Time to Redefine ‘Progress’?
It is encouraging to know that recently, a country like Germany has sought the advice of philosophers, theologians, ethicists and historians, on top of experts in the sciences and medicine to think of the best exit strategy from lockdown.
Beyond the question of exit strategies however, it is imperative that the insights of our thinkers, historians and theologians are considered to reimagine how we should progress as a civilisation from this point onwards.
The question of what we mean by ‘progress’ is crucial in this regard, a term widely taken for granted by many. As aptly raised in The Economist in 1999, “In modern times, faith in ‘progress’ has been closely connected to, if not wholly identified with, the inevitability of market-driven economic growth. Is this an error?”
If we peruse the literatures, we will find that thoughtful thinkers in the West have long discussed the meaning of the idea of progress.
J.B. Bury in The Idea of Progress (1920) mentions, “It may surprise many to be told that the notion of Progress, which now seems so easy to apprehend, is of comparatively recent origin.”
Earlier in 1874, progress was discussed by John Fiske in his Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy as follows: “The fundamental characteristic of social progress is the continuous weakening of selfishness and the continuous strengthening of sympathy.”
In recent times, one can find more critical engagement with the notion of progress—see for instance, Christopher Ryan’s Civilized to Death: The Price of Progress (2019), and Alexander Gillespie’s The Illusion of Progress (2001).
However, in the consciousness and thoughts of illuminated souls in the history of the Muslims who have built prosperous civilisations, there are great insights on how to look at the matter.
For Muslims, it refers to the stage wherein the individual and collective lead a life and build a civilisation that is closer to the natural inclination (fitrah); wherein the thoughts and spirits are elevated towards lofty aspirations for the betterment of all kingdoms of nature.
Thus, for a nation to progress, it does not have to involve uncritical imitation of a Western model of “modernisation”, but it can entail an intelligent selection of the positive contributions of modernity and the West.
To achieve progress does not mean we have to pursue the current path of unbridled urbanisation and deforestation which have greatly disrupted the equilibrium in man and nature, making other animal-to-human disease transmissions ever more likely.
In the economic domain, we would do well to progress from an economic philosophy which is currently premised on perpetual growth (takathur) towards the organisation of livelihood for sufficiency (kifayah) so as to ensure overall socio-economic equilibrium. We should progress towards the virtues of frugality and contentment in our economic life—away from the vices of wastefulness and extravagance.
For this to happen, it requires that the population especially the learned to heed the advice of our elders such as Royal Professor Ungku Aziz who once said: “The study of literature and mankind’s heritage should not be forgotten even though Malaysia is gearing towards becoming a scientific and progressive society in the next century… man cannot live by science alone as he needs cultural nourishment for his mind.”
Ungku Aziz further add that, “We have examples of advanced nations where scientific advancement is balanced by an education system that encourages learners to appreciate the great works of the past and present and to be familiar with at least a portion of the creative works and discourses of mankind through time and across the globe.”
The following are some specific and concrete examples for Malaysia, which can possibly contribute towards a more comprehensive understanding of progress:
In terms of urban living, the initiatives of Urban Hijau, an urban sustainability centre in TTDI, Kuala Lumpur is commendable. It aims to revive and reintegrate the urban life with the forgotten science of regenerative living which tackles both the challenges of ecological disequilibrium and food security.
In terms of intangible heritage, the efforts of Akademi Jawi Malaysia to republish and re-educate the public on our Jawi intellectual heritage deserves to be commended as it contributes to the cultural progress of the nation in a time when the nation is increasingly dislodged from its past.
In terms of media outlets—our newspapers, radio and TV should advance narratives and contents that would contribute towards the progress of the intellect and spirit of the people—not that which appeals to the bestial self. It is such a pity, for example, that we have yet to produce a respectable documentary on our two living national treasures: 98 year-old Royal Professor Ungku Aziz and 89 year-old Tan Sri Professor Dr Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas.
Thus for countries like Malaysia, progress should also mean the thriving of: enterprises which seek to restore the ecological balance like Urban Hijau, enterprises which preserve and bring to light our intangible heritage such as Akademi Jawi Malaysia, and the production of media contents and narratives which can further inspire the population towards lofty ideas and aspirations.
In other words, true progress is realised when a bounty of God is put in its place, as per the saying of the 13th century sage, Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi:
“What is justice? Giving water to trees.
What is injustice? To give water to thorns.
Justice is (consists in) bestowing a bounty in its proper place, not on every root that will absorb water.
What is injustice? To bestow (it) in an improper place that can only be a source of calamity.
Bestow the bounty of God on the spirit and reason, not on the (carnal) nature full of disease and complications.”
Such kind of progress is a creative revival of the goodness we have lost or forgotten from the past, which will enable a greater realisation of tranquility in life.
This does not mean we have to dismiss advancements in science and technology, but it does mean we have to be more discerning and intelligent in its use, in order to do justice to the three kingdoms of nature as well as our ultimate existential objective.
To achieve this, we need to accord more respect to those lofty souls from the past: the Prophets, sages and luminaries and their present-day inheritors, in order to draw from their wisdom to guide us and inspire us in various civilisational domains today and the future.