Islam & Modernity

ImageThe subject of religion and progress is one of those subjects which has been brought up in other religions much more than it has been for us Muslims. Many of the world’s intellectuals have abandoned religion only because they have held
religion and progress to be incompatible realities. They entertained the idea that having a religion entailed the discontinuance and stopping of, and struggling against, movement and change. In other words they considered religion to be a fixedness, a monotony and solidification of existent forms and patterns

The Exigencies of the Age

In the introduction to “Man and his Future” in which I investigated the subject
of the greatness and then decay of the Muslims, I recognized that the causes of
the decline of the Muslims could be examined under three headings: Islam, the
Muslims, and external influences. In that introduction, one of the twenty seven
topics which I thought required to be studied and examined with this very topic,
and I promised to publish a short book with the title: ‘Islam and the Demands of
the Age’, and I had already collected a good deal of notes for it.

In this series of articles, it is not possible to put all the subject matter
that should be get forth in a book. I shall, however, explain matters to the
extent that I may enlighten the minds of the respected readers on this matter.

The subject of religion and progress is one of those subjects which has been
brought up in other religions much more than it has been for us Muslim. Many of
the world’s intellectuals have abandoned religion on because they thought that
religion and progress were incompatible. They entertained the idea that having a
religion entailed the discontinuance and stopping of, and struggling against,
movement and change. In other words they considered religion to be a fixedness,
a monotony and solidification of existent forms and patterns.

Nehru, the late Prime minister of India, had anti-religious beliefs, and adhered
to no tradition or religion. From his writings it transpires that the thing that
he abhorred in religion was its dogmatic aspect and its quality of seeing
everything in only one perspective.

In his later years, Nehru felt that something was missing and wanting both in
his own self and in the universe, and that this vacuum or gap could not be
bridged except by a spiritual force. Despite that feeling, he was afraid of
being attached to religion, because of that very stagnancy and
uni-perspectivenes which, according, to him, was there in every religion.

An Indian journalist, a Mr. Karanjia , had an interview with Nehru towards the
end of his life, and that was apparently the last occasion when Nehru gave
expression to his view on general universal topics.

During that interview, Karanjia questioned him about Gandhi, and remarked that
some intellectuals and progressivists believed that Gandhi, by his perceptive
solutions and idealistic and spiritual methods, had weakened and shaken Nehru’s
original beliefs in scientific socialism.

In his reply, Nehru told him that it was necessary and good to benefit from
spiritual and idealistic methods also, and that he had always believed in them
as Gandhi had, and that at the time of speaking it was of great importance and
all the more necessary to count on those means. The reason was that in the face
of the spiritual vacuum of modern civilization it was necessary, more than
before to look for spiritual and ideological answers.

Karanjia, afterwards, put some questions about Marxism and Nehru pointed out
some of the shortcomings Marxism and again reverted to the way of spiritual
solutions to problems. It was then that Karanjia asked Nehru whether the
statements he had just made, with their references to moral and spiritual
concepts, did not display a difference from the Jawaharlal Nehru of yesterday.
All his statements pointed to the idea that Nehru in the ripening of his age,
was in search of God.

Nehru agreed, and said that he had indeed changed and his insistence on the
spiritual and moral values had not been without case and consideration. He
pointed out that another matter was their created up, and that was how morality
and idealism could be raised to a higher level.

He again remarked that clearly religion existed for that purpose, but that
religion had unfortunately degenerated because of its shortsightedness and its
blind adherence to certain lifeless rites and rituals and to the performances of
unchanging ceremonies. The outward form and the external shell of religion
continued to exist while its spirit and real meaning had been lost.

Islam and the Demands of the Age

Amongst all the traditions and religions, none has produced so much influence or
as deep an impact on the different aspects of human life as Islam has done. In
its procedures Islam is not content only with a series of acts of worship,
recitings and incantations and a collection of moral exhortations, but it also
deals with the fundamental directions that relationships between human beings
should take, and the rights and duties of individuals in respect of each other
in various situations, in the same way as it has explained the relations of men
with God. So it is only natural that the question of suitability and harmony
with the times should he given more attention with regard to Islam.

Incidentally many non-Muslims scholars’ and writers have studied the social and
the civil law of Islam and have spoken highly of Islamic laws as a progressive
series of laws, and they have draw attention to and commended the living
character and enduring nature of this religion and its ability to adapt its laws
to the advance of time.

Bernard Shaw, the great English liberal writer said:

“I have always had the greatest respect for the religion of Muhammad on account
of its extraordinary quality of staying lively. In my opinion, Islam is the only
religion which has the ability to harmonize and exert its control over differing
circumstances and changing ways of life, and to confront the diversities of the

“Thus I predict, and already the signs can be seen, that tomorrow the Faith of
Muhammad will become quite accepted in Europe.”

“The theologians of the Middle Ages drew a dark picture of the religion of
Muhammad, as a result of their ignorance and prejudices. Because of their malice
and fanaticism, he seemed, in their eyes, to be against Christianity. I have
read extensively about this man, this extraordinary man, and I have come to the
conclusion not only that was he not against Chiristianity, but that he should he
called the saviour of mankind. I believe that if such a man as he was to be in
charge of the present day world, he would manage to solve the problems and
difficulties of the world in such a way that he would ensure the ideal peace and
happiness of humanity.”

Dr. Shibli Shumayyil, a Lebanese Arab, professes materialism. He translated the
Origin of the Species of Darwin into Arabic for the first time together with the
commentary of the German, Buchner, as an appendix, to serve as a weapon against
religious beliefs, and he brought it within the reach of Arabic speaking people.

In spite of his being a materialist, he could not restrain himself from admiring
and praising Islam and had no reservation about acknowledging its greatness. He
always spoke highly of it as a living religion and of its ability to adapt to
the times.

In the second volume of his ‘Philosophy of Evolution and Progress” (Falsafatu’n-nushu’
wa’l-irtiqa’), which he published in Arabic, he wrote an article under the title
“The Qur’an and Prosperity. (al-Qur’an wa’1- umran) in refutation of an article
by a non-Muslim who had travelled in Islamic countries and had put the blame of
the decline of the Muslim’s onto Islam.

Dr. Shibli Shumayyil diligently showed in this article that the cause of the
decline of Muslims was their deviation from the social teachings of Islam and
not Islam itself. He expressed his view that that section of westerners, who
attack Islam, either do not understand Islam or else have malicious motives and
want to make people in the east cynical towards the laws and prescriptions
which, anyway, have disappeared from among them, and thus fix the yoke of
subservience around their necks.

In our own times, his question of whether Islam can adapt to the demands of the
age, is very commonly asked. I myself have come into contact with different
classes of people and especially with those who are educated and well-travelled.
I have found no other matter involved to such a degree in controversy.

Confused Thinking

They sometimes give their questions a philosophic tinge and say that everything
in this world is subject to change. Nothing is immutable and fixed. Human
society is not an exception to that rule, so how is it possible that a series of
social laws can remain always unchanged.

If we attend only to the philosophic aspect of the question, the answer is
evident. A thing which is always changing is at one time new and then becomes
old. It grows and then decays. It progress and develops, just as the things of
this world and its material composites. But the laws of nature are constant. The
living organism, for example, has developed and is developing according to a,
particular law and scientists have described this law of evolution: living
organisms are themselves continually undergoing change and evolving.

But what about the laws of change and evolution? Of course, the laws of change
and evolution do not change and do not evolve, and we mean the laws themselves.
It makes no difference whether the law in question is a natural law, or a
derived or man-made law, because it is entirely possible for a derived or
man-made law to be derived from nature and the order of things and for that
which determines the direction evolution takes to be individuals or human social

However, the questions that are put in connection with the adaptability or
non-adaptability of Islam to the demands of the times do not only have a general
or philosophic aspect. The question which is repeated more often than any other
is that since laws are made according to needs and since a human being’s social
needs are not fixed and unchanging, social laws cannot be fixed and unchanging.

This one is a very good and valuable question. Incidentally one of the
miraculous aspects of the sure religion of Islam, on account of which every
intelligent and sagacious Muslim has a sense of pride and honour, is the fact
that Islam will regard to unchanging needs of the individual or society
envisages unchanging laws, but that in the case of temporary and changing needs
it conceives of a changing attitude. We shall, with the help of Allah, comment
on this to the extend that this series of articles permits.

What Does Time Itself Conform To?

However, we think it necessary to mention two things before we start discussing
this matter. One of them is that most of those people who talk of progress,
evolution and change in the present circumstances think that every change that
takes place in social conditions, especially when it originates in the west
should be counted as evolution and progress; and this is the most misleading
idea that has taken hold of people today.

According to these people, because the amenities and conveniences of life change
day by day, because the more perfect replaces the more defective and because
knowledge and technology is in a state of advancement, all the changes that take
place in the life of men are a kind of progress and development, and should be
welcomed. For it is the momentum of time and, like it or not, it is bound to
have its way.

As a matter of fact, neither are all changes the direct result of knowledge and
technology, nor is there any necessity or momentum at work. Although knowledge
is in a state of progress, the capricious, rapacious nature of man is not idle.
Knowledge and the intellect guide man towards perfection, and the capricious,
racious nature of man tries to drag him towards decomposition and deviance. His
capricious and rapacious nature is continually trying to turn knowledge into a
tool for itself, and to make use of it for the attainment of its carnal and
animal appetites.

Time has within it decomposition and deviance in the tune way as it has within
it progress and evolution. One should advance with the progress of time, but
also struggle against decomposition and deviance of time. Both reform and
reaction rise up against of time, with the difference that reform takes a stand
against the corruption of time and reaction stands in the way if the progress of
time. If we consider time and its changes as the final criteria of good and
evil, then with what standard can we measure time itself and its changes? If
everything has to adapt to time, to what is time to adapt? If man is helplessly
dependent on time and its changes, what is the role of the activity,
creativeness, and constructiveness of man’s will?

Man steps aboard the vehicle of time while the vehicle is in motion. He should
not neglect the stearing and control of that vehicle even for a moment. Those
who talk much about the changes of time and neglect to steer and control it have
forgotten the role of the effectiveness of man, and are like the rider of a
horse who has put himself under the control of the horse.

Adaptation or Abrogation?

The second point which has to be mentioned here is that some people have solved
the difficulty of Islam and the demands of the times by means of a very simple
and easy formula. They say that Islam is an eternal religion and is adaptable to
any age and any time. But we want to know how that adaptation is to be brought
about and what that formula is. They reply: “Once we see that the temporal
circumstances have changed, we forth with abolish the existing laws and
establish other laws in their place.”

The writer of the forty proposals has solved this difficulty in the same manner.
He says that the worldly laws of religion should be supple and flexible and
should be in harmony and conformity with the progress of knowledge, learning and
the spread of civilization. And such mildness, flexibility and adaptability with
the demands of time is not only not against the lofty teachings of Islam, but is
exactly in conformity with its spirit. (Zan-e ruz, no.90, p.75)

The said author writes before and after the above sentences that because the
demands of the times undergo change, because every age demands new laws, and
because the civil and social laws of Islam are in accord with the simple life of
the Arabs of the jahiliyyah (pre-Islamic times), and are frequently the actual
customs and traditions of pre-Islamic Arabs and do not conform with the present
age, it is necessary that other laws should be passed today in place of these

People with such views should be asked how it is that if the meaning of the
conformability of a law with the exigencies of a particular age is its capacity
for abrogation, this law does not have that suppleness and flexibility; why is
this law not conformable to a particular age.

This justification of the suppleness and adaptability of Islam to the times can
be compared to a man who says that books and a library are the best source of
pleasures in life. When he is asked to explain himself he says because any time
he wants to enjoy himself a man can immediately sell the books and spend the
money, thus acquired, on having a good time.

This author says that the teachings of Islam are of three kinds. The first kind
are the principles of belief, such as belief in, tawhid (the Oneness of God),
the Resurrection, etc The second kind consists of worship such as the
preparation and performance of prayer, fasting, purification, cleanliness and
the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), etc, and the third kind consists of the laws
which are relevant to people’s lives.

The first and the second kinds are a part of religion, and the things which the
people should always observe are these very matters. But the third kind is not a
part of religion. Because religion does not have anything to do with people’s
lives, and the Prophet did not bring these laws on the grounds that they were a
part of religion and related to the obligations of the Message. But, since the
Prophet was, the incidentally, the man in charge, he had to deal with these
matters also. Otherwise, the function of religion is only to lead people to
worship, prayer and fasting. What has religion go to do with the life of this

I cannot imagine that someone can live in an Islamic country and be so ignorant
of the rationale of Islam?

Has the Qur’an not stated the purpose of sending the Prophets and Messengers?
Has the Qur’an not most explicitly stated:
“Indeed, we sent our messengers with the clear signs, and we sent down with them
the Book and the Balance so that men might uphold justice….” (57:25)

The Qur’an mentions social justice as a fundamental aim of all Prophets.

If someone does not wish to act according to the Qur’an, why should he commit a
bigger sin and denigrate Islam and the Qur’an? Most of the misfortunes that have
befallen men these days are for this very reason that men have given up the
unique support and backing of the very ethics and laws which are religion.

For about fifty years, we have been listening to the song that Islam is quite
alright provided it is limited to the mosques and places of worship and does not
concern itself with social matters. This song was composed beyond the borders of
the Islamic countries, but has been broadcast in all of them. Let me explain
this sentence in an easier language so that I can point out the real purpose of
the original composers.

The real meaning, briefly, is that as long as Islam stands in the way of and
holds back communism it should exist, but when it has an effect on and clashes
with the interests of the west it should cease to exist. The prescribed worship
of Islam, the view of westerners, should remain, so that when necessity arises
people may be aroused against communism on the excuse of its being a atheistic,
ungodly system.

However, the social laws must go, because they are the philosophy of life of
Muslim people, and because of them Muslims have a feeling of independence and
individuality in face of the people of the west, and become difficult to digest
in the west’s voracious appetite.
Unfortunately those who originated this idea are victims to a great

Firstly, it is now fourteen centuries since the Qur’an discredited those who

(..we believe in some of it and disbelieve in some.. (The Holy Qur’an) It has
announced that dividing up the prescriptions of Islam is unacceptable.
Secondly I think that the time has now come for Muslims to refuse to be taken in
by these deceptions. The critical sense of the people has been more or less
awakened, and gradually they will begin to discriminate between the appearance
of progress and development which is the product of the power of human knowledge
and thought on the one hand, and, and the appearance of corruption and decay on
the other, irrespective of whether it originates in the west or not.

The people of Islamic countries have more than before realized the value of
Islamic teachings and have appreciated what a unique, self-sufficient philosophy
of life Islam and its prescriptions represent, and they will at no cost abandon

Muslims have realized that the propaganda campaign against Islamic laws is
nothing but a colonial ruse.

Thirdly, those who initiated this idea should know that Islam, when in power,
can confront any atheistic or non atheistic system and is able to govern a
society with a philosophy of life, and it does not need confine itself to
mosques and places of worship. If they wish Islam to be imprisoned in places of
worship and thus clear the ground for western ways of thought, there is every
likelihood of the ground being cleared for other ideologies that are against the
western way of thinking.

The fact that the West is today being attacked in some Islamic countries is the
fruit of this very mistake.

Man is not the only living creature who lives a gregarious life. Many animals,
especially insects, have a social life. They follow series of fixed rule and a
wise, disciplined mode of life. The principles of mutual help, division of
labour, production and distribution, command and obedience, order and compliance
are in force in their social groups.

Bees and some ants and termites have been favoured with a civilization,
discipline and organization which human beings, who consider themselves the
noblest of creatures, would take years if not centuries to catch up with.

Their civilization, unlike human civilization, did not pass through eras such as
the primitive jungle period, the Stone Age, the Iron Age and the nuclear age.
They attained the same civilization and organization that they at present have
on the day they were brought into existence on this earth, and no change has
occurred in their condition. It is only the human being, whose life, according
to the Qur’an:

(..and the man was created weak… Qur’an 4:28) begins from zero and moves forward
without stop.

For animals, the exigencies of the times are always the same, and do not further
disturb their lives. For them the desire for modernization and a love for what
is new has no meaning. The new world and the old world do not exist. Science
does not make new discoveries for them every day, and does not upset the pattern
of their lives. Light and heavy technologies do not invade their market every
day with new and better products. Why? Because they live by instinct and not by

Man on the other hand, is different. His social life is always subject to change
and transformation. Every century the world changes for man. The secret of man’s
being the noblest of creatures also lies in this. Man is a fully-grown and
mature son of nature. He is created with the state and the capacity of not
having to stand in need of the direct guidance and protection of nature, nor of
that mysterious power called instinct. He lives by intellect and not by

Nature has acknowledged human beings as being mature in mind and has left them
as independent beings and withdrawn its direct control from them. All that an
animal can do according to instinct and under the influence of untransgressable
natural laws, must be done by a human being with the power of the intellect,
through knowledge and according to positive laws and the shari’ah which it is
possible to disobey. The root-cause of all the corruption and waywardness
perpetrated by human beings in the course of progress and development, of
decline, degeneration, collapse and destruction also lies here.

Just as the roads of progress and development are open for human beings, so also
are the roads of corruptions and deterioration not closed for them.
Human beings have been given the status of carrying upon their shoulders, in the
words of the Qur’an, the burden of trust which the skies, the earth, and the
mountains could not bear. In other words, human beings consented to live an
independent life and accepted the responsibility of duty and laws. By that very
account they cannot be immune from transgression, ignorance, self-aggrandizement
and wrong doings.

In the same place where the Qur’an mentions the unique ability of human beings
to bear the burden of trust and responsibility, it goes on, without a pause, to
ascribe to them their tendency to be transgressors, and ignorant also.

These two possibilities in a human being, namely the possibility for development
and the possibility for decline, cannot be separated from each other. A human
being is not like an animal who, within his collective life, does not move a
step forwards nor a step backwards, neither moving to the right nor to the left.
There is in human life sometimes a move forwards and sometimes a move backwards,
and if there is movement and speed, there is also stopping and slowing-down. If
there is progress and development, there is also decay. If there is justice and
virtue there is also injustice, vice and degeneration. If there are
manifestations of knowledge and the intellect, there are indications of
ignorance and sensuality also.

There is always the possibility that the changes and new ideas and values that
spring up in a particular period may be disadvantageous and injurious for

Rigid People and Ignorant People

One of the characteristics of human beings is their tendency to go to extremes.
If a man has moderate views, he tries to separate changes of the first kind from
changes of the second kind. He tries to move forward in time with the power of
knowledge, initiative, endeavour and hard work. He tries to adapt himself to
manifestations of progress and advance in his age, and simultaneously tries to
cheek the mistaken directions taken in his times and refuses to conform to them.

However, it is unfortunately not always like this. There are two dangerous
diseases that always threaten man in this connection. These are: the disease of
inflexibility and conventionalism, and the disease of naivity and instability.
The consequence of the former disease is stagnation, stopping, and keeping back
from advance and development, while the consequence of the latter disease is
backsliding and taking the wrong direction.

A conventional, inflexible person hates everything that is new and accept
nothing but the old, while the naive, unstable person counts every newly
manifested thing as permissible in the name of a “necessity of the times” or
modernity and progress. An inflexible person considers every new thing to be a
corruption and a deviation, and the naive person counts each and every new thing
as ‘civilization’ and an extension of knowledge and learning.

An inflexible person does not distinguish between the kernel and the shell, the
means and the end. To him, religion has the responsibility of protecting ancient
traditions. In his view, the Qur’an was revealed for the purpose of stopping the
flow of time and nailing down the situation of the world exactly as it is.

In his view, the recitation of the last part of the Qur’an, writing with a red
pen, using a traditional box, taking ones bath in a traditional bath house,
eating with the hand, using oil-lamps for lighting, staying unlettered and
uneducated should all be preserved as religious observances. A naïve
progressivist on the other hand, wants to know even new fashion, and new idea
that has started in the west, and promptly follows them and calls them
modernization and requirements of the times.

Both the conventionalist and the naive progressivist agree in supposing that any
situation obtaining in times gone by was a part of religious commandments and
rites. The difference lies in this: the conventional person deduces the
conclusion that those rites ought to be maintained and preserved, and the
progressivist that religion is inextricably connected to the worship of the
past, love of fixedness and stagnation.

In the recent past the problem of incompatibility between science and religion
has been a subject of keen discussion and controversy among the people of the
west. The idea of incompatibility between science and religion arose basically
because of two reasons. One of them was that the church maintained that certain
matters of old science and philosophy were religious matters, and should, from
the religious point of view, be accepted as dogma and then scientific advances
showed these ideas to be wrong.

Besides that, it was also due to the fact that the sciences altogether altered
and reformed the pattern of life.

Religious conservatives wanted to bring the outward material form of life under
the rule of religion, just as they had done with philosophical matters, giving
them a religious tinge. The naive and the ignorant also thought that this was
the case, and imagined that religion viewed the material life of people as a
having a particular form and pattern. And when the material form of life had to
be changed according to the judgement of science, science proclaimed that
religion had been abrogated.

The inflexibility of the first group together with the ignorance of the second
brought about the illusory idea that science and religion were incompatible.

The Story in The Holy Qur’an

Islam is a religion which moves forward and carries forward. So as to remind
Muslims that they should always be in a state of growth, development and
evolution, but within the framework of Islam, the Qur’an compares the followers
of Muhammad (s.a.w.a) to a seed that is sown in the ground. That seed grows
forth in the form of a tiny tender leaf, and afterwards strengthens itself and
stands erect on its stem. It passes through stages with such speed and strength
that farmers are surprised and joyful over it.

This is an example for that society towards which the Qur’an points. Development
is one of those goals towards which the Qur’an directs. The Qur’an lays the
foundation of a society which is continuously in a state of growth, extension,
dilation and expansion.

Will Durant said that no religion has called its followers with such strength as
Islam has done. The history of the advent of Islam shows how vigorous and strong
Islam was in establishing society anew and making it progress.

It is against both inflexible conservatism and ignorant naivity.

The danger which threatens Islam comes both from the region of the first group
and from the region of the latter group The conservatives, the inflexibly
minded, and those who like to show that every old thing belongs to Islam, when,
in fact, it may have no connection with the pure religion of Islam, have given
the naive progressivists an excuse to count Islam against development in its
true sense.

On the other hand, the imitation, fashion-worshipping, and aping of the west,
and the belief that the prosperity of eastern people lies in their being
physically and spiritually, outwardly and inwardly, westernized, gives the naive
people the idea that they should take on all of the customs, manners and
traditions of the west, that the civil and social laws should all be made to
conform to western laws. They make the conservative group look pessimistically
at every thing new and consider it a danger for their religion, their
independence and their national and social status.

In the middle of all this, it is Islam that can amend the mistake of both
groups. The attitude of the conservatives gives good cause for the assaults and
attacks of the progressivists, and the stupidities of the progressivists make
the conservatives all the more adamant. It is strange that the apparently
civilized progressivists suppose that time cannot produce mistakes and errors.
Do they think that the changes of time are brought about not by man but by some
other being? Since when and from what date has mankind become entirely
infallible and thus made the changes of time free from any error or mistake?

Just as man makes new discoveries in every age for the benefit of humanity under
the influence of his scientific, moral, aesthetic and religious inclinations, so
he is also under the influence of his egotism, ambition, sensuality and greed
for wealth and exploitation. Just as man is successful in making new inventions
and finding out better ways and means of living, he is also, from time to time
liable to make errors and mistakes. Any how, the self-centered progessivist does
not understand these words. He always repeats his cliche that the world today is
what it is.

What is even stranger is that these people think of the fundamentals of life in
the same way they think of their shoes, hats and clothes. Just as shoes and hats
are once new and then become worn out and have value when new and just out of
the factory and must be purchased then, but must be caste away when they are
old, so all the realities of the universe are like this. The idea of these naive
progressivists in respect of the good and bad of a thing is nothing except its
being new or old.

According of them feudalism, that is to say, some powerful man unlawfully and
forcibly calling himself a master, establishing himself comfortably while
hundreds of hands work in order to feed that mouth, is bad, not in itself, but
because it has now become out-dated and the world today does not accept it. Its
time is no more, and now it is considered as obsolete. Naturally, at the
beginning, when such a thing first appeared and was brand-new on the world
market, it was good.

According to them, it is bad to exploit women because the world today no longer
approves of it and does not tolerate it but yesterday, when the world did not
acknowledge the right of inheritance for women did not accept their right of
ownership and did not pay any heed to their opinion and views, that too was once
new, and had then come newly into the market.

According to people like them, because this age is the space age and it is
therefore impossible to abandon the aeroplane and ride a mule, to ignore
electricity and light an oil lamp, to disregard large spinning mills and use a
hand spinning wheel, to torn, a blind eye on giant printing machine and write by
hand, so also it is impossible to avoid dances, not to take part in bathing and
picnic parties, not to get drunk and cavort around, not to play poker, not to
wear skirts above the knees, because all these things are the phenomena
belonging to the modern age. If these things are not done, it would mean a
return to the age of mule-riding.

How many individuals have been ruined and what countless number of families have
been wrecked by the phrase “the signs of the times”.
They say it is the age of science, the era of the atom, the age of the
satellite, and the epoch of rockets. Very well, we also thank Allah that we live
in this age and time and in this epoch and era and wish that we may increasingly
and in a better way take advantage and derive benefit from science and art. Not
withstanding that, a question arises — have all the other incentives and
motivating factors become dried up except the fountain head of knowledge? Are
all the phenomena of this century the result of nothing but scientific progress?
Does science claim that the nature of the individual scientist has been
completely subjugated, made obedient and humanised?

Science does not make such a claim for the individual scientist, and that is why
a group of scientists and scholars can undertake research and make discoveries
with the utmost purity and sincerity of purpose, while groups of power-hungry,
ambitious and money-worshipping people employ the results of their scientific
labour to attain their nefarious purposes. The loud complaint of science is
always that it has become the object of exploitation by man’s unrulv nature. The
preoccupation and misfortune of our age is this very thing.

Science takes a step forward in the field of physics and discovers the laws of
light, but a group of profiteers make the same discovery a means to make films
with unforeseebly destructive results. The science of chemistry advances, and
finds out how to make new compounds, whereupon some people begin to think how to
profit from this advance and cook up a catastrophe for the human soul and call
it heroin. Science finds its way to the heart of the atom, and harness its
wonderful power, but before any plans for its use for the betterment of humanity
could be made, the power-hungry men of the world manufactured bombs from it and
then dropped them on innocent people.

When a celebration was held in honour of Einstein, the great scholar of the 20th
century, he himself mounted the rostrum and said, “In whose honour are you going
to hold this celebration — one whose talents have been the source for the
preparation of the atom bomb?”

Einstein did not use his intellectual power for the preparation of a bomb, but
the ambitions of another group did exploit his genius.

Heroin, the atom bomb, this or that kind of film can never be accepted just
because they are “signs of the time”. If the most perfect bomb were to be
dropped by the most ingenious array of instruments by a model pilot on innocent
people, the savagery of the act would not be lessened in the least.
The main argument of the people who say that in family duties we should follow
western patterns is that time, and, with it, social values have changed, and the
exigencies of the twentieth century demand that we follow them. Thus if we do
not make our view regarding this point clear, our further discussions will be

If we were to undertake a full and thorough discussion of this question, there
would not be enough space in this series of articles, because many aspects need
to be dealt with and examined. Some of them are philosophical, some to do with
religious jurisprudence, and others moral and social. I hope to be able to
discuss those points in detail in a book, Islam and the Exigencies of the Modern
Age, which I intend to write. The preparatory notes are ready, and I shall
examine the material in detail and present it before those interested.
At present, it will be enough to clarify two points:

Firstly, keeping up with the times is not as simple a matter as these
ill-informed claimants imagine, and as they repeat with their clichés. With
time, there is both progress and going astray. One should move forward according
to the advance of time, but fight against being led astray by time. To
discriminate between the two one should look to see from which origins new
phenomena and currents rise forth, and in what direction they flow.
It must be determined from which of the drives and urges of man’s existence they
have sprung, and from which of his social groupings. Does the change arise from
the higher, human drives of man; or from his lower, animal urges? Have men of
knowledge and science and their selfless study brought about these changes; or
have the indulgence status seeking and desire for wealth of the corrupt strata
of society? These matters have been fully explained in the preceding two

The secret of the dynamism and flexibility of Islamic law

Another matter which should be made clear is that Islamic thinkers believe that
within Islam there is a enigmatic secret which enables this religion to adapt to
and improve according to the advance of time. They believe that this religion is
in harmony with the forward movement of time, with the development of learning,
and with the changes that arise from such development.

Now we must see what this secret is. In other words, we have to look into the
“nuts and bolts” that went into the making of this religion and which have given
it that quality of dynamism which has enabled it to remain in harmony with the
changing circumstances arising from advances in knowledge and learning without
needing to put aside any of its precepts, and without any contradiction arising
among them. What is this enigma?
This is the matter which will be explained in this article.

Some of my readers will be aware of what I myself, more than anybody else, am
conscious of, that this subject has a technical and specialized aspect, and that
it should only be discuss with specialists.

However, seeing that there are many pessimists among those who have inquired
from us and among those people with whom we have come into contact who are
concerned about this matter, and having understood that they are unaware that
Islam has such a special quality, we will enter into this subject only to such
an extent as to relieve the pessimists of the pessimism and to give others and
example of dynamism within Islam.

The respected readers may consult the excellent book Tanbihu’l-ummah (A Warning
for the People) compiled by the late Ayatullah Nai’ini [1], and a very valuable
article Vilayat va za’amat (Guardianship and Authority) by the great
contemporary scholar Allamah Tabatabai [2] which is published in the book
Maraja’iyyat va ruhaniyyat (The Ulama’ and Reference to Religious Authority)
[3], to see that discussions of this kind of problem have not been ignored by
the leading scholars of Islam. Both the books are in the Persian language.

There are number of factors which contribute to the secret of how the pure
religion of Islam, with the fixed and unchanging laws that it has, can
accommodate the development of civilization and culture, and can remain in
conformity with the changing patterns of life, and we shall explain some of

Attention to essence and meaning as opposed to shape and form:

1. Islam has not meddled with the outward pattern and form of life, which is
wholly dependent upon the standard of human knowledge. Islamic instructions are
concerned with the spirit, meaning and aim of life and the best course that a
man should adopt to attain that final aim. Knowledge neither alters the aim and
spirit of life nor directs to a better, shorter and safer route to attain the
aims of life. Knowledge always places in the power of man better and more
perfect resources for attaining the aims of life and for traversing the route to
reach an attain those aims.

Islam by keeping the aims under its own authority, and by giving over the forms,
models and tools to the realm of knowledge and skill, has kept away from all
conflict with the development of culture and civilization. Furthermore, by
encouraging the factors which develop culture and civilization, that is,
science, labour, piety, determination, courage and perseverance, Islam has
itself guaranteed the fundamental practical ground plan for the development of

Islam has set up in along the path of mankind. On the one hand, these indicators
point towards the right course and the right destination, and, on the other
hand, they warn the dangerous signs of deviation and decline. All Islamic
injunctions consist either of the first kind of indicators, or the caution
signals of the second kind.

The ways and means of life in every age depend upon the level of information and
knowledge of man. By force of time and circumstances, the more man’s information
and knowledge increases, the more the means of life are perfected, and the more
they replace comparatively defective means.
In Islam, no one single means, and no one particular external or material form
can be found that has an aspect of ‘holiness’ in it, so that a Muslim could
consider himself constrained to retain that means or form for ever.

Islam did not specify that tailoring, weaving, agriculture, transport, war or
any other activity should be carried out using such and such means, so that when
that means became obsolete due to an advance in knowledge there could arise an
antagonism and a conflict between science and the dictates of Islam.

Neither has Islam given any special instructions regarding shoes or clothes, or
determined that a building should be made with stone or steel, or that
particular kinds of apparatus should be manufactured and distributed. This is
one of the reasons why the job of conforming this religion to temporal progress
has been easy. A permanent law for a permanent requirement, and a variable law
for a varying requirement:

2. One of the other peculiarities of the Islamic religion which has much
importance is that it has ordained permanent laws for permanent human
requirements, and has maintained a changing attitude towards varying
requirements. Some requirements, which may be personal, individual, general or
social, are unchanging and permanent. They are the same for over. The discipline
that human beings maintain in respect of their instinctive urges, and the
discipline that they establish for their society is, as a general rule, always
the same.

I am conversant with the concept of ethical relativity and with the idea of the
relativeness of justice, and I am aware of the fact that there are people who
uphold these ideas, therefore, I shall make known my point of view to these

Another section of human requirements comprise varying human needs which call
for varying and non-permanent laws. Islam has kept in mind a variable position
with respect to these varying needs, by means of linking the varying conditions
with invariable and stable principles. These invariable principles create
particular auxiliary laws for each changing condition.

I cannot expand upon this point any further in this article except that I shall
try to clarify the point in the minds of my respected readers by means of a few

And prepare against them whatever force you can. (Qur’an.8:60)

i.e., ‘O Muslim! Prepare force against the enemy to the furthest possible
extent. Apart from this, in the traditions of the Prophet there is a series of
commands which has been handed down, and which is collected together in Islamic
law under the title of ‘horse-racing and archery’.

There are commands that you yourself and your sons should learn the arts of
horse-riding and archery to a degree of complete proficiency, Horse-riding and
archery were a section of the martial arts in those days. It is quite evident
that the origin and the basis of the command about horse-riding and archery is
the principle: And prepare against them whatever force you can. This means that
the arrow, the sword, the spell, the bow, the mule and the horse are not
fundamental in themselves in the eyes of Islam: the basic point is to be strong
enough. The thing that has real importance is that Muslims in every period of
history and in every age, should do their utmost to strengthen themselves with
regard to military and defense forces against the enemy.

The necessity of being proficient in archery and horsemanship is an expression
in which to cloth the necessity of being powerful. In other words it is the
practical or executive form of the latter. The necessity of strength against the
enemy is a permanent law which originates from a permanent and constant

However, the requirement of proficiency in archery and horsemanship is a
manifestation of a changing necessity linked to time and it changes according to
the age and the times. With changes in the conditions of civilization, other
things such as the preparation of up-to-date weapons, and proficiency and
specialization in their use, take the place of that necessity.

Another example: another social principle has been laid down in the Qur’an,
which concerns the exchange of wealth. Islam acknowledges an individual’s right
of ownership. No doubt there are vast differences between what Islam permits in
the name of ownership and what is going on in this regard in the capitalist
world, but there is no occasion here to discuss these points. The essential
condition of an individual’s ownership is exchange.
Islam has laid down principles to do with exchange: one of which is:

Do not consume your wealth amongst yourselves in vain, (Qur’an, 2:188). This
means that the property and wealth which passes from one person to another,
which leaves the possession of the producer and the person has the prior
authority over it and falls to another person and then to a third person, should
always be in return for lawful profit, which should accrue to the previous
owner. The passing of wealth from hand to hand without a return that may be
human valuable for the owner is prohibited. Islam does not consider ownership as
an absolute right of control.

Besides that, it is made clear in the precepts of Islam that the sale and
purchase of certain things, including blood and human excrement, is forbidden.
Why is that so? For the simple reason that the blood of man or a sheep cannot be
put to any useful purpose and cannot be considered a useful commodity and a part
of human wealth. The root cause of the prohibition of blood and human excrement
is the principle of : Do not consume your wealth amongst yourselves in vain; the
prohibition of the sale and purchase of these particular things is not the

The basic thing is that exchange of only those things which are of any human use
should take place. The forbidding of the exchange of things like blood and human
feces is merely an example of the prohibition of futile exchanges of wealth. In
other words, it is a mere practical expression for the basic principle laid down
in the words: Do not consume your wealth amongst yourselves in vain. Moreover,
if there is no occasion for exchange, no wealth can be appropriated from another
in Vain and put to use.

This principle is invariable for all times and is based upon a general and
constant human necessity but the fact that blood and human faeces do not
constitute wealth and are not exchangeable depends upon the times, the
historical period, the level of civilization, the change in the conditions and
advancement of knowledge, upon industry and the possibilities of right and
profitable utilization of these things. These factors may bring about
alterations in the law.

Another example: Amir al –mu’minin’ Ali ( a.s) in the latter years of his life,
did not dye his hair in spite of the fact that it has become white. His beard
was white as well. Some person asked him whether the Prophet had not given a
command to dye white hair. He replied, “Yes, he did”. The man asked why, then,
he did not dye his hair.

‘Ali replied that when the Prophet had given these instructions Muslims were few
in number, and amongst them there was a number of old people who used to take
part in the battles. When the enemy looked at the ranks of Muslim warriors and
saw the white-haired old men, they worked up courage and became self-confident
from the fact that their opponents were a lot of old men.

The Prophet issued an order that old men should dye their hair so that the enemy
should not realize that they were old. Then Ali told the man that the Prophet
issued the order when the Muslims had been few in number and it had been
necessary that a stratagem like that should be adopted. But in the time of ‘Ali,
when Islam had spread throughout the land, it was no longer necessary to carry
on these practices. Everybody was free to dye or not to dye his hair.

In the view of Ali (a.s.), the commandment of the Prophet that Muslims should
dye their hair was not the basic principle. The object of the commandment was
something else. This was, so to say, the outer form in which the basic and the
fundamental law was clothed. The purpose was to prevent the enemy from being
bold in spirit or full of hope.

Islam attaches importance both to the form, the external appearance and the
outer “covering”, and also to the spirit, the inner meaning and the heart of the
matter, but always seeks that the form and the outward appearance, the
“covering” should agree with the spirit and inner meaning, the “heart”. It puts
a shell round the kernel, and clothing on the body.

The Question of Change of Script

There is presently under discussion in our country the question of changing the
script. This matter requires to be examined closely from the linguistic and
literary angle of the Persian language, as well as from the perspective of
Islamic principles. From the Islamic perspective this proposition can be dealt
with in two ways, Firstly, it is to be seen whether Islam has some particular
alphabet; whether it distinguishes between different alphabets; whether Islam
considers our present alphabet, which is the Arabic alphabet, its own, and
considers other alphabets like the Latin alphabet as foreign alphabets. It is
certainly not so. In the eyes of Islam, which is a universal religion, all
alphabets are equal.
The other aspect of the proposition concerns the result that the change of
alphabet and script would have on Muslim society as regards its being merged
into, absorbed and swallowed up by societies alien to it? What would be the
result of severing the intimate ties of association of this nation with its
cultural heritage which has, at any rate, written all its Islamic and scientific
literature in this very alphabet for as long as fourteen centuries? Apart from
that, the question arises as to who suggested this plan for changing the script,
and who would enforce it? This is what needs to be investigated.

It does not matter what you wear, as long as you do not imitate slavishly:

People like me are sometimes confronted by questions that are asked in an
attempt to belittle and ridicule. What does the shari’ah say about eating while
standing? What about eating with cutlery ? Is it forbidden to put on a hat? Is
the speaking of foreign language prohibited?
In reply to these questions I say that Islam did not issue, hard and fast orders
regarding these matters. Islam did not lay down whether food should be taken
with the hand or with a spoon. Islam has, however, directed that cleanliness be
maintained. Regarding shoes hats and dress, Islam has not specifically mentioned
any particular fashion. In the eyes of Islam the English, Japanese and Persian
languages are each as good as the others.
However, Islam has said something else. It is forbidden to willfully destroy a
particular speech form. It is forbidden to be intimidated by others. It is
forbidden to imitate blindly. It is forbidden to be absorbed and swallowed up by
others. It is forbidden to be bewitched by others, like a small animal
mesmerized by a snake. It is forbidden to soak up the aberrations and
misfortunes of others in the name of “moving with the times”. It is forbidden to
believe that an Iranian must become bodily, spiritually, inwardly and outwardly
a European. It is forbidden to spend a weekend in Europe and then pronounce
everything in French accent. [4]

The question of “ahamm wa muhimm” (that which is more important and that which
is significant)

3. Another aspect which provides Islam with the possibility of adapting to the
requirements of the times, is the rational aspect of this religion. Islam has
given its followers to understand that all its commands arise from a series of
supreme exigencies; and, what is more, Islam has established the degree of
importance of these exigencies. This consideration has facilitated the task of
knowing the reality of Islam in cases where diverse exigencies find themselves
in conflict with each other.

Islam has permitted that, in these circumstances those who are deeply acquainted
with Islam should determine the degree of importance of the exigencies, and
select the more pressing exigencies, always in accordance with the guidelines
set down by Islam itself. The fuqaha’ (jurisconsults) call this principle ahamm
wa muhimm (lit. “that which is more important and that which is significant”).
Here also I could give many examples, but I shall refrain from doing so.

Laws with the right of ‘veto’:

4. Another consideration which has given this religion the property of mobility
and adaptability, and gives it eternal life, is that there is a series of
principles and laws incorporated into this religion whose function is to control
and harmonise the other laws. The fuqaha’ call these rules al-qawai’du
‘l-hakimah (governing principle) such as the principle of ‘la haraj (“no blame”)
and la darar, (“no harm”) [5] which have authority throughout fiqh (Islamic
jurisprudence). The purpose of this series of principles is to control and
harmonize the other laws. In fact, Islam has acknowledged these principles as
having the right of veto over all laws and precepts. This subject has an
extensive history into which I cannot enter here.

The Governing Authority

Besides what has already been mentioned, another series of “nuts and bolts” are
also used in the structure of the pure religion of Islam which have endowed it
with the property of perpetuity and its position as the last religion. The late
Ayatullah Na’ini and ‘Allamah Tabatabai [6] have, in this respect, laid great
emphasis on the authority which Islam has conferred on a competent Islamic

The fundamental of ijtihad:

The Pakistani thinker, Iqbal, has said that ijtihad [7] is the motive force of
Islam. This is, no doubt right, but the main point is the ability of Islam to
support ijtihad. If there were anything in the place of Islam, we would see how
difficult the task of ijtihad would be. For then, the way to ijtihad would be
blocked. The main point is the hidden secrets which have been employed in this
amazing divine religion, so that in this way it has been given the property of
harmonization with the advance of civilization.

Ibn Sina, in his book ash-Shifa’, sets forth the necessity of ijtihad on the
same basis. He says that since temporal conditions change and new problems are
continuously coming to the fore, and since on the other hand, the general
principles of Islam are permanent and unchanging it is necessary that in every
age and in every period there should be persons who have complete knowledge and
acquaintance with Islamic matters, and who can be the answerers to the needs of
Muslims with attention towards the new problems that come forward in every age.
In the supplement of the Constitutional Law of Iran such an anticipation has a
been made, that in every age a body of not less than, five mujtahids who are
also “conversant with the requirements of the times”, shall watch over the laws
which are passed. The intention of the writers of this clause was that persons
who are neither ‘reactionary’ nor ‘ignorant progressivists’ Who are neither
against the advances of the era, nor subservient to or followers of others,
should watch over the laws of the State.

The point which must be remembered is that ijtihad, as the word really
signifies, means specialization and expertise in the science of Islamic affairs.
It is not the kind of thing that every educational “drop-out” can claim merely
on the basis of having spent a few days in one of the centres of Islamic

In order to specialize in Islamic matters and to be competent to pronounce one’s
own opinion, entire life-time, provided it is not short, is decidedly not too
long. That, too with the condition that the person is endowed with the liking
for it, a certain powerful genius and is finally completely graced with the
favours of Allah.

Apart from specialization and ijtihad, certain persons can be recognized as
authorities for their viewpoints and opinions who are at the pinnacle of piety,
and knowledge and fear of God. The history of Islam can show persons who, with
complete scientific and moral competence, used to tremble like willows when they
intended to express their opinions.

I apologize to my worthy readers that the diversion in this topic has reached
such a great length.


[1] Muhammad Husayn ibn ‘Abd ar-Rahim an-Na’ini (1277/1860- 1355/1936) one of
the great recent teachers of an-Najaf al-Ashraf. (Iraq).

[2] Allamah Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba’i (1321/1904-1402/1981) one of most
renowned contemporary scholars of Islam, now living in Qum. Author of the great
commentary on the Qur’an, Al-Mizan, and Shi’ah dar Islam (translated in English
by Dr. Sayyid Husayn Nasr as Shi’ite Islam) he is a master of both the sciences
of Divine Law and the intellectual sciences, metaphysics and ‘irfan.

[3] An anthology of articles published following the death of the great marja’-e
taqlid Ayatullah Burujirdi (1380/1961).

[4] The actual text speaks of those who pronounce the Persian “r”(rather like a
Scottish rolled “r”) as if it were “gh” (the French gutteral “r”), which was an
affectation of Europeanized Iranians (Tr.)

[5] The principle of la haraj (no blame) is applied when excessive difficulty
would occur from the carrying out of an injunction in the shari’ah, and allows
the person concerned not to carry it out. The principle of la darar (no harm)
applies when the performance of an injunction would result in illness to the
person concerned, and likewise allows him or her to abstain from performing it.

[6] For both these see note # 2 under Islam and modernity (3)

[7] ijtihad is the exercising of independent judgement in Islamic jurisprudence
(fiqh). The person who exercises ijtihad is called a mujtahid. By his knowledge
of religious sciences and by virtue of his moral qualities, he has the right to
give new opinions (fatwa) on matters pertaining to the shari’ah. A marked
difference exists between Sunni Islam and Shi’ite Islam in the matters of
ijtihad, since in the former the “gate of ijtihad” has been closed since the 3rd
century A.H., while in the latter it is still open.

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