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.






9 thoughts on “Despair and The Plight of Progress Among Muslims Today

  1. Excellent post. Modernity and it’s institutions are essentially is a rebellion against Tradition and Religion. I believe the real tension is precisely that. According to Alija Izetbegovic in his magnum opus ‘Islam Between East and West’, one cannot be a pure Materialist consistently and vice versa one cannot be purely religious consistently. It is Islam that positions itself as the middle way between these two extremes according to the author. But today’s interpretations of Islam have largely ossified and are fast becoming irrelevant/marginalised by the dominant hegemony that the West/Modernity is imposing across the globe. What is the response?

  2. In addition, I have recently been reading up on Russian literature and my!, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy are simply brilliant. I particularly enjoyed Notes from Underground and the Brothers Karamazov though they foster, in my opinion, a pessimistic outlook of (modern) life for religious believers. My criticisms of Tolstoy, though his writings of Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich amongst others is masterful, stem from the Tolstoy’s own personal experiences. Modern readers cannot really relate to his inner conflict and religious conversion, perhaps due to the distracting and soul-leeching atmosphere today. Nonetheless, the Russians are one outlet that provide a strong basis for the necessity of religious belief. “If God did not exist, all would be permissible” (Dostoevsky). “Truth is an unbreakable diamond” (Tolstoy)

    1. Ah a kindred spirit. Brothers Karamazov and Notes From Underground have really influenced my notions on faith particularly in the context of modernity/postmodernity. I have the annotated version of Notes and the insight into what Dostoevsky was challenging opened up the novel for me. I have Pevear’s and Volokhonsky’s translations. In BK, the chapter entitled The Teachings of Father Zosima is just beautiful. It’s too bad it’s always overshadowed by The Grand Inquisitor as the former chapter is really a rebuttal on the latter. Tolstoy is masterful as well. I’ve read War and Peace twice (different translations) the very first reading was magical. You might find Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad of interest as well if you haven’t already. It centers around a Muslim character. Also, legend has it Tolstoy died with this book in his coat pocket!

  3. Thanks for your response and sharing that link.
    I am yet to read War and Peace (it’s lengthy and I unfortunately have not had the time to pursue it). I do possess a copy of Anna Karenina and hope to read it sometime this summer insha’allah.
    Tolstoy though did have a good impression of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. Also interesting is that Dostoevsky, after being released from prison in 1854, he asked his brother to give him a copy of the Quran. I wonder if this may have influenced his writings…

    Anyways, keep posting these wonderful articles. They are relevant and thought-provoking. Allah guide you wherever you may be!

  4. Jzk for a beautifully concise summary of some of the internal struggles that Modernity has thrown up for young Muslims. I am reminded of the hadith which speaks of a time when practicing Islam will be like holding onto hot coals. I feel that one of the reasons many modern Muslims are drawn to postmodern paradigms, is because it often appears that we failed to form coherent systems of Islamic thought that fit within modern paradigms. For example, what is our position on the epistemological value of the scientific method? Do we accept its success in allowing us to construct more detailed and explanatory hypothesis about the world, except when it leads us to conclusions that could pose a challenge to our theology? Do we reject it outright? Or do we attempt to reconcile our own understanding of faith? In the absence of these coherent systems, Muslims instead turn towards trying to deconstruct these modern paradigms…..what is your take on this? Is there a need to develop coherent systems of Islamic thought that fit neatly around modern paradigms, or do you see another route?

    1. Thanks for that. jAk:). Those are great questions. I draw most of my critique of science/scientism as an inadvertent metaphysical paradigm from the renowned religious scholar, Huston Smith. Two of his works – Beyond The Postmodern Mind and Why Religion Matters – explore this subject to an exacting degree. Beyond The Postmodern Mind is just an incredible read and had a monumental effect on my faith in relation to modernity/postmodernity as did Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript and Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. Here’s a quick excerpt of him speaking on the subject:

  5. السلام عليكم ورحمة الله وبركاته

    Hello there, you might remember me from nearly a year ago. I had first stumbled on the great Huston, and hence sought your excellence in suggesting some books to read, and of course, you presented me with the greatest thinkers ever.

    Now nearing the end of my teenage youthful ignorance, my zeal to change the world has thankfully died out. I guess progressives are just little kids with big dreams, but anyway, since then, I’ve read ‘Notes from underground’ from Dostoevsky twice, and read a whole lot more of your suggestions. Since then, I’ve been becoming ever more sceptical of modernity, its precepts and presuppositions. The belief in progress, the rationality of man, and the reluctance on objective science to drive life seem all fairy tails to me now. Although your book suggestions helped, one philosopher that just blew my mind out of my head is a contemporary philosopher who just happens to live near my University (UK) called John Gray. Currently, I’m working on my undergraduate course, and the question I’ll be tackling is ‘Is Al-Qaeda a product of modernity”, and a lot of philosophical literature seem to allude to that very fact. John Gray wrote a book called “Al-Qaeda and what it means to be modern” which is a testament of the similarities between modern Utopian endeavours of the twentieth century, and Al-Qaeda logistics. Anyway, without going too in depth, I wish to inshallah carry on, and study P.H.D Philosophy. I still need to go back and root the incoherent ideas of the enlightenment thinkers, and I may even go back to Greek philosophy to understand our sad predicament.

    All that said, I’m still a traditionalist, I spend most of my day wondering in nature not doing anything. Alhmadolillah, my faith has only been growing since, although, after countless pessimistic setbacks.

    I ask for your prayers, and to remain steadfast in this world. If there’s anything most bold about monotheism is the fact that it consistently reminds us that this world wasn’t made for us, and rightly so.

    * Read the books of John Gray at your own risk. It may change your life completely, it could kill you, or it could strengthen you, but its going to leave you shattered no doubt. I don’t believe knowledge furthers the progress of man (and I know, what a hypocrite I am, pursuing phd in philosophy and writing all this for nothing), and that’s one of the things I’ve learnt from John Gray, and so the ashari assemble website is a romanticist gymnast for me now (although fun at first).


    1. >I spend most of my day wondering in nature not doing anything.

      One of the best ways to nurture faith! I grew up in the rural Northwest of America. I spend endless days in the woods as well as backpacking trips deep in the mountains alongside snowboarding. There is much to be learned in simply contemplating God Almighty’s wonderous creation.

      There are compelling arguments that Salafism/Wahabism are inherently modern and I agree with them even though the puritanical zeal of such movements obfuscate their very modern disposition. I’ve read some of Gray in articles and whatnot.

      Philosophy is great! I actually all but finished my major in philosophy as an undergrad – only had my senior seminar left on Wittgenstein – before I transferred and changed to a religious studies major. Ultimately, I find the most solace in religious philosophy alongside poetry and literature. May your explorations continue to draw you closer to God Almighty. jAk.

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