WHAT is the relation between Islam and post-modernism? Earlier, we used to talk of Islam and modernism and now we talk of Islam and post-modernism.
First let us understand the difference between modernism and post-modernism. Modernism which ruled the roost until the early 1950s was characterised by a hegemony of reason. Modernism rejected anything which was not in conformity with reason.
Modernism was, in a way, quite intolerant of forces of tradition or even anything supra-rational, let alone irrational. It was for this reason that Freud's theory of the subconscious or unconscious was also ridiculed by modernists. It was not deemed to be in conformity with reason. Even Marxists also rejected Freud and his explanation of deeper sources of human behaviour. Naturally they also rejected religion as something irrational. Thus, modernism was as intolerant of anything non-modern as one religion is said to be of another.
Europe throughout the 19th century was characterised by modernism and Asia and Africa were looked down upon by the Europeans as anti-modern and irrational. Thus, the 19th century was the century of modernism and of European hegemony. It was in the early 1950s and '60s that new trends began to emerge and post-modernism began to be theorised by academics and social scientists.
In post-modernism, reason lost its hegemony and supra-rational forces came to be accepted. Post-modernism is mainly characterised by pluralism, be it cultural, religious or literary sphere. Europe and North America became multi-cultural and multi-religious societies due to the migration of people from the western powers' former African and Asian colonies.
Also, it was during this phase that religion also found a respectable place again in western society. In other words, religion came to be re-appropriated. Thus, post-modernism, unlike modernism, is not hegemonic and is tolerant of other cultures; its main characteristic is pluralism. Now let us explore the relation between Islam and post-modernism.
Islam believes in religious and cultural pluralism, and while accepting importance of reason it also accepts supra-rational forces. According to the Quran, Allah has created several religions and cultures though he could have created only one, if He so desired. (548). Thus, pluralism is the very basic to the Quran.
According to the Quran the world has been created in its plurality, not only in matters of religion but also by way of ethnicity, nations and tribes. These have been described as signs of Allah (3022). About national and tribal plurality, one only need see Surah 49, verse 13.
The Quran stresses pluralism to such an extent that even when one is convinced that others' gods are false, it stops believers from abusing them. The Quran says, “And abuse not those whom they call upon besides Allah, lest, exceeding the limits they abuse Allah through ignorance.” Further, it says “Thus to every people have. We made their deeds fair-seeming...” (6109)
Here, it is a Quranic injunction not to say bad words about others' religion(s) because to every people their religion looks true and valid. The Quran even says that in every place of worship Allah is remembered and hence it should be respected. Thus, the Quran says, “And if Allah did not repel some people by others, cloisters and churches and synagogues and mosques in which Allah's name is much remembered, would have been pulled down.” (2240).
Thus, there is no place for inter-religious conflict in Islam. The Quran also subscribes to the doctrine of what Shah Waliullah and Maulana Azad called the wahdat-i-Deen i.e., unity of religion, which means all religions are same in essence and in their core teachings. Both the eminent theologians have thrown detailed light on this question in their respective writings.
As far as multi-culturalism is concerned, the West accepted it only in the latter part of the 20th century. The West had otherwise long been a mono-religious and mono-cultural society, because the Christian church had rejected validity of all other religions except Christianity. The church now of course believes in inter-religious dialogue and has issued instructions to Christian organisations to that effect. The Quran had accepted all Biblical prophets during the revelation itself.
Islam accepted multi-culturalism too by saying that all believers are one Ummah regardless of their ethnicity, language, tribe or nationality. It also admonished believers not to discriminate between Arabs and non-Arabs, as Arabs were very proud of their ethnic origin. Islam spread far and wide among peoples of different cultures and even the Shariah respected the 'adat (customs) of different people. Local customs and traditions were integrated with Shariah formulations from the earliest time.
Thus, it will be seen that Islamic teachings anticipated what came to be called post-modernism today. The most essential thing is tolerance for diversity and for those who are different from us. Being different should not mean being inferior, superior or hostile to the other. We must project Islam in the right spirit, emphasising the practice of tolerance it so ardently advocates to the faithful.
The writer is an Islamic scholar and heads the Centre for Study of Society and Secularism, Mumbai.
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