Challenges Facing Islam in the Present Era
Challenges Facing Islam in the Present Era: The following is a translation of Syed Sadatullah Husaini’s (President of Jamaat-e-Islami Hind) Urdu article ‘Asr-e-Hāzir mein Islam ko Darpesh Challenge’ published in Zindagi-e-Nau magazine’s April 2020 issue. The translation work has been undertaken by Syed Ilham Jafri.
Prior to understanding the challenges faced by Islam in the present era, it is vital to understand what comprises the present age and what it actually is. The way to look at the current scenario, in terms of problems and challenges, is to not only look at the present but also towards tomorrow, i.e., the near future. When we view the world through such a lens, we understand that this is not an age of ordinary alterations or variations but an era of enormous, far-reaching, all-encompassing, and rapid changes.
1. Some Revolutionary Features of Modern Times
Over the course of the past few centuries, technology has had a profound impact on world conditions. Not only culture and cultural conditions but thoughts, ideas, and political and economic philosophies have also been affected by the cultural changes caused by technology. It is said that Liberal Democracy was the product of such a civilization that came into being through the inventions of steam engines, oil mills, television, and the telephone. Information technology and biotechnology are the leading technologies of the modern day. As a result of the infotech and biotech revolutions, a whole new world is emerging, and it is being theorized that Liberal Democracy cannot bear this new world and its developments. Hence, a new system, new rules, and values are required.
The revolution resulting from the combination of biotechnology and information technology will be all-encompassing. The envisaged social, political, cultural, and moral changes are expected to be far more complex and comprehensive than those engendered by the Industrial Revolution. While the Industrial Revolution gave humans extraordinary control over nature and natural resources, biotechnology and information technology are laying control over humans’ internal systems, where even human thoughts are being overshadowed by machines. We are rapidly moving towards a world where big data will become the greatest civilizational force. It will provide the ability to surveil and control every moment of every human being. Governance and major decisions will be made by algorithms, and as a result of this, algocracy, and even beyond that, ways will be paved for algorithmic dictatorship.
The revolution of augmented reality will grant the media unprecedented control over human thoughts and concepts. The Blockchain economy will disrupt all financial systems and all well-known transaction methods, and every human action will depend on artificial intelligence-based machinery. There can be no doubt that everything about this new world, i.e., the modern era or post-industrial revolution world, is becoming irrelevant. But those who have kept a keen eye on these revolutions brought about by technology know very well that this situation is not too far off. Many of these changes have already come a long way and are affecting our lives, knowingly or unknowingly. Freedom, democracy, national sovereignty, privacy, and countless other values that dominated the 20th century, of which the modern man was proud of, are now rapidly dissolving in the heat of technology. The industrial revolution has created an environmental crisis, which is still a serious problem for humanity. But now that technology has started to pervade the human brain, human nerves, and the innermost parts of the human soul, as a result of this, what kind of crisis will the ecosystem of humanity face? It is not even possible to imagine it today.
In such circumstances, the world will definitely need a new system and new values. The first chapter of the famous book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, by a famous futurist, Yuval Noah Harari, is entitled “Disillusionment.” The author comments while reviewing the events of the last century that up until the Second World War, the conditions of the world were expressed by a conflict between three great world ideologies (grand stories), viz. fascism (ideology of domination by one nation), communism (ideology of economic equality), and liberalism (freedom and democracy)—all of them competing for world dominance. As a result, until 1939, these three ideologies envisioned themselves ruling the world. After World War II, fascism disappeared from the world stage, and in 1969, only two ideologies remained. By 1991, communism had also disappeared. Now, only liberal democracy remained, and predictions of the termination of history were being made. However, events like the financial crisis of 2008, the election of Trump in 2016, Brexit, etc., have finally caused liberal democracy to leave the world stage as well. As we reached 2019, the situation had become such that all worldviews had disappeared from the world, and the world was in a quest for a new worldview or global ideology.
2. Role of Religion in the New Worldview
What will this new worldview be like? At least in this regard, it is now widely recognized that religion and religious values will play an important role in its formation. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a few years ago that religion and religious belief will have the same central importance in the world of the 21st century as political ideas did in the 20th century. And only religions can provide the values required by today’s world.
“Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st century as political ideology was to the 20th century.”
International affairs expert, famous writer, and intellectual, Scott M. Thomas, claimed in his famous book, The Global Resurgence of Religion, that religion and religious belief will be the soul of the world of the 21st century, and the 20th century will prove to be the last modern century, i.e., the ideas that governed the post-Industrial Revolution era will become irrelevant in the 21st century.
Although we have given these two references as examples, many other such passages could be cited. The need for religion, religious belief, and religious values is now intensely felt in every sphere of life. The new world, towards which we are moving fast, will never be able to function without a deep spirituality and a strong religious foundation.
On the one hand, there is this growing importance of religion, and on the other hand, there is the rapid decline of various world religions. It is not the time to analyze this fall here, but there is ample evidence that various world religions, over the past centuries, have dug their souls in the face of modernity and modern western civilization. On the field now, stands either Islam or various semi-religious spiritual philosophies and movements. Islam has even withstood the storm of modernity due to its explicit belief system and imperishable foundations. Due to this special characteristic, Islam has been accused of fundamentalism in the past centuries; however, the fact is that, today, this characteristic is proving to be the most inordinate strength of Islam, and as the changing circumstances of the 21st century bring new challenges to human life, this stability of Islam will provide the equipment to meet the great needs of the world. God willing, this situation is both a great opportunity and a great challenge for the people of Islam.
3. Values of Islam and their appeal: The Family System as an Example
The forte of Islam is that its values are not built on the unstable foundations of social and historical traditions. However strong these foundations might be, they cannot withstand the powerful tactics of modern civilization and colonialism. The values of Islam are based on very stable beliefs. A prominent example of this in recent times is the concept of family and family system of Islam. In the Western world, attempts to establish an unnatural equality among people have largely destroyed the institution of the family. The destruction of family has affected every aspect of social life, and societies around the world continue to be affected by this storm. A Muslim society protects the values of family life and the feminine role of women not only because the ancient traditions of this society demand it, but the actual reason is that it has strong faith that these are God’s commandments and we has no authority to alter them. Merely this firm faith can withstand the raging storm that has risen from the intellectual centers of the modern West and is now bent on overturning the traditional structures of the entire world. Hence we say that Islam is the last refuge of the family system and woman’s feminine existence.
With this situation on one hand, on the other, the importance of family has greatly increased in today’s world for a variety of reasons. Thus, the family system of Islam is a source of great attraction for many people, but it is also an important reason for the anti-Islamic forces to be at unease. The famous Muslim convert scholar, Murad Wilfried Hofmann, has explained in great detail in his thought-provoking book, Religion on the Rise: Islam in the Third Millennium, that family discipline and family values are a great strength of Islam and will be a great attraction for Islam in the Western world in the future.
A few years ago, the Center for Islamic Studies at Cambridge University did an interesting study. They interviewed newly Muslim British women and inquired about what made them accept Islam. The study was completed, and in March 2013, its astounding report was published under the title Narratives of Conversion to Islam: Female Perspectives. Most of the reasons cited by these highly educated women for emb12pracing Islam were related to Islamic teachings pertaining to women and family. In May 2017, the New York Times published a survey report citing a leading family research institute, according to which the new generation in America, i.e., people between the ages of 17 and 34 (millennials), prefer traditional gender roles. In previous generations, feminist concepts were popular, but now the new generation of Americans is increasingly turning back to the traditional concept of family.
The Islamic family can be a great point of attraction for humanity in this changing world, but it has two requirements. The first requirement is to present the family teachings and values of Islam to the world with solid arguments and create a powerful discourse regarding the family. Family system and family values are currently topics of discussion around the world, as modernity had denigrated the institution of family. It is no longer possible to deny the need for a family, but in its name, certain tendencies are being encouraged that are toxic to the family system. Families revolving around boyfriend-girlfriend or live-in relationships, gay and lesbian relationships, where same-sex couples adopt children so as to form a so-called “family”—these are all trends that are contributing to the demise of the family institution. Muslims should come forward as prominent advocates of the family system and counter all these practises through a well-grounded and logical critique of all of them—with strong proofs and a reasoned explanation of the principles of family in Islam.
The second requirement is to pay immediate attention to the importance of ijtihad in some critical issues concerning women and families. Without ijtihad, the family system of Islam cannot cope with contemporary problems and seriously address the issues related to it—they should be considered and their solutions should be found. It is not the right time now to go into the details regarding these matters.
We have presented the values of the family system as an example. A similar attraction is found in Islam’s economic values, environmental values, and many other values. There is a need to bring forth the rationality and significance of the principles of contemporary philosophy, sociology, collective psychology, and study of values to the world.
4. Challenges of Multicultural Society
One of the foremost features of the new world is its multiculturalism. Even now, about one-third of the world’s Muslim population lives in countries where Muslims are a minority. Accelerating rates of migration will further increase this ratio. The large proportion of young people in the population of the Islamic world and, on the other hand, the rapidly increasing proportion of the elderly in countries such as Europe and Japan, are promoting the trend of migration with speed. It is estimated in several studies that in the near future, a large number of active and talented young people will settle in Western countries like Europe, America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. Muslims will become a minority in many European countries very soon, and the proportion of Muslims in all of Europe will be the same as it is in our country, India. In our country itself, Muslims are living as a large minority. Then, at this time, different societies around the world are connecting due to technology and interdependence, and the cultural barrier that we have been used to for centuries is rapidly disappearing in Muslim countries. As a result, the whole world is becoming a single multicultural society. In these circumstances, there is a dire need for the features of Islamic life and Islamic ideals to be clearly defined in a multicultural society.
A multicultural society is not something unknown to Islamic history. During the time of the Prophet (saw), there were polytheist tribes in Medina and its surroundings, and apart from them, there were also influential Jewish tribes whose society, culture, religion, and lifestyle were completely different from other Arabs. Among the Muslims themselves, there was a big difference in the lifestyle and cultural practices of the emigrants (Muhajireen) and the local residents of Medina (Ansar). During the period of the righteous Caliphs, when the Persian territories were conquered, and then during the Umayyad and Abbasid periods, extraordinary cultural diversity emerged in the Islamic regions. Along with the Muslims, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, polytheists, and many other local religions of Africa and Asia lived in Islamic areas. Eminent Islamic figures like Imam Ibn Taymiyyah, Mujaddid Alf Thani, and Shah Waliullah were faced with the challenges of a multicultural society. The Ottoman Empire of Turkey and the Mughal Empire of India ruled for hundreds of years over people of different religions. Therefore, Islamic history is very rich in the experiences of pluralistic societies, and probably no other history of the medieval period has as many experiences in this matter as Islamic history. Regardless of this, it is a fact that many problems of a multicultural society in our religious and intellectual capital are still unresolved.
There are many sides to this debate. The most important aspects are intellectual and conceptual. What is the Islamic angle of seeing a multicultural society? What can be its Islamic theory? What should be the Islamic goal and motto in such a society? What should be the nature of the relationship with the state? What should our relationship be with societal values? These questions have been facing the Islamic movement in India for years, and it has provided answers to them through its actions, but the confusion will remain until these questions are addressed at a higher level of thought and theory. The seriousness of these confusions can be gauged from the discussions that have been going on in Europe for the past several decades, where the concept of a separate European Islam is being presented. From the recent protest campaigns in our country, it is clear that these feelings have spread among the youth of our country. If these questions are not addressed immediately, the intellectual crisis that European Muslims have gone through is likely to be imported into our country as well.
One aspect of the debate is jurisprudential. Much of our jurisprudential contributions have emerged in Muslim-majority regions and epochs, often in the shadow of Muslim governments. Many questions related to a multicultural society are not found in this corpus. Such situations have given rise to discussions like Fiqh-al-Aqalliyat (jurisprudence of minorities). This discussion is still very nascent in the context of our country’s situation. There is a need to progress it further. The third important aspect of the debate is societal. It requires a sociological study of these societies from an Islamic point of view, to analyze and look at such societies in light of Islamic texts and Islamic principles of sociology and collective psychology, etc.
5. The Need for A New Narrative and Approach
Due to all these conditions, there is a dire need to create a new narrative of Islamic thought that is compatible with the changed conditions. This narrative should also be relevant to the new situation, possessing a spirit of revival, and be free from the apologetic and conciliatory style that is currently being used in the name of moderate Islam. What are the characteristics of this narrative? This is a very important and fundamental question that needs serious consideration. I think it is necessary to inform of some things coming to mind.
A) System or Civilization?
Modernity had given the world the rule of ideas and systems. The nation-state was the greatest center of power. The nation-state’s sovereignty was the most important concept in modern politics. In these circumstances, the Islamic thinkers had rightly declared the state and the political system as the most important topics of their narrative and of the Islamic ideal as well. In a transformed world, while entirely new forms of politics are emerging, the iron walls of the nation-state are rapidly collapsing, large systems of thought and ideology are disappearing, and commercial interests, technological charisma, and cultural values are increasingly taking over. As the new world is taking shape, the question has become very important: what can be the most effective way of presenting Islamic thought? Is the state still of central importance in the dream of a complete Islamic life? One idea is that there is a need for more emphasis on culture and civilization in these changing times. That is, an all-round cultural and civilizational revolution should be the goal of Islamic efforts, and the intellectual support needed for this revolution should be provided. A cultural narrative of Islam should be brought forward in which the civilizational and cultural questions raised by the present age are satisfactorily addressed in the light of Islam.
What is the path to a prosperous life for an individual? What values should family and sexual attitudes adhere to? What are the ethics of media and social media? What is the Islamic position regarding the latest technology? What is Islam’s guidance regarding technology’s control over human beings’ surveillance and choices, as well as their conscience and opinion? What are the principles of civic organization in the present age of technology? What is the Islamic approach to modern financial practices? What is the Islamic paradigm of arts and entertainment? How does Islamic philosophy look at types of governance by algorithms? These and many similar questions require deep consideration. Profound sociological solutions and satisfactory verbal discussions are required in relation to them instead of mere Fatwas (A ruling on a point of Islamic law given by a recognized authority like a scholar who has completed his/her degree of complete Islamic Law or Ifta from a recognized Islamic seminary).
Where this cultural narrative criticizes contemporary thinking and current methods, it also becomes a source of innovation for new trends and methods, i.e., it is not only reactive but proactive as well. Islamic economics is the most important example in this regard. Islamic economics could become an effective tool for realizing the humanitarian principles and values of Islam. The dream of Islamic economics that was seen in Aligarh was a dream of great cultural change. But now Islamic economics has gradually become limited to merely Islamic finance, which—instead of becoming a revolutionary means of achieving the economic goals of Islam—has become restricted to Islamic transplantation in the tools and resources of modern capitalist economy with the help of jurisprudential stratagem. The prevalent cultural challenge at present requires a high level of creative and innovative thinking.
B) Law or Values?
In the last century, the nation-state and its legal system emerged as a universal force. The question that became the most important question was: What should be the legal system of the modern world? At that time, our elders presented the Islamic Shariah and the legal system of Islam to the world with clarity. Now the world is entering an era where the tyranny of non-state players, i.e., corporations, technology, media, etc., is surpassing the laws of governments. There is a need to highlight the values of Islam, or what is called “soft power” in contemporary terms.
C) Spiritual Satisfaction:
In this age of technology, a major human need is spiritual satisfaction. Many non-Islamic movements are badly exploiting this need. A number of institutions in the name of spirituality have now become global brands. A major reason for the attraction of Islam in the Middle Ages was its spiritual power. There is a need to present Islam as an effective philosophy of spiritual evolution and spiritual satisfaction in the context of modern conditions and problems.
D) The Need to Address Religions:
In the discourse of the movements of the twentieth century, the original ideas were addressed. As explained in the above lines, the importance of religion is increasing in the changing conditions and spiritual, moral, cultural, and civilizational philosophies based on religion are attracting people around the world. In these circumstances, there is a dire need to address religion and religious philosophies. Along with Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the religious and semi-religious philosophies of China and Japan, sometimes in the name of spirituality, sometimes in the name of a stress-free happy life, sometimes in the name of environmental protection, and so on under different denominations, they are playing their role in the formation of a new world civilization. Even a serious, deep study of them is still left untouched by us, answering them is a distant goal.
In our country itself, a powerful movement of revivalism and racism in the name of nationalism has become endowed with extraordinary political and social force. The effects of this movement are starting to spread from our country to the whole world. One aspect of this movement is political, but a larger aspect is cultural, civil, and social. The Islamic response to this movement has not yet gone beyond the temporary political disagreement or the secular voices raised in its disagreement. This is a great lack of Islamic thought, not only in India but also globally.
6. New Thoughts, New Ideologies, and New Ideas
I have started this detailed discussion on this occasion because I believe that the ideological and intellectual challenge facing Islam at this time is very fundamental as well as very deep. Our needs cannot be fulfilled by jurisprudential answers and fatwas, nor by simply repeating the words of old books in a new language. There is a need for our intellectuals to study contemporary problems and ideas very deeply and come up with new thoughts and notions.
To understand and find solutions to these complex challenges, it is also important to enlist the help of innovative minds whose intellectual energies are still fresh and who can better understand the complexities of this ever-changing world. A number of young scholars, young graduates of central universities, and students must participate in such seminars. Recent experiences in different regions of the Islamic world show that Muslim women also do extraordinary academic and research work when given the opportunity. Their participation should also increase.
Islam was the name of the movement that arose to eradicate all the substandard morals from the world. It had created a group of people with the highest moral standards, known as “Muslims,” who became the bearers of moral reform. It had imposed the terrible punishments of cutting off hands, stoning to death, whipping and flaying, and even impaling its people, just because the community that rose up to eradicate adultery from the world itself should not bear any perpetrators of adultery in it. The movement, whose job is to extirpate alcohol, should be free from the existence of drunkards, and the movement that wants to eliminate theft and robbery should not have any thieves or robbers within it. It was intended that those charged with reforming the world be people of good character, noble status, and respectability. Therefore, leaving aside gambling, forgery, and bribery, it didn’t even agree for a Muslim to be a musician or a singer, because even this is pitiful from the point of view of moral reformers. What could be more disgraceful for Islam, which had raised its movement with such strict restraints and severe discipline, and which had recruited into its body men of the highest character, than the word “Muslim” being associated with a prostitute, a rascal, a thief, or an adulterer? Is it possible that eyes and heads bow with devotion and honour in front of the values of Islam and Muslims even after such disgrace and dishonour? Have you ever seen someone stand up politely for the person who is being humiliated from market to market and from street to street?Mawlana Abul A’la Maududi
Footnotes and References:
 This discussion is now very common and many references can be made for it. Two interesting books which help to understand this debate:
- Mounk Yascha; The People Vs. Democracy: Why our Freedom is in Danger and How to Save It?; Harvard University Press; Massachusetts; 2018.
- Susskind Jamie; Future Politics; Oxford University Press; Oxford; 2018.
 Big Data refers to the vast collection of information and data that is analyzed with the help of advanced computers for various commercial, governmental, and espionage purposes. For example, by collecting information related to a person’s social media, online purchases, Google searches, etc., their tendencies and moods are known, and according to this, goods are sold to them or they get monitored by security agencies.
 Cathy O’Neil; Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy; New York; Crown; 2016.
 Algorithms are a branch of mathematics that is the basis of computer programming. It is comprised of step-by-step instructions, and the same instructions are executed with the help of computer programming. An algorithmic regime refers to a system in which instructions and work methods are defined in detail and executed by machines without human intervention.
 When the use of augmented reality is done in media, then advanced technologies such as holograms and HoloLens bring media content to life in such a way that the presentation becomes a real-life experience for the user. That is, the event that is meant to be shown begins to happen in front of the viewer. His senses, along with sight, sound, smell, and other sensations in all three dimensions, begin to perceive this event as a reality.
 Blockchains are public computer ledgers in which transactions are recorded. With the help of this complex technology, cryptocurrency has come into being. As a result, large-scale transactions have become possible without the use of any country’s regular currency. This is likely to lead to many complications and problems in the systems of finance, taxation, etc.
Cathy O’Neil; Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy: New York; Crown; 2016.
 Susskind Jamie: Future Politics; Oxford University Press; Oxford: 2018.
 Harari Yuval Noah; 21 Lessons for the 21st Century: Vintage: London: 2019 pp 13-14.
 Blair Tony: Why We All Must DO God in New Statesman America; 19th March 2009.
 Thomas Scott M.: The Global Resurgence of Religion and the Transformation of International Relations; Palgrave Macmillan; New York; 2005.
 Hofmann Murad Wilfred: Religion on the Rise: Islam in the Third” Millenium; Amana:Beltsville; 2001.
 Suleiman Yasir; Narratives of Conversion to Islam in Britain: Female Perspectives; University of Cambridge in Association with The New Muslim Project; Markfield; UK; 2013.
 David Cotter and Joanna Pepin. Report “Trending Towards Traditionalism? Changes in Youths’ Gender Ideology” for Council on Contemporary Files, with reference to NewYork Times, Sunday Review 31-03-2017.
 Pew Research Centre: The Future of World Religions: Population Growth; Projections: 2015; at https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2015/03/PF_15.04.02_ProjectionsFullReport.pdf; retrieved on 19-02-2020.
Such an inspiring and informative write up. Worth a read. 👏