(Islam and Modern Age, February 2009)
Modernity was greatly celebrated during colonial days of 19th century throughout the world, especially in African and Asian countries colonized by European countries. It was hallmark of superiority of west over east. West was considered most modern, rational in its approach and technologically far more superior whereas Asian and African countries superstitious, irrational and ignorant and backward.
Most of the intellectuals, mainly product of western colonial education felt ashamed of their ignorance and backwardness and lack of rationality and science and tried to reform their societies by spreading modern approach among their people. However, there was vertical division in these societies between those who refused to modernize and preferred their orthodoxy and those who considered modernization a must and celebrated modernity.
Almost all religious communities in colonized countries faced this vertical divide but more particularly the Muslims. We are more concerned here with Muslim communities in the colonized countries. Muslims were comparatively slow and more resistant to modernization as the Muslim societies were deeply embedded in feudal values and religious orthodoxy.
Muslim intellectuals who came under the influence of western education and modernism, welcomed modernity but had to adopt cautious approach between religious orthodoxy and western modernism. They had to rely more on their religious text to keep pace with their societies. But those societies which took to industrialization and modern business and commerce found modernity more easily acceptable.
Muslim societies, deeply embedded in feudalism and feudal values, as pointed out above, could not go for modern industrialization, business and commerce and hence modernity did not appeal to them or beneficial to them. Muslims were often criticized for refusing to change and modernize and even their religion Islam was blamed for it. Muslims still face this criticism though we have gone into post-modern era.
Modernity, however, did not prove to be unmixed blessing for western countries, let alone for eastern countries of Asia and Africa thanks to the powerful vested interests who used modernity for their own benefit. Modernity generally came with the capitalist system. In fact modernity was product of industrial system based on capitalism. It was Marx who developed great insights into functioning of modern capitalist system and wrote powerful critique of capitalism.
Capitalism was based on profiteering on one hand, and on cutthroat competition, on the other. The Western countries colonized Asian and African countries in search of raw materials and markets for their product. Modern machines produced on mass scale and for that their domestic markets were not enough and also they did not have all the raw materials they needed. Thus colonial countries became rich source of raw material on one hand, and provided huge markets for their industrial products.
It was this competition for markets which led to two World Wars resulting in killings of millions of people. These wars gave great impetus to armament industry so much so that in the post 2nd World War era no American government could defy what came to be known as military-industrial complex. All American policies were fundamentally influenced by this military-industrial complex. This unholy alliance depended mainly on sale of armaments on huge scale and for this wars had to be promoted in Asian and African countries.
This is not to say that modernization itself was responsible for all this but what is true to entire modernization project was hijacked by powerful interests whose only concern was accumulating profits. That is why I maintain that modernity was not an unmixed blessing for humanity. It has its darker side too. Here we are discussing modernity, not as values, but as an instrument to promote certain interests.
Modernity essentially represents important values like rationality, objectivity, respect for human reason and human values and conformity with fact. It was this respect for reason, and not authority, that led to progress of science and technology through which west acquired superiority over Asian and African countries. The modern bourgeoisie in the West challenged the authority of the Church and succeeded in establishing superiority of reason, the hallmark of modernity.
Reason is the highest value in modernity. It relies solely on reason and has no respect for any tradition. The Afro-Asian societies were based, on the other hand, mainly on respect for tradition whether they conformed to tradition or not. However, sole reliance on reason without wedding it to values and without making reason and values two sides of a coin, reason can and does become problematic.
Reason is a two edged sword without values and this is what happened with modernity when powerful vested interests, mainly capitalists hijacked modernity for their own purposes. Modern weapons and modern technology developed by the western countries were used for enslaving Afro-Asian countries and these countries were reduced to mere sources of raw materials and markets.
Reason could be used for promoting science, technology and deeper understanding of universe but also for developing disastrous weapons which cause great destruction. Humanity saw this destruction in the two World Wars. But it was reason again which developed pure science and we could understand infinite vastness of our universe and how it evolved and our extremely limited understanding of our universe changed. Qur'an says it is the 'Ulama i.e. those who know, those who are scientists, who deeply reflect on the creation of Allah who can really worship Him.
But problem is rationalists disregard importance of faith and values and begin to worship reason. They do not appreciate limits of reason. This attitude developed among rationalists as reason was totally disregarded and devalued in traditional societies and those who accepted reason and challenged superstitions or traditional authority were severely persecuted.
Also, unscrupulous elements had exploited faith for their own benefits, rationalists came to reject faith as blind and irrational. Thus as modernity solely relied on reason and ridiculed faith, traditionalists totally elide on faith in the traditional authority and rejected reason. Thus both rationalists and faithful became exclusive categories. There was no meeting point. Thus faithful became blind and derided reason and rationalists dubbed faith as blind.
This mutual exclusivity caused much greater problems. Sole reliance on reason can give birth to discontents as sole reliance on faith. We find interesting debate in Islamic history between Imam Ghazzali and Ibn Rushd (known as Averros to the western world). Ghazzali was also a rationalist at one time. He even became atheist at one stage of his development. However, he soon discovered reason does not lead to inner peace and meaning and significance of life. He turned then to faith (though as is evident from his writings retained elements of reason too) and attacked philosophers like Ibn Rushed. He wrote a book Tahafut al-Falasifa (Bewilderment of Philosophers).
Ibn Rushd replied to Ghazzali's Tahafut al-Falasifa by writing Tahafat Tahafut al-Falasifa i.e. Bewilderment of Bewilderment of philosophers. Thus this lack of mutual understanding lead to exclusivistic attitudes. Ghazzali was in search of inner peace and reason creates more doubts and raises more questions and leads to discontentment. Faith which depends on authority, gives inner contentment.
Modernity has thus led to discontentment in two ways: one, since it has been hijacked by capitalists it leads to more inner discontentment as it is hell-bent upon selling its products and creates illusion of 'material happiness' but fails to create one as more consumption leads to still more consumption; two, rationality lacks faith and for inner peace one needs faith which provides 'final' answers and hence inner contentment.
Thus neither rationality (i.e. modernity) nor faith alone can be without problems. For centuries faith in authority created total stagnation and superstition. No change or progress became possible. Human beings entertained so many superstitions about creation and about our universe. Diseases thrived and mortality became high.
Similarly reason too failed to satisfy many questions though it too became absolute and wanted to displace faith altogether. Thus many questions about meaning and significance of our universe could not be answered by reason alone. Reason, in a way, gave rise to its own superstitions. Reason claimed all the space which so far faith had occupied. Blind faith also led to exploitation of ignorant human beings and now modernity too, in the form of emphasis on material happiness which also led to discontentment.
Thus either way dilemma remains and there is no solution in sight. But discontentment of modernity has far acceded that of faith. As religion has been hijacked by priesthood (reducing it to mere rituals devoid of values) and other vested interests like politicians with which priesthood often (though not always) collaborated, in case of modernity too it has been hijacked by powerful vested interests and it has become almost a part of capitalist system.
Capitalism is highly exploitative and reason has been made a powerful instrument for exploitation to promote profiteering. Today modernity cannot stand on its own and has become almost an adjunct of capitalist system. Capitalism in our own times is promoting limitless consumerism. It has used reason to promote consumerism in various ways which leads to more and more violence.
Colonial violence was also part of capitalist expansion and led to wars and bloodshed. The colonized countries had to struggle hard, in most cases violently (India was an exception to a great extent) to free themselves from colonial bondage. However, in several newly freed countries western capitalist powers managed to install puppet governments and thus people could not enjoy fruits of freedom.
Thus on one hand ritualized religion and capitalist-based modernity created more discontent in the modern world. Democracy, though very necessary for ensuring freedom to common people, has also been hijacked by vested interests. In most of the countries in Asia and Africa we find today one ethnic group or one religious group at the throat of the other. Ethnic, caste and communal violence is rampant in most of the democratic countries in Asia and Africa today.
All modern means are being used to exacerbate these differences including means of modern mass communications. Mass communication with its most modern techniques is a powerful instrument to promote prejudices and misinformation. Twenty-first century has already witnessed unprecedented violence. Attack on New York towers and resultant wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and consequent terrorist attacks has already killed millions of people during the first decade itself.
Modern technology, again a part of hijacked modernity, has produced weapons of mass destruction. During medieval ages a sword could kill one person at a time. Today modern technology has produced such weapons which can kill thousands at a time merely by pressing just a button. Whole cities can be blasted out of existence. America invaded Iraq (to grab its oil) and tried all its latest weaponry on the poor people of that unfortunate country. More than half a million people perished.
Terrorists, not product of Islam as usually propagated, but a violent response to much greater violence being perpetrated by the Super Power, is also killing thousands of innocent human beings. These killings, it appears, has no end. Communally and ethnic violence within a nation states and wars internationally has robbed out modern world of peace and tranquility.
Most important question is can we free religion on one hand, and modernity on the other hand, from clutches of vested interests? It looks very difficult and complex problem. What we need is a creative synthesis of religion and modernity but to get it accepted is itself very difficult. Religion in its spiritual sense and modernity with emphasis on reason can be very liberative for human beings.
Islam, many people would not believe, was such a creative blend of the two but unfortunately it lost its liberative thrust in the hands of vested interests, particularly the feudal ruling class and medieval values. It was very difficult for Islam to escape this fate. However, now is the time to rediscover the Qur'anic Islam though, as pointed out, it would be make it very difficult to make it acceptable.
Islam today is so encumbered with medieval practices and web of cultural and traditional practices that it is very difficult to disentangle it from this complex web of medieval culture and ruling class interests. I would like to throw some light as to why the Qur'anic Islam could be really so liberative. I do not think war against terror can ever succeed without rediscovering this Islam and also without disentangling modernity too from the clutches of capitalist interests.
Qur'an, through the Prophet (PBUH) first of all addressed itself to rid the society of its ills. Mecca was in the primitive stage of capitalist accumulation and so Qur'an strongly denounced accumulation of wealth and luxurious living. It created sensitivity towards suffering weaker sections of society. It gave the ideal, considered most modern, of human dignity. No human being should be disrespected or robbed of dignity given by Allah.
It also gave awareness to its addresses that when it comes to human dignity both men and women are equal and one has no right over the other. Qur'an even avoided use of the word husband and wife but called them zawjain (couples) so that man cannot claim superiority over his wife. It also sensitized believers to indignity a slave suffers though he/she is also human person and hence enjoys equal dignity.
Thus freeing slaves was considered most meritorious act and also exhorted believers that if they cannot immediately emancipate their slave immediately (though they should), until such time they should treat them as their equal in every respect. It was for this reason that many slaves were attracted initially to Islam and Bilal Habshi (an Ethiopian slave emancipated by his master after accepting Islam) became icon of these slaves.
Also, like in modernity it tried to do away discrimination between one ethnic or linguistic or national group from the other and declared colour, race, languages and nations are Allah's signs (Surah:Rum Verse: 22). Basic humanity and human dignity is above all these considerations. No superiority for one group, race, color or language to any other one and declared that only distinction could be on the basis of taqwa (i.e. purity of actions and God-consciousness).
These were revolutionary declarations and humanity has failed to realize these ideals even in post-modern period. The Prophet of Islam (PBUH) faced stiff resistance from Meccan tribal chiefs because they were not prepared to accept such a revolutionary transformation of their society which will fell in one swoop their status, their pride of wealth, their superiority of Arabic language and their belonging to tribe of Quraysh.
All this was not acceptable to them at all. They identified their ancestral religion with all their privileges and would not accept new religion as it was truly universal believing in human unity beyond all tribal, linguistic and ethnic boundaries and what was worse for them, believing in socio-economic justice. In this new religion neither language, nor race, nor colour of skin nor wealth was guarantee to nearness of Allah but only once piety, ethical and moral conduct. They did not mind demolishing physical idols kept in Ka'aba but were not prepared for demolishing idols of social, economic, linguistic, and ethnic pride. These idols were real object of worship which put them above others.
Modernity in this sense with due role of reason is hallmark of Islam from the beginning. But Muslims brought back all these idols installed in their hearts and never removed them. History of Islam shows with passage of time these idols carved out deeper and deeper niches. Ka'aba was purified of physical idols but hearts of Muslims were never purified.
Even today many Muslims have accepted modernity in superficial sense by accepting modern technology and like western countries, have instrumentalized role of reason but never accepted role of reason in fundamental and philosophical sense. Modern Western civilization is wholly materialistic and soulless and hence modernity has created more discontents. Its hallmark is more and more consumption, material standards of life and hence fighting for others' resources leading to wars and bloodshed. America though apparently modern and civilized but most barbarious in waging wars on others territories with its ultra-modern weaponry.
Real modernity as expounded in Qur'an and also in other scriptures, does not use reason in instrumental sense but in fundamental and philosophical sense. It encourages cooperation, not destructive competition. It does not chase illusory goal of happiness based on consumption but promotes social justice, unconditional equality, inviolable human dignity and balanced approach to inner and outer happiness. Modernity cannot be judged through material progress alone. It is necessary but not sufficient.
Spiritual joy and material happiness must go together. Reason should not be devoid of values. Reason without higher goals, meaning and significance of life, is two-edged sword. Truth should not be mere conformity with facts but also beyond and above it, transcendent and all inclusive. Otherwise modernity will remain handmaiden of powerful vested interests which is what it is today and will generate more and more discontents.