Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Noah Schiller: Western Modernism’s Clash with Islamic Civilization

I think it is somewhat indisputable that religion is a major factor in a Muslim disenchantment with modernity, because Islamic Civilization has been, since its inception, exactly that: a civilization founded on Islamic values, guided in many facets by the Quran, and which never made a formal distinction between “church and state,” as has been made in the West.

Although it is difficult to define where exactly it begins and ends, Modernity is often associated with a rise of secularism, and of rulership which is legitimized not on the basis of divine right, but on other bases such as rule of the “people,” or “democracy.” Modernism is also often associated with the rise of a certain individualism, of the idea that a person’s identity – their values, and goals – is not necessarily tied to a larger social body – their religion, place of origin, ethnicity, etc. – but instead can determined by oneself: you define what your life is about. This condition has the potential to be very liberating for those who feel squashed by social constraints and are lucky enough to be afforded such a privilege, but it also gives rise to existentialism: without your family, community, or God telling you what’s most important in life, where do you have to go, what is the meaning of it all? As such, the various forces of modernism, in Europe, and consequently around the world, caused a great upheaval of traditional structures of value and continues to create a world unsure of itself and vying for some kind of secure identity, or social reality.

This process unfolded in the Muslim world as well, but in a drastically different way. In Europe, modernity resulted from the continent’s drastic social shifts in the preceding several centuries and developed from those conditions internally over time. This change was traumatic enough for many Europeans, but over time they were able to willingly adjust to their strange new world, since for many it was the bringer of positive changes. In the Muslim world this process could not have been more different. Modernity for them was not something which arose organically from within society’s changes, but something forced upon them by colonist enterprises: a result of foreign occupation born of bloodshed and defeat. As such, such drastic changes in social life were not greeted with open arms – naturally one experiencing such trauma would receive these changes as foreign impositions, alien forms of life which they must adhere to against their will.

Up until the colonial period, the Muslim world had been the center of civilization for the past 1000 years; for the longest time it was Europeans who looked to the Muslim world as the source of progress. In addition, a crucial aspect of the long-term success of Islamic civilization was its very reliance on Islam as a unifying factor, evident in the fact that there is no accurate way to refer to the civilization other than the “Muslim World,” or the “Islamic Empire.” It could not be defined as Arabic, Persian, Asian, or African, since it was all of those things: Islam was the force that was able to unite these disparate places into a cohesive cultural unit. As Ross E. Dunn notes, the “Dar al-Islam,” or “Abode of Islam,” was the idea that the civilized world was where Islam was present, and that any Muslim should be able to travel freely within it simply by the virtue that they worshipped the same God. As such, religion became the defining feature of what was considered “civilized,” and the institutions of the Muslim world reflected that. In schools, or Madrasas, whether men learned science, language, law, calligraphy, poetry, or philosophy, these fields were assumed to be informed Islamic values and seen as endeavors extending from Quranic insight and the grace of Allah. In addition, it was assumed that the highest law in the land, the ultimate authority, was the word of Allah, and rulership was expected to be in observance of that. There was no such distinction between church and state, of a “religious” world and a “secular” world within Islamic civilization, God was always a part of the conversation to some extent. As such, the myriad triumphs of Islamic civilization were seen as intrinsically tied to the religion itself, and everyday life was cohesive across nations because of this common adherence.

With the advent of colonialism and the introduction of modernity to the Muslim world also came the idea that sovereignty of the state backed by the “people, or “democracy,” was the highest authority of society, not God. Not only might this have seemed a denial of the most powerful force which made Islamic societies thrive, it was a message brought by threat of violence, and hence was not a consensual process. Naturally this did not tend towards Muslim acceptance of this foreign worldview. In addition to this, Islamic society’s stress on the importance of family as social glue was also threatened by the modern culture of individualism: the idea that it was more important for a person to be self-determined and self-defined than it was to make your family and community proud and seek a life in alignment with God seemed to threaten the very fabric of Islamic society. Perhaps the Muslim world would not be so disenchanted with modernity if it had been something which arrived naturally and on equal terms with an Islamic worldview. Rather it was something that infringed on a cohesive, pre-existing value system and way of life. It is no surprise that forcing such a drastic change in social dynamics upon anyone could only result in the traumatic, extreme responses which occurred.

Works Cited:

Mahallati, Jafar. Emergence of Nationalism, Fundamentalism, and Political Islam. Lecture. 1, November, 2017.

Dunn, Ross E. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century. University of California Press, 2012.

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