‘We need an Islamic ethical perspective fit for our current complex times’

We require a recommitment to God’s beauty, excellence and goodness, as we come together to confront the challenge of sustainable planetary future, writes Prof Aslam Fataar.

Islam has a robust ethical tradition that impacts its public institutions and practices. Its ethical tradition is characterised by mercy, forgiveness, love and compassion. Beauty and dignity are some of the higher-order defining qualities of the Islamic faith tradition. 

During the height of the exercise of its lush moral tradition, Islam’s regulative regimes and legal practices were based on conditional qualities of beauty, mercy, love, and dignity. Its contribution to philosophy, mysticism, literary culture and science emerged well before the European enlightenment. 

The Islamicate legacy has provided the world with an exceptionally creative art and architectural tradition that stretched from Baghdad to Andalusia to the Ottoman empire, Moghul India, Safavid Persia, Turkic China, the Indonesian archipelago, and the coasts and interiors of East, West, North and South Africa.  

Islam provided its societies with an integrated and cohesive sense of adaptation and co-existence over time. Islamic societies adapted to various forms of dislocation at specific historical moments, whether caused by famine, war, expansionism, urbanisation, changing demographic patterns, climate, and geography. 

Islam’s ethical and moral coordinates have always been invested, sometimes more visible and robust than at other times, in the drama of human existence, survival, and adaptation. 

Islamic societies have undergone decisive renovation, especially in the encounter with colonial modernity from the late 17th century. The political foundations of Islam’s institutions and governmental systems were re-arranged. 

Colonial modernity ensnared Islamic societies’ education and the judicial systems. Modernity’s impact ruptured Islam’s epistemic tradition, and its ethical grounding became dislodged from its institutions. Adaptations were made to newly colonial imposed political, education, law and governance. 

Societies experimented with modern political traditions with various pan-Arab, pan-Islamic and Ba’athist socialist experiments becoming visible in the twentieth century. The rise of the Zionist state of Israel, propped up by American and Western imperial interests combined with the discovery of oil in Muslim countries to lay the basis for imperial politics that dominated the region.  

The Iranian revolution of 1979 was the first direct countrywide response to imperial domination. The incessant imperial wars in the Middle East caused the death of millions in the region, which laid the platform for the rise of Islamism based on maximalist or fundamental political and religious expressions. Al-Qaida, ISIS, and al-Shabab were all movements that rejected western domination and modernity based on a pre-Islamic template that circulated static, pre-modern expressions of religiosity.  In this context, religious discourses underpinned by strong reactive identity claims often trumped the ethical intent of more universal questions of co-living, sharing and cooperation.  

Domination

Ethically informed responses and adaptation struggled to emerge in the face of the necessity of social adaptation to the tremendous changes that Muslim societies are confronted with. Questions of poverty, gender, racial/ethnic and class domination, and other exclusionary forms remain challenges. 

The ethical dimension seems especially challenged when it comes to Muslim institutional responses to climate change, productive pandemic responses, poverty eradication and general institution building to address broad societal structural problems.  

Ziauddin Sardar (2019) explains that chaos, complexity, globalisation and information technology have created a new present that is radically different from all our recent pasts. We have entered a period where rapid change, uncertainty and ambiguity are ever-present and where the individual has tremendous power to do good or bad. In these postnormal times, our traditional and conventional ways of solving problems do not work. 

According to Sardar, in postnormal times, we may struggle to develop the systemic, ethical and organisational capacity to translate our capabilities into providing sustainable solutions to our societal problems. In postnormal times, uncertainty takes centre stage. Since everything is interconnected, complex and chaotic, and changing rapidly, nothing can actually be described with any certainty. 

We need an Islamic ethical perspective that is fit for our current complex times. Such a perspective would take the interconnections of a globalised world into consideration. Islam would thus be open to developing an inclusive worldview that promotes equality and plurality at all levels of society. Muslims and non-Muslims would be together to work for a sustainable world and viable futures for all. In such a way, Ziauddin Sardar argues, the emphasis would be on human rights, equal opportunities for women, freedom of conscience and mutuality. 

Let me bring such a perspective home to more localised conditions and challenges. Communities are confronted with political infractions and seemingly intractable challenges daily.  

The challenge is for all faith and non-faith traditions to develop, in alliance with each other, ethically informed social responses to mitigate the impact of complex changes and help in the quest to establish sustainable planetary existences into the future.  Such a quest should be based on fidelity to science, sharing resources, addressing poverty alleviation, and bearing witness to God’s justice in our ethical conduct.

Struggle

Ethical conduct is essential on the terrain of gender justice, where we are confronted with the need to participate in the ongoing struggle against patriarchy and gender oppression. 

We have to offer readings and interpretations of our sacred texts that respond to the ethical prerequisite to accord justice to those who are oppressed among us; women, the poor and marginalised. Our religious languages should unequivocally call out and act against the oppression of women. Instead, the elevation of women’s status must become the defining feature of Muslim society’s ongoing practices. 

The second example of ongoing ethical struggle is in the realm of engagement with digital technology. In our current postnormal times, digital technology has become ever-present in our life. The smartphone has become an extension of our arms. Social media presence has defined our self-image, interpersonal communication and everyday reality.  

Religious discourse has lagged in its response to guide and inform our digitally connected existences. This is an area for re-imagination and the reanimation of our ethical commitments. Retaining our sense of autonomous individualism and our relations with others is crucial. Using the digital for the advancement of the public good must become a core part of our responses. Failure to secure a healthy interaction with smart technology and machines will turn us into zombies.  

Reimagining our humanness in active, critical and productive interaction with the digital has now become one of the most important ethical challenges of our times.

A final example relates to our planetary existence. Climate change is threatening to exacerbate inequalities globally and depleting the earth’s resources, making sustainable livelihoods unviable. 

The Qur’an places the earth’s survival at its ethical centre. Humans are expected to play a central role in securing the physical and environmental conditions to secure sustainable livelihoods for our children and grandchildren. Yet, our imaginations for securing such a future cannot be limited to only the human’s place in it. 

A commitment to planetary futures must replace such an anthropocentric view of existence. This involves all animate and inanimate dimensions, living and non-living organisms on this planet, including animals, plants, forests, humans, and sea life. We must overcome human egocentrism. In its place, we must imagine our planetary existence as involving, in equal measure, all the various life dimensions of our planetary life. 

This is where an ethical tradition of beauty, the example offered by Islam, and other living ethical traditions must align at its most beautiful and compelling. We require a recommitment to God’s beauty, excellence and goodness, as we come together to confront the challenge of sustainable planetary futures.  

What is also required is joined up activism among all people, what the Qur’an calls ‘amal-al-salihat, which are those righteous practices that will secure our planetary existence. A reimagined vision of just living is at the core of such a perspective. 

*Professor Aslam Fataar is from the Department of Education Policy Studies, Stellenbosch University, currently Research Professor attached to the university’s transformation office. 

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