By Syed Manzoor Alam, New Age Islam
June 6, 2013
The word ‘postmodernism’ has a complex history. It was first used in 1917 by Rudolf Pannwitz (1881-1969), a German thinker to refer to what he considered the post-Nietzschean nihilism of the 20th century. Then it came to be used in literature and more famously in architecture; in each case indicating the obsolescence of the earlier “modernist” movements in art, and architecture in the early 20th century. So postmodernism indicated a kind of post 1950s artistic and architectural style.
But then the term came to be adopted in the late 1960s and 70s in philosophy and in social theory, as a name for something about the new post-war period, i.e., post Second World War. For some the postmodernism was an historical claim that post-World War 2 advanced societies have entered a new cultural-social period where older, (“modern”) notions no longer apply. For some it signifies the critique of the modern world, as a period of oppression and imperialism.
I wish to apply the ideas of Jean-Francois Lyotard in today’s Muslim world. Lyotard makes the argument that the advanced societies, i.e., the developed societies after World War 2 or the post industrial society, no longer possess or require what he called ‘metanarratives’ of legitimation: Marxism, or Hegelian notion of integrated moral state or progress. These post industrial societies are postmodern. The desperate, practical, linguistic context of social activity, Lyotard holds, justify themselves by achieving their own goals. In short, what is being claimed by Lyotard is that ‘ours is the first civilization that no longer has any unity and it does not need it either’.
What has this idea got to do with the Muslim world? Simple answer: the Muslim world, in general has not marched ahead with time. Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but overall, Muslims as a whole still nurture the 7th century period and /or the ‘Golden Days of Islam’ (this was the Dark Ages, for Christianity).
At that time unity was needed and it was necessary and good to have it, but today in this “postmodern” world, unity is not needed and it is good if we don’t have it. During the time of the prophet (pbuh) when the verses were revealed it was necessary to apply the literal and non-contextual meaning in order to succeed. But if we apply the same idea i.e., the verses of the Quran for all times (i.e., unity in time) then it would create chaos.
An idea is created either as a response towards another idea or it is self-manifested. Whatever may be the case, it is the construct of the society of that time and it need not be relevant for all times. If it is applied, i.e., unity in time, then it is bound to be unsuccessful. A society has to evolve with time. Time continuously is on the move and if we don’t move with time then we will lag behind, our thinking will lag behind and our community will lag behind. No wonder majority of the Muslims are not in a good state. It is not because of some “conspiracy” by the west, it is because of the attitude of the Muslims.
Chopping off the hands, death by stoning etc are not feasible in today’s world. It may have been or was good in those days but today, it is not only absurd but also inhumane. Televangelist Dr Zakir Naik defends all the Sharia laws and says regarding amputation ‘Tell me if you apply the Sharia will the rate of robbery increase, remain the same or decrease? It will decrease, it is a practical law, you implement the Sharia and you will get the results’.
First of all, if someone robs food because of hunger and poverty, then chopping off the hands is not only absurd but also, according to me, a great sin. Instead of the person, the society should be punished. Secondly, although the Sharia is implemented in Saudi Arabia, then how come Saudi Arabia is not the most developed nation? According to many economists, Saudi Arabia cannot even be considered a ‘developed’ nation because its economy is high-ranked only due to one export item- oil. Sharia is applied but no result is there! On the contrary, in USA (and even in China) where Sharia is not applied, still why is that they are the two of the most advanced countries of the 21st century? Similarly blasphemy laws have become a tool for some (mostly in Pakistan) to gain some personal benefit by troubling Christian, Hindu citizens and even pluralistic Muslims.
For Lyotard, the life of social members is contextualised by practical, linguistic contexts, the Wittgensteinian ‘language games’ with their own internal norms. The society functions without a high level of coordination among those games. Let us pause to understand what it means: you go to work, there is a set of practical and linguistic rules that you have to follow, ie., what can be said and done; you go to mosque and pray; there is a family setting in your home; there are professional organization you participate in; there is the rule that governs the mass culture of the people throughout the society. All these “contexts” of life, from postmodern point of view, have their own distinct set of rules, in Lyotard term, ‘language games’ and there is no need to have an overarching set of rules that unifies them. Modern society, i.e., in Lyotard sense, postmodern society is fragmented- it is good and it works; and fragmentation is not a problem to be solved.
It is necessary to keep in mind that this fragmentation is both inevitable and desirable. Why desirable, because, from the point of view of Lyotard as a postmodernist, it is unity and consensus that are the great dangers of human freedom. Individuality and freedom thrive in the transition between language games. In other words, fragmentation is good and unity and integration would always mean the suppression of some differences in the rule of the power of a few.
Lyotard rings a normative implication from the sociological description:
“A recognition of the heteromorphous nature of language games... obviously implies a renunciation of terror, which assumes (language games) are isomorphic and tries to make them so.”
That is, “terror” or the heart of authoritarian rule in society, the loss of freedom comes from the attempt to make all language games function according to the same rules. It is the fragmentation and differences among language games that make freedom possible.
In Islam there is one sect, the Wahabi sect that tries to “unite” all the people in one ‘unity’ of idea i.e., their interpretation of Islam. In short their meta-narrative is: ‘Islam is the best religion, it is the best way of life, no other way of life is to be followed, if it is followed then you will get hell in the next life and we will give you ‘hell’ in this life too and Islam’s destiny is to rule over all the world’. There can be no differences, there has to be a common frame of reference for all. In a phrase: ‘my interpretation or no interpretation’.
Our task should be to break this ‘unity’. And it is, though difficult, not impossible, especially in the age of mass media. For every ‘my interpretation’, i.e., hate spewing interpretation we have to counter it by a different, more pluralistic or correct interpretation. The extremists think that they are on the right track, and the moderates too think that they are following the “straight path”. In this way there can be no solution; both of us have to question and doubt. We, moderates also should start asking our most cherished beliefs and ideas, only then can we get rid of narrow thinking, otherwise there would be not much of a difference between ‘us’, moderates and ‘them’, extremists.