In defence of belief
By Mamnun Khan
A friend recently made a passing comment as we traded views on our way into London for work, that as Muslims, he said, we tend to be so preoccupied about what the colour of the wallpaper should be when there are actually widening cracks on the wall, which unless we attend to, they will eventually bring the wall down, and with it the foundations of the house. This pretty much sums up what is really going on in the minds of Muslims. Of course this is not the “big deception” that God speaks about when he says, “So let the life of the world not delude you, and let not the Deluder [shaitaan] delude you concerning God.”[i] But, it is, nevertheless, a type of mental weakness that has the potential to lead to the house coming down; the belief that the present world is an end in itself, without reckoning in the Hereafter or the guarantee of a safe passage to enjoy the next life. In fact, the cracks on the wall are not only all around us, they are deep rooted. We are so used to them that they have become part of the decor of the house itself. But what do we mean by cracks and why should they concern us?
In 1997, the scholar of our time, Abdul Hakim Murad put it, “What happens to the young Muslim student at an American university? He learns about post-modernism and post-structuralism, and that these are the ideologies of profound influence in the modern West. He asks the Islamic activist leaders how to disprove them, and of course they cannot. So he grows confused, and his confidence in Islam as a timeless truth is shaken. Under such conditions, only the less intelligent will remain Muslim: a filtering process which is already painfully evident in some activist circles. It is, therefore, an obligation, a Farida, to understand the processes which are under way around us.”[ii] And so this is the subject of my forthcoming book called Muslims in the Age of Modernity: Dislocation and Renaissance which will be published in the summer by the grace of God.
To understand our times, it is therefore crucial to deal with its inherent discontents and restlessness. Part of this state of deep confusion, I argue in the book, comes from our modern failure to confront the “big questions” like “Why does anything exist?” “Are we free?” “How should we live?” “What does it mean to be ‘good’?” The condition of contemporary life or “modernity” is really the condition of people who, having given up on their fundamental anxieties, find it easier to conceal them. We deal with such anxieties by rendering them into fiction in movies and storybooks. The preoccupation with block-buster movies, for instance, takes us through an illusionary reality conjured up with real-life anxieties but nonchalantly stripped of purpose. This cover up of reality results from confusion brought about by the failure to intellectually and emotionally embrace truth and oppose doubt.
You are probably asking by now, “What is this thing called modernity?” At its simplest, modernity is as Professor Anthony Giddens defines, “roughly equivalent to ‘the industrialised world.’”[iii] Additionally, it is where religion is extricated from being the moral guide and instead everything, including human values, is determined by, the rational nature of man which, as Emmanuel Kant (1724-1804) put it, “exists as an end in itself.”[iv] This sense of modernity is resisted by what are collectively known as “postmodernist” movements which show the failure of modernity to bring about “progress” and “happiness.” But instead of overcoming the restlessness and radical consequences of modernity, post-modernist movements have resulted in further and more profound confusion. You are probably now wondering how modernity could possibly relate to our religious beliefs?
Let me explain. In modernity there is a distinct view that religious truths are plural and ultimately subjective. Reality is configured only as it is apparent. Islam and traditions in general are seen as authoritarian projects aimed at mobilising human action to realise a particular vision of history. One that is the product of what Karl Popper (1902-1994) labels as “the destiny of the chosen people.” Tradition is seen as continually making contact with a backward-looking pre-modern society. The Turkish term “irtica”, which means “returning to the past or carrying the past to the present,” is often thrown upon tradition in an effort to discount and devalue the past. Thus, the major achievement of modernity in the West is the subversion of the authority of tradition, as seen in the loss of quaint English traditions, be it cultural or of Christianity.
Yet for Muslims, Islamic belief and practice is transmitted from the past and is canonised ultimately in the Qur’an and Sunnah which have authority in the present as well the past and the future. For Muslims, fundamental meanings are not subject to changes in custom, people and society, especially based on the ever-changing demands of functional industrial organisation. Islam is richly endowed with meaning and understanding staked against an unchanging Arabic lexicon. “It is not like any other speech” and re-orients Muslims from any point in time to that blessed period of the Prophet Muhammad (sallahu ’alaihi wa sallam). Against this truth, when new trends, philosophies and awareness’s embodied in modernity contact the “Islamic world” they pose deeply felt questions about the Muslim’s outlook to life.
So if discontent and restlessness arise in part from the overriding assumption in modernity that traditional wisdoms are irrelevant to the needs of contemporary people, how can we counteract it? The philosopher Fethullah Gulen points out that this is a perversity within modern thought. He states, “no one can label belief in God, worship, moral values and purporting matters unlimited by time as ‘irtica’.” As concerned Muslims seeking to construct religious life in modernity, it requires reinvigorating belief assumptions by confronting modernity not through polemical rhetoric but reasoning and critique. Rethinking modernity is to ameliorate this perverse sense of radicalised life without tradition and social history, while at the same time sensibly embracing aspects of modernisation and globalisation to strengthen social life.
However, given modernity’s broad-brushed apathy and blitheness towards any notion of tradition, the potential for Muslims to recover from the radicalised consequences of modernity is possible only through active example and dialectic and cannot be gleaned from a simple reading of history. This challenge is fraught with dangers. Simple and literal readings of Islam by Muslims, for instance, do not inform human expediency and assessment because of their lack of sophistry. Literalness cannot tell us as a society “who we are” and “how we got here.”
Equally, there is an implied ideological denial by the non-Muslim liberal view. This view, assures us from its self-righteous patronage that present “progressive” attitudes are fruitful and solid and do not need to be supported by revelation. The liberal view is presented as something that cannot ever be exposed for its illiberal, authoritarian stance against tradition and social history. But how can the liberal view claim to be liberal when it advances the argument against religion by denying people the freedom to consciously reject or choose traditional religious values?
Rene Guenon (1886-1951) saw that the separation between East and West comes from the East maintaining its uninterrupted spiritual traditions, while Western modernity is characterised by profound confusion and spiritual corruption. Guenon was writing almost one hundred years ago, and today this distinction has been significantly blurred as modernity’s radicalised consequences take effect. But we should not despair! Our hope is simple. Whilst human beings, whether religiously inclined or not can err in their realisation of truth, what exists as a constant is a centrifugal tendency inherent in truth itself (Fitrah) which ensures in subtle and obvious ways, by God’s Mercy, that people are always drawn to correct belief.
Over successive centuries it could be argued that Christianity has been subjected to gradual as well as often fierce institutionalisation, reformation and secularisation. We see for instance the establishment of the Church and clergymen as direct intermediaries to God. Muslims by contrast sought to protect Islam from the inevitability of such processes. For instance, early juristic and theological turmoil was overcome through rigorous scholarship; medieval philosophy was countered in favour of belief; and Enlightenment ideas from Europe, fortuitously, did not influence Islam owing to its geographic and linguistic separation from the Islamic world.
But can Muslims today follow in the footsteps of earlier Muslims in defence of their beliefs? I think this is possible, but only if we can avoid living insulated in our “own world” where social life is preoccupied by concerns and visions limited to a narrowed self-containing paradigm: a state of affairs driven by narrow intellectual, social and cultural awareness. Our consciousness cannot stagnate or lack the mental strength that comes with practice and challenge because we live at a time when “everything meets and interpenetrates.”[v] Some non-Muslims like Marshall Hodgson concur. He writes, “If Islam can be shown to be capable of providing fruitful vision to illuminate the modern conscience, then all mankind, and not only Muslims, have a stake in the outcome.”[vi] Thus, Muslims can start to “illuminate the modern conscience,” as Abdul Hakim Murad states, by firstly understanding “the processes which are under way around us.”
[i] Al-Qur’an, Al-Fatir (The Originator), chapter 35, verse 5.
[ii] Abdul Hakim Murad, Islam and the New Millennium, 1997, http://www.masud.co.uk/.
[iii] Anthony Giddens, Modernism and Self Identity, p15.
[iv] Emmanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Hackett Publishing, 1993, p36.
[v] Charles Upton, The System of Antichrist, Sophia Perennis, 2001, p502.
[vi] Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilisation, University of Chicago Press, 1977, Volume 3, p441.