Clergy Corner

Ayatollah Mutahhari’s Critique of Modernity

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The problem of modernity as seen by Martyr Ayatollah Murtadha Mutahhari in the period leading up to the Islamic Revolution in Iran may be understood by considering his reactions to the threat of Marxism, as well as his explicitly stated views regarding modernity. His attitude towards modernity is often expressed in his complex reaction to Marxism.

First, there are various features of Marxist ideology that are point-blank rejected as contrary to Islam. In this way, Marxism often serves as a foil; a contrasting ideology that allows Shaheed Mutahhari to highlight various features of Islam in the format of a competing ideology. We can use this distinction to uncover aspects common to modernity and Marxism which Shaheed Mutahhari considers incompatible with Islam.

Secondly, there are aspects of Marxism and modernity that Ayatollah Mutahhari accepts and employs in the exposition of his own views. By no means does he reject everything “modern” in the name of tradition. By examining elements of modernity to which he is amenable as well as those to which he is opposed, we are able to sketch his understanding and critique of modernity.

Shaheed Mutahhari’s views and criticisms of modernity are comparable to those of some Western critics. For example, one of the features of modernity that he denounces is relativism. Writers such as A. MacIntyre, C. Taylor, G. Grant, and W. Hocking, to mention just a few, have also identified relativism as one of the characteristics of modernity and have based their criticism of modernity, in part, on a critique of relativism. Here we find that Grant’s criticism of relativism is similar in important ways to that of Shaheed Mutahhari’s. The comparison of Shaheed Mutahhari’s views of modernity with those of other critics can thus begin by finding common aspects of modernity that are subject to criticism.

Next, we can examine the extent to which the reasons given for rejecting these aspects are similar. After this, we can turn to features of modernity that have been criticized by Western thinkers but have been accepted by Martyr Mutahhari, whether explicitly or implicitly. What emerges from this comparative study is a good sketch of the highly nuanced approach to modernity found in his thoughts.

Shaheed Mutahhari is often described as an opponent of modernity. Farhang Rajaee, for example, describes him and other Muslim thinkers such as Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Baqir Sadr, Imam Khomeini, Abu’l A’la Mawdudi, Sayyid Qutb, and Ali Shari’ati as reactionary, in the sense that they react against modernity rather than developing new ideas on the basis of their tradition. Since modernity is seen by these thinkers as a foreign incursion, the reaction against modernity is awakened by political opposition to Western domination, and often accompanies a call for a return to various elements of Islamic intellectual traditions.

This view is also expressed in a recent article about the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist) by Abbas Amanat, who states that “even such prominent students of Khomeini such as Husain Ali Muntazari and Murtaza Mutahhari seldom called for reconsideration of the Islamic legal tradition or new teaching methods or adopting a modern legal philosophy. For them, legal reform equaled succumbing to an alien secular modernity introduced by a colonizing and corrupting West.”

Writers who label Ayatollah Mutahhari as an opponent of modernity sometimes view this opposition as opposition to progress or reform. For example, Ashk Dahlen remarks that although Shaheed Mutahhari uses the terms tawhid and worldview, which had been given a reinterpretation by Islamic modernists, his own use of these terms displayed a much more traditional perspective. Modernity is characterized by the acceptance of change, change which Dahlen believed to be resisted by the Muslim theologian.

The impression one gets from such critics of Shaheed Mutahhari is that he opposes change and hence opposes modernity; that he reacts against what is new and favors what is old, and uses a few modern expressions merely to defend an outmoded worldview. However, it seems rather preposterous to judge someone on the basis of whether or not they favor change. Shaheed Mutahhari takes an eminently reasonable position: some change is good and some is not. He applauds that human knowledge is in a state of progress, but warns that the rapacious nature of man is not idle. He gives sound and coherent advice on change: “One should advance with the progress of time, but also struggle against the corruption and deviance of the times.”

Ayatollah Mutahhari makes the astute observation that often those who emphasize the need for change in Islam do so because they would like to see Islam refashioned to accommodate Western interests. He explicitly calls for moderation and the avoidance of extreme positions, condemning both inflexibility and instability. He condemns the modern worship of change, a characteristic that has been noticed by Western critics of modernity also.

At the same time, Martyr Mutahhari goes to some length to condemn Muslims whose thinking is rigid or “solidified” (jàmedhà). Such people, he tells us, fail to distinguish the kernel from the shell, falsely believing that religion has come to protect ancient traditions, and that the Qur’an was revealed in order to stop the flow of time and keep things as they were in seventh century Arabia.

Yet the dynamic nature of Islam that enables it to keep with the times despite its unchanging laws, according to Shaheed Mutahhari, is due to the following factors:

1. Islam does not meddle with the outward form that life takes, because such things depend on the changing state of human knowledge.

2. General fixed principles that advise man to control his appetite give rise to changing subsidiary laws dependent on changing circumstances.

3. Islam has prescribed the prioritization of its stipulations, so that in situations of conflict, those that are more important should take precedence over the less important.

4. Islam has governing principles that prevent a slavish literal construal of its rules from resulting in harm. In other words, the rule of causing no harm overrides the application of other rules. Likewise, there is an overriding rule that one is not to be held accountable for not carrying out that which would cause excessive difficulty or inordinate burden.

5. Islam has an established system of Islamic governance providing discretion about what laws should be applied and how to apply them, depending on the circumstances of the time. Muslim jurists with sufficient expertise in Islamic law should make use of Ijtihad in order to derive laws appropriate to the circumstances of every age and the problems to which they give rise.

In short, while the basic principles of Islam are fixed, they are not sufficient to determine all its laws. For that, one needs to take into consideration the varying circumstances of their application, and the prioritization of the principles and goals.

Shaheed Mutahhari presents the flexibility and dynamism of Islam as merits, but acknowledges that not every proposal for change has merit. There are also changes in undesirable directions, as with the progress of an illness. Positive advance, or evolution, requires teleology. This point is used to criticize materialist theories such as Marxism, in which the blind forces of economics drive human progress. There cannot be any true evolution in such theories, according to Shaheed Mutahhari. The mere fact that economic changes take place according to a given pattern with an effect on society does not demonstrate that such changes are desirable.

“It is undeniable that the worst crimes of the twentieth century have been perpetrated in the name of progress and man’s right to make history. And we must remind ourselves that North Americans have been among the perpetrators of these progressive crimes. Surely the twentieth century has presented us with one question above all: are there any limits to history-making?”

These are not the words of Shaheed Mutahhari, but of the Canadian philosopher George Grant. Yet they express sentiments common to individuals like Mutahhari and W. E. Hocking, who have observed how the idolization of change and the power to make history have charmed modern man.

One of the areas where Ayatollah Mutahhari differs from some critics of modernity is in his belief that there is no conflict between modern science and religion. He claims that the “illusory idea” of the incompatibility of science and religion was the product of religious conservatives, who mistakenly thought that religious authorities were bound to dogmatically oppose what conflicted with older scientific views, and of ignorant people who, believing the Church to be in opposition to modern science, began to imagine that science had shown religion to be false.

Shaheed Mutahhari claims that while there is no incompatibility between science and religion, religion does oppose the abuse of science by “power-hungry, ambitious and money-worshipping people to employ the results of their scientific labor to attain their nefarious purposes.” It is the abuse of science that is incompatible with religion.

Science may seem to conflict with religion when it is falsely imagined that science can play the role of religion, that it can provide direction in ethics and metaphysics. When this illusion dominates, it is called scientism. Many critics of modernity have focused on scientism as one of its chief ills.

At the same time that Shaheed Mutahhari affirms the progress and even evolution in science and technology, he denies that a scientific conception of the world can be the basis of any ideology. Scientism is an over extension of science. Science is based on observations of a very limited part of the universe, but scientism seeks to provide answers to basic questions of the universe as a whole. Science is in a state of constant development and revision, but scientism asserts itself as an eternally reliable truth. Science is justified on the basis of its instrumental and practical value, but scientism demands that science be understood as realistically interpreted and as revealing theoretical truth. Science can therefore never provide man with a credible ideology; in short, scientism is a false ideology.

Although Shaheed Mutahhari did not oppose all aspects of modernity, he did oppose emulation of the West in the name of modernization. While he rejected the rigidity of religious conservatives, he also rejected the ignorance of those who imagined that the problems of Iran could be solved by emulating the West, which he described as gharbzadegi (Westoxication, or West-stricken), a description popularized by Jalal Al-e Ahmad in the 1960’s.

Shaheed Mutahhari explains, “Islam is both opposed to rigidity and to stupidity. The danger that faces Islam is from both groups. The rigid and dry-minded and those who are attached to every symbol of the past – even when such things have no relation to the sacred religion of Islam – provide an excuse to people who are stupid to think that Islam is opposed to modernization. From the other side, the imitators and fashion-worshippers and the West-stricken think that the felicity of Eastern people lies in being physically and spiritually, outwardly and inwardly, Westernized, and that they should take all their customs and manners and traditions from the West, and that their civil and social laws should all be made to conform blindly to those of the West.”

While his works also display a great appreciation for the work done by Western scientists, he firmly denotes that the West should not be imitated blindly, and that Muslims should use their own rational faculties and faith in order to decide what to adopt and what to pass by.

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