By Javid Husain
June 23, 2015
Even a cursory glance leads one to the conclusion that the Muslim world starting from Morocco to Indonesia and from Africa to Central Asia is in turmoil. Most, if not all, of the Muslim countries are going through a phase of internal convulsion and uncertainty marked by political instability, economic under-development and deprivation, scientific and technological backwardness, and cultural dislocation. The situation for the Muslim world is further aggravated because of the multifarious challenges confronting it on the external front. The need of the hour is for the Muslim intelligentsia and leaders to realise the gravity of the situation and present to their compatriots well-considered views on overcoming the political, economic, social and cultural hindrances blocking the way to progress, prosperity and internal stability.
The present condition of the Muslim world needs to be analysed in correct historical perspective. The Muslim civilisation, which had been in the vanguard of human intellectual and economic progress for several centuries after its birth, started showing signs of slackening around the seventeenth century A.D. Muslim scholars lost the appetite for intellectual enquiry. Instead of opening new horizons for intellectual growth, they simply became the followers of dogmas inherited from the past. The Muslim civilisation thus lost the vitality and dynamism which had characterised its earlier periods when it was at the zenith of its glory. This loss of intellectual vigour and development resulted in stagnation in political, economic, cultural, scientific, industrial and technological fields putting the Islamic civilisation at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Western nations which were surging ahead.
While the Muslims were lagging behind in the race for progress and development, the Western nations, awakened intellectually and socially by the liberalising influences of the Renaissance, were gradually pulling ahead. While the Muslims closed their minds to freedom of enquiry and to change, the West European nations embraced the pursuit of knowledge leading to the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial revolution. By the end of the 18th century, the decadent and weakening Muslim societies were in no position to resist successfully the expansion of the power and influence of the Western nations which had been greatly strengthened by new scientific discoveries, industrial and technological innovations, the growth of their political, social and cultural institutions, and the development of their organisational capabilities. The inevitable result of the clash between the energised and dynamic West and the stagnant and obscurantist Muslim world was the collapse of the latter. Consequently, most of the Muslim world was under the Western colonial rule by the beginning of the 20th century.
The deplorable condition of the Muslims all over the world led to several intellectual and political movements for the revival of the Islamic civilisation with varying degrees of success. Broadly speaking, these movements can be divided into three categories. The reactionary forces sought to confront the challenges posed by the West by seeking refuge in the old and outdated dogmas. This obscurantist and retrogressive approach had been responsible for the downfall of the Muslim civilisation in the first place. Unsurprisingly, it has failed to provide the Muslim societies the solutions to the problems of modernity. Al Qaeda, the Taliban and now ISIS can be placed in this category of the obscurantist response to the demands of modern life.
On the other extreme were forces which saw the salvation of the Muslim world in the total rejection of its cultural heritage and the adoption wholesale of the Western cultural values and civilisational influences. This approach, which would have simply submerged the Islamic character of Muslim societies under the dominant Western civilisation, also failed because of the resistance by the Muslims in general, who refused to detach themselves from their cultural heritage. Turkey, where Islamic influences are reasserting themselves, is a prime example of the failure of this approach of total submission to the Western civilisation.
The Muslim world is need of a synthesis of its pristine values emphasising the principles of Tawheed, human brotherhood, social equality and moderation and the demands of the modern world. Iqbal was a vocal proponent of such a synthesis as amply reflected by his writings and poetry as well as his emphasis on the principles of Ijtihad and dynamism in Islam. The Muslim world is in turmoil primarily because in the face of the political, economic, intellectual and cultural onslaught of the West, it is the victim of confusion in thought and strategy in its efforts to overcome it.
To start with, the Muslim world is yet to liberate itself from the stranglehold of outdated dogmas, which have nothing to do with the real teachings and the true spirit of Islam. Muslim scholars and intellectuals must develop the spirit of free enquiry in finding the answers to challenges of modernity while remaining faithful to Islam’s eternal principles enunciated in the Holy Quran. Religious extremism and sectarianism which are tearing apart the Muslim world must be abandoned. This is unlikely to happen unless the Muslim governments give the pride of place to education and encourage freedom of expression and moderation in their programmes, which is not the case at present.
Secondly, in the field of politics, the Muslims need to develop structures which are based on the principle of consultation in accordance with the injunctions of the Holy Quran. This principle calls for democratic and participatory forms of government in the modern world. Military dictatorships, dynastic rule and monarchies have no place in an Islamic form of government. Unfortunately, many Muslim countries are under the yoke of non-participatory forms of government—a prime cause for the turmoil and political instability in the Muslim world especially in the Middle East.
Thirdly, the social and economic systems in most of the Muslim countries are oppressive and exploitative. In contrast with the Islamic principles of social equality and brotherhood, they divide the society into classes barring vertical mobility and widening economic inequalities. The prevailing situation in Pakistan in which the rich are getting richer while the poor can hardly make both ends meet and where justice is denied to the poor and the weak reflects the oppressive and exploitative character of our social and economic set up. Similar conditions exist in most of the other Muslim countries intensifying public discontent and fomenting internal strife.
Fourthly, the political and economic exploitation of the Muslim countries by the Western powers, both past and present, have created a deep-seated feeling of alienation and hatred among the Muslim masses against the West in general and the US, which leads it currently, in particular. American support to Israel and its expansionist policies have further exacerbated these feelings, especially in the Middle East. The inability of the weak Arab governments to counter Israel’s expansionism and the American tacit support to it have created an explosive situation in the Middle East, which has ignited a region wide conflagration in the form of Al Qaeda and now ISIS. American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq leading to the loss of lives of hundreds of thousands of people have merely aggravated the anti-American sentiments in the heartland of the Muslim world while further destabilising both the countries and the region as a whole.
The Muslim world is sliding towards a cataclysmic upheaval, especially in the Middle East where internal strife is compounded by the region-wide sectarian and geopolitical conflicts and the antagonistic policies of the West. Unless corrective measures are taken by the Muslim countries internally and in their relations with one other and with the West, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Javid Husain is a retired ambassador and the president of the Lahore Council for World Affairs.