New Way(s) of Thinking

Hey everyone! So sorry that I haven’t been posting, I’ve been busy with my new Masters, which has so far been amazing! (M’A)

Ironically, now that I am no longer studying Islam, I’ve become even more convinced and sure about God and the Qur’an and Islam in general. The institute I’m studying at now is very critical of all things that we often take for granted: globalization, capitalism, and most importantly rationalism. Most of my classes so far focus on the fact that the way we think today is primarily because of the Enlightenment – where ideas of rationality, positivism, science, and empirical research became popular. That’s all fine, but the Enlightenment was a purely European experience. Yet if we think about it, the whole world is pressured (and was forced through colonialism) to think in the exact same way. If you don’t argue rationally then you are IRRATIONAL. But is that really the case? Is there only ONE way of understanding the world?

Applying all of this to Islam, I see where I have often gone wrong and why I was having such a hard time. Instead of seeing the Qur’an as something outside of euro-centric rationalism and modernity, I kept trying to test it using the tools that the Enlightenment invented. Why does gender equality mean what the West says it means? More importantly:

Why is something that can’t be seen or proved or understood rationally simply not there?

What about the fact that for thousands of years people have understood the world in diverse ways, whereas today we are supposed to think in “modern” ways, which basically means Western ways, which basically means following the legacy of the Enlightenment.

Islam is a different type of knowledge, a different way of thinking, a different way of understanding the world. If we constantly uphold it to the “ideals” of rationalism then yes, it will always fail. But why do we do that in the first place? It is a euro-centric model that we are all being forced to adhere to, even if it has nothing to do with our own lives and contexts. Moreover, when we find that the euro-centric ideals don’t match our lives, we are told that it is because we are not “modern” enough, we are “backwards”, we are “brainwashed by religion” and that we don’t respect human rights.


My question is: why is there only one way of understanding the world that is valued today?


27 thoughts on “New Way(s) of Thinking

  1. Could you also say this about Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and nearly any other religion? Come to think of it, they are all NON-Western so maybe the West isn’t prone to creating religious thought. 🙂

    Interesting post! Good stuff to ponder. Glad you shared. 🙂

    • I think the Enlightenment was critical of religion in general, since many aspects of religion cannot be “proven” rationally, so I think in that sense religions are all in the same boat.

  2. But on the reverse side of that is religion saying there is only one way of understanding something…our way…all other ways are wrong.

    Interesting thought but there really is not western thought and non western thought…there is your thought and my thoughts…their thoughts and our thoughts…etc …about everything.

    • And the Enlightenment was critical of religion for monopolizing knowledge, and yet it did (and is doing) the SAME thing – rationality is the only way to understand anything.

      I think my thought and your thought are developed according to where we are from and what we were exposed to. Growing up in Zambia and being half-Egyptian has certainly affected the way I understand religion and knowledge in general. If I had grown up in the Netherlands maybe things would have been different.

  3. Interesting thought … but, I don’t know. I have some ideas. There were many non-Muslims right when Islam was developing and was being born: pagans, Christians, Hindus, Jews who didn’t agree with Islam and the Quran. They were hardly the part of the European Enlightenment. In fact, they were called jahil just because they didn’t accept the “enlightenment of Islam.” There were and still are Muslims who don’t agree completely with everything that is in Quran and Sunnah. They see Islam as a developing concept like any other religion.

    I have lived on both ends of the world and I have come to understand that Islam in the *East* is very different from Islam in the West. Muslims in the West are aware that the world is shrinking and people are coming closer and because of that they need to move forward too. Muslims on the other side of the world refuse to see that globalisation was inevitable. But because of globalisation Muslims in Muslim countries are exercising control and influence on Western Muslims. I see that happening everyday on the blogs; Western Muslims are put down for believing that gays are also human, that maybe hijab doesn’t suit every woman’s lifestyle, that it is ok to say to your husband “look I don’t want you to marry again.” Western Muslims who are not always fully submerged in a Muslim community get confused and think there is something wrong with their line of thought. They begin to question Islam first and themselves next.

    No matter how much we try, we can’t live like the Arabs in the 7th Century Arabia. We need to move forward and “forward” is not always a bad, Western or negative concept. Rationality is not a negative concept, after all that is why the pagans were called “ignorant” (jahil) and pre-Islamic time was called Jahiliya because people of that time didn’t think “rationally” to accept Islam. And they were from the same century! 14 centuries later if we try to think rationally that same concept is seen as wrong idea. If a religion doesn’t *have* to be rational then why call people jahil for not being able to see your perfection and rationality? I don’t think rationally thinking tools are the invention of Euro-Enlightenment – Quran is full of verses asking you to “judge”, “see, can’t you see?!”, “reflect”, “think”, “consider”, “ponder”, “can’t you reflect?!” – the tools for thinking rationally are right there in the Quran; they are hard-wired into every Muslim gene. Plus, if it is not important to see “Why is something that can’t be seen or proved or understood rationally simply not there?” then Quran wouldn’t ask Muslims to look around and see what Allah has created. There are numerous “proofs” given in the Quran alluding to the fact that it is important for us to see things and understand them rationally. The problem is not that the proofs are not there, but that today some don’t think that they are enough or that they are even proofs. And this is not the problem with Muslims only. It is happening in every organised religion (except for Buddhism perhaps).

    I should also point out that Enlightenment is not a purely European concept. When Arabs questioned everything and progressed in Science; when rationality was a sought after quality and empirical research was seen as the only way forward, Islam was in its “Golden Age.” That was also the time the rationalists questioned the Quran – but it is another thing that they were silenced promptly and today we don’t want to talk about it. If Islamic Enlightenment was allowed to flourish, globalisation would not have meant Americanization but would have meant Islamicization.

    “Why is there only one way of understanding the world that is valued today?” – Like Coolred said, it has always been “my way is there only one way of understanding the world” that has always been valued. Pagans had their way, Islam brought its own way and everything else became obsolete, Christians refused to believe Muslims, Jews refused to believe Christians and Muslims. Look at us, why are we having this discussion? Because we want to justify to ourselves that everything else is fine but Islam is the only way of understanding the world even if everything can’t be proved rationally, even if we always completely ignore that before European Colonisation, the Middle East and parts of Europe, Africa and Asia were colonized by Muslims. We don’t even know or remember what these countries were like before Islam.

    I think Islamic conquests were not a bad thing, and Islamic Enlightenment wasn’t a negative concept either. They were a part of history and living theology. But at the same time I can’t condemn European conquests and Enlightenment because I was on the receiving end. In fact, I was on the receiving end both times. My ancestors are from the Banu Hashim tribe who migrated to India to fight against the British forces and my great grandfather married an Indian woman and settled there. My great grandmother first saw Muslims conquer India, then she saw the British take over. My great grandfather fought against the British for Islam which was a religion against which his ancestors had fought 1100 years earlier and lost. I am, like most other Muslims, a living result of both types of conquests.

    I think why some Muslims find problems with some aspects of Islam is because we refuse to believe that religions need to continue developing and modifying. I don’t think *you* had problems with Islam; it was *others* who had problems with your approach which was always reasonable IMO that religions develop. The other problem is that we are all looking for a perfect religion and proving that our choice is the perfect answer and it is a painful process to always justify our choices. It causes doubts. Now that you are not studying Islam, you don’t have to prove to yourself that your choice is the best. There are no more “what ifs?” We will always find problems – if not with ourselves then with others because it is hard to understand that everyone can be right at one particular time. Perhaps Euro-centric Enlightenment won’t be enough 300 years from now like we don’t find any value in the Islamic Enlightenment of the 11th Century.

    Sorry for such a long comment, Sara! I’m suddenly embarrassed.

    • I am not suggesting that there is the Enlightenment and then there is Islam – I’m just saying that Islam is a way of understanding the world that was dismissed by the European enlightenment because it was not a purely rational kind of knowledge.

      I think the process you mentioned for Western Muslims also happens for Eastern Muslims, more than we think. I find myself questioning Islam time and time again – not because it doesn’t make sense to ME – but because it doesn’t make sense to the Western society I interact with. Yet at the same time I feel it is right and I do believe in God. But pressure from the West constantly makes me question it. This goes for everything: I am constantly in a position where I am told that Egypt is inferior to the Netherlands – but why is that the case?

      Rationality is not negative but I reject the idea that we can understand everything ONLY through rationality. Moreover, even if that were the case, I reject the imposition of that ideology on everyone. Also I think you misunderstand what I mean by rationality – it doesn’t mean only reason or common sense – it is a whole system. They have spread this system so far that we are irrational if we don’t use it!

      The Qur’an certainly uses reason, but also relies on faith – something explicitly rejected by the European Enlightenment.

      Enlightenment is of course a universal concept, but what I was referring to in this post is the actual event of the European Enlightenment. When Arabs discovered medicine and science, they did not always do so by rejecting religion, faith, God, nature, etc.Many great scientists felt comfortable saying they were religious: is that the case today? Not really.

      “Look at us, why are we having this discussion? Because we want to justify to ourselves that everything else is fine but Islam is the only way of understanding the world even if everything can’t be proved rationally”

      Well that wasn’t my reason 😛 I don’t mean to say Islam is the ONLY way of understanding, I hope that my blog has made that clear. But I do want to argue that it is A way of thinking and living.

      I loved your comment – don’t apologize for the length!! You always make me think 😀

  4. Sara, I’m sorry if you think I was attacking your thinking. I was trying to make sense of my own issues as well when I was reading your post (which I thoroughly enjoyed, btw) and writing my comment. I thought I should mention that in case you think I was attacking your thoughts or the intention of this post.

    “I’m just saying that Islam is a way of understanding the world that was dismissed by the European enlightenment because it was not a purely rational kind of knowledge.”

    Unfortunately, it dismisses most religions and so I completely agree with you that we should make sense of our respective religions independent of EE.

    I actually began questioning religion after I moved out of the West. I was suddenly faced with a very different world view. I met more gays in the ME than I knew in the West (but West is blamed); I found Muslims travelling from one city to the border of the other only so they are officially ‘travelling’ and don’t have to fast. For the first time I met women for whom hijab was NOT a choice. I saw Arab men in local dress drinking gallons of beer and the government didn’t stop them from drinking but banned them from wearing the local dress into pubs and night clubs! And I realised that Muslims in the West didn’t question Islam as much as these Muslims were *opposing* Islamic teachings and finding ways to go around laws. At least Western Muslims question the rationale; these Muslims were plainly ignoring Islamic laws.

    “They have spread this system so far that we are irrational if we don’t use it!”

    No we are “delusional” (in Dawkins’ language) 😀

    “When Arabs discovered medicine and science, they did not always do so by rejecting religion, faith, God, nature, etc. Many great scientists felt comfortable saying they were religious…”

    Not always, but there were Arabs who didn’t reject Islam but didn’t accept everything either. Many scientists must have been comfortable saying that they were religious, but there were also some who said it out of fear. One of the most prominent reasons given for the decline of the Golden Age of Islam is the rise of the orthodoxy of the strict Ashaarii school of religious thought that supported science but fully opposed speculative philosophy. This school believed that crusades were a punishment from Allah for Muslims because they have begun to question the Quran and the Sunnah. Sometimes I feel like the modern Enlightenment is actually the delayed result of the Mutazilah. I don’t think Europe would have been ‘enlightened’ enough without the school of Mutazilah. However, I do believe (strangely like the Mutazili) that Kalaam and Falsafa are mutually compatible and that we need revelation to have reason. What would we reason with if we didn’t have revelation?!

    OK, but that was my reason *hangs head in shame* 😀

    • Aww you are too cute! Don’t worry I didn’t feel attacked at all, just wanted to clarify that I meant the European Enlightenment, not enlightenment in general 😀

      Stupid religious orthodoxy…somehow that’s always at the root of all problems -__-

      I should not be discussing this when I have cherry pie in my fridge. Happy thoughts Sara happy thoughts!

  5. Believe it or not Cairo….you’re actually rationalising even in the post as you are writing.

    The truth is – you either believe without question, or rationalise.

    I mean. Thinking IS rationalising isn’t it?

    Sure you can debate labels and movements and say this philosophy came from here, and this word came from there and you can speak for hours about this – but all of that speaking, fact finding and shaping of opinion to fit in with a theory is: rationalising.

    One can’t seek unwavering commitment to ideology that never wanes. Such a state is an not achievable. The truth is, the world, we, information, thoughts, feelings, circumstances – all is in a state of flux. Sometimes one can be 100% committed to an ideology, other times 20% other times 1%. History and society even follow these patterns of commitment, as do we as individuals. Its the natural order of things.

    • Like I said in my comment to Achelois, the process of rationalizing is not what I was posting about. Of course we all rationalize, and as Achelois rightly said, the Qur’an does so as well. Like you said, we all think. That’s not what I’m criticizing at all.

      What I am referring to is the idea that we cannot understand anything except through rationalizing and thinking. So for example, feelings mean and count for nothing because they are “irrational”.

  6. Dominant groups always define what is valued or not in our society, ostracizing the other groups and also institutionalizing their bias.

    White people do it to non-White cultures, they define what it means to be successful and be a good person. If a culture does not fit that mold of the dominant group, they are seen as backwards or somehow lacking in intelligence or modernity.

    I think this can be applied to how the West approaches and judges the rest of the world, also.

  7. Also, let me just add, the Western point of view is only one point of view, of many. I think it is healthy for us to have a more globalized perspective and incorporate other ways of seeing the world into our own lives. Eurocentrism is being pushed down everyone’s throats, but it is just that, Eurocentric and only one culture’s way of viewing the world.

    rationality is not always “rational” as science has proven historically through it’s “rational” approaches to human nature that essentially institutionalized racism, sexism, and inequality. because it was a rational, scientific approach to humanity, it was seen as correct, which could not have been further from the truth.

    There is an insanity to rationality also, which only proves we must approach the world from more than just one point of view.

    • “Eurocentrism is being pushed down everyone’s throats, but it is just that, Eurocentric and only one culture’s way of viewing the world.”

      That is exactly the point I was trying to make with this post – that Eurocentrism, ONE way of seeing the world, is being forced on everyone else.

      I love your point about how science and rationality have often been used to institutionalize sexism, racism, and other forms of inequality. Science, rationalism, and modernity also led to the Jewish Holocaust.

      • Yes! There is actually this excellent article about “The McDonaldization of Society” which is basically a rational approach to running an organization: Like a McDonald’s organizational management model; be efficient, cut costs, repetition, a hierarchy of power, etc. etc.

        The Jewish Holocaust, how Hitler organized it, is used as an example of how far rationality can actually go, where genocide and insanity within a society can actually follow a “rational” approach.
        The article breaks down what Hitler’s organizational approach was, which mirrors how fast food restaurants are run today, and the rationality of the Holocaust (ie, efficiency), was the beginning of rational organizational theory.

        Anyways, it was an excellent case against all of these Enlightenment values everyone seems to hold on a pedestal.

  8. I agree that people tend to see their own point of view as “superior”, which is something we naturally fall into… thinking that what makes sense to us must make sense to everyone else.

    For myself, I am thoroughly Western (haven’t even travelled outside the US as an adult), so that is how I feel comfortable understanding Islam at this point.

    • That’s completely understandable…of course every Western country has its own way of understanding life. But colonialism and other events have made it so that the whole world must adopt these Western ways of thought otherwise they would be classified as backwards.

  9. I hear on a daily basis that i dont belong in Europe, dont belong in Sweden, because my thinking doesnt belong to this part of the world. I think that people are arrogant. 1000 years ago people thought they knew it all they were smartest and that they were right and everyone else was wrong, i think its the same now..We all think that we have come to enlightment and that our way of thinking is right while the thinking of other civilisations and countries is wrong.

    Especially the mentality in this western world, thinks that democracy, as its seen in the west, is the best way, that freedom of speech like its in the west, is the solution to all your problems.
    Some people complained on my blog that muslims come and have their own culture, that they dont want to drop, they want to import sharia, they want to enforce their thinking.
    But what is the west doing? The west invades Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and says we come with democracy and freedom of speech.
    So its wrong for a muslim to have a diffrend thinking but its ok for a westerner to have a diffrend thinking and force it on people.
    Its really a clash of civilizations..

    • “We all think that we have come to enlightment and that our way of thinking is right while the thinking of other civilisations and countries is wrong.”

      I agree that we all have the tendency to do this. I guess in the end it depends on who has the power to enforce their understanding, and for the past few centuries, it has been the West.

      “So its wrong for a muslim to have a diffrend thinking but its ok for a westerner to have a diffrend thinking and force it on people.”

      Of course 😉

  10. I must say – haleluyah! I’ve been trying to get this pont across for so long – but I guess it doesn’t hold as much merrit coming from a traditionalist like me. 🙂

    I’ve written a longer essay on the limits of enlightement in the context of racism – and what I called the “muslim question” part of which you can view on my blog.

    With Peace,:)

    • It’s funny you say that, because I have the feeling that if someone Western makes this argument, everyone listens, whereas when a Muslim makes it everyone thinks its just Muslims complaining and over-reacting. In academics, whenever Western scholars criticize the Enlightenment or Western hegemony, they are more likely to reach the Western audiences than if someone non-Western criticizes it.

      I LOVE what you said about how development today means economic development:
      “The West generally has one perception of development – that is high GDP – which means one needs a sound capitalist economy in order to build and expand this perfect social order driven by the modernization of ones nation and people.”

      Couldn’t agree more!! Great post!

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