Ashgar Ali Engineer, India, April 2009
Islam and contemporary issues
Challenges of Islam today.
A few days ago I was invited to speak in a Prophet Day’s function. There were other speakers as well. As usual the speakers before me indulged in rhetoric ‘Islam is the solution’ and also said the world economy has failed and slowed down as it is based on gambling and interest. Another person said Islam declared human rights 14 hundred years ago whereas UNO declared it only sixty years ago. Yet another speaker said Islam has given equal rights to women and made it obligatory for them to seek education. Also it was emphasized that Islam is religion of peace.
All this provoked me to say all this is true and I can add much more to it but have we ever seriously reflected why Islamic world is in such turmoil today. Why Muslims have totally failed to adopt these teachings in practice. I said if one caste a critical glance at Islamic world today one finds exactly opposite of what Qur’an teaches.If Qur’an lays great emphasis on knowledge, Islamic world from Indonesia to Algeria has more illiterates than any other community.
If Qur’an gives equal status to men and women Muslim women in most of the Islamic countries are most suppressed lot and whole world thinks Islam deprives women of their rights. If Islam is religion of peace why Islamic world is in such turmoil and is dogged with ‘jihadi’ movements? If Islam upholds human dignity and human rights why is it that there is hardly any Islamic country which respects human rights? The human rights activists find themselves in jails in these countries.
I also said we try to compensate for our failure in all these respects through rhetoric. Only those resort to empty rhetoric who have nothing concrete to show. Our Ulama have brought us up on such empty rhetoric. Time and again we hear « Islam is the solution of all problems ». Let alone solution these worthy beings are not aware of what are the problems of the modern world.
Unless we go beyond such rhetoric and critically examine what is wrong with Muslim world we will continue with such rhetoric without improving our condition. And if criticized for our failures we will come out with our pet conspiracy theory or blame the media for projecting adverse image of Islam and Muslims. We have fallen in such a love with these pet theories that we refuse to see reality. We love rhetoric and hate reality.
We are adept at sectarian polemics and spend all our skills in proving followers of others sects ‘kafirs’ and only people of our own sect as naji (i.e. who will achieve liberation). We keep on reproducing medieval commentaries of Qur’an without ever trying to understand the divine text in our own times. We consider it a sin to revisit Qur’an and realize its great potential for our guidance in modern context. We quote more from medieval commentaries on Qur’an than from the divine text itself.
Also, we are most intolerant lot and suppress any new point of view. Our ‘Ulama have convinced us that any new thinking is a sin and amounts to innovation (bid’ah). And for our theologians only solution of all problems is to be regular with our prayers and we are doomed today, not because of our ignorance and refusal to understand modern world but because we have neglected five time prayers.
This is the quality of our thinking about our problems. Not that one should not pray but to hide behind it and neglect real problems is to fool ourselves. And when we talk of a’mal (actions or deeds) we refer only to prayers and some other ritualistic actions. We have totally forgotten real meaning and significance of prayer. We are more than happy with symbolism as any concrete action requires totally different mindset.
It is unfortunate that our ‘ulama are educated in totally medieval atmosphere. We are even resisting any change in the madrasa syllabus which was evolved centuries ago. Our ‘ulama are totally differently oriented and are incapable of understanding complexities of modern world with its highly complex modern problems. I have always maintained that our commitments should be to Qur’an, not to its understanding by the ‘ulama and jurists in the past.
But unfortunately we are more committed to how Tabari or Zamakhshari or Imam Razi understood it than to the Qur’an itself. In all our religious arguments we quote from these and other medieval commentaries and rejected any other argument based on Qur’an itself or on fresh understanding of the Qur’an. And if we cannot make a point with the help of Qur’an, our last resort is hadith, however controversial or contradictory to Qur’an it may be.
If any revolution in the Muslim world has to begin, it has to begin from our madrasa system. It has to be thoroughly overhauled so as to give them training in modern subjects. And modern subjects should not mean only social sciences but also natural sciences besides theological training. Tafsir literature (commentaries) should be taught only as history and they should be encouraged to develop new understanding of the Qur’an.
The whole theological training today is not only confined to medieval subjects but even ma’qulat (rational sciences are confined to Greek sciences based on Plato, Socrates etc. What an irony! The world of sciences has gone far beyond Greek period and our madrasas still consider it as the last word. All this either may be taught either as a history (so that they may understand evolution of modern sciences) or must be scrapped all together.
I think our madrasas of higher levels like Darul Ulum Deoband should be converted into modern universities so that the modern syllabus taught in other universities could be taught there while of course, retaining theological courses. In these some theologians should also be able to do their doctorate in either social or natural sciences. One may argue then why not join other secular universities for doing doctorate and why have these madrasas?
Yes, it is true other secular universities are available for the purpose but if these doctoral courses are integrated with theological sciences, it will create new intellectual capacities in our theologians and their medieval thinking will be reoriented and it will result in totally different intellectual products. And it will not be something new. We have very rich heritage in this respect which was lost completely when decline began and final blow was dealt by colonial rule.
All great philosophers and scientists that Islamic world produced like Ibn Sina (Avisina) or Ibn Rushd (Averos) and several others were also theologians in their own right. It was because of this tradition that then educational authorities began to teach ma’qulat (rational sciences) in the madrasas. However this tradition unfortunately stagnated and Greek sciences are taught even today.
All we have to do is to integrate new social as well as natural sciences with the theological courses. Today the madrasa graduates can either become teachers in madrasas or become imams in the mosque. And then they continue to teach in the same old ways they have learnt or continue to lead prayers including tarawih prayers. I have seen in many Islamic institutions thousands of children committing Qur’an to memory several hours of the day. It hardly serves any useful purpose. That time could have been utilized for imparting useful knowledge.
I am aware of some of the madrasas, especially in Kerala and also other parts of India, where some madrasas have switched over to teaching of modern sciences also. But they are far and few in between and moreover we have to take entire Muslim world to produce any worthwhile impact. In Qur’an the word ‘ilm (knowledge) is not restricted only to theological knowledge but knowledge about the whole universe.
Unfortunately our ‘ulama have restricted this knowledge to Dini ‘ulum (theological sciences) only. Now of course attitudes are changing gradually but until recent past everything except Dini Ulum was even considered false. One will still find resistance to change and insistence on continuity. There is hardly rich intellectual debate as to what is worth continuing and what needs to be changed.
There is nothing wrong to emphasize healthy traditions based on principles and values but tradition per se should not have any sanctity. Unfortunately we always give centrality to tradition over change. Rationality is, at best, of marginal value. In modern society reason plays central role while in traditional society it is tradition, which is accorded centrality. Change is possible only if reason acquires centrality.
Islamic world is too much obsessed with centrality of tradition to think afresh. Our madrasas and institutions of Islamic education are, as Herbert Marcuse, a noted American philosopher of last century would have put it, centres of acknowledgement rather than of knowledge. Or they are centers of recognition rather than centers of cognition. In such centers no new knowledge can be produced only acknowledged traditions can continue. These centers cannot become centers of intellectual excellence but centers of traditional knowledge.
Such centers cannot bring about any qualitative change in the Muslim world. We urgently need new intellectual culture for this. And to create this new intellectual culture we need thorough political changes as well. For new intellectual culture we need freedom of thought and action. It is true the Qur’an stands for freedom of faith and conscience but with some exceptions there are no basic freedoms in any Islamic country.
In most of the Islamic countries political class, while swearing by the Qur’an and shari’ah, has never allowed fundamental Qur’anic values to be practiced. Like five pillars of Islam, there are five Qur’anic values i.e. Truth (Haq), Justice (‘adl), benevolence (ihsan), Compassion (Rahmah) and Wisdom (Hikmah) and these are Allah’s names also. Alloah is Haq, ‘Adil, Muhsin, Rahman and Wise.
If like five pillars of Islam these values are practiced, the Islamic world would be leading other countries of the world in ethical and moral values and also achieve, by rigorous practice of these values what others have not. But the political class, while talking of Islam and Islamization, adopts, very shrewdly, a selective approach so that it enjoys all its privileges and political power and at the same time earn merit of Islamizing the society.
It is obvious that it is political class which controls education system and decides what is to be taught and what is not to be. The whole education system creates conforming culture merely acknowledging what is taught as ‘true’. The system imparts selective information, never holistic knowledge. Such a system can never produce creative and free mind to constantly critically evaluate and bring about qualitative change in society.
Thus a political revolution is needed before any revolutionary changes in education system can be brought in Islamic world. But chances of such revolution seem very bleak. The western powers also need a compliant political class in most of the Muslim countries. In fact, these powers need such a compliant class and they do everything to support such a class in the Muslim world.
The oil revolution of seventies of last century coupled with globalization has converted entire middle east into a vast lucrative market for Japanese and western goods (though a current melt down has somewhat adverse effect) and promoted unabashed consumerism in the Arab world. People are engaged more in competing for consumer goods that any moral and qualitative change in society.
Such a society finds traditional and ritualized religion quite harmless and political class finds it quite convenient to promote such a religion. Thus total lack of freedom, decline in values, and promotion of competitive consumer culture makes society quietly accept domination by political authoritarianism on one hand, and religion reduced to an opium pill, on the other.
Though this appears to be a very bleak scenario those intellectuals who believe in ushering in qualitative change in the society based on freedom, human dignity, equality and the five values mentioned above, will have to pave way for this change peacefully and with total dedication. Then question arises what is to be done in these circumstances?
We have to have an action program. Though it is difficult to evolve such a program without thorough discussion but an outline for a discussion could be presented here. I would like to propose following measures for those interested in value-based qualitative change in Muslim societies and countries:
1. Modern intellectuals must learn and master Arabic language (for non-Arab countries and societies) and read and re-read Qur’an along with traditional commentaries and reflect in new understanding in keeping with our situation and our problems. The old commentaries, it would be seen were very much influenced by the then prevailing conditions and socio-economic problems. It is not necessary that there would be complete agreement among all modern commentators. In medieval ages too, there was no such consensus. It would be more in keeping with intellectual freedom to arrive at different meanings though there may be a consensus about the methodology of understanding Qur’an. These new commentators of course should be well versed in modern social or natural sciences.
2. All such commentaries should be situated within the framework of five values of Qur’an above referred to as these happen to be most modern values too. Also, those ahadith (traditions) would not be taken into account which are in direct contradiction of the Qur’an and Qur’anic values as traditional tafasir (commentaries) are full of references to such traditions even if these traditions distorted Qu’ranic values.
3. There is great need to improve situation of women’s rights in Islamic world and for that we also need women perspectives for understanding Qur’an, especially those verses which pertain to marriage, divorce and women’s rights. So far Qur’an has been mainly interpreted by men though during the Prophet’s time and during subsequent period lasting for few years only, there was glorious tradition of women ‘ulama, women narrators of ahadith and women commentators of Qur’an. There is great need to revive that tradition, not in mechanical sense but with new perspectives gained during last one hundred years or so.
4. Along with women ‘alimat (scholars) there is need to go beyond patriarchal values and patriarchal culture as Qur’an, while making few concessions to patriarchy in those days, tried to go beyond patriarchal values and usher in new culture based on human dignity and according fully human dignity to women. However, soon women were subordinated once again as men were hardly prepared to accept gender equality and slowly even made Qur’anic interpretation as their sole preserve. In those overwhelming patriarchal values women hardly could assert themselves and also began to interiorize Qur’anic understanding as developed by men commentators.
5. This is possible only if we promote the Qur’anic concept of women as free agents and decision makers in their own rights. This would also need special emphasis on female education. Though the Prophet (PBUH) made education obligatory on Muslim women (muslimatin) in ensuing feudal culture women were required to mind domestic role and serve their husbands and bring up children and no need was felt for education for this domestic role. This feudal culture has to totally change and women should acquire both secular and religious knowledge as much as men do reviving the true spirit of Islam.
6. There is great need to usher in culture of human rights in Islamic world and Muslim societies. Though Qur’an contains all provisions of declaration of human rights charter, by UNO, Islamic countries present stark contrast and human rights record of Muslim countries is among the worst in the world today. It brings worldwide criticism and creates an impression that Islam has no respect for human rights. It is only modern intellectuals armed with Qur’anic values and Qur’anic respect for human dignity can actively promote such culture.
7. Also, we have to change our outlook to other religions, often denouncing them as false and claiming superiority for ourselves. We should not only accept pluralism but actively promote it through dialogue and mutual understanding and harmonious co-existence. Though Islamic world does not have bad record in this respect but religious minorities do not enjoy equal political rights. We have to accept notion of citizenship which did not exist in the medieval world and hence we have different juristic pronouncements in this respect.
8. Also, we should actively promote science and technology as we are too dependent on western countries for modern technology. Our record in this respect is poorest in the world. In modern times we cannot boast of single revolutionary invention. Most of the Muslim countries are nothing but bazaar and are capable of even producing a single modern gadget. Without excellence in science and modern technology Islamic world will remain mere beggars. Most of the oil revenues are deposited in US banks and not even one percent is spent on research in these fields. Minimum 2 and half to 3 per cent of GNP should be spent on research in these fields. Institutions of excellence should be set up.
9. Also, Islamic world today is torn with violence and some countries are notorious for what has come to be known as ‘jihadi culture’. We must go back to the real Qur’anic meaning of jihad AS DEFINED BY THE Prophet (PBUH) and seen to be active promoters of peace and culture of dialogue in the world. We must understand root causes of violence in Islamic world and do everything possible to remove these causes. If peace is central to Islam what are Muslims doing to promote it? Why Islam is being associated with ‘jihadi culture’, instead of culture of peace? We must seriously debate this question and take active steps to fight this ‘jihadi culture’. These are some of the suggestions to at least pave the way for new qualitative changes in the Islamic world. It would be really most challenging task for anyone to undertake. But there is no other way either. These steps, if taken, will not only bring us out of the rut we have fallen in, it would release tremendous energy in the Islamic world for construction of new world order. Today we are mere prisoners of our own age-old traditions and unable to contribute richly, which otherwise we could.