This short video is about the demand being placed on Muslims to make their religious teachings align with the liberal orthodoxies of the age, and what our response to such pressures ought to be. Should we, as some are now doing, be watering down our faith teachings to make our religion more palatable to a wider secular audience? Should we compromise a few aspects of our religion in order to better our liberal credentials, thus making faith more palatable to the monoculture? These are the issues addressed in this Five Minute Meditation: Watch here.
In H.G. Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes, Graham, a troubled insomniac in 1890s England, falls into a sleep-like trance that he does not awake from for over two hundred years. When he finally does come out of his slumber, he awakens to a world with wondrous technological trappings, yet staggering social injustice and growing unrest. Horrified by the stark contradictions and by the mass poverty, tyranny and malcontent in this disturbing technopolis, Graham says in utter anguish and regret: ‘We were making the future, and hardly any of us troubled to think what future we were making. And here it is!’
H.G. Wells wrote a number of books that he described as ‘fantasias of possibilities’, in which he explored the potential dangers of unchecked capitalism and technological advancement and the kind of society this could lead to. The grim dystopias he earlier envisaged would, in his later life, give way to a fragile optimism, a more hopeful future; but one where much evil would yet be in store for mankind.
It seems a fundamental human need to want to have an overarching life narrative. We human beings are tellers of tales who, it seems, cannot be happy unless we can see the world as a story. Wells’ healthy scepticism was well-founded. The great narrative that dominated much of the twentieth century was the myth that secular progress would ultimately liberate the human creature and bring into being global peace and human happiness. Two World Wars (secular wars) that maimed and killed in the hundreds of millions should have given a lie to this myth and disabused society of this falsehood. Instead, it was explained away by the priests of progress as a temporary glitch in the matrix of modernity.
Other secular horrors would follow in the hallowed name of progress and modernity. Yet the promise of a world where its worst evils would be eradicated – war, hunger, poverty and sickness – has still to materialise.
Of the two ‘versions’ of the secular story, communism and capitalism, it is the latter that has eventually triumphed. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, some rejoiced in the “End of History”. From here on in, only one variety of governance would be legitimate: Western-style (or rather American-style) capitalist democracies. This, we are assured, is either the best of what there is or the least worst of what is on offer. The mandate for global democracy, though, is oftentimes seen by much of the world as a self-serving pretext for American military and economic interests. If the backlash to it increases and intensifies in its violence, it should come as no huge surprise.
Secularism isn’t quite the Muslim story. To the degree that the Western secular story marginalises God and the quest for spiritual growth, to that extent it is at loggerheads with faith. Islam’s vision of society is not theocratic; it is, however, theocentric. Islam, wrote Shalabi, ‘provides man with a spiritual technology by which he may come to know his Creator, thereby fulfilling the function for which he was made, and it is precisely because this process is of such overriding importance that the function of society must rise above that of the provision of man’s material needs and must seek to provide him with the best possible environment in which to carry out this project of self-discovery and realization. Thus Islam’s concern with politics.’1
How the sharia (shari‘ah) applies in today’s world or how it is to shape public life or the public space in Muslim majority countries is, currently, an open-ended question. At present, there is no one model of how public life in Muslim countries ought to reflect religious values and laws. Indeed, given that the sharia is not a monolithic set of laws, and the extraordinary diversity of the Muslim world, there is unlikely to be a ‘one-hat-fits all-sizes’ model. It is something which Muslim jurists and policy makers need to resolve in their own lands and on their own terms, as they keep in mind that the sharia has something known as thawabit wa’l-mutaghayyirat – laws which are fixed and unchangeable, and those that are open to adaption and alteration.
Although it is true that some Muslims welcome the privatisation of faith and believe that life would be freer, easier and more progressive if religion were kept out of the public space, most still hold to the belief that the collective, socio-political concerns of believers are still best dealt with in the light of God’s guidance. Attempts to interfere with the public expression of Islam in Muslim majority countries, or thwart the right of Muslims to self–determination, is seen by many (not without rhyme or reason) as a war against Islam and the Muslim religious way of life.
As for Muslims living under British secular democracy, their reality is very different. The task for them is about how they can best remain conscientious believers, whilst being responsible citizens in a secular society. Here, four attitudes or strategies may be broadly discerned:
First, there is the bubble model. This is where Muslims accept their secular reality, but do their best to opt-out of engaging with wider society or appeal to secular legislation as far as possible. Instead, they insulate themselves, live out their lives according to their faith as best as can be done, and resort to sharia counsels to settle disputes on family issues, inheritance and some commercial matters. These sharia tribunals are similar to Jewish beth-din courts and operate within the framework of British law that currently permits third-party arbitration. Such isolationism, however, is religiously unwarranted and practically unwise.
The second outlook is one of engagement. As above, there is a firm commitment to putting one’s faith into practice, but emphasis is placed on participating in wider civil society and on forging alliances with others who also seek to defend more traditional values against a liberalism that grows ever more totalising and intolerant. There is increasing awareness that if we are to help guide Europe back to God, we need allies (like traditionally-minded Christians and Jews) who share a similar vision of a more spiritual, just and compassionate society and who have the will to question the liberal orthodoxies of the age. This is not merely about homosexuality, gay marriages, or the undermining of traditional marriage and family; it is deeper than that. Modernity is founded on a set of materialist assumptions about human nature which empties life of dignity, purpose and divinity – for we are, after all, products of ‘mere chance’ – and in its sheer greed and arrogance has pushed the planet to the very edge of ecological destruction. Even when the materialist sees beauty in the world, it is no more than sentimentality. To him, the world is still only fodder for the human animal and grist for his mills.
That being so, Abdal Hakim Murad’s Contention [13/6] is possibly the only sane faith-based response to such a materialist Monoculture: ‘It is better to engage fully with the Monoculture from a position of dislike than to engage partly with it from a position of admiration.’
And while the secular Monoculture does not stop Muslims from theologically seeing non-Muslims as inferior, in terms of religious truths and recipients of God’s specific grace, it does require that they be seen as equals in terms of citizenship and political rights. Such a political courtesy is what believers ought to exemplify.
Moreover, secularism in its current liberal image is not too concerned with our creed or ‘aqidah, as it is the social conservatism of most Muslims. That is, Brussels couldn’t care less whether the divine attributes are open to ta‘wil or figurative interpretation, or what types of tawassul are sanctioned by Scripture. However, they are concerned about whether or not Muslims believe in feminism and sexual liberalisation, or accept the legitimacy of gay marriages and the homosexual agenda. So let us not be confused from whence the storm is coming.
While the unfailing light of Revelation tells us that the act of homosexuality is sinful and immoral, “Will you commit foulness such as no creature ever did before you? For you come with lust to men instead of women; you are indeed a transgressing people” [7:80-1], we needn’t voice our opposition to it in hostile rage or violence; but rather peacefully, calmly, without calling for persecution. Mercy is better than malice; understanding better than recrimination.
As for the inquisition or Islamophobia being dolled out by the liberal stalwarts against those who oppose certain sexual practices, let us respond with restraint, dignity and tolerance. And nor should their intimidation and bullying cause us to cower, or fail to state the correct ruling on the matter.
The third strategy is the Islamisation one, devotees of which feel obliged to overturn the secular order so that it accords with sharia laws. Here, it is not merely one or two liberal or secular deviations that are of concern; instead it is the entire secular edifice. Although peddled by right-wing Islamophobes and growing sections of the media as being the true agenda of most Islamic groups, it is a fringe view usually held by those driven by large helpings of religious zealotry, but little religious fiqh.
Not to be misconstrued, this in no way refers to the proselytising strategy which gives priority to the moral, spiritual and unitarian beliefs of Islam, and which uses the art of reason and persuasion, invitation and exhortation, to achieve its ends. Inviting to God and improving society in terms of social justice and moral and spiritual integrity, lies at the heart of a believer’s concern. Instead, what is meant by ‘Islamisation’ is that bent of mind which insists religion must be wedded to and bedded by politics, and is obsessed with forcing Islamic penal laws upon society at the expense of inviting it to Abrahamic monotheism (tawhid), the pillars of Muslim practice, and the moral legacy of Islam.
Hostility and confrontation characterise such extremists; violence is also not ruled out in this strategy. Angry young men holding placards denouncing the West, calling for beheadings, spouting intolerance of others, and basking in gratuitous offence of non-Muslims have become iconic of such mindsets.
No doubt, our personal moral values can and often do influence our political choices and actions. But religion’s attempt to force its standards onto wider society is likely to be met with vigorous resistance. For it is in the nature of human beings that whenever something is thrust down their throats, there is a reflex tendency to vomit it up again. Call to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kindly exhortation, and reason with them in the most courteous manner [16:125] cannot be ignored or overlooked here.
In fact, what is the wisdom behind raging for the Islamisation of Britain while anti-Muslim sentiment across Britain and Europe is rising to alarming levels? If anything, classical jurists, like al-Mawardi and al-Nawawi, stipulate that Muslims may reside as a minority in non-Muslim lands (provided they can practice and maintain the basic duties and prescriptions of their faith) without the need to seek for the dominance of Islamic law.2
This is also the view of Ibn Taymiyyah who – when speaking of the Muslim migrants to Abyssinia and its king, the Negus who, having secretly converted to Islam was not able to openly declare his faith – concedes: ‘The Negus was unable to implement the laws of the Qur’an since his people would never have allowed him to do so … Yet the Negus and those like him found their way to Paradise (al-najashi wa amthaluhu sa‘ada fi’l-jannah), even though they were unable to observe the rules of Islam or could only abide by such rules as could be implemented in their given circumstances.’3
Again, what is the logic in being obsessed with wanting the full force of Islamic law on a Britain that has all but eliminated prejudice against foreigners, gays and blacks, but where Islamophobia – prejudice against Islam – remains the last socially accepted form of bigotry. Strategies that eclipse the invitation to belief in God and faith in His beauty and oneness, by unnecessary demands for Islamic law, aren’t only at odds with religion and reason, they are damaging and dangerous too.
The fourth strategy argues for a robust defence of secularism and liberal values. This is championed by an allegedly benign Islamic liberalism which, more often than not, shows itself to be as intolerant and narrow as the very extremists it so despises. It is a liberalism that aims to curtail anything distinctly Islamic to exit the home or mosque and enter the public space. Such an outlook is regarded, and quite understandably so, with deep suspicion by most Muslims, who see in this religious reductionism nothing but a pandering to the tastes of the times. It is seen more as a case of following hawa; whims, than following huda; right guidance! Their “reinterpretations” of religion are as reckless as they are repugnant. Such anxious-to-please, brow beaten Muslims are now popping up everywhere: yet ‘they are no use to their communities, or, ultimately, to their hosts, for they cannot function as healers, but only as a chorus of frightened eulogists.’4
The above depiction isn’t the whole story, it is a mere outline. There are, for instance, large numbers of Muslims who have no strategy; no agenda. For they have either not given the issue much thought, or else it is about taking each day as it comes, trying to keep their heads above water in terms of carrying out the daily demands of their faith. What many of them do intuit, however, is that hostility towards Islam is likely to grow and intensify as secular (liberal) dogmas attempt to impose themselves on society and further suffocate the insights of faith.
1. Islam: Religion of Life (USA: Starlatch Press, 2001), 21.
2. As per al-Nawawi, al-Majmu‘ Sharh al-Muhadhdhab (Beirut: Dar al-Fikr, 2000), 21:7.
3. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 19:218-19.
4. Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quillium Press, 2012), 68; no.39.
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.