Muslims and the Challenge of Modernity

By Spahic Omer 

Modernity is one of the most intriguing concepts in modern scholarship. It means different things to different people. Its exact origins, trajectory and manifestations are often contested even among the members of a similar school of thought. In its broadest sense, modernity encompasses both a historical period, as part of man’s overall cultural and civilisational evolution, and a worldview, as well as an ideology, that comprise the paradigms of human thought and behaviour. 

Modernism, on the other hand, is a much narrower concept. Primarily – albeit not exclusively – it lays emphasis on the latter sense of modernity. Modernism is distinguished by the suffix “ism” which bestows upon the root word “modern” various ideological and philosophical undertones. Certainly, the two concepts are close to each other, but are by no means synonymous. Modernity is more comprehensive and more wide-ranging than modernism. Although there are many points at which the two converge and move on together, yet everything categorised as a part and feature of modernity is not necessarily a part and feature of modernism, and vice versa

For example, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who for the past fifty years or so was at the forefront of debates on the relations between Islam and Islamic tradition and the West and western modernity, normally employs the word “modernism”, rather than “modernity”. In his book “Traditional Islam in the Modern World”, he repeatedly used the term “modernism” – more than a hundred times. Whereas the term “modernity” he did not use even once. The same is true with regard to the contents of his book “Knowledge and the Sacred”. 

This is understandable, bearing in mind that Nasr’s main focus were the philosophical dimensions of the debates. However, if he felt that making a distinction was necessary, he resorted to employing the expression “the modern world”, in lieu of “modernity”. To him, it seems, the two expressions were rather identical. Occasionally he used the idiom “the modern world” and “modernism” at the same time, implying thereby the totality of an existential condition. 

That there is a fine line between “modernity” and “modernism” testifies the fact that although Nasr employed “modernism”, and not “modernity”, Joseph E. B. Lumbard nevertheless wrote an article entitled “Seyyed Hossein Nasr on Tradition and Modernity”. He used as primary references Nasr’s above-mentioned two books extensively. Lumbard’s article is part of an anthology of articles published as a book entitled “Tradition and Modernity, Christian and Muslim Perspectives”. While Nasr himself addressed modernism, he is customarily bracketed with discourses on modernity, which in fact is not wrong in that modernity is a wider concept and encompasses the former.

At any rate, the adjective “modern” is related both to modernity and modernism. It is universal, so to say, and although every now and then it is as much overused as misused, it can hardly be off the beam completely. “Modern” can signify either a result of the innate dynamics of history, or a result of ideological constructs as regards the evolution of history. However, most of the time, “modern” refers to things and ideas that are not just new, unique, innovative and fashionable – for there always existed original and ground-breaking things (inventions) – but are also opposed to, yet antagonistic towards, old systems and traditions. 

The problem with the latest version of “modern developments”, which ushered mankind into the age of ideologised “modernity/modernism” and “modern civilisation”, is that it led to violent ruptures with tradition. Traditional values and traditional ways of doing things were continuously assailed and prevented from evolution and necessary adaptation processes. The entire world of tradition was threatened thereby and its mere survival was at stake. The progress of modern civilisation was keen on looking forward only, leaving no – or extremely little – of traditional importance in its wake.

Why modernity is problematic 

The advent of modernity created a whole lot of conundrums for Muslims. Which was understandable because modernity was not just another phase in human cultural and civilisational evolution. Rather, it was an all-inclusive revolution, involving thought, beliefs and moral values. Entire existential models were undermined and eventually supplanted. It was supposed that humanity stood at the threshold of the end-point of its intellectual and sociocultural development. It was the beginning of “the end of history”. 

Having successfully dispensed with religious authorities and hereditary influences, the modern man was certain that, at long last, he has become a free agent. What defined him as human being, with all his strengths, talents, wild hopes, infinite dreams, and also weaknesses on-board, made him the peculiar, yet ultimate, source of meaning and value. It made him the measure of all things. 

As such, man was ready to take on the realms of god(s) and the heaven, proclaiming himself the only sovereign of the world. The earth (if ever possible the whole material universe) was the solitary context for pursuing what could be called the terrestrial heavenly ecstasy, and for creating and experiencing the terrestrial paradisal joy. The rest of creation were man’s “royal” subjects. They were also the objects of his perennial curiosity and investigation expected to help him find “answers” and a “path” leading to the ultimate truth. Man was entitled to do anything he wanted in his dominion, for there was no law that was binding nor morals that were restrictive. Man himself and his preferences signified both the law and moral code. 

In sum, in the process of deifying himself and his life pattern, man was all out to desacralise everything else. Each and every doctrine, meaning, value and purpose, cutting across all tiers of the physical and metaphysical existence, were the target of his unholy mission.  Man thus proved as much a constructive as destructive force. He was life’s both friend and foe. Not a great deal of authentic worth, sense and beauty endured on the trail of his civilisational headway. 

The situation was further compounded by the fact that the modern man regarded his way as the only way. He assumed that he was the saviour of mankind’s destiny. Hence, aggressive modernity proselytisation (evangelisation) enterprises, closely affiliated with those of Western colonialism and imperialism, were instigated and never dwindled away. Having undergone required alterations, they are around even today, powered with the same designs and fervour.

While all this was taking place in the West, the Muslim world was in a free fall. Its culture and civilisation weakened to the point that no adequate response was forthcoming to the burgeoning global threat of modernity. There was neither capacity nor will to work systematically on producing alternatives, which then turned into a boost to the prospects of preaching and advocating modernity in the Muslim midst. The continuous backsliding of Muslims created a vacuum that the promises of modernity could only fill. What worked in the latter’s favour was its dissociation from religions – in particular from Christianity since the home of modernity’s origin was the predominantly Christian West – and its adoption of liberty, social equality, scientific enquiry and progress as its creed. 

Not many people were able to penetrate the alluring outer shell of modernity’s creed and realise that it was nothing but a poisoned chalice. People lived under the historical burden – plus mandate – of everlastingly confronting the threat of Christianity, and to a lesser extent the threat of Judaism and the established forms of polytheism, without having what it takes to face up to the subtlety and sophistication of scientific agnosticism, epistemic or intellectual nihilism, and ethical relativism. Traditionally, the domains of science, knowledge, morality, justice and freedom were perceived as so innocent and pure – sometimes even sacred – that they could hardly be contaminated beyond recognition, or worse yet, be conjoined with outright evil, wickedness and sin. These, therefore, ended up being the most effective bait of modernity in Muslim environments.

Muslims in two opposing camps

All in all, Muslims were divided into two opposing camps. Lacking the religious and intellectual insights, some were in support of out-and-out modernisation after the western paradigm. Others, while as well lacking – though in a different way – the religious and intellectual insights, gave preference to locking themselves in the fortresses of tradition and turning a blind eye to the advances of modernisation and all the permutations that its deluge entailed. 

Unfortunately, neither side’s position was ideal. The exemplary position would be to hold on to the best of tradition and repel thereby the worst of modernity and take in the best of it, albeit not on modernity’s, but on tradition’s, terms. However, unlike blindly following either modernity or tradition, which was a straightforward and easy course of action, adopting the last approach was extremely hard. It posed a challenge to the old and new status quos and their protagonists, and demanded the reconstruction of entrenched standards, systems and styles. The assignment by no means was for the feeble-minded or the poor in spirit. It recognised no shortcuts, pretence, self-absorption, nor political expediency. 

That is why the true Islamic modernity – whereby the finest of Islamic tradition and the finest of Western modernity were intended to be integrated into a global civilisational alternative – was hard to come by, and as a massive movement supported equally by multitudes and governmental institutions and bodies never really took off. What transpired were giant reformative efforts undertaken by individuals or small groups within the orbs of religion, intellectualism, social activism, or politics, which however were seldom coordinated, fully supported and facilitated, and in the end fully implemented. 

The end of the 19th and the inception of the 20th centuries were testing times for being a genuine Muslim reformer and modernist. To be misunderstood, censured, disregarded, ostracised and exiled was the rule of the day. A person never knew what was going to happen next; such were the unpredictability and uncertainty of the epoch. The biographies of Muslim reformers-cum-modernists, such as Jamaluddin al-Afghani (d. 1897), Muhammad ‘Abduh (d. 1905), Abdurrahman al-Kawakibi (d. 1902) and Rashid Rida (d. 1935), are replete with untoward incidents and unfortunate experiences.

Blindly following the West was not in any way an evidence of Muslim modernisation, nor was irrationally holding fast to tradition and the erstwhile modi operandi a proof of Islamic orthodoxy. Both exemplars betrayed their purported visions and missions, and neither stood for the way forward.  In addition, neither lived up to what Muslims really needed at that critical juncture, that is, authentic and Islam-driven socio-political and educational reforms, demythologisation of the Islamic faith and practice, harmonisation between reason (science) and revelation (religion), reopening the gates of ijtihad (independent reasoning), and promoting Muslim global unity, brotherhood and cooperation. 

Certainly, there was more to Islamic reforms than sheer slogans, trailing a foreign trajectory, or wholesale borrowing of foreign ideas and solutions and grafting them on to indigenous systems. There was more to the enterprise than items of symbolism, romanticism and empty rhetoric. Similarly, mere determination, courage and strong faith were not sufficient either. What was needed was a combination of all these, plus a clear and total vision, political will, institutional measures, broad-based support and, of course, the wherewithal.

True Muslim modernists and reformers

Those bona fide modernists and reformers of Islamic religious consciousness and thought established themselves like so on account of their endeavours and ultimate legacies. They never coveted any titles or recognitions. The Muslim ummah and history were the judge. Those persons lived – and strove – under the burden of striking a delicate balance between accommodating the dynamics of modernity and preserving the permanent and binding bequests of tradition. Doing so was particularly difficult. It was tricky too, in that apart from stepping into the eye of the storm by virtue of attempting to bring modernity and tradition closer to each other, Muslim reformers-cum-modernists had also to put up, on the one hand, with the ignorance and intolerance of the aggressively narrow-minded ones, and with the laxity as well as machinations of the assertively liberal ones, on the other. Were it not for the propriety and inviolability of their undertakings, and for the facilities, together with incentives, warranted by the notion and blueprint of ijtihad, hardly any – it stands to reason – would have persevered.

Muslim earliest reformers and modernists were the first to launch ideological responses to the major aspects of the Western cultural and civilisational onslaughts. They did so methodically, scientifically and sometimes in the West’s own backyard. Their approaches were neither reckless imitation nor irresponsible denigration, pertaining to anything within the universe of either Western civilisation or Islamic tradition. Nor were they susceptible to hasty and awkward reconciliation between the values and canons of Islam and those of the modern West. Rather, their aim was the timelessness and universality of the truth of Islam. They were after it in all spheres of life, regardless of where such quest might have taken them, both in scholarly and physical terms. Thus, no “stone” did they leave “unturned” in intellectual spheres, and no geographical spot did appear far-flung in their going the distance. 

Muslim modernists’ were the first face-to-face ideological and intellectual battles with the Western cultural hegemony. They made the most of means and facilities provided by the latter, such as the press, multilingualism, systems of government, and human rights, which included freedom of movement, freedom of expression and freedom of thought. Positively, every possible arena either in the East (the Orient) or the West (the Occident) was Muslim modernists’ battleground, and every available channel or method was part of their tactics. 

Their publications – namely books, articles, lectures and the contents of their newly-founded journals like al-‘urwah al-wuthqa (the Most Trustworthy Handhold) (in existence from March to October, 1884, in Paris) and al-Manar (the Lighthouse) (in existence from 1898 to 1935 in Cairo) – accordingly put the accent on the most burning questions of the Muslim everyday life. Topping the list were such themes as the Islamic belief system denoting a key prerequisite for every type of good work, Islamic morality, brotherhood and unity, the reasons for Muslim degeneration and potential remedies, Muslims and the West, countering Western imperialism, Islam and science, Islam and other religions, the importance of education in Islam, the responsibilities of Muslim rulers in bringing about an Islamic renaissance, the role of the religious elites, freedom, nationalism, justice, etc.

This way, Muslim modernists transcended the level of modernity-versus-tradition convolutions, operating in and for a higher order of things and worth. They spoke a new language and created a new vocabulary of original, often Islamised, terms. They imparted a mood of freshness in an otherwise putrefying intellectual milieu. For this reason were the earliest Muslim reformers sometimes called modernists and sometimes Salafists (as a form of Islamic traditionalism). There was no clear demarcation between the two.

Thus – by way of example – whenever Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938) thought of modernity and modernist movements of Islam, he traced them back to the ideas and movement of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792), the founder of the Wahhabi (often understood as a derogatory tag) movement and the symbol of Salafism. Muhammad Iqbal described the movement of Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab as “the first throb of life in modern Islam.” He also said that Jamaluddin al-Afghani’s ground-breaking modernism was probably inspired by Muhammad b. Abd al-Wahhab.***

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