A Study of Worldviews: Islām and the Modern West, Part I: Inversion

This piece is part one of a three part series. You can read part two here and part three here.

How do we make sense of reality? This is inarguably the most difficult question one can pose because it amounts to giving an explanation of everything. Even if we concede to the Heideggerian claim that metaphysics is inevitably nihilism, nihilism’s fundamental claim that there is no such thing as reality does constitute itself as an explanation of everything (which to them is nothing!) regardless of whether we agree or disagree with it.

These kinds of explanations are what people usually call a “worldview” or “Weltanschaaung.” When Hegel first employed the original German word in his work, Phenomenology of Spirit, it was “less a question of philosophical systems — stoicism, scepticism, moralism — than of ways of living and of looking at the universe.” [1] Even from the perspective of Islām, the worldview of Islām is not based upon philosophical speculation. What is meant by “worldview,” according to Syed Naquib al-Attas, is:

“The vision of reality and truth that appears before our mind’s eye revealing what existence is all about; for it is the world of existence in totality that Islām is projecting. Thus by ‘worldview’ we must mean ru’yat al-islām li al-wujūd.” [2] 

We differ from the Hegelian notion of Weltanschaaung in that Hegel conceived of Weltanschaaung as the cognitive offspring of the Absolute Spirit as it instantiated itself in human thought and culture on its dialectical journey toward eschatological self-understanding. [3] What this means is that many different theories of life are developed, contrasted and synthesized as history progresses. In contrast, the religion of Islām has been conscious of its own identity from the time of its revelation. [4] Such is the nature of a revealed religion—its worldview does not change in line with ideological ages characterized by a predominance of particular and opposing systems of thought. [5]

The importance of understanding different Weltanschaaungs is not merely confined to an abstract mental exercise. They stand as the foundations for the civilizations that spring forth from them: in particular, we will be looking at the worldview of Islām and the worldview of the modern West as two paradigmatic bases of two contrasting civilizations. There are many features of these two civilizations which we could compare but the most characteristic contrast between the two rests upon their links of determination. In other words, we could map out a hierarchy in these two worldviews starting with the most determinative factor to the least determinative. As Ahmet Davutoglu puts it:

“Islamic civilization strictly assumes a determinative link from ontology to epistemology, from epistemology to axiology, from axiology to politics, and from politics to economics. In the modern West, this scheme is just the opposite.” [6]

Another notion that we can use to illustrate this idea is the Traditionalists’ notion of inversion. In his magnum opus, René Guénon criticizes modern civilization by describing it as a “Reign of Quantity”: characterized by the tendency to reduce everything to an exclusively quantitative point of view, a defining feature of the modern mentality. [7] Furthermore, he predicts a reign of “inverted quality” just before the end of the age. While Guénon specified various aspects subjected to this inversion, such as symbolism, initiation and tradition, in its fully developed Guénonian form, inversion is seen as an all-pervasive characteristic of modernity. [8] In this light, it is easy to see how the determinative links of the Islāmic civilization have inverted — economics, which is mostly quantitative in its modern study and application, is given the highest priority, while everything else is subject to it — in the opposite direction.

In Guénon’s other work, he describes the various conditions of the modern world that lead to the loss of “pure metaphysics,” such as when the intellectual intuition is no longer recognized. [9] He firmly asserts that metaphysical knowledge can only be obtained through intellectual intuition. However, this intellectual intuition has no similarities whatsoever with the contemporary philosophical usage of the word which is sub-rational, whereas he uses it in a super-rational way. [10] It is hard to understand what Guénon means by “pure metaphysics” since it is undefinable: “to define is always to limit, and what is under consideration, in and of itself, is truly and absolutely limitless and thus cannot be confined to any formula or any system whatsoever.” [11] However, one way to understand metaphysics is that it is “essentially the knowledge of the Universal, or, if preferred, the knowledge of principles belonging to the universal order, which moreover alone can validly lay claim to the name of principles.” [12]

In the worldview of Islām, this pure metaphysical doctrine, which Guénon sees as constituting “the essential, everything else being linked to it, either in the form of consequences or applications to the various orders of contingent reality,” in both social institutions and the sciences [13] is linked to our understanding of ontology in Islām. Ontology, in general, is the study dealing with the nature of being. In the worldview of Islām, the Ultimate Reality is Allāh. He is the “necessarily existent essence” [al-dhāt al-wājib al-wujūd] who is The Originator [al-Mudith] of this world. [14] The Creator is One, which is the principle of tawīd from which everything is based on. Nothing resembles Him and there is no compromise with the transcendent purity of Him, which is the principle of tanzīh. This world, in turn, is everything except Allāh, of the existents [al-mawjūdāt] from which the Maker is known, which is called the world of bodies, the world of accidents, the plant world, the animal world and so on. [15] However, Man has been made the vicegerent of Allah on this Earth, thus even though man and nature share the same ontological sphere, man ultimately has supremacy over nature. All of this creates a strict ontological hierarchy of Allāh-man-nature, with the principles of tawhīd and tanzīh assuring that the space between the Creator and the creation remains unruptured. 

In the next part, we will discuss how this understanding of ontology is being dissolved in the modern world—a phenomenon I call ontological apathy. We will also look in more detail at how the determinative links in the Islāmic civilization function, from each step to the next, and what each determinative factor consists of.

Works Cited:

[1] Hyppolite, Jean, Genesis and Structure of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, translated by Samuel Cherniak and John Heckman, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1974. pg. 470.
[2] al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), 1995. pg. 2.
[3] Naugle, David, Worldview: The History of a Concept, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002. pg. 70.
[4] al-Attas. pg. 4.
[5] Ibid. pg. 2.
[6] Davutoğlu, Ahmet, Alternative Paradigms: The Impact of Islamic and Western Weltanschaaungs on Political Theory, Lanham: University Press of America, 1994. pg. 142.
[7] Guénon, René, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, translated by Lord Northbourne, Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2001. pg. 3.
[8] Sedgwick, Mark, Against the Modern World, New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. pg. 24-5.
[9] Guénon, René, The Crisis of the Modern World, translated by Marco Pallis, Arthur Osborne and Richard C. Nicholson, New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001. pg. 57.
[10] Ibid. pg. 41.
[11] Guénon, René, “Eastern Metaphysics”, The Essential René Guénon: Metaphysics, Tradition and the Crisis of Modernity, edited by John Herlihy, Indiana: World Wisdom Inc, 2009. pg. 80.
[12] Ibid, “Essential Characteristics of Metaphysics”. pg. 98.
[13] Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World. pg. 42.
[14] al-Taftāzānī, Sa’d al-Dīn, Sharḥ al-Aqā’id al-Nasafiyyah, Beirut: Dar Ihyā’ al-Turath al-’Arabi, 2014. pg. 47
[15] Ibid. pg. 40

Photo by Kaŕeem Saleh on Unsplash

About the Author: Aqil Azme is an undergraduate at Harvard studying Mathematics and Philosophy. His interests include mantiq, kalam, tasawwuf and analytic philosophy. You can find him on Twitter here.

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