Technology as a Mode of Secular-Liberal Theology

Through all his technical inventions and celebrated innovations, man has made himself useless. In recent years technological progress has been explosive: humanity has been successful in obliterating the roles of producer, refiner, transporter, distributor and serviceman. When we manage to also rid ourselves of the role of the consumer, everything will be over. A clanking of robots for some time; then, only deep silence.

Pentti Linkola, “The Intolerable Misfortune of Technology”, 1994

It has become a redundant trope among critical Muslims within Islam and the non-Muslim critics of Islam to gleefully point out what they consider to be the absolute passivity of “the Islamic world” in the fields of science & technology. While the former propose to more or less reform Islam and the latter to mostly deform it, in both cases Islam as a civilizational factor is seen as becoming obsolete; we are then made to contemplate litanies and lamentations about the lack of Nobel Prize laureates, the minimalistic number of [original] peer-reviewed scientific publications, and so on.

But is the [so-called] “lack of technological progress” really the sign of a civilizational failure [or success], when the primal pretension of the said civilization is to be a metaphysical one, that is, to placard the spirit over matter, including its knowledge and even more its manipulation?

The modest project of this short essay is to show that the whole matter that is technology is, indeed, a spirit.

Techno-Centrism: The Black Sun Which Rose in the West

The famed American philosopher, historian and cultural critic, Lewis Mumford (1895 – 1990), in his 1934 classic Technics and Civilization, argues that “the clock, not the steam-engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial age.”[1] So, why this 14th century machine and not the actual symbol of the industrial revolution ? Because, as opposed to how earlier civilizations – including the Islamic one – perceived time, the mechanical clock in medieval Europe mechanized the relation to time, as “time took on the character of an enclosed space”[2], which itself impacted the perception of space, distance and movement, while it heralded capitalism through “the promotion of abstract habits of thought and pragmatic interest and quantitative estimations”.[3] More significantly, from our Islamic and religious perspective, it obliterated what C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) called “the discarded image”: the whole cosmology, or vision of the universe and life, of the medieval Christian. Mumford thus elaborates that “during the Middle Ages the external world had had no conceptual hold upon the mind” as “the visible world was merely a pledge and a symbol of that Eternal world.” [4] But the mechanical clock and its mechanization process – which is by default materialistic, as it is quantitative and rationalistic – deprived Christianity in medieval Europe of its transcendent authority over the populace. 

And how much impact such a spirit of the age, imbued with a technocentric paradigm, would have on man’s relation to God. The late historian Alfred Crosby (1931 – 2018), who finds the genesis of the quantitative mind in the West around the 13th century, says that even more so than technology, the quantitative mind affected the arts. He gives examples from leading Christian theologians of medieval Europe: The leading of these speculative minds, Italy’s Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274), while talking about God, stipulates that “his reasoning and language are almost mathematical.” Aquinas was unsurprisingly a favorite of René Descartes, “a crown prince of rationalist philosophy and virtual inventor of coordinate or analytic geometry.”[5] The French polymath Nicole Oresme (1225 – 1274) “anticipated the great sixteenth and seventeenth century astronomers”,[6] in the sense that like the English physicist Isaac Newton (1642 – 1726) way later, he considered the universe to be a clockwork, and thus God as some sort of cosmic mechanic.

We can easily understand what such conception of the Godhead entails: it reduces Him to an external, and not even necessarily active, force, which can be impersonal. A neo-jahmiyya [7] apperception of divine names and attributes which are so non-existent and essentially meager that it leaves almost no notion of God at all. It’s thus no wonder that, in “Enlightenment” Europe, the deist philosophers privileged this idea of God being a clockmaker, as it fitted well with their contempt and even hate of normative expression of traditional religiosity.

Thus, Jackson Spielvogel, author of several textbooks on “Western civilization”, says this of France’s Voltaire (1895 – 1990), the “Enlightenment’s” most famous advocate and an avowed antagonist of any beginning of religion:

“Deism was built on the Newtonian world-machine, which conceived of the universe as huge, regulated, and uniform machine that operated on impersonal natural laws. To the deists, reason dictated that such an elegant design of the universe implied the existence of a mechanic (God) who had created it and allowed it to run according to its natural laws. The universe was like a clock. God, the clockmaker, had created it, set it in motion, and allowed it to run without interference. To Voltaire and most other philosophes, God had no direct involvement in the world he had created. They rejected religious miracles and Jesus’ resurrection, important elements of Christian belief, as contrary to the laws of nature.”[8]

To cloture this part with few words: we can see that the infusion of technology into a society is not only about the visible technological progress, but also – if not mainly – about the invisible tuning of the minds which are saturated by it. It touches upon all fields of physical and metaphysical production, including our notion of God. In particular, the mechanical clock and its hyperbolic mechanization process – which, again, is materialistic because it is quantitative and rationalistic –pollutes a traditional Islamic understanding of monotheism (tawhid) by limiting God to an external and inoffensive Creator and without acknowledging all His names and attributes which make Him worthy of ibadah [servitude-worship]. The proof, if anything, is that deists against religion(s) are for such an idea of God, the same way Arab polytheists only admitted God as a distant Creator, with a pantheon of minor gods and goddesses fulfilling the attributes normally ascribed to God in theism.

Technolojinn

Technology isn’t only a modulation of one’s relation to the external world – the way one perceives society, nature and God – but also of one’s dynamic with one’s intimate self, what the German philosopher of Jewish origins, Günther Anders (1902 – 1992), in his 1956 two-volume magnum opus called Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen, or how technology has “outdated” humanity and threatens to eradicate its existence, notably through nuclear warfare (he was fascinated by Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

Anders was a direct student of the influential German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976), who himself treated technology as a philosophical complexity. The indirect contemporary and critical Heideggerian, the German-born American thinker Albert Borgmann (b. 1937), showcases how much technology is holistic to the extent of directly influencing human experience in his much-admired 1984 work Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life.

In the first part of his book, he criticizes what he calls the “instrumentalist” view of technology, the idea that it is value-free. He argues that it serves a political agenda, in the sense that “notion of technology as a value-neutral tool or instrument is congenial to that liberal democratic tradition which holds that it is the task of the state to provide means for the good life but wants to leave to private efforts the establishment and pursuit of ultimate values.”[9] He also says that “without modern technology, the liberal program of freedom, equality, and self-realization is unrealizable.”[10] We can already sense the tension with religion: as per the author, [modern] technology is liberal-democracy’s spiritual coercion in creating a sacred sphere where it’ll propose its own idea of immanent jannah [paradise].

In the second part, where he outlines his philosophy of technology, he says that “the promise of technology was first formulated at the very beginning of the Enlightenment […] the main goal of these programs seems to be the domination of nature. But we must be more precise. The desire to dominate does not just spring from a lust of power, from sheer human imperialism. It is from the start connected with the aim of liberating humanity from disease, hunger, and toil, and of enriching life with learning, art, and athletics.”[11] It again shows how this idea of technology, birthed during the Enlightenment – itself against the basic premises of religion –in fact serves as a type of counter-metaphysics, centered around the rituals of the “pursuit of happiness”, a materialist ethics.

After laying out his idea of “the device paradigm”, the cornerstone of his book which portrays technology as pervading the economic forces as well as invading the human societal relations and moral intentions, Borgmann dwells on the holistic nature of [modern] technology :

“Genuine choices occur when one is called upon to decide between engagement and disengagement. Such decisions are made in the realm of leisure and consumption, but often they are too close and inconspicuous to become visible in the usual categories of social science. A genuine choice is made when a family decides to eat out more often. The practice of preparing a traditional meal, of setting the table, of saying grace, of conversing and eating thoughtfully is partly surrendered to the machinery of a fast-food chain and partly lost. The meal has been impoverished to ordering and consuming standardized foods. […] when a social paradigm is deeply entrenched, it not only informs most human practices but it also patterns the organizations, institutions, the daily implements, the structures of civilization, and even the ways in which nature and culture are arranged and accessible. All of reality is patterned after the paradigm, and in this sense we can say that the paradigm has acquired an ontological dimension. When applied to technology, this is not to explain the paradigm’s origin but to highlight the extent and intensity of its rule. When the pattern is so firmly established, it also tends to become invisible.”[12]

In fewer words: technology is so invasive that even eating a meal – or any other “random” act of “the everyday life” – is indebted to it; and technology rules its modalities. Technology is modernity’s own brand of secular liturgy.

What can we make out of the technolojinn, which takes possession of our very soul and sculpts our relations with others, from an Islamic point of view? What are the implications on what, in fiqh [Islamic jurisprudence] parlance, we term as ibadah [servitude-worship] and mu’amalat [societal interactions]? Borgmann, in Power Failure (1984), where he wonders why “the progress of technology seems to render Christianity superfluous and irrelevant”,[13] says that they are precisely the weapons to exorcize the technolojinn out of our lives: to go back to the religiously-sanctioned vertical and horizontal relations, ibadat and mu’amalat, in order to defuse the web of symbolic inferences brought by technology, which has its own set of defined, even if invisible, rites.

But who has an interest in letting the jinn out of the bottle ?

The Technique of the (Neo)liberal Project

The contemporary German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) (who retains the Marcusian paradigm, eroded previously), says the following on how rationalization, scientific and technological progress as well as secularization are deeply intertwined:

“The progressive ‘’rationalization’’ of society is linked to the institutionalization of scientific and technical development. To the extent that technology and science permeate social institutions and thus transform them, old legitimations are destroyed. The secularization and ‘’disenchantment’’ of action-orienting worldviews, of cultural tradition as a whole, is the obverse of the growing ‘’rationality’’ of social action.”[14]

After discussing and often downgrading both the Weberian and Marcusian visions on the subject, he gives the name of the culprit: capitalism, or more specifically, advanced or post-industrial capitalism:

“Since the end of the nineteenth century the other developmental tendency characteristic of advanced capitalism has become increasingly momentous: the scientization of technology. The institutional pressure to augment the productivity of labor through the introduction of new technology has always existed under capitalism. But innovations depended on sporadic inventions, which, while economically motivated, were still fortuitous in character. This changed as technical development entered into a feedback relation with the progress of the modern sciences. With the advent of large-scale industrial research, science, technology, and industrial utilization were fused into a system. Since then, industrial research has been linked up with research under government contract, which primarily promotes scientific and technical progress in the military sector. From there information flows back into the sectors of civilian production.”[15]

Basically, what we call a “technologically advanced society” is principally a society which has surrendered to the capitalist economic infrastructure and, more substantially, the neoliberal weltanschauung or paradigmatic superstructure; it reasserts the fact that technology is indeed a form of liturgy and rituality, and its religion might be considered to be (neo)liberalism and (ultra)capitalism, which is served by the perennial advances in technological subtleties of a given society, even if the said society’s body, and more so its soul, are sacrificed on the altar of the said linear progress.

Exorcising the Technolojinn

The solution, however, is not to adopt a neo-luddite trait, found in some modern trends of anarcho-primitivism for instance (e.g.  the Unabomber), which tend to discard technology totally. When it pertains to military muscling for instance, the Qur’an instructs believers to be prepared in that regard, otherwise their efforts would become impotent:

“Do not let those disbelievers think they are not within reach. They will have no escape. Prepare against them what you believers can of military power and cavalry to deter Allah’s enemies and your enemies as well as other enemies unknown to you but known to Allah. Whatever you spend in the cause of Allah will be paid to you in full and you will not be wronged.” [8:59-60 ; Dr. Mustafa Khattab translation]

Nor is Luddism the response to technology in the diverse traditions of individuals like Oswald Spengler (1880 – 1936) or Walter Benjamin (1892 – 1940), nor in the mood of the Frankfurt School or the different advocates of “deep ecology.” A simplistic revolt against technology in its generic sense can lead to worse societal disasters. Theodore Roszak (1933 – 2011) precisely coined the term “counterculture,” in his 1969 book of the same name, to describe the revolt of a generation he calls “technology’s children” crusading against the technocracy, itself defined as a “social form in which an industrial society reaches the peak of its organizational integration. It is the ideal men usually have in mind when they speak of modernizing, up-dating, rationalizing, plannings […].”[16] Yet this revolt did not reconfigure the United States, or Western societies as a whole, towards a meaningful existence, because they precisely lacked the spiritual substance backing it. They tried to handle a materialist system based on materialistic presuppositions.

Why the Soul Matters: The Islamic World and Technology

Even if we are consumers of technology – like we are of Western pop-culture, their so-called philosophy, and so on –we are not at the point of producing it by ourselves, which signifies for the modernists-reformistes that we are backwards, but which otherwise means that our societies are perhaps not at that level of sophisticated modernization which precisely denaturizes our link with God.

In other words, if the Islamic world were producing Nobel Prize laureates by the hundreds, our societies would, perhaps, have been simulacras of the West with regards to religion, as we’ve seen that the technology process is organically interlinked with phenomenas like rationalization and secularization. And, probably, we would have among our religious élite more of the reformists with a neo-jahmiyyah idea of God, a deity which deserves no ibadah [servitude-worship] as, finally, He has no names or attributes, being as virtual as a lost data in our information technology era.

Afterall, the initial outbursts of modernist-reformism were born out of fearful fascination for the European imperial powers and their military technology, beginning with Napoleon’s campaign of Egypt in 1798. A tragic case is that of “Sir” Syed Ahmad Khan of British India (1817 – 1898), widely held as the spiritual father of Islamic modernism in the region, admirative of English science & technology, and who, in his travelogue to their country, says:

“All the British assembled on the deck sat on chairs and benches to pray according to their religion and customs. I also stood near the prayer area and sometimes walked around with due reverence as God’s name deserved praise on every occasion. As I watched them pray, I thought about God’s magnanimity. He is so wonderfully self-satisfied that it didn’t matter to Him whether one fell in front of an idol, prayed sitting on a chair without a cap, prayed in gown and robe with rosary around one’s neck, or touched the ground with folded hands. He remains equally unaffected if someone said appalling things to Him, showered abuse on Him, or committed shirk.”[17]

Philosopher Abdul Khaliq, delivering a wider assessment of Khan’s concept of God, assesses: “As regards to the dominant mood of his philosophy, Sayyid Ahmad Khan (1817-1898) is a naturalist […] [He] seeks to conclude here that we are incapable of knowing the attributes of God […] Sayyid Ahmad is an empiricist […] he, in fact, holds on to a teleological concept of Nature side by side with a mechanical concept of it […]”. Understandably, then, he talks of his methodological “agnosticism”.[18] This is the normative attitude of any “modernist” or “reformist”, trapped in their technocentric hypermodernity, and reading God and His names or attributes from such counter-spiritual fountain.

The ultimate conclusion of this critique is that the “technology” to master before mastering any other technology, which threatens to subsume us more than anything else, is the technology of our nafs [“soul”], for “successful indeed is the one who purifies their soul, and doomed is the one who corrupts it!” [91:9-10 ; Dr. Mustafa Khattab translation] The modernist-reformists are under the spell of the (neo)liberal and (ultra)capitalistic cosmos through its theology and technological magic: one can state that “[…] they learned what harmed them and did not benefit them—although they already knew that whoever buys into magic would have no share in the Hereafter. Miserable indeed was the price for which they sold their souls, if only they knew!” [2:102 ; Dr. Mustafa Khattab translation]

Works Cited:

[1] Lewis Mumford, “Technics and Civilization”, Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd, 1934, p. 14
[2] Ibid, p. 17
[3] Ibid, p. 25
[4] Ibid, p. 29
[5] Alfred W. Crosby, “The Measure of Reality: Quantification in Western Europe, 1250-1600”, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 65-66
[6] Ibid, p. 83
[7] Jahmiyya was an early sect in Islam with a heavy emphasis on God’s transcendence that entailed denial of many of His attributes. It was also hardline determinist and denied human free will.
[8] Jackson Spielvogel, “Western Civilization: A Brief History”, Cengage Learning, 2007, pp. 323-324
[9] Albert Borgmann, “Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry”, University of Chicago Press, 2009, p. 10
[10] Ibid, p. 34
[11] Ibid, pp. 35-36
[12] Ibid, p. 104
[13] Albert Borgmann, “Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology”, Baker Books, 2013, p. 7
[14] Jürgen Habermas, “Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics”, Polity Press, 1989, p. 81
[15] Ibid, p. 104
[16] Theodore Roszak, “The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society and Its Youthful Opposition”, Anchor Books, 1969, pp. 5-6
[17] Sir Sayyid Aḥmad K̲h̲ān̲, “A Voyage to Modernism”, Primus Books, 2011, pp. 88-89
[18] Abdul Khaliq, “Sayyid Ahmad Khan’s concept of God” in Iqbal Review, volume 21, number 1 (April 1980), pp. 27-46


About the author: Arslan Akhtar is a librarian by occupation. He was born and is based in Brussels, and has an interest in religion, metaphysics , and the social sciences, and in the intertwining of these subjects. He is currently pursuing traditional Islamic studies.

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