Modernity and Intellectual Imperialism



The discourse of modernity constitutes the principal mode of articulation about our age. It delivers the most authoritative account of the present as the best of all possible worlds. As such, it seeks to legitimize the current hierarchy of powers and lend credence to the self-authenticating narratives of those who serve its cause. However, the very justification of modernity as a critique of the past engenders a reflection on its legitimacy that cannot be exhausted by circular logic and self-referential claims. Thus, to pursue the theme of modernity is not to remain confined to the prison of the present, or to glorify the secular man in the mirror of history. Nay, it is to cross-over from the realm of history to that of theory, to enter that normative kingdom where transcendence competes with temporality, and where pragmatism, expediency and will-to-power may never fully remove the fig-leaf of idealism, morality and will-to-truth. Like all seminal myths, then, the meta-narrative of modernity is ambiguous, polymorphous and self-contradictory. In our times, it may just as well provide an apology for the current world-order as it may yield an argument against its legitimacy. Little wonder that any theory of modernity, whether it explicitly denounces Islam or implicitly censures it, whether it stridently rejects its claims or expediently ignores them, is of capital importance to the Muslim. It is an indispensable part of the self-critical inquiry through which contemporary Islam enhances its consciousness and purifies its conscience.


One highly suggestive and ambitious account of our world, of modernity as the progressive secularization of the realms of power and knowledge, has been provided by the French scholar and professor of social sciences, Marcel Gauchet. (The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion. Translated by Oscar Burge. Princeton University Press, 1997.) Whatever its intellectual daring, academic erudition, ideological insights or other merits, the work cannot be characterized, in the view of this critic, but as a hymn to the glories and passions of the modern, western man. The coming of the his world is here presented as a narcissistic tale that may equally be viewed as an impudent monument of intellectual imperialism. Hence, by purporting to impart new meaning and significance to the myth of salvation through secularity, it merely reinforces the ideological claim of modernity. It is a tract of speculative history viewed through the Eurocentric prism of Hegelian philosophy and Weberian sociology, even if its overall intellectual orientation derives from the quasi-mystical vision of Durkheimian anthropology. For all its seductive appeal, however, it is a work of ‘grand theory’, a suggestive but unsubstantiated reading of the ‘human condition’ as ‘universal history’, and an apology of the present and the status quo.


Pivotal in this edifying tale of humanity’s march towards the utopia of modernity (for such is the ideological tenor of this tract) is the role and function of ‘religion’. Religion, according to this ‘global theory’, was the primordial mode of being that provided the first model for social orientation towards the world. Gauchet does not, however, reproduce a simplistic evolutionist theory. No, religion, he insists, is not merely a set of beliefs, a primitive and naïve cosmology that requires man to humble himself before the powers of nature. On the contrary, his argument is that we must have a theoretical paradigm that allows us to recognize that ‘the traits of civilization which we equate with the absence of development might also have completely different ends than development.’ Humanity is not oriented in only one direction, is his clear pronunciation. Nevertheless, the original religious mode of being was one of  resignation, of ‘dispossession’ in that man’s defining potentialities were peremptorily abandoned. Religious man, as it were, voluntarily emptied his pockets so as to spare himself the pain of being robbed. A more meaningful way of construing this dispossession would be, according to Charles Taylor who introduces this work, to view it as an effort ‘to foreclose the endless search for meaning and to establish firmly the sense of reality.’


The rest of human history which ultimately lands us in the secularity of modernity is, according to Gauchet, the story of the break up of the unity of religious consciousness. It is a paradigmatic shift, or a quantum leap if you will, from the religious belief in the priority of the world and the established scheme of things to the modern one which accepts the priority of humans and their ability to shape their own worlds. The radical originality of the modern Western world, accordingly, ‘lies wholly in its reincorporation in the very heart of human relationships and activities, of the sacral element, which previously shaped this world from outside.’ For out of ‘the decline of systematic exteriority’ has emerged that ‘totality of factors’ which distinguish, according to Gauchet, ‘our civilization’s foundations from those of previous societies.’ Some of the key elements of modernity, thus, are: ‘politics based on representation, systematic investment in the future, knowledge based on objective causes, controlling nature and increasing productivity as an end in itself.’ Though ‘this reversal of the age-old organizing influence of religion’ is normally apprehended in terms of  the ‘secularization of the sacred’, the above characterization of modernity by Gauchet leaves no doubt in our mind that it may just as rightfully be perceived as the ‘sacralization of the secular.’ Indeed, the dichotomy of sacred-secular appears misguided here as the paradigmatic shift is far more fundamental and metaphysical: it testifies to the replacement of the consciousness of transcendence by that of immanence. At any rate, it validates the Muslim insight (anxiety!) that modernity, mediated as it is by incarnationist Christianity, signals the death of transcendence!


For Gauchet, the two most seminal agents of this transformation are the institution of the state and the theological discoveries of Christianity: the state, by following the pragmatic, political logic of this world, weakened the power of religion, and Christianity, by proclaiming an eschatological utopia beyond the ambit of the temporal state, devalued the authority of politics. It created that fateful split between heaven and earth which initially led to the autonomy of the political state from the authority of the Church but ultimately, of its sovereignty over the Church itself. Significantly, though Gauchet is quite sympathetic, nay lyrical, about the contribution of Christianity to modernity, he eulogizes a Christianity which no Christian would accept as his/her own. It is a purely cultural phenomenon which has/can have no claim to any trans-temporal truth or Divine Revelation. (For a self-professed non-believer, these are not intellectually defensible options.) Like its founder, then, Christianity’s real worth lies in its sacrificial salvation: by its death it redeems the world of politics and make possible the naissance of the secular state! As for Islam and Judaism, Gauchet’s sparse comments and summary insights do not stretch beyond the regurgitation of the crassest medieval prejudices. (Cf.: ‘A god with no empire: This is what separates the Christian God from the terrifying God of Israel, preoccupied  with the victory of his followers, or from the God of Muhammad and his true believers’ duty the expand the realm of the true faith through arms.’! Perhaps, it is not squeamish to add that the only snag with this claim is that it has no collateral in actual history! Further, leaving aside Islam, one wonders how many of the Jewish victims of Christian sovereignty would accept the claim that the Christian God was/is ‘a god with no empire’.) Finally, it must be underlined that Gauchet’s  pivotal category, ‘religion’, that universal and primeval ‘mode of being’ which relegates all the historical traditions of monotheism to the status of the heralds of the modern state (!), is a secular construct. Its sole function is to provide legitimacy to the secular politics of modernity and has nothing to do with the personal faith of the countless number of believers.


For all its ideational richness and analytical acumen, Gauchet’s theory is a panegyric to the unique achievements of the modern, western man. Both Christianity and secularity are his mistresses and humanity his handmaiden. Surely these are the tenets of the new intellectual imperialism that is spreading its wings in the wake of the modernist dawn!



Stockholm                                                                              S Parvez Manzoor


Ends -