Islam and Modernity: An Essay by Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

Search for “Modernity” by itself is a commendable desire and a natural urge of humankind. If this urge was not there, man would not have reached from stone-age to atomic era, could not have gained access to aeroplanes and spacecrafts from camels and bullock carts, nor would have progressed to electric bulbs and search lights from wax candles and earthen lamps. All these material advancements and scientific achievements, which have put nooses on the planets and conducted their buckets to the bottom of sea, are in fact an importunate effect of man’s inherent trait that he is a “modernist” and avaricious of “better to best” achievements.

Hence Islam, being a natural religion, is not opposed to modernism as far as it implies to be modem in simple sense of the word. Very often it has been appreciated and given due encouragement. Particularly the use of latest and newer methods in industry and craft and war technologies is proved from prophetic traditions. On the occasion of battle of Ahz’ ab when the tribes of Arabia joined together and raided Madinah, a renowned companion Salman F’arsi suggested a new technique for its defence which was never practised in Arabia before. He suggested digging of a trench around the city. This was hailed by the Prophet (PBUH) and he himself took part in digging the trench (Al-bidayah wan-Nih’ayah 4:95)

On the advice of Salman F’arsi the Prophet used two new weapons in the battle of Ta’if which, according to some narration, were constructed by Salman himself. One of them was catapult which served as cannon of the time;

the second was “Dababah” the Tank of the time (Al-bidayal wan-Nib’ayahy 4:95). Not only this, but Ibn-e-Kathir has reported that the Prophet (PBUH) had sent two of his companions, namely ‘Urwah Ibn Mas’ud and Ghitan Ibn Salmah to the city of Jarash in Syria to learn the techniques of manufacturing Dababas, Maujaniq (catapult) and Dhabur. Jarash was the famous industrial town of Syria and Dhabur was a weapon similar to Dababa which was used by Romans in their wars. These two companions could not take part in the battle of Hunayn and Ta’if because they were in Syria learning this technology (Tabqat-e-Ibn-e-Sa’ad vol 2, p. 221, Tarikh Tabri p. 353 vol. 2., Al-bidayah wan-Nih’ay ah p. 345 vol 4).

Ibn-e-Jarir has reported that the Prophet (PBUH) had asked the people of Madinah to promote agriculture by increased cultivation and use of camel skulls in their fields for increased production (Kinzul-‘Ammal p. 199 vol: 2).

According to one narration the Prophet advised people to promote their business by increasing trade in clothes because a cloth-merchant always wishes that the people remain prosperous and free from worries (Kanz-ul ‘Animal p. 199, vol. 2).

Also he persuaded many people to go to ‘Omman and Egypt for trade (Kanz-ul-‘Ammal p. 197, vol. 2)

To get the benefits of agriculture and minerals he said:

(Seek your living in the hidden wealth of the Earth) (Kanz-ul ‘Ammal p. 197, vol. 2).

The people of Arabia were ignorant of naval fleet, but the Prophet (PBUH) had joyously predicted that some of his people will travel through the sea for Jeh’ad in the way of Allah as if they are kings on a throne (Sahih Bukhari, kitab-ul-Jeh ad). He described several virtues of the first naval fleet of the Muslims. Consequently Hadhrat Mu’awiyah (RA) prepared the first naval fleet during the caliphate of Hadhrat Usman Ghani (RA). This enabled the access of Muslims to Cyprus, Rhodes, Crates and Scicily and then the entire Mediterranean Sea came under their command.

Hadhrat ‘Amr bin ‘Aas (RA) in the year 8 AH used the method of “Blackout” during the war ofZat-us-salasil against Lakbrn and Juzam, and ordered his troops that there should be no lights nor any fire kindled for three nights in the battlefield. When the troops reached Madinah and the Prophet (PBUH) came to know of it he inquired the reasons for this action. ‘Amr bin ‘Aas replied “0 Messenger of Allah, my troops were less in number than the enemy troops, hence I ordered to keep all lights off at night lest the enemy may boost its morale by finding the low count of our troops”. The Prophet was pleased with this tactics and offered his thanks to Almighty Allah (Jam’a -ul-Fawa’id p. 27, vol.2).

These were the few examples of the Prophetic era which have been casually mentioned. The aim of this description was to emphasize that Islam has not objected to any modern advancement just because it is recent and modem. Rather it has encouraged modernity for rightful purposes and within rightful limits.

However, in its own sphere it remains a reality that whereas modernity has elevated man’s material status to great heights, given him newer inventions and provided him with better means of comfort and ease in life, it has, at the same time, caused man to suffer from many depravities and led him to many disastrous ends. It is due to the same modernity that human history is full of Pharaohs and Shiddads who were not contented with any limit of power and authority. Their lust for authority took them to the extent of claiming deification to them. The same modernity gave birth to Hitler and Massolini whose ever increasing urge for expanding territorial boundaries demanded a new piece of land every day. It is the same modernity that has engulfed the whole world in the tornado of nudity and obscenity, and has provided an excuse for fornication, and more so it has led, under thunder claps to the passage of a bill in the British House of Commons to legalise homo­sexuality. It is in the shadow of the same modernity that Western women are openly displaying banners on the streets demanding legalisation of abortion. And it is the same modernity which is providing argument for justifying marriage with true sisters, daughters and other blood relations.

It proves that “Modernity” is a double-edged sword which can be used for the benefit of mankind and to cut its own throat. Hence any new thing is neither acceptable just for being new nor refutable just because it is new. That Much is clear and obvious. But the most important question is, “what is the criterion to decide which invention is useful and acceptable and which is harmful and not acceptable.

One way to determine this standard is to follow the dictates of reason alone. Hence, in secular societies this decision rests with logic and reasoning. But the difficulty in it is that those people who robbed humanity of all the attributes of morality and character in the name of ‘Modernity’ and put it on the road to barbarism and brutality were all men of reason and philosophy, and there was none of them who had not made pure intellect as their guide. The reason is that once free of the divine guidance of Wahy ‘intellect’ becomes like a beloved of every Tom, Dick and Harry, so that each of different kinds of contradictory elements considers it to be its exclusive property while in fact it belongs to none of them. In such an “Intellect” one can find glamorous justifications for every evil concept and filthiest of action. For example, the names of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cause the humanity sweat with shame, but the scholarly and world-fame book “Encyclopedia Britannica” has mentioned the disasters caused by Atom Bomb in these cities after the introductory sentence as follows:

“Former Prime Minister Winston Churchill estimated that by shortening the war the Atomic Bomb had saved the lives of 10,000,00 US soldiers and 250,000 British soldiers”. (Britannica vol.2, p. 647, 1950).

Several examples of similar rational interpretations can be presented. With due apologies to modesty I would like to present another example in the light of which correct position of pure intellect would become clear. In the history of Islam there has passed a sect known as Bati-niyah. A renowned leader of this sect Ubayd-ullah al-Qirwani has written:

“What can be more surprising that a person having claim to wisdom acts so stupidly that he has with him beautiful sister or daughter. His wife is not so pretty, he marries her daughter or sister to a stranger. If these ignorant ones had any trace of wisdom they would have known that they themselves had a greater right on their sisters and daughters than a stranger. The main reason of this stupidity is that their Master has forbidden good things on them.”

No matter how you react to this disgusting and repulsive statement, it is an obvious example of what havoc is caused to human reason when it is not guided by divine guidance. What argument is there with reason to reject this hideous suggestion of marrying with real daughter and sister? Hence we see that the dream of ‘Ubayd-ulla Qirwani is coming true centuries afterwards, and voices are being raised in some Western countries to legalise marriages with real sisters.

In short, carried by the wave of Modernity, if the decision for good and bad is left on reason alone the result will be that no value of life will remain intact. Besides, man will be lost in the labyrinth of contradictory opinions and concepts from which no way out could be traced. The intellectual level of every person is different from the other. The reason is that independent of divine guidance ofWahy is regarded by man as free but in fact it becomes the slave of his beastly passions and sensual desires. This is the worst form of servility. In the Qur’anic phraseology it is termed as Haw-a that is passion, and it is about this that the Qur’an declared:

(If Truth becomes subjected to their passions great tuMult will occur between the earth and skies and the creations therein).

A group of philosophers has been mentioned in the discussions of Legal Theory. Their concept of morality is called the Cognivist Theory. The famous legal expert Dr. Friedman has summerised this view in his book “Legal Theory” in these words:

“Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them (p.36).

The end result to be derived from this view, in the words of Dr. Friedman, is:

“Every thing else but also words like ‘good’ ‘bad’ ‘ought’ ‘worthy’ are purely emotive, and there cannot be such thing as ethical or moral science (pp.36,37).

However bad or wrong this view may be to form the basis of moral conceptions, it provides a true and realistic interpretation of secular reasoning. Factually, there can be no other outcome of submission to secular reason that no such thing as “Morality” should exist in the world, and nothing but passions should govern the words and deeds of man. In fact secular reasoning and ‘morality’ can never go together because a stage is arrived in the pursuit of ‘modernity’ when a man’s conscience regards an action as bad yet he feels bound to adopt it because ‘modernity’ and secular reasoning offer no argument to reject it. The western thinkers of today are helplessly facing the same predicament. A large number of British thinkers do not like the legalisation of homosexuality adopted by the Parliament a few years ago but they were obliged to accept it because in the doctrine of purely intellectual “modernity” there remains no option but to legalise every evil that has prevailed in the society. How admonishing are words of Wolfender Committee which was appointed to consider this issue:

“Unless a deliberate attempt is made by society acting through the agency of the law to equate this fear of crime with that of sin, there Must remain a realm of private morality and immorality which in brief and crude terms is not the law’s business.” (The Legal Theory).

In fact, once reason alone is made a judge to decide what is good and bad man will be deprived of every standard that may be used as a basis to stop a new practice harmful to society. Reason has to be made to follow divine standard of good and bad.

The law-makers are extremely worried that in the presence of general trend of modernity what method can be adopted through which at least some exalted human values might be preserved. An American judge Carduzo has written that the most important legal need of today is that a philosophy of law should be organised which could create a harmony between the contradictory and antagonistic demands of stationary and revolutionary values. But the fact is that this job cannot be done through reason and philosophy. The entire disruption has started because the function of Wahy (Divine Revelations) has been imposed on the intellect of man and in this way a burden has been placed on its shoulders which it cannot bear. It is only on the basis of some valid arguments that a law can be called perpetual and free of changes, but the human intellect is incapable of producing any such argument. Today some people may regard a law as unalterable on the basis of their reasons but tomorrow others may realise that it is not fit to be a perpetual law and they would declare it alterable. The only solution to the problem is that instead of making his self to be a slave of his passions he should submit it to the Being who created him and the entire universe. Since that Being is fully aware of all the changes that would occur, no body else can determine which principles of law are unalterable.

The famous author of jurisprudence, George Paton, has written:

“What interests should the real legal system protect? This is a question of values in which legal philosophy plays its part….But however Much we desire the help of philosophy, it is difficult to obtain. No agreed scale of values has ever been reached indeed. It is only in religion that we can find a basis, and the truth of religion Must be accepted by faith or invitation and not purely on the result of logical argument. (Portion: Jurisprudences p.121).

In short secular intellect has totally failed to define the good and bad. Hence there is no solution to the problem except that the man should seek guidance from God and follow the revealed doctrines. There is no other way of salvation for humanity. The Qur’an said:

“Is he who has a clear proof from his Lord like those to whom their evil deeds are made alluring and they follow their caprices?” (Muhammad : 14)

Hence the only solution to the problem is that every new trend or custom and convention should be judged, not on its apparent shine and glitter but on the basis of standards laid down by Allah, the Lord of the Universe? Once one finds any injunctions of Allah and His Messenger concerning it, then it Must be followed without the least hesitation. The Qur’an says :

“And it is not for a believing man or a believing woman, when Allah and His Messenger have decreed a matter to have choice in their matter” (Q: 33:35)

Another verse of the Holy Qur’an speaks:

“But no, by your Lord, They will not believe until they make you (0 Prophet) the judge of what is in dispute between them, then find no vexation in their hearts over what you decide and submit with full submission” (Q:4:65)

Whatever injunctions Allah has revealed in His Book or through His Messenger (PBUH) pertain to such matters that if they are let to be decided by reason they have led to aberrance; and since Allah is well aware of all the past and future happenings only His commands can be obeyed in every time. Hence it is stated:

“Allah makes clear (His commandments) to you, lest you go astray. And Allah is Knower of every thing.” (Q: 4:176)

This makes another thing about “Modernity” very clear that the need for divine revelations (Wahy) and commandments of Allah was felt because it was difficult to achieve true guidance in this matter through intellect alone. It is, therefore, essential that the divine injunctions be followed exactly as they are. It is a wrong practice that any prevalent custom of time be first taken as correct on the basis of self-reasoning, and then attempts be made to fit the Qur’an and Traditions to it by making distant interpretations. Such a method cannot be called submission to the will of Allah. Rather it amounts to alteration and amendments for which no man is authorised, because that would annul the very purpose of sending divine guidance. True submission means that the commandments of Allah should never be allowed to be altered or modified even if the entire mankind collectively so desire. Allah says:

“And perfect are the words of your Lord in truthfulness and justice; there is none who can change His words; and He is the Hearer, the Knower. And if you (0 Prophet) obey most of those on earth they would lead you astray from Allah’s way. They follow nothing but surmise, and they do but guess. Surely your Lord knows best who astrays from His way. And He knows best who are rightly guided.” (Q: 6:115-117)

(And when Our clear revelations are recited to them) those who hope not for the meeting with Us say, “Bring a Qur’an other than this or alter it. Say (O Prophet) “It is not for me to alter it of my own accord, I follow nothing, except what is revealed to me (Q: 10: 15).

This kind of true obedience may bring opposition of the people and one may face difficulties but those who stand this test of the time, are rightly guided in this world and the Hereafter. Allah says:

“And those whos strive in Our way, We shall certainly guide them in Our ways. Indeed Allah is with the good-doers.” (Q: 29:69)

It is not the way of a true Muslim that he accepts what he finds to fulfil his material desires and rejects what calls for some material loss or puts him through some trials. This attitude, in Qur’anic terms, leads one to lose both in this world and in the Hereafter.

“And among mankind is he who worships Allah upon the very edge—so that if good befalls him he is contented with it, but if a trial befalls him he turns round on his face. He loses this world andr the Hereafter. That is indeed a manifest loss.” (Q: 22:11)

The only way to judge between desirable and undesirable modernism is to examine it in the light of Qur’anic injunctions. If it is not in opposition to Allah’s Commandments it may be accepted otherwise it Must be rejected without misinterpreting and distorting it even though it may be against the common trend of time. Reproaches and mockery coming from the people should not be allowed to change his firm belief. A true Muslim has a clear answer to such negative remarks provided by the Qur’an:

“Allah mocks at them and lets them loose in their impertinence in which they keep wandering.”

This attitude is meant for such affairs of life as have been ordained to be Obligatory, Incumbent, Traditional, Desirable or Forbidden and Detestable. Hence these injunctions are unalterable in every period. However, for things that fall under the category of being “permissible” man has been authorised to adopt or to abandon them according to the needs and demands of time. In fact, there are very few matters which Islamic Law has explicitly defined as Obligatory, Incumbent, Traditional, Desirable, Forbidden and Detestable, and are unalterable. On the contrary, most of the affairs of life fall under the category of “permissible” and decisions about their adoption or rejection can be made according to requirements.

We can see that the field of activity with regard to modernism as provided by Islam is very vast in which one can live a modern life without deviating from the way of Allah in the least. In them the man may apply his intellectual abilities and may achieve enormous heights of knowledge and discoveries as well as Science and Technology, and make them more and more useful for mankind.

The greatest challenge for the Islamic world today is to recognise these limits of “Modernity”, without interfering the confined limits of unalterable injunctions of Islam. Unfortunately the present attitude of Islamic world is in clear contrast to it. Our scholars have been markedly slow in the spheres which demanded their active efforts, while they are actively busy modernizing the unalterable Commandments of Allah with the consequence that Muslims are deprived of the amenities and comforts that modern time has provided to humanity and the evils of modernism are at liberty to prevail in our society with no check from our side. May Almighty Allah give us the ability and courage to fulfil our obligations to modern times while safeguarding our ideological heritage.

From: at-Talib

See also:



Filed under Aqidah/Belief, Fiqh, Islam, Quran, Religion, Seeking knowledge, Seerah, Sunnah

2 responses to “Islam and Modernity: An Essay by Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani

  1. Pingback: Moské for Moderat-medlemskab « Snaphanen

  2. Mikeharvey

    Hey, from Toronto, Canada

    Just a quick hello from as I’m new to the board. I’ve seen some interesting comments so far.

    To be honest I’m new to forums and computers in general :)


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