Why Muslims reject modernity- by Khaled Ahmed

Posted on August 15, 2010 by


It is often said that Muslims in the 21st century have rejected modernity. What they are in fact rejecting is the process of suiting themselves to changing circumstances. There are two kinds of thinking: one that seeks to change in order to relate to times and one that seeks to change the world to suit its tenets. There are two ways principles can be formulated. One is to establish them on the basis of facts; the other, on the basis of doctrine. The latter necessitates coercion.

In the 20th century Muslims embraced modernity by accepting the nation-state. In the 21st century they are rejecting the nation-state through a free-wheeling jihad. (Read Ayman Al Zawahiri’s 65-page rejectionist treatise on the Constitution of Pakistan: The Morning and the Lamp.) Their laws increasingly reflect this rejection. The ‘rational’ is being replaced by the ‘doctrinal’. And the popular furore against this or that foe is propelled by the urge to change the world to suit it to doctrine.

A very interesting book Muslim Modernities: Expressions of the Civil Imagination, Edited by Amyn B Sajoo, (IB Tauris 2008), discusses the Muslim attitude towards modernity. Each Muslim country has rejected modernity by first rejecting some of its thinkers. In the case of Pakistan, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan and Allama Iqbal have had to be rejected to pave the way for the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Modernity in the West is based on an inductive assessment of the world. The book traces this modernity to Max Weber (1864-1920) and his classic book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), providing a rational account of the cultural and social convergences taken to be formative in Western modernity. Later, “rationality” became attached to the idea of secularism or separation of religion from the nation-state.

It is by rejecting this “separation” that the Muslims take their first step towards dismissing modernity from their universe. Since doctrine is impervious to experiment, no amount of evidence against the “religious state” can lead to self-correction. Let us see how we have rejected Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, as pointed out by a Pakistani intellectual, Muhammad Ali Siddiqi. Pakistan as a state has ignored his following insights:

1) Nothing in the Holy Quran can be wrong or incorrect or ahistorical;

2) Nothing in the Quran can be contrary to the laws of nature;

3) There is no such thing as abrogation (naskh), using a later text to trump an earlier one with which it seems to disagree;

4) Bank interest is not the same as “riba”; and

5) Hudood punishments must be reassessed in the light of changing times.

The rejection of Allama Iqbal took place formally during a national seminar presided over by General Ziaul Haq in Karachi on 25 December 1986, the birth anniversary of Jinnah. The topic was ‘What is the Problem Number One of Pakistan?’ Justice Javid Iqbal, then a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, got up during the conference and said that the “hudood” enforced by General Zia had been set aside by Allama Iqbal in his Sixth Lecture.

Needless to say, General Zia announced that he had to ignore Allama Iqbal. Later, the Appellate Shariat Bench of the Supreme Court also rejected his view of bank interest which Iqbal shared with Sir Syed Ahmad Khan. Javid Iqbal in his latest book Khutbaat-e-Iqbal (Sang-e-Meel 2008) adds more of Iqbal that we have rejected: divorce by wives, contraception, monogamy, shares markets and insurance companies (p.212).

Today, nothing negates modernity more than jihad. It undermines the nation-state, and destroys the state that organises it. The scattering of the Pakistani state is owed to it.

Source: Express Tribune