The postmodern challenge to modernity manifests itself in two separate but equally devastating, forms. One is cultural and the other is philosophical (epistemological). On the cultural front, postmodern manifestations in the form of new social movements whether in art forms, politics or lifestyles, are joyously disrupting the neat order of things that reason had established in the heyday of modernity. On the epistemological front, postmodern incursions are subverting not only the foundations of truth, but also the possibility of ever establishing any truth claims.
Suddenly perversion is an alternate lifestyle. God-consciousness for long understood as enlightenment is now bigotry and an indicator of social underdevelopment. There is no absolute Truth only contingent truths. Morality is conventions that work and justice is an option that enjoys political support. The self is no more the mystical domain where the spiritual and mundane merge. Life is no more the discovery and the perfection of that self. Today self is something you buy of a shelf. Life is a careful compilation and continuous renovation of that self. Philosophy and revelation are no more the maps for self discovery, they have been displaced by catalogues, e-stores and home-shopping networks. Postmodern intrusions have systematically subverted and undermined every pillar of modern culture, turning it on its head and making it a parody of itself.
If the cultural assault of postmodernism is devastating, than its epistemological assault cannot be described as anything but as “writing the epitaph of modernity”. While modernity decenterred God and in its place crowned reason as the sovereign authority that alone determined the legitimacy of truth claims, postmodernity has chosen to dethrone not only reason but the very notion of authority and the very idea of truth.
How then in the postmodern vision will the project of civilization survive or progress? The answer is more than startling. All projects are illegitimate because they undermine competing projects and because it is power, not any intrinsic worth, that determines which project becomes the civilizational project. Progress is a myth. Without God, without reason, without a worldview, how do we live? The postmodern answer is let life itself find the way. So just live, “just do it” and life will lead you to life.
The prophets of postmodernity and their cohort have little to offer. Foucault says power is god. Derrida says dance to the sound as human civilization is deconstructed — god by god and idea by idea. Rorty says let life be guided by success, it does not matter if there is no intrinsic good in life or success. Habermas, the Don Quixote of modernity, dreams of a special reason — communicative rationality — that will be more reasonable than reason itself. He places the future of the self in understanding the other, while the other continues to plot the annihilation of the self.
This crisis of Truth can be comforting to none. The decline of the spiritual and moral dimensions of Western society increasingly suggest that a society which is gradually relinquishing the quest for truth may eventually have nothing to pursue. Freedom for Freedom’s sake has never sustained a civilization. It does not promise to make emends in the future either. Freedoms based on widely held truths have in the past generated great civilizations but never without essential foundations.
As a contemporary Islamic philosopher, living in the dusk of modernity and in the heart of the West, deeply nostalgic for a divinely ordained order of things which is consistent with reason and justice, full of compassion and mercy, I am fascinated by the systematic deconstruction of modernity by the very forces it engendered and unleashed upon itself. The normative structure of boundless freedom and a culture of irreverence that modernity has deliberately fostered to subvert God has now turned upon its creator.
Skepticism based on the assumed infallibility and universal sovereignty of reason was the constitutive character of modernity. It was designed to eliminate faith and re-channel Man’s inherent compulsion to submit and worship. New Gods and new traditions were invented, new prophets were proclaimed and new heavens were imagined. But religion has not only survived the five hundred year assault on God and his messages, but has returned with an increased fervor that baffles the postmodern being.
The postmodern being, whose heart without faith is empty and mind without reason is immature, can destroy the fragile foundations of modernity, ridicule the memories of tradition but can neither comprehend and nor deal with the postmodern resurgence of faith.
Those waging a losing battle for modernity against postmodernity reject the resurgence of faith as a return to backward premodernity. Their shortsightedness precludes them from imagining the resurgence of faith not as a return but as a leap forward.
For those who were always with God and comfortable with reason, in the tradition of Al Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun and Ibn Rushd, the resurgence of religion is merely the continuation of the divine way. Islam never succumbed either to modernity nor is losing out to postmodernity. Islam’s decline was geopolitical and economic, never epistemological. The entire musical chairs of authority, God, Reason, Conventions, Text, and Nothing, is Western and limited to those societies who have succumbed to the forces of modernism completely.
Islam was from the beginning comfortable with reason. Recognizing its immense potential and necessity but also remaining acutely cognizant of its limitation. The Al Ghazali-Ibn Rushd debate on the nature of causality is an excellent chronicle of Islam’s position on reason. Islam simultaneously recognized the absoluteness of Truth as well as the relativity of truth claims. For nearly 1300 years Muslims have believed in one sharia but recognized more than four different, competing and even contradictory articulations of this sharia (madhahib).
Islam has survived the experiment called modernity and will survive the bonfire (postmodernity) that is threatening to burn down the lab along with the experiment. There is sufficient play in terms of epistemological pluralism, whether it is recognition of the validity of different legal opinions based on different contexts or time or based on different discursive epistemes such as burhan– illumination, jadal–dialectics, and khatabah–rhetoric, that will allow Islam to negotiate postmodernity’s epistemological rampage.
Once the dust settles, there will be enough access to truth remaining to rebuild.