Religion, Change, and Modern Life*
|Prof. Dr. Ali Bardakoğlu|
|President of the Religious Affairs|
When discussing the topic of religion, change, and modern life, it is essential to discuss the nature of religions, as well as the relevancy of religion to the individual and the society. This is of particular importance in the case of Islam, as it has strong proposals and rules concerning humanly behaviors with regard to the degree of belief, worship and moral life. On the other hand, the relation of Islam with the social change and modern life, the influence of Islam on them or the shape that Islam gives them are closely related with the view of the universality and continuity of the religion.
Since the general and personal judgments with relation to the practical life of Islam had in a way existed in the main religious texts and also existed as a rational fact related to the historical circumstances and flow of life, these judgments were placed in the center of the religious arguments, especially during the times when serious social changes had taken place. When reaching this phase, the methodological arguments which deal with how religious judgments should be understood and interpreted according to time and place, in other words, the method of ijtihad (the process of making legal decision) which is used to establish the relation between the main sources of the religion and the events to be analyzed has gained separate importance. The increasing movements of ijtihad and its calls during the encounter with foreign cultures after the conquests or invasions in the Islamic history were directly the cause of ascending the voices of those who were looking for change more loudly.(1)
In order to comprehend truly what sort of relation exists between Islam and the modern life we live in, it is necessary to focus upon ijtihad and open an argument on the function it will undertake and even upon its true nature because ijtihad means the interpretation of religious texts and updating them in a way which they will conduct everyday life.
Here it will be useful to touch upon the ongoing discussions around and concerns feeding on the concepts of modernism, modernity, tradition and change in the Muslim world in the last few centuries.
1. When looking at the religion from the perspective of being common line in the calls of the whole prophets, we realize that they explain the celestial/metaphysical life in the physical world we live in, and almost represent the unchangeable. The essence of the Divine message that began with Adam and continued with Abraham, Moses, Jesus and came to an end with Mohammed transmits the Divine wisdom of actuality and presentation of the perspective of creation and indicates the importance of the eternal life. The emphasis which are made frequently by the Quran to this message which is inherited from the prophets, the information with regard to creation, the beginning and the end of the existence, the basic fundamentals of belief, the principles of worship and morals are the clear signs of unchangeable line of the divine religion. Although perceptions vary according to the level of the conscious and thinking of the addressed, there is continuity from the idea point of view that the call of the divine texts carries. Religion has the function of supporting, testing, establishing and protecting the original aspect of human kind with its instinct and sane. Because the human being was, on the one hand, sent to the world esteemed and superior, and also with some weaknesses on the other. For this reason, he lives throughout his life, whether in mind or action, with due and undue tides of good and dreadful, just and cruelty, mercy and merciless, altruism and egoism. The first of these merely represents the fundamental line directed by reason and nature while the second signifies the accidental line that is dragged by the physical and bodily world. The religion, which confirms the first line supports the human and guides him by lighting his way to continue without surrendering to weakness and deviation. For this reason, the revelation sent through the prophets is indeed a limitless favor and assistance for the human being who was created and sent to the world by Allah with free will and the ability to perform what ever he wishes.
2. As a general judgment it is true that the social relations of the humanity and its formal depiction were within continuous and vivid change throughout the history. Yet, when looked at from a distance it is realized that humanity had lived this change within a tight area surrounded by possibilities and impossibilities. In spite of the unaffectedness and indispensability of the mighty change, it is observed that the main line with relation to the fundamental elements of the human being had been protected. Those who observe attentively the adventure of mans life will realize the experienced change depending on the modern life in the field of law and the social and political structure and also in spite of the whole change will realize certain merits and principles had protected its presence in the field of law and fundamental human behavior motives. Perceiving the distinction between those two fields, and the subject of how the relation is established with each field by religion, will importantly add more richness to the argument concerning religion, renovation and social change. Basically, it is not correct at this point to introduce the experience of religion and humanity as each others alternative or rival. On the contrary, they must be described as two separate reflections which are fed from the same source. Therefore, it is erroneous to consider that the rules and types of behavior which form part of humanitys experience and the field of reflection of the social change as entirely opposing the Divine wish or as entirely independent from the Divine source as well.
3. Belief represents the fundamentals of faith, which implies recognizing and loving the Almighty Allah and the act of worship, which means devotion to Him according to certain symbolic behaviors as the Almighty Allah wishes. Belief and worship constitute together the center of the Islamic religion. Since the fundamentals of belief and acts of worship are also determined through religious notification, they are not open for change because they represent the main line of the religion; on the contrary, their meaning and effect will last as long as they are attended. This is the characteristic of all religions. Here, it is important, anyway, not to break away from the original discipline of the same religion and try hard to understand other religions instead of judging them. Although the teachings of a religion relating to the individual and social ethic from basic moral and human values points of view on which religion is based and holds universality and permanency, they need change and a new expression simultaneously with social changes because exampling these teachings that means explaining them with a social output is closely tied with local circumstances. Because such separation could be possible in the field of law which means that social and moral consensus transform norms supported by public authority, the subject of permanency and change can also be analyzed with such approach.
4. The teachings of the main sources of Islam had influenced closely the tradition of Muslim societies, their culture and civilization, family structure, individual and social life, and even played an important role in shaping them throughout the history. Nevertheless, new interpretations of the discipline had reflected certain differences according to different intervals and prevailing circumstances then. As a result, reciprocal influences came out. It is no doubt that such process did not exist in spite of the resistance of Islam against change. On the contrary, Islam has left the door open for such flexible influences deliberately for the continuation of its universality and vividness in every interval. Islam, that is why, attached great importance to religiosity regardful of reason, understanding, interpretation and individual initiative, and responsibility. Due to such possibility, the message that was brought by Islam, the principles it placed, the objectives it demonstrated, and the examples and clarifications it indicated, were analyzed since the early period of Islam by way of methodic thinking. Again, as a result of such an analysis, the judgments that are related to the individual and societal life of Islam were seen as different from the point of view of the behavior pattern and model to be traced and different also with respect to the principle it carries in its essence and the objective it fosters.
As a result of this, religious sciences that were established and improved by Muslims, and especially the science of the law and methodology have opened an active access in this field. In this way, this type of methodology provided both the continuation of the main line of religious disciplines without encountering any tremble and introduced the tradition of interpretation that was formed around this discipline. It placed, in addition, the possibility of making new interpretations according to new circumstances on methodological foundation. During the periods of cultural ruptures, which the Islamic world faced at certain times, strong calls and efforts for change always aimed at questioning and sorting out the tradition, the request for change and reconstructing religious thinking without breaking with the essence of the religion.
5. It is the nearly common view of the Islamic scholars of the classical period that the events and the judgments that were handled by religious texts were limited but as for the events that are encountered by the individuals they are limitless. They also agreed on the fact that religious texts can encompass the limitless events with interpretation and reasoning. However in their view introducing religious judgments is in the responsibility of Allah, and ijtihad does not mean introducing new judgments but show the extent of the existing texts only. In other words, the Islamic scholars were convinced during the classical period that ijtihad had played the role of exploring and revealing the religious judgments only.
Here if it is meant with religious judgments the norms which have direct relations with religion and which were clearly specified by the Quran and the Sunna, and if ijtihad is an activity which aims at understanding these norms, then the word-centric theories which equalize ijtihad with analogy (qiyas) become coherent and the interpretations become an explorative activity of understanding religious judgments. In that event, interpretation, which is carried out by religious scholars and which originally means the activity of understanding and clarifying the religious texts is limited within a narrow field, whereas other subjects are left to both wide field of interpretation and the individual and social initiative. Thus, social change did not influence the religious interpretation greatly while the mentioned had affected the second type of interpretation by the actors of change.
If it is meant by the religious judgments all types and patterns of behavior which are produced from the direct or indirect expositions of the Quran and the Sunna, from the secondary elements which are mentioned as a result of exampling and even from the possibilities created from the lack of explanation, that is to say the whole bunch of rules and regulations which adjust the Muslims practical life, as an individual and society, and if these all introduced as the field of legists activity with its classical connotation, then a heavy responsibility will be thrown upon the shoulders of the scholars and religion alike. It is no doubt that the experience of mankind who carries the risk of getting dirty during the natural flow which is mentioned above, must be tested and controlled from the perspective of the religious discipline. This, in fact, will be a useful and beneficial method from the angel of preventing the deviations that are contrary to the principles of religion. However, this procedure may open the door to troubles and difficulties due to the efforts to find the answer to every event in religion and stuck in the explanations that religious scholars will reach in this subject. Moreover, the steps which will be made without determining directly and indirectly the field of concern of the religion in this subject and decompose the Muslims historical experience with relation to religion, will weaken the respectability of religious scholars and enforce not only the general acceptance of the religion but its authority in the consciences also.
6. To what extent the religion is influenced from social change was always a subject of a vivid interest and deliberation not only from the perspective of the Islamic religion, but also from the angel of the other religions. When the Roman Empire accepted Christianity in the fourth century, there had been a very significant question that the social scientists began to discuss hundreds of years later. The question was: whether it was the Rome that would influence Christianity or vice versa. This question was in fact didactic since religion has the qualification of influencing the life as a whole and also be influenced by the life itself.
It is a scientific and historical fact that the religious comprehensions do influence the way of life of the societies and that the mentioned comprehensions are influenced by the life styles of the communities. This fact is clearly displayed in the Roman and Christianity example. It is no doubt that each field of our life is not independent from the other. That is why art and architect reflect, for example, the developments that took place in the social and religious fields. We can trace the same reflection in economy. Weber, who is one of founders of sociology, presented the influence of religion to a very different field like economy in his famous work The Ethics of the Protestantism and the Spirit of Capitalism.
7. Religion, Tradition and Modern Society: I believe that the whole problem we face due to renovation and modern life emerge from the insufficient analysis of the reciprocal influence which exist between the social life styles and the religious comprehensions or from the inadequate perception that religion regulates the social life style of the communities and that religion itself is greatly influenced by this observable fact.
The concept of tradition which is usually used synonymous to religion is the most basic notion we face regarding the relation between religion and modernity. This situation is valid not only for the Islamic world but for other religious cultures as well. Currently, some of the Islamic scholars consider that tradition has a normative character and they seek rationality and change in it, while others do not neglect tradition on the one hand and they insist that it is necessary to handle the tradition and the human experience on the other. Different opinions of these scholars concerning tradition reveal the importance of the question of how we must perceive it.(2) Whereas tradition is not more than an accumulation came into existence as a result of the interpretations of our ancestors in the preceding intervals to the unchangeable sacred truth which the religion had established in the beginning. It is no doubt that this accumulation houses within itself useful elements and tenets for us. Yet, it is true to say that those who shaped the tradition in the past could have been mistaken just like us or they made those interpretations according to their own time, geography, and needs.
Considering the tradition as a phenomenon that has useful terms but that does not have to be accepted as a whole is not a necessity to build a thick wall between modernity and tradition since they can both exist side by side. Moreover, there are a lot of things which modernity can gain from tradition and vice versa. For example tradition at present can assist with its own humanist values and merits in surpassing the cold structure of modernity which gives prominence to individualism and pave the way as a result to isolation in the society. Transpersonal psychological understanding that is loudly heard in the West at present is not more than inviting the religious tradition for help. Today, the whole world and primarily the West have discovered that religion is the only solution for different social problems. At the opposite of this, modernity can assist with its rational perspective in cleaning the tradition from the elements that are contradictory in essence to religion. During the process of mutual assistance it is essential that tradition does not transform into traditionalism and modernity into modernism.
Modernism or Modernity
It is undeniable that modern productions has been successful in reaching the whole cultures and geographies and bring in new merits whether good or bad in a world which has lost at present its frontiers due to globalization. Nevertheless, all societies are still carrying on the cultural and traditional forms that belong to them. Today the duty of the societies which are influenced by the Western cultures like the Muslim world forces them to struggle to transform these traditional forms without deviating from the essence of religion while still taking the present time into consideration. This proposal does not mean at all that contents of reform that took place in the west or modernitys requests which are contrary to the essence of religion should be approved by religion or religious institutions. Unfortunately, such proposals are quite often perceived as requests for reform which will shake the foundation of the religion and those who make such proposals are imagined exactly as Martin Luther who read the ninety-nine articles of his reform movement on his horse in front of Wittenberg University.
Three hundred years ago religion was undeservedly confronted with science. Today religion again was forced to share the same fate with the process of modernization. Whereas, an approach which signifies that any modern thing takes place in the opposite pole with religion and mainly with Islamic religion, is absolutely wrong idea. Since Islam does not move with prejudice towards any formation; on the contrary, it can harmoniously live with the elements that are not against its basic criteria. And because, Islam does not allege that it is a religion of a specific time and geography but claim that it is valid for all times and geographies.
It is true that the movement of enlightenment had exposed the religious life in the West to slenderness. Nevertheless, the idea of enlightenment improved in two different branches. The first understanding represents the positivist idea or the atheistic enlightenment movement. While the second comprehension represents the idea claiming that science is a factor that develops and enlightens the human conscious and at the same time transforms him into a form that encourages him to embrace religion. This means that today in the West, and particularly in the United States of America, which is considered the most industrial, technological, and most modern country in the world, 70 per cent of the citizens define themselves as religious. The researches in this country proved that the belief in God never fell under 90 percent.(3) It clear that people are carrying some merits of the enlightenment and also protecting their religious identities at the same time. Additionally, they are still feeling that they do not have to adopt the whole merits and values of enlightenment.
Here, the main point to be taken into consideration is to determine whether the atheistic characters of enlightenment are automatically equivalent to the process of modernization. If modernization is entirely equivalent to enlightenment, then the acceptance of this by those who believe that they have religious merits is not absolutely possible. Here, the following determination must be done again. Enlightenment is an ideology, and this ideology aims at materializing the pedestal of social change under the umbrella of modernism. In fact, modernity is no more than a situation. That is why it is an experienced fact and the problems brought by the age before you. It is also the whole of requests and the proposals that show the methods of solution. Yet, one can enrich these problems and requests with new formulas; one may adopt and refuse what s/he wishes. In order to be able to perform this process, ones own formulas and merits should be applicable. For this reason, the subject concerning the relation of the Islamic world with modernity, and the expression that one can be a religious while being modern should be evaluated at this background. Those who air this expression generally believe that Islam is universal and above ages and that is why this religion has the character of being easily performed at every age. The merits that are deemed at present as the values of this age such as religious freedom, rational thinking, democracy, equality, rights of woman, and alike are in fact the values of Islam. This fact is currently accepted even by the most fanatic individuals in the Islamic world. A Muslim who refuses the above mentioned fact has to pretend not to be acquainted with the Farewell Khutba which was delivered by our Prophet.
Will Islam Face the Fate of the Church regarding Enlightenment?
The Church did not know what to do when it strongly felt the pressure of enlightenment. First, it opposed to it and abstracted itself and closed its windows to outside world. But it was not successful, so it was compelled in a defensive manner to open its windows little by little. Then it gave permission to the entrance of what it considered harmless or very little harmful elements or requests. Yet, by time the windows became wide open not to be closed again. In 1962 the second Vatican Council was revealing the signals which imply that the Vatican entered a way with no return due to the basic concept (aggiornamento) which branded the Council and encouraged the Church to conform to the modern world. The Church, at last, was forced to give up after it lost its principles and became helpless. The Church became finally helpless, and it hoisted the white flag so much as that it today does not consider homosexuality a sin, and it even turned a blind eye to homosexual priests. As a result, the Church lost its credit with religious Christians since they were confronted with a Church that tolerates whole requests of the modern world and issues advisory opinions (fatwa) in accordance with such requests.
I think that the question of are the experiences of the Church in the West due to its contact with modernity and the process of hoisting white flag valid for the Muslim world? is the most important issue which faces the Islamic world at present. That is why we have to decide what to do in view of this issue as soon as possible. For this, there are three ways: the first is to close the windows firmly, as the Church had done at the beginning and assume that there does not exist such a thing called modernity and behave as if it will not leave its influence upon us as long as we refuse it. The second is to do what the Church today does in the West, hoisting the white flag and giving consent to the entire requests of the modern world. The third is to determine a road map to evaluate and compare the requests of the modern world with our authentic religious criteria not diluted with folkloric beliefs.
Multiple Modernity and Islam
I think that the greatest majority of the Muslims will embrace the third choice. The prerequisites of realizing the mentioned choice is firstly to behave in a realistic manner and then be self-confident. The most important principle of the former is to admit that interaction is unavoidable, the cultural contact is indispensable and globalization is an undeniable fact in this world. The most significant principle of the latter is that one should be confident in developing a culture with no compromise of ones religiosity.
Being modern does not mean experiencing the same process of enlightenment as the west did and admitting the values which are imposed by this process at the expense of ones religious and cultural merits. Today a new concept emerges from the sociology of religion under the name of multiple modernity('4) This new concept argues that modernity is not the privilege of only one culture or geography, that is to say cultures outside the West can and will develop their own modernity. Sociologist Peter Berger among those who defend this new approach draws attention especially to the fact that modern Muslim of Turkey living in urban areas feel themselves more religious than fellow Muslims who live in rural areas. Berger makes the same point for Indonesia as well.(5) Rodney Stark, another sociologist, draws our attention to the fact that the researches performed in different regions of the world reveals that the religiosity level of Muslims has increased with modernity.(6)The finding of Joseph Tamney, who is known with his researches on the Muslims of Java demonstrates that the Islamic worships will increase with the enhancing swiftness of modernity. He argues that Islam with its flexible structure is talented to adopt itself against the threats of modernity.(7)
The main point to be clarified in our minds is that modernity is not equivalent to being this-worldly, in other words, modernity does not mean abstracting the individual himself from the values and influence of religion and compelling him to establish a life style with no religion. Thus, modernity is not absolutely an instrument that brings a worldly life without religion. It is no doubt that the aim of the enlightenment process was that at the beginning, since it is believed that worldly life, which emerged as a result of modernity would erase the religion from the earth.(8) Yet, as it was articulated clearly by many sociologists in the West, modernity rescued itself from being the forerunner of Positivist Enlightenment and began to share the same environment with religion. They even argued that modernity has given birth to a lot of anti secularist movements.(9) In brief, the idea which proposes that modernity and secularism are identical is no more valid. One can, today, argue that the world has become modern, but cannot argue that religion has retreated from the world.
* This paper was presented at the International Conference titled Islam and Modern Society in Turkey that was organized by Konrad Adenauer Foundation and Goethe Institute in Istanbul on 22-23 November 2004.
(1)Here it is likely to recall the efforts of the expounders of the Islamic laws who played a leading role in the establishment of the schools of law during the interval where the Islamic geography expanded rapidly in the II/III hegira century, the Mongolian invasion in the middle period and the Crusades and the meet up with the West through the last century and recall also their expressed ideas like public interest (maslaha), objectives (makasid), renovation (tajdid), ijtihad and the reconstruction of the religious thought.
(2)Mehmet S. Ayd ın, Rational Thought and Islamic Modernism, Paper presented at the Symposium of Islamic Thought, Istanbul 1995, pp.147-154.
(3)Ali K öse, New Paradigms on the Relations of Modernity and Secularization, Liberal Thought , Spring 2001, vol. 24, pp.150-165.
(4)Samuel N. Eisenstadt, Multiple Modernities , Transaction Publishers, 2002.
(5)Peter L. Berger, Secularism in Retreat, National Interest , Winter 1996/97,vol.5, pp.3-12.
(6)Rodney Stark, Secularization: R.I.P. in The Secularization Debate , (ed) William H. Swatos & Daniel V. Olson, New York, Rowman & Littelfield 2000, pp. 44-66.
(7)Joseph B. Tamney, Fasting and Modernization, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion , 1980, 19, 129-37.
(8)William H. Seatos-Kevin J. Christiano, Secularization Theory: The Adventure of a Concept, vol. 100-101, Secularization on Trial : The Future of the Religion in the 21 st Century (ed. Ali Köse), Istanbul , Ufuk Books, 2002, pp. 95-121.
(9)Peter L. Berger, Secularism in Retreat National Interest , Winter 1996/97, vol.4, pp.3-12.