Modernity, Civilization and the Return to History
by Anthony F. Shaker (McGill University, Canada)
The modern concept and study of civilization have their roots, not in western Europe, but in the spirit of scientific investigation associated with a self-conscious Islamicate civilization. What we call modernity cannot be fathomed without this historical connection. We owe every major branch of science known today to the broad tradition of systematic inquiry that belongs to a “region of being”—as Heidegger would say—whose theoretical, practical and institutional dimensions the philosophy of that civilization played an unprecedented role in creating.
This book focuses primarily on the philosophical underpinnings of questions relating to civilization, personhood and identity. Contemporary society and thinking in western Europe introduced new elements to these questions that have altered how collective and personal identities are conceived and experienced. In the age of “globalization,” expressions of identity (individual, social and cultural) survive precariously outside their former boundaries, just when humanity faces perhaps its greatest challenges—environmental degradation, policy inertia, interstate bellicosity, and a growing culture of tribalism. Yet, the world has been globalized for at least a millennium, a fact dimmed by the threadbare but still widespread belief that modernity is a product of something called the West.
One is thus justified in asking, as many people do today, if humanity has not lost its initiative. This is more a philosophical than an empirical question. There can be no initiative without the human agency that flows from identity and personhood—i.e., the way we, the acting subject, live and deliberate about our affairs. Given the heavy scrutiny under which the modern concept of identity has come, Dr. Shaker has dug deeper, bringing to bear a wealth of original sources from both German thought and Ḥikmah (Islamicate philosophy), the latter based on material previously unavailable to scholars. Posing the age-old question of identity anew in the light of these two traditions, whose special historical roles are assured, may help clear the confusion surrounding modernity and, hopefully, our place in human civilization.
Proximity to Scholasticism, and therefore Islamicate philosophy, lent German thought up to Heidegger a unique ability to dialogue with other thought traditions. Two fecund elements common to Heidegger, Qūnawī and Mullā Ṣadrā are of special importance: Logos (utterance, speech) as the structural embodiment at once of the primary meaning (essential reality) of a thing and of divine manifestation; and the idea of unity-in-difference, which Ṣadrā finally formulated as the substantial movement of existence. But behind this complexity is the abiding question of who Man is, which cannot be answered by theory alone.
Heidegger, who occupies a good portion of this study, questioned the modern ontology at a time of social collapse and deep spiritual crisis not unlike ours. Yet, that period also saw the greatest breakthroughs in modern physics and social science. The concluding chapters take up, more specifically, identity renewal in Western literature and Muslim “reformism.” The renewal theme reflects a point of convergence between the Eurocentric worldview, in which modernism has its secular aesthetics roots, and a current originating in Ibn Taymiyyah’s reductionist epistemology and skeptical fundamentalism. It expresses a hopeless longing for origin in a historically pristine “golden age,” an obvious deformation of philosophy’s millennial concern with the commanding, creative oneness of the Being of beings.
INTRODUCTION—An Epoch’s End
PART I—HISTORY AND IDENTITY
1. The structural transformation of self-identity
2. The unfolding of the truth question
3. Intuition and anniyyah (haecceity, anitas)
PART II—ṢADR AL-DĪN QŪNAWĪ: THE LANGUAGE OF REALITY
4. Speech and the rational faculty
5. Speech dynamics and the origin of human community
6. Inflection and subordination in the language of existence
7. The question of origin
8. The proliferation of thought and its implications for society
PART III—MODERNITY AND MODERNISM
9. The ends of philosophy
10. The aesthetic origin of modernism
11. Modernity or Westernization?
PART IV—HISTORY AND CIVILIZATION
12. Reasoning about history
13. The myth of the historical subject
14. The medieval roots of exceptionalism
15. Enlightened civilization: social identity and the ethical question
16. The ruse of the technical impulse
17. The Ḥikmah conception of life
18. The existential principles of systematic science
PART V—BEYOND THE AESTHETIC OF THE INTELLECT
19. Intellect as act
20. The principle of existentiating triplicity (tathlīth)
21. The life of the intellect
22. The finality of personhood
PART VI—PATHS TRAVELLED
23. Renewal in a culture of collapse: Art and literature in the 1920s
24. Islām the unfinished civilization
25. The radical redundancy of Ibn Taymiyyah
Anthony F. Shaker is a philosopher, scholar of Islamic thought/civilization, and analyst of social theory. He has authored numerous articles and books, including the only complete study of Ṣadr al-Dīn Qūnawī’s thought (d. 1274 CE) and two translated volumes of Ghazālī’s Iḥyā’ al-ʿulūm. He also served as an elected member of the executive council of the Canadian parliament’s official opposition, helping formulate policy and conferring with various political leaders. He is currently exploring the idea of productive dialogue within the framework of civilization, not only as a channel of passive exchange across cultures. He obtained his doctorate from McGill University and currently lives with his wife in Quebec, Canada.
"A truly innovative and original work, comprehensive, balanced, and relevant to any investigation into and understanding of modernity. The author does a remarkable job of drawing from Western and Islamicate philosophy in a comprehensive and rigorous manner that exposes the reader to an intense, descriptive analysis of the problems encountered in interpreting history. His methodology is cohesive, and the evidence adds to the high quality of his argument...[O]ne of the most scholastic and ambitious undertakings I have ever encountered, extremely well-written...I stand in admiration of this work. The students of history, philosophy, theology, and religious studies would have a deep interest in this book."
Geran F. Dodson
University of North Georgia
"Anthony Shaker is doing philosophy in the way it should be...[A] philosophical project of global scope, and contemporary relevance...[He] argues that modernity, with all its good and ill, was in the making long before anyone had conceived the 'West' or 'Europe' as we know it today. Islamicate civilization was already flourishing as a globalized, universal cultural milieu in which the tradition of hikma [philosophy] reached its maturity...[O]ne of Shaker's primary objectives...is to lay the ground for a new conception of history and modernity...[that] requires maintaining a philosophical stance that avoids deteriorating into the kind of ideological polemic and positions of sectarian and cultural identity to which our current modernity tends. This seems to be the reason his takes care to avoid use of the terms 'Islamic' to qualify philosophy, culture, civilization, etc. He wants to criticize modernity philosophically, but with a view to the future rather than some habitually recalled, imaginary non-Western golden age. Shaker makes a compelling argument, and his grasp of philosophy, history, and the social sciences is both deep and broad. Furthermore, he has convinced this reader that he is doing something important here, that gets to the heart of the current human condition..."
Reviewed by Edward Moad, Assistant Professor of Philosophy (University of Missouri-Columbia)
Journal of Islamic Studies [Oxford University Press, 2017]
"This fascinating book adopts a radically interdisciplinary approach in order to sort out modernity by questioning that which we call philosophy...delighted by the wealth of insights and connections unraveled by the author...genius."
Mohammad Azadpur, Professor of Philosophy
San Francisco State University
"Anthony Shaker has written an extraordinary rich book exploring modernity, tradition and civilization. Drawing on the learned tradition of Islamdom as well as the work of Qunavi, but also many others, Shaker identifies the pitfalls of thinking about tradition and modernity in isomorphic terms. There is more to Islam than merely text. He draws our attention to personhood, history and the project of civility and shows a hopeful path forward. This is compulsory reading for anyone who agonizes about the world we are living in and seeks inspiration from the past that can be usefully used in the present."
Ebrahim Moosa, Professor of Islamic Studies
Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame
"Digging deep into the roots of our modern ideas of civilization..., Shaker says “what we call modernity cannot be fathomed without making [the] historical connection” between our times and “the spirit of scientific investigation associated with a self-conscious Islamicate civilization"...This is not a book for casual reading. [But] despite some of the material being beyond my own scholarship, it is not at all difficult to see that the approach of the book is unique, that the level of inquiry and argument is clear, concise, and well-supported by source material. It’s certainly clear enough for me that I was able to follow the argument...I recommend it highly...This truly is a monumental work, and so far as I know there is no comparable work. I really do think this is a work of genius."
Paul Richard Harris, Editor
Axis of Logic