SO OFTEN WE only know ourselves by our opposite. What our foil embodies is everything we are not. And this idea of the self only works on the seldom occasions when we define ourselves in the simplest terms. To illustrate this point, someone can be tall because they are not short.

But when defining ourselves by our opposite happens in more complex ways, it fails to hold true. This is what happens when people use the identifiers “modern” and “religious” to explain to themselves and others what they are not. Some may claim to be modern, meaning they are not religious and vice versa. These terms have been dressed up by some segments of society as if they are directly opposed to each other.

To some, both the idea of religiosity and modernity are collapsed from their dynamic, many shaded, and deep meanings to nothing more than static extremes. Each group constructing an inauthentic and extreme foil by which to define themselves. And neither understanding the true depth of their opposite, not the depth of the self.

Those Who Reject Modernity

To be sure, there are religious people who reject modernity. But to say this is a tenet of faith—except when it comes to the Amish—is untrue and extreme. And those who do reject modernity define what modern is in inaccurate ways. It can be anything from simply “Western” to anything “debauched.”

Zarqa Nawaz writes about her parents’ rejection of modernity and her coming to understand how they define modern in her book Laughing All the Way to The Mosque. She writes, “It took me years to understand that not being ‘modern’ didn’t mean that we couldn’t use electricity or drive a motorized vehicle. What it meant was we were going to look like the Amish but still drive cars, as long as it was to the mosque and not to the liquor store. ‘Modern’ Muslims, she observed, acted like white people—had short hair, wore miniskirts and, the biggest heresy of all, talked to boys on the phone.”

Nawaz’s parents are not alone. Many people, especially those from Muslim societies, define themselves as distinctly not modern and in doing so they have constructed a collapsed idea of what it means to be modern and turned it into a caricature of a white Westerner, who has illicit relationships, loves immodesty, and most of all-is not religious.

The truth is that some people who consider themselves modern do fit this description that Nawaz’s parents have constructed. But it also excludes the fact that non-white, Easterners, or Africans can also be modern. It excludes the fact that white people can belong to a variety of different religions, be modest, etc., and still be modern.

It is also true that those who consider themselves religious and not modern can be immoral and adopt some “Western” ideals. Their idea of modern excludes most of reality and this narrow interpretation of what modernity looks like makes it hard to live within oneself.

So what does being “modern” actually look like?

Being modern by definition is a pretty broad and vague concept. It can mean many things to many people. And it should. Because isn’t that what we are striving for in modern times:  the acceptance of everyone’s narrative? The representation and validation of many different experiences? No one style of dress, way to think, or mode of expression has a monopoly on modernity. Modern is not exclusively Western. Being modern is not just for the young.

But also being modern is more than what it is not. Recognizing and dealing head on with the problems of the day while striving for a better future is modern. Self-expression in many ways and in many platforms is as modern as rejecting the over exposure of the self. Accepting others’ experiences and making room for them in the human tapestry is modern. Being technologically savvy doesn’t necessitate modernity, but being connected does. Being modern is sifting through culture and finding what has actual value while holding little respect for the illogicality of thoughtless tradition.

Shelina Janmohamed, author of Young Muslims Changing the World writes that young Muslims’ religiosity touches every aspect of their lives. “They are a tech-savvy, self-empowered, youthful group who believe that their identity encompasses both faith and modernity.”  [i]  This generation of Muslims that Janmohamed speaks about is not the only generation –nor is it the only religious group– to have this outlook on faith and modernity.

There is nothing about modernity that excludes religiosity. And to say that it does is to have a superficial understanding of both.

Those Who Reject Religion

Furthermore, there exists a segment of society that defines themselves as modern by way of rejecting religion. In a Pew Forum poll, people who categorized themselves as “nones” (those identifying with no religious group) cited modern advancements and science as the reason for their leaving their faith. While others referenced a lack of common sense and the bad behavior of the faithful as reason for leaving a faith. [ii]

The people who have rejected faith in favor of being “modern” have constructed a collapsed idea of what it means to be religious and turned it into a stereotype of an unthinking person who hides from progress and contradicts the religious laws he or she claims to believe in.

The truth is that some who consider themselves religious do fit the descriptions of the constructed stereotype. But this assertion of modernity excludes the fact that many scientists and philosophers are deeply religious. It ignores the fact that the majority of engineers and doctors recognize the advancements in science and also recognize a designer of all that exists. It blatantly ignores the truth that we are all illogical at some point and often hypocritical.

This idea of what it means to be religious excludes most of reality, and this narrow interpretation of what religiosity looks like excludes the “modern by way of rejecting religion” from exploring the many and varied religious thoughts that exist.

What Does Religiosity Actually Look Like?

Defining what it means to be religious is as varied as there are religious people. But to narrow it down, a person of faith is not someone who accepts their religion simply because they were told to or because they inherited it from their family, culture, or environment. This is insincerity and not religiosity. Being religious is not a set of rules and rituals to be adhered to thoughtlessly. Being faithful is not about rejecting logic or good sense, nor about being closed minded and judgmental. Having faith does not mean hiding from the world and fearing what will come.

But more than that, religiosity is not defined merely by what it is not. Examination of human nature and how it relates to the Creator is religious. Seeking to understand the patterns of our world and everything in it is being religious. Being aware of how acts of worship connect us to the Creator and directly affect our lives is being religious. Being consistent in acts of worship and believing with certainly in the promise of God is being religious. Helping those in need and being patient for no other reason than to please God is religious. Being aware of Allah’s knowledge of all things is religiosity.

Furthermore, who can define what religiosity looks like other than Allah? And as Allah says in the Quran:

True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west — but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and who spends his substance —however much he himself may cherish  it— upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and who is constant in prayer, and who renders the purifying dues; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and who are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, they who are conscious of God. [Sûrat Al-Baqarah 2:177]

But you do not need to be a Muslim to be religious. Any person can be religious as long as he or she holds true to his or her holy book with an authentic effort to connect with the Creator. Any person can be truly religious if they are committed to sifting through edicts and finding what is actually true while holding little respect for the illogicality of thoughtless tradition.

There is nothing about religiosity that excludes modernity. And to say that it does is to have a superficial understanding of both.

Sure, we can disagree with some things that some religious people do or believe, but that doesn’t mean that our modernity depends entirely on rejecting all religion. And similarly we are not ‘religious’ due to refusing to act or to embody anything we deem to be “modern.” If we believe either aspect of this to be true, we have failed to recognize that depth of our own beings and all the ways in which being “religious” or “modern” can take shape.

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[i] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/03/meet-generation-m-the-young-affluent-muslims-changing-the-world?CMP=share_btn_fb

[ii] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/08/24/why-americas-nones-left-religion-behind/

Theresa Corbin

Theresa Corbin is a New Orleans native who came to Islam in 2001 after many years of soul searching and religious study. She is a freelance writer and public speaker who focuses on women's issues, conversion, the ridiculousness of stereotypes, and bridging the ever widening gap between peoples in the human family. Corbin holds a bachelor's in English Lit from the University of South Alabama and has a black belt in baking. Visit her blog, islamwich.com, where she and her contributors discuss all things American and Islamic.

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