Modern world and Islam: Humanism and Sufism


 JAN 05, 2023 – DAILY SABAH

The most important issue that separates Islam and Christianity is its understanding of Tawhid (oneness of God). (Getty Images Photo)

The most important issue that separates Islam and Christianity is its understanding of Tawhid (oneness of God). (Getty Images Photo)

The connection between the contemporary world and Islam is clear due to the relationship between Islam and reason and science in general and the sense of humanity, art and culture in Sufism in particular – a connection also regarded as a failure of Christianity


When Galileo, the Italian scientist of the 16th and 17th centuries, said “And yet it moves,” was his mind – though haunted by the joy and yet the horror – aware of how momentous that line was?

This line was one of the most radical prologues to the paradigmatic changes that had been shaped through great conflicts throughout our journey toward understanding being and it has always maintained its significance as being a “prologue.” As it reminds us of the correlation between novelist Nikolai Gogol’s “The Cloak” and Russian literature, any subsequent new thought continued to observe gratitude to this humble line. The most distinguished aspect of this line was that it sparked a big conflict between religion and science.

However, the scientific claim of this principle was not that significant compared to its claim to be announcing the coming of a new era by “moving” the idea of the fixed and immobile world. Consequently, with this line “And yet it moves,” the order built upon the immobile world would shift, values and social structures of this fixed order would transform, and humanity would suffer the consequences of the conflicts arising from this change. In this “moving” world, especially the holy scripture and the church as its embodiment would stop being the center of the world and leave its place to new agents. As a result, the rational arguments that represented the power of religion would be shaken and Christianity would not find itself any stable place in this “moving world” as a doctrine stuck between absolute fideism and didactic moralistic discourse that forsook its peremptory manner to science.

When Muslims started to be acquainted with the contemporary West, they thought the problem between Christianity and science was a conflict between religion and science. They believed that the problem was nothing but the human mind’s struggle to reach reality by first setting free from falsified traditions and institutions of a religion that had lost its reality through pagan religions and the traditions of the Middle Ages. As one got closer to reality, he would get closer to Islam. Especially in the last two centuries, there was a prevalent perception in the Islamic world that Islam could build strong relationships with science and the contemporary world. Common expressions like “Science is compatible with the realities of Islam” or “Ration verifies the revelation” indicate that Muslims did not pay regard to the gravity of the conflict between science and religion that had been going on for three or four centuries. We can observe this approach in two phases: The first one is the positive relationship that was considered to exist between the contemporary world and Islamic rationalism and science through the relationship of Islam and science and Islam and ration. Secondly, there was this relationship between Sufism and the contemporary world through humanism and art. In both fields, an ill-considered perception was prevalent among Muslims that Islam and the contemporary West could have a stronger relationship and the new emerging world was closer to the realities that Islam had heralded.

Revelation in Christianity and Islam

Is there an apparent factor that separates Islam and Christianity on the question of science and religion? Or it can be asked whether the conflict between science and religion that shattered the Christian intellectual world for the last four centuries was peculiar to Christianity or it could also affect Islam directly. The answer is both yes and no. No, because Islam, like Christianity, is based on holy revelation and it claims that this revelation leads people to reality and felicity. It is obligatory for Muslims to believe several principles of Christianity such as the birth of Jesus or his miracles. Even though there are some differences in the interpretation, Islam and Christianity have some common creeds such as belief in God, belief in the last day, the journey of men in this world, etc. In this respect, Islam takes upon itself most of the criticisms directed at Christianity. However, there are some issues specific to Christianity and when they are taken into account, the answer to the previous question becomes “yes”: “Yes, this conflict is more relevant to Christianity.”

Without a doubt, the most important issue that separates Islam and Christianity is its understanding of Tawhid (oneness of God). Christianity is built upon the trinity; everything is related to the trinity and the problem is more than an abstract dispute. Theology shaped around Jesus Christ approached the relationship with God and revelation from a different perspective. This was the understanding of “continuous revelation” and Jesus embodied in the form of the Church. By this means, Christianity put the Holy Bible and its commentators at the center of life by interpreting “the holy knowledge” through the Church. With this approach, Christianity did not keep its distance from ancient traditional faiths and because of that it formed a relatively strong-weak structure. This structure was “strong” because the Church and its understanding of dynamic revelation brought Christianity exuberance and movement, so much so that it enabled the religion to speak loud and clear through concrete representatives. In Christianity, reality belonged to one and whatever others did or said, what he said was the reality. Its strength was also its own weakness: Commentaries produced by Church representatives made this religion a more litigious party against new developments and caused the conflict between “new” and “old” to be more radical and unsettling. Science and thought that developed during the Renaissance did not deal with ancient knowledge and its commentators – as it was the case in Islam – but instead, it was faced with new knowledge that is, God’s “continuous revelation” – infallible knowledge of Church – and all of a sudden, the contradiction between reason and revelation caused significant disagreements among parties. The whole world still suffers the consequences of the conflict that came to a conclusion by the fall of the Christian theology that was built upon “rational arguments.”

The journey of Islam throughout history progressed through its unique understanding of revelation, in particular by differing from Christianity. This understanding of revelation was a total divergence not only from Christianity but also from ancient religious traditions. It disclaimed the idea of a Church or clergy whose legitimacy came from God, let alone “continuous revelation.”

“Ancient scripture” paradoxically meant “completed,” which marked the end of revelation. The idea that “there was no prophet coming after the Prophet” left no room for continuous revelation. The sole way to connect with God was the revelation that found voice in the Holy Quran and other means of connection like inspiration, unveiling, ijtihad, etc. would be “secondary” and have no real effect. Sunni Islam, the largest branch of Islam, and Shiite, influenced by it to some degree, rejected the idea of “continuous revelation” and ruled out the legitimacy of any institution that claimed to represent the authority of revelation. This approach is one of the most notable aspects of the relationship between Islam and modernity because Islam did not have a class of representatives as in Christianity or any institution like the Church and the revelation had ended. However, Islam had this knowledge that was “interpretable” and compatible in the face of new developments. In Islam, knowledge could be sought through the practice of ijtihad, which was the interpretation of the canonical texts and there was the possibility of error. Muslim scholars drew a line between ijtihad and the texts by prescribing a distinction between the certainty of the revelation and its interpretation. In this respect, even though interpretation was the raison d’etre for Islamic theology, the scholars never attained authority as the Church did. This was quite an opportunity for Islam in building a close relationship with the modern world.

The distinction that Islam put between revelation and interpretation had both advantages and disadvantages. One of its consequences was that Islam could not find itself a concrete and assertive language. That is why it was a problem on its own to determine who represented the religion and which interpretation was the correct one. The main reason lying behind the debates between Sunni Islam and Shiite Esoterism came from this: Who would represent the divine knowledge? This question still stirs up serious debates in the Muslim world today. One of the reasons why Islam had strong relations with politics and the state was its endeavor to fill this gap and that was also why Islamic law had relative priority over other religious sciences. Islamic law and canons had a function that filled the gap in the Church. However, Islamic law, which played an important role in the lives of Muslims, produced another problem: Muslims interpreted the world from the perspective of “Fiqh” and its key concept, which is “obligation” (taklif). This approach led Muslims to be alienated from nature and phenomena and have a very limited understanding of the universe and eventually become more withdrawn. Henceforth the knowledge became narrower and more pedantic and drifted away from nature. Muslims did not place enough emphasis on issues that were not related to “obligation.” More importantly, there was not a strong motive in Islam that would encourage Muslims to conduct research on anything other than the topics related to “obligation.” One of the principles that Muslim scholars often referred to was this: “Value of knowledge is dependent on the known” and without a doubt, this principle would require the acceptance that Fiqh and other Islamic sciences were superior to other sciences explored “for the sake of science.” And this was the case! Muslims put the hermeneutic sciences that were shaped around the canonical texts above the natural sciences and the natural sciences were encouraged only indirectly.

That Fiqh was placed at the center of religious sciences resulted in neglect in two fields and various attempts to fill the gap in these fields were witnessed in later Islamic thought. We mentioned the first one which was the insignificance of any science that was not within the scope of the obligation. Neither natural sciences nor science for the sake of science was ever as important and real as religious sciences for Muslims. Indifference to nature strengthened the distinction between religious sciences and natural sciences in favor of the religious sciences. The emergence of such a distinction in a religion centered around Tawhid is a significant intellectual problem on which Muslims should focus. This at least contradicts the general way of reading the texts since, in canonical texts, it was mentioned that nature was a sign of God and there was a strong connection between man and nature/world.

Takwin and Kalam

Some of the Muslim scholars made a distinction between the attributes of “Takwin” (creation) and “Kalam” (speech) and as a result, they did not acknowledge the world and the text – the revelation – as “a sign” equally. As much as this is one of the most serious contradictions of Islamic thought, it is also a phenomenon that can explain many problems in the Islamic world. Even though Sufism realized this problem of not “reading” nature as a sign/verse, it was not capable of putting forth original hermeneutics. So, Sufism made a more naive interpretation of nature and was limited to seeing nature as “our alive and remembering (dhikr) siblings.”

The problem rearose with modernization and Muslims started reevaluating the place of scientific research within the religion. At this point, instead of putting forth a reliable theory, they claimed that religion encouraged scientific research. And when Muslims remembered how the Islamic heritage and scientific developments were connected, they acknowledged the Islamic heritage as the “pioneer” and the founder of the modern world. “The West owes its modern values and sciences to Islam” is a line often repeated loudly even though it no longer has the same effect anymore. Obviously, there is a need for a new reliable theory today. Therefore, to make a connection between science and Islam is nothing more than to use what was rooted in Islam. That is one of the reasons why Muslims could closely interact with modern science and thought, which also includes many modern theories and ideologies (Islamic socialism, liberal Islam, etc.).

The second problem caused by the religious approach centered around Fiqh and Kalam was that it failed to notice the issues about human beings and their complicated lives. This failure is not surprising because Fiqh is naturally egalitarian and does not consider individual differences. A science centered around “obligation” would acknowledge the collective and leave out the complexity of humans. In the case of Fiqh, human beings were viewed as the ones who performed their duties and who did not, and their growth as human beings was overlooked. This also meant the narrowing of the fields such as art, culture and the other areas where people expressed themselves. Sufism wanted to compensate for this neglect and tried to open a new horizon for Muslims by approaching human beings as delicate subjects. It was Sufism among other Islamic sciences that handled the question of humans pointing out their differences, their weaknesses and brokenness, and each self as an ocean, etc. These are all the areas of Islamic thought that have been enriched by Sufism. That is why people who are familiar with modern thought tend to embrace Sufism. The sense of humanity depicted in Sufism is more humane, at least in theory. The question of whether there is a connection between modern humanist thoughts and Sufism has been one of the concerns of Muslims.

In conclusion, the connection between the contemporary world and Islam is clear due to the relationship between Islam and reason and science in general and the sense of humanity, art and culture in Sufism in particular, and this connection was also regarded as a failure of Christianity. There was a strong opinion among Muslims that Islam could fill the ground that had been lost by Christianity. It seems that productive discussions could not be held because of the lack of a theoretical frame in which the problem was handled. In fact, this connection between the contemporary world and Islam and the claims put forth was not completely wrong; we have mentioned the reasons behind them.

Above all, Islam is a religion and naturally, its main goal in every research is to reach God. Islam does not accept any science or thought that does not acknowledge God as the real subject. In this respect, it is necessary to make a distinction between the knowledge that Islam encourages directly and the one that it does not forbid. It must be pushed hard to find – from within Islam at least through the classical heritage – a theoretical frame for a sense of nature, science, etc. that would bring out the modern understanding of science.

Sufism is a discipline that is meaningful within the scope of the general theory of Islam. Therefore, a connection made between Sufism and humanism has not been able to get beyond wishful thinking in many aspects. There is no doubt that Sufism has paid attention to the problem of humanity, acknowledged humans’ search for meaning and produced such a rich literature that cannot be compared with any other religious science. Thus, by carrying the wisdom of religious thought that has the answer to the search for meaning, Sufism stands out not in the crisis but in the answer. For Sufism, as it happens in all the issues related to human beings, each outcome is meaningful only after “the answer.” In the relationship between Sufism and humanism, this principle should not be overlooked: “The discipline that takes human crisis seriously but also knows the answer.” Once that is taken into account, many imagined expectations about Sufism will thrive.


Academic at the Department of Sufism, Faculty of Theology, Istanbul University


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