Modernity, Civilization and the Return to History

by Anthony F. Shaker (McGill University, Canada)

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The modern concept and study of civilization have their roots, not in western Europe, but in the long tradition of scientific and philosophic inquiry that began in a self-conscious Islamicate civilization. They emerged—as Heidegger would say—within a “region of being” proper to systematic science. Western European thought has introduced new elements that have completely altered how collective and personal identities are conceived and experienced.

In this age of “globalization,” expressions of identity (individual, social and cultural) survive precariously outside their former boundaries, and humanity faces numerous challenges—environmental degradation, policy inertia, interstate bellicosity, cultural rivalries. Yet, the world has been globalized for at least a millennium, a fact partially obscured by the threadbare but 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 not a historical, a sociological or an empirical question, but fundamentally a philosophical one. The modern concepts of identity and personhood have come under heavy scrutiny because there can be no human initiative without the human agency that flows from them. Given their present inscrutability, and at the same time profound importance to us, Dr. Shaker brings to bear a wealth of original sources from both German thought and Ḥikmah (Islamicate philosophy), the latter based on material previously unavailable to scholars.

He shows why posing the age-old question of identity anew in the light of these two traditions, whose special place in history is assured, can help clear the confusion surrounding modernity and civilization—i.e., the way we, the acting subject, live and deliberate on the present and the past. Proximity to Scholasticism, and therefore Islamicate philosophy, lends German thought up to Heidegger a unique ability to dialogue with Ḥikmah, as scholars since Max Horten and Henry Corbin (the first French translator of Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit) have been discovering.

Two fecund elements common to Heidegger, Qūnawī and Mullā Ṣadrā are of special importance: logos (utterance and speech) as the structural embodiment of the primary meaning of a thing, and the unity-in-difference that Ṣadrā finally formulated as the substantial movement of existentiation.

Heidegger, who occupies a good portion of this study, questioned 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. With the waning of the old naïvetés of biologism, psychologism and social evolutionism, our very conception of time and space as measurable determinations was overturned.

Dr. Shaker thus concludes with a few chapters on the theme of identity renewal in Western literature and Muslim “reformism.” The roots of the latter point to a civilizational point of convergence between the Eurocentric worldview, which provides the secular aesthetics roots of modernism, and an intellectual current originating in Ibn Taymiyyah’s epistemological reductionism. Both expressed the longing for pristine origin in a historical “golden age,” an obvious deformation of the commanding, creative oneness of being that has guided thought for millennia.


1. The structural transformation of self-identity
2. The unfolding of the truth question
3. Intuition and anniyyah (haecceity, anitas)

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

9. The ends of philosophy
10. The aesthetic origin of modernism
11. Modernity or Westernization?

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

19. Intellect as act
20. The principle of existentiating triplicity (tathlīth)
21. The life of the intellect
22. The finality of personhood

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

"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

Bibliographic Information

Book Title
Modernity, Civilization and the Return to History
Number of pages
Physical size
236mm x 160mm
Publication date
March 2017