Has Islam a Place in a Modern World?

By Bettina Robotka

The question of whether there is any positive role for Islam or for religion as such in a modern world is gaining urgency in the light of an ongoing “War against (Islamic) terror” and the spread of militant and conservative interpretations of Islam. The picture which this Islam tends to paint of an ideal Muslim society is that of a patriarchic, male-dominated community inhabited by intellectually unquestioning Muslims who live in closely knit kinship relationships including tribal, biradri and caste units, who accept existing society as given, and who are supposed to follow what the state defines as right or wrong through its laws. There is limited place for individuality, no place for questioning of the basics of social, political and economic life and the task of moral, political, economic and spiritual guidance seems to be left to a small group of Islamic scholars and mullahs who have no worldly knowledge, who are neither elected nor responsible to the public, only to God when the Day comes and who have the monopoly in understanding and interpreting Islam.

On the other side of the divide, by the West we are told that modernity means the application of reason and rationality, men in their individual capacity are the lords of the world and the ones who decide what is right and what is wrong and which way to go. Religion has no place in that set-up, because religion has proven to be irrational by refusing to accept the scientific facts researched by scientists like Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) and by refusing to adjust the religious dogma to fit the realities of the material world. God is thought to be irrational; knowing and believing seem to exclude each other. Secularism, the division between the church and the state, between blind dogma and the human quest to know, to discover the material world and to rule this world through that knowledge, has been declared “progress”.

How should we deal with this? Do we have to choose between religion and modernity, between backwardness and progress?  My answer to it is in the negative. Western modernity has produced unbelievable scientific and technological advancement. But alongside with that, it has produced two world wars and umpteen local wars killing an uncounted number of people; it has produced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it has created affluence for few, hunger and poverty for many; it is destroying the environment in its race for more material goods, the hold over natural resources and more consumption for a minority. It is threatening the very survival of human life and has failed so far to solve the basic problem of humanity – to provide a humane society for all which is in balance with nature and the universe.

The reason for this I see is the abolishing of religion and the belief in God. It is religion which provides man with morality; it teaches us what is right and what is wrong, it gives us direction and guidance. By abandoning religion and concentrating on material advancement only the moral basis of human society has been lost. But “progress” understood as material and technological progress only is dangerous. It amounts to defining progress as being able to kill more people in a shorter time because of more sophisticated technology. Knowledge acquired without the moral values to handle it has proven to be destructive.

One of the reasons (among others) why communism didn’t work was that the moral attitude one needs to work for the good of all society rather than for money or material gain was lost by banning religion and it could not find another adequate ethical basis. Communism as a materialist idea only did not work. Neither does the Western model of modernity designed as a materialist outlook. So far no substitute for giving a moral basis to human society apart from the belief in God has been found and practiced convincingly. Even in secular Europe whatsoever ethical values are there originated from Christianity even though the majority of the Europeans are not members of a church and do not believe in God. This truth has been realized in the wake of the discussion about European values which had to be part of the draft for a European constitution.  Since then we are witnessing a resurgence of religion over there.

If we look into the history of humankind all societies have developed a religion, a belief in a Power that is greater than us and to whom we are responsible. Religion is intrinsic to man, that is what Karen Armstrong said in one of her interviews. Islam is the last of the revealed religions and it is a valid guide towards the Truth which is a balanced and happy life for human society. In Islam there is no discrepancy between knowing and believing, between the material and the spiritual sides of the world. Belief (Islam) and knowledge (the world) – both come from the same Source, that’s why both can not contradict or destroy each other. Islam is rational and it wants us to use our reason when studying the stars, the sun and the moon, the change of the seasons and the histories of former civilizations. It wants us to go even to China for more knowledge. God wants us to know (Him) and one of the ways for that is by studying His creation. The Christian West has so far missed this point which must be valid for Christianity also because it guides towards the same Truth.

Therefore, the question is not if Islam or religion has a role to play in a modern society but how to read and understand Islam in the light of the realities around us. The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the Muslims.

Bettina Robotka is presently teaching in Karachi.

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  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 07:44h, 12 November Reply

    Bettina Robotka has initiated a very important and timely debate.

    The author is quite right that religion provides the promise of a shared ethical and moral framework for which there has not been an adequate replacement in the secular age.

    The big question is: Does one need to go back to religion to find an ethical basis for human behavior?

    This does not seem a convincing argument because religion too has failed to provide a workable framework for ethical behavior. It is supposed to do so in the abstract but fails to do so in the concrete.

    At best, a religion provides a shared ethical framework for people of that religion and not a universal framework. So, different religions quarrel amongst themselves just as viciously as secular powers or nations. In this sense religion is very tribal and susceptible to irrational and easily inflamed passions.

    The author condemns the secular age for the world wars; but religious wars throughout history have been just as brutal. The Crusades are one example. In South Asia, we can never forget the inhumanity of the violence during the Partition that was motivated by religious passions.

    There is no doubt that many religions were dogmatic and suppressed open enquiry and a questioning attitude as the author has mentioned with the example of Galileo. Any questioning or deviation was suppressed brutally as heresy. This, the greed of the Christian church, and its inhuman treatment of non-Christians (in South America, for example) fuelled the reaction against religion in Europe. But the author is right to point out that the social codes that govern Europe today are secularized versions of Christian ethics.

    It is also clear that there can be no new knowledge without the ability of human beings to ask questions without fear. And new knowledge should not be suppressed. It is not right to condemn scientific progress because of the misuse of scientific knowledge. We cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater. We need science but, as the author points out, we also need an ethical framework to guide the use of the products of that science. But there is little evidence that religion can provide that framework. It is futile to look to a failed model from the past. We might have to search for the needed framework beyond religion.

    Of course, religion need not be antithetical to science. If we can find a religion that can coexist with open enquiry, we would be half way to our destination. But for this, religion has to be a matter of personal belief; it has to cease being an instrument that can be used by the state to violate the rights of those who do not subscribe to the ‘official’ religion. From there, it is a very slippery slope to the suppression of independent thinking and critical enquiry.

    In my vision, a guide to good behavior is analogous to a traffic control system. It is invaluable; without it there would be chaos, many accidents and deaths. It is universal and there is nothing sacred about it. I don’t want to launch a jihad and kill someone else because I believe that my traffic system is superior. I don’t believe that I would go to heaven if I follow my traffic system faithfully. I don’t have to go for a pilgrimage to the place where the traffic system was invented. I don’t have to be stuck with a system that was invented in the 19th century but can continue to improve it as I gain new knowledge and discover new technologies.

    I follow the logic of the system because my rationality and self-interest convince me that the resulting behavior would lead to the best outcome for all those who share the space in which I live. Of course, there are people who don’t and they endanger the safety of everybody else. They have to be educated or reprimanded or suspended temporarily from driving without burning them at the stake.

    So, metaphorically speaking, we should be searching for a global traffic control system, a set of incentives and penalties that would encourage compliance with the system, and institutional arrangements like licensing and policing to ensure its implementation.

    We can call this framework for socially responsible behavior a religion if we wish. But I would rather keep religion for the belief that there are answers to all the questions we are unable to figure out yet, that there is hope amidst all the despair of our modern age, that there is a larger shared goal towards which we continue to strive even when we don’t know if we will ever get there.

  • Kabir
    Posted at 02:03h, 17 November Reply

    I am not convinced that religion can offer the only guide to ethical behavior. I can think of two examples off hand that provide ethical maxims without referring to God or any other “religious” concepts. First is the Golden Rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and the second is Kant’s categorical imperative, basically that one should only act is such a way that one would accept a certain action being universalizable. So if I steal, then I am OK with everyone else stealing, which obviously doesn’t work. These two examples provide an ethical framework without any religious trappings. If individuals just treated other people the way they themselves would like to be treated, there is no need to refer to higher powers. Of course, if individuals choose to do so for their own personal beliefs, that is fine, but once again there should be a clear seperation between one’s personal beliefs and the public life of the state.

    Each society should be able to come to a consensus about its values without impinging on an individual’s right to believe (or not) anything in his or her personal life.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 09:53h, 17 November Reply


    I agree with you in principle. But, I think the real point underlying the discussion is how do you get people to adhere to ethical rules of the type you have described? Some people feel that human beings would not do so of their own volition and only enforcement by a strict religious code can obtain that obedience.

    My disagreement with this position is that religion has been around for thousands of years but has failed to elicit ethical behavior. Why do we continue to pin our hopes on religion?

    I think that without realizing it what the proponents of the position are saying is that an authoritarian system is required to make people behave in an ethical manner. If so, we should be clear about what is being argued about human nature and what is being proposed as a remedy.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 13:10h, 26 November Reply

    Let us first equate religion with what is practiced by its followers and not how it is defined in the scriptures. We are affected by what is practiced by the people therefore only this matters to us.

    Now look for answers yourselves. Do we need any religion?

    Author for no reason at all makes secularism, science and absence of religion responsible for the two world wars, global warming etc.

    Considering religions responsible for ethical behaviour is also wrong. We are actually hardwired to be ethical. This is a result of evolutionary development. We will probably be a lot better off without religion, certainly learn many things much faster.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 18:07h, 26 November Reply


    I agree that we need to look at religious practice in day-to-day life for our discussion and not at the normative message of the scriptures. Almost all scriptures have the same message regarding ethical behavior (e.g., do not steal, lie, kill, etc.).

    When we look at religion in practice, as you suggest, we are forced to admit that religion has not been very successful in inculcating ethical behavior in human beings. The prevalence of unethical behavior in South Asia at all levels of society is sufficient evidence for this conclusion.

    Some people compare the West with South Asia and attribute the difference in ethical behavior to religion. This is an incorrect inference because the difference could arise from many other causes. It would be much more convincing if we could show that different religious communities in the same country (say India or Pakistan) had very different ethical behavior. I don’t think we can make such a claim.

    So, our conclusion would be that variations in the extent of ethical behavior across countries are due to causes other than religion.

    I am not convinced by your claim that human beings are hardwired to be ethical and that this is related to evolution. In such discussions we often stray into areas that are outside our realm of expertise so I will present some tentative arguments based on common sense realizing that I could be wrong. Hopefully, someone with knowledge of evolutionary biology could help us out.

    First, I am not sure why we should be hardwired to be ethical and how it is related to evolution. Second, if we are so hardwired, how would we explain the incidence of so much unethical behavior in society? Third, it seems that the extent of unethical behavior is increasing (take the progressive criminalization of politics in India on which Ramachandra Guha has written recently); how would we account for that?

    It would seem more reasonable to me to argue that the survival instinct is hardwired in human beings and is a part of our evolution. If survival (physical or economic) calls for unethical behavior, humans do not hesitate in violating ethical rules whether they are prescribed by religion or some other code.

    So the challenge for society is to find the kind of collective rules that increase the chances of human survival. We are most clearly faced with this challenge today in the case of global warming.

    If we agree that ethical behavior is not hardwired in human beings but is learned, then we do have to find some rules to promote good social behavior and some institutional mechanisms to incentivize the voluntary acceptance of the rules. I was trying to point towards this with my analogy of the rules of traffic management. There is a very large proportion of the population that consistently violates traffic rules if it can get away with it.

    Religion has tried to use the carrot and stick (reward in heaven and punishment in hell or rebirth in a superior/inferior form) as a mechanism to promote good behavior but it has not been very successful. But that does not allow us to conclude that we can do without any set of rules and rely solely on some innate hardwired sense of ethics.

    I do agree with Bettina Robotka that given the salience of religion in our lives any set of feasible rules would need to emerge out of religion itself to have the necessary credibility and legitimacy. The secularization of Christian ethics in Europe does point towards such a process.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 06:37h, 27 November Reply


    I have issues with your understanding of religion. First of all religions are logical progression of ethical behavior (in one aspect) and not the other way round. I would agree that speaking on evolution is an expert’s business but at the basic level it is about survival and ethical behavior is essential for community’s survival.

    You are using aberrations in behavior to justify your point that ethical behavior is not hardwired into our psyche.

    “The prevalence of unethical behavior in South Asia at all levels of society is sufficient evidence for this conclusion.” Where did you get this, actually by and large south Asians are most ethical people; the law enforcement is virtually non existent yet there is no anarchy here, how do you explain this? Media grossly exaggerates aberrations in society.

    Also what is ethical is quite relative to our sensibility therefore the confusion.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 12:30h, 28 November Reply


    I had acknowledged that high probability of being wrong on this issue. Still, let us continue the argument.

    Let us define ethical behavior as behavior that is morally or socially responsible. The code of conduct prescribing such behavior could originate in a religion or in a secular source, e.g., Confucianism.

    My argument is that survival is a dominant end in the theory of evolution; behavior is a means to that end. If survival requires unethical behavior, we will see it manifested.

    It appears to me that you are making survival and ethical behavior synonymous – “at the basic level it is about survival and ethical behavior is essential for community’s survival.”

    In this case, how would we account for the existence of unethical behavior? It could only be an aberration or the outcome of irrational deviance. Is that the case?

    This also makes it difficult for me to understand your position on religion – “religions are logical progression of ethical behavior.” If ethical behavior is hardwired then presumably one would not need religion to ensure ethical behavior. The purpose of religion must then be something else.

    On the issue of the prevalence of unethical behavior in South Asia, this is an empirical issue. Still, one can argue that the some indicators of ethics vary quite significantly across countries – the Corruption Index computed by Transparency International can be taken as one example. if ethical behavior is hardwired in humans how would one account for these differences?

    In my view this variation is real and is not related to the variations in religious affiliations. In other words, no religion is more moral than another at the level of the scriptures as you also point out.

    So, the issue we are left with is to come up with an explanation for unethical behavior and to propose measures that would reduce the incidence of such behavior.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 16:50h, 28 November Reply


    The problem is that ethical behavior on the basis of morally and socially responsible definition is quite relative to time and space. For instance ‘Child Marriage’, ‘Sati’ ‘Honor Killings’ may seem grotesque to us but from the perspective of those who practiced these customs it was quite ethical for them. However stealing, lying and killings for gain, corruption etc can be considered universally unethical and here I think we are naturally inclined not to indulge in these things due to our inherent trait of being fair. The aberrations arise when there is powerful conflict between our other hardwired traits such as greed and need for self preservation.

    I believe, left alone a group of people without any religion will soon reach a state of ethical equilibrium else their destruction is assured.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 20:22h, 28 November Reply


    Let us simplify this argument. We can leave out all practices that are specific to time and place. Let us consider only what you have characterized as universal attributes of ethical behavior – honesty, integrity, etc.

    Then let us agree on the instincts that may or may not be hardwired from a biological perspective. If everything is hardwired – survival, ethical behavior, greed, self-preservation – we will have a hard time explaining much. I feel this is the domain where we need expert input.

    We then need to find some empirical assessment of the extent of unethical behavior in South Asia. Is it an aberration or is it more widespread? If we go by anecdotal evidence, we will find ordinary citizens complaining that almost everyone in a position of authority is corrupt. I have yet to come across a milkman who does not adulterate milk. But clearly this is not a scientific sample.

    On religion, I feel there is another dimension that we need to consider. Even if everyone is inherently fair there is a need for shared code of conduct. This shared code can be supplied by a religion or by a secular source like a constitution. Every individual being fair in their own way cannot guarantee social order.

    Of course, problems arise when people subscribing to different codes clash with each other. Democracy is supposed to be a mode of governance designed to moderate such conflicts. So far, democracy works, when it does, only within nation-states. Therefore we have not been able to avoid global conflicts.

    You have made a very strong claim that “left alone a group of people without any religion [or shared code of conduct] will soon reach a state of ethical equilibrium.” What is the evidence on which this is based?

    There is also some ambiguity in the proviso you have added – “else their destruction is assured.” Because most empires (Roman, Islamic, Mongol, Russian, etc.) collapsed one can only conclude that they were unable to reach a state of ethical equilibrium. This would argue against the claim that ethical behavior is hardwired. I don’t think we can make a one-to-one correspondence with the ethical behavior of a group and its survival. Many other factors could be at work – the Indus Valley civilization disappeared because the river shifted its course or it was overwhelmed by outsiders with superior weapons, for example.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 06:39h, 29 November Reply


    There are multiple traits quite contradictory to each other. If I say being ethical is our nature it does not mean greed isn’t our nature and there is constant evaluation of cost-benefit in our mind. Almost everyone lies about his financial/social status but it is of no consequence therefore can’t be considered unethical so is the milkman’s adulteration act (perhaps with a bit of irritation). What amazes me is the law enforcement/ justices system in our part is of no consequence and almost everyone knows that nine out of ten will be either not apprehended or not punished or trial may never reach a conclusion, yet there is no free for all! Is it because of the presence of religion?

    Religions have not deterred people from lying, stealing and killing but powerful state apparatus have. Take for instance Saudi Arabia of Singapore, the crime rate is lowest there because of the graphically macabre punishment they mete out to offenders (I don’t advocate these systems but merely pointing out a fact). Some years ago when large parts of Mumbai were submerged in a deluge, total strangers came out in large numbers and helped stranded people with food and shelter similarly this year in October a temple collapse in Rajasthan saw scores of people injured and perished but predominantly Muslim locals came out in large number for rescue work. All these acts were spontaneous. Why do we cringe in horror at seeing a gored, bloodied body? I think empathy is our natural instinct and ethical behavior, fairness etc are its derivatives. Religion plays no constructive role in society if at all it does then must be at individual level in spiritual realm.

    I am in agreement with the trajectory you are following on establishment of some kind of humane code of conduct through the constitutional framework but see no role for religion. The problem with democracy is that rules and regulations eventually become sacrosanct and common sense subsidiary to them. People will always be gullible seeking quick fix simplistic solutions without realizing how complex and intertwined are the ways of the world. Yet this is the best option we have.

    We do not need religion, any religion.

  • Evolutionary Biologist
    Posted at 23:04h, 29 November Reply

    Hey guys,

    Just been reading your discussion and it all sounds a bit too intellectual for me. However, I am an evolutionary anthropology student so I am hoping to shed some light on whether ‘moral’ behaviour is hardwired into the human mind.

    Firstly, it is important to realise that the human species is a social one. One only needs to look at the diverse range of social structure within the primate family and our own communities to realise this.

    Without co-operative behaviour a social group will quickly tear itself apart as any group-living benefits are lost. All individuals are therefore locked into a game which evolutionary biologists call the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’.

    Individuals in this game can choose to co-operate or defect. In a two player game, the greatest overall payoff occurs when they both co-operate. However, it can be tempting to defect. If you defects and the other co-operates then the payoff is greater for the defector. If they both defect, there is no payoff/advantage.

    Clearly a strategy of everyone defecting (i.e. constant cheating/immoral behaviour) will not be selected for in the evolutionary race. However, the possibility to defect is a great temptation and individuals will try and get away with it when they can. Therefore there should be a selection for detecting cheaters and punishing/not interacting with them again within a social group.

    As a result, people/animals will defect, but only when the chance of getting caught is low. With a high percentage of people looking for cheaters, then defection is kept in check, and co-operation will pre-dominate. Important to note that despite this, organisms will still defect if they can get away with it.

    As a result, a moral framework could be selected for within a human society. A society can never be filled with 100% co-operators as then 1 defecter can quickly use this to his/her advantage and the community will not last.

    Individuals gain a good payoff from co-operating and thus increase their own fitness (and indirectly leading to the ‘good of the group’ as what was alluded to before)

    This is a very short, simplistic answer I am afraid and I’m sure there are things missing here. Though I’m postive any text on human evolution can provide you with a more insightful/correct version. Hope it helps you come to a conclusion.

    I’m pretty sure this has nothing to do with the original question, I’m just responding to an e-mail!


  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 23:52h, 29 November Reply


    I saw how you have posed this question on your blog and realize that we may be talking about slightly different issues.

    You have posed the question as follows: “Is ethical behavior a consequence of religion or is it our natural trait?”

    This is somewhat different from Dr. Robotka’s proposition. I did not interpret her to say that ethical behavior is a consequence of religion. Rather, she seemed to be saying that human behavior is not sufficiently ethical by itself to ensure a stable social order. Therefore, religion was used as a means to try and promote ethical behavior through a system of rewards, punishments, and peer pressure.

    You and I seem to be saying that religion has not been sufficiently successful in this objective. We cannot fully prove this because of the counterfactual nature of the proposition. We do not now what the state of society would have been in the absence of religion. Dr. Robotka is saying that post-Enlightenment Europe has suffered because of the weakening of religion that has not been replaced by any similar shared code of morality. Both of us have argued that the attribution of post-Enlightenment problems to the absence of religion is not fully convincing given that there were similar ethical problems in the pre-Enlightenment era.

    On our part, we can point to a society like China where traditional religion (as we understand it) has been much less prevalent and the shared code of good conduct has been based on Confucianism. We don’t find that Chinese society is any less ethical than that of South Asia.

    I think we are agreed that some kind of shared code of conduct is needed for social order. This could be based on a constitution in a democracy; it could be based on a widely accepted heritage such as Confucianism in China; or it could be based on a coercive apparatus in a non-democratic state as you have mentioned for Saudi Arabia and Singapore.

    The fact that Saudi Arabia, the home of religion, and Singapore, with its Chinese population, both need to supplement their source codes with harsh coercive implementation is a telling comment on the ability of the codes, religious or secular, to do the job by themselves.

    I think both of us are also agreed that religion as a personal faith has a place in human life. Social tensions only arise when one set of people insist that society must be governed in accordance with their preferred code which can contain laws and practices contrary to the codes of others sharing the same geographical space.

  • Anil Kala
    Posted at 05:05h, 30 November Reply


    In complete agreement. You are a lot more coherent than I am.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 04:50h, 04 December Reply

    I want to archive here two items about religion that I think readers would find intriguing:

    1. Is Religion a Game? by S. Brent Plate, Associate Professor of Religious Studies:

    2. Nothing to be frightened of by Julian Barnes – listed in the 10 best books of 2008.

    By Julian Barnes.
    Alfred A. Knopf, $24.95.

    This absorbing memoir traces Barnes’s progress from atheism (at age 20) to agnosticism (at 60) and examines the problem of religion not by rehashing the familiar quarrel between science and mystery, but rather by weighing the timeless questions of mortality and aging. Barnes distills his own experiences — and those of his parents and brother — in polished and wise sentences that recall the writing of Montaigne, Flaubert and the other French masters he includes in his discussion.


    The book starts as follows:

    I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him. That’s what I say when the question is put.


    The first chapter can be read at:

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 17:47h, 06 December Reply


    There is one perspective in your comment of November 29, 2008 that opens up another very important area for discussion:

    “Almost everyone lies about his financial/social status but it is of no consequence therefore can’t be considered unethical…”

    The question is what defines the ethical status of an act – the intention or the consequence?

    There is a lot of discussion in philosophy about whether intentions or consequences are to be used as the criterion for whether an act was good or bad (and for the reward or punishment that follows). Amartya Sen has written extensively about this.

    Thus, if you intend to rob a person’s house but find that there was nothing worth stealing, would your action not be unethical?

    On the other hand, if you intended to rob a person’s house and your entry foiled the plans of another who intended to murder the occupant, would your action be classified as good or ethical?

    There could always be a disconnect between the intention and the outcome. In the case of ‘goodness’ there is more ambiguity but as far as ethics are considered, I feel the intentions should count for more.

  • Anjum Altaf
    Posted at 18:07h, 06 December Reply

    Evolutionary Biologist,

    Many thanks for your input of November 29, 2008. I would like to follow up with you on a few points. You made the following three statements:

    1. “Without co-operative behaviour a social group will quickly tear itself apart as any group-living benefits are lost.”

    2. “As a result, people/animals will defect, but only when the chance of getting caught is low.”

    3. “As a result, a moral framework could be selected for within a human society.”

    The following thoughts occurred to me:

    1. I agree that cooperative behavior is necessary for the survival of a group but this does not lead to the hardwiring of a moral framework in society. Group survival is a local objective. Groups viciously fight other groups and seek to destroy them. In the theory of evolution the ‘survival of the fittest’ is a local, not a global, phenomenon.

    2. Even within groups, if individual behavior is premised on a cost-benefit calculus (what is the gain from cheating against the chances of being caught and the size of the penalty imposed), then ethical behavior cannot be hardwired. This is the Homo Economicus model of neoclassical economics (self-interested individual maximizing personal utility) that has no moral framework to guide the behavior.

    We still need to figure out these puzzles.

  • Dr. Bettina Robotka
    Posted at 05:11h, 08 April Reply

    Dear Kabir,
    Sorry I have still not made it a habit to follow these discussions though I had written that starting piece. I think your argument is wrong that Kant was rationalizing outside the ideological framework of christianity or that the saying” what I do not want to be done to me I should not do o anybody else”. These are all ethical rules may be put into a popular frame which in Europe are all based on christian ideas because for centuries this has been the ruling ideology. Even if people think they don’t believe in God they will not be able to leave the ethical part behind even if they don’t call it christian any more. Two examples. One, the EU when designing their constotution (which until today is not accepted) the wanted to describe the ethical basis on which Europe is going to work together. While digging for the roots of their ethical understanding they ended up quoting christanity. Second example, myself. I am East German, I grew up in an absolutely atheist family (not only my parents but even none of my grandparents or anybody else in the family went to church or believed in God. It was just out of question.) But when I check the kind of ethical behavior which has stayed with me its the same christian one. Communism has been trying to substitute religion as an ethical basis by some broad humane understanding, and I think it failed. Religion is rampant in Russia which is not part of the secularized West. In united Germany they are working now to reintroduce christian religion as a subject taught in school. I think ethics don’t arise out of the blue sky or in a vacuum. Ethics is based on the historical experience and tradition of mankind and that is christian in Europe. It is less clear in the subcontinent where different religions have lived together over centuries and longer.
    There is a difference between Islam in theory and Islam as it is practiced. The one has not much to do with the other. But because the one is wrong do we have to throw out the other also?

  • Nauman
    Posted at 22:01h, 11 August Reply

    I am so surprized by the lacking Islamic knowledge of bloggers. Bettina put it so well “The problem is not with Islam, it’s with the Muslims”.

    Grow up muslims, you dont know the value of islam. You want to adhere to western concepts because it comes in the form of a pretty maiden (nice clevage…) and reject Islam partially or fully just because it comes in the form of a Mullah (the itching beard, urg …urg…..).

    I dont want to be dragged into any argumentation.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 00:02h, 13 August

      Nauman: There could be many responses to your comment but since you have requested not to be dragged into argumentation, we will respect your wishes.

      One footnote may be of interest: Dr. Robotka is echoing George Bernard Shaw who is reported to have said “Islam is the best religion and Muslims are the worst followers.” However, Shaw liked to be clever – his prefaces were often longer than his plays – and I am sure he would have known that neither half of his statement could be rigorously established.

      I prefer Cassius who left religion out altogether when he said: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars/But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

  • yayaver
    Posted at 12:48h, 04 September Reply

    Hi South Asian,
    I am giving you the blog address of Saudi person. He describes his blog as “The diary of a Saudi man, currently living in the United Kingdom, where the Religious Police no longer trouble him for the moment.”

    Please go through archives of this blog and give it serious reading. It has completely jolted me and believe in viewing orwellian dystopian society.


    The world of Wahabi Islam as practiced in Saudi Arabia can be so cruelsome was beyond my imagination. Its a must read blog from begininings to end and will certainly enlighten your view. You had pretty much command on the topics of Islam, so whats your comment on this..

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:24h, 04 September

      Yayaver: Thanks for sending the link. I will add it to the queue and hope I can get to it. In the meanwhile, I would hope other readers would look at it if it matches their interest. I must admit that my focus is South Asia and Saudi Arabia is off my radar. From your remarks, it seems the content would only confirm my priors – I enjoy more reading things that challenge my beliefs.

      The one thing that does intrigue me about Saudi Arabia is how come the US is such big friends with it? What happened to all the big talk about liberating women, promoting democracy, advancing human rights, etc.? Doesn’t this leave US credibility in shreds?

  • yayaver
    Posted at 05:43h, 05 September Reply

    South Asian subcontinent is fighting against talibanisation of this part of world. But most of them are only pawns of wahabi mullahs who has nothing to do with real value of Islam. Saudi Arabia was far from my radar too but the search to understand life of people practicing Wahabi islam landed me there. I don’t read the books or blogs as they challenge my beliefs, I read them just to broaden my perspective on the subject. Thanks for putting in your reading que..Hoping for your update on this topic soon.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:07h, 05 September

      Yayaver: As I mentioned before, I am not excited about reading things that only confirm my worst fears. I enjoy things that I disagree with because the opportunity to learn is much greater. We had a post on the blog making the point that religion had many positives at the level of the individual but when it gets intertwined with politics at the collective level, the negatives dominate. The history of the Crusades, the conflicts in Europe, and the partition of the subcontinent all confirm this conclusion. Saudi Arabian Islam is a particularly lethal ingredient in this mix. The link is in my queue; when I feel particularly masochistic, I will read it – but don’t hold your breath.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 14:23h, 08 September Reply

    Ok, Do what you feel good. You are much much better in rationally sorting ideas and concepts than me. I like reading here to know about things and opinion of masters. I am not scholar like you and emotion got mixed in my judgement. I am in learning phase to understand ‘how things work’. And I feel uncomfortable with the idea to stand beside and observe when at least you can spread word of mouth to counter wrong doing. I strongly believe in this sentence: “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing” by Edmund Burke.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:13h, 08 September

      Yayaver: I hope you don’t misunderstand me. I share you views on the importance of speaking up and disseminating information. Your providing the link to the readers of this blog is part of that effort. Some will find this information new, for others it will reconfirm what they have learnt earlier. I will certainly engage when some issues emerge out of the absorption of this information. I had earlier indicated one issue that does intrigue me – the US support for Saudi Arabia despite the latter’s role in propagating a very dangerous fundamentalism.

      Your support to this blog is greatly appreciated. In a way it is also very humbling.

  • yayaver
    Posted at 09:14h, 09 September Reply

    No grudges or hard feelings from my side. The case is done. I am fond of your blog since last 7 months since I read :


    You can learn about Saudi Arabia and American relatonship through this book. I haven’t read it but got reco. for understanding the topic.

    House of Bush, House of Saud: The Secret Relationship Between the World’s Two Most Powerful Dynasties — Craig Unger


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 13:54h, 13 September

      Yayaver: I would like to archive here a reference to a new book (The Crisis of Islamic Civilization) by a former Iraqi minister (Ali A Allawi). It seems relevant. The review has this paragraph with a bearing on our discussion:

      Meanwhile, an illusory counter-movement to the collapse has been led, in the Sunni world, by Wahhabism. This puritanical reform movement is painfully literalist, unimaginative, and viciously sectarian. As anti-intellectual as it is anti-mystical, it rejects the flexibility of the traditional schools of law. Its influence has been projected far beyond the central Arabian desert by oil money and the ungodly Saudi-US alliance. The result is a schizophrenic response to the west—passivity and collaboration on the one hand, nihilistic terrorism on the other.

      For those interested in cities and urbanization, there is also an intriguing sideline of the argument: “In one of its most engaging sections, the book focuses on Islam’s urban crisis. The colonial separation of “old” and “new” cities epitomised the initial civilisational rupture of the 19th century—and post-colonial regimes have committed even greater vandalism since.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 17:09h, 10 July Reply

    “The Islamic world is, of course, filled with lapsed Muslims, cultural Muslims, quasi Muslims, and ironic Muslims—but these days, pervasively, those Muslims cede real authority to what we might call Quranic Muslims, those who foreground strict religious observance, as inspired by one major text. Put another way, all these other kinds of Muslims have a bad case of feeling like “bad Muslims.””

    From a good review of what promises to be a thoughtful book by Shahab Ahmed – What is Islam?

    • Vikram
      Posted at 17:34h, 14 July

      Do terms like ‘Islamic world’ even make real sense ? Is the question ‘What is Islam’ actually relevant to people’s well being and destiny ?


    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 02:46h, 15 July

      Vikram: The “Islamic world” is used as a term to refer to countries with a majority Muslim population or to the collective made up of Muslims. ‘What is Islam?’ is a question that is being frequently asked today. The use of these terms, imperfect as they are, cannot be avoided in the context of contemporary discourse.

      What is more problematic is to generalize about ‘Muslims’ because there are all types of Muslims just as their are all types of people of any other religion. Suppose the Trump answer to ‘What is Islam?’ is accepted or implemented. It would be relevant to the well being and destiny of a lot of people.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 10:56h, 15 July

      Yes, but Trump’s ‘answer’ is driven by his own ignorance and the political path he has taken. He isnt really trying to answer ‘What is Islam’, but appealing to the most reactionary part of the American voting population.

      There is a deep seated aversion to talking about politics in publics across the world, and these cultural, social and religious theories are a key reason why.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 01:04h, 16 July

      Vikram: I agree that ‘What is Islam’ type of question is not a useful line of inquiry but it is asked very frequently anyway. I guess people feel that a study of sacred texts can provide an answer to what is happening in many Muslim communities today. This is just like thinking ‘What is Buddhism’ would provide an answer to the conflicts in Sri Lanka and Burma.

      I don’t follow your point about the aversion to talk about politics. It seems to me that people talk of nothing else except politics all the time.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 16:32h, 17 July Reply

    “I guess people feel that a study of sacred texts can provide an answer to what is happening in many Muslim communities today.”

    I wonder if there is a vicious circle going on here. Everyone really knows that they cant live their lives word by word according to a text. But there is this mythology created about ‘texts’, and it becomes some sort of self fulfilling prophecy.

    It also seems that this kind of obsession with texts is a modern phenomenon, I dont recall it coming up frequently in the European wars of religion, which people frequently compare to the events occurring today.

    “I don’t follow your point about the aversion to talk about politics. It seems to me that people talk of nothing else except politics all the time.”

    I think people try talk to about politics without actually talking about politics. There is an obsession with personalities, people talk a lot more about politician’s persona than who they claim to and actually represent. There is a huge tendency to talk about ‘national cultures’ and some sort of essential traits of people, which are held responsible for various problems they might be facing today.

    There is a need to introduce much sharper political science education early in the school curriculum. But the focus has been more introducing science and technology.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 17:19h, 18 July

      Vikram: I agree that there is too much emphasis on texts and not enough on how people actually live their lives. I guess there is some advantage to those who want to over-emphasize the texts.

      I now see your point about politics and agree with it also. Most of the incessant talk about politics does not add much. It is mostly repetition of what people read or hear on the TV. It is also too personality-driven as you have mentioned. What is even worse is when actions are attributed to countries which are inanimate and comprised of multiple interest groups often with quite conflicting goals – it just leads to mindless nationalism. Early education would certainly help to reduce the noise but will put many talking-heads out of business.

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