WE CONTINUE DISCUSSING reasons why Islamic Tradition has been neglected, especially in our last several centuries. The first obstacle (Part 2) has been ignorant sectarianism (the “Nishapur syndrome”) in some places and, in other places, it has been the sacrificing of Islamic values for the stability of dynastic rule (the “Umayyad Syndrome”). The same syndromes apply today.
The Second Obstacle: Modernity
Why the World Needs Islamic Tradition
Any enumeration of reasons—or justifications— for why the world needs the Islamic Tradition, will I believe, fall short of comprehending its significance.
It is like trying to convince reasonable humans to continue to breathe—no ordinary person would try to do otherwise—and, except when under great duress, no one needs to be reminded of the importance of breathing. Islam is how Muslims have lived in the past and many continue until today to live like birds in the air or fish in water, without explicitly thinking about it.
Most Muslims in the early days would think and act within Islamic Tradition, rather than about it.
Why do we need to talk about it, then? Because the “air” and the “water” have now largely changed. To breath, drink, and consume (both literally and figuratively) without thinking will bring—indeed has brought—us all to the brink of disaster. Let me explain.
We live in a different world today. For the last two centuries, the pace of change in all aspects of human life has grown exponentially. It is no exaggeration to say that our world has changed in this period of constant “newness”—modernity—in some ways more than during the five thousand years prior to them.
The Beginning of Constant Change
This change began in the West and brought with it not only its methodological advancement in science, in physical discovery, and in harnessing something of the great forces of creation, but also the related triangle of colonialism, capitalism, and the modern nation-state.
The idea of constant change toward an inevitably better state of knowing and being, of “progress,” is in important senses mythical, but it nonetheless has become both a condition and a constant desirable.
Without denying the tremendous knowledge about, and increase in, human survivability (modern medicine) and the capability to wield forces of nature, humanity is today realizing that modernity has all but destroyed us all.
Exploitation Has Spawned Destruction
The utterly insane exploitation of the Earth’s resources and concomitant destruction of creational balance by modern, capitalist powers has led during the last century alone to a destructive climate change that is, as far as science can tell us, now irreversible.
Economic disparity is worse than ever before, and it is so inscribed into the organizational structures of modernity that it cannot be undone without eliminating the most powerful institutions of the world—specifically, capitalism and its alibi, the modern state. These, incidentally, are the recommendations of modernity’s foremost scientists and thinkers in the most materially advanced capitalist states, including the United States. (Consider, for instance, James Speth’s The Bridge at the End of the World).
It takes a great deal of optimism today (indeed, a sheer act of faith) if one looks at the scientific and economic data, and the growing political impasses that are their inevitable outcomes, to believe that there might be a way out, a way to save the world.
Pressures to “Modernize” by a World in Distress
It is important to recall this tragic direction, and very possibly the end, of modern civilization, when speaking of Islamic Tradition. For the truth is that Islamic Tradition has been held hostage to the standards of the West by Westerners, Muslim reformers, and ordinary Muslims alike.
In the next few decades, the world will inevitably be a very different place. The climate, the dispossessed, and the poor, according to the inexorable logic of their own coherencies, are bound to seek revenge, or to put it more antiseptically, to reset the balance.
Now, for Western Muslims in particular—who live within this complex and under the constant judgment of the standards of their powerful host cultures—their attempts to judge, reform, and modernize their own Tradition have likewise become persistent, the pressures they experience being nearly inescapable.
Rarely do Western Muslims realize, or have the courage to say out loud, that what they relentlessly judge themselves against is a civilization that is on the verge of a pied-piper cataclysm, leading the world to a tragic, colossal suicide.
Contentment with Little vs. Catastrophic Reset of the Balance
But with humanity having been led to the precipice—in the shape of a raft of irrefutable scientific indications of climate change and totally legitimate fears of nuclear disasters, wars, and totalitarianism—there is a dire need for hope and a new way of living.
Moreover, whatever that way shall be, it shall have to have at its core, a belief in living happily with little and, hence, an essential realization: That this world was not meant to be and will never be Heaven, nor shall eternal life or the evolution of the human being and life into a transcendent physical-spiritual condition ever be part of the earthly human condition.
Such a new way of living, dependent as it is upon contentment and an understanding of the limitations and trying nature of the life of this world, is in every respect the exact opposite of modern life.
The Blessing of Islamic Tradition
Yet Islamic Tradition clearly has these resources and, I believe, has been specifically designed to respond to what the world needs and what humanity is crying out for. This shout will only grow louder and the need become greater in the coming decades.
I am not suggesting that we think of Islam primarily as a solution to worldly crises. Islam is not, and must not be presented, merely as an instrument for this-worldly success. It is a religion. Thus the earthly blessings that Allah gives us, the balance He teaches us, and the custodianship He has bestowed upon us can be actualized in their fullness only through sincere devotion to Him.
Yet humans are by nature too shortsighted to be lured by truth, or even The Truth, alone. That is why it is Allah’s way to shake a people before sending them His message:
And never yet have We sent a prophet unto any community without trying its people with misfortune and hardship, so that they might humble themselves. Then We transformed the affliction into ease of life, so that they throve and said [to themselves]: “Misfortune and hardship befell our forefathers as well”—whereupon We took them to task, all of a sudden, without their being aware [of what was coming]. [Sûrat Al-Aʿrâf, 7:94-5]
Crisis As “Blessing in Disguise”
For American Muslims, the truth of this verse is a matter of concrete experience. It is no mere coincidence that it is our black brothers, enslaved, humiliated, and violated for centuries, who were the first to turn to Islam in America.
That is also why, in America as I suspect elsewhere, people are more likely to turn to Islam when incarcerated. For their life has come to crisis, and they have been rendered into a kind of seclusion from the pressing in upon them of the demands of the world.
When finally they have time to examine the world and themselves in it, to reason, to rethink and to hear themselves think—and when they become aware of another way of balance, of hope, and above all of ultimate mercy, justice, and triumph—they come to a contented peace whose very name is “Islam.”
It seems to me that we in the world are now coming to a similar condition and opportunity. Hence, the current crises, whether environmental or economic, though serious and tragic, could also be blessings in disguise. The moderns, typically arrogant against God and the weak, but increasingly humbled and shaken, are looking for alternatives.
Daʿwah in Modern Society
How much longer, then, will we, the “witnesses unto humankind,” remain confused, apologetic, and silent? We in the Muslim community, particularly in the West, must come to understand our important role in this main chance for our fellows and neighbors. Ours is the role of the prophets in their societies, to rise and warn.