1. The relationship of how religion and society relate are very important topics. Often religion is seen as critical of the aims of material society and sees them as contradicting religious principles. Two examples will be seen below as Islamic scholars attempt to understand how society and Islam relate to one another and whether society’s current trajectory is contradicting religion.
Ali Shariati outlines what he sees as the major problems leading to the decline of humanity. He first argues against the western emphasis on economics, whether it be in the form of capitalism or capitalism. These systems, according to Shariati, turn people into “worshippers of consumption,” that do not make adequate time for non-material pursuits (315). In this way, both capitalism and communism have similar pursuits, but different paths to reach them. Whereas communism may offer a different system, both, according to Shariati are only trying to funnel humans into acting out of economic interests. In terms of western liberalism and democracy, he argues that this freedom is not an absolute freedom but one that is freedom for people to pursue profits and consumption.
The other component of western society and thought that he is critical of is ideology. He lists different types of ideology that he is critical of. Historical ideology is wrong in that it views men as primarily material beings on a linear path. Biologism is a type of ideology that over emphasizes man’s physical characteristics as belonging to a chain of evolution and attributes even spiritual developments to man’s physical parts. In terms of economics and ideology, the issue with both is an overemphasis on the physical; be it the pursuit of commodity goods or turning all of the experiences of humanity as the symptoms of the physical.
He points to Humanism as the foundational problem with western thought as it was conceived in the post-Renaissance period. It sought to liberate man from the shackles of religious thought. According to Shariati, what has really happened is that the new ideologies have maintained the rigid shackles of the medieval church but have swapped God for science and rigid biological determinism that emphasizes the physical too much. Islam offers a remedy for this because it seeks to give the total needs of man an answer and not just the physical or the spiritual.
In Sayyid Abul A’La Maududi’s “Self Destructiveness of Western Civilization,” he is similarly critical of western society and its progress. He begins by bringing up the western idea that its own progresses are awe-inspiring and unlike anything the world has seen prior. He says that all societies in all times have similarly seen themselves as the apex of history and it is not an actual commentary on their worth but just a tendency to over emphasize one’s own value. He takes a more mystical approach than Ali, stating that the existence of these societies will pass in the cycle of the world, as all does, outside of God. He says that no state is permanent, including western society, and it too will change and one day pass away. Therefore, it cannot be emphasized as the apex of humanity because it will change and be replaced and humans should seek for something underneath that is constant and unchanging. He intersperses verses from the Qur’an throughout his writing and emphasizes that western society has puffed itself up but will ultimately fall.
He discusses two evils of western society (329). The first is birth control and the other is nationalism. He thinks that birth control is causing issues within both men and women and a calloused development toward their own infants. He says that it will one day lead to the extinction of humanity. Nationalism is an issue that is imposed from the top down and is causing divisive behavior where people separate themselves into warring factions. He examines war and how nations divide themselves along artificially created lines and kill one another. In tandem, birth control and nationalism will cause the extinction of man, according to Sayyid. This is has led people to develop new weapons and more efficient and effective ways to kill one another. He outlines these various weapons and more effective ways to kill one another that have come about because of nationalism. These new weapons mean that the future wars fought in the name of nationalism will be bring destruction unlike any before it.
In Muhammad Farid Wajdi’s “Islam and Civilization,” he begins by talking about the relationship between religion and science. He begins by examining the work Benjamin Constant and the problems of false beliefs. He then examines the word religion and what it has meant to different communities. He traces what it has meant in the context of European society. He understands religion as the study of the universe and its underlying purpose and meaning. People came to understand that there was an order of the universe and thus sought to understand the guiding principles that created order. He then discusses God and the relationship between God and all of creation. This knowledge is made clearer through a proper relationship between man and God. Therefore, unlike Shariati he is not so much arguing that western society is doomed for failure but in the process on how non-religious systems of knowledge became important.
All three writings are similar in that they address the relationship of western civilization and Islam, however, they go about it in a different fashion. Ali looks at concrete ideologies and scientific thought as a problem that is causing man to be an overly physical and profit driven creature. He argues that these ideologies are a product of the renaissance and will lead to renouncing important parts of humanity. They have just swapped out medieval ideas about God with a new symbol, that of science and other ideologies. Sayyid takes a much more mystical approach. He uses the Qur’an to argue that the issue of western society will lead to its extinction and that all societies pass, as will western society. His logic is much more religious based and argues that it is not so much a particular ideology, but a larger cycle of impermanence that will lead to the end of western society and its flaws. Wajdi is not critical of western thought at all like the others. He is more concerned with seeing how knowledge of God and society each developed in relation to one another and understanding the history. He argues that religious knowledge does not stand contrary to western thought but that it can enhance and make it better and more clear.
2. The relationship between knowledge and religion is an ongoing debate in theological circles. Whereas the study of religion stands central to the religious ideology, the necessity and place of other forms of knowledge is an ongoing debate. For example, Islamic scholars have examined whether knowledge of other forms can stand as important in social and other parts of life as religion. This topic, how various forms of knowledge other than religion relate to religious knowledge was pursued by the following Islamic scholars.
In Sayyid Qutb’s “Islam as the Foundation of Knowledge,” he begins by saying that the first pillar of Islam is worshipping of only one God but that the second pillar understands how to properly worship God. He argues that in Islam the Law of God is not just in a legal sense but also laws for regulating human life such as ethics and culture. Man is bound by divine revelation, which can be divided into different branches of divine knowledge. All branches of knowledge are not just to do with God, but he also writes that a Muslim can learn practical knowledge too. However, teachings to do with God and the divine must be had from another Muslim only. He discusses the relationship between empirical science and Islam and writes that Islamic culture was responsible for many of these sciences. He also says that all knowledge and forms of knowledge should understand that God and the divine is its foundation. Similar to Muhammad, he situates knowledge mainly how it relates to God and a proper foundation must be grounded in the relationship between man and God. They do not go too in depth in the relationship between science and religion but do assert that religion is intertwined with all other forms of knowledge.
In Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani’s “Religion versus Science,” he examines whether or not the Muslim religion is an obstacle to scientific thought. Unlike the other writers, he is actually critical of Islam’s relationship to science. He writes that “In truth, the Muslim religion has tried to stifle science and stop its progress.” (25) However, he notes how various Arab centers had become important places in science historically. He argues that religion should never try to stifle science because it is a sign of despotism. He takes a more inter-religious approach and notes similar analogous difficult religion between Christianity and Islam as both having an uneasy relationship with science and other forms of knowledge at times. He does not say that science is an end all form of knowledge but that it is a beautiful form of knowledge in itself. He says that religion is needed because men and humans seek more than just the material knowledge of science.
Finally, in Muhammad Abduh’s “The Sociological Laws of the Qur’an,” he examines how sociological laws were derived from an exegesis of the Qur’an. Unlike the other writings, he is more concerned with how laws are derived directly from the Qur’an and not how discrete forms of knowledge are formed. He lists fifteen principles that range from how knowledge is derived to how it is instituted in society. Some examples of them are, that patience in God is source of patience and endurance in learning and various ways to win at war. He is looking at the development of nations and how social laws are derived from the Qur’an to help regulate these societies. Abduh, unlike Qutb, is concerned most with society and its relationship to the Quran. He cites direct sources from the Qur’an and then looks at how these apply sociologically to Islamic society.
In these of the writings, the scholars are concerned with the relationship between different forms of knowledge and Islam. While they differ in how they understand this relationship, all are consistent in showing that the relationship between knowledge and Islam are important for believers. For example, while one can live a religious life and be devoted to understanding God, they must also make room for understanding society in other lenses and through other forms of knowledge like science. However, they do differ in whether these forms of knowledge should have their foundation in religion or whether religion is a corrupting force in terms of scientific knowledge.