By Motiur Rahman
On the one extreme, freedom of thought has led one to assume that there are no universal or absolutist principles; that everything is relativist and subject to interpretation. How can this be when we can discourse with each other, debate and argue matters unless there is a shared understanding? Using a common language in our communication presupposes a shared knowledge, language, understanding, logic and rationality. Even when we argue we presuppose that our opponents understand the content, context and our thought processes. Before a discussion takes place we check that our adversaries know and understand what we are conveying through the process of discourse. On the other extreme, popular and widely held narratives are restricting people’s thought processes; ethnocentric discrimination and historical processes have created ‘others’ who are a direct antithesis to our identities. Currently it is difficult to positively identify one’s self e.g. being British or being French; the easier way to distinguish one’s national, ethnic or religious identity is by the negation of the ‘other’. Therefore, this discrimination becomes an integral part of one’s identity and therefore the survival of one’s identity is to some extent dependent on it.
Globalisation also has an impact on identities of peoples and nations on many fronts, not just economically and culturally as more and more people come into closer contact with each other. On the deeper level, humanity have always shared common consensus in morality, spirituality, personal fulfilment and generosity. I cannot imagine nation states with border controls before modernity; people were free to travel across great distances and settle in areas. This had been altered in the 20th century and emphasis placed on creating national identities and consensuses to cement the people in unity in each nation state. However, globalisation has once again opened up the world where goods, services and businesses are no longer under the confinement of national state borders along with thoughts, knowledge, culture and technology.
It is increasingly difficult to define personal identity to nationalities and ethnicities in our time. It is a time of flux; we must now revert and resort to universal and innate principles that are valid and unchanging over time, that which transcends ethnicity and history, that which does not discriminate or look down on others, that which will unify us and give us a sense of direction and purpose. The narratives used in the past no longer binds us together as we are now bombarded by metanarratives which are personal and can be divisive.
Reality (haqiqah) – The truth is from you Lord, so do not be among the doubters (al-Qur’an – 2:147)
The Arabic word, al-Haqq, is a word that conveys the meanings of truth, reality, the Real, right (in the sense of justice) and obligation. In fact, one of the names of God ﷻ is al-Haqq which means both the Real and the Truth. What a contrast between the truth and doubt! Humanity is seeking certainty in these uncertain times. Allah ﷻ instructs his Prophet ﷺ that the Haqq is from your Lord, so do not be among the doubters. The reality and truth proceeds from the Lord of the universe, it is not to be invented but to be discovered. The Haqq is the placement of things in its appropriate places, to know with certainty and to be free of doubt.
The ancient philosophers, especially Plato, have demonstrated that there are unending truths or realities that are unchangeable and immutable over time, that there are universal or a priori truths which are the highest forms of reality or haqiqah that never changes over time. All other perceptions are only mere perceptions; they are only real if they confirm and conform to reality. Parmenides of the Eleatic school has a great argument in demonstrating what reality is and how change cannot affect it in any way. It is claimed that whole of Plato’s philosophy is a footnote to Parmenides’ teaching (E Anscombe) while the rest of western philosophy is a footnote to Plato (A Whitehead). We will not get into this debate; however, what is important is the understanding of Plato’s forms. For Plato forms are the highest form realities. All things that are in existence must conform to these forms, both in their existence and for them to be known about.
The holy Qur’an distinguishes between knowledge (‘ilm) and assumptions (zann). Socrates defined true knowledge as eternal, unchanging, and absolute compared to opinions which are temporal, changing, and relative. Al-Ghazzali, Allah ﷻ bestow His blessings on him, further elaborates the limitations of the sensory organs when it gathers information about reality (empirical data). He has demonstrated the seven defects of the eye (observational data) when it comes to interpret visual data. This poses a big problem for the positivists in their methodology and their research and consequently on their findings. There are many realms; humanity can only know the realms that are within their endowments and capabilities. They can only speculate beyond their capabilities, but will never know for sure or can make claim to knowledge and certainty which is beyond their capabilities. This does mean that they should deny what is beyond their reach. Indeed, the word kufr exactly describes this. Kufr in one sense means to deny and in the other sense means to conceal the truth. Why isn’t it logically and philosophically possible to have other realms and realties beyond this physical world? How can the realms of Jabarut (power) and Malakut (angels and spirits) be denied or refuted? Indeed, there other realms and creations that is beyond the grasp of humanity!
Meanings are not arbitrary and conventional. The symbols, signs and the language that conveys these meanings can be arbitrary with its time and place and its people. The letters in the alphabet of a language represent basic units of sounds (phonemes). The symbols representing these letters can be and are different in different languages, however, the sound conveyed by these letters and symbols are real and cannot be arbitrary or conventional. These sounds are real disregarding language, its alphabet and the signs that convey it. The forms of these sounds exist in themselves in reality. These forms are unending and immutable and when their manifestation takes place the sound is heard.
To make a word we need a few sounds in a conventional and agreed order which denotes a meaning, whether it is a noun, a verb or any other part of speech defined by the language. This word is only depicting or describing a reality which exists independently of the word or the perceiver who uses the word to describe this reality. The word is conventional and arbitrary while the meaning it describes or conveys is not. For example, the name of David signifies him when it is mentioned. The name only signifies him after it was agreed by the people (convention) that he shall be named David. His name (signifier) can be changed to something else; even then his reality remains the same regardless of his name. Indeed, in some cultures David is known as Dawud! The name or the word describing it is arbitrary while that which is being described is not!
Words make up languages. Languages are used to convey meanings of expressions. Expressions depict realities even though they may be subjective only! This leads us types of realities – their grades and shades. Everything is created in pairs. Even falsehood presumes that there is truth; lies assume that the truth is there somewhere! Haqiqah, therefore, must proceed from the Haqq and must reflect the Haqq. The haqiqah is multifaceted and manifests itself in various modes in different times and spaces. It essentially points to One and the Real, the Absolute and the Truth. This manifestation can only be perceived according the receptacle of the beholder. For example, animals share many of the sensory abilities with humans. In some cases they excel us, e.g. a dog’s sense of smell and hearing is far better than a human’s. In other perceptions they are lacking behind humans, e.g. moral, logical, rational and spiritual. The latter mentioned are difficult to measure empirically. The haqiqah cannot be constrained and contained only by the spatiotemporal aspect although many aspects of haqiqah are manifested in the spatiotemporal dimension. The Haqq and haqiqah are above and beyond this!
Languages convey meanings and expressions. Meanings and expressions are depictions of reality. Real intelligence is to comprehend meaning and realities. One the face of it languages may seem different, however, in reality they are the one and the same. If this was not the case then how can languages possibly be translated and interpreted from one to another?
Intelligence is intertwined with language. Thought without language is deficient, defective and definitely limited. Try thinking without language to see how far you can get!
During modernity and the enlightenment era doubt has been cast on human consensus that has been formed since the dawn of time. The rites and rituals on the surface of it may look very different and contrasting; however, when we scrutinise and examine it we will find the underpinnings between them are from the same and one source. Humans have a need for these rites and rituals; even if and when they are taken away they are replaced by other things. In the modern secular world they are more likely to be replaced by bank holidays, national events, sports, following football teams and hobbies. Indeed, these are the rituals which live revolve around!
The four main characteristics of religion are to cultivate the traits of generosity, justice, patience, humility. Worship and service has been ingrained in the human psyche. For what reason does a mother raise her offspring given the pain she has to bear with? Why is it unacceptable and morally wrong to allow people to suffer for no reason? These are not ideologies or political agendas; but rather timeless a priori consensus humans have held across history and geography. Rationality and logical thinking cannot explain these consensuses. Why should one give up one’s pleasure to serve another or to be devoted to another? Where is the rationality for love? Why have faith, why worship, why be patient rather than have instant gratification? We can only answer these questions from moral perspectives which belong to the realities of human beings. For animal intelligence is self-centred and cannot comprehend these realities as humans do. Intelligences are of different levels: animalistic, devilish, angelic and divine. Humans possess all four categories of it depending on the levels of each individual. Some may possess more animalistic intelligence while others angelic and so on.
Increasingly over the last century under the bandwagon of modernity a systematic attack and attempt has been made to erode and replace religious beliefs and practices with secular ones. Spiritual truths have been replaced with political ideologies, norms and values with political correctness. However, we see these attempts as temporal and fleeting as the Qur’an says, “And say: “Truth has (now) arrived, and Falsehood perished: for Falsehood is (by its nature) bound to perish.” (Qur’an 17:81)
Starting with enlightenment in the 17th century dominated by reason which was superseded by the modernity movement in the 19th century, later to be replaced by postmodernity where humanity has become unstuck! The conclusions of the postmodernists are that there is no conclusion, no consensus, no truth, and no reality. We have arrived at the era of metanarratives and hyperreality.
Nihilism, which is the precursor of existentialism, arrived at the late 19th century. Therefore, the logical conclusion to enlightenment is that there is nothing, no truth or reality, everything thing is relative, materialistic – all that matters is the personal gratification and nothing more. What an absurd conclusion to enlightenment!
This had direct impact on political ideology – the rise of Nazism and Fascism in Europe, followed by great world wars where millions have died. All in the name of progress! Meanwhile – personal gratification which became the ultimate aim of humanity, led to the exploitation of the planet with irreversible consequences. The start of ecological damage, consumption of fossil fuels led to the destruction of the planet and its inhabitants. Humanity has wiped out 60% of the global animal population since the 1970s (The Living Planet Index, produced for WWF by the Zoological Society of London). It is now at critical levels.
As the First World War saw the start of the breaking up of empires across the globe which was accelerated by the World War 2, new national identities had to be created alongside with new political ideologies to unify the people in newly-found nations. Communism gave way to Socialism which was superseded by Neoliberalism. With each change in ideology accompanying narratives had to be implemented.
The underlying narratives are democracy, liberty, individual freedom, equality and rights. Plato confessed that he was so revolted by the rule of the 30 tyrants during his time which was a major reason for him in delving into philosophy. The democratic city, Plato says, “cares nothing for the past behavior of the man who enters public life. He need only proclaim himself a friend of the people, and he will be honored.” (The Republic, Book 7)
Now in terms of equality, we see that there is a massive and ever-increasing gulf between the rich and poor of our societies all around the world. In the mid-80s around 35% of the total wealth of US was owned by the bottom 90% of families and 10% of total US wealth was owned by the top 0.1% families. This had dramatically changed to below 25% of total US wealth now belonged to the bottom 90% families while the top 0.1 families increased their wealth to around 25% of total US wealth by 2012 (Washington Centre for Equitable Growth).
The postmodern era coincides with globalisation and the internet. This has caused an issue with maintaining narratives which support political ideologies. Globalisation has drawn the world closer in terms of economic interdependence and the sharing of information and culture. People are no longer reliant on mainstream media for their information and are reluctant to readily believe it. Trust in politics has been eroded after no weapons of mass destruction was found in Iraq after its invasion in 2003, the global banking crises of 2008, the Arab Spring movements did not deliver democracy as it was anticipated. Egypt returned to military rule once again after Morsi, the Covid19 pandemic and the conspiracy theories surrounding it, and only this week the national embarrassment of democratically elected President Donald Trump in the divided USA.
People are increasingly resorting to metanarratives as they find themselves as part of hyperreality and find it difficult to distinguish between reality and the imaginal world. Indeed, many politicians are using metanarratives deliberately to keep people in a state of hyperreality, where people believe in what appeals to them regardless of truth or reality. This keeps the people in state of confusion and chaos.
“And whatever strikes you of disaster – it is for what your hands have earned; but He pardons much” – Qur’an 42:30