Firasha Shaikh, who holds a postgraduate degree in Political Science and works at Centre for Study and Research (CSR), New Delhi, ponders on how faith functions in the era of modernity.
Modernity, specifically secular modernity is plagued with many problems at all levels: social, political, economic, interpersonal, etc. There are many great resources out there on faith-based solutions to very pressing concerns like poverty, bigotry in society, corruption, and more.
In this short article, I’d like to discuss a faith-based solution for a more metaphysical problem of our times which is a very dire issue, i.e. the loss of meaning.
The Islamic faith holds solutions to all of these problems and beyond simple solutions, it offers an alternative worldview, an alternative lifestyle that helps one to not simply navigate modernity’s problems effectively but to live a meaningful life in a world that is starved of meaning.
But because it is “religion” a word so demonised by secular modernity, most people are unwilling to even consider it. Secular modernity has so thoroughly convinced the majority of people that religion is simply a vestige of the past, confined to prayer and ritual in private at best, and wholly discarded at worst. Therefore, even the possibility that religious faith might provide holistic and time-tested solutions to modern problems is alien to a lot of people.
To a certain extent, the secular mind’s aversion to religious solutions, in the Indian context especially, is understandable. Far too many “godmen” and “saints” have made a mockery of religion through unethical practices, unscientific ideas, and fostering cult-like devotion. They invoke the name of God and religion but through their words and actions, continue to propagate certain views and beliefs that would disturb any upright person’s conscience. Bringing in the caste perspective, it’s once again quite understandable why people from marginalised caste backgrounds may be especially sceptical of religion or religious knowledge since it was in the former’s name that their oppression continues to be justified.
Quite simply, consider the Islamic worldview from its sources, i.e. the Quran, the Hadith, and the Sunnah. Consider the principles and message of Islam as explained by qualified Islamic scholars through the ages. Instead of whatever stereotypes one may have witnessed personally in interaction with Muslims or through the media.
In the first instance, let’s talk about the search for meaning in the Internet/social media age. In the first instance, let’s talk about the search for meaning in the Internet/social media age.
Self-help, pop psychology and the dilemmas of the present
Google the top trending podcasts or the most subscribed YouTube channels or just peruse the bestsellers section of any bookshop. The two most prominent genres are self-help and pop spirituality. The banishment of religion from the public sphere foreclosed any possibility of meaningful discussions or interactions around it. Instead, we now have cult-level followings of motivational speakers and wellness gurus, each trying to compete for credibility for their version of the ultimate truth. Why much of mainstream pop spirituality/motivational speaker content is problematic will require a separate article, but what we know for sure is, it is an indication of the crisis of meaning in our age.
People are desperate to figure out a moral framework to understand and respond to the problems unfolding around them; like the negative effects of digital technologies, disillusionment with the public education system, crisis of healthcare, discourses around gender roles, navigating mental health, life advice, and more.
When one does not have Divine Guidance for these matters it is all but inevitable that one will seek it out from any seemingly credible source without thinking critically about how truthful, credible or beneficial the said advice is.
One of the things about secular modernity is its sheer arrogance. We think that because we’ve advanced science and technology to such an extent that we now have solutions for any problem, religion has run its utility, and any ethical matters can be resolved by deliberation and discourse. The real-world experience tells a different story. Somehow we’ve figured out how to make a moon landing and become among the largest global economies and a nuclear-armed state but we still can’t seem to prevent brutal violations of basic human rights against people of marginalised communities.
Newspaper columns, television primetime shows and social media pages run into infinity with arguments after pointless matters that should never be up for debate in the first instance, like committing atrocities against human beings.
The Islamic perspective
The Holy Quran states:
“O humanity! It is you who stand in need of Allah, but Allah ˹Alone˺ is the Self-Sufficient, Praiseworthy.” (35:15)
The Arabic grammar of this verse suggests totality, i.e. all human beings without exception are in desperate, dire need of God, the One Who does not need anyone else’s support.
The humility to admit this to oneself and open one’s heart to receiving guidance is the crucial first step towards coming out of the darkness and disillusionment of modernity.
The Holy Quran begins with a prayer beseeching God, the Most High, for guidance and ends with a prayer to God, against misguidance.
In the very next Surah after Surah Fatiha the first chapter, God Most High states that this Quran is guidance for those who have taqwa, i.e. for the God-conscious.
Every single aspect of Islam can be seen as a lighthouse and anchor of guidance in a dark, stormy night of loss of meaning.
The Shahada – the testimony of faith – is the declaration that no one is worthy of being worshipped other than Allah, Most Exalted, Most High and that Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is the Prophet and Messenger of Allah. Through this, believers accept that they submit their will – the will to seek guidance in all affairs only from Allah. This is the basis of the moral framework through which all matters will be decided for the believer.
The Salat (namaz) – five daily prayers are a continuous, periodic reminder of one’s servitude, devotion, and dependence on God. They are the quiet moments in a world of chaos where one has the opportunity to reorient oneself and remind oneself of what is truly important, the Hereafter, the next life.
Fasting in the Holy Month of Ramadan is an important annual reminder of the body’s capacity to withstand hunger and thirst to nourish the soul. The purpose is to fortify the believer’s abilities to overcome weaknesses of character, distractions, and impulses to commit actions displeasing to God and instead hone one’s strength and ability to live a life of good actions, those that are pleasing to God and beneficial for oneself and for others.
The zakat (wealth-tax/poor-due) is an annual payment of a proportion of a Muslim’s wealth on an annual basis for those who are eligible. Zakat, when properly collected and distributed, is one of the most effective forms of mutual aid and wealth circulation that forms an important bulwark against poverty and wealth accumulation. Zakat is so significant that it is mentioned along with Salah nearly eighty-two times in the Holy Quran.
The fifth pillar of Islam, the Hajj pilgrimage, incumbent upon those who are able – financially and health-wise- consists of a set of rituals in a particular order meant to reinforce the connection with God, Most High in the holiest of places; the Masjid-al-Haram in Makkah, Mina and Muzdalifa.
All five pillars of Islam have recurring themes – community, belonging, a reassurance of finding meaning, and most importantly, the worship of Allah, our Lord and the Creator. These rituals are not merely for cultural or aesthetic value but are meant for realising our higher purpose in life; i.e. worship of God.
“I did not create jinn and humans except to worship Me.” (51:56)
“We did not create this heaven and earth and all that lies between them in vain. That is the fancy of those who denied the Truth. So woe from the Fire
to all who deny the Truth.” (38:27)
It is through this fundamental understanding thatwe reap the benefits of living meaningful lives,resolving the issues we face in the world and much more.The key to resolving the crisis of meaning then, is to first recognize our need for God’s guidance, to submit to it with humility and responsiveness,and then to follow the guidance He has given us. Only then would we be able to have a strong,substantial, and tangible moral framework to operate off of and navigate the problems of