The Arabic/Islamic Project of Modernity

The 20th century and contemporary Arabic and Islamic thinkers have been obsessed with modernity. This is because of the belief that its analysis will somehow carry with it the remedy to our productivity slump. However, this effort ended up with two camps apart from fundamentalists that both misunderstood modernity. The first camp of thinkers is trying to transform Islamic tradition and conception with that of western modernity, as such switching concepts such as ‘shūrā’ (consultation) to ‘democracy’ and ‘umma’ to ‘state’ thinking it will bring us close to modernity. The other camp is of traditional thinkers who deny all western concepts and try to reproduce Islamic ideas with more rationalistic labels. Both lack creativity and the ability to influence the contemporary situation. A respected philosopher, Taha Abdurrahman, proposes a different viewpoint whereby he distinguishes between the spirit of modernity and the application of modernity.

As we can see, modernity is not a homogenous thing but is actually somewhat different; different countries applied it in different ways. We can see that Germanic modernity is different from that of the French. Not only that, but modernity can also be distinguished by fields whereby there can be differences in economic modernity and political modernity, as evident, for instance, in China. Taha Abdurrahman sees the spirit of modernity as an aggregated form, which all countries formed but fully applied in Western countries for the first time. But he also stresses that western application has failed. In better words, the spirit of modernity can be used more humanely, leaving behind violence and destruction of the environment and many other things. The spirit of modernity is built on three principles: maturity, critique, and completeness.

The principle of maturity means the transformation of humans from immature to mature. This is defined in Immanuel Kant’s essay on ‘What is Enlightenment’. “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s understanding without another’s guidance”. This transformation is built upon letting go of any constraint of what he ought to think. As such, it allows him to be more active. Another is that the mature human seeks to establish new values or reproduce and create old values creatively, and they become as if they are unique. The second principle is that the origin of modernity is the transformation from dogmatism to criticism. The prior means accepting things without being critical and demanding evidence, and the latter means the opposite. And this is based on two things: firstly, subjecting nature, politics, law to rationalism. We see this in natural sciences, the rise of bureaucracy etc. Secondly, it is based on differentiating, distinguishing, and drawing lines between things. The last principle is completeness, whereby modernity bypasses the specialization of societal roles and specialization of the fields. It is not confined to specific fields influencing sciences, thought, religion, values, economics, etc. Furthermore, it is not limited to one geographical area or society but spreads, as seen with globalization.

As such, this process of distinguishing between the application of modernity and its spirit implies that Islamic modernity is possible, which is what Taha Abdurrahman is proposing. Whereby the spirit of modernity is creatively and originally applied to suit and fit the historical context of the Arabic situation. As such, we do not have to confine ourselves to following the literal steps of western modernity with its negative implications where external freedom has been overvalued over internal freedom, where human is viewed as subjugators of their surroundings. This is a general expedition of Taha Abdurrahman’s works. More can be found about the project in his books.