The Paradox of Our Condition

Quotes on Modernity,

by Sh. Abdulhakim Murad Winter1

From His Presentation on YouTube:
Master Classes on Imam Al Ghazali

Edited by OmarKN

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1. Introduction

This introduction on the character of modernity, here including postmodernity, is part of and in the context of Sh. Abdulhakim Murad's elaborations on Imam Al Ghazali's thought in his era of the Islamic civilization in comparison with our times.1

No other (pre-modern) civivilization can compare with the Islamic civilization in terms of intellectual productivity, not even pre-modern China… Imam Al Ghazali's thought can relate to the contemporary condition.

The following text is almost verbatim, except for the subtitles.

Imam Al Ghazali has valuable insights to offer for us in our rather different time, but bearing in mind the fact that certain constants in the human condition cannot change, [we can still derive benefit from his insights]. The human mind, physicality is still the same - it's still the same human species, the homo sapiens - that we were then.

And the list of vices and virtues is effectively constant in the ethical history of humanity…

2. Our Age: Constant Change & Seeming Endlessness

Our's is an age, in which people like to characterize themselves as seekers. (But in a sense also Imam Al Ghazali was a seeker.)

Everybody is a seeker, perhaps that's because nobody actually found something very much - modernity is about an endless journey to a destination that nobody seems to think about. Does science have a final point? Does modern ethics have a final point beyond which there will be nothing?

It's all somehow 'fashion.' Fashion will never - finally come to a conclusion as to what human beings should wear, it just changes and changes. And there is something about (our) modernity that is defined by endlessness, it just goes on and it doesn't even operate in cycles, frequently it just is a process, rather than a civilization, as traditionally understood.

And this has to do with the fact that modernity, unlike premodern civilizations, has never settled on a consensual definition of the 'good life,' and has presumed - without being able to offer any evidence, because it can't, because it's speaking about the future, of which it necessarily knows nothing and over which it has no control - that the 'golden age' of humanity will be in the future, rather than constituting something that existed in a sainted past.

3. Assumptions of Premodern Civilizations

All premodern civilizations really assumed that there was a 'age of goodness' in the past, the Apostolic Age, or the Age of the Church fathers in Christianity, the Golden Age in Hinduism, and we are now in the Iron Age, the age of darkness and the solidification of forms. And the age of the Great Emperors in the Chinese legend and that the Yellow Emperor who began the entire process of dynastic history in China, the Age of the Buddha and for the Muslims of course the age of Sayyidina Muhammad (saws) and his Sahaba.

These are the traditional narratives by which human civilizations have always measured themselves. There is a process of periodically interrupted and even partially reversible entropy2, that defines how we see ourselves in the timetable of history. We are going downhill, and this is after all what common sense suggests. After all the natural movement of things is to go downhill. The nature of matter is entropic.

4. The Modern Myth of Progress

But modernity however proposes something rather brave and rather strange, which is that it picks up presumably on a certain version of a particularly Christian idea of moving up towards a millennium3 and universalizes that to propose the possibility of something resembling a utopia in this world, deliverable through human reason alone.

And the 20th century's great political ideologies were largely the consequence - in very different ways - of that key assumption, which has its roots in the Enlightenment, that is to say that amongst nationalists the assumption was that the future will be in the hands of the strong. So that the process of evolution, which they took to be anti-entropic - things seemed to be moving towards more complex forms - and hence humanity defined biologically as part of that must be becoming better and that has to define itself in the segment of humanity - the natural selection of favours - so the Arian races will prevail.

5. The Innate Contradiction of Modernity

Others however thought that is was to with something more universal and ethicising, to do with the class struggle and to do with a movement towards a classless and even cashless society. A kind of utopia of free individuals formed loosely and consensually into communes. None of those dreams survived when forced to deal with the realities of the world and human nature. And in fact they turned in every case into nightmares.

But it none-the-less is the case that our modernity, liberal secular modernity, the capitalist consumer society, in which we all live, has maintained much of that presumption, that is to say that the basic model of the world - in terms of matter - is towards dissolution.

Eventually the universe, we are told, will peter out with a few last red giant stars and then there will be an equal distribution of energy across the cosmos and everything will be in darkness. But on the biological level the idea is that there is the emergence of species, the emergence of intelligence, the emergence of ethics - and hence we are in some sense, genuinely capable of perfection.

And this characteristically modern, strange idea derived from science, this illegitimate extension of the theory of natural selection into the human and social form, does dictate much of the assumptions of modernity, i.e. that is 'there is progress,' 'we have to be getting better,' 'there most be more equality,' 'there must be more rights,' 'there must be more opportunity,' 'there must be more choice,' 'there must be more products,' 'there must be more freedom,' and on those definitions the assumption is that things are indeed all moving without the presence4 of a mysterious metaphysical hand, in the right direction and that we are marching into a kingdom of light.

6. The Mismatch of Technique and Ethics

The reality is of course that the religions having […] of wisdom on their side are sceptical of any such project. Human beings may be improving in their techniques, and in their ability to master the physical world and even their own biologies through genetic technology, which is now moving past the first faltering stages of adaptation and towards the possibility of real mastery of our physical forms, that with the concurrent development of technique and at the same time the static nature of the capacities of human consciousness and human intelligence, that there is an increasing mismatch, so that technique becomes more and more significant and our ethical lives struggle to keep up.

Whenever there is a new piece of legislation planned, the mental equipment and the ethical register, which we have to deal with the human implications of that transformation, remain the same. And so we struggle for instance now with the idea of transhumanism. This is one of the big, new philosophical debates in our civilization:

To what extent is it ethical for us genetically to edit our species in order to remove hereditary diseases for instance. Or to what extent is it ethical to edit our species in order to enhance the intelligence of our children, or their longevity. All of these are possibilities in the laboratory now and the ethics still struggles to catch up, because ethics is part of human consciousness, and it is a finite thing, it cannot be enhanced by science or by technology.

So this is in a sense the paradox of our condition: our 'tools' are dragging us forward, but we are - necessarily as homo sapiens - the same. Of course, someone argue that transhumanism itself will allow us to leave behind our status as homo sapiens and we will be able to adapt ourselves to be more intelligent, possibly more ethical.

But that remains in the realm of science fiction. So this is our strange reality and it would certainly look very strange to Imam Al-Ghazali and to those in his hime.


Baghdad - year 1090 AD, the most cosmopolitan city of the world, in the midst of globalization.

[To find out about the continuation of the talk go to1 -- at 14:15]

2017-04-10 vs.1.1; from 2017-04-09
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  1. Shaykh Abdulhakim Murad Winter - YouTube: Master Classes on Imam Al Ghazali - part 1

  2. lack of order or predictability; gradual decline into disorder (Apple Dict.)

  3. The millennium:

    • Christian Theology: the prophesied thousand-year reign of Christ at the end of the age (Rev. 20:1–5). Archer's treatise predicted that the millennium was close at hand.
    • A utopian period of justice, peace, and prosperity. the people must seize power—the millennium cannot be imposed on them from above. (Apple Dictionary)

  4. Original had 'absence' which must have been a glitch.