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The Compatibility of Islam and Postmodernism

Within the last year, Letters to a Young Muslim has made waves. It has been christened as one of the most important books on Islam published in a while, which I think is a fair point. In it, Omar Saif Ghobash, the very esteemed, well-learned ambassador of the UAE to Russia writes to his son about an Islam for the modern age. There is much to praise in this book. Ghobash is quick to condemn violent strains of Islam, known as jihad, while still admitting the infatuation Muslim youth have for it. He maintains that Islam must not simply condemn but offer a greater vision for Islam. He argues that “it is not enough to chant in public that Islam is not violent or radical or angry… We need to take responsibility for the Islam of peace… [and] demonstrate how it is expressed in our lives and the lives of those in the community.” (103). The other reason his vision is striking is because of its broad treatment of issues and topics within the Islamic world. You can tell that Ghobash has lived these issues, and for a guy who hasn’t, I very much appreciate that.

Here’s why this book is so important, though. The answer Ghobash proposes for Islam’s woes is to infuse a postmodern understanding of the world into the very core of Islamic culture, in order to change the social imaginary of Islam. If none of those words make sense, hang on, it’s going to be okay. Quite simply, this solution is problematic. If the appeal to a progressive Islam is based on as unstable a foundation as postmodernism, inconsistency starts to abound at the worldview level. Forgive my lack of nuance here but the key point of postmodern thought is that my perception of the world reigns supreme in determining what I believe. I must determine for myself my experience of the world regardless of tradition, family, and a sense of ultimate truth. Ghobash uses the analogy of a movie to prove this point. Every person watches the same movie and yet walks away with different ideas of what the movie is actually trying to say. Here is the issue with that: the movie was created with a specific intent in mind and while my perception might extrapolate different themes, the message of the movie is not influenced by my perception. Rather, my perception must be lined up with the intent of the director to gauge whether my perception was right, wrong or partially true. Even Ghobash finds this difficult to maintain because he ends up calling for a wholesome theology of Islam to develop:

“If we are to work on combating the type of [extremist] Islam, then we need to spend the time also working out in words, both spoken and written, the philosophical and theological arguments for a wholesome Islam.” (87)

Here lies the crisis of postmodernism and laying a foundation for Islam in it. First, if the perception of the individual is supreme, how can a violent Islam be deemed wrong? Second, is a Postmodern Islam ultimately faithful to Islam itself?

The most jarring quote in this book for me is this: “There is no such thing as al Sha’ab – The People.” The history of Islam and, arguably, the collective world of Islam would disagree. Various strains and beliefs aside, one of the key marks of Islam is its sense of communal identity. The very family names within the Arab World indicate this. Dangling between two names, you’ll see the word “Ibn”. Son. The way identity is expressed in Islam is within the sense of community.

Now, Ghobash clarifies that he is advocating for expressive individualism, but even this is a Post-Enlightenment social imaginary. When I say social imaginary, I’m referring to Charles Taylor’s definition. Quite simply, the social imaginary is the air that the current cultural climate breathes- the view of our environment that we assume to be supremely true and usually take for granted. So, for example, our current social imaginary takes for granted that a higher power(s) may or may not be possible. It is the root of secularism. For a dude living in the early 50s AD (and no that’s not some slang for when people wore poodle skirts, I mean Roman Empire 50s), he would have taken for granted that the world was infused with deities and spirits. This doesn’t mean their social imaginary is any less valid than our current one, it just means that the conditions for secularism, agnosticism, or atheism are ripe.

Okay, back to the point. Part of our Western social imaginary is that the individual can matter outside of al Sha’ab, the family, or however you want to group people. The Eastern social imaginary ( those in which monotheistic religions were birthed) would take for granted that one’s identity is not in himself, but rather in his family and community. (Subtweet Christianity… something, something personal relationship with Jesus…).

Anyway, here lies why I think the premise of this book is good, but in vain. How do you convince the very culture surrounding Islam that you are right and they are wrong, if you appeal to a postmodern conception of Islam where the individual reigns supreme? Wouldn’t you, then, just be giving your individual take on Islam? It’s like a really bad rendition of Noah telling people a flood is coming and building a boat, to only receive two inches of rainfall. His personal perception of the rainclouds was ultimately irrelevant. An appeal to an individualized sense of Islam simply seems incompatible.

If none of this seems very controversial yet, just wait for it. I would argue two things for this in relation to Christianity. First, I think if you replace the word Islam with Christianity in this post, you would find that much of “progressive Christianity”, for lack of a better term, isn’t necessarily progress. Rather, it functions out of another social imaginary that could be completely wrong. Second, throughout this book I couldn’t help but be reminded of a quote by Herman Bavinck,

“Hence Christianity is not only positioned antithetically towards paganism; it is also paganism’s fulfillment. Christianity is the true religion, therefore also the highest and purest; it is the truth of all religions.”

First, that is a pretty bold statement to make in the current social imaginary. Absolute truth is a hard appeal in a postmodern world. However, hear me out. What if the desire Ghobash has isn’t to be found in Islam? What if he is actually so correct in his analysis that Islam can’t get there? Ghobash repeatedly laments that repentance in Islam moves men instead to an “inhuman intensity”, to jihad. He desires a repentance that isn’t destructive. To me, that sounds like something called grace. Isn’t Christianity the truest fulfillment of repentance? Isn’t the good news of the Gospel the biblical affirmation of human sinfulness? God says, “Yeah, I knew that.” and then steps in and justifies. Then, repentance doesn’t look like self-flagellation masked as religious violence, but like laying your life down for your enemies.

Ghobas, grew up without his father, a giant of a man in the founding of the UAE. He acknowledges that in the Arab world there is a sense of lost identity without a father. Isn’t Christianity the truest fulfillment of fatherhood? The orphan is taken care of. If God the Father adopts, signs the birth certificate with the blood of Jesus, and then calls his sons and daughters His own, the identity of the Christian, and especially the Arab, is secure in the fatherhood of God.

Last one, I promise. If what Ghobash wants is a culture where individuals are celebrated in the context of community, he is grasping at is something that looks remarkably similar to the church. This point may be the strongest apologetic for a Westernized Islam and has the certainty of Steph Curry shooting a three-pointer unguarded. The Bible affirms the goodness and necessity of the individual within the context of the body of Christ. 1 Corinthians 12, for those making sure I’m not spouting off my postmodern perception of the church. The Gospel affirms the uniqueness of individuals while simultaneously insisting that they were meant for al Sha’ab. Ekklesia. The Church. The strongest apologetic for Christianity is for people to desire that which they want and to see the Gospel subjectively fulfill the desires of man.

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