Al-Huda 

the Message Continues ... 10/28

 

 

 

                    Modernity, Islam, and the West    

      by Tamara Sonn

 

 

"Modernity" is a word whose denotation is often obscured by its many connotations. Fazlur Rahman wrote an entire book, Islam and Modernity, without ever defining the term. Like many people, he used it interchangeably with "modernism," a related term but with a different technical definition. In the West, where the terms developed, "modernism" means a philosophical approach to certainty which relies primarily on reason rather than revelation. It began with Descartes' effort to overcome doubt by identifying self-evident principles, but it is usually identified with Kant's critical analysis of epistemological, ethical, and aesthetic judgments. This intellectual approach to certainty is recognized as the basis of the flowering of Western science, the "scientific revolution" responsible for the phenomenal technological developments usually associated with the modern age. These scientific and technological developments, along with
the sociopolitical transformation of Europe resulting from a similar shift from reliance on religio-political authority to democracy, are usually taken as the key characteristics of "modernity".

In colloquial usage, however, the meanings of "modernity" and "modernism" are often merged. Added to the general notion of technologically developed society are ideas about secondary political developments of modern European society, such as secularism, and even more marginal aspects of modern society such as materialism and even atheism. Negative connotations of these aspects of modern society are to be found outside the West, particularly in the Muslim world where the most coherent critique of what is often called "the modernist project" is to be found. But the critical assessment of modernity/modernism is also well underway within the West itself, where there is a palpable discontent with the character and pace of modern society. Indeed, I believe that Muslim and Western critics of modern society share a great deal in common. Unfortunately, however, we live in an era of political confrontation between Western governments and
parts of the Muslim world. And political confrontation is too often interpreted as ideological incompatibility, resulting in mutual misunderstandings which obscure common values. In the Muslim world, for example, it is common to find people advocating technological development, but rejecting the value system that has made the stereotypical Western society so repugnant around the world. That repugnant value system is widely assumed to lie in the rationalism and secularism characteristic of modern Euro-American society. Rationalism
and secularism, therefore, are frequently dismissed out of hand as un-Islamic or anti-Islamic. In response, when people in the West hear the Muslim rejection of rationalism and secularism, they often assume
that Islam therefore stands for anti-rational traditionalism, theocracy, and compulsory religion.

In this paper, I will attempt to clarify some of these misunderstandings. I will begin by discussing the misapprehension of rationalism and secularism and their critiques, in order to point out values shared by Islam and the West. I will conclude with some comments on the perceived value of technological development, suggesting that it is in this area that Islamic scholars may make the greatest contribution to the critique of modernity/modernism.

Rationalism
Rationalism has a variety of connotations in Western philosophy, beginning with classical Greek efforts to avoid the seemingly arbitrary and unpredictable results of sense-based knowledge. This was to be achieved by relying on unchanging rational principles instead of empirical observation for certainty. This kind of extreme rationalism also appeared in the early modern period, again in the search for bases of certainty. By this time, sense perception was even more demonstrably imprecise. It had led people to think, for example, that the moon is a source of light and that the sun revolves around the earth, notions that had been disprove by scientific means. Therefore, some thinkers wanted to base all knowledge on unquestionable mathematical principles, avoiding sense data altogether.

But what is commonly known in the West as "rationalism" is of a less radical sort. Mainstream rationalism claims that sense perception provides the data upon which reason operates to give us knowledge of
the world around us. In order to distinguish reliable propositions from unreliable or doubtful ones, modern rationalist philosophers distinguished among kinds of propositions or truth claims. In the process, they identified ways of reasoning. Immanuel Kant, the quintessential modernist philosopher, distinguished between concepts that we derive from observation and those he believed were prior to experience (a priori), or simply part of the way human beings think. For example, he said that we automatically perceive the things we
observe in nature as causally connected. We assume that motion is caused in a formerly stationary object by the input of energy, even though we cannot observe the transfer of energy. Such a priori judgments, he believed, can be considered reliable in general, just as analytic statements can. Analytic judgments are those derived from the very definition of the subject about which they are made - for example, that anything with size also has shape. By contrast, we must be more careful of synthetic statements which put together two elements not necessarily or essentially related.

In this way, rationalism seeks to avoid the uncertainties of mere opinion. But in its modernist phase, rationalism sought as well to supersede clear fallacies taught by religious authorities, such as egocentrism. As such, it can be seen as a reaction to a politicized religious order that tried to maintain its central role by denying the validity of any truths which it did not propagate. The rationalists generally were seeking a basis of certainty whereby human beings could argue authoritatively against those imperious powers who used religion to justify their control. Because of this, rationalism is often judged to be anti-religious and atheistic, and therefore utterly lacking in morality. However, rationalism did not seek to supplant religious truth as such, much less the moral certainty that comes with it. In fact, Kant argued that the primary moral ideas of goodness and duty are
innate. He believed that the first principles of morality are self-evident. The paradigm of his "rational morality" is his categorical imperative: "Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law." In other words, do only those things based on principles you believe should be followed by everyone.
Furthermore, although Kant claimed that knowledge of the existence of God and the Afterlife cannot be demonstrated on the basis of empirical knowledge, he believed that they must be assumed "as conditions of -the full realization of the goals of morality." 

 

1  Kant could not imagine a moral world without God and the Afterlife. Yet he did not try to prove their existence. Because rationalists are philosophers and not theologians, and given their historical context,
they did not consider it their business to determine the reasons why goodness and morality are central to human nature, whether or not God made us that way, and so on. That was left up to others to debate.
Similarly, although modern technological society is based on the effects of careful reasoning, most people in the West likewise could not imagine a moral world without God. Thus, what the majority of Westerners think of when they defend rationalism is simply that reason and revelation are not in conflict. And while there are many things in revelation that we cannot understand, the moral teachings of revelation make perfect sense (are self-evident). Anyone who has standard intellectual equipment, whose clear human nature - fitrah - has not
been perverted through abuse or drugs, for example, will recognize the legitimacy of truly moral teaching. They only need to "use their eyes and ears," to "travel around the earth," or to "see the signs in the horizons and within themselves," as Surah 41 has it.

Modernist sociologists, in fact, trace the roots of modernity to monotheistic religions. Sociologist of religion Peter Berger believes that monotheism differed from ancient paganisms in that it sees God as utterly transcendent, the Creator, standing outside the universe, which is dependent upon and beholden to God. The god of monotheism, the one God, is the only god who made ethical demands on individuals. Max Weber
says this resulted in a notion of individual responsibility which is the basis of rationalism and therefore of the modern age itself. 

 

2 For him, monotheism teaches that God gave human beings certain faculties and a specific mission to accomplish. God then commanded us to use those faculties to follow His will. Indeed, Weber traces the rise of capitalism and the developments that resulted in modernity to this monotheistic religious orientation. In particular, he believed that Protestant Christianity, with its belief in divine predestination,
spurred people to achieve material success through hard work as a way to demonstrating that they were among God's elect.

Clearly, this view does not see modernity and religion as in conflict, but instead sees them as integrally related. There is no inherent conflict between recognition of the value of reason and religious values. Indeed, most Westerners believe that reason is valuable only within the context of religion or morality - that is, only if it is
used for moral purposes. For this reason, students in the West react very favorably when they hear about ijtihad. Many come into the classroom with a stereotype of Islam derived from polemical denunciations of "Western science" and calls for replacing it with "Islamized knowledge." They fear that Muslims reject reason and want to replace it with blind imitation of tradition. But these stereotypes are dismissed when they study the Islamic teaching concerning the responsibility of humans to seek knowledge, to use their reason to fulfil the will of God, to determine the best ways to implement the divine will in specific, changing circumstances.

There is, of course, a danger in relying solely on reason for certainty, and Western students of Islam are eager to discuss it. The atrocities of slavery, colonialism, and racism are all seen to be based on cognitive certainties unquestionably at odds with moral truths. In fact, this is why postmodern thought developed: to demonstrate the inadequacy of "pure reason," to use Kant's phrase, as a basis for establishing a just society. As Edward Said, a noteworthy postmodernist scholar, put it when asked about his critique of modernity: "I guess what moves me mostly is anger at injustice, an intolerance of oppression, and some fairly unoriginal ideas about freedom and knowledge." 

 

3 Thus, even the postmodern movement at its best is not a rejection of transcendent or universal values (as it is often portrayed), but an expression of concern with the exclusion of morality from cognitive calculations. Many scholars in the West are recognizing a difference between cognitive certainty and moral certainty. That is why students respond very positively to the work of Muhammad Iqbal, especially his Reconstruction of Religious Thought. Cognitive certainty results from reason alone; moral certainty is based on inner conviction
beyond the reach of reason. But even so, reason is not rejected as a basis for action, nor does moral certainty replace or supplant rationalism. The two are seen as complementary: neither faith without reason nor reason without faith.

Secularism

Secularism is even more maligned in contemporary Islamic discourse than rationalism. It is generally taken to be an ideology, and construed in such a way as to make it utterly objectionable. In an article entitled "Toward a More Comprehensive and Explanatory Paradigm of Secularism," for example, `Abd al-Wahhab al-Masiri rejects the standard description of secularism as "the separation of church and state," although he acknowledges that this definition has "gained currency." In fact, he claims, secularism, "if defined in a complex way," is "a total world outlook, a weltanschauung, a comprehensive paradigm" that "operates on all levels of reality through a large number of implicit and explicit mechanisms;" it is "the underlying and over-arching paradigm in modern Western civilization, and in all modernities for that matter."
Ultimately, he says, secularism is the paradigm accounting for a staggering array of problems which he characterizes as "the crisis of modern civilization." These are:

. . . the price of progress, quantification, mechanization, standardization, instrumental value-free rationalization, alienation, the crisis of meaning, the domination of utilitarian values, the spread of moral and epistemological relativism, anomie, disintegration of society, increasing contractualization, the problem of the Gemeinschaf
versus the Gesellschaft, the tightening of the grip of the state over the individual through its various apparati, the hegemony of companies and bureaucracies, the decline of the family, the atrophy of identity, the minimal self, the decent ring of man, the rise of ant humanist philosophies, philosophical nihilism, internationalization or
globalization, the subversion of individuality and privacy, the Americanization of the world, Cocacolization, co modification, reification, fetishism, the cult of progress, the cult of change and fashion, consumerism, the culture of the disposable-instantaneous gratification, the culture of narcissism, post-ideology, the modern
world as an iron cage, the death of God and the death of man, disenchantment of the world, the rise of ethnicity, racism, pornography, deconstruction (and a number of verbs with the prefix `de': dehumanize, debunk, demystify, deconstruct.) 

 

4  The one thing al-Masiri does not attribute to secularism is atheism, but Fazlur Rahman does. In a slightly less ambitious effort, Fazlur Rahman simply called secularism "the bane of modernity". Secularism, he says, "destroys the sanctity and universality (transcendence) of all moral values," and it is "necessarily atheistic." 

 

5  Although Fazlur Rahman was my mentor and I hold him in the highest esteem, it must be pointed out that secularism is not necessarily atheistic. And with all due respect to `Abd al Wahhab al-Masiri, secularism is not even an ideology as such. It would be convenient if we could lay all the problems of contemporary society at its door, but in fact, secularism is simply a social structure that developed in modern Europe with the breakup of the Holy Roman Empire. It can best be understood by contrast to the two problems it sought to combat. First was the excessive "otherworldliness" of the medieval clerics who encouraged their flocks to consider only the Afterlife. People were not to bother with worldly affairs, the arena of greed and corruption. They were not to complain of poverty and grief; these would be badges of honor in the Afterlife. Most importantly, ordinary people were not to get involved in politics. That was something beyond their control which, if they pursued it, would undoubtedly defile them.

What first came to be known as secularism - based on the term's Latin root saecula, the arena of time (as opposed to aeterna, the timeless world of the divine) - was a movement to encourage all believers to concern themselves with this world, to gain education, to fight oppression and corruption, and. take responsibility for their own welfare and that of society. Later, secularism came to mean the belief that no religious group has the right to dictate the education of others. When that belief came to dominate, after centuries of forced conversions, religious education was taken out of public schools. Parents were given the right and responsibility to make sure their children were educated according to the religious principles they chose.

Therefore, although there are undoubtedly some people who teach that there are no transcendent values, and there are indeed atheists, their beliefs are not what are referred to by the term "secularism". Secularism is not the rejection of religious values, much less the rejection of the role of religious values in society or politics. No
one in the Euro-American West calls for the closure of religious schools. In fact, religious schools are becoming more and more popular. Further, although some people believe they can make political decisions
entirely without recourse to transcendent values, in general, the term "value free" has been exposed to be a fiction.

But by the same token, it is clear that religion is no guarantee that transcendent values will operate in society, even in the presence of official or state-mandated religion. This became evident in the history of Europe under the Church's authority. As Rashid al-Ghannouchi, the well-known Tunisian Islamist, has pointed out, it must be recalled that secularism developed in the context of an overarching and intrusive religion-political order - indeed, in the context of multiple powerful religion-political orders, each of which was exclusivist and oppressive of religious minorities. In that context, separating religious authority from the coercive power of the state became essential for peace in the modern Euro-American world, where citizenship was no longer based on adherence to a particular creed but on a set of rights and responsibilities shared by members of a community, regardless of the religions professed by its members.

In other words, the separation of coercive power and religious authority was the means to establish peace in a pluralistic society. It was a way of allowing religious freedom to peoples of various faiths, protected by law from official intrusion or obstruction, provided they respected the rights of others. This is the way most Westerners understand secularism. To them it means precisely what we are taught in Surat al-Baqarah (2: 256): "There is no compulsion in religion." Accordingly, in the West, among the most devout believers are avowed secularists, those who believe that the true meaning of religious values can be discovered and fulfilled in daily affairs: being kind, giving fair measures, being honest in business transactions, caring for the needy, working to change oppressive situations - if not with the hand, then with a word, or at least in their hearts, to paraphrase a well-known hadith. Yet they do not want the state to regulate religious education. They insist on the right to educate their children in the religion of their choice.

Overall, then, secularism is not the rejection of religion but the rejection of the coercive force of religion. And that itself is a moral value, one shared by many religions. While the history and structure of Islamic society are very different from those of Euro-Christian society, it is nonetheless true that the classical Islamic political
theory, as expressed by fourth/eleventh-century Shafi'i jurist al-Mawardi, likewise recognizes the separation of religious authority and coercive or executive power. For al-Mawardi, the office of the caliphate was established in order to continue the work of the Prophet in his capacity as defender of Islam and in worldly governance 

 

6 According to al-Mawardi the dunes of the caliph fall into three categories: defence, treasury, and executive. The caliph is to defend the community from attack, maintain frontier defenses, and wage war against those who refuse to either become Muslims or enter into treaty with Muslims. Regarding fiduciary responsibility, he is to collect both the zakat payments and the legitimate spoils of war, fairly determine and pay salaries from the treasury, and make sure that the people he appoints handle treasury moneys honestly. But most importantly, he is to make sure that the established principles of religion are safeguarded, and that legal judgments and penalties are enforced.

Al-Mawardi does include the ability to exercise ijtihad among the ideal qualifications for the office of the caliph. But he did not list making legal judgments among the caliph tasks because, from the time of the
`Abbasids, legislative authority was delegated to highly trained legal scholars. Therefore, in classical theory the caliph could be a muqallid (follower of precedents or imitator, rather than an independent thinker), so long as he consulted the religious scholars.' For the defining paradigm of Islamic political theory is that Islamic law is
the ultimate source of political legitimacy. In other words, legislative authority is technically separate from executive power. This amounts to a separation of political (executive or coercive) from religious (legislative) authority in Islam. This does not mean the separation of politics from religion, however, since the political
authority is, theoretically, subject to Islamic law. What it does mean is that the removal of coercive power from religious authorities, as occurred in the West, does not necessarily mean the removal of religion
from politics. In the West, just as in Islam, the political or executive authorities are subject to the law of the land. The difference is that in the West, while the law of the land is based historically on Christian law, it is general enough to allow freedom to members of all religions and even to allow rights to people who have no
religion. The counterpart of this is the Islamic protection of the non-Muslims' right to follow their own religious laws, even in an Islamic state. This system is clearly different from Western secularism. But just as secularism is not anti-religious or atheistic by nature, the Islamic system is not theocratic. Indeed, the element shared by secularism and Islam is respect for religious freedom and rejection of religious coercion.

Progress
In the minds of many, both in the Western and Muslim world, progress is equivalent with technological development. This is why we find Muslims who call for acceptance of what is "useful" from the West, and
rejection of everything else. What is useful is supposed to be technological development. For some, that is then supposed to be juxtaposed with traditional Islamic education, so that technological developments will be able to be used Islamically. They will be used for good ends, so the reasoning goes, and not just to create wealth and power, as the West is believed to do.

In fact, however, I find it very unfortunate that progress has been equated with technological development. I do not believe that this view is in keeping with the values of any of the monotheistic traditions. It is understandable that "progress" came to be uncritically applied to technological development in the West, where modern technological development took place (albeit based on the science and mathematics
developed in and transmitted to Europe from the Muslim world). But this is where the Muslim world is, in fact, more highly developed than the West.

The notion of "progress" in Islam cannot in any way be reduced to mere technology or even the production of wealth. Islam's identifying characteristic vis--vis other traditions is its unrelenting emphasis on human responsibility, both individually and collectively, to do the will of God. We see this in the legal structure and in the articulation of religious duties. The Qur'an insists on placing that responsibility in history, rather than beyond. People's faith, commitment, and submission to the transcendent must be demonstrated within our
socio-historical context. It begins with the trust - amanah assumed by human beings at creation. That was a commitment to take upon ourselves the khilafah, the vicegerency, to recreate in society the equality in which all human beings were created. The "way" (al-shari`ah), the "path" (al-sabil) has been shown. "Guidance" (huda) is continuously provided by means of the Qur'an, whose inspiration is ongoing, in every recitation and reading. That guidance establishes the standard by which we may judge our progress along the path; it produces a model of society united in its commitment to justice, a society whose health is measured by the well-being of its weakest members, not on the gross domestic product or the average per capita income of the state. In the
presence of this guidance, we need not consider technological development as the standard by which we measure progress. To continue to measure progress on the basis of technological development, rather
than on success in promoting justice and eliminating oppression, is simply shirk.

Another way to understand the importance of the Islamic notion of progress is that it shows us how to heal the breach between the "spiritual" and the "secular," which had become so pronounced in medieval Christianity. The Qur'an shows us that the two levels are integrally related. It demonstrates that spiritual progress is achieved only through our interactions in the secular - or day-to-day - world. Indeed, there is really no other way to judge faith or commitment or submission to transcendent values. That is why the Qur'an gives
examples of empty faith, those who "pray for show yet maltreat orphans and do not work for the welfare of the needy." Progress, in Islam, then, is the ability to remain true to these values through all social, historical, economic, and political contexts, especially through the challenges and temptations of technological development.

When I teach these principles - this notion of progress -to my students in North America, they are immediately impressed. They find it fascinating that the Qur'an is not so much concerned with the direction of prayer as with the well-being of the weak and the suffering:

It is not piety that you turn your faces to the East or the West, but pious is the one who believes in God and the Last Day and the angels and the Book and the prophets, and spends money for love of Him, on relatives and orphans and the poor and travelers and those in need, and for captives; and who pays charity, and who fulfills promises when they are made, and who is patient in poverty and suffering and in time of war; it is these who are true in faith, who are pious. (Surat al-Baqarah, 2: 178)

They find these values utterly in keeping with their own. Indeed, many feel that perhaps the expression here is a bit more articulate, more direct, and very timely.

As noted above, there is a pronounced discontent in the Western world with the current state of things: excessive emphasis on material goods, on consumption, on power. This discontent is evident in a renewed
emphasis on spirituality, the source of moral certainty. The best selling books in American bookstores to-day are about religious topics. Most people have no desire to re-impose official religions in Europe or America. We have had our turn with religious coercion and found it quite ineffective in producing a moral society. Nor have Westerners any desire to retreat from confidence in their intellectual capacities, or to regress technologically. But they do yearn for clear articulation of goals, and I believe it is here that the Muslim world can make a great contribution to the modern world.

It seems to me, therefore, that rather than taking a defensive attitude toward modernity/modernism, Muslims now have the opportunity to make an extremely positive contribution in the form of a forthright, confident articulation of Islamic ideals of progress: embracing religious and intellectual freedom, and also promoting the value of progress - but not progress measured on the basis of quantity. The ideal for which the world yearns is a notion of progress measured in quality - evident in the degree of our success in creating a just sociopolitical order. That, I think, is a necessary corrective to Western notions of progress. Once the West recognizes that Muslims are not anti-rationalist or theocratic, and once Muslims accept that the West is not anti-religious or atheistic, I believe we can engage in a very productive dialogue on both the values and pitfalls of technological
development.

Notes:

1 See Henry E. Allison, "Kant" in T. Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 437.

2 See discussion of secularization in Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy. Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Doubleday, 1967), ch. 5.

3 Edward Said, "Interview: Edward W. Said" in Diacritics, vol. 6, p.
36.

4 Delivered at the University of South Florida, Spring 1995.

5 Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 15.

6 The following account is taken from pp. 3-6, 14-15, and 19-20 of alMawardi. al-Ahkam al-Sultaniyyah, translated by Bernard Lewis in Islam, Vol. I: Politics and War (New York, Hagerstown, San Francisco,
London: Harper Torchbooks, 1974), pp. 171-179.

7 In the words of Shafi'i legist, Muhammad al juwayni, Ghiyath al-Umam, Iskandariyya: 1979), pp. 274-275: "If the sultan does not reach the degree of ijtihad, then the jurists are to be followed and the sultan will provide them with help, power, and protection." Quoted by Wael Hallaq, "Was the Gate of Ijtihad Closed?" International Journal of Middle East Studies, 16.(1984), p. 13.

Taken, with thanks, from Muslims and the West: Encounter and Dialogue
Editors Zafar I Ansari, John Esposito
Islamic Research Institute and Center for Muslim Christian Understanding

 

 

 

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