Finding the desirable and precise role of technology in society is a challenging intellectual task. The task is intellectual in nature, since first and foremost it pertains to ideas and their conceptual interrelationships. The specific ideas in question as referred to in the title of this article, are the notions of technology, sharia, and community (umma). The task is also challenging, because as we shall soon see, these are fundamental concepts dealing with man’s terrestrial life that have given rise to diverse and conflicting understandings and positions. Each concept presupposes an underlying belief system and a philosophy that is influenced by many factors and to which many different sources contribute. We are therefore confronted with diverse and competing philosophies of technology, philosophies of law, both religious and secular, and philosophies of social organization. As for the challenge at hand, it comes primarily from the complex nature of man’s cultural systems, both each in itself and in its relations with each other.
Perspectives on Technology
We will first discuss the issue of technology. Technology is perhaps the most dominant and the most impactful of all the cultural systems ever created by man. It is the main shaper of his built environment and in modern times we observe that it is also a major shaper of the natural environment. As a result, the idea of an integral ecology that embraces concerns with both layers of the environment becomes increasingly important in contemporary society. In a sense, technology is everything to man. It is with technology that he builds his home. It is with technological products that he surrounds himself within his home. It is also with technology that he utilizes and harnesses the natural environment. Moreover, it is with technological inventions and innovations that he keeps on introducing new modes of material production, especially with the view of meeting his expanding economic needs and propping up his increasingly sophisticated way of life.
In modern culture, technology has become ever more refined and sophisticated purportedly to quench the thirst of modern man for rapidly changing materialistic life styles. In this cultural development not just the forms of technology are changing. Even more profoundly changing is the nature of the relationship between man and technology and by implication the relationship between him and the natural environment. In the course of the development of modern technology man the producer of technology himself has changed. Consciousness-wise, man the producer of traditional technology is not the same as the man who produced modern technology. They have different visions and appreciations of the world of technology and its relationships with the rest of societal life, in particular with religion. Consequently, the idea of interdependence between man and technology does not have the same meaning and significance in traditional and modern societies. In contemporary culture, which is largely continuous with the modern one, man’s dependence on technology has reached new levels that have not been seen before in the history of his own species. In the light of this overdependence on technology in human life some critics of modern technology have gone to the point of asserting that instead of serving humankind this technology has actually enslaved them.
In its most general sense, technology refers to every tangible object that man makes for the purpose of fulfilling certain needs in his earthly life. However, there is a big difference between traditional and modern technology not only in terms of scale of production and application but also in form and spirit. Traditional technology is shaped and governed by three main ideas, namely truth, utility and beauty, which are harmoniously balanced and intertwined. Modern technology, on the other hand, has been primarily guided by the spirit of utilitarianism alone. After having marginalized if not entirely dispensed with the traditional dimensions of truth and beauty or equivalently with integral epistemology and aesthetics this technology developed solely along utilitarian lines. Without being adequately restrained and constrained by the elements of integral epistemology, aesthetics, and moral and ethical considerations as viewed in their totality it is not difficult to see why modern technology developed the way it did. The pursuit of technological power that is unhindered by spiritual and moral-ethical concerns, which is best illustrated by the quest for the state of the art in modern military technology, could only be described as an inevitable consequence of the exclusively utilitarian approach to technology.
Islamic technology, the most developed form of technology prior to modern times, is traditional in the sense defined above. It shares with other traditional technological cultures its characteristic concerns with truth, utility and aesthetics in its foundation and development. However, it differs from them in at least two main respects. First, there is difference in worldview, and second in scale of production. Like other aspects of Islamic life and thought Islamic technology is based on a worldview in which the idea of Absolute Divine Unity is held supreme. The Islamic worldview affirms the theological idea of the unity of Divine Attributes and Qualities and the human need for a Sacred Law (Sharia). Its core elements are none other than the twin ideas of the unity of all domains of reality derivable from the idea of Divine Unity and the balance and harmony of the human social order. The emphasis on the idea of unity in the Islamic worldview is beyond comparison. It is this spirit of unity or tawhid as it is termed in Arabic that permeates the whole body of Islamic civilization of which technology is an integral part.
The Islamic worldview also pertains to the idea of the most preferred human actions and the most perfect human social order and how it ought to be organized. It affirms the unique place and role of the Divine Law as the most fundamental and the most potent organizing and governing principle of human society. The Sharia is basically concerned with the proper relationships of forms in the human world. It seeks to organize, govern, and regulate them in such manner as to help secure a balanced and just social order. That there is a divine preference for a certain kind of social order by virtue of which a sharia is prescribed is made clear in the Qur’an. The Qur’an describes such a social order as ummatan wasatan, meaning “the middle or balanced community.” In this connection it also speaks of the idea of the best community (khayr ummah). In view of its comprehensive and pervasive societal role the Sharia is called upon to organize and regulate the pursuit of technology as well. In fact, especially in the creative period of Islamic history, the Sharia served as an extremely important cultural context for Islamic technology, thereby demonstrating its creative dimension that was often eclipsed by its regulative dimension. This means that there is a preferred technological order or system that is worth pursuing.
The difference in worldview has thus helped make Islamic technology distinguishable from other traditional technologies in both form and spirit. The difference in scale of production, which distinguishes classical Islamic technology from its contemporaneous forms, is a particular aspect of their formal differences. The “modernity” of Islamic sharia was an important explanatory factor why Islamic technology became far more developed than the other traditional technologies. Now, traditional Islamic perspectives on technology are being challenged by modern technology. However, old issues remain. The crux of the issue at hand is the question of appropriateness of technological forms for human consumption if a healthy society is indeed what we aspire to have. In our understanding, the healthy society is synonymous with the balanced community to which we have earlier referred. Notwithstanding the pitiful state of technological development in the contemporary Muslim world traditional Islamic perspectives on technology remain relevant to our discussion on the present and future technological orders.
The form and spirit of Islamic technology may be further explained by references to other ideas related to the Islamic worldview. The Islamic worldview also affirms the idea of man as a theomorphic being and the idea of the cosmos as a theophany or God’s Self-Disclosure. By the latter idea we mean that God reveals about Himself in the cosmos, that is, about His Names and Qualities. From all these ideas we derive lesser principles that have important implications for Islamic technology. Essentially, what these three ideas mean for technology is that let us be aware of the divine model of creation whenever we are thinking of making, creating and producing new things. As a model of human creation, technology should attempt to conform itself to the divine model of creation in the best way possible and to remind ourselves of our theomorphic qualities. The tripartite principles of truth, utility and beauty are of course inspired by and conform to the divine model of creation. The Qur’an refers to these three principles in many of its verses. It speaks of God as having created the cosmos or its parts in truth (bi’l-haqq). It refers to God as having subjected (sakhkhara) everything in the heavens and on earth to man’s use, particularly the sun and the moon, the night and the day, and created many things that are of utility to man such as for transportation purposes. It also speaks of God as having created the heavens (zayyanna) and the human soul (sawwa) beautifully. In the above discussion we find some of the most important guiding principles that the Qur’an has provided to enable human beings to pursue technology in a holistic and healthy manner.
Technological System and Maqasid al-Sharia
In discussing technology we may understand it as referring either to individual technological objects such as cooking utensils, weapons, transportation vehicles or food products or to the totality of these technological products which are valued by a particular society according to some order of appreciation. Most of the religious responses to modern technology have the first understanding of technology in mind. In fact, this is the popular understanding of technology. In Muslim societies this popular kind of response refers to the jurisprudential or fiqhi position. It is interested in determining whether a particular technological product is religiously permissible (halal) or prohibited (haram). The concept of sharia-compliance for technological products is also generally used according to this popular understanding.
However, when we are thinking of technology in the second sense, that is, as a total system, then the meaning of sharia-compliance has to be understood at a higher level. The health of our technological system is a good indicator of the state of health of our community or society. It cannot be determined through the fiqhi approach, which is basically piece-meal in nature. When it comes to our assessment of a technological system viewed as a whole we need the help of a superior approach that is far more embracing. The body of knowledge traditionally known as maqasid al-sharia (“the purposes of the sharia”), which may be viewed as a philosophy of Islamic Law, is epistemologically fitting to provide the necessary criteria to determine the health of the total technological system, nationally as well as globally. The details need to be worked out. However, the important point to be noted is that we need to take our critique of contemporary technology viewed as a system to a higher level where the role of maqasid al-sharia becomes totally relevant.
Towards a Better Health of the Umma through a Healthier Technological System
We have explained the meaning of a healthy society, albeit briefly, which we identify with the Qur’an’s “balanced community.” Every society needs technology, which it either produces by itself or buys from other societies. Much more important to a society than merely having a collection of technological items in its possession, even if these are plentiful including with the most up-to-date and the most sophisticated is the issue of whether or not it has in place a total technological system that is well-defined and healthy. In the Islamic perspective, given the centrality in societal life of both the Sharia and technology as we have defined them a healthy relation between them is most desirable. Consequently, each Muslim society is in great need of a good national technology policy and a well-conceived as well as well-managed technological system. It is the task of the scholars of the Sharia to articulate its role in addressing the challenges that technology has posed to Muslim societies. It is worth repeating that in appealing to the role of the Sharia in question both fiqhi and maqasid approaches must be given their due place. Otherwise, that role would hardly be effective.
Dr Osman Bakar is Chair Professor and Director of the Sultan Omar ‘Ali Saifuddien Centre for Islamic Studies (SOASCIS), Univeristi Brunei Darussalam, and Emeritus Professor of Philosophy of Science, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.