Published on July 10th, 2013 |
by Usman Butt
The Muslim Predicament
It is Ramadan, the month when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. The month has various spiritual meanings, as well as, material meanings, which Muslims are meant to reflect on during the fast. Modern living presents a paradox for Muslim throughout the world, advances in science have transformed how we understand the world around us. For Muslims who grow up in Britain- they are educated in philosophical materialism, with its central premise being, the meta-physical is ‘unknowable’ and thus all enquires and understandings must only be rooted in the physical material world. This idea was advocated during the enlightenment- by philosophers such as David Hume. And it is this basic discourse that shapes our modern world from science to politics.
This intellectual underpinning has challenge many faiths, ideas such as Evolution by Charles Darwin, came as a direct result of David Hume’s philosophy. However, religion has not disappeared, indeed from a ‘Social-Darwinist’ perspective, religion is the ‘great survivor’ and according to this discourse, if it has survived and grown- then it has done so, not because it is a throwback to a primordial age, but rather it is ‘the Great Adaptor’. A religious person today- is thoroughly modern and their religiosity, in terms of their ideas and notions of religion and society would make no sense to someone living in the 16th century.
Movements such as ‘Biblical Literalism’, which see the events in the Bible as ‘historic fact’, are not products of the medieval world. They are the invention of the modern world- and a core part of materialism- is the idea that everything can be ‘measured’ and ‘quantified’. Biblical Literalism is an attempt to quantify the bible. It was no longer good enough that Jesus turning water into wine is traditionally understood to be a metaphor for his ‘symbolic power’. It had to have actually happened for it to have meaning in the modern world.
The debate in the Muslim world takes on a different form. For Islam, the modern debate of ‘physical versus meta-physical’ is not a modern debate but an old one. It stretches back to the early foundations of Islam. Islam has a long traditional of secularism as Iranian intellectual Dr Abdulkarim Soroush, discuss in this lecture. Within Muslim discourse this debate is called ‘reasons versus revelation’, and during the Abassid Caliphate 750-1258, reason was favoured over revelation. The Mu’tazila rose to prominence under their rule. The Mu’tazila were a group of scholars, intellectuals, clerics and leaders who sought ‘rational’ explanations for how the world and universe worked. They were heavily influence by ‘Greek Rationalism’; they expanded on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle.
Their central belief was than the universe is made up of small things called atoms and all life-forms, complex and simple, were composed of atoms. They believed that god created the atom and started the motion- but once atoms were set into motion, god no longer interfered with the universes that the atoms created. It is from the philosophical basis, that they rejected ‘Biblical or Qu’ranic Literalism’. They did not believe that the Qu’ran was the word of god, but a ‘divinely inspired’ man-made book. They also did not believe in predestination (fate), but rather humans made their own fate. And they rejected the idea that god had anatomical forms. Many of these ideas are considered too heretical for modern Muslims. Yet, this was the movement that formed premodern Islam and much of the codification of Islam (Shariah law) came from them.
The Mu’tazila movement which had dominated the centres of power in the Islamic world for over 200 years- were eventually removed and replaced. They have been forgotten by modern Muslims but the debate that they left behind, ‘reason versus revelation’, is one that still plagues Muslims today. The debate has become more polarized, as the internal processes in the Muslim world were ‘disrupted’ by 19th-century European colonization. As part of the colonization process, the Europeans imposed a new type of rationalism on the Muslim world. It became known as ‘colonial modernity’, and this new type of rationalism not only called for the philosophic, political and social separation from religion. It sought to re-invent what it meant to be human and re-organise society along European lines. Suddenly, to be modern and rational was to be European and this triggered a crisis in Muslim identity.
Some Muslims declared that all Muslims should abandon their ‘old culture’ and adopt European way completely. Rationalism was now seen as a European colonial project and in response to this- many conservative and orthodox Muslim movements we see today were born. Salafism, Whabbism and others believed that the decedent practises of Muslims of their time led to the Muslim world’s weakness that allowed the European to take-over. The answer was to ‘return Islam’ back to its very early foundations. They began arguing against innovations, reforms and changes and advocated ‘traditionalism’ and meta-physics. They coined arguments such as Islam is perfect and does not need to change. Everything you need to know is in Islam- and they adopted a greater sense of literalism. They reinvented Muslim history and started to argue that all legal matters in Islam had been ‘solved’ and that Muslims should refer back to older scholars.
These arguments would seem alien to Muslims living in the 15th century, the idea of literalism, as advocated be the neo-conservatism would make no sense to them. Shariah law is a mixture of circumstances, texts and traditions, innovations and communal consensus. New scholars per generations are meant to create new Shariah systems suitable to their times- not take all rulings for one generation of scholars and try and apply it. This was the classical Islamic discourse on Shariah- but the modern discourse has done away with this notion. But it is this contention that many Modern Muslim face this Ramadan, reason or revelation or both?
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