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Aug 6, 2021

Spirituality in the Postmodern World

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Esmé L. K. Partridge

Esmé L. K. Partridge is an MPhil student in the Philosophy of Religion at Clare College, University of Cambridge.

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Spirituality in the Postmodern World

The Reign of the Nafs

Non Portrait V: Our Beautiful Skins Rags Fell Into Infinity, Askia Bilal, 2021

Non Portrait V: Our Beautiful Skins Rags Fell Into Infinity, Askia Bilal, 2021

In recent times, virtually all aspects of human life have adapted to the digital environment. The technologization of existence has long followed a steady trajectory toward what the social theorist Zygmunt Bauman dubbed “liquid modernity”—that is, the “melting” of the steel structures that once upheld the “solid modernity” of the industrial revolution into a state of limitless liquidity that we witness in the unfettered global movement and communication through technologies that seemingly obviate the constraints of space and time.1 The omnipresence of cyberspace signifies the climactic summation of this trajectory, enabling the cross-continental dissemination of images and sounds at nature-defying speeds. This “liquefaction” is not only ontological but also ideological; imbued in the very notion of transcending the limitations of the “solid” world is a narrative of secular progress that also endeavors to melt the mores of the traditional social environment. Cyberspace, then, plays an important role in creating and magnifying the liquid or postmodern cultural climate that it is a key feature of, enabling a liberation from both geographical and ideological restraints. Indeed, contemporary sociologist David Lyon has called cyberspace both “a child and parent of the postmodern” in this respect.2

The forms of spirituality that have emerged on the internet in recent years have also assumed the characteristic liquidity of all cyberspace phenomena; disjointed elements of belief systems are propelled through digital channels where they ebb, flow, and transmute in accordance with the personal dispositions of individuals. Severed from the confines of orthodoxy, these fragments of structured systems can be adopted (and abandoned) at will by the individual. As such, they represent the unmooring of spirituality from the foundational principles of traditional religion—an amplification of what the sociologist Grace Davie dubbed “believing without belonging,” whereby religious institutions are rendered irrelevant to the pursuit of spiritual belief and practice. The social media app TikTok has become the tributary from which many deinstitutionalized spiritual practices proceed, forming digital subcultures—bound tenuously by hashtags and mutual followers—such as WitchTok, an amorphous hybrid of Wicca and other neo-pagan beliefs, and “reality shifting,” a trend comprised of practices for inducing altered states of consciousness.

Like liquid modernity itself, both movements—which are not collectively held belief systems but rather varying practices that share hashtags and virtual communities—melt the metanarratives of religion and of alternative forms of spirituality such as the New Age movement, signifying a fascinating, if not formidable, shift in engagement with the sacred. But what, one ought to ask, are the theological implications of this? How ought traditional metaphysics, particularly that espoused by Islam, grapple with these liquid spiritualities that revolve not around objectivity but around the individual self—in Islam, the nafs—free from all doctrinal restraints? How does one assess the chasm, the distance traversed by these contingent and individualistic spiritualities from the metaphysical objectivity of traditional religion?

Perhaps the most succinct definition of postmodernity, second to French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard’s renowned “incredulity toward metanarratives,”3  is “the notion that objective reality is suspect,” as postulated by the British-Czech philosopher Ernest Gellner.4 Though its manifestations may vary vastly, this understanding of postmodernity deems it essentially antithetical to traditional religion, which orients itself around objective truth. This antithesis is consonant with the consensus that postmodernity itself arose from the phenomena of detraditionalization—that is, the erosion of institutions and authorities laying claim to objective truth. Since the Protestant reformation and especially the industrial revolution, Western life became increasingly atomized and severed from the social ties once secured by tradition and indeed religion itself. The anthropologist Paul Heelas attributes this to “processes which undermine the authoritative or ‘sacred’ properties of cultural metanarratives,”5 with the development of technology being the most potent of these since it replaces culture with “a fragmented, variegated range of beliefs and values.”6 This aligns with the social critic Christopher Lasch’s description of modern society as a “swirl of images and echoes,”7 now intensified by the algorithmically supercharged dispersion of media on apps such as TikTok. The inescapable exposure to variegated images and ideologies alike inevitably leads to the destabilization or melting of objectivity within the social environment. Viewed in this light, the conjunction of the spread of the internet with the suspicion of objective reality becomes especially lucid.

However, such a light only provides a sociological explanation of the postmodern condition, and one that rests on a one-dimensional, materialist conception of history. Many scholars, for example, understand detraditionalization as the revolt of individuals against social power structures. Such is typical of historical materialism, the analytical lens that foregrounds matters of power and oppression (as exemplified by the philosophical myopia of Michel Foucault). This view is, of course, unmistakably postmodern in itself; it rejects the notion that there could be such a thing as metaphysically objective truth, instead asserting that all appearances of objectivity are sociohistorical fabrications or by-products of a hegemonic agenda. This approach led Foucault to proclaim it meaningless to speak in the name of reason, truth, or knowledge; for him, these values have no concrete metaphysical basis. Instead, tradition—and therefore detraditionalization—becomes a sociohistorical, and not a metaphysical, matter.

According to the metaphysics of traditional religion, however, this is far from the case. Immutable religious doctrines and practices exist not merely as sociohistorical incidents but as impressions of that which lies beyond the category of the sociohistorical altogether; that is, they are impressions of the eternal. In its authentic form, traditional religion cannot be understood solely on the basis of sociohistorical factors (even if these factors play some role). Rather, traditional religion, and indeed tradition itself, has meaning as a vessel of objective truth, as an umbilical cord tying human societies to that which is metaphysically above them. It strives to establish permanence in a contingent world (in Islam, the dunyā). Therefore, Muslim thinkers such as al-Fārābī defended tradition in the context of political philosophy: for him, the wisdom contained within tradition brings us closer to the eternal truths contained within the Active Intellect: the realm that exists beyond the mind and contains absolute realities, akin to Plato’s concept of Forms (archetypes of all creations, existing in a perfect state untainted by material conditions). In this view, detraditionalization not only weakens social ties but also severs that sacred umbilical cord. Furthermore, postmodernity—the consequential outcome of detraditionalization—erases the possibility of human engagement with objective truth.

The trajectory of this erasure of objective truth began long before the birth of the internet or other liquefying forces of postmodernity. In fact, it began in modernity itself, as a project of the European Enlightenment to demote truth to the level of human rationality; despite defending itself through intellectually rigorous philosophical discourse, much of the Enlightenment’s output can be seen as formalized ignorance toward that which cannot be comprehended by the human senses. As such, it stood in contrast with the traditional metaphysics of Islam and other religions that acknowledge (and actively invoke) the existence of the Unseen (al-ghayb). The Enlightenment’s denial of the Unseen—if not always denied, its existence ceased to be a matter of serious inquiry—slowly steered modern thought toward anthropocentricism; in doubting that knowledge of a reality beyond the human subject could be attained, it reduced the scope of reality itself. This tectonic intellectual shift instigated what we can refer to as the reign of the nafs: the defining trait of modern and indeed postmodern thought that deems subjective perspective—rather than objective reality—to be the defining epistemological axis. 

Manifestations of quasi-spirituality appearing after the Enlightenment reveal how detraditionalization erodes systems of metaphysical objectivity (that is, religion) and ultimately metaphysics itself. A rather significant example of this is the psychoanalytic movement, which attempted to synthetically reintroduce transcendence into the Enlightenment worldview even as it remained faithful to its doctrines of naturalism and anthropocentricism. The Enlightenment conception of man as the sole arbiter of knowledge, for example, was incarnated into psychoanalysis as a discipline that used empirical methods to study the individual. Moreover, despite Carl Jung’s adoption of mythical nomenclature, his approach has been identified by scholars such as Wouter Hanegraaff as deriving from German Naturalphilosophie, which “came from the same place as Enlightenment rationality.”8 In essence, psychoanalysis was bound to a naturalism that prevented it from transcending the material world or the dunyā. Generally, its conception of the psyche can be thought to have pertained to just that: the psychic, mental, and fundamentally egoic aspect of the self or the nafs. The nafs, as traditional Islamic metaphysics holds, is a contingent product of the dunyā and lacks an inherent spiritual quality. The ĥthe immaterial spirit constituting the truly transcendent and impersonal dimension of the self—is where the sacred resides.

Psychoanalysis, then, by reintroducing seemingly supernatural notions based on the contingent self or nafs rather than the spirit or ĥ, excised all phenomena pertaining to the Unseen. It “sacralized psychology,” in Hanegraaff’s words, imbuing the corporeal aspect of human existence “with the contents of esoteric speculation.”9 In effect, psychoanalysis replaced traditional religion’s notion of objective truth with relativized, internal transcendence based on an individual’s personal dispositions. Postmodern forms of spirituality exhibit this characteristic which, not unlike psychoanalysis,10 revolve around subjective preference rather than immutable truth. The Qur’an itself warns that the “caprices” of individual disposition in the spiritual context are not to be relied on. Several verses (āyāt) suggest that the sacralization of the caprices (inextricably linked to the psyche or nafs) is tantamount to idolatry.  Two verses provide clarity: “Hast thou considered the one who takes his caprice as god? Wouldst thou be a guardian over him?” (25:43); “And who is more astray than one who follows his caprice without guidance from God?” (28:50).11

What are the metaphysical implications of the reign of the nafs or the caprices of personal disposition? As mentioned, contingency is a defining trait of the worldly self in contrast to the immaterial nature of the spirit or ĥ. That psychoanalysis and many subsequent quasi-spiritual developments conflated these two faculties is unfortunate since this conflation muddles the corporeal with the non-corporeal, confusing those in pursuit of spiritual transcendence. Classical Islamic thinkers, in keeping with most systems of traditional metaphysics, sought to preserve the distinction between these two dimensions of existence, which align with Qur’anic teaching about the corporeal world of the seen (¢ālam al-shahādah) and the non-corporeal world of the unseen (¢ālam al-ghayb). This understanding also coheres with Aristotelian ontology (which influenced early Islamic philosophers), which differentiates the human being from other animals because it has a rational soul that supersedes the purely corporeal level of existence. For Muslim metaphysicians, the immaterial realm is superior to the material one, since it corresponds more closely with eternal reality.

We Are Not Yet Ruins (Lebanon), Askia Bilal, 2021

We Are Not Yet Ruins (Lebanon), Askia Bilal, 2021

Epistemologically, then, the nafs—which perceives only through corporeal sense organs—serves as a hindrance to objective truth if left to its own devices; it is contingent and thus incapable of reflecting the eternal truths of al-Fārābī’s Active Intellect or indeed any higher order of reality. A range of traditional Muslim scholars from various disciplines have identified this, including the lexicographer al-TahānawīIn expressing what is meant by objective truth—in this instance, conveyed through the concept of nafs al-amr (“a thing in itself”)—al-Tahānawī presents a negative definition,12 citing it as that which is not contingent on the perspective of a subject (i¢tibār mu¢tabir) or someone’s supposition (farḍi fārịḍ).13 This notion of the perspective of the subject reflects the radical difference between the subjective sense perceptions of the nafs and the true nature of an object. Detraditionalization and postmodernity prioritize the perspective of the subject over objective truth, and postmodern spiritualities—essentially an exaggeration of the anthropocentric conditions of the Enlightenment and the psychoanalytic movement—revolve around the nafs and its subjective perception, and as such they are not conducive to the pursuit of objectivity.

This is, of course, a self-conscious trait of postmodernism. Being rooted in the negative premise that the notion of objective reality is suspect, it does not strive to overcome the limitations of subjective perspectives but rather embraces them. The postmodern philosophy by no means denies this, being overtly unconcerned with arriving at any higher immutable truths. But what of when postmodern becomes prefixed to spirituality—something that surely is concerned with higher truths? Viewed through the lens of traditional Islamic metaphysics, this presents a fundamental incompatibility. Spirituality, at least in the Muslim mind, strives toward eternity and the establishment of a fixed praxis that remains just as immutable as the truths it invokes. Meanwhile, postmodernity, in its liquid state, is characterized by its amorphous quality; the practices of witchcraft on TikTok, for example, are ever changing and formless. Bauman once observed that “we have entered a time in which formlessness is the fittest of forms.”14 These liquid spiritualities, then, represent a formless fluidity that is swayed singlehandedly by the nafs, symbolizing a departure from the immutable character of traditional religious metaphysics.

This can be further explored in light of Neoplatonic metaphysics, which was embraced by several medieval Muslim thinkers such as al-Fārābī and the Persian mystic Suhrawardī. Although their synthesis of Qur’anic and Greek philosophy has been contested by several schools of Islamic theology, some aspects of their interpretation of the Neoplatonist cosmology of emanation can help our understanding of postmodernity and postmodern spirituality. In the cosmology of emanationism, all created reality flows from a metaphysically singular and perfect source—The One, which is tantamount to God—but weakens as it pervades the material realm, where it manifests as multiplicity. This diffusion reveals how oneness transmutes into a plurality of physical forms and appearances, but it also reveals that while The One itself is eternal, the material existences derived from it are temporal, being subject to the “generation and corruption” of their corporeal condition. Such is the world of constant flux alluded to in Book 7 of Plato’s Republic. In Suhrawardī’s adaptation of emanationism, known as illuminationism, he analogizes this through the metaphor of light. For him, The One or God can be represented by a supreme brightness—the light of lights (nūr al-anwār)—which dims in varying degrees as it pervades the created world. The material realm, then, being the lowest stratum, becomes the realm of shadows; though the human spirit or ĥ contains an innate “spark” of the divine light (fiţrah), its physical environment lies far from the metaphysical luminosity of the absolute.

Interpreting this somewhat imaginatively, the postmodern condition can be conceived as being bound to this realm of flux and shadow. While traditional metaphysics seeks to elevate the intellect toward the conceptual realm of higher forms and ultimately The One (via religious practice and, in turn, the apprehension of abstract truths), postmodernism—concerned solely with contingent appearances represented by the subjective perspective—severs itself from the reality that lies above the lowest metaphysical strata of existence. To develop Suhrawardī’s imagery, it remains metaphysically in the dark. Now, this is not to suggest that the relative darkness of the material world is antithetical to the Divine; indeed, it is still a creation of God, and to propose otherwise would be to diverge into gnostic heresy. However, one can hold that all creation is conceived by God while also identifying that not all creations are equally illuminated by His primordial brightness. It is the spiritual responsibility of the human being, then, to discern and differentiate which creations are more imbued with divine qualities than others. The Qur’an instructs us to seek the inner truths concealed by outward appearances; one recurring example is to perceive āyāt or “signs” of God in the tangible world.

As al-Fārābī himself states, the material world is an expression of God, albeit one that has the qualities of a shadow; it is a relative impression of His supreme light. The relative level of existence does indeed have a purpose in enabling the senses to grasp the outward forms of the Divine, but once it has served this purpose, it must be transcended. As Mehdi Ha’iri Yazdi summarizes, for al-Fārābī, “all ostensible human intellectual acts and abstractions could not have more than a receptive part or preparatory role in the act of emanation by the Divine Forms on the transparent tablet of our potential intellect.” 15

The realm of existence where sense perception dominates—which plays this receptive part in the human comprehension of spiritual principles—constitutes the relative existence of flux and shadow. Intriguingly, works of Islamic mystical or Sufi literature have adopted the imagery of shadows to represent this relative existence. According to Javad Nurbakhsh, the late Iranian mystic and master (pīr) of the Nimatullahi Sufi order, the “field of shadows” that can be found in several works of Sufi poetry “refers to relative existence whose appearance becomes manifest by the determined forms of contingent essences.”16  He specifies that these essences “are non-existent in any real sense” but rather “are only made manifest by the Divine Name, The Light (al-Nūr) which grants them an external sort of existence.” Shadows are indeed impressions of God, but they are only relative; the light, which grants them that existence in the first place, must be sought. The Qur’an alludes to this in the verse, “Have you not seen how your Lord spreads the shadow?” (25:45), which, as Nurbakhsh clarifies, pertains to “the spreading out of relative existence upon contingent beings” and the notion that light must ultimately be discerned from shadow.

Considering that the epistemological reign of the nafs is inextricably bound to the contingent world (the realm of relative existence or shadows), the current postmodern forms of spirituality are antithetical to several aspects of Islamic metaphysics. Nevertheless, these forms of spirituality may indeed be sincere expressions of a yearning for something beyond the realm of shadows. As the Islamic doctrine of the fiţrah holds, all human beings possess an innate awareness of God; this is itself an immutable truth, even in a secular age when materialism and naturalism are the default. The currents of the liquid postmodern world—made ever more rapid by the detraditionalizing forces of the internet—may sway individuals away from objective truth and down into the inescapable whirlpools of their own subjective perception, but they originate in that primordial longing for it. A greater degree of nuance would serve any investigation of the recent wave of postmodern spiritualities on the internet, as would an assessment of the possibilities of metaphysical revival—or perhaps, re-enchantment—in a liquid world.

The artwork above is by the American visual artist Askia Bilal (, whose work is inspired by a variety of intellectual and aesthetic traditions, from Sufi poetry to Greek and Roman mythology, from Platonic philosophy to hip hop. 


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