Book Review: Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity – Tariq Ramadan

There are some books that you may come across, in your life, that are rather subtly powerful. They hold within them the ability to really change your life and your ways of thinking – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. For me, this has certainly been one of those books (for the better). This ‘book review’ series on my blog will be dedicated to my reviewing – and independently commenting on the ideas explored – of different books that I love. I won’t review every book I read – only the ones I feel must be shared in this way. 

Tariq Ramadan, I think, is my all-time favourite non-fiction author and academic. He has an undeniable ‘way with words’, Allahummabārik; he presents some very interesting and comforting ideas in a manner that harmoniously merges clarity with profundity. His works focus on Islam – Islamic ethics and legislation, history, Islamophobia, modern politics in light of ‘Islamist’ movements… I am particularly fond of this work of his – as well as another one of his books, entitled: ‘To be a European Muslim’.

As Muslims living in this current (rather confusing, rather intense) epoch, it is natural for us to deeply question many things. Our place here, how to be.

To be a Muslim (today, always) is to be a stranger – a traveller, as the Hadith goes – in the Dunya. To “be here in order to be better over There”. And how true this is. The most prevalent ways of doing things, of thinking, and of being, here can often be quite antithetical to the teachings of our faith.

What are some of the defining characteristics of this modern world? Undeniably, this is a world that is heavily focused on appearances. Facades, the ‘outside’, shells. Lies (which are widely and eagerly devoured), rumours, scandal-mongering, narcissism, widespread distrust. Brutalisers being convincingly disguised as the respectable ones.

The world of modernity is also heavily focused on the principle of individualism. And these two tenets – that of appearances and that of (an inhuman level of) individualism – marry to render the modern world one that is fuelled, very much, by selfishness and deceit.

The society of entertainment, excessive consumption and generalised individualism coexists with the most extreme destitution and the most total misery”

People churn out ‘wealth’ – sell their bodies and souls to do so; many people end up becoming richer — leading richer lives, but rarely necessarily happier ones. Many become so caught up in these images of ‘plenty’ that they forget about the stuff of actual value. One of the breaking wings of modernity is made of speed, computer science, fashion, blaring music with the most peculiar lyrics, cinematic illusions, facades of ever-growing ‘freedoms’. The other: exploitation, weariness, poverty, loneliness, dissatisfaction and despondency, and the children who die at the hands of those who claim to fight in the name of ‘freedom’. One wing functions as a mask for the other. A colourful exterior pressed atop an inside that is soulless and rotten.

“Modern times have, for our memories, a concern for image, and also the infinite neglect of reality and meaning”

There are many problems around us, which serve as evident threats to our spirituality, to our humanity and to our ‘Muslimness’: they are detrimental to the human Fitrah. Many of these things, we find ourselves becoming increasingly desensitised to: senseless violence, shameless vanity and arrogance, greed and overindulgence, chronic intoxication and/or distraction, widespread nudity and sexual immoralities… The list goes on.

In modern society, secularisation tends to be championed. The sacred is desacralised. Modesty, the beauty and elegance of simplicity, the excellence of manners, deeply caring for and tending to the natural environment. These things become obliterated by the army tanks of the modern world. We are a society of individuals; all that seems to matter is the capitalist ‘value’ we can find in things. Morality comes from nothing but the human imagination; it is ‘decided by society’.

“…modernity renders us so unfaithful to our humanity […] The daily running of the world steals us from ourselves, to the point, sometimes, of rendering our personality double and tearing us apart.”

The interactions between Islam and global politics are also a deeply significant thing to consider, here. Often, ardent nationalists operate under the (highly mobilising, highly unifying) guise of religion in order to do their damage. Religion devoid of spirituality, and whose cold exterior latches onto political (nationalistic) movements actually defeats the point of religion itself: religio, to relegate oneself before God.

What else is ‘modernity’ characterised by? I think Ramadan describes it perfectly. Adding to the aforementioned theme of covering up the truth and engaging in (indulging in) falsehood, much of modern society is composed of examples of one part in direct conflict with another: thus is the basis of all neuroses.

Many comedians, for example, wear happy faces but a lot of them (a shocking number) have revealed that they suffer from deep (exogenous) depression. This pattern of double personalities can also be seen in the wider world of celebrities; in the culture that they collectively champion and foster in others.

“When men lose morality they find the jungle and become wolves”

To be true to our Muslim identities, in this world today, we must commit to being committed to Truth, no matter what. “[Saying] the truth and [re-saying] it, before God, without fear”. Despite any material difficulties or emotional struggles we may face: we must vow to be true to Truth, in its exactness. And to justice. Authenticity. Goodness, kindness, fraternity, the pursuit of beneficial knowledge. Spirituality — the heart and soul of this religion.

As Muslims, the deceitful adornments of the world should not faze us. The Qur’an and Hadiths tell us about its reality: marry the world, and you actually end up marrying, essentially, what resembles the rotting insides of a camel’s carcass [Hadith].

We really ought to favour ‘Barakah culture’ over ‘Hustle culture’. Our bodies do not exist to be used, in their entireties, by corporations and such. Our Lord is far more important and powerful; our Haqq is more, well, Haqq. We bring Barakah into our lives by favouring three things – worship, the pursuit of knowledge, and the graceful servitude of others. And these things undoubtedly interact with one another: the quality of one affects the quality of the others.

Today, we are just so self-absorbed. We care too much about how we look, and about our titles, and about our social media accounts — about how we can best come across to others. We have lost the art of sincerity, so it would seem; often, things are done for the primary purpose of social recognition, and in the names of efficiency and rationalisation. When we exclusively focus on these particular things, the world becomes one of black and white, and of smog and several other hues of grey.

As Muslims, we do need to tend to our ‘portions in the [current] world’: we go to school, and to work. We eat, we have friends. We partake in creative and personal projects. But, for us, Deen takes precedence over Dunya. Our religion gives true life to our lives. And here, we “live and learn how to die, live in order to learn how to die”.

And prayer should be our lives’ lifeblood. As Ramadan writes, prayer “[gives] strength, in humility, to the meaning of an entire life”.

I love that books like these incorporate history, personal anecdotes, politics, philosophy, and more, all into one. It was fascinating to read about why Islam today looks like what it does, and in various parts of the world; about things like the Islamic Centre of Geneva (est. 1961) for instance, and how it broadcasted a certain form of Islam to several other European Muslim communities; about the growing religious influence of the Saudis, the Islamic World League, how pan-Arab politics both informed, and was informed by, all these happenings.

Our problem is one of spirituality. If a man comes to speak to me about the reforms to be undertaken in the Muslim world, about political strategies and of great geo-strategic plans, my first question to him would be whether he performed the dawn prayer (Fajr) on time”

– Said Ramadan

“Power is not our objective; what have we to do with it? Our goal is love of the Creator, the fraternity and justice of Islam. This is our message to dictators.” 

These days, many influential Muslims are actually, unfortunately, walking epitomes of the notion of religion without spirituality. They may sport lengthy beards, quote the Qur’an almost endlessly. But Islam would not appear to be in their hearts: instead, the love of things like wealth, power, titles and territory are.

There are many things that the Muslims of today – in particular, we youngins – need to unlearn. There are also many things that we must learn and then proceed to internalise. For example, our hearts (if we are to truly find peace) must come to sing the idea that “solitude with God is better than neglect with men”. The link with God is the way.

The concept of modernisation is constantly valorised by those who live under it. Why wouldn’t a person or a place want to be ‘modern’? Granted, there are some ‘positives’ to this whole global project. A certain type of work ethic, in conjunction with certain personal liberties, does breed invention. Innovation, efficiency, improvement, sanitisation, gigantic systems that work (mostly) for the benefit of the people.

In the European Middle Ages, dynamism in this way had simply not been a thing. Feudalistic power structures and the unshifting dominance of the clergy in circles of thought contributed to a certain sort of “numbness”, a stifling of sorts. “Nothing seemed to move; men were as if paralysed…” So today’s constant state of movement may be seen as a welcome change from these erstwhile times. But instead of a steady state of flow, we seem to now be moving recklessly, too quickly. Growth for the sake of growth; it is not healthy.

But modernity is also, unfortunately, the things that are hidden beneath the veneer of shininess. Massive inequalities of wealth and resources. Poverty and exploitation. Pandemic addictions. Increased rates of severe mental illnesses. And, of course, all those other things – what, now, are hallmarks of modernity – that our Prophet (SAW) had warned us about.

There are certainly some good things from the current state of things that the modern Muslim can benefit from; these things are not anti-Islamic. Science, technology, the pursuit of wisdom, and progress. [It is important to note that, in the Christian world, science and progress had come about as a result of that society’s parting with religion, for the most part. On the flip-side, the Muslim world had flourished when it had been more in touch with its spirituality; it declined when this had been lost]. An issue arises solely when people cling to these things in lieu of a link with God. Knowledge should breed Taqwa; what we learn should come benefit our own souls, as well as those of the people.

In (temporary) solitude and seclusion, muddied water – agitated, noisy – slows down; the dirt settles, and then there is peace. Clarity, flow and focus may be achieved here. When Islam is in our hearts; when we are able to exhibit due Khushuu’ in our prayers, life becomes warm. Meaningful. Animated with gratitude and Barakah; a separateness from the cheapness of meaningless chatter. A walk – even if it be a solitary one – towards wisdom and elegance. It slows down; the roses bloom. Beautiful heart, beautiful thoughts, and all the rest of it.

“To be good and do good, before God, is the meaning of this call.” 

And, right now, we all find ourselves in our own houses, quarantined, mostly in solitude. As much of the Islamic tradition demonstrates, there is much Khayr – goodness – to be found in solitude and seclusion: this is where the sacred tends to reveal itself. Where you can train yourself to be a contented observer of the world, in it, but not wholly devoted to it… being somewhat distant from all the noise and the crowds, for here is where one may find clarity.

From the very first pages of its Foreword, I was enthralled by the messages this book contains. I considered it to be very informative, and yet so very soulfully validating. It has inspired me to try to get closer to God; to give my daily prayers their due diligence, Insha Allah; to not be distracted by the distractions of a noisy world that is filled with busy people who talk far too much.

In case I didn’t manage to make it clear earlier, I so love this book; I would truly recommend it.

“Be like a fruit tree. They attack you with stones, and you respond with fruits.”

– Hasan al-Banna


Sadia Ahmed J., 2020

3 thoughts on “Book Review: Islam, the West and the Challenges of Modernity – Tariq Ramadan

  1. Many thanks for the article…
    It gathers several essential points in one place; some of which were previously unknown to me, some clearly expressed albeit I had reached more or less the same conclusions before reading your article.
    While I totally agree with you, one particular matter I would like to express my thoughts about: “Islamism”.
    I do acknowledge that a Muslim ought to not interpret Islam as something consisting merely of the political, which actually refers to and defines an ideology. We should, however, keep in mind that, unlike some “liberalist Muslims” say, Islam may not be separated from politics either. Islam does, or must, have its lines to guide us throughout one’s entire life and its every aspect. Islam neither brings about nor calls for particular form of governance, but it does have its own values to be guide every deed of a Muslim: justice, consultation/al-istisharah/al-mushawarah…
    And power is something that Muslims should expect from Allah (swt) alone, as long and much as he grants it to us, rather than something that we must avoid. Prophet Muhammad (saw( and the “ashab” did endure great oppression and hardships in Makkah, but they did have their own state in Madinah as well. They did take into consideration the Jews and sign a treaty with them, but so did they constitute the ruling community.
    So war is sth many Muslims hate today. What we should be against, however, is not the act of fighting but the damage it causes. So if you cannot maintain peace and security without a war and if remaining defenseless will weaken you and result in more harm; then you have no choice but to purchase long-lasting peace and its benefits in exchange for a battle and its consequences.
    Please consider my comment to be my additions to your article rather than my objection to it.
    And the book I will read soon in sha’ Allah…

    Like

    1. Absolutely. My point is, Islam is ‘inside’ (spirituality, etc.) and ‘outside’ (and this does include war guidelines and ethics). Legitimate Jihad can be fought, but these days I do think many Muslim political figures are not operating from a primarily Islamic basis.

      Liked by 1 person

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