Islam and Globalisation

Globalisation is an unstoppable phenomenon emerged through the rapid advancements in technology resulting in hyperconnectivity, with digitalisation and soon metaverse defining our reality. As Muslims, how can we keep our faith central in our daily lives as we live in a hyper-pluralised and globalised world? Is globalisation a challenge or is it an opportunity to rediscover and prosper our faith?
by Ustaz Ridhwan Mohd Basor 2022-12-06 • 26 min read
Ustaz Ridhwan is a member of the Asatizah Youth Network. Trained in social sciences & Islamic thought, he spent 13 years of education in local madrasahs, before pursuing his Political Science degree at the National University of Singapore. He then completed his postgraduate studies on Islamic Political Thought at the International Islamic University Malaysia.
2022-12-06 • 26 min read

Being Muslim in a Globalising and Modernising World

More than 1400 years ago, Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. left this world after spending his life spreading the Divine message. He did not leave us with material wealth or ancestors for us to inherit, but indeed, he left us with perpetual guidance to enable us to live faithfully to the message of Islam. One of the poignant messages he delivered during his final sermon was,

 تَرَكْتُ فِيكُمْ أَمْرَيْنِ لَنْ تَضِلُّوا مَا تَمَسَّكْتُمْ بِهِمَا كِتَابَ اللَّهِ وَسُنَّةَ نَبِيِّهِ

“I have left you with two matters which will never lead you astray, as long as you hold to them: the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of his Prophet.” 

(Al-Muwatta’ Malik)

In the Quran, Allah s.w.t. mentions,

ٱلْيَوْمَ أَكْمَلْتُ لَكُمْ دِينَكُمْ وَأَتْمَمْتُ عَلَيْكُمْ نِعْمَتِى وَرَضِيتُ لَكُمُ ٱلْإِسْلَـٰمَ دِينًا

“Today I have perfected your faith for you, completed My favour upon you, and chosen Islam as your way”

(Surah Al-Ma’idah, 5:3)

As Muslims, we believe that, indeed, the message that we inherit is a perfected faith. The religion is complete. The Divine guidance is timeless and applicable across different geographical spaces.

Nevertheless, today, the world has evolved so much. The world that we live in today is vastly different from the era of nascent Islam in the 14th century. We live today in a world of hyperconnectivity, with digitalisation and soon metaverse defining our reality. 

Globalisation, digitalisation, Islam, interconnected, Muslim

Politically, we live in multiple governance systems, where most Muslims are not under the governance of a centralised Islamic political entity. Socially, we co-exist in societies that subscribe to diverse values and, at times, conflicting value systems. We live in a hyper-pluralised world, where there are forces that work towards building a cohesive world that celebrate these differences and forces that seek to amplify our differences to polarise society.

Against the backdrop of the ever-changing world, what is the role of faith in the life of a Muslim? How does one make sense of our faith tradition with the current reality of our time? How do we live faithfully according to the Divine message while proactively participating in the affairs of our world?

Understanding modernisation and globalisation

In today’s age of globalisation and the post-modern world, the question of identity forms an important aspect that shapes and determines our world's socio-religious and socio-political landscape. Identity politics has been one of the key focuses in the post-colonial discourse. 

The emergence of the nation-state system in the post-colonial era has redefined boundaries and shaped the interactions and exchanges between people. After the end of colonisation and western imperialism in post-World War Two, many states gained independence. However, many of these states were formed with their boundaries defined by their former colonialists. The drawing up of boundaries by the former colonialists has led to continual conflicts. 

The focus on the nation-state systems in identity constructions has been the dominant discourse of the post-colonial era. However, the onslaught of globalisation has paved the way for a new post-modernist discourse. This will inevitably lead to the deconstruction of the established concepts. 

Telecommunications, globalisation, Islam, digital, Digitalisation

Globalisation has led society to evolve from modern to post-modern societies. Globalisation has been one of the most significant phenomena that have unleashed new dynamism in the realm of socio-politics, socio-economic and socio-cultures. Globalisation has led to an unprecedented transformation in human communications by making the world more interconnected than ever before. 

This interconnectivity has rapidly increased cross-border economic, social and technological exchange. In short, globalisation has turned the world into a global village that is reshaping our global political, economic and cultural landscape. It has led to a major seismic shift in global politics and resulted in the rethinking of identity constructions. The advent of social media further amplifies this.

The Impact of Globalisation on Religion

Globalisation also affects how religion is perceived and practised, which will eventually reconstruct the religious identity of the various religious groups. One of the potential effects of globalisation is the homogenisation of culture and the dynamic increases in secularisation, posing major challenges to faith communities around the world.[1]

Nevertheless, a critical question remains to be answered - if globalisation brings more challenges or provides prospects for the future of faith. 

Post-modernist discourse attempts to postulate that the world we live in today is not fundamentally secularised, but, indeed, we are moving towards a post-secular society, where religion and secularism are, in political terms, regarded as a ‘zero-sum game’.[2]  

Jürgen Habermas introduced the term - ‘post-secularism’. He used the term to explain “the continued existence of religious communities in a continually secularising environment.” [3] Secularisation does not diminish religion's role; a society's increased religiosity does not necessarily impede secularisation. Faith and spirituality continue to shape human society.

Religion still matters and remains one of the most important factors that help to shape global politics. Religion will not be diluted because of globalisation but will continue to flourish by hopping on the tide of globalisation. 

The Lexus and the Olive Tree, globalisation, theory, Islam, Muslims, religion

In Lexus And The Olive, Thomas Friedman argues that there are two countervailing forces of globalisation. The ‘Lexus’ symbolises modernisation while ‘the Olive tree’ symbolises the human need for identity and belonging.[4] 

Modernisation reignites the quest for identity and belonging as people of diverse cultural and religious traditions from across the globe call for the need for coexistence in a common space made closer by globalisation.

Globalisation, Islam, Muslim, diversity, religion, coexistence, Singapore

With regard to religion and religiosity, modernisation led to various trajectories, bringing both prospects and challenges to the future of faiths in today’s age of globalisation.

One of the paradoxes of modernisation is the increased awareness of religious consciousness and the revitalisation of religion in the globalised era. As people become more modernised, religion continues to be the identity marker that defines modern societies. 

The interaction amongst various religious groups may cement inter-religious relationships and promote religious coexistence. Nevertheless, religious cleavages refuse to disappear. Religious cleavages continue to be one of the most salient forces that may lead to major fault lines.

Therefore, the role of religion in a post-modern, globalising society has been the focus of many contemporary discourses. Religion remains a key fault line, a reckoning force used to polarise and terrorise society. Hate and violence have been committed to defending one’s faith. Disinformation and malicious propaganda have also been propagated to preserve one’s religious tradition. 

In preserving the role of religion and making sense of faith in post-modern society, religious and faith communities need to ensure that faith and religion continue to be a force of positivity. 

In a world where preoccupation with the accumulation of wealth and a narrow understanding of success have led to inequalities, injustices, unhappiness and disenchantment, religion can play a major role in bringing meaning, comfort and purpose to the existence of humankind. 

Muslim, diversity, work, globalisation, Islam, religion, challenges

The kind of religiosity the world needs is one that improves the quality of human life, contributes to the development of human society and brings out the best in individuals. 

In defying the bleak outlook of religion by Samuel Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations and The Remaking of World Order, faith communities need to find ways to strengthen peaceful co-existence and identify a sense of universality and a common denominator among humankind.

Clash of Civilisations, globalisation, Islam, religion

A map according to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilisation in explaining the influence of religion and culture in shaping identity, global politics and warfare. Image source: 

Muslim response to modernisation and globalisation

For the Islamic faith, in particular, the phenomenon of globalisation affects the socio-political milieu of the global Muslim community. As globalisation generally comes hand-in-hand with westernisation, the tremendous western influences, from values to cultures, are sweeping in and eventually affecting the traditional life of Muslim societies. 

The Muslim world, therefore, has to face globalisation and find ways to deal with modernisation and post-modernity. The Muslim world is not exempt from the phenomenon of globalisation, which “contains the paradox that at the same time it causes old traditional points of reference to disappear, it reawakens passionate affirmations of identity that often verge on withdrawal and self-exclusion”.[5]

Globalisation, after all, has also resulted in Muslims settling down in various parts of the globe, beyond residing in Muslim-majority societies. A significant number of the Muslim populations today reside in predominantly non-Muslim societies and live in minority communities. Henceforth, issues and challenges arise as Muslims try to live as faithful adherents of their religion. 

At the same time, they are also required to adapt to the localities of their geographical communities. This calls for Muslims to re-assess their traditional points of reference and established practices as they try to live as faithful Muslims in a modern and globalising society. Questions regarding the issues of human rights, gender, democracy, the financial system and many other issues need to be critically discussed to find their position in contemporary Islamic thought. 

globalisation, human rights, democracy, Islam, Muslims, religion

For instance, classical Islamic political theories such as the Dar al-Harb (Abode of War) and Dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam), which Imam Asy-Syaybani popularised, need to be critically relooked in the context of the global political system today. After all, together with many other classical political concepts and theories, these are not fixed interpretations that were introduced devoid of the political realities of their era. In a world where we have different political realities, there is a need for fresh understanding to guide Muslims to live faithfully to their Islamic tradition and values.

Read: MuslimSG | Religious Freedom: Islam and Religious Minorities

Since the time of colonisation and the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Muslim scholars have been finding ways for fresh interpretations to ensure the Muslim community can continue to thrive in this world while enhancing their spiritual values and preserving their faith convictions.  

In many of his works, the former Grand Mufti of Egypt, Sheikh Muhammad Abduh emphasised the role of reason in interpreting the text. He believed that Islam could be harmonised with modern times by returning to the spirit of the Islamic tradition. He lived in the period when Ottoman Empire was already declining, and colonisation was sweeping across the Muslim world. 

former Mufti Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, globalisation, modernisation, religion, IslamThe former Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar, Sheikh Muhammad Abduh, is seated in the middle. Image source: 

He witnessed the onslaught of colonial and Western influences. In facing the reality of his time, he firmly believed that Muslims needed to acquire knowledge of the sciences from Europe and that this could be done without abandoning Islam. After all, Islam is not entirely against reason and logic. He championed making educational experiences more dynamic by going beyond the rote-learning methodology of classical texts. 

Read: MuslimSG | 4 Muslims Who Made Amazing Discoveries During the Islamic Golden Age

He, however, did not believe in a wholesale adaptation of western knowledge and values, but as long as these values were in harmony with the Islamic worldview. He encouraged the Muslims to retrieve their rich intellectual heritage and to return to the practices of ijtihad in understanding the Quran and the Hadith.[6] He believed that Islam is compatible with modernity and it is in harmony with rationalism and modern science. For him, wahy functions as the foundation, and aql (intelligence) is the instrument.

Read:  MuslimSG | The Four Mazhabs in Islam

Closer to home in 19th-century Singapore, Sheikh Syed Ahmad Al-Hadi and Sheikh Muhammad Tahir Jalaluddin had endeavoured to guide the Muslim community to respond to the forces of modernisation and its encounter with the western influences during the British administration of Singapore. 

Read: MuslimSG | 5 Muslim Pioneers of Singapore and Their Contributions

They encouraged Muslims in Singapore to accept ideas of modernity and ideas from the "West" as long as they were not in conflict with the main principles of Islamic teachings. One of their initiatives was to modernise Islamic education in Singapore. They introduced the holistic model of education, which incorporates both the religious and modern sciences in the curriculum. 

This provided the Muslim community with an alternative source of religious education to traditional religious schools. It equipped students with comprehensive knowledge and relevant skill sets that allowed Muslims to widen their employment opportunities during the British administration of Singapore.[7]

In today’s 21st century, this legacy continues to flourish as it guides Muslims to deal with and face with emerging challenges of today’s globalising world. Sheikh Taha Jabir al-Alwani proposed a knowledge framework where he called for the combination of two readings (jamaah baina qira’atain).[8] He observed that Allah s.w.t. revealed two types of revelations to humankind. 

The first ‘revelation/signs’ (ayat) is through wahyu or a textual revelation (ayat al-Quraniyah). The second is the intellectual revelation (ayat al-kawniyah) acquired through careful observation, critical analysis, scientific inquiry and methodological learning. This may also include knowledge of hard and social sciences. 

This framework of knowledge is parallel to the concept of the hierarchy of knowledge espoused by Imam Al-Ghazali. In his Kitab al-Ilm in Ihya’ Ulumuddin, he typologies knowledge into 1) al-Ulum al-Diniyyah - sciences of the religion which is acquired through revelations, and 2) al-Ulum al-Dunyawiyyah - acquired through human reasons, thoughts, experiments, analysis and discoveries. Both of these are important for a Muslim to lead a successful life in this physical world (al-ard) and in the eternal abode of the afterlife (al-akhirah).

Read: MuslimSG | Four Advices from Imam Al-Ghazali on worship

Empowered by Islamic tradition

In finding solutions and answers to emerging challenges, our tradition provides references to guide us to live faithfully to our Islamic principles and values. Our tradition is not static or fossilised, but it is evolving tradition that will continue to guide us in different eras and geographical localities. 

Within our tradition, we have our sui generis (unique) concepts of tajdid (renewal), islah (reform) and ihya’ (rejuvenation). These concepts will continue to empower us in our pursuit of holistic success.

As we seek to understand Fiqh tradition, it is also paramount for us to refer to the sciences that developed our law, Usul al-Fiqh, and understand the why of Islamic law through Maqasid al-Shariah. In ensuring our Fiqh continues to provide relevant guidance, there is a need to rejuvenate the Islamic legal system to avoid contradiction between the ideals of Muslims and modernity and to “steer clear of confusion in the face of revolutionary changes of our time”.[9] 

Read: MuslimSG | What You Need to Know About Maqasid Al-Shariah

Ideally, our Fiqh functions as the corpus of discipline that deals with providing new answers for issues arising in our modern era. In discussing the need for rejuvenation of our understanding of Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh, contemporary Islamic scholar, Hisham Kamali mentioned that we should not be preoccupied with formalism and the technicalities of the conventional Islamic legal theory.[10] 

Nonetheless, it is important to ensure that any attempts of renewal (tajdid) and reform (islah) must be made to stay true to the Divine guidance.

Islamic law, Maqasid Shariah, Islam, religion, globalisation

With regards to Maqasid al-Shariah, while traditionally, it is understood to be fulfilling the five main higher intents of Islamic law, there are areas within our tradition of knowledge to consider other objectives. 

Maqasid al-Shari'ah, or the goals and objectives of Islamic law, is an evidently important but yet neglected theme of the Shariah. The theory of maqasid is popularly attributed to  Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi, who came out with five ethical objectives of the Shariah. This includes the preservation of religion, life, lineage, intellect and property. In light of modern times, there have been suggestions for the reconsideration of  the higher spiritual and ethical objectives (al-maqâsid) of Islam. 

Medieval Islamic theologian and jurist, Ibn Taymiyyah, is believed to be among the first scholars to have suggested that the notion of maqasid should not be confined to a specific number or type.[11] He revised the scope of maqasid and consequently opens the doors for further developments for the evolution of the maqasid in the light of modern times. 

Hashim Kamali subsequently proposed the prospect of including prominence values in modern times, such as “fundamental rights and liberties, the welfare state, and scientific research”.[12] He analysed that, after all, the Quran pays greater attention to “values and objectives, such as justice and benefit, mercy and compassion, upright character and taqwa, promotion of good and prevention of evil, affection and love within the family, charity, camaraderie and other redeeming values”.[13]

We will continue to face enormous challenges as we strive to enliven our religious ideals in today’s complex world we live in. However, guided by our tradition and legacy of Islamic scholarship, we should be confident in paving the way forward for an empowering religious life that brings goodness to the world. 

We do not live in isolation by avoiding the reality of our time. We find ways to ensure our religious values can be harmonised and co-create solutions to address our emerging challenges. The world is in a constant state of change. We do not change our religious values and principles, but we transformatively adapt to our current reality. 

Mufti Dr Naziruddin Mohd Nasir, Mufti, Singapore, globalisation, coexist

From digital currency to metaverse, how do we continue to ensure Islam remains relevant in this ever-changing landscape? Mufti Dr Nazirudin provided food for thought in his address at the International Conferences on Communities of Success,

“Our generation has to chart its own path towards success, empowered by tradition, not incapacitated by it. This requires confidence and courage to read our traditions afresh, think critically, and co-create solutions creatively with others.”

Indeed, the perpetual guidance left by our beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w. will continue to guide us as we seek to chart our own path in facing the issues of our era, Insya’Allah. 

Read: MuslimSG | 5 Things to Know About Fatwa

[1]  Chris Barker (2008), Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: SAGE Publications, p.159
[2]  Jurgen Habermas (2008), Notes on Post-Secular Society, in New Perspectives Quarterly, 25: pp.17–29, p.38
[3]  Ibid.
[4] Thomas L. Friedman, (2000), The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization. New York: Anchor Books, p.16
[5]  Tariq Ramadan (2004), Western Muslims and The Future of Islam, New York: Oxford University Press, p.4.
[6] William R. Roff (1967). The Origins of Malay Nationalism, Singapore: University of Malaya Press.
[7] Kamaludeen Mohamed Nasir dan Syed Muhammad Khairudin Aljunied (2009). Muslims as Minorities: History and Social Realities of Muslims in Singapore, Bangi: Penerbit Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, p. 44.
[8] Taha Jabir Al-AlWani (2010).الجمع بين القراءتين قراءة الوحي وقراءة الكون. مكتبة الشروق الدولية
[9] Shah, Sayed Sikandar. “Rethinking Islamic Law: Conceptual Premises and Strategic  Framework,” in Shariah Law Reports 4, 2009. 
[10]  Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Issues in The Legal Theory of Usul and Prospect for  Reform. Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia, 2002. 
[11]  See al-DIn ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu' Fatdwd Shaykh al-Isldm Ibn Taymiyyah, comp., 4 Abd al-Rahman ibn Qasim (Beirut: Mu'assasat al-Risalah, 1398 ah), 32: 134
[12]  Kamali, Mohammad Hashim. Issues in The Legal Theory of Usul and Prospect for  Reform. Kuala Lumpur: International Islamic University Malaysia, 2002. p.16
[13] Ibid, p.12

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