Islam and the Restoration of Meaning


August 09, 2007 at 6:10 pm


Nihilism has been defined as “belief in nothing as opposed to the absence of belief.” [1] 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. [2]

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. [3]

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:

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. [4]

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/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. (13:11)

Part One

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. [5] 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/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 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 ones 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.

Part Two

From this point of departure, we wish to examine the ability of Islam to restore meaning to an LC society. This ability lies to a large extent on the fact that Islam is what Dr. Noah Feldman refers to as a “mobile idea.” [6] Feldman identifies universality and simplicity as the two most salient features of a mobile idea. If we consider the categories mentioned at the outset of this article, we can see that Islam’s universality lies in large part with its ability to establish a context that allows for the ascription of meaning. This context-generating ability of Islam, as we will discuss shortly, is not tied to a specific cultural milieu. Historically, it has transcended particular cultures. This is one of the key components of its universality. Ironically, it is only when Islam is approached as a distinct, all-encompassing culture that it loses its universality. We will also examine this issue shortly.

If we consider the category of activities, Islam not only introduces a set of ideas, the focal point of Feldman’s examination of its mobility, it also introduces a set of standardized activities, such as ablutions, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, litanies, etc. Those activities themselves are shaped by a set of well-defined situations. For example, prayers occur in the mosque or a clean place in ones home or workplace designated for that purpose. It also requires a distinct frame of mind, which is an integral part of the situation surrounding its performance. The pilgrimage takes place in and around Mecca at a designated time, while wearing distinct garb. The most commonly repeated litanies occur in the place of prayer.

A large part of Islam’s mobility is rooted in the transcendence these activities and situations. They are not confined to a particular people existing in any particular time or place, nor are they rooted in a particular culture, as we mentioned previously. Hence, they can be readily adopted. The prayer of the African looks no different than the prayer of the Chinese. The prayer of a Muslim three hundred years ago looks no different than the prayer of a Muslim today. Similarly, the mosque, in its essential elements has change little over the course of the last thousand years.

Because of its comprehensiveness, a person entering into Islam can adopt an entirely new way of life with little or no experimentation. Many of the most essential aspects of this new lifestyle have already been worked out. If we revisit our marriage example, the basic role expectations of a husband or wife are provided by the prophetic tradition. Of course there are also many aspects of how the couple may relate to each other that are informed by their shared or respective cultures. However, they would have a good idea as to what they could anticipate from each other if they were both practicing Muslims.

The fact that Islam also provides a new, non-economic, non-hereditary basis for status only enhances its power to create meaning. Most social systems ascribe status based on economic categories or inherited social position, in many instances tied to race or ethnicity. Islam devalues these bases of status, and introduces new ones that are rooted in the activities and situations associated with the religion. This idea is captured in the prophetic tradition that states, “God does not look at your physical forms or your wealth. Rather, He looks at your deeds and hearts.” [7] This tradition emphasizes that race, other physical features –such as hair texture or skin color, and wealth are of limited importance in terms of the status they afford one before God, and therefore, ideally, before other humans.

Just as Islam provides a new and diverse set of activities and situations, it also provides a new, socially neutral basis for status. This feature of Islam has proven tremendously empowering to oppressed minorities historically and contemporarily and may give us great insight into the strong appeal Islam has held historically for disenfranchised groups.

Similarly, the importance that Islam affords to past experience is of tremendous significance in terms of its ability to provide context and therefore meaning in abstractive post-modern societies. It connects the believer to the past, not only as part of a continuous historical community, but also by tying the soundness of belief and practice to preexisting forms and norms. The grounding arising from adhering to established schools of jurisprudence and identifying with an established system of spiritual refinement provides the past with the power to inform the believer of what his or her behavior should be in the present. This power is augmented by the certainty concerning the future that is provided by known eschatological ends.

In combination, these four variables, -activity, situation, status, and past experience, as found in Islam, provide the basis of Islam’s power to produce meaning-generating context. The fifth variable in Hall’s scheme, which we have not discussed until this point, is culture. Culture is a variable that in combination with the other four shapes how context is created. Culture is critical to the context-generating power of Islam for it provides the cement that integrates and synthesizes the context generated by the activities, situations, status, and past experiences that Islam informs with preexisting societal norms. However, if culture to perform this critical role, it has to be viewed as a complimentary variable that strengthens the efficacy of the others, and not as hegemonic one that dominates and subordinates them.

We will clarify this point by returning a final time to our marriage example. A particular culture may shape an “Islamic” wedding ceremony. Culture determines the language the ceremony will be performed in. It determines the role that males and females will respectively play in the wedding. For example, the type of wedding dress, the presence or absence of bridesmaids, a procession for the bride, groom, or both, the place where the bride, groom, parents, guests (male and female) will sit during the ceremony. It also determines if special types of food i.e. wedding cakes or special desserts will be served, and a large array of other issues.

Basic religious teachings governing the vows (Ijab wa Qabul), witnesses, a dowry, and guardianship can be flexibly integrated with the type of cultural elements mentioned above to produce a meaningful ceremony that would not be viewed as strange to the non-Muslim attendees who share the common culture of the bride and groom. The role of event, situation, status, and past experience would be integrated with those cultural elements to provide a meaningful event recognizable to all members of the community. However, if Islam were viewed as an independent, all encompassing cultural phenomenon, it would negate the complimentary role of culture as illustrated above and give rise to a ceremony that might be considered foreign and possibly alienating, even to Muslims.

For example, if the prophetic tradition (Sunna) were seen as mandating that the vows be made in Arabic, that only men be present, that any sort of special clothing and processions, or the serving of any special dishes are all to be shunned because they are religious innovations, then the role of culture would have been paradoxically distorted. This distortion is found in the fact that Islam as a religion would have been elevated to become an all-encompassing cultural phenomenon. On the other hand, legitimate manifestations of culture, such as the things mentioned above, would have been eliminated all together, because of their perceived religious unacceptability.

Traditionally, Muslim scholars understood the role of culture as a complimentary variable that assists in integrating Islam into a living social context. This understanding is embodied in the legal maxim, “Custom is of legislative import.” Hence, local languages, dress, food, ceremonies, mores governing interpersonal relationships, art, music, and other customary features of a society, which collectively make up that society’s culture, are to be duly considered when attempting to implement Islam at a societal level. All of these things are critical in providing meaning to an individual’s life. Understanding this fact and respecting it only enhances Islam’s context-generating power.

Ironically, failing to understand this fact, by attempting to present Islam as a trans-historical mega-culture not only negates the historically assimilative power of Islam, it also skews the relationship between culture and the other four variables we have been discussing. It should come as no surprise that viewing Islam in such a way robs it of its ability to generate meaningful context, and renders it a principal source of the nihilism characterizing the lives of many contemporary Muslims, leaving them just as vulnerable to the ravages of fundamentalism and anomie as other people whose lives have been shaped by the abstractive post-modern condition.

In conclusion, when we see how readily Islam conforms to the variables that are of critical import in the creation of context and meaning, we see that Islam can play a significant role in addressing the nihilism that is a distinctive feature of the post-modern condition. However, the potential role to be played by Islam in this regard cannot be realized if it is approached as a hegemonic phenomenon that suppresses the cultural manifestations of the societies where it is found. Rather, those cultural manifestations have to be viewed as a force that synthesizes and integrates the other variables we have been discussing into the social setting. If this occurs, we will see the return of the dynamic, adaptive Islam that spread so easily to the far corners of this earth, and appealed so readily to such a wide array of people.

Imam Zaid Shakir


1. Roger Scruton, A Dictionary of Political Thought (New York: Hill and Wang, 1982), p. 324.
2.Ibid., p. 324
3. Dr. Cornel West, Race Matters (New York: Vintage Books, 2001), 22-23.
4. ________ Democracy Matters (New York: The Penguin Press, 2004), 26-27.
5. See, for example, Edward T. Hall, Beyond Culture (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1976), 85-103.
6. See Noah Feldman, After Jihad: America and the Struggle for Islamic Democracy (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003), 31-37.
7. Imam Muhammad bin Yazid bin Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah (Riyadh: Dar As-Salaam, 1999/1420), 604, no. 4143