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Newsletter for June 2012
Decadence, Deviation and
Renaissance in the Context of Contemporary Islam
by Seyyed Hossein Nasr
IN CONTRAST to traditional Islamic scholarship where in all branches of the sciences terms are already defined and always used with a specific meaning in mind, there has appeared during the past century among a large number of modernized Muslims a tendency toward ambiguity and the careless use of many important terms. Words and expressions have been used by many modernized Muslims in such a way that they betray the state of cultural shock and often the inferiority complex vis-a-vis the West from which these Muslims suffer. Such writings echo a slavery of the mind to the norms and judgments of Western civilization. Moreover, these norms are most often hidden under the veil of an "Islam" of which there often remains little more than a name and certain emotional attachments but which has become devoid of the intellectual and spiritual truth that stands at the heart of the Islamic revelation. In this essay it is our aim to discuss three
such widely used expressions, namely decadence, deviation and renaissance, which are employed often in reference to Islamic history and the present-day Islamic world and which reflect in a profound fashion the attitude of a certain type of modernized Muslim toward the whole of Islam as a religion and a historical reality.
Let us begin with the term "decadence", which appears very often in the writings of modern Muslim scholars, who continuously refer to the condition of the Islamic world before the advent of modernism as one that could aptly be described as "decadent". This value judgment immediately raises the following question: "decadence with respect to what, or in respect to which norm"? There must be a norm by which something is measured and in relation to which it is judged to have decayed. Here while some take the early centuries of Islam as a norm, most often it is the value-system adopted consciously or unconsciously from the modern West that provides in a hidden and subtle manner the norm and criterion for determining decadence. This can be best illustrated when it comes to the question of science. Many modernized Muslims, like so many other Orientals, equate science with civilization and judge the value of any human society and its culture by whether or not it has produced science, disregarding completely the lessons of the history of science itself. 1 Islamic civilization is then considered to have begun to decay when it ceased to produce outstanding scientists. And even the date of this cessation of activity is taken by most Muslim writers from Western sources, where until very recently for the most part interest has been limited in all aspects of Islamic intellectual life to the period when Islam influenced the West.
As a result everything in Islam from philosophy to mathematics suddenly "decays" mysteriously somewhere around the 7th/13th century, exactly when the intellectual contact between Islam and the West came to an end. Modern Muslim authors who hold this type of view do not even bother to delve into the more recent and less known research of those Western scholars who have shown how important Islamic astronomy was in the 9th/15th century or how actively Islamic medicine was pursued in Persia and India until the 12th/18th century. 2
The result of this concept of decadence, which is based upon the modern Western criteria for "civilization" in its worldly aspect 3 rather than on the traditional Islamic perspective which looks upon the Madina community as the most perfect Islamic society, a society according to which all other Islamic "societies" are judged, has been to atrophy the minds of young Muslims and make
them lose confidence in themselves and in their own culture. Rather than depicting the decadence which did take place in the Islamic world as a gradual and normal process of "ageing" and of becoming more removed in time from the celestial origin of the revelation and without, moreover, emphasizing the very recent nature of this decadence, such authors posit the fantastic and abhorrent theory that the Islamic world began to decay in the 7th/13th century. They remain completely oblivious of the fact that if this had been the case it would have been impossible for Islam to continue to nurture a vast civilization and remain a living force to this day. They brush aside such masterpieces of art as the Shah Mosque, the Blue Mosque or the Taj Mahal, or the literary masterpieces of a Jami or a Sa'ib Tabrizi, or the metaphysical and theological syntheses of a Mulla Sadra or a Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, not to speak of the ever-living spiritual tradition of Islam contained within Sufism, which has continued to produce saints to this day. Surely had decadence, as envisaged by those modernized Muslim writers who have adopted completely Western norms of judgment, taken hold of the Islamic world at the early date so often posited by this group, there would have been no Islamic civilization left for such a group to revive during the present century. Islamic civilization would have died out long ago and become only a subject of archaeological interest as in fact so many Orient lists would like to treat it.
As for the term "deviation", it is in fact rarely used by modernists and is seen only in the writings of the more orthodox Muslim writers who are still aware of the presence of a spiritual and religious norm with which to judge any human society including their own, for to speak of "tradition" in the widest sense of the word al-din is also to speak of the possibility of deviation. In fact, in the place where this term should be used, namely in reference to modern Western civilization, which is itself a major deviation and anomaly, not to say "a monstrosity", to use the words of R. Guenon, the group of modern writers with whom we are concerned shy away from it, again precisely because of the lack of an objective norm with which to judge the temporal flux which determines the specific conditions of time and space of any particular "world" and which must of necessity transcend this flux.
When we come to the word "renaissance" we find a profusion of the wildest uses of this term in nearly every context, ranging from art and literature to politics. The modernists never tire of speaking of nearly every form of activity in the Islamic world as a renaissance, whose Arabic translation, al-nahdah, has become such a prevalent word in contemporary Arabic literature. There
is something insidious about the carefree usage of the word renaissance, for it recalls the Renaissance in the West when the re-birth of spiritually deadly elements of the Graeco-Roman paganism -and of course not the positive elements of this ancient tradition which had already been integrated into Christianity by the Church Fathers, especially St. Augustine - dealt a staggering blow to Christian civilisation and prevented it from reaching its natural period of flowering as a Christian civilization. What many Muslims often take as renaissance is usually precisely the re-birth of the very forces that Islam came to supplant, forces which are identified in the
traditional Muslim imagery with the age of ignorance or jahiliyyah. That is not to say that a form of "renaissance" in a particular domain is impossible, for the appearance of a great saint can cause a "renaissance" of spirituality in a particular region of the Islamic world. A great master of Islamic ait can revive a particular artistic form or a powerful intellectual figure can cause the revival of some aspects of Islamic intellectual life, provided he is himself genuinely rooted in the Islamic intellectual tradition. 5 But that does not mean that every form of activity that occurs is an Islamic renaissance. Actually, most of what is paraded as "renaissance" today is
nothing of the kind. Rather, it is the coming to life of the jahiliyyah qualities in one form or another. How often has a directly anti-Islamic form of thought been hailed as the "renaissance" of Islamic thought or an activity directly opposed to the teachings of the Shari'ah as an Islamic social renaissance! Intellectual honesty would require us at least to avoid using the epithet "Islamic", even if the term renaissance must for some unknown reason be employed. Here again, it is the lack of vision of the objective Islamic norms which causes many people to identify simply any change and activity in the Islamic world with an Islamic renaissance, in the same way that in the secular world of the West and its dependencies on other continents any change is equated with "progress" and "development" even if this change is in every way a debasement and diminishing of the quality of human life.
In all these cases, the common error results from the loss of vision of the objective, transcendent and immutable Islamic norms which alone can enable one to judge from an Islamic point of view whether a particular form or activity or period of human society is decadent, deviated or resurging with the characteristic of a true renaissance. Without the absolute, the relative can never be fully understood and without the immutable one cannot gauge the direction of flow of change. But because of a metaphysical myopia combined with a blind submission to the follies of the modern West, which has lost its vision of the Immutable, the group of modernized Muslims under discussion possesses neither the intellectual vision to perceive the immutable essences of things,
the malakut of things in Qur'anic terminology, nor the binding faith to remain steadfast to the norm established by the Prophetic Tradition (Sunnah and Hadith). Since the first of these ways of reaching the immutable principles of things is of an intellectual order, it is brushed aside by the modernised group in question without too much popular opposition and the energy of this group is then concentrated on the second, which because of its direct religious color is bound to arouse greater opposition among believing Muslims. But in both cases. the ultimate motive is the same. It is to remove the only objective Islamic criteria according to which one could judge the present-day Islamic society and in fact the modern world in general.
The desire to remove this criterion becomes therefore concentrated in the attempt to weaken, in the eyes of faithful Muslims, the traps-historical significance of the Prophetic Sunnah and Vadith by subjecting them to the so-called method of historical criticism in which usually the absence of the record of something is equated with the non-existence of the thing itself. The Holy Prophet (peace be on him) provides for Muslims, both individually and collectively, the perfect norm for their private and collective lives, the uswah, hasanah of the Qur'an. As long as his Sunnah is respected and kept intact, there is present a divinely appointed norm to judge human behavior and, along with the Holy Book itself, to provide the basis for the life of human society as well as for the inner religious lives of the members of that society. The attack against the integrity of the ,Hadith literature has as one of its major reasons, whether this is realized consciously or not, to remove the divinely ordained criterion for judging Muslims and therefore of leaving the ground open for men to follow the line of least resistance and to surrender to their passions or to the transient fashions of the day, however demonic they might be. All of this is done, moreover, in the name of an "Islamic renaissance" or of criticizing as decadent any group which refuses to be a blind imitator of the cheapest products of Western civilizations The ambiguous and often wishy-washy judgments of many of the modernists with respect to Islam, past and present, are inseparable from the attempt to blur the clear example and norm for human life provided by the Qur'an and the Sunnah. And conversely many orthodox Muslims who have sought to defend the integrity of Islam have found it necessary to emphasize over and over again the significance of the ,Hadith and Sunnah, without which even the message of the Holy Qur'an would become in many parts incomprehensible to men. The works of Mawlana Mawdudi are an example of this latter type of defense of Islam in which the defense of the Prophetic norm occupies such a central position.
It may now be asked that once this criticism has been made of the prevalent use of such terms as renaissance, decadence and deviation, what can these terms really signify if we accept the full authority of the Qur'an and the Sunnah as well as the gradual unfolding of the tradition in stages to our own day. To this question one can give a precise answer which, however, because of the
difference in premises and point of departure, will be very different from that of the modernist group in question. Let us begin with the term "renaissance".
Renaissance in the Islamic sense can only mean a rebirth or literally re-naissance of Islamic principles and norms and not just a re-birth of no matter what. Every sign of life is not the sign of true life and every activity that occurs among Muslim peoples is not necessarily an Islamic activity, especially during this age of the eclipse of so many aspects of the truth. A renaissance in its Islamic sense would correspond to tajdid or renewal, which in its traditional context is identified with the function of a renewed or mujaddid. Islamic history has been witness to many renaissances in the true sense of the word identified with the activity of a mujaddid in one part or another of the Islamic world. But always such a mujaddid has been the embodiment par excellence of the principles of Islam, which he has sought to reinstate and apply to a particular situation. He thus differs profoundly from the "reformer" in the modern sense, who is usually a "deformer" because he is willing to sacrifice an aspect of the Islamic tradition for this or that contingent factor that is most often made to appear irresistible by being called "inescapable conditions of the times". One wonders what would have happened to Islam during and after the Mongol invasion if such "reformers" had appeared at that time and tried to adapt Islam to what
was then surely the most irresistible set of "conditions of the time", that connected with the victorious Mongols and their way of life. A true Islamic renaissance is then not just the birth or re-birth of anything that happens to be fashionable at a particular moment of human history but the re-application of principles of a truly Islamic nature.
And here the primary condition for a truly Islamic renaissance becomes clear. This condition in our day resides in independence from the influence of the West and all that characterizes modernism. A Muslim far away from the influence of modernism can possibly experience spiritual renewal while remaining oblivious to what is going on in the modern world. But a Muslim leader who wishes to renew the intellectual life of the Islamic world which is under such profound pressure from the West and from modern civilization in general, which has now traveled from the West to the Islamic world, cannot hope to bring about an Islamic renaissance on either the intellectual or social level except through a profound criticism of modernism and the modern world itself. To speak of an Islamic renaissance and at the same time accept without any discrimination all that the modern world stands for is pure chimera and the wildest of dreams, a dream which in the end cannot but turn into a nightmare. Today no truly Islamic activity, especially in the intellectual order, can take place without a profoundly critical attitude towards the modern world combined with a deep understanding of this world. Nor is the practice of giving opinion or ijtihad possible in the field of Islamic law for a mind that has been transformed by the tenets of modernism. If, despite all the talk about an Islamic renaissance among Muslim modernists during the past century, no such thing has taken place -certainly not issuing from their quarter - it is precisely because of the lack on the part of these modernists of this absolutely essential, critical, and at the same time profound, knowledge of the modern world and an evaluation of the transient values of this world in the light of the eternal principles of Islam. It is high time that those who want to speak in the name of the Muslim intelligentsia and who wish to bring about a renaissance of Islam stop speaking from the position of inferiority vis-a-vis the West and begin to apply the sword of metaphysical discrimination contained in it.9 purest form in the Shahadah to the modern world itself.
If such a perspective is followed the meaning of decadence and deviation also becomes clear. Decadence is always a falling off from a perfect norm but following a course that is still related to that norm, while deviation is a complete departure from that norm itself.
Moreover, there are two forms of decadence: one passive and the other active, one which the civilizations of the East underwent during the past few centuries and the other which was followed by the modern West during the same period? and which because of its activity became a deviation. Many Orientals - Muslims as well as others - mistook it for true life precisely because of the dynamic element it contained. Today, strangely enough, before the startled eyes of many modernized Easterners, this deviation of the West is turning into decadence of a form that is easily recognizable for Easterners themselves. It can in fact be said that the curve of life of modern Western civilization beginning with the termination of its spiritual normalcy during the Middle Ages has gone from "renaissance" to deviation to decadence, this last phase becoming ever more evident during the last two decades. As for that aspect of Islam connected with the group of modernists in mind - and not the totality of the Islamic tradition which fortunately remains above this process - the curve can be described as going from decay to "renaissance" to deviation, a deviation which will surely be followed by another phase of decadence, but of a different type from which the modernists originally sought to escape.
There is only one way to escape this insidious chain. It is to remain faithful to the eternal and immutable principles which stand above all contempory events, and then to apply these principles to whatever situation the Muslims are faced with, to whichever "world" that presents itself to them. To take any transient spacio-temporal set of conditions or "world" as the criterion of the
validity of Islamic principles and teachings is to reverse the natural order of things. It is to put the cart before the horse; it is to make the contingent the criterion of judgment for the eternal. Its fruit can only be an unfolding similar to the fatal-course
pursued by the West, the end of which is the impasse which modern civilization now faces and which threatens human
The Muslim "intelligentsia" cannot do anything better than to benefit from the lessons that can be drawn from a deeper study of the stages in the history of the modern West which have brought it to its present crisis. If they wish to speak for Islam and to renew its life they must remember the extremely heavy responsibility they bear. It must be recalled that a true death is better than a false life and that if one wishes to renew the life of the Islamic community it must be the renewal of a life whose roots are sunk deeply in the Divine. There is no way to avoid both decadence and deviation and to achieve a true renaissance but to reapply the principles and truths contained in the Islamic revelation, which have always been valid and will always continue to be so. And to be able to apply these principles to the outside world it is first of all necessary to apply them to oneself. Man must become spiritually revivified before being able to revive the world about him. The greatest lesson that all true reformers today could learn is that the real reform of the world begins with the reform of oneself. He who conquers himself conquers the world and he in whom a renewal of the principles of Islam in their full amplitude has taken place has already taken the most fundamental step towards the "renaissance" of Islam itself; for, only he who has become resurrected in the truth can resurrect and revive the world about him, whatever the
extent of that "world" might be according to the will of Heaven.
Notes and Sources
1 See S. H. Nasr, Science and Civilisation in Islam, Cambridge, Mass., 1968, and New York, 1970, where we have dealt extensively with this question, especially in the introduction, p. 21 ff.
2 The situation for Islamic philosophy is even more startling since Islamic philosophy and metaphysics have never really decayed at all. See S. H. Nasr, Islamic Studies, Beirut, 1967, ch. VIII and IX; and Nasr, "The Tradition of Islamic Philosophy in Persia and its Significance for the Modern World" (tr. by W. Chittick), Iqbal Review, vol. 12, n. 3, Oct. 1971, pp. 28-49; also Nast, "Persia and the Destiny of Islamic Philosophy", Studies in Comparative Religion, Winter, 1972, pp. 31-42.
3 For Western man, especially after the 17th century "civilization" became wholly identified
with the purely human and in fact with the self-aggrandizement of terrestrial man which reaches its peak with Louis XIV. See F. Schuon, "Remarks on some kings of France", Studies in Comparative Religion, Winter, 1972, p. 2 ff.
4 See the two fundamental works of R. Guenon on the modern world, The Crisis of the Modern World,
tr. by M. Pallis and R. Nicholson, London, 1962, and The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, tr. by Lord Northbourne, London, 1953. See also the masterly analysis of F. Schuon, Light on the Ancient Worlds, tr. by Lord Northbourne, London, 1965.
5 See H. Corbin, "The Force of Traditional Philosophy in Iran Today," Studies in Comparative Religion, Winter, 1968, p. 12 ff.
6 On the significance of the prophetic Hadith and a reply to its modern critics see S. H. Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, London, 1971, p. 79 ff.; and F. Schuon, Understanding Islam, tr. by D. M. Matheson, London, 1963 and Baltimore, 1971, ch. III. See also S. M. Yusuf, An Essay on the
Sunnah, Lahore, 1966.
7 "All civilizations have decayed: only they have decayed in different ways; the decay of the East is passive and that of the West is active.
"The fault of the East in decay is that it no longer thinks; the West in decay thinks too much and thinks wrongly.
"The East is sleeping over truths; the West lives in errors". (F. Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, tr. by D. M. Matheson, London, 1953, p. 22.)
(Exerpt from Islamic Perspectives Studies of rge works of Abul Al’a Mawdudi The Islamic Foundation, U.K)
courtesy: Ali Abbas Qureshi
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