“Humankind cannot bear very much reality.” T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton
In the alarming times in which we live, in which the post-Enlightenment Western world has once again, after the anti-semitism of the 1930s, chosen a universal scapegoat to serve as a negative self-definition – and this time it is Islam – nothing could be more topical than an analysis of the spiritual crisis within Western civilisation itself, that persists relentlessly in inflicting such intense suffering on itself and the rest of the world. For in this strange post-9/11 world, the spiritual crisis of Western civilisation is being acknowledged more than ever before by Westerners themselves, who having newly redefined themselves as “not-Muslim”, have sought after the positive content of their definition of themselves by having a fresh look in the mirror—and, to their indignant shock, have found nothing there.
The spiritual crisis of “Western” civilisation is, in truth and increasingly, the whole world’s crisis. The European powers spent two hundred years, the era of colonialism, systematically dismantling traditional cultures around the world, especially those, like Islam, that it saw as historical rivals or threats. In the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries, this work has been increasingly led by America, with its astonishingly successful exportation around the world of its trash-entertainment culture of violence, promiscuous sexual activity, and the promotion of selfish individualism and self-indulgence, through advertising, films, television, video games and now, and most powerfully, the internet. Simultaneously, the rising power of the multinational corporations and the wholesale adoption of Western educational and social models has systematically removed the immense baraka of spirituality and social harmony once so tangible in Islamic societies, or, as we must now call them, Muslim-majority countries that are tragically but indisputably now culturally post-Muslim.
Inspired by Imam Said Nursi, the greatest hero of counter-atheism and Qur’anic spirituality of the twentieth century, who should truly be counted, with no exaggeration whatever, amongst the greatest Muslims in Islamic history, I do of course make a distinction between two Europes. As a Westerner, it would be something of a strange act of self-hatred to give only a one-sided picture of Europe, which retains so many beautiful elements, even though as a Muslim I little identify with the postmodern civilisation that today reigns in my ancestral home. One of these two sides of Europe, in Imam Nursi’s words in his critique of modern Western civilisation in the Seventeenth Flash,
has conveyed [to mankind] crafts which can be beneficial to man’s social life, and sciences that can serve justice and truth, which poured forth from [the elements of] true Christianity [that survived in their civilisation]; it is not this Europe that I am addressing, but rather the second, corrupted Europe that has come to imagine, due to the darknesses of natural philosophy, civilisational evils to be virtues, and as a result of this has driven humanity to shamelessness and misguidance.
What is it about the present day civilisation of Europe, and about its branches in America, that speaks so loudly, from the perspective of traditional and orthodox Islam, of spiritual crisis? Of course, superficial condemnations of the materialism and decadence of the West are very plentiful in Muslim communities today, both within and without the West itself. Many such condemnations can seem unmistakably hypocritical, for many of these censurers themselves tend to think of the world in unmistakeably secular terms, informed by their invariably Western education, and themselves are led – by an overwhelmingly difficult environment – to wallow, inescapably and very visibly, in the same degenerate aspects of Western culture that they condemn. They are people whose cultural references are largely from Western pop culture, and whose discontent stems from a disenfranchisement not really fundamentally different from, for example, that of many of the poor who lost their jobs in industry in Britain in the 1980s – that is, it is a frustration with a perceived societal status within a society the fundamental tenets of which are endorsed, rather than any genuine moral and civilisational critique from a truly Islamic perspective. For an extreme case of this type of deeply Western Muslim, the “Islamic” element of their discourse can often amount to little more than a series of slogans to be shouted, that help to represent an identity which vindicates their feelings of persecutedness. This person has no traditional Islamic education to speak of, and no real picture of Islamic history, and thus little idea of what the Islamic alternative, which they believe they are advocating, would actually look like.
Any attempt to identify the nature of the undoubted spiritual crisis of the contemporary West, then, must acknowledge the extraordinary complexity of Western civilisation, and the fact that, arguably alone amongst the great civilisations, it has undergone numerous seismic shifts in the past 500 years of truly devastating scope, which further complicate understanding the nature of the “Western” cultural and social phenomena that, because of their ubiquity, we are superficially all so familiar with. Nonetheless, let us try to make the matter as intelligible as we can by proceeding to identify the main symptoms of this disastrous spiritual crisis, which is so catastrophic exactly because colonialism and globalisation have made it universal. Then, in so far as is possible in the context, we will chart its history, and reflect on its meaning.
The fundamental spiritual malady of the mainstream of Western civilisation today is from a traditional orthodox Islamic perspective the (now effectively doctrinal) individualist subjectivisation of meaning and of the spiritual, and the objectivisation of the physical and of desires – that is, objectivisation of simple relations of cause and effect and physically tangible outcomes, but subjectivisation and ultimately repudiation of their spiritual, moral or intellectual content, and of their meaning. Such a system “works” – hence its massive “success” – for it is a machine which churns out its product just as does any other machine; yet it leaves a trail of human confusion, fragmentation, spiritual death, despair and mental imbalance in its wake, the “hellish state” that Imam Nursi refers to in his Seventeenth Flash, which is however never fully confronted, belonging, according to the tenets of this worldview, to the realm of the “subjective.” The contemporary culture does not thus attempt to treat this state by looking for some fundamental deficiency in the essentially materialist assumptions that it takes for granted, and that have brought about this state, but attempts instead to distract, to “entertain” this patient or citizen. In Imam Nursi’s words,
O second Europe, then, that … has been estranged from the religion of ʿĪsā; with your Antichrist-like one-eyed cunning you have gifted the world this hellish state. You then came to realise that it is a chronic malady, and that it throws human beings down from the loftiest heights to the lowest of the low, and sends them down to a pit of the most wretched of animals, yet the only medicines you were able to find for this disease were exciting entertainments and entrancing temptations, which perform the function of temporarily nullifying normal perception.
The obsession with material progress with which this civilisation is afflicted, a material progress which is at best irrelevant to spiritual progress, is coupled with denial of the very reality of spiritual progress, which being essentially atemporal, cannot be measured in terms of any form of linear cause and effect. The essence of the human reality somehow gets lost in this process, in this attempt to externalise it; its persistent, now inarticulate cries are then to be smothered by a barrage of “entertainments”, therapies and pills, to reassure it that its objections and distress are indeed no more than outbursts of subjective disadjustment vis-a-vis the purely instrumental material world that is the only objective reality.
In what follows we will treat of three main symptoms of this perverse inversion of reality, which has two parts – the subjectivisation of meaning, and the objectivisation of one branch of meaning, i.e. “physicality”, at the expense of all others; the first symptom of which is “the fragmentation of knowledge and morality”, the second, “ahistoricity”, and the third “arrogance and hypocrisy.”
“Europe” as it is now called, was once profoundly similar to traditional Islamic civilisation in a great many of its fundamental elements. Although we cannot explore this huge subject in any real depth here, it is necessary to illustrate very briefly the main features of pre-Reformation European civilisation, for a “crisis” presupposes a state of relative prior equilibrium – especially as there is, it is to be hoped, nothing about a “Western” geographical direction that implies a necessary spiritual degradation.
The Europe of the High Middle Ages was, if it was anything, a unified civilisation. It enjoyed a single scholarly and literary language, Latin; a single scholarly methodology and language all across Europe, that of scholasticism, that heady fusion of Aristotle, Augustine and Avicenna – the Ibn Sīnā who had also had such a momentous and central impact on almost all subsequent Islamic intellectual life. Most significantly, a single religion, Catholic Christianity, a devotional culture of burning intensity – in some ways, not unlike the popular devotion of Sufism within the traditional Muslim world – and a universal reverence of a canon of saints. How to capture a now lost, vast cultural world in a few sentences? Perhaps the following passage, from Johan Huizinga’s famous study of the later medieval period, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, will be able to give a sudden sense of the spirit of the Middle Ages in Europe, that the present author cannot hope to provide given the other pressing themes that must be broached in this short paper.
In all cities where the saintly Dominican Vincent Ferrer comes to preach, the people, the magistrates, the clergy … go out to welcome him, singing his praises. He travels with large numbers of supporters, who, every evening after sunset, go on processions with flagellations and songs. In every town he is joined by new followers … When he preaches, a wooden frame has to protect him and his entourage against the throngs who want to kiss his hand or his gown. Work comes to a standstill as long as he speaks. It was a rare occasion when he failed to move his audience to tears, and when he spoke of Judgement Day and the pains of hell … he, just as his audience, broke into such great tears that he had to remain silent, for a time, until the weeping had stopped … when the famous Olivier Maillard gave the Lenten sermon at Orleans in 1485, so many people climbed onto the roofs of the houses that the roofers submitted claims for sixty-four days of repair work.1
Anyone who has even the least experience of the spirit of the music, art and devotional literature of Medieval Europe will know that this bears no relation to the hysteria of emotivist “spirituality” in modern evangelical Christian movements, but was a spirituality of the heart, of a negation of the passions, and an attempted transcending of the individual ego. This does not make the false tenets of Medieval Catholicism any less false: but it does go some way to answering the question, “why should we as Muslims think it tragic that this world, based as it was on a false religion, should have faded?” The answer is that that world, despite its many false elements the existence of which may well have contributed to its fall, nonetheless contained numerous elements that made it far closer to Islamic civilisation than any subsequent period in European history; and its decline steadily opened the door to the individualism, liberalism and materialism that would eventually reach our own countries with such devastating and tragic consequences.
This unity of Medieval artistic, scholastic and religious experience tied the Englishman, the Frenchman and the Italian together in a way that is now almost unthinkable; and contemporary Europe simply cannot be understood in any depth without a deep understanding of its Medieval world, for its subsequent history in one important sense simply represents the unravelling – and the lauding or loathing of that process of unravelment – of that world.
Whatever the merits of the Reformation – it was certainly initially a movement just as strongly devotional as Medieval Catholicism – it shattered that unity in all of its dimensions, linguistic, scholarly and religious. Its emphasis on the reading of scripture in the vernacular languages of Europe undoubtedly had the effect of compromising the sense of the sacrality of scripture, and was one of the factors leading to a sharp decline in the universal quality of Latin. Martin Luther’s vehement hatred of scholasticism meant that the official abandonment of this ancient scholarly methodology – in which the sciences, as in Islamic scholasticism, were mutually dependent, and hierarchal, mirroring the inherent hierarchies in God’s creation – would come to be a distinguishing mark of Protestant countries in a Europe soon sharply divided along Catholic and Protestant lines. In religion, the Protestant mantra of solo scriptura (“scripture alone”), which symbolised the Christian religion finally freeing itself from Catholic tradition and doctrinal subjugation to the priestly classes, soon became, ironically, the bane of the whole of Europe. For just as the Wahhabi solo scriptura has ravaged the Muslim world by opening the way for any individual who believes himself qualified, to wreak havoc on everything around him with his interpretations of scripture that he is convinced are “what scripture itself says”, and “the only correct interpretation”, so did the principle of solo scriptura amongst the various movements of the Reformation, Lutheran, Calvinist and Zwinglian, have the effect of completely alienating them from one another within 50 years of the beginning of the Reformation. Each were convinced that theirs was the “true” interpretation of what scripture itself said, and each were equally as intolerant of opposing interpretations as one other. Instead of the careful, diverse interpretive tradition of Medieval scholasticism that was based largely on consensus, the various Protestant movements emphasised their own biblical “geniuses”, whether it was a Luther or a Calvin, each of whom had managed to chance upon the real sense of scripture itself, and each of whom, ironically, had in actual fact arrived at an interpretation radically irreconcilable with those of the other reformers. Soon, the sheer abundance of incompatible, unverifiable variations on Christian doctrine being advocated in Europe (all ostensibly “what scripture says”) had planted the seed for those who would begin to doubt the very validity of any concept of fixed religious doctrine at all. As Brad Gregory notes in his The Unintended Reformation,
the very fact of persistent Christian pluralism in the wake of the Reformation seemed to suggest to certain observers that religion itself was unavoidably subjective, the domain of ‘purely speculative opinions.’2
The problem was, these speculative opinions were beginning to cause intense misery in the form of religious wars throughout Europe – the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598), and the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) are just two of the tens of conflicts waged as direct results of the fragmentation of Europe brought on by the Reformation. This situation became so divisive and insupportable that unprecedented action was now needed, in what would again plant the seeds of the future, secular face of Europe. Again from The Unintended Reformation:
How was human life among frequently antagonistic Christians to be rendered stable and secure? The solution eventually adopted in all modern, liberal Western states was to privatise religion and to distinguish it from public life, ideologically as well as institutionally, through politically protected rights to individual religious freedom. Not subjective faith but objective reason, in science and modern philosophy, would be the basis for public life.3
A new knowledge-standard was needed; one less divisive and more capable of verification. Religion in the Protestant states would become the religion of pure faith, one radically estranged from reason; indeed, this well suited the dualism of Luther’s Protestantism, which saw the world as radically mired in sin and inherently cut off from God, the playground of Satan, not, as in Medieval Catholicism and of course, most outstandingly in Islam, the great theophanic phenomenon in which God reveals Himself. The new physical sciences, which saw not meaning but purely quantitive mathematics in the natural world, could now be the concentration, exactly because such a split between the meaning-world of faith and the secular world of the physical was so encouraged by this new Protestant cosmology. And moreover, unlike the biblical wrangling of the endless stream of new Protestant groups now springing up, the new science provided a real and stable knowledge. Again,
An unintended result of literally interminable, pervasive doctrinal controversy was a strong tendency towards the de facto elimination of substantive religious claims from any bearing on the investigation of the natural world … New institutions, too, such as the Royal Society of London, were dedicated to the Baconian investigation of “matters of fact” about the natural world in ways that could transcend the interminable fruitlessness of theological controversy.4
And so we arrive eventually at the scientism of the Modern world, in which all knowledge-claims unable to provide some form of empirical justification are to be rejected (except, presumably, claims like “scientism is the most correct way of looking at the world”!). This absurd fragmentation of human life and knowledge, which has led exactly to the radical subjectivisation of spirituality and morality, completely ignores the fact that the principle of intelligibility of the “empirical” is inherently and necessarily non-empirical. The intelligible first principles through which the human intellect operates, which are enumerated by the traditional science of metaphysics (in the Islamic tradition, known as ʿilm mā baʿd al-ṭabīʿa, al-falsafat al-ūlā, and al-umūr al-ʿāmma) not only provide the only guarantor of the coherence of all of the other sciences (including the natural sciences) – because they are all contingent on them – but moreover profound and direct evidence of the existence of the immaterial and of man’s connection with God, as al-Shaykh al-Akbar Muḥyī al-Dīn Ibn ʿArabī showed near the beginning of his famous Fuṣūṣ al-Ḥikam. The predicament of the attitude of the modern West to science and knowledge has been very admirably summed up by one of the greatest Western Muslims of the twentieth century, the French sage, Rene Guenon, or ʿAbd al-Wāḥid Yaḥyā:
Science, as conceived by our contemporaries, is nothing more than the study of sensible phenomena, and this study is undertaken and followed out in such a way that it cannot, we insist, be attached to any principle of a higher order; it is true that by resolutely ignoring everything that lies beyond its scope, it makes itself fully independent in its own domain, but this vaunted independence is only made possible by the limitations of science itself. Not content with that, it goes even to the length of denying what it is ignorant of, because only in this way can it avoid admitting this ignorance.5
Modern science resolutely ignores the spiritual and metaphysical principles without which its subject matter and its assertions are unintelligible; in the language of Imam Said Nursi, it ignores the trans-indicative (maʿnā-i ḥarfī) signification of entities in this world – the manner in which they point to the metaphysical realities beyond them and upon which they depend – recognising only the self-indicative (maʿnā-i ismi) signification – that is, the manner in which entities identify themselves in their own, separated limitedness.6 As Guenon explains,
the general features, then, of characteristically modern thought are these: the complete absence of metaphysical knowledge, negation of all knowledge that is not scientific, and arbitrary limitation of scientific knowledge itself to certain particular domains, excluding the rest. Such is the depth of intellectual degradation to which the West has sunk since it left those paths that the rest of mankind follows as a matter of course.
Another British Muslim of the twentieth century, the Scottish dramatist and Sufi thinker Ian Dallas (ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Ṣūfī), sums up the radical human failure of modern science in very emphatic terms:
What knowledge has been arrived at? What use is linear information about a complex whole where the meaning itself lies embedded so that once removed, the living organism that took its place in a vastly complex and ordered existence is now a labelled object devoid of its identity by being robbed of its setting, trapped in an iron cage in some distant place in an alien climate stared at by lonely autistic children from the desolate cage of their ‘enlightened’ education? The unending flow of unwanted and unassimilated data lies dormant in the archives of the barren temples of the university and the library. How many millions of frogs have been sacrificed on the altar of this ludicrous idol, modern science? How many monkeys have been tortured in experiments, their brains implanted with electrodes to find more sophisticated ways of torturing man himself? These questions are not asked out of the simple compassion of every human being who is not convinced by the great sham of science which rests on these squalid foundations in the modern world’s abominable schoolrooms, but rather they are asked out of the sober recognition that men genuinely believe in the knowledge process that flows from the universities and schools of the world today. The ordinary man and woman in the ‘advanced society’ of the dominant culture is nevertheless the most ignorant human being who has ever walked the face of this planet. From the cradle to the grave the natural processes of life have been taken out of their hands, indeed, from birth itself to death. They have no self knowledge, they have no body knowledge, they cannot deliver their children or bury their dead. They are policed by an elite group over which they have no control. They are fought against and for by a technological military over which they have no control or capacity to command. They are governed by a process which is utterly spurious and which leaves them helpless, passive and blind as to social goal, and empty as to private purpose. Yet all the time the rhetoric of the dominant culture informs them that they are the people, that they are sovereign, and that the decisions are from them and by them.7
It was this parallel social degradation that would provide the personal context of the rise of scientism; as human beings learned more and more about their physical environment, they seemed to forget more and more spiritual principles and religious truths. The Reformation and the shift in education away from the holism of scholasticism to the humanist emphasis on literature and science – which however provided no means of linking the two – had begun to create an often starkly bifurcated world, which would soon prove immensely fertile ground for the rise of actual secularism. It is clear how liberalism (now more or less the official philosophy of contemporary Western governments and of their basic institutions) – with its emphasis on scientific progress, the freedom of the individual and governmental protection of that individual freedom, and civil liberties – emerged out of the agenda set by Protestantism, as the logical next step for Europe.
In his Secularisation of the European Mind, the great British historian Owen Chadwick shows that while liberalism as a belief in freedom and liberty certainly seems innocent and admirable enough in itself, excessively naive understandings of the meaning and scope of these concepts leads to “general scepticism in philosophy, general agnosticism in religion, and eventual anarchy in politics; scepticism in philosophy and agnosticism in religion, that is, irrespective of the teaching being offered by philosophers or religious men. The truth or otherwise is not here in point. Even if something is true, the ordinary man is put into the situation where he cannot decide.”8
Yet must scepticism and agnosticism really attend, necessarily, such basic rights as state-guaranteed freedom and liberty, as well as freedom of conscience, the freedom to follow the evidence wherever it takes one, and to choose one’s religion or irreligion accordingly?
The problem with this is that it has been proven to be profoundly unrealistic, if one has any hopes under such circumstances of retaining any semblance of a religious society. “If the right to be irreligious is won”, explains Chadwick, “then the institutions, privileges, customs, of a state and society must be dismantled, sufficiently dismantled at least, to prevent the state or society exercising pressure upon the individual to be religious if he wishes not to be religious. The liberal state, carried on logically, must be the secular state.”9
The neutrality of the state on matters of religious truth can only reinforce the impression the average man or woman already has from the scientistic claims of their education and elsewhere, that religion is simply a matter of personal preference, on which logic can have no bearing; inherently unprovable and, again, fundamentally “subjective”. As Gregory has it,
subjective, individual preference seems to be the extent of any foundation for answers to the Life Questions amid our hyperpluralism. For them, the basis for such answers in Western society today is literally arbitrary, in the etymological sense: it is a function of the arbitrium, the individual human will. Modern liberal states protect exactly that arbitrariness.10
Rather than being encouraged to conform to any notion of revealed truth or Divine law, almost everything in the environment in modern liberal states is designed to reassure us that it is the individual self, not the Divine, that is the primary, truly real, or even only reality. Because according to this modern epistemology, religions cannot possibly admit of either affirmative or negative proof, their only possible use becomes as a form of therapy, whether simply to reduce anxiety, or to help us “create” a sense of greater purpose for our lives. “The supreme value,” says Gregory, “is individual choice per se, regardless of what is chosen.”11 We end up, as Christian Smit and Melina Denton point out in Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, with an “ideal” in which there are as many religions as there are individuals:
the core underlying ideas constituting American religious individualism are that each individual is uniquely distinct from all others and deserves a faith that fits his or her singular self; that individuals must freely choose their own religion; that the individual is the authority over religion and not vice versa; that religion need not be practiced in and by a community; that no person may exercise judgements about or attempt to change the faith of other people; and that religious beliefs are ultimately interchangeable insofar as what matters is not the integrity of a belief system but the comfortability of the individual holding specific religious beliefs.12
And what is more, as many moralities as there are individuals! In the absence of any recognition of an intelligible reality in which moral truths possess some form of atemporal subsistence – as most traditional philosophies, and previous social and religious dispensations have believed – the imposition of any laws other than those which cultivate the individual’s freedom and guarantee his safety is seen as simply a form of flagrant despotism.
Both symptom and accelerator of liberalist individualism, the rise of the press, with its emphasis on mere assertion rooted not in the authority of argument, but in the personality of the individual writer, was a powerful way of bringing notions of moral relativity into mass circulation.
it is possible that the coming of the press weakened (more than the coming of modern science) the established moral agreements upon which the consensus of European society rested … it is possible that the coming of the press pushed ordinary readers towards a feeling of the relativity of all opinion and especially the relativity of moral standards … the demolition of an established consensus in moral authority was fundamental to the secularising process.13
Having touched on the most fundamental of the symptoms of the subjectivisation of meaning, namely the fragmentation and relativisation of knowledge and morality, let us move on to our second symptom of the subjectivisation of meaning, and the objectivisation of “physicality” and one which is a branch of the first: ahistoricity – the state of being cut off from historical perspective and context. The peoples of England, France and Germany, the dominant Western European shapers of Enlightenment, post-Enlightenment, liberalist, and now postmodern societies, all share in evincing an ever accelerating discontinuity with their respective pasts – a past that this relativisation of knowledge is making ever more distant and unreal.
Consider for example, that, as new studies suggest, 50% of 16-24 year olds in Britain have in the course of their lives never attended a single church service! In his famous history of the twentieth century, The Age of Extremes, even the avowedly secular Marxist historian, Eric Hogsbawm, bemoans the fact that “the destruction of the past, or rather of the social mechanisms that link one’s contemporary experience to that of earlier generations, is one of the most characteristic and eerie phenomena of the late twentieth century. Most young men and women at the century’s end grow up in a sort of permanent present lacking any organic relation to the public past of the times they live in.” Hogsbawm goes on to identify some of the most radical transformations to Western life of the 20th century, “the third transformation” he says, “and in some ways the most disturbing, is the disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationships, and with it, incidentally, the snapping of the links between generations, that is to say, between past and present.” He writes movingly when he laments that
At the end of this century (meaning the 20th century) it has for the first time become possible to see what a world may be like in which the past, including the past in the present, has lost its role, in which the old maps and charts which guided human beings, singly and collectively, through life no longer represent the landscape through which we move, the sea on which we sail. In which we do not know where our journey is taking us, or even ought to take us.14
This radical discontinuity is confirmed by the secularisation theorist Callum Brown in his The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000. “The generation that grew up in the sixties” he says, “was more dissimilar to the generation of its parents than in any previous century.” Historians are divided as to the most important underlying root causes of this radical shift. Some point to the indisputable secularising influence of industrialisation because of its “removal of close paternalistic ties between social ranks and its pressure to profane the Sabbath in work or recreational release.”15 As we have already seen, others blame the strong individualistic tendency in the various forms of Protestantism – and their rejection of tradition in favour of individual interpretation of scripture – for being inherently liable to both spawn and subsequently adopt various individualistic manifestations of liberalism. As Brown notes, at a certain point in European (and specifically British) religious history, the nature of religiosity was transformed “from an early-modern (and indeed mediaeval) conception of it as “conformity”, allegiance to the state and submission to moral and civic authority, to an essentially “modern” conception of religion as personal choice – a decision, or a series of decisions.” Moreover, it is significant that the First and Second World Wars, unique in the history of mankind for their destructiveness and scale, had to place demands on the people that had likewise never before been seen. The employment of women, for example, to help with multifarious aspects of the war effort as also to take the place of absent men in their work, set a new precedent that would fundamentally change the direction – including the religious direction – of Europe. As Callum Brown points out,
Women had previously been the heart of family piety, the moral restraint upon men and children … The distinctive growth in the 1950s of women’s dual role in home and work was a major contributory factor to the rise of irreligion, creating a new stress about which model defined a woman’s ‘duty’, upsetting the salience of evangelical protocols, and rendering women part of the same religious ‘problem’ as men. The reconstruction of female identity within work, sexual relations and new recreational opportunities from the late 1960s, put not just feminism but female identity in collision with the Christian construction of femininity.16
Comprehending too late the potentially cataclysmic consequences for general religiosity of this newborn zeitgeist, the Protestant Church tried in a panic to respond; to “modernise”, to become “relevant” again. There was no question of reasserting traditional religious values, because in its mainstream guise, the Church itself no longer believed in them; after all, through its ever-escalating individualising tendencies, it had itself given rise to the very circumstances that now threatened its existence.
“Many Christian congregations in Britain tried,” Brown goes on, “to compromise with the new age of youth in the late 1960s, developing new forms of religious worship using guitars and penny whistles, modern dress and a ‘happy-clappy’ atmosphere in an attempt to mimic the forms of youth culture.” It would not be too simplistic to say that these attempts flatly failed. The new generations could not relate to Christianity; in fact, it had become something of a foreign and unfamiliar language. Not long ago, in interviewing multi-generational families for a study of the nature of secularisation, a group of British researchers realised that unlike their parents and grandparents, more recent generations of young people suffered from “an absence of either a narrative structure or a set of terms with which the interviewees [were] able to answer. They are of a generation that has not sustained a training in how to express their religiosity.” No wonder. Britain had after all “set the trend with the liberalisation of the laws of obscenity (1959), abortion (1967) and divorce (1969), legalisation of homosexual acts (1967), abolition of theatre censorship (1968) and provision of contraceptives to unmarried couples through the National Health Service (1967).” The most basic and self-evident of religious and moral principles were now very much open to question; parents no longer communicated them to their children; and with this Christianity had finally come to an effective end in Britain, after more than one thousand three hundred years. What if anything will now take its place?
I will introduce the final symptom of crisis, that of arrogance and hypocrisy, also a branch of the fragmentation of knowledge and morality, with a quote from the renowned anti-colonialist Aime Cesaire’s Discourse on Colonialism
Europe is unable to justify itself either before the bar of ‘reason’ or before the bar of ‘conscience’; and … increasingly, it takes refuge in a hypocrisy that is all the more odious because it is less and less likely to deceive.
Muslims at the beginning of the twenty-first century tend to be especially sensitive to the hypocrisy that Aime Cesaire censured so beautifully and devastatingly, especially when it is mixed with the ahistoricism we have already mentioned. How disingenuous, we feel, that so many in the West clearly wish to convince themselves and us that they are genuinely worried that real Islam is genuinely represented by Daesh, that surreal and grotesquely aberrant band of homicidal, psychopathic Wahhabi lunatics (who seem perhaps to have been studying images of World War Two atrocities in Europe in order to carefully formulate a familiar concoction, a shadow of a Western past, guaranteed to unsettle their Western audiences?). Facetiousness aside; there were no HD cameras set up in Iraqi living rooms to document, in slow, grotesque detail as in the repulsive Daesh films, the unimaginable suffering inflicted on mothers, fathers and their children, as American bombs fell into their homes. Yet they are still dead: women, children, men. No, they were not systematically exterminated for their race, as were the Jews (can we really be sure that it is impossible such a thing could ever happen again?) but they were randomly killed because they lived in a country that the liberalist powers had decided was not free, not liberal, not democratic. They simply had to be freed.
Freed from life? They are, like the Jews were in the 1930s and 40s, the victims of an insane application of an ideology that its upholders feel is not only morally defensible, but good and even necessary. As Gregory puts it,
Millions of Americans seem still to believe the Wilsonian notion that the United States has a divine destiny and providential mission to accomplish in the world, that of ‘spreading freedom and democracy.’ Adapting Rousseau, the aim is apparently to force … others to be free, if necessary through proactive military intervention, even if it means killing tens of thousands of the would-have-been liberated and unsettling the lives of millions more.17
And as that greatest of the liberals, John Stuart Mill, said of those refusing to be free,
Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians.18
What was it that brought on this extraordinary arrogance and hypocrisy? What is it about Europe and now America, that has nurtured such racism, such intolerance, such violence, that the very concept of “tolerance” had to be invented in the 17th century in Europe because there had been previously no conceptual infrastructure whatever for dealing with any sort of “other” at all, especially given that by that time Muslims, Christians and Jews had coexisted in the Islamic world for a millennium? What explains why the West is only able to accept the “other” by relativising; that is, by relinquishing its accustomed exclusivism exactly by relinquishing truth itself? What is wrong with a civilisation that continues to so renown a man like Renan as a great liberal humanist, a man who said,
Nature has made a race of workers, the Chinese race, who have wonderful manual dexterity and almost no honour … a race of tillers of the soil, the Negro … a race of masters and soldiers, the European race.19?
Is it the exclusivist belief in a god-man believed to have come to earth only once in a moment in history that has made it impossible to truly place the “other”, that is, anyone outside of that unique once-in-history grace? Is it that that god-man could not possibly bring himself to forgive his creation without first brutally torturing himself and then committing suicide, that has made it such a violent and pessimistic civilisation? Was it indeed these perversions of the pristine message of one of the greatest of the Messengers, Christ, peace be upon him, that ultimately led to these violations of true humanity? We will never know. What is certain however is that the people of the West, as Guenon has it,
are incorrigibly prone to judge others according to themselves, and to attribute to them their own concerns, as well as their own ways of thinking, and their mental horizon is so narrow that they do not even take into account the possibility of other ones existing … by what right do Westerners claim to impose on everyone their own likes and dislikes? … it is in the name of ‘liberty’ that they would force the whole world to imitate them! Most astonishingly of all, they genuinely imagine in their infatuation that they enjoy prestige among all other peoples; because they are dreaded as a brute force is dreaded, they believe themselves to be admired; when a man is in danger of being crushed by an avalanche, does it follow that he is smitten with respect and admiration for it?20
Yet the mainstream of the Western European political establishment, and of course America by extension, continue to believe that they are the guiding lights of the world. They have indeed been immensely successful; anyone who has had an extended, keen-eyed stay in the modern Middle East will know that the now largely “independent” countries that were once European colonies, are now very arguably more truly “subject” peoples than they were even in the days of colonialism. Western European cultural encroachment has been one of total imperium and domination, leaving no less than cultural genocide in its wake.
The problem is, vast swathes of most of the countries they ever dominated strongly believe, whether they would admit it like that or not, in the superiority of Western civilisation. It is merely that they do not see or wish to acknowledge that this implies servitude and cultural subjugation to the West, because they have been deceived by the extraordinarily successfully-disseminated illusion that Western values are universal and culturally neutral. The simultaneous dismantling of traditional education systems that disseminated traditional first principles has made secularism’s incubation period all the quicker, its onset all the more acute – but this must all be discussed in another paper. Certainly, the biggest problem we face as an Umma today is exactly our unwitting, unsuspecting, unaware acceptance of numerous fundamentally erroneous principles; these principles are some of the main symptoms of deep spiritual sickness.
Too many of us Westerners today have no idea of our own spiritual capacity as human beings. The same thing is happening to us Muslims; religion becomes a self-validating formalism of dos and don’ts and rituals, that inhabits the increasingly vague psychic background of our daily experience, as we get on with the far more important and immediate business of “real life” – that is, full participation in the globalised zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century. Now, these Westernised Muslims have been made into unlikely scapegoats of Western civilisation’s own crisis. It is a great irony, in an age full of almost farcical ironies – in a world that often behaves and feels, especially noticeably in the Muslim world, like it is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In the face of these unprecedented challenges and pressure, we are in need of somehow finding within ourselves a great deal of compassion, and this can only come from long and careful study and contemplation – for as the beautiful, originally French phrase goes, “to understand is to forgive.” We must learn to strike a balance between a conformist, naive modernism, and an emotional and sentimental traditionalism, adopting instead a traditionalism that shines with the spiritual realities of the Qur’an and true faith, but that is fully resigned to the context imposed upon it by God’s decree: the modern world. And we must trust in Him, in love of the Master of the First and the Last, blessings and peace be upon him.
Something deep in the European psyche is haunted by Islam; a deep, nostalgic memory, perhaps, of the devotion and warm social structures of a Europe of many centuries ago. If in the coming decades, Europe is able, with courage and sympathy, to genuinely take stock of itself, and try to come to terms with what it is in its history that has led to this dangerous spiritual crisis, one day soon it may – despite everything, despite all that it has been through and all it has inflicted on others – find itself, by the grace and mercy of God, giving the good news to its loved ones that, as Imam Said Nursi proclaimed, it is pregnant with Islam. But this will depend on the Muslims.
*A previous edition of this paper has been presented in Hayrat Youth Forum (August 2015, Istanbul).
1) Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages. The University of Chicago Press, 1996, pp. 5-6
2) Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, pg. 166
3) ibid. pg. 21
4) ibid. pp. 46-48
5) Rene Guenon, East and West, pp. 30-31
6) Imam Nursi’s famous teaching on these significations can be found in his Sixteenth Flash.
7) ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Ṣūfī, Indications from Signs, pp. 21-22
8) Owen Chadwick, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, pg. 35
9) ibid. pg. 27
10) Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, pg. 112
11) ibid. pg. 176
12) Cited in above source, pg. 170
13) Owen Chadwick, The Secularisation of the European Mind in the Nineteenth Century, pg. 40
14) Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes, pg. 16
15) Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, pg. 20
16) ibid. pg. 179
17) Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, pg. 177
18) Quoted in Chadwick, pg. 77
19) Cited in Cesaire, pg. 38
20) Guenon, pp. 24-25