Critiquing Modernity: Book Recommendations 2022 

The twentieth century and the rise of nation-states and commensurate isms, have propelled societies into an era that is driven by abandonment of God, ethics, and a cohesive worldview that perpetuates meaning. The following list was prepared to give readers the tools to better understand, critique, and provide solutions for the malaise of modernity.

Islam and Secularism by Syed Naquib al-Attas
The Muslim community today is plagued by a ‘loss of adab’ which can only be remedied through the project of ‘Islamization of knowledge’—this book serves as an introduction to diagnosing and solving this problem. Al-Attas, a contemporary Malaysian thinker, proposes the vocabulary necessary to re-establish a system rooted in the Islamic worldview.

Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam by Syed Naquib al-Attas
What does a ‘worldview of Islam’ look like? What is the nature of an Islamic worldview? Al-Attas’ magnum opus tackles these questions by drawing from the kalam (discursive philosophy), falsafa (philosophy) and Sufi traditions to provide a comprehensive account of man in relation to the world. 

Alternative Paradigms by Ahmet Davutoglu
This book focuses on the differences in the underlying philosophical assumptions in both Islamic and Western political theories to explain why both are paradigmatically opposed to each other. He discusses the “mechanism-based legitimacy of the Western paradigm” in which mechanisms are constructed with the goal that they are the ones creating values, instead of the values preceding the mechanisms. This contrasts with the Islamic paradigm, which can be seen as a value-based one in which mechanisms are used to reach values which are eternal and not confined to the personal.

The Crisis of the Modern World by René Guénon
A scathing critique of modernity from a metaphysical perspective — the author diagnoses problems such as the West’s loss of tradition, rampant individualism and general social chaos as stemming from deviation from traditional metaphysical principles.

A Secular Age by Charles Taylor
Taylor’s tour de force throughout the history of Western civilization examines and disagrees with the common assumptions on how the “secular age” came into being, namely the rise of “science” as refuting religious normativity. Instead, Taylor explores the complex relationship between the symbolic and phenomenological being of religious experience in pre-modernity. He discusses the ways in which science, culture, industrialization, and new technologies of self-making undermined the ontological, epistemic, and experiential basis of a “religious” age in a way that cannot be recreated simply by moving away from the scientific paradigm. Rather, it requires examination of what it means to live in a society in which it’s impossible not to believe in God. He analyzes how both the religious age and the secular one employ specific technologies of self-making and being in the world.

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre
MacIntyre explores how much of the modern discussions on “ethics” are philosophically incoherent. They try to inherit a legacy of moral discourse by relying on assumptions contrary to the enlightenment while trying to secularize and rationalize them for a world in which strong metaphysical claims about the good and virtue seem out of place. Similar to many Muslim critiques, MacIntyre explores the Western philosophical tradition through Marx, Nietzsche, Rawls and Sandel, and criticizes them from the perspective of an ethics of virtue which sees the good as grounded in the metaphysical purpose of man. He critiques various formulations of modern morality that have become only more prevalent — technocracy, performativity, ostentation, emotivism, and relativism. He concludes that the contemporary malaise of modern morality is specifically in its inability to ground its claims outside the legacy of the pre-enlightenment ethical foundations of “tradition”.

The Crisis of Modernity by Augusto Del Noce
Del Noce offers a philosophical genealogy of modernity that is unique in its approach — instead of offering an empirical set of chronological events in which religion was merely supplanted by technology, Del Noce views history itself as pushed forward by a “spirit of the age” where philosophy apprehends society in a way that determines politics, society, and culture. This idea of spirit determining society and not vice versa is well known to Muslims, but most post-Marxist thought in the West views history as propelled by material developments in political economy and institutions. Del Noce instead reflects on how the failure of Marxism to both defeat idealism philosophically or liberal individualism empirically has led to a technocratic society in which materialism dominates without the Marxist revolutionary spirit. Rather, all aspects of modern life are determined by technocratic rationalism and bureaucracy, whether politics, religion, culture, or ethics.

The Technological Society by Jacques Ellul
Ellul saw clearly what many Muslim scholars saw in the beginning of the industrial era — the technocratic rationality of the oncoming technological society. All of social life, from the most private details to the most public would be determined by “technique”, the radical efficiency orientation of the modern era. Everything from government to even romance, friendship, ethics, and self-identity would all be dominated by this ethic of “technique” and rationalization. This book offers a window into the discomfort we feel when we see, for example, the modern mental health industry with its slogans to be “valid” or a politics defined by media-driven sentiments unknowingly imbibed as somehow inherent to the subject. Ellul’s critique only brings out what many before him saw already happening in the rationalization of society towards efficiency as an end, and technocratic rationality as defining the substance of that telos.

The Culture of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch
Many modern critiques on modernity miss one crucial aspect: namely, the personality makeup of the modern man. From Ghazali, we know the Muslim is not just the performer of certain rituals but the one who maintains certain states of heart. Lasch is a thinker in the same respect who looks at the heart of modern man, not so much in relation to modernity as much as American culture, but reveals important insights for us as Muslims investigating the modern world. The modern person is fundamentally narcissistic and our culture promotes a kind of endless exultation of one’s own self. Branding, ostentation, performance, self-love are all commodities and exports of American culture and sentiment post WW2, which Lasch traces from politics to religion. In this book, Muslims can learn about a parallel consideration of how the modern world creates a personality type consistent with various diseases of the heart. 

Compiled by Aqil Azme and Faizan Malik.

Photo by Gabriel Trujillo on Unsplash

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