Reflections on Islam and Modern Life

FEW subjects arouse more passion and debate among Muslims today than the encounter between Islam and modern thought. The subject is of course vast and embraces fields ranging from politics to sacred art, subjects whose debate often causes volcanic eruptions of emotions and passions and vituperations which hardly lead to an objective analysis of causes and a clear vision of the problems involved. Nor is this debate which consumes so much of the energies of Muslims and students of Islam helped by the lack of clear definition of the terms of the debate and an insight into the actual forces involved. The whole discussion is also paralyzed by a psychological sense of inferiority and a sense of enfeeblement before the modern world which prevents most modernized Muslims from making a critical appraisal of the situation and of stating the truth irrespective of the fact whether it is fashionable and acceptable to current opinion or not. Lot us then begin be defining what we mean by modern thought.

It is amazing how many hues and shades of meaning have been given to the terms "modern" ranging from contemporary to simply "innovative", "creative", or in tune with the march of time. The question of principles and in fact the truth itself is hardly ever taken into consideration when modernism is discussed. One hardly ever asks whether this or that idea or form or institution conforms to some aspect of the truth. The only question is whether it is modern or not. The lack of clarity, precision and sharpness of both mental and artistic contours, which characterizes the modern world itself, seem to plague the contemporary Muslim's understanding of modernism whether he wishes to adopt its tenets or even to react against it. The influence of modernism seems to have dimmed that lucidity and blurred that crystalline transparency which distingiush traditional Islam in both its intellectual and artistic manifestations. [1]

When we use the term "modern", we mean neither contemporary nor up-to-date nor successful in the conquest and domination of the natural world. Rather, for us "modern" means that which is cut off from the transcendent, from the immutable principles which in reality govern all things and which are made known to man through revelation in its most universal sense. Modernism is thus contrasted with tradition (al-din); the latter implies all that which is of Divine Origin along with its manifestations and deployments on the human plane while the former by contrast implies all that is merely human and now ever more increasingly subhuman, and all that is divorced and cut off from the Divine Source [2]. Obviously, tradition has always accompanied and in fact characterized human existence whereas modernism is a very recent phenomenon. As long as man has lived on earth, he has buried his dead and believed in the after life and the world of the Spirit. During the "hundreds of thousands" of years of human life on earth, he has been traditional in outlook and has not "evolved" as far as his relation with God and nature seen as the creation and theophany of God are concerned. [3] Compared to this long history during which man has continuously celebrated the Divine and performed his function as God's vicegerent (khalifah) on earth, the period of the domination of modernism stretching from the Renaissance in Western Europe in the 15th century to the present day appears as no more than the blinking of an eye. [4] Yet, it is during this fleeting moment that we live; hence the apparent dominance of the power of modernism before which so many Muslims retreat in helplessness or which they join with a superficial sense of happiness that accompanies the seduction of the world.

A word must also be said about the term "thought" as it appears in the expression modern thought. The term thought as used in this context is itself modern rather than traditional. The Arabic term fikr or the Persian andishah, which are used as its equivalence, hardly appear with the same meaning in traditional texts. In fact what would correspond to the traditional understanding of the term would be more the French pensee as used by a Pascal, a term which can be better rendered as meditation rather than thought. Both fikr and andishah are in fact related to meditation and contemplation rather than to a purely human and therefore non-divine mental activity which the term thought usually evokes.[5] If then we nevertheless use the term thought, it is because we are addressing an audience nurtured on all that this term implies and are using a medium and language in which it is not possible, without being somewhat contrite, to employ another term with the same range of meaning embracing many forms of mental activity but devoid of the limitation in the vertical sense that the term "thought" possesses in contemporary parlance.

All these forms of mental activity which together comprise modern thought and which range from science to philosophy, psychology and even certain aspects of religion itself, possess certain common characteristics and traits which must be recognized and studied before the Islamic response to modern thought can be provided. Perhaps the first basic trait of modern thought to be noted is its anthropomorphic nature. How can a form of thought which negates any principle higher than man be but anthropomorphic? It might of course be objected that modern science is certainly not anthropomorphic but that rather it is the pre-modern sciences which must be considered as man-centered. Despite appearances, however, this assertion is mere illusion if one examines closely the epistemological factor involved. It is true that modern science depicts a universe in which man as spirit, mind and even, psyche has no place and the Universe thus appears as "inhuman" and not related to the human state. But it must not be forgotten that although modern man has created a science which excludes the reality of man from the general picture of the Universe, [6] the criteria and instruments of knowledge which determine this science are merely and purely human. It is the human reason and the human senses which determine modern science. The knowledge of even the farthest galaxies are held in the human mind. This scientific world from which man has been abstracted is, therefore, nevertheless based on an anthropomorphic foundation as far as the subjective pole of knowledge, the subject who knows and determines what science is, is concerned.

In contrast, the traditional sciences were profoundly non anthropomorphic in the sense that for them the locus and container of knowledge was not the human mind but ultimately the Divine Intellect. True science was not based on purely human reason but on the Intellect which belongs to the supra-human level of reality yet illuminates the human mind. [7] If medieval cosmologies placed man at the center of things it is not because they were humanistic in the Renaissance sense of the term according to which terrestrial and fallen man was the measure of all things but it was to enable man to gain a vision of the cosmos as a crypt through which he must travel and which he must transcend. And certainly one cannot begin a journey from anywhere except where one is. [8]

If the characteristic of anthropomorphism is thus to be found in modern science, it is to be seen in an even more obvious fashion in other forms and aspects of modern thought whether it be psychology, anthropology or philosophy. Modern thought, of which philosophy is in a sense the father and progenitor, became profoundly anthropomorphic the moment man was made the criterion of reality. When Descartes uttered "I think, therefore I am" (cogito ergo sum), he placed his individual awareness of his own limited self as the criterion of existence for certainly the "I" in Descartes assertion was not meant to be the Divine "I" who through Hallaj exclaimed "I am the Truth" (ana'l-Haqq), the Divine "I" which according to traditional doctrines alone has the right to say "I". [9] Until Descartes, it was Pure Being, the Being of God which determined human existence and the various levels of reality. But with Cartesian rationalism individual human existence became the criterion of reality and also the truth. In the mainstream of Western thought, and excluding certain peripheral developments ontology gave way to epistemology, epistemology to logic; and finally by way of reaction logic became confronted with those anti-rational "philosophies" so prevalent today. [10]

What happened in the post-medieval period in the West was that higher levels of reality became eliminated on both the subjective and the objective domains. There was nothing higher in man than his reason and nothing higher in the objective world than what that reason could comprehend with the help of the normal human senses. This was of course bound to happen if one remembers the well-known principle of adequation (the adaequatio of St. Thomas Aquinas) according to which to know anything there must be an instrument of knowledge adequate and conforming to the nature of that which is to be known. And since modern man refused to accept a principle higher than himself, obviously all that issued from his mind and thought could not but be anthropomorphic.

A second trait of modernism, closely related to anthropomorphism, is the lack of principles which characterizes the modern world. Human nature is too unstable, changing and turbulent to be able to serve as the principle for something. That is why a mode of thinking which is not able to transcend the human level and which remains anthropomorphic cannot but be devoid of principles. In the realm of the life of action, namely the domain of morality (although morality cannot be reduced simply to action) and, from another point of view, politics and economics, everyone senses this lack of principles. But one might object that principles do exist as far as the sciences are concerned. Here again, however, it must be asserted that neither empiricism nor validification through induction nor yet reliance upon the data of the senses as confirmed by reason can serve as principles in the metaphysical sense. They are all valid in their own level as is the science created by them. But they are divorced from immutable principles as is modern science which has discovered many things on a certain level of reality but because of its divorce from higher principles has brought about disequilibrium through its very discoveries and inventions. Only mathematics among the modern sciences may be said to possess certain principles in the metaphysical sense. The reason is that mathematics remains, despite everything, a Platonic science and its laws discovered by the human mind continue to reflect metaphysical principles as reason itself cannot but display the fact that it is a reflection, even if a dim one, of the Intellect. The discoveries of the other sciences, to the extent that they conform to some aspect of the nature of reality, of course possess a symbolic and metaphysical significance, but that does not mean that these sciences are attached to metaphysical principles and integrated into a higher form of knowledge. Such an integration could take place but as a matter of fact it has not. Modern science, therefore, and its generalizations, like other fruits of that way of thinking and acting which we have associated with modernism, suffer from the lack of principles which characterize the modern world, a lack which is felt to an even greater degree as the history of the modern world unfolds.

It might be asked what other means of knowledge were available to other civilizations before the modern period. The answer is quite clear at least for those Muslims who know the intellectual life of Islam: revelation and intellectual intuition or vision (dhawq, kashf or shuhud) [11]. The Muslim intellectual saw revelation as the primary source of knowledge not only as the means to learn the laws of morality concerned with the active life. He was also aware of the possibility for man to purify himself until the "eye of the heart" ('ayn al-qalb), residing at the center of his being, would open and enable him to gain the direct vision of the supernal realities. Finally he accepted the power of reason to know, but this reason was always attached to and derived sustenance from revelation on the one hand and intellectual intuition on the other. The few in the Islamic world who would cut this cord of reliance and declare the independence of reason from both revelation and intuition were never accepted into the mainstream of Islamic thought. They remained marginal figures while in a reverse fashion in the post-medieval West those who sought to sustain and uphold the reliance of reason upon revelation and the Intellect remained on the margin while the mainstream of modern Western thought rejected both revelation and intellectual intuition as means of knowledge. In modern times even philosophers of religion and theologians rarely defend the Bible as a source of a sapiental knowledge which could determine and integrate scientia in the manner of a St. Bonaventure. The few who look upon the Bible for intellectual guidance are usually limited by such shallow literal interpretations of the Holy Book that in their feuds with modern sciences the rationalistic camp comes out almost inevitably as the victor.

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