Living in these modern times, we witness rapid changes in our environment taking place from moment to moment. The material world today is a field of continuous flux, with technologies, cultures and lifestyles evolving along at such a breakneck pace that one may not have the chance to sit back, pause and reflect on what is actually happening.
For many of us Muslims, we are in a state of befuddlement at how to bring our faith into practice in this modern day and age – what traditions should we hold on to and to what extent should we evolve our thoughts and practices to keep current? Are we losing the race to our Western counterparts when it comes to material development, and at the same time left uncertain why our collective iman has considerably lost its strength?
At a recent 4-day camp organized by the Islamic Organization of North America (IONA) in Warren, which took place on the 25th – 28th of December, some of these confounding issues were discussed, centring on the revitalization of iman in the contemporary age. The event was led by Dr. Ahmed Afzaal, Assistant Professor of Comparative Religion at Concordia College (Minnesota), and focused largely on his translation of the late Dr. Israr Ahmad’s text, ‘The Real Task Ahead: A Manifesto on the Renaissance of Islam’.
Late Dr. Israr Ahmad founder of Tanzeem-e-Islami, perceives that ever since the Muslim world came under European colonization, Muslim society has struggled not only to free itself from the colonialist’s political and military grasp, but also its subtle invasion into the sphere of ideas that have pervaded the Muslim mind.
The Muslim mindset, whose critical faculties were once guided by purity of heart and character and a constant awareness of God, was now subject to a mentality whose sole focus was on material development and progress. Western thought, which once openly acknowledged the existence of God and the hereafter, had made the material world its central focus. This shift of focus gradually eliminated any unseen metaphysical “concepts” from being pondered upon, and remained with what was perceptible to the immediate senses.
Human curiosity, which naturally dwells upon greater truths that lie beyond the physical world, was now narrowly restricted to the material realm. This approach led to breakthroughs in modern science, and mankind achieved control over the physical world in leaps and bounds; but with an underlying materialistic mindset that thrived on escalating desires for power and control over matter.
The majority of Muslims were so dazzled by the material progress achieved by the West, that they quickly adopted their approach. Man’s thoughtful contemplation on the soul and hereafter receded to the background as matter and the physical world came to the forefront of attention. Muslims absorbed Western ideals with a submissive and defeatist mentality, vulnerable to influence, and with a weakening sense of judgment.
Some Muslims rose quickly to preserve their iman that was under threat - either by avoiding engagement with society altogether, or by re-evaluating the stance of Islam in modern materialistic society. The former group successfully preserved its faith and later preached religious knowledge to future generations, though it was not equipped in relating its knowledge to contemporary realities. While the latter reformists encouraged Muslims to keep up with the West in terms of visible material progress, although this compromise led to a weakening of inner faith and a secularized conception of Islam.
Dr. Israr Ahmad notes that in the 19th century, as Western thought kept its focus on the present life, theories emerged about the social, political and economic conditions in society, which ultimately led to proposals for ‘systematic programs for organizing human life’. Ideological systems such as nationalism, democracy, capitalism and socialism surfaced in society.
In a similar vein, Muslims began to view Islam as an ideological system meant for organizing society. They noted its rulings on various spheres of human life, such as economics and politics. Eventually, revivalist movements sprung forth that declared to all Islam as a comprehensive “code of life”, a perfect system for the organization of society.
These 20th century movements revitalized a sense of confidence in Islam in the masses, and an increasing number of Muslims let go of uncritical admiration of the West.
Furthermore, with the negative consequences and lack of moral values found in Western materialism and ideological thought becoming increasingly apparent, admiration of the West further declined. New discoveries in physics emerged suggesting metaphysical possibilities, which further weakened belief in the concreteness of material reality. Moreover, governments in certain Muslim countries offered support to these revivalist movements, which fuelled their growing influence.
Although these revivalist movements had initially picked up strength, they could go no further than affecting just a portion of society, as their appeals to Muslim sentiments had not made an impact on the minds of the intellectual elite of the countries, whose minds held “progressive” elements of the West in greater regard.
However, a deeper reason for this failure, Dr. Israr Ahmad contends, is that the revivalist movements had a ‘deficiency in their understanding of Islam.’
We must realize that iman is the very heart of Islam. This inner quality of faith must flourish within our hearts for Islam to be fully realized in the temporal world. The revivalist movements of the 20th century greatly emphasized the externalities of Islam; Islam as an ideal political and social ‘system’ to organize society – quite influenced by secularized Western views on society. Prayer and zakat were seen as means of ensuring ‘social order.’ The focus on the inner value of religion and man’s connection to metaphysical realities was lacking, and focus was almost entirely on the superiority of Islam as an external, practical system of life.
Dr. Israr Ahmad maintains that it is an elite intellectual minority in society that can successfully shape the views of the masses; it is an intellectual minority that has guided the direction and priorities of societies throughout history. Therefore, a ‘revolutionary transformation’ should be brought about in this group’s perspective; they must be freed from the shackles of materialism and have iman rekindled in their hearts, so that a lasting effect is made on the ideas and values of society as a whole.
The ‘Real Task Ahead’ in launching this intellectual movement, according to Dr. Israr, is to find bright young minds with an irrepressible thirst for knowledge, a burning desire for truth, who have realized that ultimate truth lies beyond immediate sense perception and are willing to dedicate their lives in search of it.
These eager young inquirers will need to review the entire range of human thought, and will reflect on various disciplines including logic, metaphysics, psychology, ethics and theology, along with a thoughtful exploration of the Quran. And if, after this in-depth analysis and critique of human thought and revealed guidance, they find that their discoveries and inner realizations resonate with the message of the Quran, “if its message sounds like the voice of their own souls”, they will experience the sweetness of iman, these avid young intellectuals with a guided heart and sound reasoning abilities. As they would be familiar with the current modes of thought and imbued with the purest of iman, it will be possible for them to critique sensibly on the incoherence of modern societal thought, in a way that could be perfectly understood by today’s influential scholars and thinkers.
It is of key importance for all who are dedicated to this work to be actively present in the knowledge of the affairs and problems of the contemporary world, as well as familiar with the patterns of thought and developments in the field of social sciences; all the while maintaining a firm understanding of the Qur’an and Sunnah. In this way, one may not only appeal to influential intellectuals, but possibly rise to this position through one’s own knowledge, abilities, and committed effort towards increasing awareness of truth and rekindling iman in society.
As Dr. Afzaal gave an example, we may not be able to convince a journalist to report in favor of Islam, but we should “become the solution…We should be producing our own journalists trained to the best possible standards.”
It is us who need to have the courage, determination and confidence in ourselves to become the leaders we so desperately need in society.
All in all, the 4-day briefings and discussions at IONA were certainly invigorating and inspiring, engaging the interest of the participants who were actively involved in the discussions, relating the issues discussed to contemporary times.
I hope to see more of such programs in the future and have more of our youth involved, as they are our future leaders that will provide guidance to the oncoming generations in society.