Muslim Reception/Rejection of Modernity (Part 2)

It has been noted above that Islamists opt for a selective appropriation of the rational structures and goods of Modernity without critically submitting their own traditional values to self-critique. The justification for this strategy finds support from the flourishing of the discipline of Civilizational studies in the universities. Islamic thinkers who seek to undermine the suggestion that the supremacy of Western modernity is permanent or that history of progress is linear following the path set by Western nations.

Muslim Reception/Rejection of Modernity (Part 2)
Part 2
Islamic History and Civilizational Studies

It has been noted above that Islamists opt for a selective appropriation of the rational structures and goods of Modernity without critically submitting their own traditional values to self-critique. The justification for this strategy finds support from the flourishing of the discipline of Civilizational studies in the universities. Islamic thinkers who seek to undermine the suggestion that the supremacy of Western modernity is permanent or that history of progress is linear following the path set by Western nations. We find Islamists appealing to Spengler, Toynbee, Malik Bennabi and above, all Ibn Khaldun, to support a cyclical view of the growth and decline of Civilizations.

Louay Safi updates insights of Khaldun who earlier attributed the rise of Civilization to a high spirit and forward-looking ethos (found in Bedouin culture) expressed in psychological toughness and strength, and commitment to the collectivity manifested in ‘asabiyyah (tribal solidarity). In contrast, Civilization comes to an end when society adopts degenerate values characterized by cultural nihilism, psychological looseness and hyper-individualism [ TR 60].

The cyclical view of civilization assures the Islamists that Western Modernity, for all its technical superiority, will decline and eventually fade given its moral inadequacy and lack of religious values. On the other hand, Islamic society can overtake Western society if it regains its moral and religious foundations. Safi appeals to Weber to support the thesis that it is moral and cultural values that determine social institutions rather than the other way round. In Safi’s words, “social order is shaped in accordance with some transcendent order embedded in the people’s understanding of the nature of ultimate reality. . . . The search for order is, therefore, at bottom a quest for truth, i.e. a quest for the transcendent principles whose embodiment in a social reality would establish the conditions responsible for unleashing human creativity and energy, and bringing unity, integrity, and cooperation to society” [ CM 94-95].

Ahmet Davutoglu concurs by insisting that Islamic imagination of history based on circularity emphasizes the indispensability of positive moral values as prerequisites for substantive progress. Therefore he offers Islamic civilizational parameters since “(i) real supremacy is the subject of value-structures and soul, therefore in spite of material underdevelopment, Muslims have the value-potential to be superior to western people; (ii) there is no perpetual fall or rise in history, so Muslims can re-gain the stature of being determinant civilization if they fully operationalize their value-structure as a social and economic form” [CTMW 80].

We can be assured that Islamists are actively seeking to operationalize their value structure in all sectors of society through a systematic program of Islamization. For the purpose of this paper I will only discuss the area of educational reforms.

Educational Response
Islamic educationists conclude that the continuing backwardness of their society springs from the destructive effect of Western education. In particular, an education system originally designed to supply clerks and technicians to the Colonial system becomes desiccated precisely because it is cut off from intellectual roots found in the classics of literature and philosophy. On the other hand, for a Muslim it is an imperative to reject the Western classics since they embody humanistic values that are contrary to Islam.

One influential call for deWesternization of knowledge and Islamization of knowledge comes from Syed M. Naquib al-Attas, the director of the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Kuala Lumpur. Naquib, in particular, focuses on the phenomenon of secularization. Undoubtedly his discussion reflects the intellectual debates of the seventies. Naquib cites the views of Harvey Cox and defines secularization as the deliverance of man “first from religious and then metaphysical control over his reason and language. . . . the loosing of the world from religious and quasi-religious understandings of itself, the dispelling of all closed world views, the breaking of all supernatural myths and sacred symbols.” Secularization denotes “the disappearance of religious determination of the symbols of cultural integration.” It implies “a historical process almost certainly irreversible, in which society and culture are delivered from the tutelage to religious control and closed metaphysical world views” (IS15). It should be noted in passing though, that the secularization hypothesis has lost credibility and contemporary social theorists are more concerned with the ambiguities of Modernity. Still, it is a fact that for Muslim intellectuals Modernity is primarily defined by their experience of secularization.

Naquib elaborates that secularization may be viewed from three dimensions: disenchantment of nature, desacralization of politics and deconsecration of values. All these clearly constitute a comprehensive world view which he emphatically rejects whether it be the open world view projected by secularization, or the closed world view projected by secularism. His concern is with the disastrous consequence of ‘deislamization’ of Muslim societies.

“Deislamization is the infusion of alien concepts into the minds of Muslims, where they remain and influence thought and reasoning. It is the causing of forgetfulness of Islam and of the Muslim’s duty to God and to His prophet, which is the real duty assigned to his true self; and hence it is also injustice (zulm) to the self. It is the tenacious adherence to pre-Islamic beliefs and superstitions, and obstinate pride and ideologization of one’s pre-Islamic cultural traditions; or it is also secularization” (IS 43-44).

Naquib directs severe criticisms against Islamic modernists whom he found guilty of abetting such a pernicious influence. “They draw inspiration about the ideas on state and society and man not so much from Islam and Islamic sources as from Western European sources about liberty, equality and fraternity; and about the social contract and the doctrine of human rights and humanistic individualism” (IS 114). As a case in point he emphasizes how they unwittingly contribute to the process of secularizing Islam when they distort the intellectual heritage of Islam (even to the extent of romanizing the original Arabic script of the Malay language) and disparage its spiritual elements like stigmatizing tasawwuf (Islamic mysticsm).

The inevitable result is the corruption of knowledge and the Muslim dilemma (IS 100):
1. Confusion and error in knowledge, creating the condition for:
2. The loss of adab within the Community. The condition arising out of (1) and (2) is:
3. The rise of leaders who are not qualified for valid leadership in the Muslim Community.

This has led to the erosion of Islamic order and authority since knowledge that is corrupt results in corrupt leadership. In his view corrupt leadership is actually the consequence of the loss of adab. “Adab is recognition and acknowledgment of the reality that knowledge and being are ordered hierarchically according to their various grades and degree and rank, and of one’s proper place in relation to that reality and to one’s physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities and potential”(CEI 27). On the other hand, loss of adab also results in the failure to recognize and acknowledge true leaders. Naquib’s goal is to initiate an enterprise, or proper interpretation and classification of knowledge about Islam and the Islamic world view ,that will restore the legitimate authority which recognizes and acknowledges a hierarchy of authorities (IS 101).

Naquib then proposes that the following procedure be followed in the Islamization of knowledge. First, isolate the elements including the key concepts which make up Western culture and civilization. . . [applicable] even in the physical sciences when they deal with interpretation of facts and formulation of theories. He elaborates,

The ‘islamization’ of present-day knowledge means precisely that, after the isolation process referred to, the knowledge free of the elements and key concepts isolated are then infused with Islamic elements and key concepts which, in view of their fundamental natures defining the fitrah, in fact imbue the knowledge with the quality of its natural function and purpose and thus make it true knowledge. It will not do to accept present-day knowledge as it is, and then hope to islamize it merely by grafting or transplanting into it Islamic sciences and principles. . . The foreign elements and disease will have first to be drawn out and neutralized before the body of knowledge can be remolded in the crucible of Islam (IS 156, cf. CEI 45-46).

The next step consists of reorganizing knowledge according to its origin: a) by direct revelation — objective truth necessary for guidance, and b) speculative and rational effort enquiry based on experience of the sensible and intelligible. From his Islamic perspective Naquib suggests that knowledge is discovered and not socially constructed. Knowledge is the arrival of the soul at the meaning of a thing. “Meaning is recognition of the place of anything in a system which occurs when the relation a thing has with others in the system becomes clarified and understood” and “Truth or haqq is a suitableness to the requirements of the proper places of things as recognized by true judgment” (CEI 15).

From this epistemological framework Naquib concludes that education is therefore the “recognition and acknowledgment, progressively instilled into man, of the proper places of things in the order of creation, such that it leads to the recognition and acknowledgment of the proper place of God in the order of being and existence” (CEI 22). Naquib further stresses that it is equally important that education should instill not just knowledge but the restoration of justice and adab.

The term ‘justice’ brings to mind a state of social relations. But Naquib seeks to move the concept away from its context of social relations and instead centre it on the individual. “Justice in Islam is not what refers to a state of affairs which operate only within a two-person-relation or dual-party-relation situation. . . The man of Islam, the true Muslim, the khalifatu’Llah, is not bound by the social contract, nor does he espouse the doctrine of the Social Contract” (IS 135). This suggestion is surprising since Islam has always criticized Christianity for its alleged individualism. To be sure, Naquib may not be closed to a wider social framework since he views that “Justice as a harmonious condition or state of affairs whereby every thing or being is in its right and proper place. . . , a state of equilibrium” (IS 142). But his decision to focus on the individual arises from his strong reaction to wards other Islamists who advocate the way of socialism as an alternative to Western capitalism.

Ismail Faruqi goes further in suggesting more concretely the procedure of Islamization of knowledge in his book, Work Plan for Islamization of Knowledge [Naquib has claimed that Faruqi merely ‘stole’ his manuscript]. Among other objectives of Faruqi’s Islamization program (pp.57-58) we note the following:

1. To work for adopting and incorporating comprehensive Islamic methodology in the fields of social sciences and the humanities, as well as to foster and fund scientific studies in actual individual and social life conditions.
2. To implement the requisite steps to allow the developing contemporary Islamic culture and methodology to avail themselves of the fountains of Islamic principles and legacy as well as of modern sciences and knowledge, by making them accessible and digestible to Muslim students.
3. To provide help in researching, studying and working on the methodology and its presentation with a view toward elucidating Islamic concepts and intellectual outlook and toward laying the foundation for the evolution of Islamic social sciences and humanities.

Ismail Faruqi’s outline of a twelve-step procedure which will bring about Islamization of knowledge is conveniently summarized by Ziauddin Sadr (see handout 1, taken from Islamic Futures, Pelanduk, 1988, p. 99). This program has so far resulted in two dozen technical monographs.

What does it mean to recover a normative Islam given that is distinguished from historical Islam? Fazlur Rahman offers the criterion of true Islamicity: “a doctrine or an institution is genuinely Islamic to the extent that it flows from the total teaching of the Quran and the Sunna and hence successfully applies to an appropriate situation or satisfies a requirement” (p. 23). Such a perspective requires the Muslim wholly to internalize the Islamic teaching. He will judge new situations in the light of his internalized teachings. To complement this experiential component an intellectual analysis of the internalized teaching is also called for, both historically and systematically. F. Rahman elaborates, “it views the unfolding of the Quran and the Sunnah historically so as to understand their meaning and then systematically arranges the values in order of priority and posteriority, subordinating the more particular to the more general and ultimate, and thus obtains an answer from this system for a given problem or a given situation”(p. 23).

How then should education be shaped? It is clear that Islamic intellectuals like Naquib senses the total dominance of Western universities and the acute lack of an Islamic alternative. Naquib, however, counters with the charge that the Western model of the university lacks an abiding, vital centre and has no permanent underlying principle establishing its final purpose. In response, Naquib strives to embody Islamization of knowledge at the highest level by proposing new structures and a curriculum for Islamic universities [see accompanying image]. This university presumably will succeed in producing Muslim scholars will be imbued with a unified Islamic worldview as well as possesses the technical competence necessary to address the challenges of Modernity.

Final Comments
It has been emphasized that Modernity embodies a moral understanding that is propelled by powerful institutional carriers. As such, an adequate response must go beyond the realm of ideas and create institutions that provide resources to promote a unified and dynamic view of life. Islamists correctly understand the comprehensive challenge of Modernity since they have always understood religion as a complete way of life [din] and believe that society should be ordered according to the tawhid [unity principle of God]. Islamic scholars have moved from critiques beyond Modernity to offer Islamic alternatives to Modernity.

Unfortunately their strategy has been one of going back to an idealized past. This is due to their doctrine of the closing of the gates to knowledge back in the 10th century when all knowledge that was necessary for the flourishing of an Islamic society had been attained/revealed. Such a view is questionable, to say the least, since on the terms of their own cyclical view of civilization, the glory of past Islamic society is historically contingent. One wonders how a glorious Islamic society could be achieved by applying the same social laws when historical conditions no longer obtain.

Islamic societies will continue to be plagued by contradictions unless Islam adopts an attitude of self-criticism and implement changes that are necessary to cope with the demands of modern life. Whether Islam possesses such inbuilt capacity to respond to new challenges remains to be seen. To be sure, some quarters among the Islamists have recognized the need for Ijtihad, that is, the renewal of reinterpretation and reforms of Islam, as the way for Islam to flourish in the modern world. After all, change is an undeniable reality of modern life and a religion that refuses to respond to change will only be consigned to obsolescence and irrelevance.

It has been easy for Islamists to moralize in their response to Modernity. One wonders at their lack of sociological analysis when in their simplicity they reduce all social problems to moral issues. Their failure to address the institutional carriers and the dynamics of Modernity results in a reactive rather than proactive response. In the end they merely respond to an agenda set by global forces.

Finally, Islamists conduct their learned discourse with total disregard for other communities that do not share their ideology. Such an approach may perhaps be understandable when Islam was supreme in local societies which were fairly homogeneous and when social structures were more or less stable. But Islamists continue to insist on their sectarian approach to social problems and ignore the pluralistic nature of modern societies. One can only judge their approach as doomed to failure precisely because their intellectual sectarianism amounts to a failure to acknowledge and therefore an inability to address the complex of problems of modern societies. Indeed, their approach displays a manifest moral failure. The moral issue that Islamists must face is whether Islam can attain a maturity that allows it to be a responsible religion in a community of nations that affirm tolerance, human rights, plurality and democracy. Being a mature religion in the modern world surely requires adoption of such benefits of Modernity.

Mona M. Abul-Fadl. Proceedings of the 21st Annual Conference of the Association of
Muslim Social Scientists(IITC)
Akhbar Ahmad & Hasting Donnan. Islam, Globalization & Postmodernity. RKP 1994
Syed Hussein Al-Attas. Modernization and Social Change. Angus & Roberston 1972
Syed Muhammad Naquib Al-Attas. The Concept of Education in Islam. ISTAC 1999
Islam and Secularism.
ABIM 1978
Shaifah Shifa Al-Attas. Islam and the Challenge of Modernity. ISTAC 1996
Ahmet Davutoglu. Civilizational Transformation and the Muslim World. Mahir Pub. 1994
Ismail Faruqi. Al Tawhid. Its Implication for Thought and Life. IITC 1992
Islamization of Knowledge: General Principles and Work Plan. IITC 1989
Rosani Hashim. Educational Dualism in Malaysia. OUP 1996
Shanti Nair. Islam in Malaysian Foreign Policy. RKP 1997
Oliver Roy. The Failure of Political Islam Harvard Uni. Press 1994
Louay Safi. The Challenge of Modernity. Uni. Press of America 1994
Truth and Reform. Open Press 1998
Ziaudin Sardar. Islamic Futures. Pelanduk 1988
Patricia Sloane. Islam, Modernity and Enterpreneurship Among Malays. Macmillan 1999
Wilfred Cantwell Smith. Islam in Modern History. New American Library 1957
Seong Chee, Tham. Malays and Modernization. Singapore Uni. Press 1983
Bassam Tibi. The Crisis of Modern Islam. Uni. Utah Press 1988
The Challenge of Fundamentalism. Uni. California Press 1998
Bryan Turner. Orientalism, Postmodernism and Globalism. RKP 1994
Wan Mohd Nor Wan Daud. The Educational Philosophy and Practice of Syed Muhd. Naquib Al-Attas. ISTAC 1998

One thought on “Muslim Reception/Rejection of Modernity (Part 2)”

  1. Whatever are “liberal” Muslims thinking when they dismantle the parts of Islam that are incompatible with modernity? How do they decide on their “selective appropriation of the rational structures and goods of Modernity without critically submitting their own traditional values to self-critique”.

    Someone even reduce the definition of “kafir” to refer only to those hostile to a sober, religious way of life. They extend good will to religionists who practice a faith sincerely outside Islam.

    They thus ignore or explain away jihad so that the obligations of yearly attacks involving genocide, plunder and jizya are all obviated.

    What is happening?

    Jihad, in my understanding, resembles nothing more than genocide: the idea is to destroy the ability of the kufaar to reproduce their own kind, to have a homeland, a culture, a faith…anything that is an alternative to the one “acceptable” complete Arab-style lifestyle of the 7th (or you say 9th) century.

    How can you remove jihad (genocide) and still have Islam?

Comments are closed.