The term ‘modernist’ has become a sloppy critique that religious Muslims use to dismiss views they feel are too ‘liberal’ or as seen as catering too willingly to contemporary Muslim society.
But the vast majority of people who make this accusation (including myself until recently) don’t understand what it means to be a modernist, or what Islamic modernism exactly is. Ask someone who uses it to define it and their explanation will often fall apart at its core.
According to my understanding, ‘modernism’ in the Islamic context can mean one of three things:
1) Modern ontology imposed onto Islam – this would entail seeing religion itself as backwards, or belief in God as irrational, outdated and unnecessary. It would also entail ontological perspectives like naturalism, scientism and positivism, and political ideas like secularism or Marxism. A Muslim embracing this brand of modernism usually entails them leaving Islam.
2) Modern anti-traditionalism – this is better than the previous one, but in my view still problematic. And many don’t realize that ‘progressive’ Muslims (including many academics, radical feminists etc) would be under this category along with many ‘Salafi’ understandings of Islam. What they share is a dismissal of much of traditional understandings of Islam especially in principles but also subsidiary issues as being outdated or corrupted. There is also usually an effort among both to reinterpret Islam and project it back onto the earliest generations.
3) Modern traditionalism – Many contemporary, traditionally trained fuqaha fall in this category. If you recognize that traditional principles or secondary issues need to made relevant to our times or brought up to date with modern knowledge or modern circumstances, you are automatically in this category. What differentiates you from the last category is that you have a deep respect and adherence to a millenium plus of Islamic intellectual tradition in understanding HOW to ‘update’ traditional understandings, for example reforming theological and fiqh madhhabs within their own rules and texts, and especially a respect for consensus.
Of course, one could even argue whether or not the Modernist label should apply in this last context, especially if it is believed that traditional knowledge is still in a state of growth and development as it has always been.