How Should Muslims Best Tackle the Juggernaut of Modernity?
Islam is an inherently conservative tradition, in the sense that a cardinal tenet of such a tradition is to conserve and preserve revealed truths, defending them against attack. Pivotal to this preservation are the ‘ulema or religious scholars. One hadith says: ‘This knowledge will be carried by the trustworthy ones of every generation. They shall rid from it the distortions of the extremists; the false claims of the liars; and the mistaken interpretations of the ignorant.’ [Al-Bayhaqi, Sunan al-Kubra, 10:209]
But such conservatism can be a double-edged sword. For though it may be capable of preserving what is essential or precious, it has the potential – not only of being open, foreword-thinking and inclusive – but of being closed, highly sectarian and exclusive. Regrettably, some of the more hardline, ultra-conservative ‘ulema tend to characterise this narrowness only too well.
Also true is that many of today’s ‘ulema seem thoroughly stumped by modernity: their discourse about it barely extending beyond a few criticisms levelled against the West’s immorality and ungodliness. One crucial Islamic maxim insists: hukm ‘ala shay’ far‘un ‘an tasawwurihi – “Passing judgement about something comes after having [correctly] conceptualised it.” So without understanding the ideas or institutions that undergird modernity, how can we expect to come to grips with it and stand-up to it; or to at least navigate safely through it?
Yet all is not bleak. There are a number of more nuanced and informed ‘ulema, whose ranks seem to be growing steadily but surely. Observing the extremism of the radicals and the cowboy reforms of the liberals with a faint grin of disquiet, they are at pains to iterate to us words of realism and sanity:
The first thing they point out is that modernity is a juggernaut, that has a tendency to flatten anything that comes in its way. Hence clashing with it head-on is unwise. Nor must it be a case of its uncritical acceptance or wholesale rejection. We seem to have an endless fascination with short term political issues, yet are largely ignorant of the wider trends of which these issues are merely the passing manifestations. Unless and until we Muslims become conscious of the larger trends of the age – until we learn to look past the zahir; the superficial externals, to the batin; the deeper realities – we will continue to flounder in our current predicament. A prophetic du‘a runs: Allahumma arina’l-haqqa haqqan wa’rzuqna itiba‘ahu wa arina’l-batila batilan wa’rzuqna ijtinabahu: ‘O God show me truth as it really is and cause me to follow it; and show me falsehood as it really is and turn me away from it.’
Secondly; having stressed the above, such ‘ulema draw our attention to the following: The goal of Islamic civilisation has never been scientific or material progress. Instead, realising worship of God (tahqiq al-‘ubudiyyah) and seeking to perfect the human soul (tazkiyat al-nafs) are its goals. Its most holistic expression comes to us in the famous hadith of the Angel Gabriel [Cf. Muslim, no.8], where he taught that the religion, in its entire, is encompassed in the three dimensions of iman, islam and ihsan: beliefs, actions and spirituality. Or if you will: knowing, doing and becoming – knowing faith; doing works of faith; then becoming transformed by faith.1
For Muslims, as both individuals and societies, actualising these three levels of human life is the real measure of progress or success. Furthermore, it cannot be hidden from those familiar with Islam’s religious sources or history, that the optimum balance ever to be achieved in terms of these three din dimensions, was by the Muslim community in Madinah during the prophetic age. In fact, from then on it was to be (barring a few exceptions) a downwards spiral. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No time will come upon you except that the time after it shall be worse than it; until you meet your Lord.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.7068] He ﷺ also said: ‘The best of mankind is my generation; then those who follow them; then those who follow them.’ [Bukhari, no.2652; Muslim, no.2533] It isn’t surprising, then, that this “unique Quranic generation” is one that most Muslims look back upon with reverence, loyalty and a deep sense of nostalgia.
No doubt, nostalgia may so overwhelm some people that they could end-up trying to relive the past. The love affair with the Prophet’s Madinah may, if we get too dreamy, blur the distinction between what is descriptive in Madinah from what is prescriptive. But that, for the most part, can be mitigated by following qualified, contextual fiqh. Nostalgia for Madinah, as the ‘ulema say, in no way permits ignoring our context and reality. In other words, we have a duty to keep it real. Loyalty to the past doesn’t mean living in the past.
Lastly, they remind us that as the End of Days approaches, various “Signs of the Hour” are anticipated. Among them is the increase in social commotions, seditions and civil wars – collectively referred to as fitan (sing. fitnah). Here the hadiths tell us: ‘There will be times of commotion in which one who sits will be better than one who stands; one who stands better than one who walks; and one who walks better than one who runs.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.3601; Muslim, no.2886] On being asked what to do in such times, the Prophet ﷺ advised: ‘Keep to your houses, control your tongues, keep to what you approve, leave what you disapprove, attend to your own affairs and avoid public affairs.’ [Abu Dawud, Sunan, no.4342]
The Shafi’i jurist and hadith master, al-Munawi (d.1031H/1622CE), said that keeping to your houses … clinging to what you approve means: to keep your head down and get on with whatever benefits your spiritual and worldly well-being.
Leaving what you disapprove mandates avoiding such affairs of people that you know to be contrary to the shari‘ah. This, along with thanking God for averting this sin from you, as well as censuring the wrong with civility, gentleness and patience, and with an inward serenity born of a conviction that – despite things seeming bleak – all is in His hand and is unfolding according to the divine plan.
Avoiding the affairs of the general public, al-Munawi wrote, implies that when enjoining good or forbidding evil is more likely to be ineffective at rectifying a fitnah or a social ill – either because of it being so widespread; or is too entrenched; or one simply fears for their own safety in doing so – there is a dispensation to not tackle the wrong. But one is still duty bound by faith to detest the wrong inwardly, and to knuckle down and carry out the cardinal demands made by religion.2
Scholars say that the circumstance warranting this type of social disengagement have not quite come to a head yet. But they do speak of significant parallels between those times and our present one. So what do they counsel?
By no means are they agreed on a detailed plan or response. Though for a while now, a consensus has begun to take shape among them about the most appropriate course of action. Since modernity is a one-way street and religion is positioned in the wrong direction, the ‘ulema realise that any forward motion is fraught with danger. They are aware, too, of the need to steer a path between mindlessly reacting to modernity and timidly retreating from it.
Priority, they stress, is for Muslims to learn and maintain the fard al-‘ayn: those duties that are a personal obligation for Muslims to know and fulfil. They also enjoin living according to the Prophet’s Sunnah, peace be upon him, wherever we can; and as much as we can. This applies to the private sphere.
As for the public space, the advice is far more nebulous. Must we challenge modernity square on and brazenly confront its decadent wrongs? A mixture of textual indicants, received wisdoms, experiences and hindsights have all worked together to make this a wild or intemperate option, as far as the ‘ulema are concerned. Any policy of militant conflict is more likely to harm Islam than anything else. Instead, do what you are able to do in the public space, is their advise, and begin to develop strong institutions: civil, religious, educational and social. Furthermore, start to form Alliances of Virtue with like-minded non-Muslims so as to help build a better society – alliances aimed at working for justice, accommodation and coexistence.
What this needs is for us to take a more nuanced, wiser and courageous approach; an approach where the balanced and spiritual nature of Islam can better manifest itself. The approach must also be one that allows Islam to retain its voice as a prophetically-inspired dissent that engages the realities of the modern world. This sacred function of Muslims being dissenting witnesses is based on the verse: Thus have We made you a middle nation, that you may be a witness over mankind, and that the Messenger may be a witness over you. [2:143] With knowledge, justice, compassion and courage this is what we have been called upon to do: to be witnesses to tawhid, divine truths and delivery of the Message to a world retreating from the Sacred and plunging ever more into the profane!
1. Iman, islam and ihsan have also be expressed as: law (shari‘ah), path (tariqah) and reality (haqiqah). Here, shari‘ah means: to worship only God; tariqah, intending only Him; and haqiqah, spiritually witnessing Him. Consult: Ibn Ajibah, Iqaz al-Himam fi Sharh al-Hikam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2008), 23.
2. Cf. al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, n.d.), 1:353; hadith no.626.