Kuala Lumpur Palace Image

Tradition versus Modernity: Islam’s or Muslims’ Dilemma

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer

Kulliyyah of Islamic Revealed Knowledge and Human Sciences

International Islamic University Malaysia

E-mail: spahico@yahoo.com

KL Traditional and Modern buildings image
The best solution for Islamic architecture is to be traditional, but without just blindly imitating and repeating the past, and modern, albeit without rejecting tradition and constantly seeking to break with the past. Tradition and modernity in Islamic architecture must be at peace, rather than at loggerheads, with each other. Traditional and modern architecture in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The Popularity of the Theme

Undoubtedly, the subjects of tradition and modernity and how Muslims responded to them in late nineteenth and twentieth centuries are some of the most important topics that still preoccupy a great many scholars and researches, both Muslims and non-Muslims. A large corpus of literature, as a result, has emerged towards the end of twentieth and in early twenty-first centuries that addressed the subject matter. The studies and books carried different, but in essence very similar, titles such as – for instance – Islam and the Challenge of Modernity, edited by Sharifah Shifa al-Attas and published in 1996 by International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Islam: Motor or Challenge of Modernity, edited by Georg Stauth and published in 1998 by LIT Verlag in Hamburg, Germany; Muslims and Modernity, an Introduction to the Issues and Debates by Clinton Bennett, published in 2005 by Continuum in London, UK; Legitimizing Modernity in Islam by Husain Kassim, published in 2005 by the Edwin Mellen Press in Lewiston, New York, US; Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition: Reform, Rationality and Modernity by Samira Haj, published in 2009 by Stanford University Press, Stanford, California, US; Islam, Modernity and the Human Sciences by Ali Zaidi, published in 2011 by Palgrave, Macmillan, US; Tradition, Modernity and Islam, edited by A. Rahman Tang Abdullah and published in 2011 by the International Islamic University Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur; Islam between Tradition and Modernity, an Australian Perspective by Mehmet Ozalp, published in 2012 by Barton Books in Canberra, Australia, and many others.

When one studies those and other similar in character and substance books, one easily realizes that the contents of those books and studies were confined not only to the themes of the conception of tradition and modernity and the relationship between them in Islam, and whether Islam is a monolithic and unchanging phenomenon throughout time and wherever it is encountered, but also they extended to and covered other themes and topics that concern a myriad of ideological, epistemological, cultural, spiritual and civilizational dialogue matters. Both the diversity and profundity of the issues and debates within contemporary Islamic thought that characterize contemporary Islam and its contemporary cultural and civilizational course and action, have been featured. That means that studying in contemporary contexts all the major aspects of Islam both with their individual and institutional, spiritual and material, conceptual and practical, nuances, has become analogous, yet almost identifiable, with studying the notions of tradition and modernity, as well as their mutual compatibility – or otherwise – within the fold of the Islamic message.

Thus, the terms tradition and modernity and the notion of their reciprocal relationship in Islam became a catch-phrase, or a locution, whereby a book, a treatise or an essay, featuring partly or completely those terms, was ensured significant exposure and readership, whereas, at the same time, it was nigh on impossible to establish as unsuitable or wide of the mark basically anything that was intended to be included in the contents of a written work. Accordingly, one finds in the said scholarly literature from such broad and open-ended subjects as the Islamic worldview and philosophy, Muslim debates on social sciences, sectarianism, Islamic epistemology, marriage and gender issues, human rights, the position of non-Muslim minorities in Islam, war and peace, etc., to those specific issues which are directly related to the theme at hand such as Islam and the modern state, globalization, colonialism, democracy, postmodernism, secularism, science and technology, Islam and social change, etc. These in turn created a set of novel yet highly debatable terms which denoted impalpable and vague, rather than actual and existing, things and phenomena. Some of those most problematic expressions are: traditional Islam and Muslims, modern Islam and Muslims, moderate Islam and Muslims, Islamic fundamentalism, radical Islam and Muslims, etc. Indeed, the latter accounts for one of the more damaging syndromes which most Muslims are yet to come to terms with, let alone recover from. It seriously hampers many Muslims’ intellectual as well as spiritual advancement. Instead of occupying some elevated intellectual and spiritual spheres, confronting head-on some fundamentally vital problems and conundrums, the same people got bogged down in wrestling with superficial linguistic expressions, definitions and other irrelevant and extraneous, but time and capacity-consuming, issues.

For over a thousand years, Muslims were the most dominant cultural and civilizational force in the world whose springs fed the Christian West for centuries. Their socio-political system was rooted in revelation; its truth was validated by Islamic history, which attested to God’s divine guidance of the community.[1] It follows that being a leading world power, at most, or a force to be constantly reckoned with, at least, eventually became part of Muslims’ genetic structure and their psychological configuration. However, “from the seventeenth century onwards, a long process of Western intervention and presence began which was to result in the most serious challenge ever encountered by the Islamic world. Gradual colonial economic control gave way to political and military dominance in the nineteenth century. Thus, for the first time in Islamic history, Muslims found themselves subjugated and ruled by the Christian West – foreign unbelievers who were their colonial masters and whose missionaries often claimed that their success was due to the superiority of western Christian civilization. This challenge raised profound questions of identity for Muslims.” Questions were also asked about the ability of Islam to meet the demands of modern and rapidly changing times, about the relevance and place of Shari’ah laws, about the relationship between revelation, reason, science and technology, about what had gone wrong and where were the divine grace and guidance that had ensured past success, and finally, about whether it was Islam or Muslims – or both – to be blamed for the widespread misfortune.[2] It was natural, therefore, that practically all Muslim responses to those soul-searching inquiries, irrespective of their academic or applied fields and disciplines, were capable to be dealt with in the context of the concepts of tradition and modernity and how Islam treats them.

What is Tradition?

“A tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past.”[3] A tradition is also said to be the passing down of elements of a culture from generation to generation, especially by oral communication. Elements of a culture passed down as traditions are normally institutionalized customs, beliefs, precepts and practices. They signify modes of thought and behavior followed by a particular people continuously from generation to generation. Tradition could likewise be bound to rituals, where rituals guarantee the continuation of tradition. The concept is often seen as a polar opposite of modernity in a linear theory of social change in which societies progress from being traditional to being modern.[4] Tradition is also found in political, philosophical, religious and artistic discourse where the idea is increasingly being projected as more dynamic and flexible, heterogeneous and subject to innovation and change than what some oversimplifying viewpoints and theories presuppose. The word tradition is derived from the Latin tradere or traderer literally meaning to transmit, to hand over, to deliver and to entrust for safekeeping.[5] Tradition is customarily translated into Arabic as taqlid.

However, when juxtaposed with the true meaning of the Islamic message, neither tradition – above all the one based on the conventional Western interpretation of the concept – nor taqlid is fully qualified to be employed for the purpose of signifying the act of implementing and following it continuously as a heavenly-sanctioned life paradigm. Both of them fall short considerably of the required qualifications. This could be explained as follows.

Following Islam means following divine revelation (wahy) in the form of the Holy Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad’s authentic Sunnah. The two stand for the revelation of the ultimate truths with respect to God, man, angels, the Jinn, life, death, Akhirah or the Hereafter, and many other absolute ontological verities pertaining to the physical and metaphysical tiers of existence. Numerous ethical values, standards and norms, as well as definite injunctions and sets of laws, regulating a man’s relationship with his Creator and Master, his self, other people and the rest of animate and inanimate beings, also fall in this category. These are transcendent existential realities, ideas, beings and experiences. They are not affected, nor bound, by the confines and limitations of time and space factors, nor are they thus to be subjected to the relative criteria and standards dictated by such factors.

It goes without saying that Islam, by definition, can never become antique, archaic or obsolete. Nor can it become a mere tradition or a set of traditional or evolved beliefs, rituals and customs, in that it was not people who created or generated it in a space and in a moment of time, and as such transmitted and handed it over from generation to generation. This is so because as transcendent and absolute truth, Islam is ever-fresh, dynamic, original and inspiring. It always spurs a productive pursuit and spawns a cultural and civilizational legacy. Islam itself has never been generated or evolved either as a legacy or a tradition.

As far as Islam as a comprehensive and global religion that covers every aspect of life is concerned, the only thing that is eligible to be to some extent called a tradition and traditional is Muslims’ internalization and implementation of certain aspects of the perpetual Islamic message within their diverse terrestrial contexts where, nevertheless, qualified changeability, impermanence and diversity of styles and methods in relation to answering the pressing exigencies of time and space are not only expected, but also invited and appreciated. It is here that blind following is categorically rebuffed, and innovation and creativity anticipated and highly valued. It is here, furthermore, that Muslim customs morph into Muslim traditions, and the latter matures and subtly amalgamates itself with Islamic culture. As components of Islamic culture, conventions and traditions are still deemed only accidental rather than essential or substantial to the former’s being both a product and reflection of Islam as a total way of life embodied in the behavioral patterns of its adherents.

Hence, Islam has a distinct culture and civilization. The culture and civilization in Islam are not Arabic or eastern or Middle Eastern. They are also not monolithic. They have varieties and a rich diversity. There are elements in Islamic culture and civilization that are universal and constant and that are collectively accepted by all Muslims. But there are also elements that are diverse and different from country to country and people to people. The universals are based on the Qur’an and Sunnah while the variables are based on local customs and traditions of various people.[6] The latter has been acquired on account of actualizing certain dimensions of the Qur’an and Sunnah in localized milieus under their prevalent inherent and man-generated circumstances. The particulars of Islamic culture, though legitimate and deeply embedded in the very fabric of Muslim societies, are by no means to be considered sacred, unqualified and immutable. Their meaning and significance are inexorably tied to Islamic revelation, and their appropriateness and functioning conditioned mainly by it.

This existential paradigm could also be identified as a principle of following religion and innovating cultures and civilization. Without a doubt, following religion without innovating, and innovating in sheer worldly cultural and civilizational matters, which from time to time was ingeniously combined with borrowing from others, was a Muslim rule since the early days of Islam and its nascent civilization. Since customs and traditions are rather generic terms that encompass a wide variety of things and concepts that are a part of the complex culture, such an approach surely was a sign of Muslim religious fervor, enthusiasm and maturity, as well as a sign of their cultural and civilizational predisposition, potency and astuteness. Hence, it could be suggested that the opposite of this tenet, that is, the unreserved holding on to and blind following of worldly and even some inconsequential religion-inspired customs and traditions – irrespective of whether they have been engendered my Muslims or non-Muslims – together with irresponsibly questioning and innovating established religious matters, was one of the root-causes of the Muslim dramatic cultural and civilizational decline, and still constitutes a major reason behind the inability of today’s Muslims to pick themselves up, make their voice heard and start making a notable civilizational headway of their own.

With reference to these concerns, God says, for example: “…This day have I perfected for you your religion and completed My favor on you and chosen for you Islam as a religion” (al-Tawbah, 3).

The Prophet (pbuh) also said that there is nothing that brings people closer to the bliss of Paradise (Jannah) and keeps them away from Hellfire but that he did not inform and teach them about.[7] There will never emerge a need for any religious addition or innovation.

Similarly, he also said that whatever God has made lawful in His Book (the Qur’an), it is lawful (halal), and whatever He prohibited, it is prohibited (haram). However, whatever God did not refer to as either lawful or prohibited, such is to be regarded as a gift or a sign of God’s clemency (‘afiyah) towards men. “So, accept Allah’s ‘afiyah because it is not that Allah ever forgets or overlooks anything”, was the Prophet’s inference.[8]

Finally, the Prophet (pbuh) is also reported to have said:  “Verily I have left you upon a white plain (i.e., clear guidance), its night is like its day, and none deviates from it except that he is destroyed… I counsel you to have taqwa (fear of Allah or God-consciousness), and to listen and obey (your leader), even if a slave were to become your Amir (leader). Verily he among you who lives long will see great controversy, so you must keep to my Sunnah and to the Sunnah of the Khulafa’ al-Rashidin (the rightly guided Caliphs), those who guide to the right way. Cling to it stubbornly (literally: with your molar teeth). Beware of newly invented matters (in the religion), for verily every bid`ah (innovation) is misguidance.”[9]

Thus, to closely associate the concept of tradition, which is the making of people, with the worldview and message of Islam, which is God’s revelation to humankind to serve as eternal transcendent guidance, is grossly inappropriate. It is on account of this that unqualified tradition and taqlid are regularly articulated with some disapproving connotations, in terms of people’s blind and besotted following of certain genres of thought and behavior even though such genres have been anchored in little or no truth whatsoever. By and large, the authenticity of most traditions is founded either on anonymous or questionable sources. Considered true and binding by the masses, they are thus transmitted especially by oral communication. Accordingly, a segment of Jewish tradition is a body of laws regarded as having been handed down from Moses orally and only committed to writing in the 2nd century. Similarly, a segment of Christian tradition is a doctrine or body of doctrines regarded as having been established by Christ or the apostles, though not contained in Scripture, but is considered holy and true.[10]

By way of analogy, the beliefs and customs of Islam supplementing the Qur’an, especially those embodied in the Prophet’s Sunnah, are regularly also called inside the English-speaking intellectual circles (Islamic) tradition.[11] The reason for this could be the fact that the Sunnah was firstly handed down orally from the Prophet (pbuh) before it became committed to writing and preserved. However, given that the term sunnah predated the term tradition by more or less seven centuries, employing the former in the context of the latter should in no way be regarded as an attempt towards its exact and official translation as well as ideological association, but rather as an approximate construal only, which nonetheless entails a wide range of both conceptual and applied undertones, many of which remain contentious.

Many traditions have been concocted on purpose. A tradition may be intentionally invented and proliferated for personal, business, religious, political or national self-interest. In consequence, some of the chief meanings of the words qallada and taqlid in Arabic, which are normally translated in English as following tradition and tradition respectively, revolve around not only imitating, aping and handing down old sayings and customs, but also winding round, girding with a sword, adorning with a necklace, putting on a necktie, parroting, copying, mimicking, investiture, inauguration and vesting with power and authority. In the etymology of the word, a clear hint is given at a potential intellectual and spiritual deceleration and even suffocation that the notion of taqlid or tradition often entails.

While the Qur’an and Sunnah ardently propagate following religion and inventing in mundane matters, they in the most emphatic terms repudiate the erroneous modes of tradition and its following, especially if such stands in the way of the former, as seen earlier. Additionally, the Qur’an says: “And recite to them the news of (Prophet) Ibrahim when he said to his father and his people: “What do you worship?” They said: “We worship idols and remain to them devoted.” He said: “Do they hear you when you supplicate, or do they benefit you, or do they harm?” They said: “But we found our fathers doing thus.” He said: “Then do you see what you have been worshipping, you and your ancient forefathers? Indeed, they are enemies to me, except the Lord of the worlds…” (al-Shu’ara’, 69-77).

“They said: “We found our fathers worshippers of them.” He (Ibrahim) said: “Indeed you and your fathers have been in manifest error.” They said: “Have you brought us the truth, or are you one of those who play about?” He said: “Nay, your Lord is the Lord of the heavens and the earth, Who created them and of that I am one of the witnesses. And by Allah, I shall plot a plan (to destroy) your idols after you have gone away and turned your backs.” So he broke them to pieces, (all) except the biggest of them, that they might turn to it” (al-Anbiya’, 53-58).

“And similarly, We did not send before you any warner into a city except that its affluent said: “Indeed, we found our fathers upon a religion, and we are, in their footsteps, following.” (Each warner) said: “Even if I brought you better guidance than that (religion) upon which you found your fathers?” They said: “Indeed we, in that with which you were sent, are disbelievers.” So we took retribution from them; then see how was the end of the deniers” (al-Zukhruf, 23-25).

“And when it is said to them: “Come to what Allah has revealed and to the Messenger,” they say: “Sufficient for us is that upon which we found our fathers.” Even though their fathers knew nothing, nor were they guided?” (al-Ma’idah, 104).

At any rate, as the notion of holding on to a previous time, the concept of tradition in Islam is tricky and contentious.[12] The matter, diffuse and complex as it is, is further compounded by the verity that the proponents of some present-day socio-political and economic realities, worldviews, systems and ideologies, flavored with diverse philosophical proclivities and nuances, further interpreted and applied the idea of tradition along the lines of the recent intellectual currents and directions. Inasmuch as most of those systems and schools of thought were solely future and modernity oriented, relegating the active roles of religions and traditions to the backseat for the reason that they were seen as de-intellectualizing as well as anti-modernizing, owing to their crucial contributions to rendering the entire Europe-dominated Middle Ages, or the early part of the Medieval period, the age(s) of cultural and civilizational regressions and darkness, the presupposed downsides and snags inherent in the orb of tradition were exacerbated. Consequently, tradition became viewed and assessed merely through the prism of the modern-day systems and schools of thought, progressively gaining a reputation of the latter’s antithesis as well as a main obstacle for its ultimate realization. One could even say that the idea of tradition was thus greatly manipulated and victimized.

Clearly, it was not a coincidence that the word tradition started to be used from the 14th century onwards,[13] a phase that represented roughly the twilight of the European Middle Ages, or Medieval period, sandwiched between Late Antiquity and Modern period. Moreover, the 14th century belongs to the Late Middle Age, or Late Medieval period, which, by and large, was characterized by the gradual waning of an epoch of ubiquitous ignorance and superstition in Europe that was placing the word of religious authorities over personal experience and rational activity.[14] European Middle Ages were followed by the early Modern period of modern history which was marked by the Renaissance, or rebirth, and the Age of Discovery during which cultural and intellectual forces gave emphasis to reason, analysis and individualism rather than traditional lines of authority. Such was a process that witnessed a surge of interest in Classical (ancient Greece and Rome) scholarship and values, culminating in the Age of reason which is the 17th-century philosophy that served as a successor of the Renaissance and a predecessor to the Age of Enlightenment as a European intellectual movement of the late 17th and 18th centuries when favoring reason and individualism over tradition became a central tenet of modernity.[15]

In Islam, therefore, tradition would provisionally and loosely imply following the Qur’an, the Sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh), the sunnah of Khulafa’ al-Rashidun or the rightly guided caliphs and leaders, the life examples of the Salaf or early Muslims, of the members of the Prophet’s family (Ahl al-Bayt), of the honorable and upright scholars and the righteous and devout men and women wherever they may be and whenever they may live, as well as following those elements of culture as have been formed and transmitted as a result of strictly adhering to and following the former under the aegis of dissimilar eras, regions and environments. This by no means is the conventional Western interpretation of tradition that pits it against modernity, and where rationalism, material progress and individualism with free will and choice take precedence over traditional lines of authority.

What could be dubbed tradition in Islam, therefore, is not a world of antiquities, folklore, anachronisms, and some old-fashioned and obsolete elements of culture. Rather, it is a vibrant, enriching and heterogeneous supplement from the past to the successful charting and constructing of a meaningful and consequential present as well as future. In this fashion, tradition and modernity can effectively coexist and support each other, both within individuals and on the level of institutions. They make up different, albeit closely interrelated, segments of one and the same process, mission and purpose. The relations between the traditional and the modern should not necessarily involve displacement, conflict, dichotomy or exclusiveness, and their stark contrasts need to be finely converted into rewarding opportunities and aspirations that will affect the affirmation of both of them as part of a continuous cultural and civilizational integrated development. No wonder then, that the word tradition has no exact equivalent in the Arabic language. Apart from the word taqlid, the other Arabic words that are frequently resorted to in order to provide no more than approximate translations are: turath which means heritage, legacy and “tradition”, ‘urf which means custom, mores, customary usage and “tradition”, sunnah which means norm, mores, method, life-path and “tradition”, namus which means code, law and “tradition”, and ‘adah which means custom, practice and “tradition”.

Undeniably, because of this nature of Islam and its attitude towards human culture and civilization in general, certain conventional customs or practices (‘adat) and customary usage (‘urf) are regarded as a source of the rulings of the Islamic law (Shari’ah) where there are no explicit texts from neither the Qur’an nor the Prophet’s Sunnah specifying the rulings. It is also a requirement in making customs (‘adat) and customary usage (‘urf) a source of Shari’ah rulings that there are no contradictions between them and the contents of the Qur’an and Sunnah. About the meaning of customs and customary usage Muhammad Abu Zahrah said: “Custom is a matter on which a community of people agree in the course of their daily life, and common usage is an action which is repeatedly performed by individuals and communities. When a community makes a habit of doing something, it becomes its common usage. So the custom and common usage of a community share the same underlying idea even if what is understood by them differs slightly.”[16]

And about the reasons why ‘adat and ‘urf are deemed the appropriate sources of Shari’ah, in absence of explicit texts from the Qur’an and Sunnah and when there are no conflicts between the ‘adat and ‘urf and the latter, Muhammad Abu Zahrah said: “Many judgments are based on ‘urf because in many cases it coincides with public interest… Another reason is that custom necessarily entails people’s familiarity with a matter, and so any judgment based on it will receive general acceptance whereas divergence from it will be liable to cause distress, which is disliked in the judgment of Islam because Allah Almighty has not imposed any hardship on people in His deen (religion). Allah Almighty prescribes what normal people deem proper and are accustomed to, not what they dislike and hate. So when a custom is not a vice and is respected by people, honoring it will strengthen the bond which draws people together because it is connected to their traditions and social transactions whereas opposition to it will destroy that cohesion and bring about disunity.”[17]

What is Modernity?

 Modernity signifies “both a historical period as well as the ensemble of particular socio-cultural norms, attitudes and practices that arose in post-medieval Europe and have developed since, in various ways and at various times, around the world. While it includes a wide range of interrelated historical processes and cultural phenomena, it can also refer to the subjective or existential experience of the conditions they produce, and their ongoing impact on human culture, institutions, and politics.”[18]

Modernity is the quality of being modern, contemporary or up-to-date, implying a modern or contemporary way of living or thinking. Modernity is often depicted as a period marked by a questioning or rejection of tradition and its normative uniformity as well as structural homogeneity, in favor of such novel or burgeoning standards and systems as rationalism, personal freedom, individualism, social, scientific and technological progress, industrialization, professionalization, secularization, representative democracy, public education, etc. At the heart of modernity stand cultural and intellectual self-realization, self-consciousness and re-birth, that is, deliverance and liberation from the fetters of Middle Ages stained with ignorance and superstition, and when the voice of religious authorities was imposed over personal experience and rational activity. Hence, the appellations of some of the major cultural, intellectual, social and philosophical currents of the day, especially those of the early modern period from the 15th to the 18th centuries, featured such catchy terms as re-birth, reason, enlightenment, discovery, revolution, etc., so as to unmistakably draw attention to the omnipresent exuberance.

The word modern comes from the Latin words modo, meaning just now, and modus, meaning now, but the term modernity has a stronger meaning, suggesting the possibility of a new beginning based on human autonomy and the consciousness of the legitimacy of the present time. Modernity is also said to imply that everything is open to query and to testing; everything is subject to rational scrutiny and refuted by argument.[19] While the term modernity was firstly coined in the 19th century, the first known use of the adjective modern was in the late 16th century.[20] However, according to some, the first use of the term modern goes back to the early Christian Church in the 5th century when it was used to distinguish the Christian era from the pagan age. However, the term did not gain widespread currency until the 17th century.[21]

On the word of Stuart Hall, as quoted by Charles Asher Small, the defining features or characteristics of modern societies are as follows:

“- The dominance of secular forms of political power and authority and conceptions of sovereignty and legitimacy, operating within defined territorial boundaries, which are characteristic of the large, complex structures of the modern nation-state.

– A monetarized exchange economy, based on the large-scale production and consumption of commodities for the market, extensive ownership of private property and the accumulation of capital on a systematic, long-term basis.

– The decline of the traditional social order, with its fixed social hierarchies and overlapping allegiances, and the appearance of a dynamic social and sexual division of labor. In modern capitalist societies, this was characterized by new class formations, and distinctive patriarchal relations between men and women.

– The decline of the religious world-view typical of traditional societies and the rise of secular and materialistic culture, exhibiting those individualistic, rationalist, and instrumental impulses now so familiar to us.”[22]

The initial emergence of the concepts of tradition, modern and modernity had nothing to do with Islamic scholarship and the world of Islam. However, since one of the most important features of the early European modern period was its globalized character, the Islamic world, which never ceased its close cultural, social and military interactions with the West, was quickly affected by the large-scale changes that were sweeping across Europe. The matter was further exacerbated by the fact that while the Western world was in its dramatic cultural and intellectual ascendancy, the Islamic world was in its as dramatic and swift decadence. One of the most painful corollaries of those developments was the subsequent colonization of Muslim Land by the leading Western Powers. Thus, insatiable quest for modernity in Europe turned for Muslims into colonization, and the latter soon became a lengthy process of Westernization of Islamic personality and culture. Consequently, there has been a tendency in the Islamic world since the late 19th century to explore more systematically the prevalent calamity and try to put forth some comprehensive, authoritative and well-structured solutions.

According to Parviz Morewedge and Oliver Leaman, “during the Christian medieval period, the Islamic world was in its cultural and political ascendancy, and was at the centre of theoretical work in both science and philosophy. However, by the 19th century, an enormous gap had opened between the Islamic world and the West. A wide variety of explanations for this decline have since been sought. The realization that this gap existed led to the Nahdah (rebirth or renaissance) movement between 1850 and 1914. Beginning in Syria but developed largely in Egypt, the movement sought to incorporate the main achievements of modern European civilization while at the same time reviving classical Islamic culture which predated imperialism and the centuries of decadence.The main problem facing the Nahdah thinkers was how to interpret the Islamic cultural tradition, including philosophy, in an environment dominated by the West.”[23]

As a result, what could be called Islamic modernism emerged in the middle of the 19th century as a response to European colonialism. Islamic modernism was a movement that aimed to reconcile Islamic faith with some modern values and trends such as democracy, rights, nationalism, rationality, science, equality and progress. As explained by Tauseef Ahmad Parray, it “generated a series of novel institutions, including schools that combined Islamic education with modern subjects and pedagogies; newspapers that carried modernist Islamic ideas across continents; constitutions that sought to limit state power; and social welfare agencies that brought state power into even more sectors of social life. Thus, Islamic modernism began as a response of Muslim intellectuals to European modernity, who argued that Islam, science and progress, revelation and reason, were indeed compatible. They did not simply wish to restore the beliefs and practices of the past; rather they asserted the need to ‘reinterpret and reapply’ the principles and ideals of Islam to formulate new responses to the political, scientific and cultural challenges of the west and of modern life. In a nutshell, as a reaction to the penetration of Western capitalist modernity into all aspects of Muslim society from the Arab world to Southeast Asia, a significant number of Muslim intellectuals began to write down the general outlines of a new intellectual project that is often referred to as ‘Islamic modernism’.”[24]

As part of a natural and dynamic development of societies, which in turn is part of sunnatullah (Allah’s patterns and laws according to which He deals with His creation), modernity as new, often creative and more functional, productive and effective, modes of living is not at all to be projected as at odds with Islam and its views of life and its multi-tiered realities. Modernity, in the sense of coming fully to terms with the maxims of “being at this time”, “being new” and “now existing” and whatever conceptual and practical nuances they implied, indicates attempts to come to grips with the rapid socio-political, economic and scientific changes, especially in the Western hemisphere, which however soon assumed a global character and thus caught many societies, in particular those of the Muslim world, by surprise. Modernity quickly emerged as the most compelling world’s life spectacle. It emerged and was there to stay, absorbing and assimilating if it was not absorbed and assimilated. There were other forms of “modernity” in the past, so to speak, originating in different parts of the world, nevertheless there was never anything as profound, all-inclusive, avant-garde and engaging as the latest modernity experience. Proclivities for being modern thus meant pragmatism and realism as opposed to idealism and naivety, dynamism and drive as opposed to apathy and indolence, and being open-minded and both present and future-oriented rather than myopic, narrow-minded and trapped in a single and static moment of time.

As far as Islam, Muslims and the Muslim mind were concerned, however, the biggest dilemma posed by modernity was that those new experiences of the world led to the development of a new sense of self, of subjectivity and individuality, which in turn led to fundamental changes in the understanding of the relationships between man and the supernatural, man and the natural world, man and his self, and between man and other people. In other words, the development of modernity was coupled with the development of new ideas, thoughts, values, standards, beliefs, lifestyles and tendencies. It stood for the creation of new ideologies and worldviews that called for a rapture, a revolution in time, and a break with the past and its principally outmoded ideologies and worldviews. As Ron Eyermon explains, “modernity referred to a world constructed anew through the active and conscious intervention of actors and the new sense of self that such active intervention and responsibility entailed. In modern society the world is experienced as a human construction, an experience that gives rise both to an exhilarating sense of freedom and possibility and to a basic anxiety about the openness of the future.”[25]

The Muslim dilemma thus revolved around the thrust of integrating the major and most inevitable segments of the increasingly omnipresent and universal modernity wonder into the fabric of ailing Islamic culture and civilization without compromising the transcendent values, teachings and principles of Islam and its worldview in the process.[26] The proponents of such an undertaking were torn between the unavoidability of the spread of the spill of modernity and the Islamic insistent denunciation of new inventions in religion, stressing that all inventions (in religion) are (religious) innovations (bid’ah), and  each innovation is a misguidance, and every misguidance is Hell-bound. However, it swiftly became obvious that striking a delicate balance between the two poles was the best and in the long-term most realistic answer. Neither fully embracing and incorporating modernity without distilling and Islamizing it, and adjusting it to the subtle religious, socio-political and economic requirements of Islamic societies, nor completely turning it down on the grounds that it was utterly un-Islamic and bent on destroying Islamic tradition and heritage, was the right and feasible way.

This was so, furthermore, because Islam as the universal and final revelation to mankind is both traditional and modern. While it speaks about the infinity, permanence and inviolability of its divinely prescribed truth, and so, about continuous complying with and following its authorities, as well as about valuing and conforming to the legacies and traditions spawned by such dynamic historical processes, Islam also calls for appropriate responses to the incessant challenges presented by the fluctuating time and space factors, and for the prospect of its understanding and application to be reinvigorated and reformed from within in order to counter the potential weaknesses of the Muslim mind and the cultural and civilizational degeneration of Islamic societies. Accordingly, such concepts as ijtihad (independent reasoning) for solving new and unprecedented issues and challenges, islah (reform), tajdid (renewal), rejection of all types of religious innovations (bid’ah), and sahwah (awakening), have been expounded and duly articulated in Islamic scholarship.

Finally, Muslims need not have any undue aversion to Islamic tradition because Islam was never a cause of any darkness or ignorance chapters in Muslim history. There were no dark ages in Islamic civilization. Such a thing would be an anomaly in a religion of ultimate light, truth and guidance for humankind as Islam is. On the contrary, Islam was the root-cause of all goodness that originated in Islamic civilization and from which not only Muslims, but also non-Muslims, benefitted. It was only certain Muslims’ recurring misconduct that time after time held up the progression of Islamic civilization, in the end causing it to come to a standstill. The problems thus were never Islam’s, but rather Muslims’. The same holds true for the latest conundrum with regard to the notions of tradition and modernity and what relationship ought to exist between them.

In the same vein, Muslims need not have any unwarranted or worship-like reverence for Western modernity crusade because, in essence, conceptually and epistemologically it was so conceived as to correspond to the immediate Western needs created by the Western Middle Ages or Medieval period. It was only later that by means of colonization and westernization drives, modernity came to be perceived and witnessed as a global phenomenon. While its outward manifestations and operations seem customarily innocent and universally appealing, it is the inner philosophical dimensions of modernity, as well as the former’s everyday application entailing a myriad of ethical quandaries – which are often deceptively wrapped up in the wrap of supposed universal values drawn from such spheres of human value as encompass aesthetic preference, social order and overall human traits and endeavor – that prove the biggest impediment to unconditionally recognizing and espousing modernity. Muslim spiritual and intellectual awareness thus ought always to be of such a high level and quality that knowing how far to go, where to stop and what to take, or contribute, and what not, when engaging with various constituents of modernity, should be a comfortably manageable proposition.

While discoursing about the theme of the relationship between the Islamic worldview and modern science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr underlined in the context of his critique of modernity and its science: “Instead of criticizing the implicit value system inherent in modern science from the Islamic point of view, many of the champions of the blind emulation of modern science and technology claim that it is value-free, displaying their ignorance of a whole generation of Western philosophers and critics of modern science who have displayed with irrefutable arguments the fact that modern science, like any other science, is based on the particular value system and a specific worldview rooted in specific assumptions concerning the nature of physical reality, the subject who knows this external reality, and the relation between the two. Modern science must be studied in its philosophical foundations from the Islamic point of view, in order to reveal for Muslims exactly what is the value system upon which it is based and how this value system opposes, complements, or threatens the Islamic value system which for Muslims comes from God and not simply merely human forms of knowledge which are based by definition upon human reason and the five external senses, and specifically denying any other possible avenue for authentic knowledge. Muslim thinkers must stop speaking of modern physics as not being Western but international, while hiding its provincial foundations grounded in a particular philosophy and value system related to a specific period of not global, but European history.”[27]

Moreover, when he in the same study dwelled on the steps in the creation of an authentic Islamic science, Seyyed Hossein Nasr strongly advised that “the first necessary step is to stop the worship-like attitude towards modern science and technology which is prevalent today in much of the Muslim world… This trend must be reversed and the whole of modern science and technology be seen not with a sense of inferiority complex as if a frog were looking into the eyes of a viper, but from an independent Islamic worldview whose roots are sunk in Allah’s revelation and which could be compared to the case of an eagle who roams the horizons and studies the movements of the viper without being mesmerized by it. In the light of this worldview, the whole notion of decadence in Islamic civilization, especially as far as it concerns the sciences, must be re-examined.”[28]

Islamic Traditional and Modern Architecture

In the light of the above discussion, Islamic architecture, in its capacity as a physical locus of the actualization of the Islamic message and a representation as well as a microcosm of the identity of Islamic culture and civilization, needs to be both traditional and modern. It needs to be traditional in the sense that it will be based on people’s perennial social, cultural and religious needs, will make full use of common regional forms and materials which certain communities were evolving and making recourse to for centuries, and will through its form and function exemplify and exude both Islamic undying principles and values and the local customs and practices in relation to a particular place and time. That is to say, Islamic architecture should reflect the environmental, cultural, technological, economic, social and historical context in which it has been planted.

Moreover, Islamic architecture, at the same time, ought to be modern as well, in the sense that it will use modern materials, techniques and systems, will use traditional materials and systems in new and creative ways which will be ingeniously integrated with the former, will adopt the principle of “form follows function” and in the process avoid extravagance, pomp, clutter and all the unnecessary factors and ingredients, will adopt the principle of “complexity in simplicity”, and will be maximum-efficiency disposed in connection with its structural, serviceable and functional purpose. That is to say, Islamic architectural design principles will be reconciled with rapid scientific and technological advancement and the modernization of Islamic societies.

In other words, Muslim architects need to produce buildings that are recognizable of our own age but with an understanding and respect for religion, history, culture and context. If this will involve some challenges to public taste and convention, it may not be a bad thing.[29] The trend should lead to a situation where the two polarities, if at times not fully patched up and unified in some new creative and original architectural design solutions, then new is to be distinguishable from traditional – albeit neither ostentatiously nor uncouthly – and traditional is to be treated with maximum care and integrity. Moreover, traditional is not to be relegated and subjected to some substandard undertakings, therapies, technologies and economic as well as socio-political interests and concerns. Nor is it to be underestimated and neglected to the point where those involved in whatever capacities with it will become prone to developing an architectural inferiority complex. Such attempts towards reconciliation and amalgamation between modern and traditional in Islamic architecture, in spite of posing challenges to some public perceptions and predilections, will surely generate debates and even controversies that will ensure that professional scrutiny and public interest are alive and well. At any rate, so disappointing and worrying is the state of the contemporary architecture of Muslims that with the said reconciliatory and integrative architectural approach, in the end, everyone is set to win basically everything and lose virtually nothing.

Unquestionably, there is nothing wrong and everything right about using obvious and explicable Islamic traditions, which are fully charged with Islamic spirituality, in modern Islamic designs. Similarly, there is no good reason why being original is restricted to being non-traditional, why being creative means that nothing from the past can be borrowed, re-interpreted and re-applied, and lastly, why modern inventions have to look odd and unpredicted only.[30] As Robert Adam, while speaking generally about tradition as the driving force of urban identity, observed that “traditional design can be original, it can be creative and it can take on new things – it can even invent new traditions. If only we could all understand this, we could have a public that understands us, we could add to our historic culture instead of fighting it.”[31]

According to Garry Martin, Islamic architecture of the past was always in harmony with its people, their environment and their Creator. The great mosques of Cordoba, Edirne and Shah Jahan – for instance – each used local geometry, local materials and local building methods to express in their own ways the order, harmony and unity of Islamic architecture. But in the 20th century, the Islamic concepts of unity, harmony and continuity often are forgotten in the rush for industrial and modern development. Garry Martin then lists three directions contemporary Islamic architecture can take:

  1. One approach is to completely ignore the past and produce Western-oriented architecture that ignores the Islamic spirit and undermines traditional culture.
  2. The opposite approach involves a retreat, at least superficially, to the Islamic architectural past. This can result in hybrid buildings where traditional facades of arches and domes are grafted onto modern high-rises.
  1. A third approach is to understand the essence of Islamic architecture and to allow modern building technology to be a tool in the expression of this essence. Architects working today can take advantage of opportunities that new materials and mass production techniques offer. They have an opportunity to explore and transform the possibilities of the machine age for the enrichment of architecture in the same way that craftsmen explored the nature of geometrical and arabesque patterns. The forms that would evolve from this approach would have a regional identity, a stylistic evolution, a modern appeal and a relevance to the eternal principles of Islam.[32]

It goes without saying, therefore, that the best solution for Islamic architecture is to be traditional, but without just blindly imitating and repeating the past, and modern, albeit without rejecting tradition and constantly seeking to break with the past. Tradition and modernity in Islamic architecture must be at peace, rather than at loggerheads, with each other. Their synthesis will serve as an inspiration and source of endless design opportunities and ideas. Only this way, undoubtedly, both tradition and modernity in Islamic architecture will be bound to triumph. Otherwise, they both will dreadfully fall short, causing thereby a considerable irreversible damage to the future of Islamic architecture and, by extension, to Islamic civilization.

On the whole, therefore, genuine Islamic architecture is seen as a type of architecture whose functions and, to a lesser extent, form are inspired primarily by Islam. Islamic architecture is a framework for the implementation of Islam. As such, it facilitates, fosters and stimulates the ‘ibadah (worship) activities of Muslims, which, in turn, account for every moment of their earthly lives. When properly perceived and practiced unobstructed, the universal, fluid, multi-dimensional and value-loaded character of Islamic architecture always eventually comes to the fore in any given socio-economic, religious and cultural context.

Islamic architecture, it follows, can come into existence only under the aegis of the Islamic perceptions of God, man, nature, life, civilization and the Hereafter. Thus, authentic Islamic architecture would be the facilities and, at the same time, a physical locus of the implementation of the Islamic message. Practically, Islamic architecture represents the religion of Islam that has been translated into reality at the hands of Muslims. It also represents the identity of Islamic culture and civilization where the notions of tradition and modernity are relative conceptions – as explained earlier.

There is thus a strong relationship between genuine Islamic architecture and a society where it is conceived, produced and utilized. This is so because Islamic architecture signifies a long process where all the phases and aspects are equally important. The Islamic architecture process starts with having a proper understanding and vision which leads to making a right intention. It continues with the planning, designing and building stages, and ends with attaining the net results and how people make use of and benefit from them. Islamic architecture is a fine blend of all these factors which are interwoven with the treads of the belief system, teachings and values of Islam. Similarly, integral to the architectural processes are also local customs, traditions, geography and other numerous micro socio-economic considerations.

So, therefore, the multi-tiered realm of architecture, in general, is not to be viewed only through the lens of architecture as pure art, science and technology. Rather, it is to be expanded into the higher and more sophisticated realms of existence. Existence, on the other hand, is not to be distorted or narrowed down, so as to go well with the corporeal ingredients and dimensions of architecture only. The orb of architecture, it follows, is to become known as an ultimate spiritualized and “supernatural” orb, whereas the life phenomenon is not to be mechanized or rendered merely physical, inconsequential and perfunctory just on account of some of us falling short of penetrating into its complex meanings and secrets.

Architecture is synonymous with physical and spiritual flawlessness, precision and balance. It follows the rules and principles of the perfect universe designed and created by the Perfect Creator. It is a recognition, extension and augmentation of the faultless equilibrium that runs through the veins of total existence. By no means is it imitating, much less challenging or surpassing, the latter. Indeed, there can be no imitation or challenge between two completely different domains with different existential qualities and spheres of influence.

Also, Islamic architecture is a mixture of the heavenly and terrestrial factors and elements. Both sides are extremely important, playing their respective roles. They finely complement and add to each other’s strength and operation. Neglecting either of the two poles in Islamic architecture inevitably leads to a serious damage in its fundamental nature, at a conceptual or a practical level. The heavenly or divine factors give Islamic architecture a soul, moral fiber and its conspicuous identity. They present it with a special aura that Islamic architecture effortlessly exudes inside as well as outside its ambits.

The terrestrial factors, on the other hand, impart about Islamic architecture an intuition about its compelling worldliness, simplicity and utter practicality and pragmatism. They provide a powerful feeling about Islamic architecture’s and its users’ congenital mortality, so nobody should get carried away and, deceived, treat architecture or his self differently. Even though Islamic architecture is inspired and deeply rooted in a transcendental idea and message, it still operates and is greatly influenced and shaped by the exigencies of space and time factors and experiences.

It is certainly because of this that Stefano Bianca remarked on the extent to which the Islamic spirituality influences Islamic architecture: “Compared with other religious traditions, the distinctive feature of Islam is that it has given birth to a comprehensive and integrated cultural system by totally embedding the religious practice in the daily life of the individual and the society. While Islam did not prescribe formal architectural concepts, it molded the whole way of life by providing a matrix of behavioral archetypes which, by necessity, generated correlated physical patterns. Therefore, the religious and social universe of Islam must be addressed before engaging in the analysis of architectural structures.”[33]

[1] Islam in Transition, edited by John J. Donohue and John L. Esposito, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), p. 5.

[2] Ibid., p. 5-6.

[3] Tradition, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tradition (accessed on June 8, 2015).

[4] Joseph R. Gusfield, Tradition and Modernity: Misplaced Polarities in the Study of Social Change, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 72, No. 4 (Jan., 1967), pp. 351-362, http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/2775860.pdf?acceptTC=true (accessed on June 10, 2015).

[5] Tradition, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/tradition (accessed on June 8, 2015). Tradition, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tradition (accessed on June 8, 2015).

[6] Muzammil Siddiqi, Five Features of Islamic Culture, http://www.onislam.net/english/shariah/shariah-and-humanity/shariah-and-life/466251-islam-culture-heritage-art-people-muslim-prophet.html?Life= (accessed on June 9, 2015).

[7] Muhammad ‘Ali al-Sabuni, Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, (Beirut: Dar al-Qur’an al-Karim, 1981), vol. 2 p. 412.

[8] Ibid., vol. 2 p. 460.

[9] Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Muqaddimah, Hadith No. 42, http://hadith.al-islam.com/Loader.aspx?pageid=261 (accessed on June 9, 2015). Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id, To Follow the Sunnah, http://www.onislam.net/english/shariah/hadith/this-hadith/452921-the-obligation-of-binding-oneself-to-the-sunnah.html (accessed on June 9, 2015).

[10] Tradition, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/tradition (accessed on June 9, 2015).

[11] Ibid.

[12] Kasper Mathiesen, Anglo-American ‘Traditional Islam’ and Its Discourse of Orthodoxy, Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 13 (2013), pp. 191-219, https://www.academia.edu/9003887/Anglo-American_Traditional_Islam_and_its_discourse_of_orthodoxy (accessed on June 10, 2015).

[13] Tradition, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tradition (accessed on June 10, 2015).

[14] Marison Glessner, God’s Instrument of His Imagination, (Lulu: Allaway Books, 2008), p. 28.

[15] Renaissance, http://global.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/497731/Renaissance (accessed on June 10, 2015). World History Timeline, http://www.preceden.com/timelines/199049-world-history-timeline (accessed on June 10, 2015).

[16] Muhammad Abu Zahrah, The Fundamental Principles of Imam Malik’s Fiqh, http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/ABewley/usul12.html (accessed on June 10, 2015).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Modernity, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Modernity (accessed on June 11, 2015).

[19] Gerard Delanty, Modernity, http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/public/tocnode?query=modernity&widen=1&result_number=2&from=search&id=g9781405124331_yr2014_chunk_g978140512433119_ss1-117&type=std&fuzzy=0&slop=1 (accessed on June 11, 2015).

[20] Modernity, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/modern (accessed on June 11, 2015).

[21] Gerard Delanty, Modernity, http://www.sociologyencyclopedia.com/public/tocnode?query=modernity&widen=1&result_number=2&from=search&id=g9781405124331_yr2014_chunk_g978140512433119_ss1-117&type=std&fuzzy=0&slop=1 (accessed on June 11, 2015).

[22] Global Anti-Semitism: A Crisis of Modernity, edited by Charles Asher Small, (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013), see “Introduction” by the editor, p. 11-12.

[23] Parviz Morewedge and Oliver Leaman, Modern Islamic Philosophy, http://www.muslimphilosophy.com/ip/rep/H008 (accessed on June 11, 2015).

[24] Tauseef Ahmad Parray, Islamic Modernist and Reformist Thought: A Study of the Contribution of Sir Sayyid and Muhammad Iqbal, World Journal of Islamic History and Civilization, 1 (2):  79-93, 2011, IDOSI Publications, 2011.

[25] Ron Eyerman, Modernity and Social Movements, inside “Social Change and Modernity”, edited by Hans Haferkamp and Neil J. Smelser, (Barkley: University of California Press, 1992), p. 38-39.

[26] See: Samira Haj, Reconfiguring Islamic Tradition, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 67-77. Husain Kassim, Legitimizing Modernity in Islam, (Lewiston: the Edwin Mellen Press, 2005), p. 93-104. Clinton Bennett, Muslims and Modernity, an Introduction to the Issues and Debates, (London: Continuum, 2005), p. 17-30.

[27] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Islamic Worldview and Modern Science, inside “Islamic Quarterly”, vol. 39, no. 2, 1995, p. 75.

[28] Ibid., p. 80.

[29] Les Sparks, Historicism and the Public Perception, inside “Context: New Buildings in Historic Context”, edited by John Warren, John Worthington and Sue Taylor, (Oxford: The University of York, 1998), p. 70.

[30] Robert Adam, Tradition: the Driving Force of Urban Identity, inside “Context: New Buildings in Historic Context”, p. 37.

[31] Ibid., p. 37.

[32] The Future of Islamic Architecture, http://www.islamicart.com/main/architecture/future.html (accessed on June 15, 2015).

[33] Stefano Bianca, Urban Form in the Arab World, (London; New York: Thames and Hudson, 2000), p. 22-23.

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