Islam and the West in a Transmodern World
By Ziauddin Sardar Professor of Postcolonial Studies,London
Muslim societies everywhere are caught in a pincer movement: they are being squeezed, on the one hand, by forces of modernity and postmodernism, and on the other, by an emergent traditionalism that often takes a militant form. In the late forties and fifties, when most Muslim countries obtained their independence, modernisation - or more specifically development along Western patterns - was seen as a panacea for all social and economic ills. Indeed, most Muslim countries whole-heartedly embarked on a rapid course of modernisation.
But the strategies for modernisation were, on the whole, out of step with traditional societies they were attempting to change. Thus a rift developed between those who backed modernisation and accompanying Westernisation and those who were concerned about preserving traditional culture, lifestyle and outlook of Muslim societies. In most cases, the traditionalists saw modernisation and the associated policies of ‘development’ as an onslaught on their history, life-style and worldview. The modernists saw westernisation as the primary means of survival for Muslim countries. As modernity looses ground both in the West and the non-west, postmodernism, and its accompanied globalisation, is being projected as the new theory of salvation. And traditionalists are reacting against postmodernism just as vehemently, if not more so, as they did against modernity.
The modernist leaders, who took over from the departing colonial powers, maintained their hold on Muslim societies with excessive use of force and by ruthlessly persecuting the traditional leadership and abusing and ridiculing traditional thought and everything associated with it. The economic and development policies they pursued often ended in spectacular failure and accumulated national wealth in fewer and fewer hands. Postmodernism has further marginalised tradition and traditional cultures creating a siege mentality in historic communities.
These factors have contributed to the emergence, throughout the Muslim world, of a new form of militant traditionalism. To a very large extent, all Muslims are ‘fundamentalist’ in that they believe the Qur’an to be the literal Word of God. But the fundamentalism of militant traditionalism is of a special variety in that it insists on a single interpretation of Islam which can only be manifested in terms of an ‘Islamic state’. In this framework, the integrated, holistic and God-centered worldview of Islam is transformed into a totalitarian, theocratic world order and a persuasive moral God is replaced by a coercive, political one.
The Muslim world thus finds itself caught between an intense struggle between the combined forces of an aggressively secular modernity and a relativistic postmodernism pitted against an equally aggressive traditionalism. This struggle is quite evident in countries like Pakistan, Egypt and the Sudan. But it is also present in states which are not currently attracting media attention: Algeria, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, and even in the new Muslim republics of Central Asia. These forces are pulling Muslim societies in two different directions and are thus threatening them with fragmentation. And the West must accept certain responsibility for this state of affairs.
Modernity sees traditional societies as backward, ‘living in the past’. The essential principles of tradition are seen as the cause of ‘backwardness’, just as it is in their nature to be incapable of change. Therefore the tradition of Muslim societies is a major hurdle towards development and ‘modernisation’. The classic texts of development all argued that tradition must be abandoned, indeed suppressed where necessary, if ‘backward’ societies of the Muslim World were to develop and ‘catch up with the West’. And, in the name of development and progress, traditional cultures have been uprooted, displaced, suppressed and annihilated. Postmodernism simply considers tradition to be dangerous; it is often associated with ‘essentialism’ - that is, harking back to some puritan notion of good society that may or may not have existed in history.
It is important to appreciate that traditional communities do not see tradition in this way. They do not view tradition as something fixed in history but see it as dynamic; they reinvent and innovate tradition constantly. Indeed, a tradition that does not change ceases to be a tradition. But traditions change in a specific way. They change within their own parameters, at their own speed, and towards their chosen direction. There is good reason for this. If traditions were to vacate the space they occupy they would cease to be meaningful. When tradition is cherished and celebrated the entire content of what is lauded can be changed. Such change is then meaningful because it is integrated and enveloped by the continuing sense of identity that tradition provides. Furthermore change can be an evaluated process, a sifting of good, better, best as well as under no circumstances, an adaptation that operates according to the values the veneration of tradition has maintained intact. Thus, non-western traditional communities do not think of tradition as something that will take them to pre-modern times; on the contrary, tradition will take them forward, with their identity intact, to a transmodern future.
What would be a transmodernism future? To appreciate what is at issue here, it is necessary to distinguish between postmodernism and transmodernism. Postmodernism is what comes after modernity; it is post in terms of time; it is a natural conclusion of modernity. This is why it is sometimes described as ‘the logic of late capitalism’. It represents a liner trajectory that starts with colonialism, continues with modernity and ends with post-modernity, or postmodernism. It is not surprising than that postmodernism and tradition are like two fuming bulls in a ring: they are inimically antagonistic to each other.
Postmodernism states that all big ideas that have shaped our society, like Religion, Reason, Science, Tradition, History, Morality, Marxism, do not stand up to philosophical scrutiny. There is no such thing as Truth. Anything that claims to provide us with absolute truth is a sham. It must be abandoned.
Moreover, postmodernism suggests, there is no ultimate Reality. We see what we want to see, what our position in time and place allows us to see, what our cultural and historic perceptions focus on. Instead of reality, what we have is an ocean of images; a world where all distinction between image and material reality has been lost. Postmodernism posits the world as a video game: seduced by the allure of the spectacle, we have all become characters in the global video game, zapping our way from here to there, fighting wars in cyberspace, making love to digitised bits of information. We float on an endless sea of images and stories that shape our perception and our individual ‘reality’.
In contrast, transmodernism goes beyond modernity; it transcends modernity in that it takes us trans – i.e. through modernity into another state of being. Thus, unlike postmodernism, transmodernism is not a linear projection. We can best understand it with the aid of chaos theory. In all complex systems – societies, civilisations, eco-systems etc. – many independent variables are interacting with each other in great many ways. Chaos theory teaches us that complex systems have the ability to create order out of chaos. This happens at a balancing point, called the ‘edge of chaos’. At the edge of chaos, the system is in a kind of suspended animation between stability and total dissolution into chaos. At this point, almost any factor can push the system into one or other direction. However, complex systems at the edge of chaos have the ability to spontaneously self-organise themselves into a higher order; in other words the system ‘evolves’ spontaneously into a new mode of existence. Transmodernism is the transfer of modernity from the edge of chaos into a new order of society.
As such, transmodernism and tradition are not two opposing worldviews but a new synthesis of both. Traditional societies use their ability to change and become transmodern while remaining the same! Both sides of the equation are important here: change has to be made and accommodated; but the fundamental tenets of tradition, the source of its identity and sacredness, remain the same. So we may define a transmodern future as a synthesis between life enhancing tradition - that is amenable to change and transition - and a new form of modernity that respects the values and lifestyles of traditional cultures. It is in this sense that traditional communities are not pre-modern but transmodern. Given that vast majority of the Muslim world consists of traditional communities that see their tradition as a life-enhancing force, the vast majority of Muslims worldwide are thus more transmodern than pre-modern.
Most politicians, bureaucrats and decision-makers do not appreciate this point. The reason for this that when traditions change, the change is often invisible to the outsiders. Therefore, observers can go on maintaining their modern or postmodern distaste for tradition irrespective of the counter evidence before their very eyes. The contemporary world does provide opportunity for tradition to go on being what tradition has always been, an adaptive force. The problem is that no amount of adaptation, however much it strengthens traditional societies, actually frees them from the yoke of being marginal, misunderstood and misrepresented. It does nothing to dethrone the concept "Tradition" as an idée fixe of western society.
The West has always seen Islam through the lens of modernity and concluded that it is a negative, closed system. Nothing could be further from the truth. Islam is a dynamic, open system with a very large common ground with the West. But to appreciate this, Islam has to be seen from the perspective of transmodernism and understood with its own concepts and categories.
Consensual politics and modalities for adjusting to change are there at the very heart of Islam. Consider the fundamental concepts and values of Islam which shape the goals of a Muslim society. These concepts generate the basic values of an Islamic culture and form a parameter within which an ideal Islamic society develops and progresses. These concepts include such notions as tawheed (unity), khilafah (trusteeship), ijtihad (sustained reasoning), ijma (consensus), shura (consultation) and istislah (public interest). Usually, the concept of Tawheed is translated as unity of God. It becomes an all-embracing value when this unity is asserted in the unity of humanity, unity of man and nature, and the unity of knowledge and values. From tawheed emerges the concept of khilafah: that persons are not independent of God but are responsible and accountable to God for all their thoughts and actions. The trusteeship implies that people have no exclusive right to anything and that they are responsible for maintaining and preserving the integrity of the abode of their terrestrial journey. Khilafa also makes political leaders accountable not just to God but also to other trustees – the community as a whole. Political change in state and society is brought about by the use of ijtihad which has been used throughout Muslim history to adjust to change, innovate tradition and introduce progressive ideas in the community. And the community has to be consulted on the basis of the notion of shura and its consensus - ijma – is needed to give legitimacy to change and innovation. At all times, change has to reflect public interest – istislah. Given such a matrix of fundamental concepts and values, it is difficult to perceive Islam as a closed system or a negative, backward looking worldview.
The brutal force with which modernity was introduced in the Muslim world, and the savage way in which tradition was suppressed, has meant that Muslim societies have not been able to practice these fundamental values of Islam. The perennial desire of all Muslim societies is to go forward to the practice of these values and take a quantum leap from instrumental modernity to enlighten transmodernism. Such fundamental concepts of Islam as ijtihad (sustained reasoning), ijma (consensus) and shura (consultation) have to be used to develop contemporary models of governance and social change that are based on needs and aspirations of ordinary Muslims. Theoretical and intellectual work in this area has been going on for over two decades now and the initial efforts provide us with reasons for optimism. And a transmodern framework for discussion would enhance the possibility of this positive change and usher democracy, consensual and accountable politics, and enlightened modes of governance in the Muslim world.
In developing a transmodern framework for discussion it is important to think of the Muslim world beyond the straight jackets of governments. Most Muslim countries are governed by ultra modernists or ultra traditionalists – neither of whom have any understanding of transmodernism. We need to go beyond decision makers and involve ordinary people – scholars, writers, activists, academics, journalists – in our discussions. We will discover that most people have a critical but positive attitude towards the West; and women will be as willing, if not more so, to participate in such discussions and the transformations they may initiate, as men. Particularly, if the West shifts towards transmodernism, involvement of the public will open up massive new possibilities for positive change and fruitful synthesis. However, this does mean that European analysis of Islam must rise above such one-dimensional thesis as the ‘Clash of Civilisations’ or ‘the end of history’. Transmodernism is not about conflict, or a false sense of aggrandisement, but about symbiosis between Islam and the West. Its aim must be to replace homogenising globalisation with what Anwar Ibrahim has called ‘global convivencia’ – that is, a more harmonious and enriching experience of living together.