The Need for a Critique of Culture from an Islamic Point of View

The critique of culture in contemporary western thought is suffused with the abhorrence of any notion of an ultimate reality and, consequently, essential values. Things, from their point of view, are devoid of all inherent meaning, and meaning is totally a social construction.

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The critique of culture in contemporary western thought is suffused with the abhorrence of any notion of an ultimate reality and, consequently, essential values. Things, from their point of view, are devoid of all inherent meaning, and meaning is totally a social construction.

Human emancipation is a quintessentially religious ideal. If religion is, in essence, an invitation for the human self to open itself up to the Ultimate Truth, al-Haqq [1] in Quranic terms, the human self cannot answer its call except of its own accord [2]; for its acceptance under any form of duress will be submission to the source of duress, not to Ultimate Reality [3].

The urge to freedom must be even more emphatic in the case of Islam which sees the human self as founded on and suffused with a divine nature (al-fitrah) which forever calls it to truth and righteousness [4]. From such a perspective, the human self goes astray only under external influence and the path to Truth can only be freely chosen. 

The point is not lost to most seminal contemporary thinkers of Islam. Iqbal, for one, takes up the cudgels against enslavement and eulogizes freedom:

Slavery—exile from the love of beauty:

Beauty—whatever free men reckon so;

The enslaved cannot be trusted for insight

For vision is the dominion of the Free [5]

Allusions to such themes are scattered throughout his poetry. Ali Shariati, too, characterizes the human condition as shackled in the Four Prisons of the Human Being [6]. He sees the human being as fettered by the forces of nature, history, and society; but most of all by his own carnal self. The realization of human potential is only possible through its emancipation from all of these four prisons.

Iqbal and Shariati are two very important examples of contemporary Islamic thought. But many others are similarly cognizant of the religious imperative for freedom. What is sometimes overlooked, however, is that the threat to authentic human autonomy does not only come from explicit coercion and tyranny. While forcible repression is an important tool for modifying human behaviour, control is most effective when it is internalized by the subject. 

To explain, human behaviour is not merely natural phenomena; it is the action of an agent. An agent makes wilful choices. These choices are made in response to the meanings that each alternative holds for the agent in a given situation. In deciding what to say, do or even think about, humans are guided by whether they consider the speech, action, or thought and the consequences that each of these may entail desirable or desirable. It is clear that these considerations are neither isolated from each other, nor from the way the subject sees the world in general.

There is, therefore, a complex system of meanings behind every speech, action, or thought. This system of meanings makes each conceivable utterance, course of action, and idea either desirable or undesirable on the one hand, and easy, difficult, impossible, or even unthinkable on the other. It is also clear that this complex of meanings is shaped by the history of the agent’s interaction with his environment, especially with the social environment.

Those who seek control over human behaviour are always better off if they are able to give a shape to this complex of meanings that is conducive to the course of action they desire from the individual; for in such circumstances, individuals will behave in the desired way of their own accord, without any of the costs that different forms of external compulsion may entail.

This system of meanings is to a large extent shared in the community in which the individual finds himself. There may be some individual variation but the basic structure is generally shared by the members of a community. It is this system of meanings that we call culture [7]. Describing culture as a system should not be read as implying a static and unchanging picture. Even a cursory look at contemporary society would show such a picture to be grossly inadequate.

The breakneck speed of change characteristic of this ultra-modern age has made human culture almost fluid. However, the inter-relatedness (the most significant property of a system) of the meanings which we attribute to the actualities and possibilities of the world around us persists nonetheless. It is somewhat like an organism which continuously assimilates materials from its environment and jettisons some of its own, perpetually changing while retaining its immanent purposiveness. 

So, culture provides the environment in which possibilities of speech, thought and action crystallizes and acquire meanings for the individual. If the culture of a community is moulded to facilitate subjugation, then subjugation acquires an internal component [8]. Often, perhaps always, for external compulsion to work, it must be accompanied by internal subjugation. Threats of violence and other forms of blackmail, for example, can only succeed if they inspire fear in the subject. But internal subjugation, if efficiently maintained can sometimes remove the need for external application of force completely. Conversely, the absence of internal acceptance of subjugation can very often nullify external repression. 

But the power of internal subjugation by means of culture is not absolute. It thrives mostly in the dark. It exerts control over the individual only as long as it remains hidden. When an individual recognizes how his worldview has coloured his judgment and impeded his freedom to act, he is already freed of its fetters. Thus, the critique of culture acquires primary importance.

A critique is an investigation that lays bare the internal relations, inner contradictions, and the limitations of a complex whole, and reveals the possibilities it engenders, the phenomena it obscures, and the alternatives it precludes [9]. The critique of culture, then, would examine the system of meaning shared by individuals in a society to reveal its constituents, its inner relations, and its limitations. It will try to discover the social structures that culture serves to maintain, the possibilities of action, speech, and thought that it creates and, perhaps more importantly, the possibilities that it obscures and even precludes.

In short, a critique of culture seeks to lay bare the ways in which the autonomy of an individual to act is impeded by the system of meanings internalized by individuals and the extent to which his agency originates not in his own self, but in patterns of behaviour determined for him in advance by social forces and interests external to him.

Such critical attempts abound in contemporary western thought. In fact, the roots of the idea of a critique of society and culture for the sake of emancipation lie in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School [10]. But while there is much to learn from these attempts, they are unsuited to the purposes and aspirations of a Muslim thinker. The most obvious reason for this is the fact that all of these originate from the western historical experience.

The historical experience and the resulting cultural milieu of the Muslim thinker is very different from what the greatest minds of modern western thought have encountered and contemplated. Without denying the presence of components universal in human culture, there is a very large residue that is unique to each society. That residue of the Muslim experience remains largely unexplored. 

But there is a second, less obvious but more important reason. The discerning reader will have already seen that critique is not a disinterested, value-free enterprise. On the contrary, it is thoroughly value-oriented from the beginning. It approaches its subject matter with a certain purpose born in a certain view of reality. Consequently, the subject matter reveals itself in ways that are relevant to this purpose.

The critique of culture in contemporary western thought is suffused with the abhorrence of any notion of an ultimate reality and, consequently, essential values. Things, from their point of view, are devoid of all inherent meaning, and meaning is totally a social construction. The Muslim paradigm proposed in this article, on the contrary, begins from an aspiration to embrace the ultimate reality by submitting to essential, universal values (whatever they may be). 

The absence of a critique of culture from this perspective is evident. It should be at least part of the vocation of a Muslim intellectual, aspiring to be Islamic in any conceivable manner, to contribute in some way to this project. The current state of Muslim societies, especially, and that of the world, generally, makes it a moral obligation. Even the ordinary educated Muslim, convinced of the truth of the Islamic worldview, should consider this an important theme for private reflection and public dialogue. Otherwise, the lived experience of the modern man will continue to be manipulated into submission to ungodly forces and the modern Muslim individual will subsist in its present schizophrenic state with all its ramifications until total destruction overtakes us.

1. Al-Quran (22:6)

2. Al-Quran (2:256)

3. The Quran explicitly states that the Prophet (PBUH) is not a taskmaster/controller/subjugator of people. (88:22) He is only sent to convey the message of Allah. (e.g. 5:92; 16:82)

4. Al-Quran (30:30)

5. Iqbal, Muhammad (1989). Bal-e-Jibril [The wing of Gabriel] (p. 24) Karachi: Sheikh Ghulam Ali.

6. Shariati, Ali (n.d). Chahar Zindan-e-Insan [Four prisons of the human being]. Retrieved from http://www.shariati.com/farsi/chaharzendonenson/chaharzendonenson1.html

7. The word culture has a complex history and is notoriously difficult to define. [see, e.g. Giddens, A and Sutton, P. (2014). Essential Concepts in Sociology. (pp. 269-275) Malden: Polity.] Here, I have offered my own understanding of culture.

8. Marxist social theory as perhaps the first to point this out explicitly. Marxists and other theorists inspired by Marxism have used terms such as false consciousness, ideological apparatus of the state and cultural hegemony to refer to this phenonmena.

9. The idea of a critique was first deployed by Immanuel Kant in The Critique of Pure Reason to establish the limits and jurisdiction for the legitimate use of human theoretical reason. See, Kant, Immanuel (1998). The critique of pure reason. (Guyer, P. & Wood, A., Trans., Ed.) Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press. The idea was later adopted and adapted for various other uses by other theorists.

10. See, Corradetti, Claudio (2020). The Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. The internet encyclopedia of philosophy. Retrieved from https://iep.utm.edu/frankfur/