Towards Understanding Tradition and Modernity


First of all, I think we should not categorize tradition and modernity as exclusive or contradictory terms. We cannot call any tradition as only (or exclusively) a tradition, devoid of modernity. For example, when Islam emerged as a new religion in the world, it rejected most (if not all) the previous existing traditions and presented/evolved itself as a harbinger of modern traditions. Let me elaborate on this. Islam rejected slavery. It prohibited racial discrimination. It introduced the idea of gender justice or equality. It mandated Muslim state or army to treat Prisoners of War (POWs) with humanity – thereby laying the foundations of international humanitarian law. It made alms giving (Zakaht) as one of the five fundamentals of Islam. It did not allow concentration of wealth. It talked about the rights of labourers. Prophet Muhammad said that the wages of labourers should be paid before their perspiration dries. It was a revolutionary idea, a forerunner of Marxism. Thus, it can be said that the central principle of this new religion, i.e., Islam, was welfare of all human beings. Well-being of humanity was at the core of the new religion. A Muslim was obliged to help anyone who is in distress – no matter whether he or she is a Muslim, a Hindu, a Christian, a Parsee or a Buddhist. All these values and precepts were revolutionary, modern, and extraordinary for their times. In fact, it is these immortal and infallible traditions which have made Islam relevant for all times and space. In the light of this understanding, therefore, we should not compartmentalize the concepts of tradition and modernity and treat them as mutually exclusive. They are complementary to each other and sometimes can be treated as two sides of the same coin.

It must also be acknowledged that we cannot categorize what is tradition and what is modernity. Recently I was reading a report on northeast Indian traditions. North east India has a large number of Christian communities. The youth of these communities are blindly borrowing or imitating Western ideas/lifestyles, Western music, etc. They like to see Western films and music videos. In the process of transforming themselves as modern people, they are ignoring their own rich indigenous cultural traditions of music, dance and mannerisms and lifestyles.

Sometimes the concept of modernity appears as a paradox. It is very difficult to say whether a particular tradition is modern or not. For example, some years ago I visited Channakeshava temple, a 12th century temple at Belur, near Hasan town in Karnataka, India, which was constructed by famous Hoysala ruler, Vishnuvardhan. The most remarkable feature of this temple is the presence of 38 bracket figures of ‘Madanikas’.  Beautiful, pensive, playful and amorous, each figure is full of feminine grace and charm.  Also, there are 365 images of women delicately carved out in stones. Each woman has a different hair style. That means that every day of the 365 days of a year there is a unique hairstyle. Isn’t this tradition modern or timeless? This should be understood in the context of mushrooming beauty parlours specializing in hairstyles in the contemporary times.

These days we sometimes mistakenly understand that adopting a modern tool or machine is modernity. For example, using fax, mobile phone, internet, sending mail through internet, watching television, or flying by airplanes is considered as signs of modernity. It is not surprising to see that some of the ulemas (religious scholars) in India are nowadays accepting the validity of sending SMS, email, or fax message for divorcing one’s wife! Many Indians residing in foreign countries are sending divorce messages through email or SMS to their wives. One should ponder whether divorcing a wife through teleconferencing or internet chatting is modern or traditional. The idea or the provision of dissolution of marriage of incompatible couples is a modern idea, as two of the world’s major religions – Hinduism and Christianity – did not permit divorce till recently. What is modern is not the use of modern technology for dissolving marriage but the idea of dissolution of marriage or making marriage as a contract (meaning the contract can be terminated at any time) introduced by Islam which is modern.

Many traditions have stood the test of time. They have proved to be timeless values – useful for all times. For instance, Indians have been greeting each other by saying “Namaste” – by folding both hands. This signifies that he/she wants the well-being of or peace upon the other. Folding of hands represents that he/she does not possess a weapon. Similarly, in the Western culture people greet each other by shaking hands. This also signifies that they do not have weapons in their hands. Muslims greet each other by saying Assalamu alaikum or simply Salam, meaning peace be upon the other. Jews have been greeting each other by uttering “Shaloom”. After prayers, Muslims say “Amin” and the Christians “Amen”. If some ideas, values, and traditions are universally acceptable and followed in our day-to-day life they are simultaneously traditions as well as modern practices. You can’t categorize them purely as traditional or modern practices. These terms are interchangeable. However, in the name of continuing traditions we cannot accept ‘sati’ in modern times as a modern value. The practice of Sati was neither modern when it was first practiced nor it can be considered so today, because it is a criminal act as you are denying the right to life to a widow. It is not a value. It is not beneficial. It is only a superstition that if a widow gets cremated along with her husband she is sent to heaven by God. The traditions which are scientific, beneficial to humanity can be continued or followed in modern times. It is gratifying to note that even today Japanese do not allow people to enter restaurants with shoes or chappals. Traditionally Hindu religion and Buddhism does not allow its followers to enter the kitchen with shoes as they carry dirt and bacteria. This Japanese practice can be considered both as a symbol of tradition and modernity. Thus, it becomes clear that any value, precept, tradition which has an element of truth, welfare of mankind, based on scientific method or rationality, and not based on superstitions is a “tradition of modernity”.

Western countries and their people are facing many social and political crises. Western nations/peoples have been placing too much emphasis on individual rights. They never stress about the rights of “others” or to use the other phrase, “duties”. The oriental societies of Asia and Africa attach great importance to the traditions of respecting the rights of others, elders and children. They lay great stress on the significance of duties towards parents, elders, women, society or even nation. One might ask a question: how can the State agree to assume obligations towards persons who, for their part, accept no obligation, no duty, in regard to the community and the State? It must be acknowledged that rights cannot be abstracted from duties; the two are correlated. In other words, human rights are not rights only. They are also duties and both are interdependent. In fact, every human right has a corresponding duty with regard to the rights of others. Moreover, emphasis on unbridled individualism has led to most of the present-day problems in Western societies. Instead of talking of the rights of an individual (which is abstract) we should talk of the rights of persons, as according to R. Panikkar, a philosopher from Spain, “the individual is an isolated knot whereas a person is the entire fabric around the knot. … Certainly, without the knots the net would collapse; but without the net, the knots would not even exist.” A person lives in the family, society, group and community. His/her rights and duties vary at different stages of their lives. It must be noted that one of the reasons for the breakdown of marriages in Western cultures is disregard of duties towards the other spouse and giving priority to his or her rights over the duties towards one’s life partner.

These days, many newspapers of India are reporting the deaths of many youths who died because they were wearing headphones and listening to music even while crossing roads or railway lines. They could not hear the horns of vehicles due to headphones and died due to accidents. Wearing headphones and listening to music from iPads or mobile sets has become a sign of modernity or a fashion. Using modern gadgets for communication is modernity. Now we are required to send messages, letters through emails, faxes, or SMS. This is modernity. We should not hope to send letters through pigeons as was done in medieval times. This is absurd.

Thus, to conclude the brief discourse on tradition and modernity, we can say that any tradition is modern which is beneficial to humanity and is premised on rationality and scientific principles, welfare of individuals and society. Initially Muslims were reluctant to use microphones for saying Azan. But now they have accepted it as modern to use it for calling for prayers. In Kerala there is a huge rush by Western patients to get treatment for their ailments through traditional medicine, i.e., Ayurveda. Muslims in India use Unani medicine, which was traditionally used by Muslim rulers. Unani (Greek) medicines are based on herbs. Greeks have forgotten that the Unani system of medicine is their discovery.  Ayurvedic and Unani medicines are used by people in India in modern times, as they do not have adverse side effects. Thus, traditions and modernity can co-exist. They complement each other. They should not be seen as contesting each other. When we interrogate many traditions, they emerge as timeless values ready to serve mankind.

Abdulrahim P. VIJAPUR is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at University of Science and Technology, Meghalaya. He was Professor of Political Science (1998-2020) at Aligarh Muslim University. He was also Visiting Professor in Human Rights Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. He has been a Visiting Professor to ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations) Chair at the Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada (2013-14). He also taught for a semester at South Asian University during 2014. During 2005-2007, worked as Professor, Ford Foundation Endowed Chair in Dalit Studies at Jamia Millia Islamia. During 1996-1999 he was Director, Centre for Federal Studies, Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi.


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