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Questioning Enlightenment: Social Consciousness Has to Be Preceded by Familial Unconsciousness

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While the old Islaamic discourse may have reflected a naive infatuation with Western civilisation, the bearers of a new way of thinking discovered a tainted modernity, embroiled in crises and questions of its own.

While the old Islaamic discourse may have reflected a naive infatuation with Western civilisation, the bearers of a new way of thinking discovered a tainted modernity, embroiled in crises and questions of its own.

Whereas partial secularism recognises the validity and importance of values on the moral level, and the idea of totality on the epistemological level, comprehensive secularism denies them, as it denies the very idea of transcendence. Many of the negative aspects of Western modernity, which were to become more or less recurrent patterns or central phenomena, were isolated events that could be overlooked easily. Furthermore, the Western critique of modernity and the Enlightenment had not yet crystallised, in spite of the fact that voices of protest were growing stronger.

Western Romantic literature, for instance, is in essence a protest against the negative aspects of Western modernity. The writings of some conservative Western thinkers, such as Edmund Burke, include references to many of the topics developed later by the Western critical discourse on modernity. Nevertheless, the shortcomings of modern Western civilisation, whether at the level of theory or of practice, were not yet obvious to observers or students of this civilisation.

For the bearers of the new Islaamic discourse, the situation is quite different. The ‘50s were the intellectual formative years of the majority; their first encounter with modern Western civilisation took place in the ‘60s, at a time when Western modernity had already entered the stage of crisis, and when many Western thinkers had begun to realise the dimensions of this crisis and the impasse Western modernity had reached.

The bearers of the new Islaamic discourse realised, from the very beginning, the darker aspects of Western modernity. It had embroiled the entire world in two Western wars, called “world wars” because the whole world was dragged into the arena of conflict. In time of “peace”, the world was caught up in a frenzied arms race.

The centralised nation-state, growing stronger and more authoritarian, expanded, reached the most private aspects of man’s life, and, through its sophisticated security and educational apparatus, tried to “guide” its citizens. The media, another by-product of Western modernity, invaded the private lives of citizens, accelerating the process of standardisation and escalating the consumerist fever. In the meantime, the pleasure sector became so powerful as to control people’s dreams, selling them erotic utopias if not pornography. The family as a social institution could not sustain the pressure; divorce rates sky-rocketed, reaching levels rarely witnessed before.

The crisis of meaning, the epistemological crisis, anomie, alienation and reification became more pronounced. The liberal capitalist project ceased to be a smashing success story; the socialist experiment collapsed and lost any vestige of credibility. Anti-humanist intellectual trends such as fascism, Nazism, Zionism and structuralism emerged, reaching a climax in post-modernist thought.

By the mid-’60s, the Western critique of modernity had crystallised, and the works of the Frankfurt School thinkers had become widely available and popular. Many studies critical of the age of the Enlightenment were published. Writing about the standardisation that resulted from Western modernity and its one-dimensional man, Herbert Marcuse sought to demonstrate the existence of a structural defect at the very heart of modern Western civilisation in its totality, a defect that goes beyond the traditional division of this civilisation into a socialist and a capitalist camp.

Many revisionist historians, rewriting the history of modern Western civilisation, tried to underscore the enormity of the crimes committed against the peoples of Asia and Africa and of the colonial pillage of their lands. Many studies, radically critical of development theories, appeared during the same period. The New Left movement made a significant contribution in this regard.

Thus, whether on the level of practice or that of theory, it was not difficult for the bearers of the new Islaamic discourse, those who studied Western modernity in the middle of the twentieth century, to recognise many of its shortcomings and to see it in its totality. It was no longer possible for them to experience a naive infatuation of the type experienced by the intellectuals of the first generation. The Western modernity they knew, experienced and studied was, in many aspects, different from the Western modernity known, experienced and studied by the pioneers’ generation.

Neither the new nor the old generation of Muslim intellectuals constructed their respective intellectual systems on the exclusive basis of the Islaamic world-view, however. Their interaction with Western modernity was a very important formative factor. After all, this was a civilisation that had acquired centrality by virtue of its economic and military accomplishments, put forward its own view of the world as if it were the view of all human beings at all times and in all places, conceived of its knowledge as a precise science applicable to all communities, and set the challenge to which everyone else had to respond.

Responses varied with the type of challenge and its intensity. The early reformists found many positive aspects in Western modernity. One may even go as far as suggesting that they were entranced by it. This is evident from Sheikh Mu’hammad ‘Abduh’s oft-quoted remark that “whereas in the West he found Muslims without Islaam, in the East he found Islaam without Muslims”. He meant that in the West, he found people who manifested in their conduct the ideals of Islaam, although they were not Muslims, whereas in the Muslim world, he found people who believed in Islaam, but belied their belief through their conduct.

Consequently, the fundamental issue for many of the bearers of the old Islaamic discourse was how to reconcile Islaam with Western modernity, and even how to bring Islaam up to date and up to par. This was the core of Mu’hammad ‘Abduh’s project, a project which continued to dominate until the mid-1960s of this century.

Abdelwahab Elmessiri -

Abdelwahab Elmessiri [‘Abd Alwahhaab Almiseery] is an Arab thinker and writer.Read More >>

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 January 2007 12:59  

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