All Saints Cathedral
Cairo, Egypt October 13, 2022
RELIGION IN THE MODERN WORLD
Were one to cast a glance back at the past two hundred years of human history, it would be hard to miss the growing gap between thought paradigms of traditional revealed religions and thought paradigms of the globalized modern world. Perhaps it is the rapid pace of the later, often compared with the unrushed pace of the former; or even still perhaps it is the notion that everything new is good and everything old is used that might inform such a judgement.
Whatever it is, this gap, at its core, ignores the very important fact that these ancient, traditional revealed religions are at the very foundation and core of modern civilization. In fact, I would go so far as to argue that without these religions and their traditional structures, no civilization can prosper nor last.
Traditional religion, which I define as a set of first principles associated with original revelation, unchanged or adulterated throughout time, contains within it the seeds of language, morality, law, culture, art, and all the things we associate with civilization. The deeper we look and examine the world around us, the more we will find these links and origins. And when these links are established, acknowledged, and respected, we recognize that what they give birth to represent, not the outdated nor the irrelevant, but rather the very best ideals of our civilizations. Ideals that we are willing to defend at all costs, even if it means giving them our last full measure of devotion. If the principles and ideals we claim to cherish are not connected to these first principles, they will easily buckle at the first onset of pressure and give way to other principles and ideals that are better argued and more firmly rooted.
To come back to the gap between paradigms, then, it would seem that there is not so much a gap between the two, but rather a misunderstanding and misplacement of where each belongs. Rather than see these paradigms as in conflict or opposed to one another or even unrelated, we should see them as concentric circles; the first principles of religion in the center moving slowly at their own velocity, but impacting other aspects of civilization connected to it, on circles further from the center, but still connected to the center, and appearing to move faster. In this example, then, we can see that not only is religion central to civilization, but first principles help us understand why certain things stick and why others do not; why certain policies or political decrees instigate revolution, and why others win the support of people.
Unfortunately, as essential as this lesson is, it remains elusive to many people in our society whom one would have hoped know this better than others. It is very common to find politicians, diplomats, and even university professors, all too ready to relegate religion to the category of the useless and the unimportant, or to the even more mysterious category of “not our concern.” They should heed the words of Gibbon who wrote, “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” To which I would add, but they all considered it nonetheless.
While there is no doubt in the ancient world there were many who looked askance at these polytheistic religions, these traditions were part of the bedrock of ancient Roman society. They informed their philosophy, moral system, legal system, and governance. It was not until Constantine’s conversion followed by the persuasive force of Christianity that the old order gave way to the new, but this necessitated the collapse of one civilization to give birth to another one, backed by its new faith and own set of first principles. This same pattern can be found in every great civilization’s decline and collapse. It represents a universal truth, a first principle in its own right, and bears reflection and contemplation.
Those in the business of power who ignore religion, and the first principles that are attached to these religions, do so at their own peril. To not be concerned with the first principles that form one’s civilization, one’s society, one’s legal system, etc., is to not be concerned with the ultimate source of their own power, legitimacy, and authority. This lack of concern is often reflected in their inability to bring their people together, raise the level of national conversation, and restate, with appealing flare, the first principles that unite their nation in the first place. It is not necessarily the direct concern with the paraphernalia of religion that can do this, but rather with intimate knowledge of these first principles.
Perhaps President Lincoln may serve as a coherent example of the importance of paying attention to first principles.
Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, itself a historic feat since no national election had ever taken place during a civil war:
“What has occurred in this case must never recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”
Commenting on these lines, novelist and historian Shelby Foote says, “[Jeferson] Davis could never match that music” and that “all Lincoln had said or written would be cherished as an imperishable legacy to the nation.”
FINDING FIRST PRINCIPLES
One might find citing Abraham Lincoln in this regard rather odd, for Lincoln was not a scholar of religion, a man of the cloth, nor was he even known for his personal inclinations towards faith. My point in using him as an example, however, is not an accident. Lincoln was able to do what no one else could at his time; unite the nation around the first principles upon which it was created, and in so doing give America a new birth of freedom. His carefully crafted words, particularly his two inaugural addresses as well as his Gettysburg address are forever enshrined in the canon of the English language as one of the most articulate and moving statements of democratic government.
What is it about people like Lincoln, Churchill, DeGualle, Umar Bin Khattab, Tariq bin Zayd, Sadat amongst many, many others who were successful in bringing their people together, winning against the odds, and charting a new path and trajectory for their nations? It was their understanding and use of first principles to tie the cause to what is dear and deep within their people. Now, in my example of Lincoln these first principles might be principles of government, or high politics, but they are first principles, nonetheless. In fact, many of these first principles themselves have origins in religion, and as I argued a few moments ago, it is these very central first principles that are at the heart of the concentric circles of civilization moving the other circles around it.
But to be able to do what these greats did, one first need be able to first find these first principles and to do so requires that one acquire the skills of archeology. One must be able to dig out from the world around them those clues and artifacts that lead to greater and deeper truths. One must recognize in the other concentric circles of civilization that appear to move at a much higher velocity than the slower moving center those very radii that emanate from the center penetrating each and every circle until the outer most limits of the entire sphere.
It is in this act, more than any, that most people of religion fail by becoming too attached to the paraphernalia of religion, which, at times, can mask the very principles they signify. Not that the practices and outward forms of religiosity are not important. Far be it from that. They are, in reality, essential for first principles are in need of an object, either physical or non-physical, to carry them forth. However, by stopping at the object, one can easily miss the origin and mistaken the former for the later thus sacrificing the later for the former.
To make sense of this, perhaps another example is warranted. If you think of the commodities that we consume we rarely consider their origin. We do not see the tea leaf, coffee bean, cotton plant, cacao tree. Instead, we see the brand of a product. However, the reality is that behind these brands are raw materials that are grown in specific environments, with specific conditions, and require specific practices to cultivate. This is the job of the farmer. However, the farmer is in need of a trader who will buy this raw material in bulk and sell it to a manufacturer who will in turn process this raw material, package it, market it and sell it to consumers.
Most people most of the time consume these products without thought, but there are a select group of connoisseurs of commodities, think of a coffee connoisseur, wine connoisseur, etc., who are in touch with the aforementioned supply chain and have developed a refined enough pallet to distinguish between pure substances and non-pure substances; between the very best and the very worse. They are considered experts, if you will, of that commodity and in the process of their procurement of the very best, they define for the rest of the market what is considered good or bad and upon this judgement comes the whole gambit and industry of the millions of products we consume almost every hour of every day.
We rarely think of this example as it applies to ideas. However, the ideas we consume, the ideas that we base our opinions on, the ideas that inform the decisions we take, are really no different than the physical commodities we consume. They are taken from some origin as raw material and packaged every second of the day for us to consume as information, usually without filter.
For the archeologist in search of first principles, therefore, the task ahead is enormous as the entire job of the supply chain: farming, trading, manufacturing, marketing, etc., all falls on them.
To make the task easier, then, were one to turn to the first principles of religion, at least one would have certainty that these are the principles upon which all else is based.
I should say here, with regards to the West in particular, one would need to include within the scope of their archeological dig an understanding of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy along both the Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic lines as unlike Islam, the spread of Christianity in Europe did not entirely eliminate the pagan past, but rather the two coexisted in a semi-syncretic manner. And while this is simply a side point, it bears mentioning that this is perhaps why many people in the West ignore religion arguing that it has no practical relevance. What they are really stating is that they align with another set of first principles from another central circle that informs their civilization.
So why Making Sense of Islam?
The current global Muslim population is approximately 1.9 billion, equating to just over a quarter of earth’s inhabitants. This number not only speaks to the rapid growth of the faith around the globe since WWII, but it also represents a statistical reality: within the next 30-50 years, Islam will surpass in numbers both Christianity and Hinduism as well as the nebulous and largely undefined category of “non-religious.”
The important thing about Islam’s global spread is not that it is on the cusp of becoming the dominant religion of mankind. what is important to keep in mind, however, is that as Islam becomes dominant in numbers, so too are the problems that Muslims face the dominant and largest problems consuming large amounts of the world’s resources.
Of the nearly 100 million worldwide refugees, both internationally and internally displaced peoples, the majority are Muslim. Of the major political and military conflict areas around the world, the nations where there are failed states, civil wars, unstable economies, the majority are Muslim. Of the global persecution and genocide of people, the majority of victims continue to be Muslim.
And if these problems are not addressed with swiftness and proper allocation of resources we are certain are at the disposal of global powers, if people persecuted are not granted freedom and afforded basic human rights, if the question of Jerusalem is not settled to ensure the protection of both Christian and Muslim holy sites as well as the dignity of the Palestinian people, if the genocide of the Uyghurs and Rohingya is not acknowledged, addressed, and solved with great expediency and justice, if the balance of global power is not checked to avoid the indiscriminate destruction of vast populations of Muslim majority regions, then these conflicts and struggles with their large numbers will represent a global catastrophe unparalleled in the annals of human history.
The issues of which I speak are not endemic of Islam or Muslims. Rather they are a confluence of factors, some natural and regional, but some also imposed from without. Whatever their origin, whatever their cause, the time for blame is long past. The truth is that in many instances it is almost impossible to redress the wrongs, and what matters most today is that these problems effect the entire world and can no longer be thought of as simply regional or isolated. Any and all efforts to mitigate them should be the concern of all, as it should be if the situation involved another people, another race, and another religion.
While some of these issues are of course the purvey of government, there is another aspect to this complex situation that informs the rhyme and reason behind the Making Sense of Islam platform.
Due to the disproportionate number of problems facing various Muslim populations globally, there is a tendency amongst Muslims to attach non-first principle-based solutions to legitimate grievances. It is far too easy to see the current state of affairs as a type of systemic oppression; a new crusade against Islam stoking the flames of hatred and violence.
In this fog of false interpretation, followed by and endless cycle of action-reaction, Muslims continue to create a parallel religion for themselves. A religion they call Islam, using the paraphernalia of Islam, yet absent of many of its first principles, frustrating their own advancement and liberation. It is here where the destructive force of extremism lives and breathes. It is upon these false narratives that our youth are recruited, sheep to the slaughter.
At the same time, many of the modernist Islamic solutions have also not worked because they too are false attempts at archeology. Instead of finding first principles and working on restating them, these solutions have largely been a lazy borrowing of the “other,” unvetted, unfiltered, and largely misappropriated.
Asking Muslims to simply adopt western democracy and western modes of secularism is no different than if Lincoln had asked the Confederacy to follow the hadith of “the hand of God is with the majority.”
Rather, one needs to invest the time and effort to make sense of Islam; to become an archeologist of ideas and help find the fossils of those first principles in the world around us that constitute the true rhyme and reason of Islamic civilization and breathe into them new life by rearticulating them with a rhetoric deserving of their status.
And it is to this aim that I have dedicated by work. To help my co-religionists; either in the Muslim majority world or in various Muslim minority communities scattered throughout the world. To help give them the needed tools to properly understand their predicament, to fight relentlessly overtly and covertly against extremism, to revive the first principles of Sufism, itself an integral and inseparable part of Islam. To teach Muslims how to contribute to their society, and to imbue them with a spirit that unlocks their creative power, ingenuity, and entrepreneurship. All of this based on the first principles of the Islamic tradition that consistently produced for over a millennium these very same results to the generations before us.
While the road ahead is long and the problems are many, I take comfort in the belief that nothing is impossible when one places their trust in the Almighty to which I say, inshaAllah.