvi.
  17. Ibid, 203.
  18. Armstrong, Islam, 164.