Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, also known as Professor Timothy Winter, is one of the foremost public Muslim intellectuals of this era. Involved in a number of projects, from heading a college in the U.K. to lecturing around the world and authoring works of scholarship and polemics (we reviewed one of his books here), his analysis is worthy of attention. Three years ago, he gave a lecture on modernity and its challenges. He set out to discuss “riding the tiger,” an expression describing a confrontational approach (either hostile or amicable) to modernity, as opposed to retreat from it.
The Current State of Affairs
Modernity dismantled the hierarchies of the past, as republics and civic duty replaced monarchies and religious fraternity. Hurdled forth by enlightenment thinkers and those who championed their cause, modernity paved the way to our current state of affairs. The free-market promises that all can be successful by their merit, while the nation-state gives citizens a public forum in which to voice their beliefs.
Yet under the pluralist and open surface lies a growing dissidence. Populism and globalism struggle in the United States and United Kingdom as New Yorkers rally against the Amazon headquarters and Britain marches forward with Brexit. A growing number of dissident factions idealize ‘traditionalism’ while practicing xenophobia and the response from the liberal establishment is a paradoxical demand for tolerance that represses any non-liberal ideology.
The spread of modernity that followed the Enlightenment isn’t unique to the western world. China, although authoritarian and illiberal, has grown more atomized in its society and family structure, and Twitter is expected to be the dominant platform for the 2019 Indian elections. Likewise, these same concepts, cultural challenges, and technologies have taken hold of the Muslim world, as Muslim-majority capital cities celebrate Western commercialized Christmases and their citizens create new communal identities online via social media. While the liberal ideology is reshaping many conversations, there’s also a growing concern as modernity becomes more prevalent: what should the correct Islamic response to modernity be?
Julius Evola and the Far Right
Shaykh Murad begins his talk with an overview of European dissident thinkers that opposed modernity, chief of them being the controversial Julius Evola, from whose book title the phrase “Riding the Tiger” is taken. Murad begins by mentioning Evola’s racist and fascist connections, but in the spirit of the Islamic belief that wisdom is the property of the believer, Murad leaves the harmful and continues to reap that which is good. He proceeds to look at the rest of Evolian thought, which he thinks can be generally useful for an Islamic understanding of modernity.
Here, Murad goes on a tangent about modernity’s prevailing ideology, liberalism, and its paradoxical intolerance despite claiming to be a doctrine of tolerance. He explains that this intolerance has become more pronounced in recent times as a reaction to rising xenophobia in Europe, which in turn is a reaction to the monocultural pluralism that the prevailing liberal order is striving to maintain. Murad points out an inherent element of violence in liberalism’s ultimate intolerance of any non-liberal ideology, implying that not only rival modern ideologies like racism and communism, but also older traditions like Islam are not welcome unless transformed to no longer pose a “threat.” In other words, liberalism’s tolerance is mostly a veneer covering a homogenizing impulse.
Returning to Evola, Murad calls him a “prophetic yet tragic figure:” a man whose insights on modernity are useful and eerily accurate in their predictions, but tainted by fascist notions and an unfortunate negligence of Islam, “Europe’s third heritage.” Evola’s ideology, known as Traditionalism, is an anti-modernity pessimism inspired by unheeded warnings of the modern world’s fate. Evola saw himself as a prophetic figure, Murad explains, an “aristocrat of the soul” who uniquely saw the bland and valueless world modernity was creating accelerating downward “in the grip of gravity.” Evola and his Muslim counterpart Rene Guenon, believed humanity has reached its final age. Foreseeing doomsday, these Traditionalists derided passive assent and assumed confidence in their ability to fight back the beast. Their confidence came from the essential weakness of the base and material values of modernity and in their faith in the human capacity to access spiritual energies via traditional knowledge. Hence, the imperative to “ride the tiger” of modernity.
Murad briefly makes note of the connection between Traditionalist thought and the contemporary European far right. He claims that alongside their xenophobic motivations exists a disillusionment with modernity and an understanding that the loss of sacredness that lies at the heart of tradition is a horrible misstep for humanity. The bridge that connects the far-right’s anti-immigrant and racist stance with their care for tradition is the loss of identity. As monarchy is traded for democracy, hierarchy for equality, and historical heroes for celebrity stars, the national identity is left vulnerable to deracination.
The Enlightenment gave birth to the secular nation-state and for centuries, it survived as the successor to the old Christian order. Yet today European nation-states face a crisis of identity. Murad explains that this is the result of post-modernity’s attack on the Enlightenment’s reverence of the human subject, which had taken the place of the divine. In short, the national alternative to the usurped religious worldview has found itself cut down and that, Murad contends, is what is behind not just the European far right, but also the illiberal currents manifesting across the globe. It seems modernity cannot lead back to the spiritual.
Muslims Today: A Fixation on the Superficial
At this point, Murad focuses his attention on Muslims today and their engagement with modernity. He observes that Muslims are not unlike other people in that they are materialistic and search for identity, unsure of what it means to be Muslim. As a result, Muslims develop a fixation on the superficial at the expense of the fundamental, leading to strange sights such as European converts regularly dressing in thobes and turbans and an Islam that does not mesh with local culture. He supports his claims with a reference to a neurological study by a student of his that indicated that western Muslims don’t internalize what they profess to believe. This is a historical aberration and Murad illustrates this fact by looking at the conversion of the Indonesian island of Java to Islam.
Separated from the contiguous Muslim world by the Indian Ocean, Islam did not arrive to Java with an army but with Muslim traders. Among them were the quasi-mythical Wali Songo, saintly preachers who were instrumental in the spread of Islam among the indigenous people. Murad notes the focus of the Wali Songo on the core of the religion. Outwardly they conformed themselves to the local culture, changing their clothes and even their names. They constructed poems in the local language, borrowing from existing poetic forms but filling them with Islamic content. To this day, these verses are memorized and chanted by Javanese Muslims. For Murad this is the proper method of da’wah, the duty of calling people to Islam, in a way that is least alienating and prioritizes the essence of Islam.
Not only is obsession with formalism culturally unwise, it also creates a legalism that deprives people of understanding the core ethics of Islam. More than once, Murad argues that with a more inwardly focused Islam, a Muslim will find the new ethical issues that modernity raises relatively easier to handle, at least on a personal basis. The overall point that Shaykh Murad makes here is that Islam is traditionally heterogeneous, and that is a good thing, and Muslims today should be more principle-focused than formalistic.
Murad explicitly takes from Vincent Mansour Monteil, a French convert who wrote a book “The Five Colors of Islam” in which he demonstrates how Islam is a rainbow of cultures that coalesce into a single white prism of tawhid. Monteil believed this understanding of Islam’s adaptable but not transformable nature to be the key for Islam in Europe. Monteil’s recommendation for how to achieve this for European Muslims rests with the indigenous converts and children of immigrants. The first immigrant generation is stuck in a triangle juggling their native Islam, the raw Islam, and modernity. Other Muslims by contrast are in a simple dialectic with raw Islam on one side and modernity on the other. Murad echoes Monteil’s belief that this is a challenge that can be met, demonstrating how he is against a total retreat from the modern world.
The Folly of Embracing Modernity
Murad equally opposes an embrace of modernity. Part of the difficulty of riding the tiger is its constant change. The only thing certain about modern morality is that it will be different in 20 years, preventing it from being a viable option for Muslims. He points to the example of reformers in early modern Egypt opening the first Western universities and excluding women, which was actually not in line with traditional Islam but European norms: given that modern trends begin in the West, Muslim modernizers play an endless game of imitation, with faith that the European has the moral high ground. Murad suggests that this is a reason for Muslims to develop a more a principled (he uses the phrase usul) moral code. He seems to fear an overly legalistic and surface-level approach because that might lead to a cafeteria treatment of modernity, where one chooses from it based on whether it outwardly matches a rule in Fiqh, without regard for deeper implications. Murad implies that such an approach to modernity, characteristic of many Muslims today, is schizophrenic and betrays a lack of self-confidence.
However, Murad is not a total pessimist about the condition of Muslims in modernity, which is his departure point from Evola and the Traditionalist philosophers. He reminds the listener that across the world, Muslims continue to pray five times a day and fast Ramadan without being fazed by modern conditions. The Qur’an continues to be recited and Muslims continue to operate mosques. However, most importantly, tawhid remains and the idols of modernity prove unable to distort it in the Muslims. However much they may distract, Islam persists and Muslims can easily resume practice and belief.
An Inward Retreat
Shaykh Murad concludes his analysis in favor of the believer retreating from the modern world, not in a literal sense, but rather an inner withdrawal. He tempers the isolationist implication of the eschatological hadith about believers running for the hills with Islam’s condemnation of monasticism and the Prophetic example of societal engagement. He summarizes his proposed approach as “detachment while being engaged,” which includes an embrace of modern culture and whatever material goods come our way coupled with a firm commitment to the creed of Islam. He notes that paradoxically, while today we must go inwards deeper in order to strengthen our faith, because the reality of the Muslim is inward (i.e. God is found in inner stillness), this opens up the door for greater spiritual life then we may otherwise get to experience. He reaffirms that at the surface modernity is not humane and so solitude is required, but abandoning our communities is not what tradition calls for.
Shaykh Murad’s message can be summarized thusly: Despite our worries about modernity, Islam is preserved. The core beliefs and basic practices of Islam are untampered. Modernity is a threat and not a friend to embrace, but to take it head-on is not wisest. Rather, we must learn to live with the tiger side-by-side.
- Tawhid: The oneness of God, the core message of Islam
- Usul: Arabic for “principles”
- Fiqh: Islamic law
- Julius Evola, “Riding the Tiger” and “Revolt Against the Modern World”
- Charles Taylor, “A Secular Age”
- Markus Willinger, “Generation Identity”
About the author: Sami is a student of political science and history. His interests include Islamic studies and sociocultural studies. You can follow him on Twitter here.