A Study of Worldviews: Islām and the Modern West, Part III: The Reign of Quantity

This article is the third installment of a three part series. You can find part one here and part two here.

In the previous part, the notion of what I call ontological apathy was explored, which occurs when the reality of our place as humans in relation to God and nature is dissolved. In the worldview of Islām, we operate with the hierarchy of “ontology-epistemology-axiology-politics-economics,” and I have asserted that in the modern West, this hierarchy is inverted and thus it moves in the opposite direction, “economics-politics-axiology-epistemology-ontology,” which is what we will examine in more detail.

Determinative links in the modern Western civilization:

The supremacy of economics in the modern West, and indeed, in the entire modern world can be accurately termed “materialism.” Historically, materialism used to signify two different things: a philosophical view which makes the fundamental claim that all reality is ultimately made out of matter à la Berkeley, or a “complete state of mind consciously putting material things, and the preoccupations arising out of them, in the first place.” [1] Nowadays, however, it seems that there is a convergence of the two through what Guénon dubs “The Reign of Quantity”: the tendency to reduce everything to a purely quantitative nature. The grip that material needs have had on us has inevitably led us to produce an entire philosophical system to justify it: our definitions of “progress” and “happiness” in mainstream discourse have profoundly changed in the past years. What used to be a question of virtue is now measured according to materialistic metrics: attaining the noble life is “the end for all both in common and separately,” according to Aristotle, and is the function of the city-state. [2] Furthermore, happiness or eudaimonia [flourishing] is a state that one achieves only by incalculating arete [virtue]. [3]

Take the World Happiness Report 2022 as an example. Their measurement of subjective well-being is based on three indicators: (i) life evaluations, in which around 1,000 responses evaluating their current life as a whole using the mental image of a ladder are gathered, (ii) positive emotions, which is restricted to only three: laughter, enjoyment, learning and doing something interesting, and (iii) negative emotions, again restricted to three emotions: worry, sadness and anger. [4] These emotions can be altered purely by materialistic means: someone engaged in pure hedonism daily could very well laugh, enjoy and do interesting things while keeping his worry, sadness and anger at bay. These emotions do not capture the feeling of lifelong-fulfilment provided by religion, tradition and a community that transcends both nationalistic and ethnic boundaries. Conversely, they also fail to capture the atheistic sense of hollowness, loss of a higher purpose in life, and general cynicism towards life that irreligiosity and loss of spirituality cause. The genuine knowledge of God that one obtains through the Muḥammadan life is essentially experiential, according to al-Ghazālī, something that can only be tasted [dhawq] — it cannot be quantified by such limited data sets. 

Then, six regression variables are used to explain average happiness across countries: GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity and corruption; all presented in the form of numerical data. [5] The metric of “freedom” and its link to the notion of “progress” is significant for us to look at because it constitutes one of the links between economics and politics in the modern West.The report measures thus through the binary question of “are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your freedom to choose what you do with your life?”. [6] Erroneously, the question fundamentally claims that the notion of sovereignty of the self is a significant part of one’s happiness — that one has the right to making personal choices above all else. The result is that “institutions cease to be places for the formation of individuals, […], instead, they become platforms for performance, where individuals are allowed to be their authentic selves […] to give expression to who they are inside.” [7] These institutions are formed through policy changes within a country because this is what the modern man wants, a phenomenon Charles Taylor calls “expressive individualism.

When contemporary political debates are not engaging in the ongoing culture war, they revolve around economic policies, another link between economics and politics. Regardless of whichever economic model a nation pursues, it inevitably results in a Reign of Quantity: a highly capitalistic economy which is solely concerned with maximizing profit and cares only: “how much profit do I gain?” In the same vein, a communist society reduces man to mere units of labor, stripping him from the divine spark that allows him to become the vicegerent on earth, and instead rerouting their responsibility [amānah] to the state. As Guénon states:

The conclusion is this: quantity will predominate over quality in individuals to the extent that they approach a condition in which they are, so to speak, mere individuals and nothing more, and to the extent that they are thereby more separate one from another […]. This separation turns individuals into so many ‘units’, and turns their collectivity into quantitative multiplicity; at the limit, these individuals would be no more than something comparable to the imagined ‘atoms’ of the physicists, deprived of every qualitative determination; and although this limit can never in fact be reached, it lies in the direction which the world of today is following. A mere glance at things as they are is enough to make it clear that the aim is everywhere to reduce everything to uniformity, whether it be human beings themselves or the things among which they live, and it is obvious that such a result can only be obtained by suppressing as far as possible every qualitative distinction. [8]

It is the ideals of the ruling class that influence the values given to certain things via various political instruments, such as educational institutions, mass media and control over religious institutions – the link of politics to axiology in the worldview of the modern West. “The liberal-democratic mind, just as the mind of a communist, feels an inner compulsion to manifest its pious loyalty to the doctrine,” says Ryszard Legutko. [9] The modern man has public rituals that mirrors those found in traditional religions, where one is expected to always hand an approving opinion to the latest belief that modern secularism comes up with. Therefore, an individual’s loyalty must be manifested in public spheres in order to be viewed as someone who is “moral,” lest they invite coercion to do so by the omnipotent masses or the state. 

However, among these channels of ideological preaching, perhaps the most shaytānic is mass media. This is because its pervasiveness is practically impossible to avoid, to the extent that we tend to view it as normal nowadays, another manifestation of the state of apathy by moderns. There is an explanation as to why it has so much influence on our thoughts: Charles Taylor uses the term “social imaginary” as opposed to “social theory” to explain the phenomenon that many people often imagine their social surroundings, which is not expressed in theoretical terms, but in images and stories. Furthermore, the social imaginary is shared by many people, if not everyone, and unlike a theory which is often the possession of a small minority, it defines the social imaginary as a widespread understanding which makes common practices possible, giving them a widely shared sense of legitimacy. [10] This is the reason why people easily obtain their deficient worldviews from degenerate pop culture and media, because individuals internalize images much more frequently than thinking through metaphysical consequences of their beliefs. This is then easily translated into a common understanding of what is “acceptable” and “correct.”

Once the modern West has established the doctrines it approves of and people it considers loyal to its ideology, then only certain branches of knowledge are approved of and only certain individuals are considered authoritative – the link between axiology and epistemology. Some concepts are so value-loaded that they permit no discussion, allowing only unconditional praise or equally unconditional condemnation. [11] Another manner in which knowledge is distorted is through what Guénon calls “the profane sciences,” which are endlessly developed although they remain superficial since “their foremost aim is not knowledge, even of an inferior order, but practical applications.” [12] This is the reality, where the popular understanding of “progress” — mostly defined in terms of material through technology and industry — influences the motivations of people who study these sciences, meaning that institutions are built and structured solely to fulfill this demand. It is in these ways that epistemology is confined merely to things which the Zeitgeist approves of and gives a high value to. Much more can be elaborated regarding this topic, such as the supremacy of naturalism and positivism, but I will leave that as topics to be further explored by the reader.

To bring out the implicit metaphysical considerations of a people, one of the most important principles we can employ is the understanding that “language reflects ontology.” [13] This is the link between epistemology and ontology, because the things that we know are signified by the words we use. The first step is to recognize what terms are employed in mainstream discourse and analyze how they have been subverted from their true meanings: either by redefining them or negating any real meaning at all. One might assume that given the hypersensitivity of modern society towards notions of identities, rights, truth, etc., we should have come up with logically rigorous definitions for them, but instead we went in the completely opposite direction — the consequence being that these words remain vacuous and possess no real meaning. We use them whenever we please to justify our whims, and the correct usage of the word hinges on the perception of having the largest number of people agreeing with you. This phenomenon gives words only transient meanings, subject to change at any given time.

What does this mean for an individual’s existence? As I have stated above, the modern man is characterized as the expressive individual. However, the channel through which someone expresses their identity is through concepts which are marked by words. If the words that designate certain concepts have no fixed meaning, it leads to the emergence of a type of people who can make and remake personal identity at will, a “plastic people.” [14] Defined by al-Attas, it is essentially a person who is perpetually “becoming” or “coming-into-being” but never “being.” [15]

Concluding Remarks:

Now that I have explicated in detail the opposing hierarchies of the worldview of Islam and the modern West, I can conclude with the importance of knowing the links between the determinations given what al-Attas says:

“What constitutes meaning, or the definition of meaning, is the recognition of the place of anything in a system, which occurs when the relation a thing has with others in the system becomes clarified and understood.”[16]

Thus, in our view, the correct meaning of the concepts I have mentioned as determinative factors can only be found in the worldview of Islām, where things are in its proper place, i.e., “real” and “true” place denoted by the term aqq which signifies both reality and truth. [17] This is intimately linked with the notion of justice, whereby man is in his right and proper place, not just in relation to others but also to himself. [18] Therefore, right action, or adab, which serves as the actualization of being in the right place, also necessarily includes the restoration of the correct hierarchy of determinative factors, the Islamic one, in opposition to the modern world. [19]

Works Cited:

[1] Guénon, René, The Crisis of the Modern World, translated by Marco Pallis, Arthur Osborne and Richard C. Nicholson, New York: Sophia Perennis, 2001. pg. 82.
[2] Aristotle, Politics, Book III, Chapter VI, 1278b19–24.
[3] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, Chapter VII.
[4] Helliwell, J. F., Layard, R., Sachs, J. D., De Neve, J.-E., Aknin, L. B., & Wang, S. (Eds.). World Happiness Report 2022. New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network, 2002. pg. 15
[5] Ibid, pg. 20.
[6] Ibid. pg. 21
[7] Trueman, Carl, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Wheaton: Crossway, 2020.
[8] Guénon, René, The Reign of Quantity and the Signs of the Times, translated by Lord Northbourne, Hillsdale: Sophia Perennis, 2001. pg. 47-8.
[9] Legutko, Rsyzard, The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies, translated by Teresa Adelson, New York: Encounter Books, 2016. pg. 120.
[10] Taylor, Charles, A Secular Age, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007. pg. 171-2.
[11] Legutko. pg. 130.
[12] Guénon, The Crisis of the Modern World. pg. 67
[13] al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib, Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, Kuala Lumpur: International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC), 1995. pg. 20.
[14] Trueman.
[15] al-Attas. pg. 38.
[16] Ibid. pg. 123
[17] Ibid. pg. 125
[18] Ibid. pg. 65-6.
[19] Ibid. pg. 17.

Photo by Petr Slovacek

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.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

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