-- AN EXPOSITION
BY ATHAR HUSAIN
Published by the All India
Personal Law Bpard,
What Islam Has to Offer the Modern World
Before discussing this subject in any detail, it is necessary to understand what Islam stands for and what is modernity. That is, what are its gains and ills, how it is influencing the thinking of man, in what direction it is leading mankind, and whether it has ushered [in] any happiness.
According to Islam, man is to be conscious of certain truths of life and to think and act in conformity with them. These verities are expressed in the form of a few doctrinal beliefs in the unity of God, revelations of God brought to mankind by a chain of prophets, the last in the line being the Prophet of Islam, the unity of mankind, accountability of one's deeds as this life is not an end in itself but is a gateway to an everlasting life of the Hereafter. It asserts that the universe is not an accidental phenomenon nor [did] its objects and forces come into being by themselves just by passage of time, nor has the universe been created in vain but for a definite purpose and man, as [the] viceregent of God, has to play a definite role in the scheme of things.
Man's most fundamental belief is belief in one God, not [in] a vague, distant or amorphous being but an intensely real and approachable, though transcendental, Being, the Creator and Sustainer of the world, the most Compassionate and Merciful, and Powerful, Omnipresent and Omniscient besides whom there is no other God, the Sovereign and the Supreme, who is nearer to man than his jugular vein, who is All Knowing and Ever Watchful, who encompasseth everything but is Himself beyond all comprehension. Its monotheism is universal, absolute and unconditional and every other belief and every other doctrine flows from this concept.
Islam is not, however, only a spiritual attitude of mind [n]or a code of sublime precepts, but [it] is a self-sufficing orbit of culture and a social system of well defined features. It not only undertakes to define the metaphysical relations between man and his creator and prescribes beliefs, but it also lays down rules of personal conduct and social behaviour. In fact, it is an all-embracing code of life establishing, on a systematic and positive base, the fundamental principles of morality and precisely formulating the duties of man not only towards his creator but, also towards himself and his fellow beings. Its concept of life does not exclude notions of happiness in the shape of material welfare in this world. It demands no renunciation of the world, nor does it prescribe austerities for spiritual purification. Its concept is enunciated in the Quran. Our Lord gives us the good in this world and the good in the Hereafter. (Q.2.201)
At the same time, it does not subscribe to materialistic trends, but rouses in man a consciousness of moral responsibility in everything he does. There is no sphere of activity of man which may be outside the pale of Islamic morality. The two fundamental factors, which constitute the essentials of Islam, are belief in God and righteous living in consonance with it. Man has a dual responsibility to discharge. The first is the duty he owes to God and the second is the obligation to mankind. The former expresses itself in a process of self-development - physical, intellectual and moral, and the second lies in developing a social conscience and consideration for others. The two responsibilities are two facets of one and the same attitude towards life.
The modern world has seen tremendous strides in the pursuit of science and development of technology which ha[s] brought immense comfort to mankind. They have reduced distances, enabled easy communication, made great advances in education, promoted health, hygiene and sanitation greatly improved techniques of agriculture, increased production, saved much toil and labour and have set up a whirling pace of progress. But in the scale of life, its advantages are outweighed by its disadvantages or weaknesses, which [were] introduced [to] human life.
With all its glamour, it is dominated by the gospel of acquisition, that knows only one positive religion [which] is the worship of material progress. Modernity has bred a human type whose morality is limited to the question of practical utility. Power has become the sole criterion of greatness and [the] source of all power is wealth.
Modernity is not an abrupt growth. It started as a reaction against [an] irrational brand of ecclesiastism passing for religion in Europe, [a] decline of the true religious spirit [and the] decadence of civilization and rise of materialism. The thinkers of the day could not distinguish between the responsibilities enjoined by religion and the inflexibility, despotism and misrepresentation exhibited by the ecclesiastics. A number of outstanding social and political writers had indiscriminately sowed the seeds of materialism in the minds of the people and had laid emphasis on the Epicurean way of life. Machiavelli paved the way for divorcing politics from ethics and prescribed a dual standard of morality - one private and the other public.
Karl Marx developed the doctrine of class struggle to maintain that [the] state of man is the product of economic conditions under the influence of which all other life phenomena had received form and imprint. He recognised only [the] economic aspect of human existence and repudiated the validity of all other factors like religion. ethics, soul and even intellect. The economic pantheism admitted no religious endeavours, no spiritual movements. Modern society became schizophrenic by the unfortunate struggle between reason and religion and development of a pathology that is reflected in the very quality of life.
Scientist[s] interpreted the material universe and its manifestations along mechanical lines and called it [the] objective and scientific method, [thus] rejecting as slavery to tradition whatever was based on belief in the existence of God.
Everything was repudiated that was not realisable in experience [or] could not be weighed or measured. Only two things were considered relevant, that is, matter and energy. [The] progress of science and technology no doubt opened new horizons and brought great comforts to men. But at the same time they have been utilised to develop colossal engines of destruction and to build up tremendous military power which, if set in motion, can wipe [out] humanity from the face of the earth.
The civilization generated by materialism became static after the achievements of the Magna Carta in Britain, the principles of the French Revolution and the rights of individual freedoms [that were] laid down at the beginning of the democratic American experiment.
It exhausted its limited usefulness because it was cut off from its original source without which social order, principles and values could not survive. Comfort, brought with the aid of scientific discoveries and [technological growth], was mistaken for civilization. In the words of Joad, “Science has given us power fit for the gods, and to their use we bring the mentality of school boys and savages." Science and technology are not the generators of civilization. Unless our existence reaches beyond the frivolities of materialism and becomes a life enriched with meaning, science and technology will only be trappings of modernity and not hallmarks of progress.
What is particularly lamentable is that materialism has generated an attitude marked by disregard of transcendental truths, want of religious feeling or spirituality and [the] worship of material comforts. This attitude enveloped the western world in the web of its own aberrations and [consequently] mental and emotional traumas.
Modernity strove hard to replace religion with secular conceptions having their own implications, institutions and organizations. It aims at undermining the vitality of the ideological ideals, and has succeeded in breeding extravagance, and voluptuous indulgence and belief in superfluous illusions and counterfeit values. It presents no abiding ideals or permanent values and principles that can lead mankind to real progress and development. Religion however, functions in society as the philosophical mooring that determines the fibre of life. It is just not a conglomeration of a few ethical principles or rudimentary rituals for perfunctory performance nor even an emotional feeling that stagnates in the depths of [the] heart. It is not in its nature to be stored in a restricted corner of life and be labelled as a personal affair. Human nature is more profound, more refined and more permanent than the passing phase of materialistic civilization.
So often we hear that this or that idea, principle, or value, is no longer pertinent to the world and the essential reality of the doctrines and ideas of permanent significance are overlooked. Whatever is not considered fashionable or convenient is considered irrelevant or unimportant. It is this climate of thought which ignores or rejects the perennial and permanent truths that [are] most dangerous and lead man to fatuous illusions. A sense of [the] sacred is, however, indispensable for any civilization for what is sacred is immutable and infinitely more majestic, meaningful and permanent. [The] aim of knowledge at a certain point of time is not absolute or static as human knowledge is [always] increasing and developing.
If secularization could only mean that heterogeneous society [is] compris[ed of] people of different faiths and creeds, the state, as such, has no religion, and people of every religion are free to follow their [own] religion and religious practices and could advocate tolera[ance] between them, it would have been a happy state of affair[s]. But over-secularization has come to mean a clear division between the spiritual and the mundane, depleting things of their spiritual significance and a negative freedom verging on anarchy. Islam does not believe in the dichotomy between the spiritual and the mundane, the other-worldly and the temporal. According to it, every activity of man has a spiritual significance, whether positive or negative.
Islam presents a view of life that is sacred and grants freedom under submission to the Divine Will. Today man is in need of a social order that enables humanism to justify its existence as ordained by its great Creator and to activate the powers of the mind, science and experimentation for [the] establishment of a system appropriate to the real needs of mankind.
The pertinence of Islam to the modern world is that issuing from the All Knowing and the absolutely Real and serving as the message of the Heaven, it takes care of everything and provides for a balanced life and an equilibrium between spiritual and material needs. It is the direct call of the Absolute to man, inviting him to cease his wanderings in the labyrinth of the relative world and to return to the Absolute. “For [so] long the West has been dominated by the evolutionism of the nineteenth century but more and more of its scientists and scholars have begun to rediscover and confirm the permanent nature of man and his needs and to focus attention on the permanent elements, to which the Islamic message addresses itself most directly." The quest for meaning, which is as essential as the need for food and shelter, is in reality the quest for the ultimate, or the absolute. “Religion provides precisely this meaning and in a sense, [it] is the shelter in the storm of the multiplicity and indefinite cosmic manifestations and the uncertainties of the temporal and terrestrial existence."
Islam does not discourage scientific studies [n]or [the] development of technology. On the contrary, there are numerous verses in the Quran [that] exhort man to study and understand the objects and forces of nature and the laws governing them, to learn the lessons of history and the fate of past civilizations. It exhorts man to acquire knowledge. The very first revelation of the Quran begins with:
"Recite in the name of your Lord who created everything.In the Quran there are dozens of scientific indications about which man had no inkling fourteen hundred years back. Acquisition of knowledge is a duty cast by Islam on every man and woman which has been stressed in almost innumerable sayings of the prophet. One of them says:
“Acquire knowledge, it enables the possessor to distinguish right from wrong. It rights the way to Heaven, it is our companion when friendless, it guides us to happiness, it sustains us in adversity, it is a weapon against enemies and an ornament among friends. By virtue of it, Allah exalteth nations, and maketh them guides in good pursuit, and giveth them leadership so much so, that their footsteps are followed, their deeds are imitated. and their opinions are accepted and held in respect.”When Europe was sunk in darkness, Arab literature had reached its golden age. The impact of Arab scholars, philosophers, scientists, mathematicians, historians etc. was so momentous that it gave rise to that power which constitutes [a] distinctive force [in] the world, that is, natural science and scientific spirit. Due to a number of historical reasons, but chiefly due to the decline of religious spirit, Muslims suffered [a] 200 year period of stagnation and then [a] continuous and rapid decline in all fields of human activity -- economic, social, political and intellectual --and were surpassed by a rival and mostly hostile civilization of the West.
Muslims have to recapture their past glory, for the world judges Islam not by its tenets and principles, but the pattern the Muslims set up.
In spite of sustained growth, development and world domination, western civilization failed to provide mankind with a viable framework of social harmony, moral and spiritual fulfilment, satisfaction and international peace. Its greatest achievement, that is, tremendous advance in science and technology has destroyed the moral fabric of human personality and society, and has led to mortal conflicts and tensions at all levels.
However, [the] human mind, reason and experimentation cannot be arrested and man will go on [learning about] more and more marvels of nature and [will continue] developing and improving technology. The problem is not, however, of science and technology but of the people who control [it] or who have allowed themselves to be controlled by technology. It is man who has become dedicated to material achievement, worldly success and comfort. It is man who is to be rescued from this mentality. The malady has become so deep-rooted that [the] humanisation of the technical revolution is possible only if man accepts the principle that he must submit to his Creator, learn to control his passions, and should not indulge in conflict and warfare, or be swayed and guided by policies of self-aggrandisement and love of power.
Because of [the] application of the theory of evolution [to] all spheres of life, the universality and permanence of man's nature was not acceptable to the scientific mind. All values were considered relative and not absolute. The focal point was lost and [the] focal centre shattered. As Y.B. Yeats predicted in The Second Coming:
"Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. With a gaze as bleak and pitiless as the sun, the mysterious sphinx attacked all concepts of God, man and nature and created a nightmare of confusion."Islam does not discourage nor restrict any endeavour to make material progress, for no level of material progress or economic development is in itself antagonistic to moral or spiritual progress. On the contrary, a certain standard of material progress is essential for evolution and maintenance of [a] desirable social pattern. It exhorts the individual to make all efforts at its achievement, but he has to be conscious of the fact that a materially prosperous life is not an end in itself and that a high standard of living has no value in itself.
[The] means [of] production, the sources of power and scientific techniques are capable of serving man under diverse attitudes, norms and values. Economic activities can be made subservient to the goal of life if they are properly directed. Higher values are not to be sacrificed at the alter of individual profit and the good of society has to be borne in mind. The economic system has got to fit into the general scheme of Islamic life while promoting collective interest and furthering social good. Islam safeguards the interest of the individual, the institution of [the] family and private property as having [unassailable] value. Modern man suffers from excessive compartmentalisation. In his science, education and social life, social bonds and even the human personality is tending to disintegrate under the pressure of technology.
In order to save mankind from dehumanisation and to reinvigorate the purpose and goal of life and to create in man a desire to grow up as a balanced personality, the hierarchy of values will have to be re-asserted and concepts of social and material sciences and humanities will have to be reformulated. In minor details, Islam exhibits a good deal of flexibility and an eminent degree of adaptation, but its cardinal and fundamental principles are immutable and admit of no change or circumvention.
It is not the Muslim who has to conform to [the] modern world and all the ills and errors that it comprises, it is the modern world which must be made to conform to the basic truths and not vice versa. Islam prohibits a permissive society, drinking and licentiousness. It prohibits deceit, hypocrisy, insincerity, selfish interest and double standards. There is no room in it for exploitation, political or economic subjugation and of racial or linguistic prejudice. It stands to establish a society of God-fearing, righteous, large-hearted, educated, decent, sympathetic and generous persons upholding the cause or justice and fair-play and forbidding evil, vice and corruption and working in collaboration with one another, actuated by brotherly feelings for the good and happiness of mankind.
Today man is crying for peace, but how can peace prevail when society is bedeviled by selfish interest, greed, exploitation of the weak, lust for power and a desire for [the] extension of [his] sphere of influence.
Today a global war is held up only by the danger and fear of devastating reprisal. Peace can result from equilibrium and harmony brought forth by integration issuing from Tawhid. If man does not consider his needs beyond earthly existence, if the sacred meaning of life is not understood, terrestrial life will always be in danger. Islam provides equilibrium between the spiritual and temporal, and emphasizes the necessity of giving each thing its due, of preserving each element at its place and of guarding the just proportion between things. That alone can save mankind and lead it to its ultimate goal. The Quran has said :
"Time bears testimony that man is generally inclined to a way of life harmful to himself except those who believe in God and do what is right and enjoin on each other truth and enjoin on each other steadfastness."This is also what islam has to offer the modern world, according to modern science.