ISLAM AND MODERNITY
What do ordinary Muslims understand by Modernity? Have they absorbed Western ideas, which may or may not be mythical? But which are in any case masculine, westernocentric, and seemingly oblivious of what women and other cultures might think? Is there an Islamic vision of Modernity? Or does the caricature serve as a straw man for both the West and the unsettling pace of Change and modernization in their indigenous societies?
Islamists and Traditionalists reject modernity, by which they mean Western secularism and the banishment of religious values from most aspects of daily life in what Mohammad Arkoun calls the mythical West. In this world view, reason and the Enlightenment have become the new devils, modern blasphemies because they dare to set Man up as equal to God. The original sin of modern Man is therefore to have rejected the sovereignty of God and put in its place the sovereignty of the Individual.
The very words secular and individualism are anathema to many of today's Islamists. But what they understand by both terms often seems superficial, a cliched vision of life in the West as seen on cable television and films - a world of sex, violence and desperate loneliness - that overlooks the role religion, custom and tradition play in the lives of most people in Western countries. Such rejection is also part of a wider process that seeks to recast Islam as the quintessential Third World ideology, the obvious successor to Marxism, inheritor of the mantle of nationalism, a repudiation of colonial weakness and the glorification of a mythologised Islamic Past that stands alone and defiant from Western civilization. But this simply flies in the face of historical evidence. Islam is part of Western civilization. Just as Western civilization is part of Islam. The DNA of both are inextricably entwined. But as Bosnia has shown, non-Muslims are just as capable as the most committed Muslim of doing the impossible in the name of an imagined national, racial or religious purity.
Most Muslims do not really think of Modernity in terms of a break with the Past. Modernity means new and better technology and an improved standard of living. But unlike in Western societies, it also means a renewal with the Past, a return to the original ethos of Islam, of Mecca and Medina. If that society remains the perfect society, which must be copied in the late Twentieth century, then the idea of Progress, or a break with the Past is a nonsense.
This mind set has other subtle and important implications. Universal suffrage is welcomed, but not necessarily the idea that individual freedom or freedom of opinion are essential preconditions for the exercise of democracy. An Islamist would understand Hurriyat al-ra'y, or Freedom of Opinion, to mean the right to think what you like but only within the boundaries of what is permitted in Islam. Too often, it seems, Islam is defined in a narrow and restrictive sense.
The dilemma raised by Hurriyat al-ra'y is rooted in Islam's early history. The first century of the Islamic state is marked by murder, intrigue and civil war, epitomized by A'isha's struggle against Ali, and, soon after, by the bloody schism between Sunni and Shi'i which resulted in a state of fitna or chaos. Freedom of Thought, for many Muslims, therefore is synonymous with dissent and fitna and must be avoided at all cost. For a traditional Muslim, freedom of thought therefore signals a return to Jahiliyya, the Age of Ignorance and Darkness.
Western cultures, in varying degrees, claim that human beings should act and think according to their own desires and beliefs. But for many traditionalist Muslims, individualism thus defined also opens the door to selfishness, a denial of God, and, once again, chaos or Fitna. Passions, desires and, above all, the human imagination, must therefore be tightly circumscribed. Loudspeakers outside the compound of the Tabhlik-i-Islami (a powerful Islamic missionary society) in Raiwind ( Pakistan) declare apostate anyone who dares to praise Reason. Reason is an attempt to set oneself up above God. Human Reason is an act of blasphemy that must be punished! the loudspeakers blare. At such moments, the most innocent and unspoken thoughts can take on the terrors of blasphemy.
Most human beings, especially in the West, operate under the belief that their decisions are governed by reason alone. Reason implies Free Will. But most human acts are, at best, a mix of Reason, Emotion and Custom. The antithesis: West = Reason = Secularism (as opposed to the equation Islam = Belief in God = Salvation) is a false one, both in its description of the West and in its denial of Islam's own past. Mohammad Arkoun, and others, have argued that Islam is part of the Western tradition; that the Western tradition is part of Islam; that they therefore share a common belief in the power of reason.
Islam, in short, is no more nor less pro- or anti-Modernity than Western civilization. Indeed, some scholars argue that Islam actively encourages Reason and Free Will more actively and explicitly than either Christianity or Judaism. The concept of Original Sin, for example, is simply absent from Islam. Far from abhorring individualism, Islam encourages any Muslim to seek their own path to God. A good Muslim should be anything but rigid or obedient to anyone other than the Divine. No one person or caste has a monopoly of wisdom or access to God. Any Muslim, literate or illiterate, can discover the essence of God without intermediary or catechism, but in their own way, and in their own time.
Setting Religion up against Religion is, in Arkoun's judgment, a false dichotomy, false to Islam and to Judeo-Christian traditions, a legacy of the exclusionary nature of Greek thought. There is really little, if anything in Islamic thought, therefore, that contradicts or even opposes Modernity. What critics of Modernity may really fear is loss of control or privilege. Or simply fear of Change itself.
Islam can modernize and accept the new, even from outside its own tradition. This is achieved through qiyas or analogy. A situation arises for which there is no obvious textual solution. A Muslim could seek analogous situations in the life of the Prophet, apply the principles of Shari'ah and so extend the law. However, the current climate is not particularly favorable. Orthodoxy is the order of the day.
Ironically, we find this new orthodoxy and condemnation of Modernity in cities, not in the countryside. Westerners tend to think of cities as modern, villages as traditional and conservative. But rural Islam is generally more flexible and practical than its urban counterpart. Ernest Gellner once wrote that Islam and Modernization were absolutely compatible. But he meant urban, disciplined Islam, not the relaxed, generous Islam of the countryside that still quite cheerfully accommodates other traditions and learns to adapt dogma to the practical needs of getting in the harvest, or simply getting along with one's neighbors. Village Islam is often Sufistic in nature, something today's urban orthodox abhor.
Islamisation is also less a reaction against modernization than a product of it. Islam as an ideology offers millions of urban, rootless men and women a simple and effective ideology, what one scholar has called - the Shari'ah plus electricity. Islamisation offers these Mustadafin (the oppressed) the dream of access to the world of development and consumption, from which they currently feel excluded. The parallels with Marxism are many and obvious - a revolutionary vanguard, a mythologised version of History, a revolutionary break with the corrupt ways of the unbelievers, combined with blind faith, a simplified credo, hatred and demonization of all who refuse or deny the inevitable Sense of History, now given divine sanction. But does this mean that the current Islamic resurgence is also destined to experience the same fate?
Religions are not rigid and immutable. They adapt or shrivel, or mutate into other forms. There is no reason why Islam should prove different. There is nothing in the Qur=an that suggests that Islam is less open to democracy, or equality of the sexes than either Christianity or Judaism. Nor is there any inherent reason why Islam should prove less able to accept the challenge of Change. It is entirely possible that it can formulate an alternative and effective theory of Modernity that integrates faith into a more realistic theory than the largely mythical Western model. Indeed, there is much that suggests it may prove more open and flexible as a religion than either of the other two great monotheistic faiths.
But religions are not always what or where intellectuals say they are. They are essentially how individuals live them and use them to seek guidance or comfort, or both. They are also tools with which the saintly, and the unscrupulous, exploit their latent power to mobilize human beings for very different ends. Islam has demonstrated great flexibility in adapting to local customs and to Change. The future of Islam may lie, paradoxically, in those societies where Muslims are a minority, not a majority, where Islam can do what it does best - adapt itself to external stimuli - and change to meet Modernity halfway; where the presence of its own past is largely absent.