Imam Zaid Shakir argues how Islam counters modern nihilism by restoring meaning to life.

Nihilism has been defined as “belief in nothing as opposed to the absence of belief” (Scruton, 324). Being divorced from conventional norms of virtue, value, or morality, such an idea is bound to manifest itself in a destructive cynicism.

As nihilism evolved into a political idea, primarily in 19th century Czarist Russia, its inherent destructiveness was to be gradually actualized. The essence of that

actualization is captured by Roger Scruton in his comments on Bakunin’s, The Revolutionary Catechism:

The basic idea was that, since society is founded on lies, and all moral, religious and humanitarian beliefs are just instruments of concealment, all beliefs and values must be torn down and the disposition to hope and worship be eliminated, so that the world could be seen as it really is (324).

The idea outlined above is obviously one that leaves little room for love or hope. Hence, it is not surprising to find that the nihilistic antihero of The Revolutionary Catechism is a cold-blooded killer void of the ability to form any meaningful human attachments.

This view of nihilism reveals what many see as its most salient feature, a lack of meaning to human life. This defining characteristic, informs the assessment of Dr. Cornel West in his popular work, Race Matters. He says:

Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophical doctrine that there is no rational ground for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness. The frightening result is the numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition towards the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a coldhearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others (22-23).

Dr. West develops this assessment of nihilism in the context of the African American community. However, as he mentions elsewhere, it is not confined to that community. He states in Democracy Matters:

Needless to say, nihilism is not confined to black America. Psychic depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair are widespread in America as a whole. Just as in the black community, the saturation of market forces in American life generates a market morality that undermines a sense of meaning and larger purpose (26-27).

In this paper, I will use some of the most pertinent insights from research in the field of cultural anthropology to show how Islam can counter the nihilistic forces currently at work in our society by restoring meaning to human life.

I will also use that research to show how Islam can only retain its universality when it is culturally integrative and synthesizing, not hegemonic.

The approach I take in developing this thesis moves us beyond the primacy of political-economy, the dominant factor in Marxist and neo-Marxist approaches to analyzing social reality. Such approaches rely on abstractions of human institutions to identify the salient variables needed for the transformation of human societies. Other approaches, such as philosophical and modern theological ones rely on abstract ideas.

The approach I develop here identifies the locus of change in human societies as the individual human being, who is capable of restoring meaning in his or her life. This approach is consistent with the Qur’anic adage, [Verily, God will not change the condition of a people until they effect change within themselves.] (Ar-Ra`d 13:11)

High Context and Low Context

We cannot productively speak of meaning or meaninglessness without speaking of context. Context is related to meaning in that it provides a preexisting background that allows us to process information in a way conducive to establishing meaning.

The degree to which that background relieves us of having to be actively involved in processing information reflects in the ease with which we are able to readily arrive at meaning. Meaninglessness, one of the key aspects of nihilism, occurs when individual lives are divorced from a context capable of facilitating meaning.

Concerning context, anthropologists speak of high context (HC) and low context (LC) societies (Hall, 85-103).

High context societies are ascribing, in that they ascribe meaning to the lives of their individual members. In interacting with each other, roles and expectations are known, for they are ascribed by the societal context. This is the nature of traditional societies.

For example, in a typical pre-modern village, every man and woman knew what was expected of a husband or wife. Those roles were generally accepted and there was a very small degree of deviation from the anticipated norm. The meanings involved in those respective roles were provided by the context of the society. Individuals did not have to experiment in order to discover what it meant to be a spouse.

If we look at marriage in contemporary America, or most other modern societies, we find that unless the prospective bride and groom spend hours in conversation, they would have no idea as to what to expect from their future spouses. We would also find that if we examined the lives of individual men and women we would find tremendous deviation from any perceived norms of behavior or role expectations.

This is so because each individual is left to discover for himself or herself what it means to be a husband or a wife. Some might be more influenced in that process of discovery by their parents, others by television soap-operas, others by their friends, and yet others by popular music.

Hence, we find that in LC societies, such as our own, individuals are left to discover meaning in their lives. Such societies are referred to as abstracting because they abstract the individual from any effective, ascribing context.

The 5 Variables of Generating Context

The cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, whose work we have previously referenced, mentions five variables that are critical in generating context. We will focus on four of them here in constructing our argument.

These variables, activity, situation, social status, and past experience, are foundational to our argument. If we understand these variables and the role they play in creating context, we can begin to understand the role Islam can play in restoring meaning in contemporary, increasingly LC societies.

The fifth variable, culture is of tremendous importance in terms of its ability to ground, synthesize, and integrate the others into actual human societies. However, we view it as a shaping or mitigating variable. Hence, we have left its discussion at this point in order to illustrate the meaning and role of the others.

To begin, an activity describes the endeavor one is consciously involved in, for example, shopping. A situation refers to the background shaping an activity, for example, shopping in a supermarket as opposed to a pick-it-yourself organic farm. It also includes organization, verbal and non-verbal communication, and other peripheral variables surrounding an activity.

Status refers both to one’s location in the social system and the import that is associated with ones personal position. Status plays a role in determining the activities and situations we may find ourselves involved in. For example, the chief executive officer (CEO) of a major corporation would normally be prevented by his or her status from shopping at a discount or dollar store.

As for past experience, it refers to the influences that have conditioned one as to what to expect in current or future situations. For example, if one has “shopped” at a pick-it-yourself organic farm in the past, one would not be surprised to find rotting produce on the vine, slightly defective or blemished produce, or produce covered to various degrees with dirt, dust, or manure.

One whose shopping has been confined to a typical modern supermarket would be extremely surprised, or possibly shocked, to find any of these things qualifying the offerings in the produce section.

It is the dynamic interaction of these four elements that provide the context so critical in facilitating the creation of meaning in our lives. If we consider activities and situations, numbers one and two above, we can see how modern society greatly complicates the process of contextualization.

As our modern economy has become qualified by an increasing complex division of labor the number of potential activities we may become involved in and the situations associated with those activities multiply exponentially.

Let us return to our farming example to illustrate this point. In most pre-modern societies, gardening or shopping in an open air market was one of a few essential activities that most people engaged in. It was simple and direct. Today, obtaining our produce is one of a wide array of activities the average person may engage in during any given day.

Furthermore, the situations that shopping may occur in have also expanded. For example, in a pre-modern society, virtually everyone shopped for produce in an open air market, if they did not grow their own fruits and vegetables.

Today, in a developed society, that activity could take place in a nostalgic replica of an open air market, in a supermarket, a corner store, a health food store, a massive food warehouse, a farmers’ market, a food co-op, a farm stand, a pick-it-yourself farm, or via the internet in the comfort of one’s home.

This fragmentation of activities and situations, coupled by the confusion accompanying status, and the social position it defines, complicates the creation of coherent context. In addition to these developments, past experience, a critical factor in determining role expectations in traditional HC societies, increasingly informs less and less of our future expectations.

Constantly evolving technologies and the increasing influence of mediated reality in defining perceptions and expectations make past experience an ever more unreliable indicator of present or future meaning.

For all of these reasons, modern society leads many of its members to discover meaning in their lives through a complicated process of trial and error that carries no guarantee of success. Failing in the endeavor, many end up in a potentially destructive, nihilistic no-man’s-land.

Others fall prey to the appeals of self-serving demagogues, who readily offer to fill the void of meaninglessness with caricatured explanations of social and political reality, most commonly manifested in religious fundamentalisms. This is a situation that does not augur well for the future of post-modern society.

by Imam Zaid Shakir