ISLAM AND THE CHALLENGE OF MODERNITY

Ed. by Sharifah Shifa al-Attas. International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilisation, Kuala Lumpur, 1996. Pp 604. ISBN 983-99002-7-7.

From the vantage-point of modern man whose ideational paradigm and scientific cosmology reign supreme today, any articulation of the Islamic alternative must appear hopelessly archaic and romantic, if not downright adventurous and reckless. And yet, such is the imperative of Islamic faith that to confront modernity and demonstrate its inadequacy as a doctrine forms an ineluctable part of the Muslim thinker's calling. That modernism fails to engender an integral worldview and refuses to ponder the ultimate questions of human destiny is a sufficient reason for Islamic consciousness not to dwell in any cognitive and moral realm that is modern. Thus, for all the lure of modern gadgetry, and the comforts of its societal utopia, the Muslim is not a child of modernity. He desires nothing more passionately than an earnest and forthright dialogue with modernism that would allow him to fully comprehend the metaphysical foundations of its ideological edifice. Given this urge, it is not surprising that contemporary Islamic thought, as soon as it acquires an indigenous institutional platform, asserts its autonomy by pursuing a critical examination of the modernist paradigm itself. And so is the case with the present volume: it represents a very serious and intelligent effort to engage modernists, whether indigenous or Western, in a meaningful, inter-civilisational dialogue.

The establishment of the International Institution of Islamic Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) in Malaysia was earlier heralded as a salutary event by many hopeful Muslim intellectuals, especially so when Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas, renowned and revered in the Muslim world for his intellectual perspicacity and philosophical acumen, assumed its leadership. Ever since its inception, ISTAC has tried to redeem its pledge to act as 'a beacon on the crest' of Islamic learning and published a series of highly original monographs that have established its reputation as the leading exponent of the metaphysical tradition of Islam. The present volume is the outcome of a symposium, held in August 1994, that brought a number of Western and Muslim scholars together to a joint reflection on the interface of modern thought and Islamic tradition. The editor of this collection lyrically describes that fateful event as such: 'Conducted in the institute's grand conference hall, newly erected upon its shady grounds in barely fifteen months of intense activity, under the watchful gaze and sure guidance of its designer and architect, the institute's founder-director Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas himself, the symposium slowly unfolded itself from the professor's vision captured before his mind's eye to become a spectacle for all to feast upon.' (1). Not to be missed is the equally charming picture of the venue where the symposium was held: 'Passionate cry and heated debate interlaced with laughter, weaving their way through noble pillars and high arches, bouncing off the hall's canopy of muqarnas to filter through her delicate chandeliers to the animated crowd below.' (2). Alas, none of the following essays, with their dry philosophical arguments and stale diction, ever imitate the stylistic grace of these opening remarks!

In the inauguratory address, al-Attas sets the tone of this cross-civilisational deliberation by pronouncing that the worldview of Islam 'is not based upon philosophical speculation formulated mainly from observation of the data of sensible experience, of what is visible to the eye; nor is it restricted to kawn, which is the world of sensible experience, the world of created things.' (25). Indeed, Al-Attas continues his remonstration, 'the Islamic vision of reality and truth, which is a metaphysical survey of the visible as well as invisible worlds including the perspective of life as a whole, is not a worldview that is formed merely by the gathering together of various cultural objects, values and phenomena into artificial coherence. Nor is it one that is formed gradually through a historical process of philosophical speculation and scientific discovery....' (26-7) Highlighting the transcendent and revealed dimensions of Islam, al-Attas thus makes a lucid and cogent statement that is also a reiteration, in a manifestly Ghazalian vein, of the position of the classical kalam. No doubt, for 'the holder of the Al-Ghazali Chair of Islamic Thought', it is a felicitous and meritorious occupation.

Nevertheless, al-Attas's statement also reveals the central predicament of Islamic thought, which, by attaching itself too firmly to the transcendent moorings of faith, also succeeds in insulating its faith from the historical community that embodies it! For, surely, to claim that the world of empirical facts has no bearing on the truth of faith is to admit that the truth of faith has no relevance for the world of history! Significantly, though al-Attas himself makes no such outrageous claims, such must have been the awe of the proclaimed immunity of the Islamic worldview against the corrosive solvent of relativistic history that no outsider participating in this dialogue ever sought to storm the intellectually impregnable citadel of pure faith. Throughout this volume, the truth and reality of the self-referential norm which is the 'Islam' of al-Attas's discourse remain uncontested by the outsiders. But they also remain uncorroborated.

 

If the plague of traditional transcendentalism is exile from the world of history and change, the scourge of modern historicism is to inhabit the ever-recurrent world of meaningless change and not to know of any regime of norm at all. An eminently suggestive argument against the truth claims of modernity, though far less magisterial in tone than al-Attas's 'Islamic' reproach, is supplied by Huston Smith, who faces the demons of nihilism with formidable resources of vision and insight. Initially, Smith sides with those 'post-modern' critics who claim that the scientific worldview is merely scientistic, that science cannot provide us with a valid worldview, that 'the most it can show us is half of the world, the half where normative and intrinsic values, existential and ultimate meanings, teleologies, qualities, immaterial realities, and beings that are superior to us do not appear.' (488). However, after a penetrating, and highly rewarding, analysis of postmodernity ('the balkanisation of life and thought' (498)), Smith pleads that the world's religious traditions, which, in contra-distinction to the scientific episteme of reductionism, all affirm the need, possibility and even actuality of holistic worldviews, should learn to co-exist 'within a minimally articulated metanarrative of faith' (508). Without doubt, Huston Smith's singularly sane, spiritual and self-critical reflection, true to the spirit of dialogue, makes a worthy response from the side of the West that is supposed to epitomise all that is crass, arrogant and materialistic!

The rest of the essays presented in this volume may be placed within these two paradigmatic statements by al-Attas and Smith. Predictably, in their accounts of Muslim intellectual response to modernity, the academics (al-Azmeh, Hermansen, Waardenburg) choose to elaborate the historical vision and eschew all controversy about trans-historical values. Nonetheless, these somewhat congruent statements, apart from being competent historical surveys, encourage and abet the spirit of reflection and introspection and as such make valuable contributions to this collection. Among the Muslim side, the philosophical analyses of modernity are quite sophisticated, if a smattering over-ambitious (Aydin, Mohaghegh, Acikgenc), while other contributions that deal with topical and concrete subjects are often quite informative and thought-provoking (Ozkan, Hamarneh, al-Hassan, El-Naggar and Ansari). The only oddity is the crassly polemical 'The Aids Dilemma: A Progeny of Modernity' by Malik Badri that occupies almost one-sixth of this 600-page volume! As an expression of rage against the racist theories of 'gene mutation of HIV from the green monkey to the African' (183), Badri's outburst may be understandable, indeed even excusable, but it has no place in a work of inter-civilisational dialogue. In my opinion, its omission would not have in any way impaired the scholarly worth of this collection.

In sum, by the publication of this well-produced volume, ably edited and introduced by Shifa Al-Attas, ISTAC has made a valuable contribution to the cause of Islamic scholarship. For Western academics, this collection is sure to be appreciated as a document containing 'original source material', while Muslim readers will find its philosophically refined arguments worthy of serious attention.

S Parvez Manzoor

Stockholm