How can I – a university-educated Westerner – not believe in such modern ideas as the evolution of species, historical progress and modern enlightenment? First of all, let me be clear that I do not deny all modern claims completely, nor do I care to debate most of them on their own terms. For instance, I usually accept medical prescriptions based on modern science without debate. By stating that I do not believe in modern ideas, I mean that I do not have faith in them; I do not trust that they can ultimately lead me to happiness. Instead, I believe in the teachings of Islam as transmitted by traditional orthodox authorities such as scholars and Sufi masters (1). So, how have I come to believe in teachings so radically different from those espoused by the vast majority of my modern Western peers? There are probably many factors to explain
this, including many of which I am unaware. However, I think I can identify one important reason for my coming to such unusual conclusions; my initial assumptions about life were quite different from those of my peers.
Already as a teenager, I was obsessed with understanding my place in reality. My ignorance of the reasons for my existence anguished me. My awareness of this ignorance led me to make very few assumptions about what answers I might find. So, I sought the guidance of those who claimed to have answers to such questions. I read numerous philosophical and religious books and spoke to those people who claimed to have answers about why we are here. I was an avid consumer of any television program or magazine article that dealt with this subject. These various sources of information obviously did not provide a cohesive explanation for me. However, they did help me to better distinguish what I knew from what I felt and what I ignored. Metaphysical writings from the world’s major traditions were particularly helpful in helping me realize that the only thing I could really be sure of was my own existence: I am – somehow I am. I cannot be unquestionably certain that what I perceive around me is real. When I dream, I consider my environment to be real but when I awake I realize it was not. Therefore, I cannot be certain that I will not one day awaken to another reality in which my current condition will seem unreal. When I was a child, I perceived myself as very small. Although my size has changed, I am still here perceiving the world. So, although what I perceive is uncertain, my existence as a perceiver is unquestionable.
My only basic assumption in understanding reality was that I most certainly am. Yet, I didn’t have a clue who I was. If I was to become happy, I knew I needed to find some answers as to who I am, what my place is in reality and how I can be happy. Nothing indicated to me that modernity could help me find these answers since it seemed much more preoccupied with the world I perceive (objective reality) than the being perceiving it: me. Modern science rests on the assumption that the objective, material world is real. Therefore the only true science becomes material science. In turn, material well-being becomes the aim of modern existence. Although I do not deny the relative importance of this goal, it is not my ultimate goal. Since my assumptions are radically different from those of most of my peers, so are my conclusions.
Transdisciplinary scholar of Islam and Sufism.