The modern world is rapidly changing, with transformations that affect all facets of life including family, the economy, the environment, war, politics, and religion. Understanding how the world operates allows us to take ownership of who we are, why we think the things we do, and why we do the things we do. Failing to understand modernity is like being the passenger in a car, unaware of the driver, the destination, or how the vehicle operates.
So why has modernity catalyzed so many changes and why are they so pervasive? To answer this, we must first define modernity and then analyze its effects.
Modernity shapes many spheres of life, so definitions vary in their focus. The Oxford English Dictionary emphasizes the epistemology of modernity: the way people living in it and adhering to its ideas arrive at truth or knowledge. It defines modernity as
An intellectual tendency or social perspective characterized by departure from or repudiation of traditional ideas, doctrines, and cultural values in favour of contemporary or radical values and beliefs (chiefly those of scientific rationalism and liberalism).
Meanwhile, historians define modernity in terms of its economic and political effects,
the spread of capitalist market relations and the adoption of new methods of governance and nationalism aimed at centralizing and expanding at unprecedented levels the state’s authority over all facets of society .
A synthesis of these two definitions of modernity yields one that is operationally useful:
A way of thinking which emphasizes rational agency, individual free choice, and the rejection of past ideas, which has resulted in new forms of political organization such as capitalism, nationalism, and the unprecedented power of the state.
Problems with Modernity
With the aforementioned definition in mind, some problems become apparent. Modernity, in its rejection of traditional foundational sources of knowledge such as religion, often leaves a hole in the psychological and spiritual facets of entire civilizations. Naturally, this environment will see the advent of various ideologies attempting to fill the vacuum. In addition, modernity emphasizes rationalism (the superiority of “reason” as a source of knowledge as opposed to other potential sources e.g. revelation), but it is entirely unclear what this actually means. After all, one can’t become “rational” simply by deciding to do so and every human’s rational faculty makes mistakes regularly. Nor did past religious ideologues reject rationalism. Rather, most traditional scholars, especially in Islamic history, would and did argue that their beliefs were rational. In addition to rationalism, modernity promotes liberalism, the idea that individual autonomy is the most fundamental moral and political value. However, this leaves the question of how to make choices, their regulations, the depth of our supposed autonomy, and so on, unclear.
The void created by modernity has been filled by ideologies like nationalism, capitalism, and hedonism (while several ideologies contribute to the state of a particular setting, the aforementioned three are some of the primary descriptors of contemporary trends). Absent any clear guidance or direction, humanity’s tribalistic and selfish tendencies tend to take over.
How to Understand the World Around Us
Today, activism over various causes is widespread. Many people have strongly held opinions on topics such as women’s rights or politics or racism and are working to change the world towards what they think is better. However, public discourse remains uninformed, as assumptions underlying our ethical and political debates often go unstated. Rarely, in the midst of discussion on current events, do people pause to ask: what moral framework is being used here? Which values are being applied and given precedence over others? Who is making these decisions and on what basis?
Our goal is not necessarily to disagree with what proponents of modernity espouse or to give a specific answer to these questions. Rather, our objective is to start asking such questions. Otherwise, what results is activism that does not actually understand the forces shaping the world in a manner that causes the problems it is supposedly fighting.
The Firm Foundations of an Islamic Worldview
So how do we engage with modernity? As Muslims, our actions should be anchored in the reality that our Creator has not left us without guidance. The Islamic tradition, composed of the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), and the body of work produced by Islamic scholars throughout the centuries, is something we can learn from. The Islamic tradition is not fixated in a moment; rather it continually builds upon its foundational worldview and is a dynamic, principled apparatus to govern all aspects of humanity for centuries.
In contrast to modernity – which breaks down traditional values but leaves a void in their wake – the Islamic worldview is a firm foundation we can stand on while facing the challenges of the modern world. For this reason, a sincere movement towards the Islamic tradition should not be about being reactionary against liberals, leftists, and postmodernists, as has been framed by many misinformed dogmatists of late. Further, it is not about rosy nostalgia for a pre-modern aesthetic. Rather, adhering to the Islamic tradition means adhering to the core, unchanging values of a creed that has been revealed by God.
Muslims derive their values and their means of ascertaining the truth (usool) from the Qur’an and the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (his practices and sayings). In contrast, within the confines of modernity, means for ascertaining the truth are restricted to a faint idea of human technological and scientific advancement and a baseless presumption of moral progress. As Muslims, we submit to the ultimate objective truths of God, while attempting to shape our communities and our own selves in adherence to these objective truths.
The error made by many of those who call for the revival of “Islamic tradition” is that they reject anything that happens to be a product of the modern era purely because it is modern, not because of some incompatibility with Islam. This attitude is not an affirmation of the Islamic tradition, but a reactionary type of sophistry that we must challenge before it taints the beauty of our tradition. Neither does Islam require us to adhere blindly to the past (conservatism masked as Islamic traditionalism), nor does it allow us to accept blindly the developments of the future (modernity) as objectively superior.
These essential points in understanding Islam in relation to other ideologies apply broadly, whether discussing Islam and socialism, Islam and feminism, Islam and capitalism, Islam and democracy, etc., each of which is an ideology that still inherently adopts the epistemology of modernity. In the pursuit of seeking answers through an Islamic worldview, we must realize a careful balance between those facets of modernity that are compatible with Islam and those that are not.
A Call to Action
We ask you to join us on this journey, as we explore different ideas and search for answers and solutions to today’s crises. Be an active part of building these solutions: read the articles on our site, share them, and give thought to the issues raised. Discuss the topics raised among your peers and if you have something to share, write for us!
Isom-Verhaaren, Christine, and Kent F. Schull. Living in the Ottoman Realm: Empire and Identity, 13th to 20th Centuries. Indiana University Press, 2016, p. 255.
About the authors: Hossam is the co-founder of IMJ (Islamic Movement for Justice), an organization that is dedicated to reviving political Islam within the Muslim American consciousness. You can follow him on Twitter here.
Yousuf is a developer with an education in computer science. His interests include science, technology, religion, and politics. You can follow him on Twitter here.