This is one of the shorter essays in my forthcoming book, God-willing, entitled: Modernity & Muslimness: Sixty Short Essays that Should Matter. As part of the introduction to the book, I wrote: In his travelogue on Islam in late nineteenth century England, Asmay started by saying: ‘Eight years ago, a faint sound began to come from the West to the East. Realising that the sound was significant, the Muslim umma sat up and took notice, cupping their hands to their ears. Giving all their attention to the sound, they could only make out this sentence, “Islam has started to appear in England.”’1 This book and its essays are a continuation of that sound, that faint murmur, which has only grown louder and more significant with the passage of time.
ONE COULD ARGUE that Islam, despite what we are being led to believe, is actually a modern success story. Now this might sound strange to some, perhaps to many. So let me explain:
No doubt, media portrayals are negative, dark and gloomy. And of course, events around the world involving Muslims, or at least the ones we tend to hear about and that get most media exposure, don’t lend themselves to much joy or cheer. So perhaps we as Muslims could be forgiven for feeling somewhat overwhelmed; feeling like little corks bobbing up and down in a raging sea of Western liberal, modernity. Yet despite this, if we look at it more broadly, Islam is actually the unsung success story of modernity.
How is that?
Well let’s ask ourselves what religion is for? That will indicate how well or not Islam is doing. Here, there’s much to give thanks for, much to admire about our current situation; and there’s much more to look forward to in the coming future too – God willing.
Islam, as religion, must be judged in terms of: Does it still offer authentic, practical guidance for salvation? The answer to that is a resounding, Yes! It certainly does.
In fact, Islam continues to be relevant and practical to a growing number of people, and accessible to them too. And one significant reason for this is that Islam is universal. The Prophet ﷺ said: bu’ithtu li’l-nasi kaffah – ‘I have been sent to the whole of humanity.’2 This echoes what we read in the Holy Qur’an: Say [O Muhammad]: ‘O mankind! Truly I am the Messenger of Allah to you all.’ [Q.7:158]
Islam, therefore, has the inbuilt capacity to be native to any soil. And we Muslims must remember this, and not practice Islam in a way which blurs this universality, or makes it appear that it is an Asian or an Arab thing. It ought to be remembered that one of Islam’s great founding stories is of a gentile, Egyptian mother; Hagar, along with her Hebrew Canaanite young child; Ishmael, and their inculturation into the native Arabian landscape, language and cultural life. That’s to say that Islam has the socio-spiritual technology to become native to any soil.
Another reason it’s a success story has to do with numbers. What the data shows is that the number of Muslims is increasing here in Europe, and that by 2030, there will be more Muslims than Christians in Britain.
Related to this is the number of people who continue to convert to Islam, despite media negativity and Islamophobia; and inspite of us born Muslims being asleep to our higher vocation of living and spreading the truths of tawhid. Islam’s message of tawhid, healing and hope, with its universality, still has a powerful appeal to people.
Yet another proof of its success is that its mosques are overflowing. Part of the reason for this, in fact a significant part, is because Islam remains practical and liveable today, even in the modern West, when other religions are capitulating to the juggernaut of modernity, or simply being stamped out by it.
All in all, then – and all praise is for God – Islam as a religion is doing what it says on the tin. It is still offering practical, liveable ways of connecting with God and living godly lives, even amidst today’s turbulence.
1. In Yusuf Samih Asmay: Islam in Victorian Liverpool: An Ottoman Account of Britain’s First Mosque Community (Swansea: Claritas Books, 2021), 49.
‘We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the class room
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey teachers leave them kids alone!
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall.’
[Pink Floyd, Brick in the Wall]
IN 1800 ONLY five percent of Britain had any formal primary education. By 1900, that figure was ninety percent. Across Britain and Europe, children between the ages of five and ten were summoned to sit in classrooms to learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The reason why children were being sent to school was the same as why, for thousands of years, they had been kept at home: work and productivity.1
In pre-modern societies it was a given that, at the earliest possible time or opportunity, children would best help their family by going out to work in the fields, markets, workshops or factories. Modern societies, equally as interested in children’s earning power, legislated that compulsory state schooling would be the best guarantor of that power of productivity in the long run. Modern state education’s focus would be on functional literacy: teaching students just enough to make them economically productive; no more, and no less. ‘So much,’ as the educationalist John Taylor Gatto says, ‘for making boys and girls their personal best.’2
This explains why children in schools are so often bored, unconcerned and unfocused. They wonder why on earth are they being taught most of these subjects? What is it for? Most of what our children learn is school will not equip them for life in the actual world. ‘Given the extent on the emphasis on utility in the education system, it remains surprising for many modern citizens to reach middle age (or earlier) to discover that rather a lot appears to have been missed out in the curriculum. Despite the years of dedication and examination, the modern citizen is apt to look back and wonder with a mixture of irritation and sorrow why so much of what they needed to know was never taught to them at school.’3
And yet: ‘In all advanced nations, until a human is twenty-one or so, there is little else to do other than study. In sensible households, homework has a close to holy status. An army of teachers and educators, colleges and pedagogical bureaucrats is set us to feed industrial quanities of the young through the school machine.’4
When there are debates about education, and there are a lot of them, the usual focus is on how best to deliver an education to children, not what it is they should be educated in. School curricula aren’t reversed engineeredfrom the actual challenges and dilemmas of life. What children are taught in no way reflect the trials of life: issues of relationships, the sorrows of a meaningless job, coping with the tension of family, dealing with damaged but well intended parents, existential anxiety, the trauma of mortality, or the meaning of life and its struggles. Instead, we educate our children as if the greatest requirement of adulthood is a set of vocational or technical skills to help them earn money. To suggest that we ought to help educate them in their emotional dimensions – learning to understand themselves, empathise with others, nurture a self-confidence that isn’t narcissistic or self-damaging, or to get a handle on calm and self-compassion – would be to suggest an educational blasphemy of sorts. Yet it’s this kind of omission or failure that ensures the repeated betrayal of children’s education, and what some see as the theft of children’s minds.
RESTORE MEANING INTO EDUCATION
While modernity is interested in ‘useful’ learning, in the pre-modern world, those who were educated at a school or college were taught two things in particular: a holy text, and learning of high culture and dignity. Here in the West it meant the Bible and the classics, and in the Muslim East and West it meant the Qur’an and comportment (adab). Pre-modern education was about pursuing truth and wisdom, not money. Meaning and a sense of the sacred where at the centre of pre-modern education.
Modern education, by contrast, has no overarching educational philosophy behind it any more. Meaning is wholly absent.5 We as Muslims believe, as do other traditionally-minded religious people, that true education must be rooted in the sacred. The very first revelation of the Qur’an was in fact: Read in the name of your Lord who created! [Q.96:1] When education is cut-off from the sacred, it is corrupted or destroyed. It becomes meaningless. Children and teenagers throughout the educational establishments across the country know – they intuit it, even if they cannot articulate it – that so much of it is meaningless. ‘Why am I even studying this?’ ‘I’m being taught stuff that doesn’t have any meaning.’ ‘It can’t be all about getting a job so as to make money, when many billionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and others, dropped out of college.’
But when an educational system is designed chiefly for functionality, not imparting wisdom and meaning, its pretty much flawed from the ground up. For the modern world demanded that children learn the skills needed to keep the economy and productivity expanding. Kids had to be prepared to keep the machinery of modernity ticking over. That is what mattered the most; not learning for learning’s sake, or for deeper wisdom, or to become cultured and a cultivated human being. So when children in the twentieth century were encouraged in school to make things out of clay, or play with coloured bricks, or to put on plays – it may all have seemed progressive to the parents, but these move were only responses to demands by employers for new sets of skills required by new types of commerce and industry. And the same is the case today. Without imparting practical wisdom, or rooting education in meaning, our children’s learning will continue to be exploited by economic and corporate agendas where: ‘wealth takes precedence over family, image over substance, acquisition of apparent goods over real goods, gall over shame, and pleasure over happiness.’6
‘Sadly,’ said Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, ‘the tragic victims of this state of affairs are our children. They come into this world capable of greatness and instead are fed to the false god of appetite, resentment, and amusement. They suffer from obesity, sexual laxity, and a loss of family and community that en-genders anger towards their parents and society. They are indoctrinated into the false belief that life is for amusement and the best things in life come easily. Few are allowed to discover life’s greatest pleasure, which is self-knowledge and mastery of the soul that leads to an ethical life for the sake of God. For many, it’s not until they reach “maturity” that they realize they have been cheated out of nothing less than a life of meaning.’7
ROOT ISLAMIC EDUCATION & MUSLIM SCHOOLS
In the traditional Muslim world, education was always about learning how to carry ourselves; of how to dispose our souls to God, and to others. It was about comportment – or what in the Islamic world is called adab.
‘Pious character, refined manners and moderation constitute a twenty-fifth parts of prophethood,’ said the Prophet, peace be upon him.8 The idea of beautiful conduct or cultivated behaviour – in contrast to that seen as crass, vulgar or ugly – is gathered in that genre of knowledge termed adab. The Arabs say: adaba ila ta‘amihi – ‘He invited [others] to his banqueting feast.’ From it comes the idea of adab being an ‘invitation’ to partake of what is praiseworthy and virtuous. In its religious sense, adab is a call to acquire virtuous qualities. Adab carries with it the sense of civility, courtesy, refined manners, and cultured breeding or upbringing. Throughout the ages of Islam, adab was that type of learning acquired for the sake of living beautifully. For adab relates to what a person should know, should be, and should do – so as to perfect the art of living.
Again, in the Islamic tradition, the two words for education are: tarbiyah and ta‘lim.Tarbiyah is from the word, raba – to ‘grow’, ‘increase’, ‘flourish’. For education is about imparting learning to a student allowing him or her to grow and flourish as a human being.
The other word, ta‘lim, is from the root word, ‘alamah, which means ‘sign’ or ‘imprint’. In other words, to make an impression or a mark. The earliest form of writing, Cuneiform, first used about five and a half thousand years ago, was done by pushing a wedge into soft clay to create an impression or sign. That is what ta‘lim is about. It’s about creating a beautuful, cultured mark or impression on the student’s heart, mind and character.
So all in all, Islamic education – at its root – is about growing in beauty as a person; as a believer; as a worshipper of God. At its heart is the imparting of meaning. Both Muslim parents, and Muslim teachers in Muslim schools, must understand that if home-schooling or Muslims schools are to be real alternatives to state schools, they cannot follow the very same paradigm of schooling chiefly in terms of job prospects. It can’t be mainly about tests, grades, targets, and schooling for the sake of functional literacy. Children are an amanah; a trust. They deserve much better. So while no responsible parent can ignore the fact that the schooling children recieve is important in determining their employment prospects, it’s the right of all children to recieve more. It’s their right to recieve an education which balances order and routine with freedom and creativity; which equips them with tools to flourish in the wider world: physically, emotionally and intellectually; and which points them to adab, to meaning, to the sacred.
1. Cf. How to Survive the Modern World (London: School of Life, 2021), 213-14.
2. ‘A Short Angry History of Compulsory Schooling,’ in Gatto, Hanson & Sayers, Educating Your Child in Modern Times (California: Alhambra Productions, 2003), 16.
3. How to Survive the Modern World, 214.
4. The School of Life, What They Forgot to Teach You at School (London: The School of Life, 2021), 7.
UNTIL THE AMERICAN Declaration of Independence gave us the notion of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, people didn’t believe happiness was something that needed to be made into a specific right that they then had the ‘liberty’ to pursue. Instead, pursuing happiness is hard wired into our DNA. Its pursuit is instictive to our nature. In fact, we might question if there’s ever been anyone who acted in order to be unhappy? The pursuit of happiness is simply a human impulse and one of life’s givens.
Be that as it may, an American-style hankering after happiness is what has now been exported across the world. So whether through movies, popular culture, its capitalist, turbo-consumerist economy, or its typical go-it-alone attitude, much of the globe has brought into the American understanding of how happiness should be pursued. We all want our slice of the American pie of happiness. Yet as study after study keeps on revealing, Americans are not really happy. In fact, given all its creature comforts and consumption levels, it’s a country mired in rising levels of suicide, anxiety, depression and drug addiction. America isn’t happy … and Britain isn’t much better.
So what’s going on?
Well we might want to get our bearings straight by first asking ourselves: what do we mean by being happy? What is happiness?
WHAT IS HAPPINESS?
As odd as it sounds, the reply to it is a bit tricky. Trying to define happiness is a bit of an unhappy task. But usually, when we moderns speak of being happy, or happiness, we means something like: an emotional state of well being, characterised by feeling pleasure or showing contentment. We are aware that happiness is a state, and states come and go, and normally don’t last long. Feelings are even fleetier. We are also aware that sometimes we can outwardly be content, especially if we think this is what’s expected of us, even if we are inwardly not happy or content.
Indeed, our modern obsession with happiness might even be dooming us to failure. In an individualistic culture as our own, living by the social myth we’ve created that: ‘I must always be happy’, is a huge ask. This inevitably leads to disappointment, which then interferes with being happy. The great religious insight that true human happiness or fulfilment will not be found on the material plane alone cannot be overlooked.
MONEY CAN’T BUY ME LOVE … OR HAPPINESS!
There’s nothing new in the idea that material consumption doesn’t lead to happiness. That concept is a mainstay of just about every religion. But one doesn’t have to be religious to see how silly some of the claims that come out of our hyper-consumerist culture are. We are promised happiness with the next gadget, the next pay raise, the next designer item of clothing, or even the next sip of fizzy drink! Big buisinesses and advertisers have, forover a century, promised happiness, but have led people instead into a rat race of joyless production and consumption. And society doesn’t seem to have the collective will or imagination to do anything about it.
Currently, what all the science points to is that the reason why we don’t get happier as society gets richer, is because we chase after the wrong things in our quest for happiness.
Studies seem to repeatedly confirm the age old wisdom that the source of true human happiness are to be found in: faith, family, friendship, as well as meaningful work.
Scientists have found, again and again, that those with a spiritual practice or who follow religious beliefs tend to be happier, less anxious, and better able to handle life’s vicissitudes than those without one. Likewise, the data shows that people are happier in those cultures and societies that support social relationships as a pathway to happiness. In individualistic societies, the science suggests that people should try to focus less intensely on their desire to be happy and focus on building social relationships: visit family, go out with friends, and develop practices like compassion and gratitude; which might make us feel more connected to others. ‘Necessity may,’ it has been said, ‘be the mother of invention, but interdependence is the mother of affection.’ We humans are social creatures. But this dazzling thing called modernity, however, has ripped us out of our natural state; our evolutionary and historical social nexus, and has made us all rather anxious.
SCIENCE OF HAPPINESS PIE-CHART
Staying with a bit more science, before ending with a few short subjective, philosophical reflections. Research has also revealed that fifty percent of what in Islam is called one’s mizaj – one’s usual temperament, or mood – is determined by our genes. Some people are genetically disposed to being happier than others. Some are disposed to being more melancholic; some more gloomy or moody, and others more cheerful, reflective or humorous. Of course, we are not held hostage to our predispositions. There are things we can do to change them for the better. And that’s where the next slice of the pie comes in.
Forty percent of happiness is related to our own state of mind, we are told. And this is something we can control. So a large part of happiness depends on what we positively do, how we positively think, how we act responsibly, and how we avoid living recklessly or in the grip of addictions. Our state of mind; our attitude, and how we behave in this world can make a significant difference to our happiness. That is to say, how we act in our lives can be a game changer.
Ten percent relates to our outward circumstances. Change in weather can affect our mood and happiness, as can seasonal changes. Bereavment and tragedy are two other significant things which impact us emotionally. And there is little we can do about them, although there might be certain ways to respond to these circumstances that are better than others.
On the science of happiness, let me add this important point. Peter Singer, professor of ethics, says that ‘when ideas first come into the world, they are likely to be wooly, and in need of more work to define them sharply. That may be the case with the idea of happiness.’1 So while we might benefit from the overall facts, figures and percentages in this area, the science of happiness is still work in progress.
SHOULD HAPPINESS BE THE ULTIMATE GOAL?
Having established that we all have an inbuilt impulse to seek happiness, there seems to be a bit of a paradox – a tautology, in fact – between that and America’s Declaration of Independence which asserts that everyone is at liberty to pursue happiness. How can happiness be a right that we choose to puruse, if pursuing it is an innate part of our very disposition?
The simplest version of happiness is that it is nothing more than feeling good. This idea lies behind the philosophy that promotes it as the highest good, and the one that we as a nation have signed up to: utilitarianism. It is the philosophy of Bentham and Mill, which judges the moral worth of an action by its consequence, which is usually expressed as: ‘the greatest pleasure [happiness] for the greatest number of people.’ Thus, any action is morally good, provided it brings the person pleasure and doesn’t harm anyone else. Nietzsche disdained utilitarian thinking. ‘For Nietzsche, the idealisation of happiness puts desire for easy comfort above the aspiration for greatness … Happiness is for simple creatures, like the cat curled up inthe basket or the child splashing in a paddling pool; serious adults should have higher ambitions.’2
In contrast to this consequentialist philosophy is Aristotle’s virtue ethics. This is much closer to the traditional Islamic idea of happiness (sa‘adah), It is the ethics which says that one should do an act because it is the right thing to do, regardless of what feelings do or don’t occur as a consequence. It is to live a life of nurturing in oneself those good habits or traits known as virtues. This is where eudaimonia, ‘flourishing’ or ‘happiness’, lies.
HAPPINESS IN ISLAM
The Qur’an says: Whoever does good, be they male or female, and has faith, We shall cause them to live a goodly life. [Q.16:97] This hayyatun tayyibah, or ‘goodly life’, was understood by Muslims scholars to be a life of happiness and contentment in this world.3 This is a life of worship and obedience to Allah, and duty and sincere service to others; along with ridding the soul of its spiritual vices and nurturing in it the spiritual virtues.
Some studies have shown that there’s a correlation between happiness and religious rituals. Religious rituals helps teach responsibility to oneself and to others, and can instill discipline to keep us away from addictions, drugs or alcohol, thus contributing to our overall happiness. Likewise, religious chanting also helps increase feelings of well being. In terms of rituals and chanting, one might think of the Muslim prayer (salat), as well as the act of dhikr, or remembrance of God: invoking or reverently chanting certain phrases of God’s praise, glory or greatness. All in all, religious observance, by creating certain moral boundaries and discipline, actually helps to shield people from certain weaknesses and vices which can lead to unhappiness, such as addiction to alcohol or gambling.
For the believer, however, the real summum bonnum, the highest, ultimate happiness is as the Quranic verse says: For those who act with excellence is the greatest good, and even more. [Q.10:26] The ‘greatest good’ is understood to be Paradise with all its delights and endless bliss, while the ziyadah, or ‘even more’ is the ultimate delight of the ru’ya – the Beatific Vision of God. The Prophet ﷺ told us: ‘When the people of Heaven enter Heaven and the denizens of Hell enter Hell, a herald shall call out: “O people of Paradise! There is a tryst for you with your Lord, which He wishes to bring about for you.” “What might that tryst be?” they enquire. “Did He not make heavy our scales, whiten our faces, and bring us into Heaven and deliver us from Hell?” Then the veil shall be lifted, and they shall gaze at the Face of God. By God, never will the believers be given anything more beloved to them than of gazing at Him.’4
1. Ethics in the Real World (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2016), 197.
2. Baggini & Macaro, Life: A User Manual (London: Ebury Press, 2020), 159.
3. See: Ibn Juzayy, al-Tashil li ‘Ulum al-Tanzil (Dat Tayyibah al-Khudara’, 2018), 2:775.
‘Modernity is the transition from fate to choice.’ – Jonathan Sacks
‘Modernity is a deal. The entire contract can be summarised in a single phrase: humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power.’ – Yuval Noah Harari
‘The modern mind is in complete disarray. Knowledge has stretched itself to the point where neither the world nor our intelligence can find any foot-hold. It is a fact that we are suffering from nihilism.’ – Albert Camus
‘Modernity sees humanity as having ascended from what is inferior to it – life begins in slime and ends in intelligence – whereas traditional cultures see it as descended from its superiors.’ – Huston Smith
From about the mid 1700s, starting in northern Europe and then, over the next few centuries, spreading across the entire globe, people have become aware of living in times radically different from any other age before, which began to be called the modern age – or modernity, for short. Today, there’s nowhere on this planet, not even those parts once thought remote from civilisation, that hasn’t been touched by the tentacles of modernity or influenced by its ideologies and ideals.
Modernity didn’t just happen. Rather, it’s a historical process, incremental in its formation. Its general character includes: emphasis on rationality and science over tradition or religion; belief in progress; confidence in human mastery over nature; focus on individualism, loyalty to a usurious-based market capitalism; and a strong reliance upon the state and its various institutions. Above all, to be modern is to believe that history moves forward and the power humankind has to improve its situation is unlimited: and so the best is always yet to come.
The radical and conscious altering nature of modernity is such that, even in its early days, for philosophers like Hegel, sociologists like Weber, and economists like Adam Smith or Karl Marx, the sense that something called modernity had arrived wasn’t a claim just about European history, but about the history of the entire world.
The difference between the traditional, pre-modern world and the modern one cannot be put down to one specific philosophical idea or one specific invention. Instead, it had more to do with the way people began to think. Below are seven concepts which form the core of what becoming modern has entailed – along with some brief reflections concerning how such concepts have subtly shaped the way we as Muslims perceive the world and society; even at the expense of established Quranic values and attitudes:
1.Secularisation: This is probably modernity’s clearest hallmark. Secularisation is a process where religious consciousness, activities and institutions lose their social significance and are excluded from public life – be it in education, law-making, administration or government. It happens when religion ceases to be at the centre of social life and where it no longer articulates the common good. This might be called the objective aspect of secularisation. As for its subjective part, one that usually has a corroding effect on faith, it entails the slow erosion of religious feelings and thoughts from the understanding of worldly matters. Religion, then, either ceases to exist as an autonomous force; or is hollowed out and emptied of meaning, to become a toothless tiger; or is confined to personal rituals in the private sphere. While secularisation, i.e. the separation of Religion and State, was first contrived as a way of preserving Faith, not destroying it; it is in the nature of Homo religiosus that when everyday life is bereft of religious references, the religious mind becomes gradually and unwittingly secularised, heedlessness creeps in and the downward spiral of faith gathers pace.
It is for such reasons that in Islam’s view of things, whatever form governance might take, among its primary duties, along with ensuring rights of minority voices, is to allow an environment where the religious project can flourish. In this sense, form plays second fiddle to content. Islam doesn’t need the form to be theocratic: it does, however, require the content to be theocentric. The soil of society must allow godliness to grow. Political leadership, guided by religious authority, must take care that the material concerns of the community do not grow out of proportion at the expense of faith, morality, or mindfulness of God. So secularisation, as commonly understood – contrary to the misplaced hopes of many a short-sighted Muslim activist or political theorist – can never really be the believer’s story. In Islam, society should participate in the glory of God; and if not, it cannot be a cause for its erosion. Finding the right equilibrium, however, between society’s political stability, economic welfare and its spiritual wellbeing is easier said than done.
2.Rationalisation: The idea that the world can be managed through a rational and reasonable system of processes and data. Rationalisation is the process by which society becomes more rational; in that the ways of ordering society and solving problems increasingly focus on efficiency (to achieve maximum results with minimum effort) and predictability (to predict future outcomes), instead of on tradition, religion, or other pre-modern ways of functioning. To be clear, saying that modern societies are rational does not imply that pre-modern ones were irrational or nonsensical; or acted randomly and senselessly. Traditional societies tended to have their own internal logic, which made sense from their own specific religious or cultural frames of reference. Rather, all that is meant is that pre-modern societies were non-rational, in that the methods of solving problems of society or the individual didn’t prioritise efficiency – as in rational societies – but emphasised what is right, morally sound or traditionally correct. A rational society lives by the rule: ‘Maximise your own best self-interest’, while non-rational societies tended to value altruism, self sacrifice, or looking out for the needs of the family, community or society, over one’s own self-interest. A rational society focuses on end results (with the means usually justifying the ends); non-rational ones focus on process, i.e. the way of actually doing things. In short, a rational society is impersonal; highly regulated and procedural; and has as its goal the maximising of efficiency above all other concerns. As such techniques of rationalisation crept over much of the earth, and the climate of opinion it created became more and more uniform, it was inevitable that the vibrant and diverse human stories would be reduced to a weary, monocultured humanity. The contrast in the order of priorities between a modern society and a traditional one; especially an Islamic one, can scarcely be overstated.
This iron cage created by the increased rationalisation of society, as calculating; cold; clinical; and controlling as it can be, has certain advantages over non-rational societies; and visa-versa. It isn’t the case that non-rational societies were all beautiful, virtuous and good and that rational ones are manipulative, calculating and cold. It’s not as black and white as that. The issue for believers isn’t that traditional Muslim societies were in one sense freer or had far fewer rules that governed it; or that modern societies traded the value of beauty (be it in architecture, art, crafts, or one’s character) for rationalisation’s drift towards ugliness. Rather, the deeper concern is that this rationalising impulse – which first started in factories (industrialisation); then moved into government and large institutions (bureaucracies) – has now thoroughly spilled over into family life, relationships, society and even religious thinking. This being especially so when calculations of efficiency and maximising one’s best self interest are no longer governed or guided by overarching moral virtues. Thus when beauty and virtue no longer shape our way of thinking; when how we do things is seen as less important than what is done; or when attitudes are infiltrated by ideas of efficiency and maximising self-interest, the Islamic imperative of adab is then crippled and compromised – even if we are committed to Islamic acts. And as the saints and sages of Islam have long ago pointed out, when the soul lets go of the reigns of adab, all things run amok!
How can anyone whose mind is seized and held captive by the prejudices and subjective outlook of our modern age ever hope to understand traditional ways of living or Quranic ways of being in which the order of human priorities were not merely different, but totally reversed. Which is why it is not enough to have a firm grasp of our fiqh tradition in terms of how it is to be applied today. For without our fiqh being deeply infused with insights from our suluk tradition; or without diagnosing the philosophical foundations of modernity and its psycho-spiritual impact on religion, our fiqh will continue to be the intellectually lame enterprise which the simple concession-based logic of ‘minority fiqh’ and other reformist fiqh projects currently are. If anything, we need more fikr in our fiqh framing.
The final part of this article will, God willing, discuss five other pillars which make up modernity: individualism,disenchantment,alienation, mechanisation, and commodification.
This is another article where I attempt to address some themes and dilemmas of modern Muslimness. Like previous outings, this too is less a coherent article and more a cluster of thoughts or ruminations tied together by the theme of searching for Muslim authenticity in a post-modern, post-monotheistic age.
Our primary legitimation for living in the geographical West, a place which most of us instinctively call home, is to invite our post-monotheistic society, our people, to Abrahamic monotheism (tawhid): ‘O my people! Worship God! You have no other god except Him who you should be worshiping.’ [Q.7:59] This often requires that we first help people reawaken their fitrah, in order that they may leave their comfort zones, question the assumptions of their age, and be authentic Truth-seekers. This task is all the more imperative, given that in our age of enthroning the individual Self, we now face three intertwined existential crisis: a crisis of loneliness, a crisis of alienation, and a crisis of purpose. Anxious, uncertain, unrooted, fearful as well as increasingly aggressive, society has turned its back on the traditional notion of the soul being outwardly directed, to the modern notion of the Self being inwardly focused; with all the attendant traumas and travesties that come cascading down on the human psyche from this inversion. It’s here that the prophetically-inspired wisdom must make itself known and heard, if we are to be healers and therapists and help orientate the soul of society towards God and towards moral joy.
In one celebrated hadith, we read: ‘Indeed, Allah chose [the tribe of] Kinanah from the descendants of Ishmael; He chose Quraysh from Kinanah; He chose the tribe of Hashim from Quraysh; and He chose me from the tribe of Hashim.’1 That the Prophet ﷺ was istafa – ‘chosen,’ or ‘selected’ – is where we get the Prophet’s name or title, al-Mustafa – ‘the Chosen One’.
But there’s another reason why I quoted this hadith with the blessed lineage, this nisbah sharifah, which has an urgent bearing on modern Muslimness. And that has to do with the beginning of the lineage, with the Prophet Ishmael (Ar. Isma‘il), peace be upon him, and the Ishmaelite inculturation into the Arabian landscape. For lest we forget, Ishmael was not born in Arabia. He wasn’t born an Arab. He was born, as per Biblical lore, north of Arabia; in Canaan. He, along with his Egyptian mother Hagar, was brought to the valley of Makkah by his father Abraham, under divine instruction. There he fully settled, there he was raised, and there he grew up into the ways of the Arabs: their language, dress, customs and culture. At no point was there any obligation on him, neither from his father nor his mother, to be Canaanite in culture or Egyptian in speech and dress.
That same Ishmaelite principle of inculturation, that does not expect Muslims to take on anything other than the cultural norms of their respected landscapes (as filtered through revealed counsel), is currently honoured more in the breach than the observance by too many of Ishmael’s spiritual descendants living here in the West. Inculturation is undeniably one of the great lessons of the sacred Ishmaelite story. A British Muslim who insists on wearing Arab or Asian dress, or clings to foreign ‘urf embellishments uncalled for by the shari‘ah, is unlikely to endear monotheism to the wider public who will just see them as alien and unrelatable; and will be unable to envisage how Islam might be for British and Western people. Such a failure of the religious imagination must be swiftly, yet wisely, remedied.
It is said that the emergence of intellectuals who have made a critical paradigm shift in some area or another of human thought is reflective of the intellectual and civilisational culture from which they emerge. This is certainly true of the Islamic intellectual tradition where it had likely taken hundreds of average and above average scholarly intellectuals before any polymath of the calibre of Ibn Rushd, Ibn Hazm, al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Aqil or Ibn Taymiyyah emerged. After God’s grace, the civilisational soil from which any thinker belongs must be conducive for such brilliance to grow and flourish. Historically, the civilisational culture set in motion by Islam created an atmosphere in which scholars felt confident and compelled to fully engage their intellectual milieu, as part of taking on the concerns germane to humanity and to the wider human story.
Sadly, this isn’t the case today; and hasn’t been for a while. There are, however, a few emerging voices in our otherwise all but silent intellectual wilderness. If we’ve learnt anything from the fate of other religions which have engaged the juggernaut of secular modernity, it’s that our capacity to dissent, rather than to conform or capitulate, is our only sane choice – if we wish to be saved from the same pitiful tragedy that befell the various Judaeo-Christian attempts and their morphing into disfigured variants of secular, liberal humanism. The point was poignantly put by the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, when he explained that, ‘the liberal Christian approach assumes that the business of Christian commitment is not to produce lives that participate in the holiness of Christ so much as lives that can be lived with a fairly easy conscience within the arrangement of the modern state.’2
Today, the dominant ethical and intellectual visions of humanity are shaped by the pervasive secular philosophies of liberalism, democracy and human rights; and the religious creed they are rooted in: the religion of progress, consumption and aggressive capitalist growth. But there are unmistakable signs and an ever growing body of hard data from the natural and human sciences that all’s not well. From the spectre of global warming and environmental destruction, to the Intensive farming and the industrial scale animal abuse inherent in it; through to the planned obsolescence policy to ensure consumer goods become unusable after a pre-determined period of time, and the throw away culture that comes in its wake: creating a grotesque amount of unnecessary waste we’re currently dumping into the oceans, the air, or into landfills.
And all this is being driven by corporate greed, a capitalist economic model and its unsustainable demand for more and more growth, and the turbo-consumer culture this has given rise to. Consumption of stuff requires the extraction and use of natural resources (wood, fossil fuels, water, etc.); it requires creation of factories that create huge amounts of toxic by products and carbon emissions; and the use of many of these goods themselves create huge levels of pollution and waste – fuelling global warming, decimating our eco systems, and causing our environmental collapse. Such recklessness and rapacious greed are why the English philosopher, John Gray has dubbed us Homo rapiens.3
Whatever our collective response to this must be is still being hotly debated. But one thing is blindingly clear. If we are to avert this global catastrophe; if we are to significantly pull back from this tipping point, we must radically reign in our levels of consumption; rethink our ways of living and producing, making them sustainable for the planet as a whole; and reevaluate the myth that seduces us into believing that we actually need lots and lots of useless, consumer stuff to make us happy and live fulfilled lives. If we are prepared to rise above this lie that’s been foisted upon us over the past century or so, we might all still have a fighting chance.
That said, we’re still left with the inescapable question that confronts Western Muslim intellectual thought: What can Islam offer today that could constitute ethical progress or better human welfare, as we Muslims seek for settled status as minorities in our Western context?
Transhumanism is the final thing I wish to briefly muse over. Now this might seem a bit like a pie in the sky concern compared to, let’s say, global warming. But hear me out. Depending on who you ask, transhumanism is just around the next corner, or it’s at least fifty years away. But what is transhumanism? ‘Isms’ are always tricky to define; in fact, they are often undefinable. They tend to be a loosely-knit set of core ideas about some philosophy, social movement or behaviour. So again, what is transhumanism?
Those old enough to remember the sci-fi show, The Six Million Dollar Man will recall: ‘Steve Austin, astronaut. A man barely alive. Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology. We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man. Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before. Better … stronger … faster.’ That was back in 1974, where the fictional character was part rebuilt and enhanced using bio-technological (bionic) parts. Today, in the 21st century, surgeons and scientists do a lot of this stuff for real, plus more.
Transhumanism is the idea that human weaknesses such as sickness, ageing and even death could and should be overcome with technology. Science should be used to transcend the biological limitations of human beings – and even the human species – to make them transhuman. This involves augmenting weaker or defective body parts (which already occurs with pacemakers, transplants, prosthetic limbs, etc.) with the latest replacement tech; or editing out defective or debilitating genes (such as trying to identify and remove or turn-off the gene that causes ageing). Linking a human brain to an AI network, or replacing an actual brain with an AI one, is also included in such augmentations or editing. If the end result is Homo sapiens 2.0, or even an entirely new kind of species, then it must be welcomed and actively promoted. Such are the transhumanist contentions and aspirations. In short, transhumanism might be thought of as ‘faith in technology to vastly expand the capabilities of humans.’4
What then should the Muslim response to all this be? What would be the fatwa, and what ethical principles would it be grounded in? If transhumanism, whose cards are already being laid on the table, is just around the corner, then in all likelihood there are Muslims out there, as I write, whose work or research is connected to this matter. Be they medics, surgeons or IT experts at the cutting edge of the biotech field, or software writers, or Muslims working in those tech industries that might be contracted to develop such augmentations or tools for such editing – many of them will want to know where they as Muslims should stand in all of this? To what extent is a Muslim doctor morally obliged to find cures for diseases, and ensure that those diseases never occur again? To what extent is it legally right for a Muslim to edit out those aspects within the body that lead to old age and eventually to death, if we can turn those genes off or make them dormant? Such questions are being asked and answered by many others; and we Muslims would do well to enter the conversation.
Of course, as with other big questions of this nature, scholars in the Islam-is-a-modern-religion brigade will unsurprisingly, as well as uncritically, endorse it by way of the usual desperate and delinquent claims of Islam being the religion of science and progress, and all that Islamic modernist dross. But for most of our jurists and theologians, I suspect, a red line will have been crossed at some point. For anything which so fundamentally alters our outward human form or essential Adamic nature will be subsumed under the Quranic injunction: There shall be no altering of Allah’s creation, [Q.30:30] and the celebrated hadith of the imago dei: ‘Indeed, Allah created Adam in His own image.’5 Where exactly this line should be drawn will, in all likelihood, be open to its fair share of juristic ambiguity and theological debate.
Some gadgets or technology might be able to exist side by side with us humans, without them notably altering our social patterns. But other kinds of tech are far from neutral; they can dramatically alter what people will be like because of them. The task of a futurist (futurologist) is less to predict what gadgets and tech we’ll have in the future, and more so to envisage how such tech will shape us, or even how it can make us more amenable to transhumanism. An urgent aspect of Muslim scholarship, then, must be devoted to these macro questions of futurology, as well as supply us with wise, critical, and practical guidance on how we can best evaluate our use of technology in the light of Islamic ethics, Adamic norms and fitrah values. We might currently flinch at the very idea of transhumanism. But technology bends us into behaving in a particular way. It moulds us into seeing the world in a particular way. It disciples us. And it has a marked tendency to sneak its values into us at almost every turn.
Let me wrap up with this thought. While discussing certain issues surrounding AI upgrades, the historian and futurist Yuval Noah Harari conjectures whether such technology, rather than heal the currently huge inequalities brought on by globalisation, could actually exacerbate them. He says about the already super-rich, who already monopolise the fruits of globalisation, that they might finally have something truly worthwhile to do with their huge wealth. ‘While hitherto they could buy little more than status symbols, soon they might able to buy life itself. If new treatments for extending life and for upgrading physical and cognitive abilities prove to be expensive, humankind my split into biological castes.’6 He says that if the super-rich use these upgraded or edited abilities ‘to enrich themselves further, and if more money can buy them enhanced bodies and brains, with time the gap will only widen.’7 He concludes with this bleak prediction: ‘The two processes together – bioengineering coupled with the rise of AI – might therefore result in the separation of humankind into a small class of superhumans and a massive underclass of useless Homo sapiens.’8
This isn’t the only bifurcation to be concerned about. Even if these technologies were to steadily become affordable to the masses, such that they too could be uber-humans, there’s still the matter of Islam’s blessed conservatism. Believers are required by faith to conserve revealed teachings; conserve prophetic ways of living; and conserve the sacrality of mind, body and soul, and the higher aims for which the Maker created them. So possibly, while the affordability of such technology does not yet trickle down to the masses, there will be a bifurcation between the rich and the poor; between the haves and the have-nots. But that will diminish as the tech becomes more affordable. The greater bifurcation; the greater clash, however, is very likely to be between the masses of bioengineered transhumans who, as per Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, continue ‘looking with amazement and Islamophobic contempt upon the Muslim ummah where, I suspect, the majority of people will not engineer their children in order to produce a generation of superhumans.’9 What’s unfolding now is just the tip of the iceberg of a much greater divide. Yet risking such unpopularity and scorn, due to clinging to what is divinely revealed and prophetically inspired (instead of pandering to Godless acts of progress), is the ummah’s responsibility. Being too apologetic or overly strategic isn’t really the prophetic way. One has to risk unpopularity. But this must be done with considerable wisdom, foresight and discretion.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.
1. Muslim, no.2276.
2. Williams, Faith in the Public Square (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012), 42.