Despair and The Plight of Progress Among Muslims Today

In 1976, renowned religious scholar, Huston Smith, addressed the mythical stature the notion of progress had achieved during the 20th century in his work, Forgotten Truth.  He wrote:

‘The [20th] century in which politicians have preyed on hope unprecedentedly, promising “The Century of the Common Man,” “The War to End All Wars,” “The War To Make the World Safe for Democracy,” “The Four Freedoms,” “The Great Society”- this century of maniacally inflated expectations has seen utopian writing come to a dead stop. ‘Hope,’ Kazantzakis concluded, “is a rotten-thighed whore.” Even Bergsen, who moved Darwin into philosophy, came at the end to view that man was ‘being crushed by the immense progress’ he has made.’ (Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth).

Now, more than forty years later, amid even more supposed progress – in medicine, technology, and values  – a silent pandemic of despair festers and grows all around us, particularly here in the proverbial West, the bastion of all things seemingly progressive.

Recently, the New York Times reported that the suicide rate in the U.S. is at a 30-year high. In rural parts of the U.S., the suicide rate has increased by 40%. In the UK, suicide is the number one cause of death for men under the age of 45. If those statistics don’t immediately jump out at you, on a global level, suicides outnumber deaths caused by wars and homicides according to the World Health Organization.

It seems that dejection and hopelessness are legion when we look behind the myriad of distractions set upon us. Here in Los Angeles, beneath all the glitter, glamour and progressive pronouncements, loneliness and addiction are plagues as they are in many major cities throughout the world. All the stifling concrete and isolation – the broken familial ties and lack of kinship beyond a fleeting revelry – is staggering.  Worse, you’ll find cats and dogs treated better than human beings here and elsewhere.

More to the point, as Muslims and as people of faith in general, we have all but forgotten that faith is an active demonstration of high values and principles beginning with humility, forbearance and compassion and not merely an analytical, academic or theological pursuit:

“Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood?- whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.” (Quran, 2:30)

We are commanded by God to be the example for all of humankind. That means we are tasked with a greater allotment of responsibility by virtue of this vicegerency.

Unfortunately, we now marginalize those timeless values and principles that serve as the bedrock of faith for complex trends in thought that yield provocative, but often barren fruits.  While rote dogma and an uncritical historicity have a stranglehold on much of the Islamic world today, there are also a fatiguing amount of modern and postmodern paradigms that we unwittingly give inordinate credence to without much of a good fight if a fight at all.

The notion of human evolution in relation to faith is a most telling example (though countless examples abound).  How many of us have balked at the notion but find ourselves lacking any cogent argument to counter it when confronted with the litany of arguments online and elsewhere?  At best, we waffle a bit and try to find some odd, symbiotic answer that treacherously tightropes between faith and science or we just respond with rote dogma and platitudes.

We have even convinced ourselves that to question such ideas relegates us to some silly museum in Kentucky when, in fact, such claims can be just as dogmatic as anything else:

“Among scientists themselves, debates over Darwin rage furiously, fueled by comments such as Fred Hoyle’s now-famous assertion that the chance of natural selection’s producing even an enzyme is on order of a tornado’s roaring through a junkyard and coming up with a Boeing 747. But when religion enters the picture, scientists close ranks in supporting Darwinism…Michael Ruse of the University of Guelph – a self-confessed bulldog for Darwinism – puts this colonization of theology by biology when he charges his fellow Darwinists with behaving as if Darwinism were a religion. Rustum Roy, a materials scientist at Pennsylvania State, goes further. Half seriously, he has threatened to sue the National Science Foundation for violating the separation of church and state in funding branches of science that turned themselves into religions…we have the curious spectacle of [Darwinism] colonizing not only theology but biology as well.” (Huston Smith, Why Religion Matters).

More importantly, science and its requisite methodology have become, by default, the religion of sorts:

“In one of his illuminating articles…Hubert Dreyfus writes: ‘Science is our religion in the very important sense that we think science tells us what reality is.’ And what does it tell us? Dreyfus answers: reality ‘is meaningless physical reality.’” (Huston Smith, Beyond The Post-Modern Mind)

The last few decades of postmodernity now find us vainly trying to deconstruct ideas into various minutiae hoping to find some perfect definition or category for what ails all of us only to be lead further down the endless rabbit hole of our neuroses.  In our noble and understandable zeal for equality and justice, we often overlook glaring contradictions in thought. The likes of Derrida and Foucault secretly lurk in the shadows of so many of these arguments (and often unwittingly so) from many well-intentioned and knowledgeable Muslims even when so much of what they argue for is in direct opposition to the very enterprise of faith.  Worse, rather than yielding to God, we inexplicably try to make God yield to us through these very paradigms.  As a result, beliefs are deconstructed into oblivion and faith reduced to an empty husk.

Smith goes on to write:

“[T]he modern version of hope is emphatically historical…for its eye is on an earthly future instead of the heavens…In the [religious] outlook hope is vertical, or at least transhistorical. The Kingdom of God that is to come…will differ in kind from the history that preceded it. If the traditional view rested its case on the fact that in boiling water bubbles rise, the modern view hopes to escalate the water itself.” (Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth)

It’s my sincere belief that we are losing ground to a much larger and insidious battle. I see not a few younger Muslims uncritically white knuckle their faith through their teens and twenties, holding on for dear, dogmatic life only to finally abandon faith entirely. This is fast becoming the age of apostasy for Muslims and for people of all faiths. Despair in all its various ugly guises is becoming the order of the day as faith is reduced to a timid, votive candle often at the hands of well-intentioned souls. God knows best. Amen.