The topic of Islamic reform is of great importance to those who wish to see Islam have as little conflict as possible with secular liberal ideals. In this view, secular liberalism is the transcendent arbiter of Truth, and it represents an assumed moral progress towards an imagined utopia of human flourishing. This notion is founded upon the false sense that one can only be objective about religion and its role in life by evaluating it as an outsider who either implicitly or explicitly excludes the Giver of Life and Revelation from their calculus.
For Muslims invested in proving to the Western irreligious world that Islam is a “rational” religion that calls for science and all causes of social justice movements indiscriminately, Islamic reform must be done within a framework of secular liberalism. While much concern is given to the question of making Islam compatible with this ideological context, little thought is given to the more important question from an Islamic standpoint – is secular liberalism compatible with Islam? Properly understood, it appears that the two worldviews are not only incompatible as they stand, but also existentially dangerous to one another.
In his 2012 book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt synthesized and presented findings from a number of field and laboratory investigations into the psychology of morality. He explored the question of the origin of morality and offered an attempt at developing a foundational structure for moral matrices utilized by people of right and left political leanings.
Despite the criticisms levelled against the merit of this work such as the one by John Gray, or the one against the field of moral psychology in general by Tamsin Shaw, The Righteous Mind does offer some interesting insights not to be discarded. One such example appears in the chapter on religion where Haidt drew from anthropological findings that showed the role religion plays in helping groups cohere and cooperate without kinship. He writes:
The clearest evidence comes from the anthropologist Richard Sosis, who examined the history of two hundred communes founded in the United States in the nineteenth century. Communes are natural experiments in cooperation without kinship. Communes can survive only to the extent that they bind a group together, suppress self-interest, and solve the free rider problem. Communes are usually founded by a group of committed believers who reject the moral matrix of the broader society and want to organize themselves along different principles.
The modern world elevates the individual above all, and the liberal ethic sides with individual freedom when it conflicts with community customs and expectations, as it sometimes does. On the other hand, the Beloved ﷺ compared the community to a single body where individuals are intimately connected to the extent that when one feels something, let alone behaves in a certain way, the rest of the community hastily responds to them. Much of Islamic legislation is based on this and actively promotes a collective ethos both inside and outside the mosque.
The first thing the Beloved ﷺ did when he arrived in Medina was build a mosque where the separate individuals of the early Muslim community would come to gather. The most sacred day of the week is Friday, the Arabic name of which literally means The Day of Gathering. On the other hand, when a man knocked on the Beloved ﷺ’s door and identified himself by saying, “It’s me!” the Beloved ﷺ detested it. Furthermore, when a young man told the Beloved ﷺ that he would like to have extramarital sexual relations with women and wanted it to be permissible for him, the Beloved ﷺ’s response was to turn the young man’s attention to his sister, mother, and whether he would accept other men to do the same with women in his family.
That is not to say that Islam promotes groupthink or that individuals are not called upon to speak up against the community if it is engaged in oppression and wrongdoing. Muslims are encouraged to do so in both the Quran and Hadith even if they happen to be single individuals. Ultimately, a Muslim’s commitment should be to the Truth, even if it harms them.
It can be said based on a holistic reading of the Quran and Hadith that one of the higher objectives of the Sharia is to make one transcend their selfish sense of individuality and recognize their intimate connectedness with others. On the other hand, the liberal ethic of the modern world emphasizes a belief in an illusion of individuality and disconnectedness from others.
Aside from its spiritual impact the emphasis on community in Islam may also be a contributing factor to the persistence and potential growth of Muslim numbers despite the numerous historical attempts to erase them. About the anthropological findings Haidt relates, he states that:
For many nineteenth-century communes, the principles were religious; for others they were secular, mostly socialist. Which kind of commune survived longer? Sosis found that the difference was stark: just 6 percent of the secular communes were still functioning twenty years after their founding, compared to 39 percent of religious communes.
The significance of these figures cannot be overstated. Secular communes have essentially disappeared within a span of two decades while religious communities persisted. The reason for this finding will be counterintuitive to modern liberal sensibilities that elevate the individual and personal freedom to live as one pleases to at all costs, and it has to do with sacrifice:
[Sosis] found one master variable: the number of costly sacrifices that each commune demanded from its members. It was things like giving up alcohol and tobacco, fasting for days at a time, conforming to a communal dress code or hairstyle, or cutting ties with outsiders. For religious communes, the effect was perfectly linear; the more sacrifice a commune demanded, the longer it lasted. But Sosis was surprised to discover that demands for sacrifice did not help secular communes. Most of them failed within eight years, and there was no correlation between sacrifice and longevity.
Why doesn’t sacrifice strengthen secular communes? Sosis argues that rituals, laws, and other constraints work best when they are sacralized. He quotes the anthropologist Roy Rappaport: “To invest social conventions with sanctity is to hide their arbitrariness in a cloak of seeming necessity.” But when secular organizations demand sacrifice, every member has a right to ask for a cost-benefit analysis, and many refuse to do things that don’t make logical sense.
The dismissal of Haidt and other anthropologists he cites of the sanctification of actions as a cover for arbitrariness is due to their materialist commitments that reject the Sacred. Their classification of religious practices as arbitrary is an irrelevant and unsupported opinion presented as fact. However, what is relevant is the belief on the part of religious communes that their sacrifices and commitments are to the Sacred. The belief in something greater than the individual appears to be essential for a community to remain as such. Secular communes on the other hand engaged in futile attempts to logically justify their sacrifices, and they eventually perished.
Modern Muslims seem to be walking a dangerous fine line where they identify as a religious community, yet when it comes to religious practices many feel the need to offer logical explanations for everything. Examples of this include fasting Ramadan to feel the hunger of the less fortunate, not eating pork because of any number of health and sanitary reasons pertaining to pigs, and wearing the hijab to privatize female sexuality. Although Muslim scholars have offered materially tangible explanations for such practices, these explanations have been graduated for too many from being byproducts of a sacred commitment to these rituals into justifications for performing them. In this vain, all one has to do is offer a counterargument to shake a Muslim’s commitment to upholding these practices.
That there is a crises in Islamic education and understanding requiring serious consideration by Muslim scholars is not in question. However, much of modernist Islamic “reformation” plays on the fine line of identity and justification, and invokes a maqasidī, i.e., an objective-based approach. In contrast to past communities who sought to understand the wisdom of the law, modernist “reformation” elevates the individual to a degree that rivals the Legislator, where the law must make logical sense for it to be accepted. Moreover, in the name of “moral progress” it calls for the discarding of laws that violate liberal sensibilities. To make it palatable, scripture is desacralized through historicization of the law. None of this should be surprising. It is, after all, called a reformation.
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