Islam and Postmodernism: A Muslim Perspective by Hasanul Arifin

Islam and Postmodernism: A Muslim Perspective
by Hasanul Arifin on Tuesday, October 5, 2010 at 7:48am
I am writing this because there is this notion that postmodernism and Islam can coexist, and that the term "Postmodern Muslim" is a valid term that can be used. This is a short summary written in a FAQ form which perhaps can be used as guide the sincere seeker of Truth.

What is Postmodernism?

Postmodernist thinkers themselves cannot agree on what postmodernism is. We will thus have to examine the views of two of the most authoritative thinkers of postmodernism in explaining what may constitute as postmodernism as an ideology.

According to Lyotard, postmodernism is a sceptic worldview against Grand Narratives and the argument for a diversity of narratives where not one narrative can dominate. In the words of Foucault, "there is no truth with a capital T"; there is no Universal Truth out there. All there is are stories or interpretations of the truth that is shaped by the community and society propagating it.

According to Baudrillard, postmodernism is the passive surrender of consumerist Man to the images that are bombarded onto them through various sources and channels of the media. In other words, images like Coke or Pepsi ads that pervade the media now becomes the reality of people living in urban centres. Reality is not what is objectively out there; it is created to satisfy our capitalist cravings and needs.

In summary, the postmodernist assert that our view of reality isn't as real as it once seemed. We have come to realise that there is not one reality but many different, often conflicting realities. We have come to see that ideas about truth are not eternal, but made. The ideas that only God is Yahweh or Allah, or the Goddess, or that some god named Bumba vomited the Moon and stars, or the scientific notion that the Moon is a physical body of such and such mass, or that Caucasian race is the master race- all these are man-made notions. They are inventions- they are social constructs.

Therefore the postmodernist, instead of dreaming of the day when all the world is united under the universal banner of Marxism or Christianity or Science, are more interested in seeing the world as a kind of carnival of cultures- a tribal gathering. The postmodern society does not mind if one story says that the Moon and Stars were vomited forth, or another story proclaims that the moon and stars were created by God. Postmodern audiences don't demand heterogeneous stories adding up to some grand, global, universal sense; they celebrate the fact that it's OK to stop making much sense. Because inevitably all our rituals, religious dogmas, myths, gender roles, self-concepts, beliefs, histories and theories are cultural, social inventions. As such, postmodernism also encourages participating in more than one Grand Narrative; its OK to be a Buddhist Christian!

What do our Muslim luminaries say about this postmodernist attitude?

How different are the postmodernists from the Sophists mentioned by the scholars of the past,the intellectual adversaries of Islam? The answer is, actually there isn't much difference. As mentioned by Imam Al-Ghazali, "once the real meaning is understood,there is no need to quibble over names".

The Sophists were mentioned in the authoritative text of the Muslims, "Aqa'id Al-Nasafi", by the grand imam Umar Ibn Muhammad Al-Nasafi,in paragraph 3:

"The People of Reality- may Allah honour them forever- say "The realities of things are established in their existence and the knowledge of them is certain in contradiction to the Sophist."

This authoritative text is commented on by Al-Taftahzani, who further classified the Sophists into three categories:
1) The Relativists (Al-indiyyah)
2) The Sceptics (Al-inadiyyah)
3) The Agnostics (La Adriyyah)

The Relativists believe that everything is subjective according to context. There is no Absolute Truth established out there because everything in subjective to interpretation. The Sceptics believe that everything must necessarily be cast in doubt following the assumption that there is no Universal Truth. The Agnostics believe that since everything cannot be known in certainty, therefore it follows that one should just be content in one's ignorance and celebrate the diversity of opinions, whether true or false.

So how different are the Postmodernists to the Sophists who:
1) Believe that there isn't a Universal, Objective Truth and Reality out there.
2) Believe that reality and narratives are social constructs that must be cast in suspicion and scepticism.
3) Believe that because there are so many interpretations of the truth whose objectivity cannot be determined, it is OK to celebrate the diversity of opinions?

What should the Muslim attitude towards postmodernism be?

I am not suggesting that everything is postmodernism is absurd and wrong and that we should not read postmodernist material because they are dead wrong :p I am suggesting that we should be critical; we must necessarily reject the axioms of postmodernism that would affect our aqidah. At the same time I think that postmodernist material is particularly useful in understanding the human (Western) condition in the modern era; of how nowadays we are so fixated to our television and computer screens thinking that the images they show is reality, about how many of us used to believe that Science is an objective description of reality only to know that it is itself a social construct, about how information is controlled by those who are in power etc. And what postmodernists say also help to debunk some stereotypes concerning Muslims and their history too.

We reject postmodernism as a philosophical programme that challenges our aqidah. This means we reject the notion that everything are social constructs, because if it were the case then the Quran is not Divine anymore and that our fundamental concepts that constitute our worldview would be rendered meaningless because all of them are but social constructs established by those who were in power. This is particularly erroneous because the Quran and the Sunnah are revealed to us by Allah s.w.t, safeguarded from error by a mutawatir chain of narrators who are pious and sincere. This source of knowledge is known to us as Khabar Sadiq, that is, true report that is successively transmitted upon the tongues of people whom reason cannot conceive that they would purpose together on a lie, and the report of the Messenger of Allah confirmed by miracle.

Following the fact that the Holy Quran is objectively established by Allah and transmitted to us by the Prophet and on the tongues of the sincere, we necessarily reject the notion that there is no objective truth out there. Because if there were no objective truth, then the religion of Islam is reduced to that of a social construct, that Islam is a partial (human-created) truth that must be supplemented by other human-created thoughts and ideologies, that Islam is not the Absolute Truth.

Postmodernism stops short at denying the truth of all Grand Narratives. As a Muslim, while we deny all other Grand Narratives, we proceed by declaring the Oneness of Allah and the Truth in His Religion. That is why our first pillar of Iman is to declare our Syahadah:

"There are no gods....but Allah,and Muhammad is His Messenger."

"And whoever seeks a religion (ideology) other than Islam, it will never be accepted of Him, and in the Hereafter he will be among the losers." 3:85

So is there such a thing called the "Postmodernist Muslim"?

The term itself is a paradox. Its like saying "colourless green ideas sleeps furiously"; a term that lacks meaning and hence isn't a term at all. A Muslim is a Muslim and a Postmodernist is a Postmodernist. However, there is no harm learning and appreciating postmodernism as long as we are critical enough to discern its truth from its falsehood.

"Oh Believers! Embrace Islam in its totality, and do not follow the footsteps of Syaithan. Verily Syaithan is your apparent enemy." 2:208-209

Wallahu 'Alam