A Study of Worldviews: Islām and the Modern West, Part II: Ontological Apathy

This article is part two of a series, you can find the part one here and part three here

In the last part, we established how the Islāmic civilization is built on a worldview that deems ontology as the highest determinative factor. This ontology, or pure metaphysics as Guénon calls it, concerns the Ultimate Reality, Allāh, and how everything else is contingent upon Him.

In the worldview of Islām, intellect is considered a spiritual substance inherent in the spiritual organ of cognition we call the heart, which is the seat of intuition. Intuition is defined as the direct and immediate apprehension of the knowing subject. [1] However, unlike empirical and rational methods, Islam does not restrict it only to matters of the external world or rational truths, since these are only specific aspects of the nature of reality.

At the highest level of intuition, one will be given a glimpse of the integrated system of reality as a whole, and this is the station of the prophets and the saints who see the reality of the ontological hierarchy we discussed previously. [2] As al-Attas asserts, “most rationalist, secularist, empiricist thinkers and psychologists have reduced [intuition] to sensory observations and logical inferences that have long been brooded over by the mind, whose meaning becomes suddenly apprehended, or to latent sensory and emotional build-ups which are released all of a sudden in a burst of apprehension,” which is purely conjecture on their part. [3] 

The consequence of believing this is explained by Guénon who calls the phenomenon “individualism,” defined as “the negation of any higher principle [other] than individuality, and the consequent restriction of civilisation, in all its provinces, to purely human elements.” [4] This individualism becomes “the mainspring for the development of the lowest possibilities of mankind,” i.e., possibilities that do not require the intervention of any supra-human element. Since intellectual intuition is essentially a supra-human faculty, the negation of this means that “individualism inevitably implies naturalism, since all that lies beyond nature is […] out of reach of the individual.” [5] With naturalism in place, true metaphysics can never be achieved, instead people persist in inventing “pseudo-metaphysics,” leading to individualism being seen as “the determining cause of the present decline of the West.” [6]

Although philosopher Charles Taylor diagnoses individualism as the first source of worry amongst modern society, it is paradoxically “what many people consider the finest achievement of modern civilisation.” [7] Traditionally, people used to see themselves as part of a larger order, even a cosmic order — a “great chain of Being,”— in which humans understood their proper place alongside with others. [8] However, the anxiety of individualism has never manifested in any tangible change in the modern West. Instead, people continue coping with it in their personal lives through whatever way they can, while the entire civilization still remains cold and unchanging. This state is what I call “ontological apathy.” Many people feel this worry — it is perhaps their fiṭrah which is yearning for a connection with the Divine — but the underlying structures of the modern Western civilization does not allow for a nurturing of the correct ontological hierarchies, instead persisting in an inversion of reality itself. Thus, people fall into a state of apathy towards this worry: an apathy towards their internal longing for the Divine, which is ultimately an apathy towards ontology itself.

Determinative Links in the Islāmic Civilization

In the first part of this article, I outlined a hierarchy within the worldview of Islām starting with the most determinative factor to the least. Since I have already explained what ontology is in the worldview of Islām, we will now turn to look at how everything else flows from this understanding of ontology.

Epistemology is broadly defined as the study of knowledge, i.e., how do we come to know about things. As al-Attas explains:

“Our affirmation of Revelation as the source of knowledge of ultimate reality and and truth pertaining to both created things and the as well as to their Creator provides us with the foundation for a metaphysical framework in which to elaborate our philosophy of science as an integrated system descriptive of that reality and truth…”[9]

Thus “we maintain that knowledge comes from God and is acquired through the channels of the sound senses, true report based on authority, sound reason and intuition.” [10] This is the integration of kalām with tasawwuf, which theologians such as al-Taftāzānī affirm writing, “the causes of knowledge are three: the sound senses, true narrative, and reason” [11]. Expanding, al-Ghazālī, who tread upon the Sufi path after finding both reason and sense-perception to be inadequate to grasp supra-rational knowledge, includes intuition as a legitimate channel which supersedes reason. [12]

Furthermore, the channel of true narrative is of two kinds: the mutawātir narrative, and Revelation, which is, according to al-Nasafī, “the narrative of the Messenger aided by an evidentiary miracle which brings about deductive knowledge, and the knowledge of it resembles the knowledge established by necessity in certainty and fixity.” [13] Between these sources and methods of knowledge, “we maintain that just as there are levels of reason and experience, so are there levels of authority and intuition,” says al-Attas, with the highest level of authority being the Holy Qur’ān and the Tradition including the sacred person of the Holy Prophet. In fact, they are not authoritative just in the sense that they communicate the truth, but also in the sense that they constitute the truth. [14]

With our sources of knowledge, channels of attaining them and the establishment of Revelation as the highest authority in place, we can now see how this influences our axiology. Broadly defined, axiology is the study of values, the “goodness” or worth of something. The Qur’ānic notion of “good deeds” [al-‘amal al-sālih] is intimately linked with faith [īmān], which constitutes our ontology, and knowledge [‘ilm], which constitutes our epistemology. Thus our axiology, when applied to the realm of human actions in determining how we should act in every situation, gives us our understanding of morality. This is directly linked to our ontological place in the universe, since we have all made a primordial covenant with God, as the Qur’ān says:

“When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Ādam—from their loins—their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves (saying): ‘Am I not your Lord?’—they said: ‘Yes! We do testify!’”[15]

In line with this covenant, the essence of God’s Lordship over us demands that we only perform actions that He approves of. Thus, the moral worth of our actions are predicated on two things: intention and Sacred Law. According to al-Ghazālī, a sincere intention [niyyah] cannot mix with any other secondary intentions, and the highest level of intention one can have is to do something solely for God alone. [16] It is only with the correct intention that any action has any moral worth. This is based on the adīth of the Prophet ﷺ:

“The reward of deeds depends upon the intentions and every person will get the reward according to what he has intended…”[17]

However, we also assert that although intentionality is indeed a necessary condition of morality, it is never a sufficient condition. This is based on another adīth of the Prophet ﷺ:

“Whoever performs a deed that is not in accordance with our matter, it will be rejected.” [18]

Therefore, our actions must also conform with the Sacred Law [sharī’ah], since it laws are conceptualized as the expression of God’s will through the codification of its sciences: jurisprudence [fiqh] and the principles of jurisprudence [usul al-fiqh].

Once we understand how to determine values to human actions, we can extend the scope of those actions to a macro level — governance, moving from our axiology to politics. In the realm of Islāmic governance, we still maintain our strict ontological hierarchy: God is Sovereign and thus sovereignty belongs to God alone. The Sacred Law, manned by private jurists who lived in and with society and its communities, is the “legislative power” par excellence, and every political form or political (or social or economic) institution is ultimately subordinate to it. [19] The judiciary, which applies laws to the community, is manned by qādīs, who were not only required to know the laws — “a result of a centuries-long, cumulative hermeneutical project undertaken by the jurists themselves, both as individual believers and members of the Community”— but also the history of relations between the disputants to prevent the collapse of relationships, maintaining an amicable social reality. [20] The paradigmatic ruler, as its executive force, does not possess any real authority per se, since he is only required to “manage worldly affairs” and to uphold the Shar’ī world on behalf of the Prophet (ﷺ).[21]

Finally, it is through this governance that a truly ethical economy can emerge, because the economic life was “regulated by not only technical Shari’ī rules but also by a pervasive Shar’ī ethic.” [22] The Sharī’a legal system, and therefore Islāmic society as a whole, was structured and made to operate according to the five universals [al-kulliyāt], protection of life, protection and promotion of property and wealth, religion, mind and community. [23] Property and the pursuit of wealth is not independent, it overlaps and draws from the remaining principles, and it is far less possible for it to have a position of supremacy in Islāmic governance, or even a position of supremacy within the entire conception of reality. 

In conclusion, with these explanations, we can map the determinative links between the order “ontology-epistemology-axiology-politics-economics” in the worldview of Islām and how every fabric of our reality, including our existences, our knowledge, our actions, our society and our relationships, depends on the preservation of this hierarchy. In the next part, we will look at how this hierarchy is inverted in the modern West, and finally discuss its relationship with justice and adab. 

Works Cited:

[1] al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), 1995. pg. 119.
[2] Ibid. pg. 120.
[3] Ibid. pg. 116.
[4] Guénon, René, The Crisis of the Modern World, translated by Marco Pallis, Arthur Osborne and Richard C. Nicholson, New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001. pg. 55.
[5] Ibid. pg. 57.
[6] Ibid. pg. 55.
[7] Taylor, Charles, The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003. pg. 2.
[8] Ibid. pg. 3.
[9] al-Attas. pg. 118.
[10] Ibid. pg. 118.
[11] al-Taftāzānī, Sa’d al-Dīn, Sharḥ al-Aqā’id al-Nasafiyyah, Beirut: Dar Ihyā’ al-Turath al-’Arabi, 2014. pg. 29.
[12] See al-Ghazālī’s discussion of ‘ilm al-mukāshafah (the science of unveiling) in his Ihyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, in Kitāb al-’Ilm.
[13] al-Taftāzānī. pg. 34-5.
[14] al-Attas. pg. 121
[15] Qur’ān. 7:172
[16] al-Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid, “Kitāb al-Niyyah wa ‘l-Ikhlāṣ wa ‘l-Ṣidq”, Iḥyā’ ‘Ulūm al-Dīn, Beirut: Dar ibn Hazm, 2005. pg. 1749
[17] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: 1
[18] Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: 2697
[19] Hallaq, Wael, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. pg. 51
[20] Ibid. 58
[21] Ibid. pg. 66
[22] Ibid. pg. 10
[23] Ibid. pg. 148

Photo by Isak Gundrosen 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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