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Islam and the Problems of Modernity


Modernity is the frame that has recently come to dominate discussions in the social sciences. It is a paradigm that is not only shaping the views and ideas of the academic world, but also, in a slightly watered down version, informing the analysis presented in mainstream media. Any discussion of the Muslim population in the West gravitates around issues of a secular modernity and an entrenched parochialism. Such discussions often showcase certain Muslims as exemplary subjects who have integrated with the former and (almost always) a silent band of others stubbornly aligning themselves to the latter. Rarely do we have an opportunity to listen to a prolonged discussion on the nature of the relationship between Islam and Modernity from Muslims who eschew these narrow dichotomies. One such example was made possible by the Islamic society (Isoc) at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. This review essay focuses on that event at SOAS and looks to contribute to the topic through an appraisal of the two talks delivered there, first by  Dr Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad and then by brother Abdul Hakim Murad.1

What was quite a coup on the part of the SOAS Isoc was the fact that it managed to bring together two personalities from significantly different backgrounds, the paths of whom do not otherwise (as far as I am aware) cross. This is an important first observation since it alludes to the nature of so much of the Da’wah scene. Bound within certain circles, individual Muslims do not always go out of their way to listen to speakers other than those from a particular spectrum with which they are familiar.

As well as their backgrounds the two speakers showed two distinct approaches in the delivery of their talks. Sheikh Haitham (illustrating perhaps his fiqhi background) approached the topic with a lucid logic that made it easy to follow. He built into his lecture several points that worked like links within a chain, helping the listener keep apace with the speaker. Brother Murad’s style on the other hand was much more of a narrative.

He prefaced this at the start by stating that he was going to restrict himself to ‘a few reflections’. His reflective approach lent his lecture a degree of freedom to muse over the topic, though in the end it lacked perhaps the finality shown by Sheikh Haitham. Of course, from one perspective the element of finality may be seen as out of place for a topic that resists easy closures and, as I will argue, foreclosed the issue too soon to a more stinging critique. In the end it was such a critical engagement with Modernity that seemed to lack in both talks, particularly ironic in light of brother Murad’s opening wherein he criticised Muslim responses to Modernity as lacking thoughtful analysis. This notwithstanding, it was Sheikh Haitham who made a greater attempt to present some definition of Modernity to begin a normative discussion. Murad’s approach presented Modernity as wholly mystifying, a ‘juggernaut’ which resists easy definition. In the end though, a discussion on these terms may have proven too difficult and so he presented his own take on Modernity and its ‘fundamental project of reinventing the subject’. In his view then, Modernity is the process in which human beings are seen as little more than matter and by consequence, malleable and transformable. His example of a professor at LSE who claims that ‘by the time he retires he will be able to upload his brainwaves on to the Internet and will [become] immortal’ is absurd – no doubt – but perhaps only a little more so than Murad’s own claim that ‘this is the prevailing paradigm’. What is amiss here is that although it seems a sophisticated analysis, it is not precisely because it presents this feature of modernity as paradigmatic of modernity and, in his lecture’s singular attention to it, as also the core of what is considered Modernity. In truth, what brother Murad identifies as a core is better presented as a result of Western Modernity, not its centre.

Sheikh Haitham’s lecture on the other hand probed deeper into the issue, albeit with less flair than Murad. Taking the issue of Modernity from a socio-historical angle helped the Sheikh to draw attention to the fact that Modernity rests primarily on a simple notion of flux. Beginning his lecture by establishing the need each society has for order, Sheikh Haitham presented three options of how a society may deal with the need for order – imagined as a set of guidelines, values, beliefs, maxims – and the reality of an ever-changing world. Premised on these two pivotal axioms he went through the three options: 1) You can change the order (set of rules) to match the ever-changing realities of the world 2) You can repress changes in the world to try to maintain the original “reality” so as to maintain the order (set of rules). 3) You can operate a dual system wherein some of the rules remain constant and where certain changes in the world are prevented so as to maintain a world where those original “constant” rules remain valid. Alongside this system you maintain a parallel system for the development of new rules to govern positive and acceptable changes in the world.

Although Sheikh Haitham acknowledged that the question naturally arises as to who decides which are a) the constant rules and b) the changes that are acceptable, he did not elaborate on how the two systems would interact, an omission which becomes significant as I will show below. To answer the question of who decides (a) and (b) he called on the definition of Islam that he gave at the start of his talk. Using some textual evidence and his own reasoning, Sheikh Haitham showed that ‘Islam is simply submission to God’ because, as he puts it, God as the creator of mankind knows best about His creation and so submission to His will is a logical conclusion.

Leaving aside the shortcomings of his arguments for a moment, the heart of his argument and his understanding of Western Modernity is here expressed. {quotes}For Sheikh Haitham it is the impression of flux, human agency, and a suspicion of restrictions that characterises this “juggernaut” we refer to as Modernity.{/quotes}

In his view, what this initiates is a relativism that is the dark underbelly of Western Modernity, hence his rhetorical question, ‘What assurance can Modernity give me, or this approach [that rules (social order) must be subservient to changes in the “reality” of the world] give me that…paedophilia will not be a legal practice in Europe?’

Though brother Murad may have had this in mind when he criticised the ‘…naïve triumphalism that sometimes invades Muslim discourse… [which sees] the Muslim world as the last refuge of sanity – the buttress rock of ages against which the waves of a cruel and relativising modernity fruitlessly crash’, his very dismissal of this underbelly highlights his misreading of what the real driving force of “Modernity” is.2 This lack of insight is ironic since his very assertion that Islam must respond by calling to maintaining the integrity of the human self ought to direct him in seeing that what is problematic is precisely Modernity’s lack of a centre that holds. In light of this, his own derogatory remark for other Muslims’ imagining of Western Modernity as waves shows up his naivety not theirs, since that image is not wholly out of sync with what little “essence” we can claim “Modernity” has. Indeed, Sheikh Haitham’s example of homosexuality is a good example of when new waves end up changing previous social and moral orders.3 Moreover, the case of paedophilia in these terms strikes at the very heart of Western Modernity’s inability to position itself against any constant referent and this becomes a significant blind spot of Modernity and in those who, including Murad, seem to overlook it.

Where Sheikh Haitham’s assertion that Islam provides a constant referent safeguarding against a blind reverence of change is weak at the level of applicability. If we accept for arguments sake that precepts of Islam have been laid down by God, we cannot deny that these are dependent nonetheless on human mediation. Has God provided a list of constant rules or has a human agency drawn these out of God’s discourse with mankind (the Qu’ran)? How can Muslims claim any certainty of mitigating the misappropriation of Islamic precepts? And even if that referent (the Qu’ran and the Sunnah) is available, cannot the opposite of what we lay at the door of Western Modernity (its relativity) be placed at the door of Islam, namely a stubborn rigidity? If reflections on the sources can generate innumerable understandings (as is believed), is not the restriction of understanding the sources in light of pious predecessors (who could not but be limited in their own understandings) a precluding factor? When you have parallel systems, as in the third instance given by the Sheikh, what relation do the two share? Will not the rules that are constructed for new circumstances be limited to the “constant” rules, problematising how we approach reality? Take the example of homosexuality. If science can “prove” that homosexuality is borne of a biological/genetic disposition, will the strict adherence to the “constant” principles not prevent one from accepting this? Might it not in fact motivate an individual to single-mindedly pursue a falsification of the “fact” and claim some sort of evidence only to re-substantiate the “constant” principles, irrespective of how valid that evidence is? This, after all, is the attitude of many Evangelists and other religious/cult adherents. Can the response only be a fall back on dogma and belief that God would not make revelation conflict with empirical reality? I think there is a way around these conundrums but the omission of this is significant. One may only say, in defence of both speakers for what they left out, that the format of a lecture did not not allow for much digression.

{quotes}What is less easy to overlook is the lack of challenge made against the unitary notion of “Modernity” in both speakers’ talks.{/quotes}

Indeed, in some ways both speakers spoke about “Modernity” as if it was a given phenomena available for analysis outside of the discursive practices through which it is conceived. And in so far as they failed to challenge this, they failed to express the angle from which an understanding of Islam and “Modernity” may bear real fruit.

Any discussion of “Modernity” begins in the eighteenth century and with Europe. Subsequent markers are also identified – namely the French Revolution and Industrialisation – but all the histories of “Modernity” posit it as defining a moment of rupture and difference in “history” (Bhambra 2007). Rupture in the sense of transforming society from one that is agrarian to industrial, and difference in the sense of the uniqueness of Europe in achieving “Modernity”. This uniformity seems to cut across disciplinary and ideological/methodological divides. Bhambra provides a good list of this, showing the differently worded but essentially the same attitude in a neo-functionalist like Jeffery Alexander, to the structuration theorist Anothony Giddens, to a Marxist like Alex Callinicos. The dominant view amongst theorists then is that although the term “Modernity” is a category of Western history and reflexivity (Appadurai 1995) it has somehow extracted itself from this context and become a global phenomenon (Delanty 2004). What is even more extraordinary is that despite the strong non-universalising tendencies of post-structuralism and the influence this has borne since the 1960’s, a prominent voice in Western academia like Charles Taylor holds that certain features of “Modernity” (a concept that began its intellectual life as contextually bound to Europe) are universal (Taylor 1999).

In not highlighting these extraordinary discursory manoeuvres, the two speakers at the talk implicitly fed into the process by which “Modernity” has been reified. When one considers then the relationship between Islam and “Modernity” one must keep at the forefront the notion of the specificity of whatever features one identifies with “Modernity” as emerging from Western experience. By doing this one will present a case of a dialogue between two cultures and not some universal category that carries (implicitly) a positive valuation. Thus when one speaks (reluctantly) about other cultures’ encounter with “Modernity” one does not fix “Modernity” (as an ontological given) and measure the distance of other cultures to it. If “Modernity” is understood as contextually bound we can begin to ask how the West is affected by other cultures. If the answer is that the effects are limited, several lines of enquiry open: 1) Is there nothing worthy for Western “Modernity” to learn from other cultures? 2) Are there barriers to making a real, concerted and genuine exchange of ideas? 3) Is the influence between Western “Modernity” and other cultures lopsided?

Muhammed Asad begins Islam at the Crossroads with this very observation, ‘But whereas those two forces, the economic and the cultural, often go hand in hand, there is a difference in their dynamic rules. The elementary rules of economics require that the exchange of goods between nations be mutual; this means that no nation can act as buyer only while another nation is always a seller; in the long run, each of them must play both parts simultaneously, giving to, and taking from, each other, be it directly or through the medium of other actors in the play of economic forces. But in the cultural field this iron rule of exchange is not a necessity, at least not always a visible one: that is to say, the transfer of ideas and cultural influences is not necessarily based on the principle of give-and-take. It lies in human nature that nations and civilisations which are politically and economically more virile exert a strong fascination on the weaker or less active communities, and influence them in the intellectual and social spheres without being influenced themselves.’4

{quotes}By not recognising “Modernity” as being an abstraction from the history and culture of the West and presenting it as having an ontological reality and an ability to transcend its socio-historical context, one makes it harder to recognise what is going on.{/quotes}

As Bhambra points out, our conception of the “modern” is not far from the notion of “Modernity” – (“modern” is to be constantly looking to the future and to be innovating in all spheres of life) – and it is from the Western experience that this conception is drawn. Approaching “Modernity” as bearing universal features masks this point and the concomitant power dynamics that are practiced through it.

Bhambra’s text goes one step further and refutes the uniqueness of Europe and its claim to having arrived at “Modernity” endogenously. She shows that the story of “Modernity” has written out the role of other cultures in providing Europe with elements by which it concocted a totalising idea of the world being so different as needing a new explanatory category: Modernity. By doing this she brings to the forefront the power dynamics by which the West imagines a “Modernity” (using influences arriving from other places through its conquests and trade) and renders it universal by exporting it to other nations through Imperial machinery. Once there it quickly establishes its hegemony as unique and invites (perhaps even compels) adoption/appropriation (take the parliamentary system post-colonisation). Hence Gyan Prakash’s assertion that colonisation was a significant experience in constructing “Modernity” – colonisation did not occur after “Modernity”; Western “Modernity” was forged through colonisation. Thus the sad irony in the fact that while the ‘colonial encounters…constituted the circumstances for the emergence of…modernity’, “Modernity” as separated from its colonial relationship has come to be seen ‘as a resource for the emancipation of others’ (Bhambra 2007).

Such an analysis, albeit complicated, begins to dismantle the term “Modernity” and begins to undermine, in Asad’s terms, the fascination weaker communities feel toward those that are supposedly stronger. So, why is it necessary to identify “Modernity” as a culturally specific phenomenon conceived and reared in a European – and later in a more widely Western – socio-historical context? Firstly it is important because it helps prevent a reifying of “Modernity” as having an ontological reality that can then be abstracted to provide a transcendental veracity to the concept. Secondly, if imagined as being peculiar to the West, albeit with the acknowledgement that it did not arise endogenously, other cultures’ response to Western Modernity may be freed of the implicit evaluation that cultures resisting “Modernity” (in the singular, acultural, ontological form) are somehow backward etc. Resistance to Western Modernity would collapse back into the earlier terminology of Westernism and thus enliven within the minds of many Muslims (for here I am concerned with Islam, and Muslims in particular) that a blind or even obliging engagement with “Modernity” is not the approach. Instead, like always in Islamic history, Islam must encounter other cultures and absorb, adapt, and imagine what is good in them. Speaking about “Modernity” as something unified and culturally/contextually transcendent, positions it as totalistic and, with the value judgement it carries, positive/preferable/desirable.5 Indeed, it is only by fundamentally problematising the concept of “Modernity” that effective channels arise for, in brother Murad’s term, “putting the breaks on” the harmful aspects of Western Modernity or, as I would emphasise it, Westernism.

In lacking to critique the unitary nature assumed for “Modernity” as well as its universality, both Sheikh Haitham and brother Murad did not go far enough in problematising the possibilities of talking about Islam and Modernity. With this one could then really begin to probe the “juggernaut” and show it for what it is.




source: www.islam21c.com

1. My choice of prefix to address the two speakers is not to elevate one over the other. Rather, in calling Sheikh Haitham Al-Haddad, “Sheikh” I am merely acknowledging his formal educational certification, much in the same way as we would address a Professor only with that title if they had gained a recognised formal Professoriate. I respect both speakers as learned individuals and wish to deflect any potential (baseless) criticism from this angle.
2. Though I disagree with speaking about “Modernity” as a given I am following the speakers here in the manner in which they used the term. Below, I problematise this approach.
Brother Murad is therefore wrong to see the core (‘the prevailing paradigm’) as the ‘project to reinvent the human subject’ since this project is conceivable only when the core is properly taken as consisting of an absence (of a referent/constant/tawheed), or, to put it another way, as a rapaciousness for change born from that absence.
3. Brother Murad is therefore wrong to see the core (‘the prevailing paradigm’) as the ‘project to reinvent the human subject’ since this project is conceivable only when the core is properly taken as consisting of an absence (of a referent/constant/tawheed), or, to put it another way, as a rapaciousness for change born from that absence.
4. Asad, Muhammed, Islam at the crossroads, (Lahore: Dar Al-Andalus, 1982), pp13-14.
5. Nor is the recent scholarship on the possibilities of pluralizing modernity much good. The aim of this approach is to open up spaces in which one may speak about other cultures’ appropriation of the “universal” features of “Modernity” as being their form of modernity – hence the term Islamic Modernity. Bhambra’s recent book, Rethinking Modernity, is an important reality check for this theoretical turn, which in truth is not much of an improvement.

Arjun Appadurai and Carol A. Breckenridge, “Public Modernity in India” in, Consuming Modernity, ed. by Carol A. Breckenridge, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995)
Asad, Muhammed, Islam at the crossroads,(Lahore: Dar Al-Andalus, 1982)
Bhambra, Gurminder K., Rethinking Modernity, (New York: Palgrave, 2007)
Delanty, Gerard, Social theory in a changing world: conceptions of Modernity, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999)
Prakash, Gyan, Another Reason: Science and the imagination of modern India, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1999)
Taylor, Charles, ‘Nationalism and Modernity’ in, Theorising Nationalism, ed. by
Roland Beiner, (Albany: University of New York Press, 1999).

About Ahmed Ali


  1. Nelson Horton

    Member, The Order of Humanity
    Our real goals in life must be to recognize all Human Beings and all of Nature’s Creatures as deserving of our love and compassion. As Kung Fu Tze has observed, “Lack of Love and Wisdom lead to lack of Courtesy and Right…and without these, Humanity is a Slave.

  2. The Crux of the argument
    This is the first article I have read of yours and I really struggled to grasp it due to my weakness in the English language. Your comment “The Crux of the argument” made my struggle well worth it. Keep up the good work.

  3. a good read

  4. Really good piece – and as a result became well acquainted with a dictionary!!

  5. i hope i understood this as intented
    This has given me a conceptual understanding of modernity, where it originated from and how, and its ontological absence. so its no more than an triumphant attitude concucted from a western idea/mental construct. Human beings have no need to fully accept this idealogy since their core (Quran and Sunnah) is not absent although Islam’s rigidity is some aspects is loosened without compromising as such.

    I enjoy reading your mind – as books are said to present the authors mind on a tray – although your level of language and vocabulary surpasses mine. keep them coming inshAllah, i await the next intellectual surgery.

  6. who is abdul hakeem murad?

  7. The crux of the argument.
    I re-read the last part of this review and wanted to try to distill my argument more succinctly. The point is that to give a full critique of modernity is to show that it is a mental construct and not speak about it as if “it” exists. Being a mental/conceptual construct brings to the fore the question of “whose” mental construct this is and from “where” has this metal construct been conceived. The answer then becomes, it is the mental construct of Europe and the West, and has been conceived from their cultural historical experience. This in itself deals a severe blow to modernity as something universal and thus appropriable by all, and frames it as another cognitive medium for the exercising of power and (psychological) colonisation. I hope that makes it clearer insha’Allah.

  8. Mashallah, a very good and balanced review

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