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.