To Progress or Drift Dangerously Downstream?
Progress signifies a movement forward. But it tells us nothing about the actual nature of the movement. Is it downstream or upstream? Is it hurtling to danger or marching to safety? Is it a descent or an ascent? Is it a fall from Grace or a lifting of the Spirit? The fact that something marches forward progressively doesn’t mean it is necessarily a good thing. Cancer progresses, but no one considers it good. What I’m trying to say is that how do we know when progress is good, and what is the yardstick by which it is measured? One of Islam’s arbab al-qulub, or “spiritual masters,” has said: fi’l-harakah barakah – ‘in movement there is a blessing.’ Evidently, though, not every movement is blessed.
The Prophet, upon whom be peace, said: ‘Be in the world as though you are a stranger or a traveller.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.6416] He also explained: ‘What have I to do with the life of this world. My example in regards to this worldly life is like that of a rider who rests for a while under the shade of a tree, but then moves on.’ [Tirmidhi, no.2377] In order for life to be a journey moving in the right direction, we must always move ‘upstream’ against the current – against the relentless pull of the world or dunya.
The late Martin Lings says in his Ancient Beliefs, Modern Superstitions, that until quite recently, such was the orientation of human societies the world over: the ‘boats’ were, so to speak, at least pointing upstream – whether the force of the current was actually carrying them downstream or not. But there came a time, wrote Lings, within the last two hundred years or so, when for want of the least effort needed to keep the front of the boats facing the right direction, a number of boats that were drifting downstream backwards were deflected to meet the current broadside on and thus to be, as it were, with no orientation whatsoever. In this vulnerable position of doubt, uncertainty and hopelessness it was not difficult for the current to turn them completely around until they were facing the way they were drifting: downstream. With shouts of triumph that they were ‘at last making some progress’, they called on those who were still struggling upstream to ‘throw off the fetters of superstition’ and to ‘move with the times’. A new creed was quickly cobbled together to justify this U-turn. It stated that man’s previous historical efforts to move upstream were reactionary, utterly pointless and misguided; yet despite all reactionary man’s folly and futility, they ‘couldn’t keep man in the dark night of ignorance’ and that ‘progress’ would surely win through. So by the twentieth century we had arrived at what was described by someone as ‘the glorious morning of the world’.1
Struggling against the sweeping currents of dunya does not mean that believers are to cast aside the world, tending only to the work of faith and the Spirit. The Qur’an says: ‘But seek the abode of the Hereafter in that which God has given you, and do not forget your portion of the world, and be kind even as God has been kind to you. And seek not corruption in the earth; for God loves not corrupters.’ [28:77]
Yet remembering our portion of the world should not be taken to mean that material advances – in terms of science and technology, or the system of politics or economics adopted by a nation – are the true measures of progress. The Qur’an relates a number of narratives about previous civilisations and their technological “progress”. Yet when put side by side with their heedlessness or denial of the Divine Reality, such progress is seen for what it truly is: delusion and civilisational hubris. Informs the Qur’an: Have they not travelled in the earth and seen the fate of those before them. They were far mightier than them in power, and they dug the earth and built upon it more than they did. And their Messengers brought them clear signs. God wronged them not, but they wronged themselves. Evil was the end of those who dealt in evil, because they denied the signs of God and mocked them. [30:9-10]
Early Muslim pietists were at pains to instil in us the quintessential Quranic message, that mere material progress – ‘digging the earth and building on it’ – can never be the measure of any true, meaningful success. Islamic sources relate that in 28AH/649CE the first ever Muslim naval expedition was launched against Cyprus, which was under the rule of the Byzantine empire; now in its twilight years.
The Muslim army was quick to overrun the small Byzantine garrison and the Cypriots were soon paying tribute to the Muslims. On seeing the ease with which the people of this once powerful empire lay defeated and subdued, Abu’l-Darda – a Companion of the Prophet and worldly renunciant – began to weep. On being asked why he wept on the day God had granted victory to Islam and the Muslims, he answered: ‘Woe to you! How insignificant creation becomes to God when they neglect His commands. Here is a nation that was once mighty, powerful and had dominion. Then they abandoned the commands of God; so look what has become of them.’2
So in judging the contemporary world’s unrelenting drive for progress, believers need not concur with all the orthodoxies and popular assumptions of the age. Civilisational greatness or technological progress for their own sake, as may be seen, count for very little in the Quranic scheme of things. Digging the earth is one thing; burying the path to salvation is another thing altogether.
In closing, then, let’s pose that all-important question again: How should change and progress be appraised?
For Muslims, insisted Gai Eaton, there can be only one test by which to assess change. Does it promote piety – awareness of the divine Presence – or diminish it? Does it lead an increasing number of men and women to the gates of Paradise, or encourage them to stray from God’s path? Does it reinforce the divinely revealed Law, or does it cloud the distinction between what is commanded and what is forbidden? Obviously, there are, he says, other considerations; but they must take a lower place in a fixed order of priorities: An increase in life expectancy is, of course, a good thing, but pointless if the additional years do not lead to an increasing awareness of the divine Reality which we are soon to meet. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with the ease and comforts the modern world provides, but these count for nothing if their soft embrace encourages us to forget our origin and our ultimate end.3
As the demands for Islam to progress and to adopt modern liberal doctrines intensify, we must ensure that – regardless of the pressure – we keep the ‘boats’ facing the right direction: namely, upstream. A certain amount of glitzy conceit usually accompanies those who wield political dominance in every age; and our age is no exception. But as believers, we needn’t be taken in by such posturing. We must not be enthralled by the superficial glitter of what is essentially a materialistic, atheistic Monoculture; and nor be blinded by the glare of its present might: Let not the strutting of the disbelievers in the land beguile you. [3:196]
As for the temptation to water down faith or gloss over Islam’s less “palatable” points, The Qur’an exhorts: Perhaps you may [feel to] leave out some of what is revealed to you, and your hearts feel strained that they say: ‘Why hasn’t a treasure been sent down for him, or an angel not come with him?’ You are nothing but a warner, and God is Guardian over all things. [11:12]
That is to say, the weakened spirit may ask itself: “What if I omit this religious ruling, or that duty, in order to better my liberal credentials: will God’s truth not be accepted more readily?” Yet we are told the truth must be delivered as it was revealed, and to skip over a portion of what is obligated would be to surely miss the point. We should, of course, be wise, patient, convivial and understand our context as best as we can; then leave the rest to God (or, as it is said, ‘do your best, then trust in God to do the rest’). For tahqiq al-‘ubudiyyah, “realising servitude to God,” is a Muslim’s unalterable direction of progression. Islam and the Monoculture must learn how to accomodate each other precisely on such a basis.
1. See: Ancient Beliefs and Moderns Superstitions (Cambridge: Archetype, 2001), 37-8.
2. Ibn Hanbal, al-Zuhd (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1999), 117; no.763.
3. Consult: Gai Eaton, Remembering God: Reflections on Islam (Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society, 2000), 25-6.