Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Keeping Up with the Times: Arabic and the Challenges of Postmodernity

Assalamu 'alaykum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh

As Muslims it is important that we understand the times that we live in. Now, the times that we live in can be variously interpreted and have been variously interpreted by different social scientists. We might all agree that certain things have been happening, but how we view the significance and importance of these events, and whether or not we have to change accordingly is entirely a different issue. What follows is a brief discussion on the times in which we live based on a particular view thereof, and where Arabic (in the traditional sense) features in these times. The discussion that follows is in part based on a particular reading of the times (which is not necessarily my own reading thereof). The idea is basically to take Arabic into hitherto unchartered territories in the current Muslim discourse especially vis-a-vis Arabic, and to see what Arabic is up against in the modern age, and how we can successfully navigate its way through these troubled waters and stormy seas.

We are living in times where socio-economic changes have been fast and furious - fast in that never in history have changes been at the highly accelerated pace that we witness them today, and furious in that never in history did people have to change their lifestyles and the way they view things so drastically as they have done in this day and age. Already under modernity did we witness severe pressures been exerted on societies to make the change from a traditional lifestyle to that of a modern one. Tradition was a vestige of the past and therefore not commensurate with modern scientific, technological and political developments. The situation under modernity required large-scale adjustment of society and culture in the form of making a clean break with tradition, and in the process adopting the forward-looking attitude of modern and progressive societies rather than the backward-looking of traditional and static societies.

The arrival of postmodernity meant that even the modernist movement of modernity had become outdated and outmoded. The solidity of modernism melted under postmodernity, and hopes and promises of modernism vanished into thin air with the advent of postmodernity. People were now entering and experiencing what was called the "Postmodern Condition". The certainity and self-assuredness of modernity have given way to the doubt and ambivalence of postmodernity. In fact, according to postmodernism (the movement sparked by postmodernity) even modernity was never on any sure ground or foundation, as there was never any ground or foundation in the first place - it only appeared solid to us at the time but in reality it was melting. In other words, modernism was always meant to self-destruct, it is just that we did not know that at the time, but now that we know it in hindsight we also know that it never really was. What I have just raised forms part of what is called "Postmodern Speak".

The question is that if tradition already had it tough under modernity how much more tougher would'nt the situation be under postmodernity? As Muslims, and as Muslims who are very attached to our Tradition, we are most certainly feeling the strains and pressures of the times. Those who do not value our Tradition and do not share it with us view it as a burden and unwanted baggage that is slowing us down from making any progress in the modern age, and have therefore called for its total abandonment. Others with even more sinister agendas have called for the total abandonment if not annihilisation of Islam as a religion, not just its tradition. At this stage you might want to ask also how all of this affects or ties in with Arabic? Well, my response to that is that a great deal of Arabic as we know it is part and parcel of the Arabic and Islamic Tradition. The two Primary Sources of Islam are in Arabic. The studies that we depend on for understanding these Primary Sources have themselves been conducted and written in Arabic and according rules and principles that have been formulated quite early on in the Tradition, and then continued to develop and mature in that Tradition. Some contemporary Muslim scholars classify Arabic as being an integral component in the structure that makes up the Tradition.

My own Islamic Traditional response to the above is that Islam and Muslims, masha Allah, have proven to be extremely resilient in the face of the challenges of the Modern Age. Muslims all over the world - from the simplest to the most educated - continue to be inspired by Islam and the Qur'an. While in the West many have relinquished their religions, Muslims have held fast to theirs and we find Islam even gaining more Muslims in the process.

يُرِيدُونَ لِيُطْفِؤُوا نُورَ اللَّهِ بِأَفْوَاهِهِمْ وَاللَّهُ مُتِمُّ نُورِهِ وَلَوْ كَرِهَ الْكَافِرُونَ ، سورة الصف: 8

[Their intention is to extinguish Allah's Light (by blowing) with their mouths: But Allah will complete (the revelation of) His Light, even though the Unbelievers may detest (it). ]

We are definitely living in very trying times, and the challenges are mounting by the day, yet, Muslims all over the world pray their five daily prayers, fast the Month of Ramadhan, and perform the Holy Pilgrimage. It is almost as if Islam has become their life-blood and the oxygen that they breathe, and that is despite the negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims in the media. There is no doubt that in these trying times Muslims have to stand together and support each other and encourage each other to hang in there and persevere through the trials and tribulations of the times in which we live:

وَالْعَصْرِ، إِنَّ الإِنسَانَ لَفِي خُسْرٍ، إِلاَّ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالْحَقِّ وَتَوَاصَوْا بِالصَّبْرِ، سورة العصر: 1 - 3

[(I swear) by the time. Most surely man is in loss, except such as have Faith, and do righteous deeds, and (join together) in the mutual teaching of Truth, and of Patience and Constancy. ]

As for Arabic, we need not fear, as Allah Himself has undertaken to protect the Qur'an of which Arabic is an indivisible part. Arabic cannot be separated from the Qur'an, nor can the Qur'an be separated from its Arabic.

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ قُرْآناً عَرَبِيّاً لَعَلَّكُمْ تَعْقِلُونَ ، سورة يوسف: 2

[We have sent it down as an Arabic Qur'an, in order that ye may understand.]

إِنَّا نَحْنُ نَزَّلْنَا الذِّكْرَ وَإِنَّا لَهُ لَحَافِظُونَ ، سورة الحجر: 9

[We have, without doubt, sent down the Reminder; and We will assuredly guard it (from corruption).]

Islam Will Eventually Prevail

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