Samuel Davidson: Islamic Society’s Struggles with Modernism

When we imagine modernism, we tend to have a very western-centric image in our minds. Being “Modern”for most people in the United States means having access to civil services, a western-style democracy, and high-powered consumerism. Modernism does not necessarily gel well with any world religion (many of Christianity’s tenants would be considered socialist if followed to a T) and Islam is no exception. Although we should not forget that Islam is by no means a monolithic faith (beyond the Sunni-Shi’ite divide, there are many sets and minute differences in how Islam is practiced on a regional basis), Islamic society does seem inherently at odds with Modernism in a variety of ways. By examining some of these, we can see how the Islamic World’s disillusionment with Modernism is expressed in a variety of ways.

The individual versus the community. Modernism strives to encourage personal agency, self-expression, and self interest. This is not an inherently good or bad thing, it is simply a facet of modernism. A more individualistic world-view may cause someone to rise to the occasion and advocate for himself more, or fall into greed and other selfish thoughts. Islamic Societies tend to be much more built around a community, perhaps by virtue of Islam’s social design. Prayer, fasting, and other religious practices are committed with other Muslims, encouraging relationships to form. As a result, the Muslim community shares a bond that encourages collectivist action, encouraging Muslims to help their siblings of faith regardless of personal gain. Modernism’s almost obsessive focus on the self does not gel well Islam’s more communal-oriental approach, and as a result many Islamic societies reject Modernist Philosophies for their inherent selfishness or lack of piety.

None of this is to say that self-expression does not exist in Islamic societies of course! Calligraphy, Quranic recitation, and painting (often of Islamic imagery)are all highly valued artistic mediums. Muslims may also choose to express themselves in more passive ways, such as by choosing to wear traditionally Islamic clothing when given the choice, or by refusing to non Halal-Food. Personal expression is just another facet of Islamic Societies disillusionment with modernism.

The family unit in Islamic Societies may also appear much stronger than its Western Counterpart. Tight-knit families are considered the norm in Islamic Societies, and while family is seen as an important part of Modernist Society, it is not necessarily a cornerstone. It is quite normal for a child to live with their parents for their entire lives, eventually providing for their parents once they have reached maturity. The Qur’an itself designates the roles family members should fulfill, with the father being a provider and the mother being a caretaker. Modern societies tend to have less “nuclear” families, sometimes with the mother, or both parents, being the family’s provider. There is also an established patriarchal hierarchy in every Muslim family, whereas Modernist families power dynamic may be more free-form or democratic (although the familial providers or elders are usually also considered the familial leaders).

Islamic Societies, by virtue of being Islamic, are also governed inherently differently than their western counterparts. Modern states are usually seen as western-style democracies, where individual citizens are given political power via their right to vote, as well as their right to run for public office. This leads to flexible governments that attempt to be secular in nature, even if religious values and groups do seep into its governance. This in turn can lead to more change and flexibility in producing laws or making national decisions. Islamic Societies on the other hand often have Islam inextricably tied to the government, making it impossible to stray too far from the Qur’an. Egypt for example has it written into its constitution that some degree of divine law must always have part in the country’s decision making process. Iran, in addition to having democratically elected leaders, also has a religious Supreme Leader chosen by the country’s religious elite. As a result of this disconnect between Islamic and Secular governments may appear the norm.

As a result of Islamic governance being very theocratic, Islamic societies may have laws that appear draconian or utterly strange from a Modernist perspective. Of course laws vary by region and governance. In some countries, women are required to wear Hijabs when they go out in public, while in others they are a form of personal expression. Some societies also have much harsher punishments for simple crimes, a popular example being that in Iran thieves have a hand are cut off if they are found guilty.

It is unfortunate that both Modernist and Islamic Societies tend to focus on their differences. Often-times, it can seem as though both of their inherent and closest held values are at odds with each other. However, we must never forget that both Islam and Modernism preach acceptance and tolerance. Even though they may not be able to understand each other, a healthy respect between each side would go a long way towards bringing the world closer to peace and prosperity, a vision that all societies, regardless of faith, share.

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