Islam and Modernity; two conflicting and alternative ideals


Here we would like to examine the encounter between Islamic world view and modern thought . By modern I mean the contemporary, today’s society its practices and institutions (scientific, political, industrial), its lifestyle (secularism,individualism) and the isms(narcissm, consumerism) it has spurned. Islam is theocentric, divinely revealed and nurtures a god-loving humankind who lives austerely in the world and ever yearning for the return to the majestic Lord. Whilst the modern man is firmly rooted in the world , lives for it without the remotest thought of the hereafter. This may in part explain the mutual misunderstanding between west and Muslim world.

The basic beliefs of modern society

Prof. EF‟s Schumacher enumerates six leading ideas that can regarded as the foundations of modern thought, these stem from nineteenth century but are now having a huge impact on western society;

1. Theory of evolution- that higher forms continually develop from lower forms.

2. The survival of the fittest through the means of natural selection or competition.

3. All higher manifestations of human life such as religion, philosophy and art are nothing but supplements of the material life process, a super structure erected to disguise and promote economic interests. The whole of human history being the history of class struggles.

4. The Freudian theory that reduces human life and its struggles to unfulfilled incest- wishes during childhood and early adolescence.

5. Idea of relativism, denying all absolutes dissolving all norms and standards, leading to the total undermining of the idea of truth, and pragmatism.

6. Positivism, the idea that valid knowledge can only be gained through natural sciences. There is no genuine knowledge except through observable facts. Positivism is about know-how and denies the possibility of knowledge about meaning and purpose of any kind.

He says, “No amount of factual inquiry could have verified anyone of them.” Although these ideas have an element of truth, they are far away from the realty. They represent tremendous leaps of imagination into the unknown and unknowable.

Schumacher believes that regrettably ideas are now firmly embedded in western mind.

The consequences of this way of thinking are:

1. A view that there is no meaning or purpose to life.

2. Man‟s highest achievements are nothing but disguised economic greed or the outflow of sexual frustrations.

3. No sense of hierarchy- or levels of being.

So no need for idea of good and evil where good is regarded higher than evil. The example of 13 year old boy dad and then counter claims by other boys of similar age. Everyone today saws a lack of principles.

The three basic beliefs of Islam

Islam provides an alternative paradigm of thinking: one based on revelation as the primary source of knowledge- a body of moral and spiritual principles and ideals.

Islam emphasised the use of reason but always attached to and derived from the revelation . Reason is not independent of revelation.Western thought on the other hand has rejected both revelation & intuition.

The three basic beliefs of Islam are;

1. God

2. Revelation

3. eschatology

The Concept of Man in modern thought and islam

“Modern man sees himself as a purely earthly creature, master of nature but responsible to no one but himself.” (SHN)

The Modern man and his systems of living try to do without God.

Evolutionism is the desperate attempt by atheists to fill the vacuum created by man‟s attempt to cut the hands of God from His creation and to negate any principle above the merely human which then falls of necessity to the level of subhuman.(SHN). Once God, the transcendent reality is removed the world then becomes a circle without a centre pirot. So we see the loss of principles and loss of fundamental moral and spiritual values.

Another feature of Modern Society is the idea of Utopia- an imagined perfect place. The race is towards this ideal- the „new world order‟ plus next new financial world order which we will see as a result of the credit crunch.

Again the problem is that Utopianism is being sought through purely human means. This is relentlessly driven by scientific and technological progress.

It does not accept the evil in the world in the theological sense and aims at achieving progress without God.

Another characteristic of modern thought is the absence of Sense of Sacred. Prince Charles has often lamented about the loss of sense of sacred in our art and architecture.

For Muslim there is no such division of the worldly and the otherworldly, the profane and religious, the secular and sacred, of God and of world!

“The Islamic tradition can never accept a thought pattern which is devoid of the perfume of the sacred and which replaces the Divine Order by one of a purely human origin and inspiration.” (SHN)

The encounter between modern thought and Islam has not even begun. The only dimension of Islam that we often hear in the west is shariah However, this is only one particular aspect of Islam which deals with law; it‟s a small dimension in the whole scheme of Islam.Less then 5% of quranic text deals with this. The challenge of modern thought evolution, secularism, rationalism and existentialism can only be adequately rebutted by the rich traditions of Islamic scholarship in exegesis, prophetic traditions, moral and spiritual teachings and the writings of Muslim scholars.

One of the characteristics of modern thought is it obsessed with the outward the form- little is noticed of the inward and the hidden.

Islamic teachings consistently marry the two, the outward and the inward.

Here is an eloquent quote from Rumi the medieval Muslim philosopher and poet:

“The pure heart is a spotless mirror in which images of infinite beauty and reflected. Moses, that perfect saint, reflected in the mirror of his heart the infinite form of the one who is formless, the image of one who is unseen. This form, this image cannot be contained in heaven, nor in the ocean, nor in the universe. All these have limits but the mirror of the heart has no limit.”(Masnavi P.291, Maulana)

“To become spiritual, you must die to self and come alive in the Lord. Only then will the mysteries of God fall from your lips. To die to self through self-discipline causes suffering but brings you everlasting life” (P.283)

He says:

“Kill the cow of your ego as quickly as you can, so that your inner spirit come to life and attain true awareness.”(Maman P.281)

This self of ours is a part of Hell.

Only with the power of God can one overcome it.

The champion who breaks the enemy‟s ranks is

Of little account compared to the true victor

Who overcomes his own self?

The intelligent desire self control:

Children want sweets.

As far as you can, become a slave, not a king.

Endure blows: be the ball not the bat.

One morning a woman asked her lover as a test,

“Do you love me more than you love yourself?”

He replied,” i love you so much that I am full of you from head to toe.”

There is nothing left of my own existence except my name.

If you love God, you will feel toward Him as that lover felt toward his beloved. (P.269)

The Sufi‟s book is not of ink and letters, it is nothing but a heart as white as snow. (P.267)

It is the same when children play at setting up shop; their goods and play money are only of use in their game; they are of no value in the real world. This world is like a playground and death is near, when you return home with an empty purse, tired out. The wages of religion are love, inner rapture and nearness to God. (P.233)

A MAN‟S head may be filled with knowledge of meaningless worldly matters, he may be familiar with all the sciences, and yet not know his own soul. He knows the special properties of every substance, but he is as ignorant as an ass about the nature of his own essence. He declares,” I know what is permissible and what is not,” but he does not know if his own actions are permissible. He knows the precise value of every article he buys and sells; but in his folly he does not know his own value. He has learned to distinguish auspicious stars from inauspicious ones, but he does not examine his soul to see if he is in a fortunate or poor spiritual state. To know yourself and to live your life in anticipation of the Day of Judgment, is to master the highest science. (P.235)