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Islam and the Modern Age

By: Allamah Muhammad Hussein Tabatabaei

The Way of Nature
In view of the present state of marvellous rate of progress, can one really believe that Islam can cater to the needs of the modern world? Today, when man, by the means of his power of reason, is conquering the planets and is able to journey far out into the depths of space, is it not time for us to discard such ancient dogmas and concentrate our vision and will on the pursuit of our magnificent victories, pursuing the modern sophisticated way of life?
Before answering these questions, I consider it essential to mention this point first: It is true that we human beings naturally prefer the new to the old. We always give priority to the new model of something over its older forms. But this generalisation cannot be applied to all situations and practices. As we can never say that since the well-known formula 2x2=4, has been used by mankind for thousands of years, it has become obsolete and thus needs to be discarded; or, as we cannot say that the system of forming social life has become old and outdated, it has to be cast away and a new style of individual living should be established; or, we cannot propose that the civil codes unnecessarily restrict and hamper individual freedom and have become ancient as well, and as these laws fetter the human being, and that too in an age when he is conquering the vastness of space by launching spacecraft into the orbits of different planets in order to discover the secrets of the universe, so new vistas should be opened for him and he should be liberated from the shackles of law and the clutches of those assigned to enforce it.
It would all seem to be ludicrous, since notions such as 'old' and 'new' make sense only when used in the context of variable, transitory objects which can lose their freshness and lustre under the destructive influence of time and change.
Consequently, while we are engaged in a serious discussion which is based upon a realistic approach, and concerned with the laws of nature and the system of creation (one of these issues is whether Islam can satisfy the human demands in view of present conditions), we should not give much significance to such rhetorical distinctions between old and new. Such distinctions, of course, have their proper place and occasion, which is certainly not the context of this discussion.
The question as to whether or not Islam can administer the needs of humanity in the present circumstances is itself a strange one. Its incongruity becomes more apparent when it is put in the context of the real meaning of Islam on which the Qur'anic invitation is based; since Islam is the path which acquaints humanity with the system of creation of universe. Islam provides such laws for mankind as are in conformity with human nature and are in complete harmony with the really natural instinctive human needs-though not such "needs" as are conceived by imagination and caprice. It is evident that the human nature is the same and will be the same as long as human beings exist, irrespective of place and time or their way of life. Nature has laid before them a path, which they may either accept or refuse to tread.
On this basis, the above-mentioned question may be put thus: if human beings act according to the path indicated by nature, is there any guarantee of their attaining the happiness and bliss as demanded by their nature?
Islam is the path of nature and, therefore, is the eternal and unchanging path for mankind to follow. Its unchangeable laws affirm man's legitimate, natural and physical desires, and guide him towards the ultimate abode of his happiness and bliss. The Qur'an says: So set thy face to the religion, as a man of pure faith-God's nature upon which He originated mankind. There is no changing God's creation. That is the right religion ... (30:30)
We know that there are different types of living organisms throughout the world of creation. Each one of them has a specified term of life and a specific course of development. Their well- being and happiness depend upon their capacity to resist and combat the harmful and destructive elements which confront them in their brief period of survival. It means that living organisms can reach their goal and select the path of survival by utilising various resources incorporated within their structure without much trouble.
During its biological course of development, the wheat grain has to pass through definite stages to obtain its ultimate growth. Its constituent parts and biological mechanisms by reacting to specific environmental conditions and by absorbing certain specific elements in definite proportions essential for its growth and development, guide it towards its ultimate goal of maturity.
The wheat seedling never alters its particular natural mode of growth and development that it has adopted. It can never be that a wheat plant, after a certain stage of development, may suddenly alter its course to adopt that of an apple-tree and start sending out branches, leaves and blossoms. Neither does it suddenly alter its course to that of a sparrow and starts growing feathers and a beak and begins fluttering its wings for flight. This is a general and universal law prevailing in every sphere of life. Human beings are also not exempt from it. In their natural course of life, human beings, also, have to pass through certain fixed and inherent stages to reach the goal of perfection and attain their summum bonum. Their constitution is so designed that with the help of the available and suitable means and resources, they can reach ultimate maturity.
Regarding this characteristic of general natural guidance, the Qur'an says: Our Lord is He who gave everything its creation, then guided it. (20:50)
Describing the presence of guidance in mankind, it says: By the soul, and That which shaped it and inspired it [with the capacity to distinguish between] lewdness and God-fearing, prosperous is he who purifies it, and failed has he who seduces it. (91:7-10)
It should be quite obvious that the real path of human life which leads human beings towards true happiness is actually that path which is pointed out by nature. It is meant for their real gain and success, and it corresponds with the laws of creation of man and the universe. This path may or may not be according to the sentiments and emotional preferences of individuals; rather their feelings and urges themselves need to follow nature and fall into harmony with it. A human society, likewise, should be established on the firm foundations of realism and not on the weak and shaky grounds of false and fake ideals.
It is here that the difference between Islamic laws and other civil codes lies. Ordinary social laws are legislated according to the wishes of the majority of individuals in the society (i.e. 50 percent +1), whereas Islamic laws have been formulated according to the dictates of nature and instinct, which represent the Divine Will. Hence, the Holy Qur'an reserves the right to legislate solely for God. It says: Sovereignty solely belongs to God ... (12:40)
Who is better in judgement than God, for those who are certain in belief? (5:50)
Whatever generally goes on in an ordinary human society is either according to the intentions of the majority of individuals, or according to the dictates of a powerful despot, regardless of whether they are in conformity with the principles of justice and the real interests of the community or not. But in a true Islamic society, authority belongs to truth and justice and individual interests are subordinated to it.
The other misunderstanding that needs clarification is the notion that Islam is not congenial to the social spirit of the modern-day human societies, which are enjoying every kind of freedom and prosperity and are not in a position to subject themselves to the kind, of restrictions that exist in Islam.
Of course, with the present state of prevalence of moral degeneration in all walks of human life, and all sorts of corrupt and unjust practices that are debasing human societies, endangering their very existence, we find very little affinity between the Islamic spirit and today's unfortunate, deviated humanity. To be certain, while still retaining the status quo, we cannot hope that a partial application of Islam can effectively save humanity. It would be like expecting benefits of democracy from a dictatorial regime with a democratic label attached to its name.
But if we take into consideration the instinctive human nature and Islam-which is itself a manifestation of nature-we can hope to find a complete harmony and compatibility between the two. How is it possible that no such harmony should exist between the two?
Of course, as a result of prevailing perversions and distorted vision, which are the outcome of an extravagant attitude on the part of the recent generations, there has taken place a severance of ties between the two. However, the wisest way of overcoming these adverse conditions is to launch a war to combat them, so that the grounds may be prepared for a reunion. We should not be disappointed if the people have deviated from the path of nature. We must be hopeful regarding human potentialities. History bears witness as to how every new movement or regime has to confront the resistance offered by representatives of the old forces of the previous times. It is only after a prolonged tug-of-war and occasionally a bloody conflict that they can open a road in the society for themselves and obliterate the memory of the rival system from minds of the people.
Democracy itself, which has been regarded as the most successful alternative by its followers and was established through popular support for the most part, has been established after bloody clashes. The French Revolution and other such revolutions were brought about in this manner. The communist regimes, which according to the Marxists are the most "progressive" of human political systems and the "most magnificent" gift of history, were established through a bloodbath of millions of people. Russia, and afterwards many Asian, European and Latin American countries, present this type of picture.
Accordingly, the resentment initially exhibited in a society does not prove the unsoundness and instability of any proposed social system. Islam is alive by all means and it has the full capacity of being implemented in today's society.
Now, I shall go ahead to further elaborate this subject and analyse it.

Islam and the Genuine Needs of Every Epoch
The significance and value of every scientific idea depend upon its practical value in life. The most primitive and simple idea like the drinking of water, and the eating of food, occupies an important place in human existence; that. is, notwithstanding its simplicity it is as vital as life itself. Another idea that apparently seems to be very simple and trivial is the idea of the necessity of social and collective life; it has the same importance in human history as human civilisation itself. It is this idea that co-ordinates, every second, millions of human acts with one another and produces every day billions of desirable and undesirable effects. Evidently, the question whether or not a religion like Islam can cater to all human needs in every age is of such paramount significance that nothing more important can possibly be conceived.
Almost every Muslim individual is acquainted with at least some of the Islamic laws. Like other religious intellectual material that Islam has produced, this conceptual inventory has been stored in the minds of its followers for century after century. If has been transferred from one generation to the next as a religious heritage. However, like other religious relics, this heritage has lain idle in the minds of individuals without being subject to proper use, inquiry and scrutiny.
If we Easterners try to recall the history of the times of our ancestors and forefathers, we shall see that for thousands of years the regimes that ruled us never gave us any freedom of thought, especially in scientific or social matters. A ray of hope that shone for a while during the early era of Islam through the efforts of its Messenger and which brought tidings of a distant dawn was lost in the centuries-long night of oppression by a series of egocentric tyrants. Again we were left in a state of slavery and bondage. We remained tortured and tormented in the infernal, deadly dungeons, repeating our age-old obsequious utterances: 'Yes! Yes Sir! Yes your highness! Yes your royal majesty!"
Whoever was more clever was only able to guard and preserve the religious material in an intact condition storing it for some luckier generations to come. Moreover, the rulers of those times were not indifferent to encouraging such an attitude for preventing open and free discussion of issues in the society. Their only concern was that people should be so busy with their work that they would not leave their cocoons. With the public submerged safely in their own personal errands, the administration of the community was the concern of the rulers and the self-named guardians of the society. They were not alarmed at people's interest in the comparatively simple religious material. They only wanted to keep them from free and inquisitive discussions. They considered themselves as the community's active mind.
They had well realised that the most powerful source of strength in social life is the will power of human individuals. and this power was safely harnessed by the rulers by controlling their minds. As a result all their effort was concentrated on the conquest of the public's mind so that they may themselves become the active intellect of the community. These are the facts that anyone who turns to the historical chronicles of the past will uncover without much assiduous study.
Of late, the Western deluge of "freedom", after satiating the Europeans, has now turned towards Eastern lands. Initially it sought admittance to our continent as a guest, then it became an authoritative master in our own house. At first it gave a war cry against dogmatism and intellectual repression. The presence of this partisan of freedom seemed to provide a good opportunity for us to restore our lost dignity and to start a new life of intellectual brilliance and to undertake a belated synthesis of knowledge and action. But sadly, the same European freedom that delivered us from the clutches of the oppressors took their place to become our "active mind".
We did not know what to do. When we came to our senses, we realised that times had silenced the lords of the olden days and dethroned from the seat of authority the commands of the autocratic sovereigns and aristocrats. We were asked to pay no more heed to what the broken idols spoke but instead to listen to and to imitate what the Europeans said and did.
One thousand years have passed since the soil of Iran embraced the last remains of Ibn Sina. His philosophic and medical books were presented in our libraries and his scientific views were on the tips of our tongues, though without any consequence.
Seven hundred years had passed since the mathematical works and the cultural heritage of Khwajah Nasir al-Din al-Tusi were the goal of our lives, though without any result. But following in the footsteps of the Europeans, we joined them in celebrating their one-thousandth and seven-hundredth anniversaries. More than three centuries were past since the philosophical school of Mulla Sadra was followed in Iran and his philosophical ideas were the subject of study. On the other hand, many years had also passed since the Tehran University was established and had opened a faculty of philosophy. But some years back when a conference was held there, one of the Orientalists made some remarks in appreciation of Mulla Sadra, this caused an unprecedented clamour in the university regarding his personality and philosophic thought.
These are a few examples which fully illustrate the state of affairs in our society and the nature of our intellectual temperament. This shows the degree of our intellectual bankruptcy and servility to others.
Such was the condition of the majority of our intellectuals. A few of them, who were successful in retaining their independence of thought and had preserved their intellectual heritage, became the victims of the malady of split-personality. They were infatuated with the ideas of Western thought and at the same time remained loyal to their Eastern intellectual heritage. They strived to bring about a reconciliation between these two opposite poles and to create a state of matrimonial harmony between the unlikely pair.
One of our able writers tried to reconcile the Islamic tradition with the Western tradition of democracy in an article entitled "Islamic Democracy". Another gentleman strove hard to extract the notion of a classless society from Islamic texts, under the title of "Islamic Communism"!
Isn't that strange? One should ask them: if the relevance and validity of Islam should conditionally depend upon its affinity to the "vital principles" of democracy or communism, when the same democracy and communism with their all pomp and pageantry have come to us on their own, what is the necessity of taking such great pains in trying to produce a compromise between them and a handful of out-dated fourteen-centuries-old notions?
If Islam is an independent and living entity by itself, what is the need to compromise its natural grace with borrowed artificial adornments in order to invite customers?
During the post Second-World-War years, Western scholars have been enthusiastically discussing and studying various religions and publishing their findings. Imitating them, we also followed the same course and chose certain aspects of our holy religion as the subject of discussion and-debate: Are all religions true? Are the 'heavenly' religions anything more than a series of attempts in social reform? Do these religions have any other aim except purification of the soul and correction of morals? Can religious rites and rituals exist forever in their respective societies? Do religions have any purpose other than the exercise of rites and rituals? Does Islam fulfil the needs of every epoch? etc.
Indeed, a careful scholar, before entering into any controversy, would first verify the validity of questions raised according to certain established scientific criteria and only afterwards he would express his opinion. But the Western thinkers consider religion to be simply a social phenomenon, a result of a series of physical factors, like society itself.
Those Western thinkers who were rather optimistic regarding religion-including Islam-say that it is the mental contrivance of a group of men of genius, who, under the effect of a purified spirit, a rich intellect and an indomitable will, have conceived certain moral laws for the purposes of reforming their societies. These laws have evolved with the gradual development of human societies. They say that the empirical data, as well as historical evidence, provide sufficient proof of the fact that human societies gradually move towards perfection, and every day humanity takes a new step in the direction of civilised living. They cite the results of psychological, legal, sociological and even philosophical discussions, particularly the theory of dialectical materialism, to prove that since human societies do not remain in a static condition, in the same way their enforceable laws also cannot remain unalterable.
They argue that the laws that might have guaranteed the welfare of primitive human beings who ate of the fruits of the jungle and who dwelled in caves, can never be sufficient for the purposes of sophisticated life of modern times. How can the laws that were formulated when people used to fight with spears and clubs, suffice for a resourceful and cultured age like ours equipped with the most sophisticated nuclear bombs? Could laws belonging to an age when people used to travel on horseback and on mules be of any use to people accustomed to aircraft and nuclear submarines?
It means that the modern world neither accepts, nor should it be expected to accept, the laws and regulations belonging to the ancient times. Consequently, the laws legislated by societies of the past should be subjected to constant change with respect to the changing conditions of humanity. As a result of change in practical values, moral norms also need to be revised; since morality is no. more than a series of psychological habits that become stable due to repeated performance.
The simple life of two or three thousand years ago did not require the intricate political systems of today. Can the women of modern society lead a life of chastity similar to the veiled ladies of the past? Even the labourers and peasants and other toiling classes of today's world could not be expected to possess the patience and endurance of the toilers of past ages? The agitated revolutionary minds, living in an age of the conquest of space, could not be expected to be terrified by lunar and solar eclipses or black winds and made to resign and submit to the Will of God?
It means that human societies, in every age, desire law and morality to be according to the temper of that age.

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