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How Should Muslims Best Tackle the Juggernaut of Modernity?

chaplin_modern_timesIslam 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 itibaahu 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.

Are We Progressing or Drifting Dangerously Downstream?

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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.

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