The idea of progress-at-any-cost of our age is unsustainable. Continued growth (both in terms of population and economy) is an impossibility on a finite planet. But yet we still cling on to the doctrine of progress and growth. Why? Because modern society has little else to cling on to. Religion, tradition, mythology, ethics and morality, are all no longer commonly-held touchstones in any given community. The only thing that binds modern society together is the promise of economic progress. Absent economic growth, things will fall apart very quickly and we enter the Age of Crises.
Ahmed Paul Keeler, Visiting Fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies in Cambridge University, believes that the paradigm we should look towards is balance and harmony, or mizan in Arabic. Traditional Muslim society, from West Africa to East Java privileged balance and harmony. The communities were stable and the people had rich inner lives dominated by prayer, family and learning; and they were oriented towards salvation. But seen with modern materialist eyes, this stability and harmony is read as 'stagnation'.
Modern society in contrast – and for reasons Keeler goes in-depth in the book – prioritises progress and disruption. Modern communities are consequently always drifting and the people have a more material outlook with superficial inner lives not anchored to scripture or belief system. Children in modern societies are inducted not into religion, but into consumerism in order to supply the next generation with reliable economic clients. Keeler says, "The centres where we meet and celebrate our togetherness are no longer the places of worship, they are the shopping malls."
One of the main themes Keeler explores in this book and returns often to is the mereological principle – the whole can contain the part, but the part cannot contain the whole. All parts of a system exist in a dynamic balance. If one part claims the whole, then the system breaks down. For example, there is a balance between the intellect, anger, and desire; or between the scholar, the warrior, and the merchant; or between faith and reason. If reason displaces faith completely, religion will be torn apart, taking with it a breakdown in morality and a vision of salvation. Within the hierarchy of Islamic epistemology, reason and faith have their respective places; thereby faith supports reason and reason supports faith, and the mereological principle is intact. Another example is the triumph of the merchant over the scholar and warrior (representing sovereignty). Today big corporations are, practically speaking, running the world and there is no space for anything else. The mereological principle is breached because the merchant has taken over religious, intellectual, political, and civil discourse. Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign mantra captures it best: 'It's the economy, stupid'.
As Keeler sees it, modernity is out of step with reality. But while he speaks about the dangers of modernity, he warns against vengeful and deluded attempts at reclaiming the 'Islamic way of life' by recreating the Caliphate. What we have seen of the carnage in Syria and the Levant in recent years transgressed almost every principle Islam holds sacrosanct.
But compassion and good sense can prevail, and there is a growing awareness – accelerated by the evidence of climate change – that modernity's promises ring hollow. More people are seeing the importance of economic and agricultural sustainability; and more people are turning towards traditional religious beliefs, including Islam. So perhaps the way forward is not actually forward, but inward, to a place of balance and mizan.
"He raised the heavens and set up everything in balance (mizan) so that you would not exceed the balance (mizan). Therefore, maintain just measure and do not transgress the balance (mizan)." - Surah al-Rahman, 7-9
Rethinking Islam and the West: A New Narrative for the Age of Crises
Ahmed Paul Keeler