Religion and Modernity
Although we find a wide range of historical reports in books on theology, philosophy, and sociology on the experience that the Western Christian world has gained from the phenomenon of modernity, our experience of what is called modernity has been decidedly different. The Western world has largely been oblivious to issues of Muslim societies even though our problems have never really found a fair platform within their media. However, if an atmosphere of a fair exchange of mutual experiences had been possible, a big stride would also have been possible towards the attainment of mutual empathy, understanding, and acceptance.
The Western Christian world witnessed and experienced the emergence and growth of the seeds of modernity right in its own home ground, whereas we first encountered this phenomenon when it had already borne fruit in the West and consequently picked and chose from its harvest. The Western world has been living with modernity for a few centuries now. Although the aim of this article is not to judge and evaluate this particular issue, it would however not be possible to study the relationship between modernity and religion without initially delving into this aspect of the heart of the Western Christian world, giving it a new dictate and thereby inviting it to participate in new order, consequently rendering only a tiny but ornamental niche for the purpose of worship and devotion, is the drama of modern history that Nietzsche was perhaps justified in calling the tragedy of history. Whatever we choose to label this part of history, groups - affect a tiny fraction - in Muslim societies, we too have undeniably come to share of it in the past hundred years or so. Our encounter with modernity occurred at time when religion was viewed as defense against the oncoming onslaught of modernity.
Freud was of the opinion that the ancient pre-modern society was dealt three fatal blows with the onset of the modern age. The first blow was dealt by Galileo and Copernicus with their cosmic theories (derived mainly from the works of Islamic scientists); the second blow came from Lamarck and Darwin in the field of biology; and the third one was in the field of psychology that claimed that the intellect was drifting island in the ocean of the forces of the sub-conscious. The intent here is not to advocate or to refute Freud's statement, nor does an evaluation fall directly into the context of the present discussion, but if at all, it could be said that the third blow was not inflicted upon the ancient society but rather on the body and the soul of modernity. If we classify the history of modernity according to the Freudian criteria, it was around the time of the second blow on the European medieval society and the pre-modern world in general that the so-called elites in Muslim societies were introduced to the phenomenon of modernity that brought along a host of problems for us. Many terms and concepts that came to be translated into our languages did not really carry the meanings that they actually held in their languages of origin. To quote some examples, the term "progress"
came to be translated as taraqqi while the term "liberty" came to be translated as hurriyyat. Although these translations were not altogether incorrect, the fresh implications of the terms like taraqqi and hurriyyat that were already in use in the language of our mysticism, ethics, and theosophy could not easily be discerned from their older perceptions. Thus, if someone were to raise any questions in the realms of taraqqi or hurriyyat (progress or liberty), he would be accused of being against taraqqi and hurriyyat which were the pre-requisites for the independence of man. Also the term "modernity" came to be translated as tajaddud, which already held a specific meaning and implication in philosophy, mysticism, and theology. However, the implications held by this term in those fields are not adaptive to the concept of modernity and the sense in which this term was used in the other fields can even prove as barriers to the proper understanding of the nature of modernity.
One of the misunderstandings that arise from such loose translations is that many a historical truths are converted into mere words or intangible concepts. Let us remind ourselves that modernity is very much a historical reality that has more or less actively permeated the entire planet in varying degrees whereas the meaning of the term tajaddud as it exists in our dictionaries and our memories is rather neutral in implication and does not affect any change. Thus, if tajaddud is related to, as a mere concept, then it would be no problem for religion and modernity (tajaddud) to co-exist but if we were to refer to the historical meaning of modernity, it would be rather difficult to understand it within the context of religion.
No one can claim that religion and modernity have been indifferent and unbiased towards each other and neither can it be implied that all the advocates of modernity were opposed to religion. On the other hand, it is not as if all the religious authorities have been opposed to modernity or have struggled against it. However, modernity - according to its advocates - has changed man's relationship with his fellowmen, with the world, and in some cases with the origin of the world. Whatever this relationship is, it is definitely not a religious one. At the same time there are many groups of people that look at things through the window of modernity, even though they continue to adhere to some sorts of religious beliefs and rituals. However, in the world of modernity, religion is quite different from its original concept, or in other words, one could say that in modernity, religion has been interpreted differently. Despite the fact that the founders of modern society and modernity during the Renaissance period did hold religious beliefs and were concerned with religion and some of them even lost their lives for their lives for their religious beliefs; however, they chose to overlook religion at the time of actually designing the modern world. But, religion is not a thing that can be overlooked, and thus, in order to preserve the necessary harmony in the modern society, religion had to be made to synthesize with modernity. Religious reforms and new interpretations of the Judeo-Christian Holy Scriptures were some of the attempts in the way of forging the required synthesis. Then it was the modernist philosopher Immanuel Kant's turn to introduce the concept of "religion within the limits of reason alone".
It were these very changes and developments in Europe that resulted in the eventual expansion of modernity and those who attempted to re-interpret religion and to evaluate it with the new reasoning did not have any specific purpose in their minds and were not thinking in terms of resolving any civilization issues and were not even looking at paving the path for economic and social development. But the communities that adopted modernity from the West, on the whole, had three distinct types of approaches towards it. The first approach involved the products and the effects of modernity, which generally invited an attitude of skepticism and doubt. The second approach was an unconditional, open-arm acceptance of all the aspects of modernity and a complete surrender to this new phenomenon as well as to the invitation to an unquestioned imitation of the West which manifested in different forms. Of course, there soon appeared those who advocated the traditions and religions. Finally, the third approach which involved the study of the nature of modernity. However, our approach towards modernity is only one side of the whole issue; and the more important question would be concerning the effects that modernity has had on us. In reply to the efforts of those Muslims who had welcomed modern science, people like Ernest Renan - who had placed modernity against religion and religiosity - alleged that Islam was opposed to science and modernity.
Since the name of Ernest Renan has come up in this discussion, it would not be out of place here to bring to mind the debate between Renan and the great pan-Islamist reformer, Sayyid Jamal al-Din Asadabadi that took place in Paris. In one of his earlier speeches, Renan had claimed that Islam is opposed to science and modernity and Sayyid Jamal al-Din responded to this comment. However, their debate did not really end conclusively and in fact, even the point of dispute and disagreement was not actually clarified. Sayyid Jamal al-Din was defending a religion that was not in any dispute with modernity while Ernest Renan who had no idea of the harmony between Islam and reason, this appeared as wishful thinking. Renan believed that modernity would reach its zenith only when any and all kinds of sacred beliefs would come to be eliminated and in his opinion, only modern science would ultimately prove to be the answer to the needs of mankind. He claimed that science would not only be the answer to the needs of the world and mankind but that even the issues related to God or divinity would come to be answered only through science and reason. Therefore, Renan did not really find it necessary to place religion after science and reason. As far as he was concerned, science was the only answer and when he was questioned by the French writer, Romain Rolland, as to why man's hopes, desires, and sentiments did not find any place in his book, The Future of Science, Renan answered with his customary pessimistic arrogance that man's attachments and hopes were of no significance and that what was of sole importance was the progress of science. Later, when Betrand Russell whose thoughts and ideas were generally close to those of Renan, used the term "the scientific hell", he too, probably held extreme ideas like those of Renan.
Renan was referring to the cultural-ethical results of the principles of intellectualism of Europe in the eighteenth century and beyond. In his opinion, if perfect scientific knowledge could be attained through modernity then man could take the place of God and could provide a systematized organization to the world. Modernity has extracted its power from this belief and in the world of modernity, nothing is held as sacred or absolute and nothing should ever leave the precincts of research, science, technology, and art. It would not be right for us to try to understand the meaning of modernity by referring to the ideas of Ernest Renan because he had converted modernity into an ideology and speaks of it as though he is propagating its worship. This, however, does not mean that he was altogether opposed to the views of the other thinkers and authorities on this subject and held totally different views. Renan was an ardent admirer of reason and the power of modernity and was not the philosopher of modernity. Kant is the philosopher of modernity. Even prior to the actualization of modernity, he had already described the qualities and nature of this phenomenon. This means that although, as a rule, a phenomenon can only be described once it is actualized and has taken shape, in a reply to the triple question of "who are we", "what should we do", and "what can we hope for", Kant had more or less described the essence of the modern man and the modern world. Hegel and Marx followed in his footsteps. Kant strengthened the foundation of subjectivity and presented a new theory according to which and through which it is man who grants everything its form and that it would not be possible to say anything about such matters that fall out of the realms of man's power and perception and whatever had thus far been said in these areas are the outcomes of an error.
Besides this, he also wrote the book, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (1793). It must however be mentioned that in his book, Kant has not rejected religion and has rather argued on how religion can be synthesized with modern reason. Renan believed that modernity has no boundaries and that everything is permissible in it.