Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Imam Musa Sadr and Religion in the Contemporary World

    Wednesday, May 02, 2007   No comments

Sunday, February 4th, 2007

by Seyed Javad

Although he is most known without Muslim World as a political leader who brought unity to the shattered Lebanese factions of various interests nevertheless Sadr’s political leadership was not solely based on his diplomatic skills. On the contrary it stemmed from his intellectual vision which was deeply rooted in the soil of Philosophy in its true sense namely Love of Wisdom or as, Seyyed Hossein Nasr puts, Philosophia Perennis. As a matter of fact, his political involvement was an expression of how he viewed the notion of ‘Worship’ as a philosopher as he was trained by one of the most distinguished contemporary philosopher from Iran, i.e. Allameh Tabatabaei. As Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr eloquently put it:

… his great political influence and fame was enough for people to not consider his philosophical attitude, although he was a well-trained follower of long living intellectual tradition of Islamic Philosophy.

One of his famous writings is a long introduction for the Arabic translation of Henry Corbin’s History of Islamic Philosophy. He is one those Muslim leaders who understood the plague of modernity (Kafkazli, 2003a,b,c) while being critical of the reactionary state of affairs that Muslims were enveloped by and for that he attempted and finally put his life for as he believed nothing true could come about when one is not ready to give up the best of him-self, namely life for the sake of the Holy (and whatever serves the Sacred). (Kafkazli, 2002) Here we shall look at Sadr’s view on the relevance or place of religion in the actual affairs of the globe, not only as a metaphysical episteme (which for him is of a great essential importance), but, in relation to the constitution of self and society or what is known within disciplinary sociology as the existence of social self (which is an expression of the complexities of the dynamics of self as a subjective objectivity and society as an imagined reality).

It is important to understand the approach Sadr takes in analyzing the intricacies of religion (not only as an intellectual question but) in its various interactional equations which becoming ever-important in the context of modernity (which for him is based thoroughly and metaphysically on Materialism (Kafkazli, 2004) that has not created only a problem for European societies but added a double crisis for East)

… [… that due to] … speedy development of technologies … Man is faced by the daunting situation which calls for ‘Tafakor’ (reflection, reflexivity, thinking) and ‘Barnamehrizi’ (planning) … . (1384. 29)

The question of the relevance of Religion in contemporary world (Meynagh, 2006c) is of twofold nature for Sadr and he explicates what he has in mind when poses the question of ‘relevancy’ of religion in relation to modernity. (Meynagh, 2006a,b) Lest we don’t judge him hastily as many of those who pose the question of interrelationship between modernity and religion most often incline towards either a relegation of religion or ending up distorting the religious universe just to fit the sacred within the parameters of the Enlightenment Tradition we should rest assured that Sadr’s approach is not of either secular or modernist and not even a fundamentalist one, which by denouncing modernity the proponents of this stance tend to refute the categorical significance of Time too as though the ‘Temporal Transformation’ is a secular invention. This results in a view of religion which is frozen in time and stuck in a past historical space. The spirit of Sadr’s approach is beyond these common trivialities and demonstrates a sense of comprehensiveness in relation to temporal transformations as well as spatial peculiarities within the parameters of Primordial Wisdom (Ahkam Avalliyeh).

The first sense of what he means by the relevancy of religion in contemporary era refers to the actual state of religion (and all those who consider themselves as religious forces or people who claim, right or wrong, to be the representative of religious traditions across the globe, in general, and among Muslims, in particular), on the one hand, and the relevance of religion in the sense that what kind of ‘role’ it can play or if it could have any managerial role in the affairs of society and self in a global sense as if it cannot have any role, then, in Sadr’s estimation, the very state of civilization or the very fabric of terrestrial existence of humanity shall be at grave risk or even to a point of annihilation (which already are evident in our ecological, political as well as economic domains).

In other words, although he firmly believes that

… the actual state of religion in our time is not very promising due to the fact that it depicts, so to speak, a very beautiful but flat portrait in the hearts of those who ascribe themselves to religion. It does not shine and it has no aura. Faith, in its best form, has become like a panacea to forget the pains and atrocities which envelop us from all sides … it has lost its energetic appeal for life-shaking acts … . The faith has become as a defining boundary between the children of Adam … and the Sharia [instead of being an avenue for flow of benediction it has] … turned into a legal heritage, which, in itself and by itself, is a beautiful ornament for those who respect and follow its decrees … but it is only a beautiful ornament … . (1384. pp 31-32)

For the modern man

… who desires to be free from all tutelage … these decrees have no appeal … and for those among modern people who still aspire for an ethical life the ethicality is only an aspect of individual self and has no connection to the fabric of society in its grand scale … . In other words, to be ethical is good only as far as it serves our utilitarian purposes in politics, business and/or economy … . (1384. p 32)

In this context which has been imposed by modernity in the context of culture, religion is only

… a frame of interpretation which belongs to the bygone ages … i.e. the historical past which has no managerial significance for the issues of contemporary life … and we can see this in the fabrics of all modern societies and personalities … . In other words, religion is not anymore on a leadership position but in an enslaved position … and those who speak on behalf of religion as a matter of fact live on at the expense of religion by giving the most distorted view of religion …. Which reduces religion from an awe-inspiring sense of consciousness into a ritualistic routine that is devoid of truth … and whenever those who sincerely work for religion and put themselves at the disposal of religious truth … sadly lack the Vision … which is the raison d’etre of religiosity … and by being oblivious to this fundamental visionary element of religion they turn it into a soothing recipe of collecting rewards for afterlife … . (1384. pp 33-34)

Since early days in 40s Imam Musa Sadr was concerned about religion, not only in the context of Iran or even Muslim Community, but on a global scale in terms of universal concern, i.e. ‘Manaviyat der Jahan’ (Spirituality and Religiosity in the context of Modern World). (Sadr, 1384. p 34) For him religion was an answer for the inner request of human being or it is the voice of ‘Fitrat’ which has lost its external foundations and sadly turned into a flat and spiritless thing of past historical significance. In order to understand the ills of today and why we have ended up in the contemporary miserable situation we need, argues Sadr, to analyze the role and nature of religious role which gigantically transformed the conditions of people then and drew the conclusions which could be of profound significance for us today that live in a world with different conditions. The question is, in other words, what role should or could we expect from religion today. (1384. p 34)

In understanding the role of religion we need to understand the metaphysics of Faith and on what grounds it is based. Faith means ‘delimitation’ of affairs and establishment of conducts within the ‘Divine Limits’. But now there is a question here for an inquiring spirit in relation to the nature of these limits which constitute the backbone of the Faith and which we may call the Divine Limits. The question is; are these limits ad hoc and artificial or expressions of true nature of reality in its most fundamental/primordial sense?

In other words, what we call the theophanic limits are just ‘cultural’, ‘ethnic’, ‘racial’, ‘national’, ‘historical’, ‘economic’, and ‘political’ limits which are clothed under the guise of ‘Revelation’ or are these the very nature of how God relates to the human nature (and existence in general) within the paradigm of the Fallen Condition?

Within the paradigm of Imam Musa Sadr’s philosophy religion in its first step relies on

… faith in unseen, faith in the absolute and faith in God. (1384. p 34)

But one needs to pause for a second and assess the foundations of religion in relation to modernity and see

… whether the modern man is in need of faith or belief in the absolute … the unsystematic approach may give us an illusion that in the face of modern technological and scientific advances there would be no need for faith and faith in unseen or reliance on God … or the Infinite … . (1384. p 34)

But the truth of the matter

… is contrary to this unsystematic impression which basically is only an impression and far from truth. Because, regardless of the length or depth and magnificency of achievements of human reason, whatever is made by Man is nothing but a product of human mind … and albeit a grand product … nonetheless a product and prone to changes … and this is an undeniable fact that … humanity shall progress, advance and change in all spheres of science, technology, philosophy and law … … … but progress is in essence equivalent to transformation and alteration and … by nature altering condition brings instability and insecurity … because what I may know today could be falsified tomorrow and replaced by a better or even its contrary … in other words, everything in every context is prone to change and in a state of impermanence … and this applies to all spheres of science, art, law and philosophy. To put it differently, whatever that changes is unable to act as a reliance for human being and hence devoid of a sense of Ultimate Reality or a Focal Point of Worshipping … . To put it otherwise; all these grand achievements of human civilizations along the march of history in all domains are creatures of Man and not Creator of Man. (1384. p 35)

Man in his terrestrial life is in need of instruments and all these achievements are of great instrumental significance but they are not man’s ma’bod or what gives him an existential grounding and a sense of reality as well as a direction in a reliable fashion. (1384. p 35) Man, by definition, is in need of permanence that is truly (true to the fundamental constituents of reality of Life) able to care and secure his-self. Once Man finds this reliable anchorage in his existence then he will feel a sense of prowess and this strength would bestow upon him a deep sense of grounding which would enable him to move towards lofty ideals and utopia (i.e. where it is desirable to be). (1384. p 35) Man

… works, learns, thinks and all these instruments are conducive for the furthering of civilization … and progress. But these are not one’s Ma’bod [the focal point which bestows meaning upon one’s life, i.e. Deity].

For Sadr faith in Unseen is not harbinger of despair but a source of permanent hope, on the one hand, and

… on the other hand, the hope is the essence of existence. In other words, hopelessness is akin to being torn apart and alienated from future. A hopeless person does not live even for the next hour, let alone planning for the future … there is no future for him and he does not exist in future … as a matter of fact he is stuck only in his present situation and immobility is akin to inertia and that is another name for disintegration and death. And to be above the vicissitudes of life while being part of the tides of this world requires that one is related to the source of life that imbues the whole reality with a sense of hopefulness and man cannot be in that state except by faith in the Infinitude. (1384. p 36)

In discussing the question of faith Sadr speaks of ‘Religious Work’ (Sazandegi Deeni) and by that he does not mean only

… the construction of mosques, churches … as in religious charity we don’t mean only prayers and fasting. On the contrary, what we mean by the ‘Religious Work’ is whatever that is conducive in the construction of human civilization and the role of this work in the make-up of individual human life. (1384. p 40)

This approach to religion is not what fundamentalists or modernists have in mind as the former reduces religion to a mere ritualism and the latter an epiphenomenon of the ‘social’ but Sadr as did Dr. Ali Shariati, Imam Khomeini, Dr. Beheshti, Muttahari, Iqbal, Taleghani, and so on goes beyond these reactionary approaches by arguing (in true spirit of religiosity) that

… whenever you view the whole life as a vehicle and not as an aim in itself … then whatever you do in life when the intention is for God it is akin to prayer and one should not understand the notion of prayer only in terms of rituals … . (1384. pp 36-40)

Therefore the distinction between religious work and secular approach is not in the domain of activity but in the direction of action as within a religious paradigm

… we work on the earth and develop it but under the commandments of Heaven. (1384. p 40)

In other words, everything within the parameters of sacred tradition is a form of prayer when it is based on ‘benedictory intentions’. But on the other hand, we have the secular approach which views Man separated from God in contrast to Man as a creature of the Divine. These two understandings are not only of metaphysical nature but have very serious consequences on our

… lives on this planet. (1384. p 44)

But the question is why are we worried to allow religion play a role within our lives individually and collectively? If we follow the arguments put forward by disciplinary social scientists on the question of secularization we can see that they focus on religion in terms of abuses which are not of sacred kinds but abused images of religiosity. We, on the other hand, need to enlighten people about these abuses and not throw the very fountain which connects the extremely finite into the tremendously infinite. (1384. p 44)

We need to elaborate Sadr’s view on Sacred Paradigm in relation to modernity or what he calls the West (and its materialistic civilization), which, in turn, would enable us to understand the perspective he has in mind when he employs the word ‘Deen’ in a context where the very existence of Religion within the individual self and society has been greatly polluted– not only in the West but in East too. Imam Musa Sadr has a very novel approach to the questions of modernity and its origin. Although we have had many such as Weber who discerned the origins of Capitalism within the theology of Calvin and Protestant Ethics but Sadr goes even deeper than that by suggesting where to discover the origins of the metaphysics of Protestant Ethics. The essence of life, as aforementioned, is hope but what is the primary substance of Faith? To put it differently; what made the secularization possible on a planetary scale?

In a nutshell the divorce of ‘Faith’ from the everyday life made the secularizing project possible and its expansion accomplished. Faith needs to be at work and have its connection with the daily life. Otherwise it

… weakens and loses its influence and we cannot find any replacement for it once it loses its role within the parameters of daily life. If we try to confine religion to its external manifestations such as mosques, churches, or by venerating the dignitaries of religion … we cannot ignite the fire of the faith within the hearts of men and societies they build … because … rest assured that none of these cannot replace the energy of faith which can alone nourish the human self and society … and that energy needs to be nurtured through involvement with daily life … . (1384. p 46)

It is important to realize that how this system of secularizing paradigm came about on a global scale. Because Imam Musa Sadr thinks that this whole civilization has been possible through a divorce of involvement of faith from the affairs of everyday life and in that life he includes scientific, technological, social and economic aspects too. When we look at

… modern civilization we realize that this grand world system has been edified based on the relegation of religion from scientific, technological and social life. Although the founders of modernity did not deny religion but they certainly ignore it as well as obstruct its influence upon (Zendegi) life. Therefore modern ideologies have all been borne out of touch with the Holy and the common denominator of all these isms and man-made ideologies is chaos which prevails all over human activities in all domains … and we can see these rebellious acts in Capitalism, Imperialism, Colonialism, imposed wars … pollution of the environment … and very recently in ideologies such as nihilism and hedonism or what is called sexual revolution … . (1384. p 46)

In Imam Sadr’s view in all aspects of modernity we can see the spread of chaotic movement due to the fact that this chaos (i.e. the lack of cosmos or order) is inherent within the edifice of modern civilization. Because

… this civilization is not based on the mores of Divinity … on the contrary it is a mundane civilization which is unfamiliar with the language of Heaven. (1384. p 46)

Like many religious thinkers such as Guenon, Schuon, Lings, Nasr, Buckhardt, Muttahari, Malcom X, Shariati, and Shahid Baqir Sadr, he thinks that the reasons for contemporary wars, conflicts, famines, global poverty and pollutions as well as diseases are not of external nature but

… only expressions of inner distortions which are in perfect harmony with their external forms. In other words, there is a balance within this unbalancing situation which is in perfect proportion to the foundations of modernity that are of chaotic character … and in this sense we cannot reap cosmos (order) out of disordering principles. (1384. p 46)

The result of modernity’s civilizing progress has resulted in grand systems and surveillance social orders with grand mathematical exactness but the condition of man qua man has not improved yet. (1384. p 47) This approach to modernity which does not deny its actual significance within contemporary historical context of humanity but also at the same time rejects its claim for universality enables Imam Mus Sadr to pose a very piercing question vis-à-vis Modern Civilization namely

Is this culture a human civilization or an anti-humanist social order which reduces the integral reality of man into one single fragmented dimension? (1384. p 47)

This question needs to be understood within the larger context of Sacred Tradition which views Man as part of Divinity and as a matter of fact Imam Musa Sadr argues that within the contemporary era we are faced with two broad anthropological conceptions regarding human being which one is based on Man as a Divine Image and the other Man as an Alienated Undivine Thing. In other words, when he asks whether modernity is a human culture it refers to the possibility of modernity (based on its undivine foundational principles) to pave the way for realization of Man as a potentiality into a self-realized Image of God which would establish a society that could express Beauty, Truth and Good in an integral fashion or what is called within Shia Tradition as Mahdavi Society. To put it differently; for Imam Musa Sadr to say human being it is equivalent to say Image of God and to deny or relegate and ignore God within one’s individual life or within the society is tantamount to destruction of Man qua Man as the essence of human being is his divinity and once it is ignored, denied or relegated it is as though making a grand palace with all material beauties for the corps

This idea of relegation of Divine into the periphery of human civilization which has been solely accomplished within modernity has led Imam Musa Sadr to reflect upon one of the most significant questions regarding the metaphysical foundations of Modernity. His concern is not of the Weberian kind which is at a theological level with sociological consequences but a unique one which is based on a piercing observation regarding the background assumptions within the edifice of anti-metaphysical domain of modern metaphysics with world-systemic consequences. In this sense Sadr’s approach along with Dr. Shariati, Dr. Beheshti, Shahid Seyyed Baqir Sadr, Ayatullah Taleghani, Allama al-Attas and Ustad Muttahari are among the most paradigmatic discourses on global civilizational issues of secularism and it’s planetary destructions from within a religious worldview.

By dividing the nature of world civilizations into four categories in relation to Religion or Tradition and Revelation (or what he calls the Path of Heaven), namely 1) a civilization that is based on Denial of Revelation, 2) a civilization that is established on the Relegation of Divine to the periphery of human life, 3) a civilization that is Indifferent (or simply does know anything) about God and finally 4) a civilization which is Tamaduun namely the direct result of Madina which has been possible due to the Deen or the reconnection of the Celestial and the Terrestrial via Revelation in the Heart of the Prophet (1384. p 47) Imam Musa Sadr remarks that the metaphysical foundations of modernity seems to be based on the Judaic (and not Mosaic, as the former has become as an ethnical index while the latter is of an ethical hence universal significance but with a very limited scope of influence either on the life of people or the formation of modernity) cultural ethos. He elaborates his point by reference to two sources of History and Tradition (Koran) and argues that

… the first people who argued that God has no relevance in the affairs of the world while not denying the existence of the Creator … were people of Judaic descendants … and apart from history of ideas we can find out about this position in Koran where it refers to the Judaic position … namely there is God but His Hands are enchained or … to put it otherwise … they believed that there is God but God has no influence within our lives … . (1384. p 47)

Sadr explicates his remark on the Judaic nature of modern metaphysics (which has resulted in a planetary civilization devoid of God) in the following fashion:

… this Judaic metaphysics is based on the notion of a creative God who made the world but since time immemorial left the affairs of the world in the hands of Man … . (1384. p 47)

This is the raison dêtre of planetary secularism and evident in all domains of global management or rather mismanagement and as long as modernity’s civilizing process is going to be continued upon these premises

… I doubt religion could play any role along with globalizing modernity which is based on segregation of Faith and Life … . (1384. p 47)

Because if the nub of faith is action based on religion within the world and if the meaning of modernity is the separation of faith from action in a managerial sense then we should not expect any role for religion in the world and its institutions. Here Imam Musa Sadr argues that the planetary civilization as we know it is pregnant with colossal transformative storms. In other words,

… I don’t believe that modernity is able to dissociate itself from being indifferent towards the demands of Heaven as this is raison d’être of being what it is i.e. a system based on materialism … and I cannot foresee any essential role for religion in this system and assuming that it can accommodate itself within this system then the question is what the religion can accomplish when the foundations, structures and goals are inhumane … . (1384. p 47)

The only way Sadr can foresee any role for religion in the world is a Grand Revolution against profane civilizations and reconstruction of these cultures anew. Otherwise whether this modernizing progress is positive or negative and Occidental or Oriental Religion cannot assume any leading role within the set conditions where the foundation is based on Materialism. He concludes his reflections upon modernity and spirituality by these words on the probable significance of the East in relation to declining state of humanity:

… maybe East can stave off this derisive march of destruction by awakening the humanity after it has been worn out from these belying sweet dreams … . (1384. p 48)

Imam Musa Sadr was not (or maybe he was and he is) around to witness one of those Grand Revolution against planetary materialism in 1979 in Iran but surely the Revolution needs the core of his vision for it’s creative renewal on a planetary scale. Otherwise it will turn into a new tyranny which is devoid of any sense of Sacred which is by nature emancipative as well as liberating in its telos. This is a point which Seyyed M. Xatami (the former president of Iran and Sadr’s son-in-law as well as the founding director of BARAN institute in Tehran) has been arguing for in the past twenty years within the parameters of his discourse on ‘Dialogue Among Civilizations’. To elaborate this thesis we need to write another essay but suffice to state here that the core of his thesis is what Shariati and Muttahari argued for almost half a century ago namely ‘Shenakht’ (Knowledge based on self-consciousness) as the only way forward to bring, firstly, religion back into the Public Square and, secondly, emancipate religion from ‘religion of ignorance’ that puts the mantle of Prophet and claims our total allegiance based on ‘blind imitation’ (see Shariati Religion against Religion).


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Sadr Imam Musa, Der Ghalamroe Andishe Imam Musa Sadr: Nay ve Ney (The Thoughts of Imam Musa Sadr); Collected and Translated by Ali Hojjati Kermani; Imam Musa Sadr Cultural and Research Institute, Tehran, 1383.

Sadr Imam Musa, Adyan der Khedmate Ensan: Jostarhai darbareh Deen ve Masaele Jahane Moaser (Religion at the service of humanity: Issues on Religion and Global Questions in the Contemporary World); Published by Imam Musa Sadr’s Cultural and Research Institute, Tehran, 1384.


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