‘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.