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Hikmatul Waqt: Islam and the Crises of Modernity

Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have always been in touch with the intellectual knowledge traditions of their era, the thought trends, and the underlying philosophical and moral impulses of the society they inhabited. We have to be the ambassadors of Islam by the mere force of our character and morals. To become a means and a conduit of guidance for all people. People often say in social justice that our liberation is inextricable from the liberation of others. That no one is free until all of us are free. That’s liberation. 


Islam and Modernity

This is a hot topic now in both Muslim and secular spaces. As for the secular point of view – the question of Islam and modernity is quite clear to them. For the secularists, religion is at best a relic of the past and has no place in the modern world. At worst, religion impedes progress and modernization, and rationality. Religion is something to be relegated to the most private aspects of life- all other aspects of life -social, political, economic – must be completely removed from religion. And in our country, the other spectrum of secularism – which is right-wing nationalism advocates for religion in the public sphere but in its most perverse form- is shaped by hatred, mindless populism, pseudoscience, the cult of personality, etc.

As Muslims our position on modernity is way more nuanced than either of these approaches. And this is one of the hallmarks of the hikmah (wisdom) of Islam. That far from being divorced from reality as the secularists claim, it’s known as “deen ul fitra”– very much in tune with the needs of humankind.

Our aqeedah (belief) is that Islam is very much equipped to deal with the exigencies and vicissitudes of time from one chapter of history to the next till the Day of Judgment.

Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have always been in touch with the intellectual knowledge traditions of their era, of the thought trends, and of the underlying philosophical/moral impulses of the society they inhabited.

Thus, the Islamic civilization has contributed to some of the most foundational branches of knowledge which are still being used today by the modern world – so whether that be grammar, logic, philosophy, theology, political administration, science and technology, art and architecture and so much more.

However, we are in the era of modernity. What exactly do we mean by modernity? 

The current era in which we are living is often called modernity where humankind seems to have reached unprecedented levels of progress mainly in the technological domain.

There are certain characteristics of modernity in the historical sense: 

The emergence of bureaucracy, rapid urbanization, the rise of nation-states, and accelerated financial exchange and communication; LPG, neoliberalism, capitalism; these are all features of modernity in the historical sense.

If we look at the Indian context specifically, it’s very interesting to note that the rise of right-wing nationalism has been at the same time as the LPG reforms and the process of India slowly but surely becoming a neoliberal economic system, the rise of crony capitalism, technocracy, corporatocracy, etc.

The rise of right-wing nationalism in our country coincided with the new era of modernity. And the implications of that on our society, our culture, our politics, and our collective spiritual state, would be something very interesting to explore.

Philosophically speaking, modernity is also an idea.

Yousuf writes in Traversing Tradition,

“Not just a period, modernity is also an ideology (modernism), a worldview, and a set of material conditions. It does not exclusively affect politics, but permeates every domain of human behavior and organization, often in subtle or unconscious ways.”[1]

The dominant ideological impulses of modernity are mainly:

  • Individual subjectivity, 
  • Scientific explanation and rationalization, 
  • A decline in emphasis on religious worldviews.

So this brings us to understanding the moral and philosophical crises of our present times.

Acknowledging that there are various burning issues and if we are to address them appropriately, we have to understand the roots of the problem.

So to discuss a few issues out of the many.

  • Understanding the underlying impulses behind majoritarian persecution. Indian society is in a crisis and is struggling with how to address deep-seated civilizational insecurities.

Christophe Jaffrelot in his book on RW nationalism gives a compelling theory the name of the chapter: Stigmatising, threatening, and emulating others – the formation of Hindu nationalism. A similar theory is given by Anne Norton in her book, “The Muslim Question”:

“The concerns the West directs at Muslims map sites of domestic anxiety. European states— indeed all the states of the liberal and social democratic West— are faced with continuing questions about the status of women, sexuality, equality and difference, faith, and secularism. They are fueled by anxieties over the meaning of the past and the direction of the future. “Norton shows how opposition to Islam diverts our attention from the questions of our day— “the status of women, sexuality, equality, and difference, faith and secularism.”[2]

At the heart of the crisis in Indian society is their anxiety about their lack of true faith, lack of being rooted in a robust tradition grounded in true knowledge, the foundational basic framework for understanding how to navigate life in this world and thus, the attack on Islam and Muslims is a projection of their own civilizational insecurities.

  • Majoritarianism is not just a political crisis but a sign of mass spiritual sickness.

The cure for that would only be for them to recognize the desperate cry of the nafs (soul) for truth and guidance and to consider the solutions given by Islam for the spiritual sicknesses that modernity particularly faces.

The issue of caste system.

Caste system – its origins, its practice, its changing evolving forms and all the evils it has given rise to caste-based atrocities and violence. Every aspect of Indian society and body politic is pervaded by the poison of casteism. 

Fundamentally, the issue of caste, in a way, is theological because it raises critical questions about the nature of God, Divine Decree, and the concept of human origin. No amount of protective laws or affirmative action is going to get rid of caste-based violence unless there is a spiritual transformation.

The only effective antidote is belief in God Almighty, the guidance given to us by His Noble Prophet Muhammad SAW. All human beings trace their lineage to a common ancestor, Prophet Adam (peace be upon him) and therefore by virtue of being Bani Adam (the children of Adam) all human beings are deserving of respect, equality, and living a life of dignity and freedom from discrimination. Allah Ta’ala Says in the Holy Quran: 

And indeed We have honoured the Children of Adam…”[3]

God Almighty Has Honoured all human beings, Honoured them all equally without discrimination. The violent categories of race, caste and others which some human beings have manufactured and thrust upon other human beings is not acceptable to God. He, Mighty and Majestic, has not authorized this in any way at all. Islam says there is no theological sanction for this violent discrimination. People make up their own religious texts and justify this on the basis of their scriptures but it is their own manufacturing. 

Muslims in India have historically internalized the caste system. This is a great tragedy and a matter of great shame for us. It betrays a lack of understanding of the basic concepts of the deen. The reason we should take the issue of caste seriously is that we, as Muslims, as those who have been blessed with the gift of Divine Guidance, if we don’t address this issue in a God-oriented way, then other people will address it in their own ways. And because these approaches are not shaped by Divine Guidance, they aren’t working and the issue is simply getting worse day by day.

Islam has a lot to offer in this regard beyond correcting beliefs and attitudes.

Materially, the Islamic way of life can transform the conditions of a caste-based society because Islam focuses not only on transforming spiritual conditions but it also focuses on changing the practical, material conditions as well. Alhamdulillah, Islam is a very practical deen (complete way of life).

The Islamic community system of attending masjid, all people praying in congregation side by side regardless of background, meeting, and interaction at masjid- can serve as an effective antidote to untouchability.

Islamic injunction of zakat and emphasis on sadaqah-infaq can play a powerful role in serving the purpose of redistribution and circulation of wealth and resources.

These things, if implemented correctly, can go a long way in resolving the crisis of caste.

It is very sad to know that in North India especially, casteist mindsets among UC Muslims exist towards Muslims from backward caste backgrounds in the form of “casteist slurs, the denial of burial grounds, separate mosques for higher and lower castes and untouchability.”

How tragic and how utterly contradictory to the teachings of Islam. Muslims should seriously do some self-introspection in this regard.

The situation of Women’s rights 

We all know the grim situation in our country concerning women’s safety and especially the safety of marginalized women.

Violence against women is so commonplace and normalized because the dehumanization of women at the hands of a violent misogynist culture is complete. Sexual violence against women stems from a deeply twisted idea – that in doing that despicable act, the perpetrator has somehow “humiliated” her and “stolen” her “honor” and her “worth”.

 When Islam first arrived in Arabia, it reformed the culture itself. It sought to effect a paradigmatic transformation in the prevailing attitudes mindsets and norms regarding women and their honor and dignity. The same society that used to bury alive infant girls; where prostitution was rampant; where no woman was safe from molestation, assault, and disrespect; In a matter of two decades that same society became famous in the premodern world for according dignity and respect for women.

In the 7th century, when other cultures of the world were still afflicted with the scourge of women’s oppression; in that point in time Islam spoke of women as equal halves of humanity, as persons complete in their humanity based on being the Children of Adam, a woman’s honor and dignity were declared sacrosanct, her rights to life, education, inheritance, equal spiritual status and most significantly her right to protection against every kind of harm.

So the writing is on the wall. No amount of capital punishment, carceralization, “women’s self-defense training”, surveillance technologies, etc nothing is going to guarantee women’s safety and security in this world, unless and until, there is a fundamental shift in the mindset and attitude in society concerning the sanctity of women and upholding their honour and dignity.

The Education system

There are several issues plaguing our education system. From lack of trained and qualified teachers, increasing cuts to funding, improper utilization of funds, poor and inadequate infrastructure, outdated and ineffective pedagogies (rote-learning) and evaluation systems (written exams) to stark divides on caste and class lines, blatant discrimination towards students of marginalized communities, to dire lack of inclusivity for students with both differently-abled students and special needs schoolchildren.

It is highly doubtful how the NEP 2020 would provide a solution to any of the above issues in a meaningful way. NEP’s so-called alternate model does not adequately address these glaring issues.

One issue among all these is the failure of imparting of value education and morals. Emphasis on maths and science alone and the erasure of humanities has had disastrous consequences.The ones who built the gas chambers at Auschwitz were educated engineers. That incident was proof that education devoid of values and morals produces individuals that are not really “human”.

This is demonstrated by the fact that we have data scientists and engineers becoming cogs in the machine of an emerging amoral technocracy with its completely unethical collection of data of people and enabling surveillance and control over marginalized communities.

We have highly educated people publicly making the most embarrassing statements about social and political issues. How many doctors and professors have you seen recently making casteist statements about the reservation issue? 

Without even getting into the reservation debate, it’s possible to discuss the issue without resorting to blatant casteism and yet, see how much ignorance there is among common people even educated ones, about the history and current reality of caste-based inequality.

This is the cost of neglecting the humanities and liberal arts.

This is the cost of an education system that prioritizes marks and degree qualifications over refinement of character and teaching values, morals, and ethics.

If we want to fundamentally change the future of the education system, we can’t ignore the importance of moral transformation.

To truly understand current education systems and their problems, they have to be seen in their entire socio-political context- in other words- a neoliberal/capitalist economic system that sustains upon disposability of human labor, an increasingly informal economy, gig economy, the changing nature of work under capitalism, coupled with increasing turn towards majoritarianism along with complete lack of accountability of elected representatives; so the education system is only a reflection of dominant philosophy driving our entire system.

When it comes to addressing these issues, liberals tend to have a particular reaction that is rooted in the secular aqeedah- that religion should not have anything to do with laws, law-making, or ethics. For them, human rationality is enough. Meanwhile, leftists tend to focus solely on class analysis and that abolition of capitalism is the panacea for all evils, even social evils. Either way, wherever one falls on the secular spectrum, there seems to be a common disregard for the underlying metaphysical or philosophical roots of the crisis at hand. These roots can be traced back to a complete and total separation from the concept of God-Consciousness, Divine Law, and accountability in the Hereafter.

 As a result, even those who may have good intentions, including liberals and leftists, can unwittingly fall into the trap of Islamophobia or questionable moral standards. Any worldview that is not rooted in Tawheed, Risalah, and Akhirah is bound to fail. The only worldview that does is Islam.

Metaphysics is a lost science. Metaphysics by definition means going back to first principles. Going to the root, the core, or the heart of something. So as Muslims, we need to understand the root causes of all those major issues of our time. We have to understand the sickness to administer the cure.

Why? Why should we do this? Why should we care? Isn’t it better to just focus on our own religiosity/piety and leave the world to deal with its problems? We cannot afford to have this kind of thinking at all if we consider ourselves true Muslims. Because we have been entrusted with a very unimaginably, lofty responsibility. And that is the responsibility of Shahadat e Haqq (Witnesses to the Truth/Witnesses unto Mankind).

Allah Ta’ala says in the Holy Quran:

And it is thus that We appointed you to be the community of the middle way so that you might be witnesses to all mankind and the Messenger might be a witness to you.”[4]

What does it mean to be a witness to humankind?

Sayyid Abul A’la Maududi writes:

What does this duty of witness imply? Consider it carefully: You have been given Divine guidance, you have been shown the Truth. You must, therefore, establish by your testimony and witness its authenticity and truthfulness before all mankind. This is a testimony that will make the authenticity and truthfulness of Divine guidance self-evident, for all to see and a witness that will make it clear and indisputable for all people.

For this very purpose, all the Messengers were sent to the world; this was their primary duty. After them, their followers were entrusted with the same duty. And now the Muslim Ummah, as the successor to the Last Prophet, blessings and peace be on him, is charged with this very mission, just as he was charged with it during his lifetime.

Word-witness: In what way should our words witness the Truth? Through our speech and writing, we should proclaim and explain to the world the guidance that has come to us through God’s Messengers.

Act-witness: In what way should our acts and deeds witness to the Truth? For this purpose, the guidance that we hold to be true must be put into practice. Our actions should demonstrate the principles we profess to believe in.

Put simply: let our lives speak the truth, and let the world hear it not merely from our lips but also our deeds; let mankind witness all the blessings that the Divine guidance brings to human life. Let the world taste in our conduct, individual and collective, that sweetness and flavor which only faith in One God can impart to character and morality. Let the world see what fine examples of humanity are fashioned by Islam, what a just society is established, what a sound social order emerges, what a clean and noble civilization arises, how science, literature, and art flourish and develop on sound lines, what a just economy compassionate and free from conflict is brought about. Indeed, how every aspect of life is set right, developed, and enriched.[5]

And to fulfill the responsibility of Shahadat e Haqq, we need to have something called Hikmatul Waqt.

Wahbib bin Munnabbee, the great Tab’iee Imam, used to say:

It is the duty of every thinking, intellectual person (aaqil) to be aware/knowledgeable about his times. That he understands the times, and the age that he lives in.

The fact is our society is in deep trouble; going through tremendous fitnah (tribulation). We, as the Muslim community, have to be the hope and the salvation and the deliverance for people but how will we do this, if we ourselves are not knowledgeable about Islam? If we ourselves have not taken the effort to learn and understand the incredibly rich and robust legacy and heritage of Islamic civilization and its contribution to sciences, arts, philosophy, technology, development, etc.

If we ourselves do not live up to the high moral character that is expected from Muslims? How far away have we strayed as a community from following the teachings of Islam? 

Not doing khud malamati (self-lamentation), rather let’s do collective ehtesab- (introspection) .

We have to educate ourselves about our deen. We have to make a conscious effort to follow the teachings of the Quran, Hadith, and Sunnah in our lives. We have to strive to uphold Huqooqul Ibad (the rights of the creatures of God).

We have to be the ambassadors of Islam by the mere force of our character and morals. When we engage with these issues of modernity we have to follow the principle of Ummat e Wast (the community of the middle path). Neither do we become so engulfed by modernity that we abandon Islam altogether and neither do we have to become recluses and refuse to engage with modernity at all. Rather, in the words of Shaykh Abdal Halim Murad, Muslims should learn to “ride the tiger” of modernity.[6]

So we engage with these problems in the light of the Quran, Hadith, Sunnah, and the great contributions of the scholars and intellectuals of our tradition. We will find a lot of clarity in the thoughts and writings of our pious predecessors. So, one of the ways, we can be Shahadat e Haqq is to try and reform culture.

As discussed, the reformation of culture is very critical and has immense potential to effect mass transformation. The neo-Marxist thinker, Antonio Gramsci gave the concept of “war of position”. It is related to his theory of “cultural hegemony”.

The war of position is an intellectual and cultural struggle whereby the proletariat seeks to replace the bourgeoisie culture (which is how capitalism manufactures consent from the masses to maintain its hegemony of the socio-economic and political systems), with a proletarian culture with its own unique revolutionary values, inculcating class consciousness and moving the masses towards revolutionary action.

In modern Indian history, during the colonial era, there were many reform movements in the country by all religious communities including Muslims but, if you’re aware of the Gandhi-Ambedkar, one of the major blunders of the nationalist independence movement was that it delayed the social transformation in favor of political independence.

With the consequence, that is best described by Dr Ambedkar: 

“Democracy in India is only a top-dressing on Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

As mentioned earlier, Islam reformed the culture itself. It struck at the root cause of the crisis.

In the 7th century, pre-Islamic Arabia, numerous social evils were being practiced not very different from our time today. Female infanticide, violent and dehumanizing practices against women, incessant wars, frequent bloodshed, dacoitry, interest, deceitful business practices, etc. At the root of all these social evils were polytheism and idol worship. Because polytheism by its very essence, completely negates concepts of God-consciousness, living a life of obedience to God Almighty out of gratitude for the favors He Has bestowed and being mindful of the accountability/answerability to Him in the Next Life.

Therefore, when the Noble Prophet of Allah (SAW) called his tribe towards Islam – towards Tawheed; initially he and his Noble Companions faced immense persecution but eventually, the light of Islam emerged victorious, and a civilization once steeped in the darkness of decadence and evil customs, by the Grace of Allah Ta’ala Guidance, became the progenitors of the greatest, noblest, and most learned and highly intellectual civilizations in history. This is one of the historical proofs of Islam. This same concept can be applied to our situation.

Now we see in the debates around elections and political parties and voting strategies; what is missing from the conversation is that it doesn’t matter what ideology comes to power – unless the spiritual and moral rot is rectified, nothing is going to change. So striving for moral spiritual transformation of the society around us should be our top priority. We have to replace the culture of hatred of others with that of love, brotherhood, and compassion. We have to replace the culture of disrespect and dehumanization of women and marginalized communities with that of honor and dignity and mutual respect and social harmony. We have to replace the culture of anti-intellectualism with a culture that values and venerates knowledge and wisdom.

There’s a quote from Paulo Freire; when I read it, I thought this is exactly what is there in the Hadith.

Paulo Freire says: “It is only the oppressed who, by freeing themselves, can free their oppressors.[7]

A hadith of the Holy Prophet of Allah (peace be upon him):

Allah’s Apostle said, “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is an oppressed one. People asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! It is all right to help him if he is oppressed, but how should we help him if he is an oppressor?” The Prophet said, “By preventing him from oppressing others.”[8]

The situation of our people is like a wounded bird trapped in a cage, thrashing around restlessly, being driven to mindless destruction from the incessant rebellion of their fitra (true human nature), of their nafs against the wrongdoings they are seeing; they are desperately craving for Hidayat (true guidance); they are desperate for a path to salvation. We have to free the bird from the cage, heal its wound and set it free.

“You are now the best people brought forth for (the guidance and reform of) mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah.”[9]

This is our Divinely appointed summons, the Prophetic mission, the ultimate responsibility as a Muslim.

It’s up to us to present the light of Islam and the solutions to all the problems that we are facing today; it’s up to us to present it to people in the best way possible. To become a means, a conduit of guidance for all people. People often say in social justice, that our liberation is inextricable from the liberation of others. That no one is free until all of us are free. That’s liberation, that’s to do with the worldly realm.

But the dunya (the worldly realm) is going to come to an end but the Akhirah (Hereafter/Afterlife) is eternal. Whoever enters Paradise, will live there forever and whoever enters Hellfire will suffer there forever. There is no third option in the Hereafter and therefore if we wish for salvation for ourselves, we have to help others also achieve salvation. To become a means for their salvation and it is only in desiring the salvation of all, can we hope to attain our salvation.

[Note: This is the transcription of an online talk given for the Muslim Women’s Study Circle]

[1] https://traversingtradition.com/2018/03/05/modernity-why-dissent/

[2] The Muslim Question by Anne Norton

[3] The Quran Chapter 17 Verse 70)

[4] The Quran Chapter 2 Verse 143

[5] Witness unto mankind by Sayyed Abul Aala Maududi

[6] https://traversingtradition.com/2019/02/18/shaykh-abdal-hakim-murad-on-riding-the-tiger-of-modernity/

[7] Pedagogy of the oppressed by Paula Freire

[8] https://sunnah.com/bukhari:2444

[9] The Quran Chapter 3 Verse 110