Aug 29, 2019
A book on astronomy and mathematics from the tenth century
Muslims and others have argued and debated the “problem of modernity” for decades, and the topic does not appear to have run out of proverbial steam. Philosophers from a variety of standpoints argue about what challenges modernity poses. They argue that there was a time when nature was viewed as having purpose, the sacred was recognized as being intimately involved in the world, and the polity of that world was arranged around organic communities. But modernity challenged acceptance of that premodern cosmological order, instead favoring secularizing forces, which led to an unbalanced type of individualism and to a nation-state structure that was at once bureaucratic and dehumanizing. There is much to discuss in terms of the particularities of this frame, which we do not propose to do here. But, indeed, for Muslims, there is something unresolved about our tradition’s engagement with the modern epoch, particularly in the Muslim religious establishment’s stultified response to the rapid changes ushered in by modernity.
Several twentieth-century European writers—René Guénon (¢Abd al-Wāĥid Yaĥyā) and Mihai Vâlsan (Muśţafā ¢Abd al-¢Azīz) among them—sought to diagnose the cosmological effects of this modern period. As Western converts, they saw great utility in the intellectual heritage of assessing the philosophical flaws of modernity. Both saw wisdom also in other faith traditions (such as Taoism), but despite certain misconceptions about their separate legacies following their deaths, both lived and died as Muslims and were called to Islam. Nevertheless, they had little success in reversing Muslim ossification, or even in slowing it down. Today, we can see perhaps three main and interrelated root factors in the Muslim community’s lack of effectiveness in negotiating change.
The first factor is that the speed and pace of change in modernity is unlike anything Muslims experienced before. We can say without hyperbole that the amount of change across five years in the twenty-first century possibly equals or even surpasses that across one hundred years before the eighteenth century. Latter modernity has ushered in categorical transformations across the entire gambit of human interactions with the world, as we have witnessed the industrialization of societies, the development of the modern financial system, the formation of the Westphalian nation-state model, the development of different philosophical ideas and frames of worldviews, and more.