Of Islamic Civilizations - Causes - Time For A New Paradigm
By Mirza A. Beg
24 July, 2006
It is normal for people to
take pride in their past. Muslims take pride in the great Islamic civilizations
as well. In pre-modern times many civilizations flourished simultaneously,
often with contentious interaction at the overlapping fringes, where
they interacted learnt from each other, and at times grated and collided
under the weight of the Empires.
Nostalgia is soothing, but
to meet the challenges of the future, one should learn from the past,
not live in it. The indignities suffered from others should be a lesson
for betterment, not an excuse for indolence or revenge that perpetuate
rather than heal the wounds.
With fast communications
the world has truly become so interdependent that all natural, environmental
as well as cultural developments have global effects and therefore there
is no insulation from events. No place is distant any more, every one
affects every one else.
In this small world a new
paradigm should emerge- that of a composite world civilization with
every one being a contributor. Western civilization is not a Christian
civilization though it has Christian roots. Indians, Chinese and many
other civilizations have made great contributions in the past and are
on the rise again. Muslims can not go back to exclusively insulated
Islamic civilization. Islam never preached insulation. Muslims have
a wonderful opportunity to affect the future by boldly practicing the
peace and social justice that Islam preaches.
Introduction - Civilization:
Civilizations rise and decay,
empires rise and fall. They may at times be coeval, but have different
dynamics. Empire building entails hegemony of a people over others,
expressed in the person of the ruler, often with manipulated religious
trappings. Civilization is the flourishing of excellence of a civic
idea, supported by peaceful flowering of the arts and pursuit of knowledge
in which many ethnicities and religions may participate.
Empires may rise and fall
precipitously, but civilizations take generations to rise and recede.
The reasons for rise and fall of empires are less complex than the rise
and decay of civilizations. One clear difference is that empires require
the power of arms, while the civilizations require the power of ideas,
nurtured by people who work towards the betterment of the society in
comparative ease with considerable freedom of thought and action. When
ideas have to be forced on the people, the system of justice suffers.
If a sizable minority does not find peace and justice, inevitably the
civilization strangles itself and decays.
The glory days of the Islamic
civilization spanned more than a thousand years. The Islamic civilization
was an evolving continuum while many Muslim Empires rose, fell and preyed
on each other. Muslim intellectuals have been searching for the reasons
of decline of the Islamic Civilizations for at least the last three
on the decay of Islamic Civilizations:
The most prevalent diagnoses
and remedies for the decay of Islamic civilizations fall in two categories.
The most popular view seems to be that the Muslims have veered away
from the teachings of Islam. The remedy offered is, “If only we
became good Muslims, we would regain the momentum and revive the grandeur
of the past.”
The second conventional view
is that our travails started with the ascendance of the West. It led
to eventual Western colonialism of Muslim lands and its materialistic
hegemony stifled the Islamic Civilizations. The popular remedy suggested
is that we should get away from materialism, support education with
the spiritualism of Islam to be the leaders again.
Both observations are partly
correct but confuse causes and effects. Not that the West has not been
hegemonic and should not be blamed. Yielding uncritically to this mindset
absolves Muslims of centuries of sloth and is a complete intellectual
surrender to the hegemony of the West. It pulls at the heartstrings
with the innocence of idealism, but the understanding of the early Islamic
history and human nature does not substantiate such simplistic explanations.
The first observation that
we have veered away is true in many ways, but it is not a recent phenomenon.
From very early times Islamic polity started splitting into many sects
and sub-sects. Efforts towards contrived unity often spawned another
sub-sect. A more analytical question is which sects have veered away,
and to what extent? Or are all sects guilty in different ways? Is it
really a new phenomenon, and who can judge it objectively? The answers
tend to be inherently self-serving, therefore elusive.
A brief historical
On closer survey of history,
it appears that the veering away from the teachings if Islam started
immediately after the death of the Prophet in 632. Many tribes had rebelled.
It was the deft handling of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, who was elected
by a consensus after some spirited dissentions from the leading companions
of the Prophet. The rebellious tribes were brought back to the fold
after strenuous persuasion. The second Caliph, Omar after ten years
of rule was assassinated by a Persian slave. Twelve years later, the
third Caliph Uthman was assassinated because of deepening political
machinations and accusations of mismanagement. The caliphate of the
fourth caliph Ali was contested resulting in Islam’s first civil
war, with people dear to the Prophet on the opposite sides. Ali was
assassinated by a purist intolerant group known as “Kharijites”.
They accused him of flouting the law of God, because he accepted a compromise.
In spite of all these dissentions, Islam grew by leaps and bounds and
had spread to Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Persia within twenty years
after the Prophet.
In 661, Muawiya the governor
of Syria who had contested Ali’s Caliphate became the fifth Caliph.
Arabs had no experience in the governance of an empire. Muawiya learned
and adapted methods from the Byzantines and Persians to consolidate
the Islamic Empire further. In the process, he subverted evolving nascent
Islamic democratic norms by maneuvering the succession of his inept
son Yazid to the caliphate, making it a hereditary office and founded
the Umayyad dynasty.
Yazid’s caliphate was
challenged by Ali’s second son Husain, resulting in Islam’s
second civil war in twenty-five years. Yazid’s forces mercilessly
killed Husain and almost his entire family to maintain Umayyad grip
on power spawning the largest schism in Islam, the Shia-Sunni divide.
Husain’s son Zainul Abideen escaped because he was sick and did
not participate in the war.
In 750, Abul Abbas with Shia
support destroyed ninety years of expanding and at times turbulent Umayyad
Caliphate, to establish the Abbasid Dynasty. Abbasids killed almost
the entire ruling Umayyads and soon ditched their Shia supporters, fortifying
a trend towards absolute monarchy, “the shadow of God on earth”.
The robust impetus towards egalitarianism gave way to diluted platitudes.
The sole surviving Umayyad founded a rival dynasty in Spain seceding
from the Abbasids in 756.
Reason for the spread
So why did Islam spread so
fast with all these deficiencies and dissensions among its leaders?
The simple religious answer could be that it was God’s will. But
then every thing is governed by the will of God, so why fret.
One of the most important
temporal reasons is that Islam is and was interpreted by the conquered
people to be an egalitarian religion of tolerance and liberation. The
defeated people of Byzantine and Persian empires, and later the people
of the Indian subcontinent were quite used to being oppressed by the
rulers, particularly those who belonged to other sects or casts. In
a sudden contrast, they found much more liberty under the Islamic egalitarian
The lives, properties and
beliefs of the defeated people were protected and they were allowed
unhindered commerce, bringing prosperity to the ruled and therefore
the rulers. Muslims had to pay Zakat (tax to help the poor) and were
enjoined to fight in the defense of the state. The non-Muslims called
Dhimmis in Arabic were neither asked nor were they inclined to fight
for an alien religious state. They were levied Jazia (a protection Tax),
which was regulated and was usually less than the arbitrary, often punitive
taxes they paid their former rulers. Zakat was distributed among the
poor, but Jazia was a source of income to the state.
In essence, the new subjects
found their lives and future safe and their religious institutions protected.
At first Muawiya even discouraged conversion to Islam, but gradually
the rulers and the ruled mingled. With the passage of time Christians,
Jews, Persians and Hindus even occupied high positions in the civil
administration. For a very long time, a majority of the people of the
Muslim Empire adhered to their ancestral religions. It took centuries
for many to choose to become Muslims, adapting the mores and the religion
of the rulers while maintaining their customs creating cultural syntheses,
giving regional flavor to the composite cultures. After hundreds of
years of Muslim rule, the surviving and flourishing Christian and Jewish
communities in the heartlands of Islam and a majority of Indians remaining
in the loosely defined Hindu fold is a testament to the tolerance of
Muslims did find enough reasons
to fight against each other for many real and imagined deviances, fracturing
into dozens of sects. The wars were some-times couched in religious
and sectarian terms, but essentially they were for the supremacy of
the dynasties supported by a small coterie in military and civil administration.
By mid 10th century with a succession of weak caliphs, the Abbasid Caliphate
had lost most of the temporal power. The Caliph remained a figurehead
in Baghdad. The provinces had become independent Sultanates, ruled by
changing Arab, Persian but mostly Turkic Dynasties, keeping a pretense
of Caliph’s supremacy.
The first half of the Abbasid
period saw tremendous flowering in the fields of arts, sciences and
medicine. This blossoming took place because the Muslim scholars liberally
borrowed, learnt and built upon the knowledge from the Hindu, Persian
and Byzantine Greek civilizations.
To streamline the legal systems
in the vast empire, Shariah (the Islamic laws) were codified primarily
based on the Quran and practices of the Prophet by the great jurists
in the 8th century. Some authorities on Shariah such as Abu Hanifa (699-765)
stressed the value of interpretation (Ijtehad), others advocated strict
adherence to the recorded deeds of the Prophet. The codified Shariah
laws were used to regulate the lives of the population, but were only
loosely observed by the courts and the powerful.
The breakup of the unitary
Islamic state liberated the Ulema (scholars and jurists) from centralized
authority of the degenerated Caliphate, ushering a new era of contemporary
interpretation of Islamic laws (Ijtehad) with a wide spectrum from liberal
to conservative. The Sufi movements of personalized mystic spiritualism
that were considered to be on the fringes, even heretic by the orthodoxy
of establishment, made considerable inroads in the mainstream. By the
dawn of the 12th century, Al Ghazali (1058-1111) by his powerful writings
brought about a synthesis of Sufism with the orthodox Islam, gaining
much wider acceptance and eventually great popularity.
Sufis, by their humane service
oriented practices, became the main evangelists of Islam, particularly
in India, Southeast and Central Asia. They usually shunned association
with the courts and corruption of power, and established many hospices
in remote areas.
It is important to note that
the marginalization of the caliphate could be considered un-Islamic,
if the practices of the Prophet as in Shariah (the Islamic code of laws)
and the first four Caliphs are used as a standard. But the Islamic jurists
subservient to the power of the Sultans could not, therefore did not
oppose these fissiparous developments and the consensus based Shariah
avoided the subject.
Islamic civilization kept
on flourishing in spite of all the vices that accrue to the elite from
the misuse of power, particularly where women and accumulation of wealth
were concerned. The primary reasons were that the populace remained
mostly untouched by the dynastic machinations confined to the elites
at the centers of power and because of slow communications, the hinterlands
remained insulated from the upheavals of changes in regimes. The Sultanates
that lost vigor fell, replaced by more vigorous powers, generally without
affecting the rhythm of life of the average person.
Freedom of intellectual pursuits
continued to be celebrated by many Sultans. Great centers of learning
had sprung up in Damascus followed by Baghdad, Cordova and Cairo. By
the time these centers declined the central Asian and Indian states
took up the slack. The regime changes occasionally brought intolerant
rulers prone to suppression of freedom of thought, especially when it
restricted or challenged the unbridled authority of the ruler in the
fields of Islamic Law. But it was not a death of intellectual freedom,
just an inconvenience. Scholars found ready invitations to newer more
welcoming centers of enlightened power. There was no challenge yet from
the West, which was mired in what is now condescendingly called medievalism,
or dark ages.
Decline of Islamic
Contrary to the popular belief
that Islamic civilizations declined because of the rise of the West,
a case can be made that it was partly the decline of the Islamic civilization
that gave impetus to the unchallenged rise of the West. The golden age
of Islam, particularly the scientific pursuits that required greater
stability in the Arab heartland, declined by the 12th century and came
to end in 1258 after the brutal Mongol invasion. Though the Mongol conquers
adopted Islam within fifty years, their ruling methods were tribal.
With the vast destruction of manuscripts and libraries, gradually a
majority of Ulema (religious jurists and scholars) came to the view
that the Islamic civilization had reached its apogee and all the interpretations
(Ijtehad) needed have been accomplished.
The widespread destruction
of Islamic lands, particularly the Baghdad Caliphate at the hands of
Mongols was widely believed to be retribution from God for the deviances.
In effect a consensus emerged that the “gates of Ijtehad, (interpretation)
were closed”. Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1326) condemned many of the
interpretations that accrued after the caliphate of the first four caliphs,
but he advocated fresh interpretation for the current times. He was
imprisoned for such deviance and died heartbroken. By the time of Ibn
Khaldun (1332-1406), the Muslim Empire of Spain was in headlong decline
and was finally obliterated in 1492.
The advent of the wider use
of gun-powder gave impetus to the expansion of the new Muslim powers
especially the Safvids in Iran, Mughals in India and the Ottoman Turks
in Asia Minor, Balkans and North Africa. They had quite liberal and
tolerant rulers ushering an era of conquest, expansion and great civilizations.
They reached their zenith in 16th and 17th centuries. By the beginning
of 18th century these great empires were spent and in decline. The European
colonization of the Muslim lands started in mid 18th century.
The great Muslim tradition
of scholarship in philosophy and sciences were in decline by the dawn
of the 13th century. About this time the Europeans had started translations
of the knowledge accrued and built upon by the Muslim scholars. Though
in the 15th and 16th centuries Europe was still in religious straight-jacket,
it had started a gradual pushing back against the stranglehold of the
unitary Catholic Church. The freedom of thought gradually gained ground
in the 18th century, and has come to be known as the ‘Age of Reason’.
With this came the unleashing of sciences, leading to better technology
and the start of colonial expansion. By the mid 19th century the ‘Industrial
Revolution’ had taken hold, particularly the war technology and
exploration leading to world dominance and colonialism. The colonialism
and the ascendance of the West were in part caused by the weakness in
Though Islam unequivocally
preaches egalitarianism, the powerful elite could not let go of the
trappings of power base in tribes and ethnic dominion of conquerors.
Though legally and ideally the Islamic justice system guarantied equality,
the egalitarian ethos of Islam was greatly damaged. Early on, the conquering
Arabs were accorded higher status leading to a class system. By the
time Islam reached India the lower casts converts were shunned in social
intercourse, in effect creating racism. They could have accepted Islam
in droves, but they found that although the egalitarianism was preached,
it was practiced with limitations. After fourteen centuries of Islam,
tribalism continues in many Middle-Eastern countries to this day.
Rise of the West:
Civilizations take generations
to rise and recede. Roman Emperor Constantine’s conversion to
Christianity in early 4th century was a momentous event in the Christianization
of Europe and shifted the pivot of Christianity to the heart of the
Roman Empire. Gradually the Bishop of Rome became the supreme pontiff
of Europe. The Roman power suppressed the rival Christian churches in
the Middle-East, the cradle of Christianity. That was one of the reasons
the Christians readily accepted the domination of Islam in Palestine,
Syria and North Africa.
The fall of the Western Roman
Empire in 476 brought regional ethnic kingdoms to power vying for Papacy’s
support against each other, resulting in centuries of ethnic warfare
as well as unethical exploitation of Christian ethos. The Crusades starting
in 1095 were in part aimed at getting the European powers to direct
their energies and blood lust in killing the Infidel Saracens (Muslims)
and restoring the Papal hegemony. After early successes, a two hundred
year span of thirteen successive crusades finally gave up and ended
in late 13th century. In 1453 the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople
bringing the Byzantine Empire to a close, and gradually expanded their
empire in the Balkans.
The 15th century saw intellectual
awakening in Europe now known as ‘the renaissance’. The
writings of Arab scientists and philosophers were translated in European
languages. The mass publication of thousands of copies of the Bible
by movable metal type setting by Gutenberg in the 1450s made possible
a wider spread of education. The Trans-Atlantic voyage of Columbus in
1492 resulting in the discovery and start of the colonization of the
Americas followed by Vasco De Gamma’s voyage to East Indies in
1498 opened up a tremendous naval competition among European powers.
This heralded the age of exploration in the service of the crown and
pursuit of riches, acquiring new skills as a byproduct.
Despite the suppression of
Galileo by the Church, Europe was stirring, and by the 16th century
it was in full grip of reformation. Though the Islamic Heartland became
a hinterland to the Ottoman civilization that rose from 15th to mid
18th centuries and Islamic Indian civilizations that flourished from
13th to early 18th centuries, there was no large-scale conflict with
Christendom, except in the Balkans where the Ottomans reached the gates
of Vienna in 1683. This was an Imperial struggle between the Ottoman
and Hapsburg empires with not much religious overtone. With the rise
of Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottomans retreated to the southern Balkans.
The Ottoman Turks acted as the overlords in the empire, where the punishment
for rebellion was harsh, but subject peoples of different religion and
ethnicities were allowed full recognition and autonomy in religion and
personal laws as a community (Millet).
The maritime supremacy and
race towards colonization of the Americas took place from the 15th to
19th centuries. The colonization of the Islamic lands, North Africa,
India and Indonesia by Christian Europeans became established in the
18th century and reached its zenith in the late 19th century.
No one would disagree with
the idea that Muslims should become better Muslims. The question is
who is a better Muslim, and how to become one? The Quran, in its pristine
form is available for all to read, understand and follow. Muslims are
inheritors of a rich and vibrant history. The ebb and flow, strengths
and weaknesses need to be analyzed in context and with candor.
Religion affects people at
three intertwined levels that cannot be completely separated. They are
personal, social and political.
On the personal level the
mechanics of every day practice of the enjoined tenets of Islam is of
paramount importance. On the spiritual level, religion answers to most
in-expressible sublime yearnings. It gives hope, moorings and a strong
sense of morality.
On the social level, it can
and should be, but at times is not a force for the good of the community.
Islam is an egalitarian religion of justice, compassion and service.
The greatest evangelists of Islam were the Sufis. They were instrumental
in the spread of Islam by example of devotion, kindness and service
to all irrespective of race, color or wealth. Sectarianism by its very
nature adopts exclusivity, and denies others what we demand for ourselves.
Therefore it is contrary to what the Prophet practiced and taught. Muslims,
who in the pursuit of power used religion for sectarian ends, caused
religious wars, injuring the ethical moorings of the Islamic societies.
The Shariah (Islamic laws)
need constant re-evaluation and re-examination commensurate with the
inevitable challenges of changing times, as all forward looking robust
civilizations do, and the great Islamic scholars did.
Religion as a political tool
has been used in the quest for power and a customary way for a people
to assert over others. It was historically a zero sum proposition. Some
had to lose power for others to gain. Starting from tribalism the societies
evolved to imperialism of supra tribes. The 18th century saw the post
Napoleonic construct of nation states leading to nationalism and nationalistic
imperialism. The concept of tribal or national imperialism is contrary
to Islamic principles, but has been misused time and again.
Religion was easy to use
in national conflicts, each side claiming the mandate from God. The
mixture of religion based political supremacy has brought untold suffering
throughout the history and wholesale corruption of religious polity.
Early 20th century saw the rise of irreligious and eventually anti-religious
Communism. It brought even more suffering than the religions could have,
proving that the exploitative human nature is the culprit.
The rise of the industrialized
West with better communications created a global imbalance of power,
leading to colonialism by the industrialized countries. The societies
rebelling against the yoke of colonialism considered socialism as a
short cut to modernity. Without the infrastructure and constraints of
democracy, they deteriorated to draconian dictatorships. After the disillusionment
and suppression by the dictatorships masked as socialism, the religions
have come back to dominate the world political debate at the dawn of
21st century. It is also becoming clearer, even more so than the past,
that the religion is invariably misused in the service of the State.
With greater sophistication in propaganda, politics becomes sectarian
in the service of religion and religion in debased in the service of
power hungry politicians.
re-evaluation of Shariah (Islamic Law):
The most important ingredient
for the long term success of a civilization is the idea of justice and
faith in the institutions that protect the life and liberty of its citizens.
Narrow sectarian and selfish
designing and implementation of rules eventually engender rebellion.
The inclusive systems always fare better. A religious state could aspire
to be better than others, as the medieval Islamic states often were,
but in time those treated as the lesser citizens of a state would aspire
to change the system, or defeat it, if they could.
In human affairs there is
no perfection. The Quran is a guide towards spiritual salvation and
gives general guidance towards temporal laws. No religious book is a
tome on laws. Laws are derivative from the religious principles.
None of the laws ever have
been perfect in implementation. Better laws are those that are widely
considered to be fair. Some citizens inevitably fall through the cracks,
exposing the inadequacies of the law. In a dynamic system, the grievances
lead to the fine-tuning or amendments in laws. Changes unavoidably incorporate
newer flaws to be improved upon in an unending process.
If all were honest, kind,
gentle and ready to give unselfishly, there would not be a need for
laws. Laws are necessary simply because it is not so. History proves
that those with power would eventually almost always misuse it and the
greater the mal-distribution of power, the worse the misuse.
Shariah (Islamic laws) were
based on the principles from the Quran augmented by a vast collection
of the Hadeth (the practice and sayings of the prophet) and the inherited
customs. The Shariah laws were codified by many very thoughtful jurists,
about two hundred years after the death of the Prophet. The need for
the methodology of evolution of Islamic Jurisprudence (Fiqh) became
more and more apparent to guide the ijtehad (interpretation) by the
time of Imam Shafi in the 8th century. He codified the methodology of
development of laws (Usul-ul-fiqh). These Jurists and scholars were
great minds. Their enormous works were seminal. The methodology and
interpretation of laws evolved for another two hundred years. Gradually
between the 11th and 13th century the Islamic spirit of confident exploration
declined, and the idea that the doors of interpretation (ijtehad) are
closed, took hold.
Gradually the dichotomy between
the ‘Laws of the State’ (Quanoon) and Shariah (the personal
laws) became entrenched. There was almost no intellectual trafficking
among the two, except for political reasons. State in medieval times
was based on military power and collection of taxes, from the hinterland.
The legal system and the judiciary were dominated by the ruler. The
interpretation and practice of Shariah by Muftis (interpreters of laws)
was subservient to the needs of the power. The more thoughtful and courageous
Muftis were weeded out by the powerful in self-interest.
Near universal education
and fast communications, in modern times have exposed the fissures caused
by almost five hundred years of relative, and about three hundred years
of complete stagnation. Now except for Saudi Arabia and perhaps Iran
no Islamic state even pretends to follow Shariah, because they do not
fit the times. In the stagnating Muslim states where democracy is either
not practiced at all or very imperfectly practiced, the slogan of bringing
the Shariah back is a handy political tool for the politicians. Thus
the political tussle is substituting for the theological and judicial
debate to the detriment of the evolution of Shariah, giving a black
eye to both sides of the political divide.
Those with the love of Islam
and memories of the grandeur of gone by civilization try to show the
superiority of the Sahriah not by cogent arguments in favor of Shariah
but by castigating the obvious moral-sexual decadence of the West and
many other flaws that the Western secularist civilization has spawned.
Those who appreciate the freedom of thought and exploration that the
West in part learnt from Islam and are largely the cause of the ascendancy
of the West, want to have a new system in a hurry without a mechanism
of carrying the populace with them. The dialogue between the two sides
is full of recriminations, generating much heat but very little light.
Obviously the Western Civilization
is not the pinnacle of all that is desired, but it is on an upward trajectory
because it bears and encourages, spirited and even cantankerous debate,
therefore it has developed a slow and tortuous ill-defined self-correcting
Islamic polity should not
ape the West, but it should regain the spirit of search and research
that made it great long centuries ago. It should rise above the ill-placed
fear that intellectual dissension creates weakness. The simplistic idea
that we should unite is appealing, but without the definition of unity,
it remains an impossible dream. Unite for what and how is a relevant
The unity should be for the
pursuit of larger goals, such as an appreciation of the dignity of each
human soul, a divine creation as taught by Islam. The unity should not
be based on fear of making mistakes. On the contrary it should be to
pursue evolving knowledge with courage to celebrate freedom and not
strangle the freedom to learn, at the altar of false unity. Better ideas
emerge from vigorous, even at times cantankerous debates. The fear of
decadent forces is legitimate, but it pulls too much weight in Muslim
countries. Given human nature, with freedom to think lofty thoughts,
the freedom to think baser thoughts inevitably creeps in. The draconian
societies only manage to quell the freedom to excel; the baser attitudes
persist in the shadows, even nurtured because of the suppression of
the freedom to expose them in favor of denial.
Ulema (Muslim religious scholars),
barring a few, have failed because the powerful laity suppressed the
original thinkers. Afraid of change people do not demand any better
from the scholars, and do not pay the brighter and courageous minds
enough to take up the arduous task. The discussions about the Shariah
and the evolution of personal laws among Muslims are becoming more open
and spirited in many democratic societies. The average Muslim has started
to ask questions in many forums. It is indicative of the stirring of
an awakened spirit. It needs to be nurtured and encouraged.
Islam and Democracy:
Some may say that the Prophets
system was perfect. By the Islamic definition, there is not going to
be another Prophet. Muslims consider it very important to follow his
example (Sunnah). Therefore it can not be considered an oversight that
the Prophet did not designate a successor. In effect he willed Muslims
to think and choose according to their best lights.
Immediately after his death,
a rudderless nascent Islamic community rallied to elect the first Caliph,
with spirited democratic dissentions, followed by three more. They are
by consensus classed as the rightly guided Caliphs. It was a form of
an emerging federated representative democracy. Not a perfect democracy
but an initial step towards it. That effort, aborted after only 28 years,
needs to be revived. It is patently Islamic to work towards a more representative
and a better system.
It took more than a thousand
years of hiatus for the self-governing federated democratic systems
to emerge again in 1776 giving birth to the United States of America.
It was not a sudden development. The idea of democratic polity is rooted
in many cultures and traditions since the dawn of civilizations. The
idea of a modern democratic state with a constitution and built in check
on unbridled power of the executive by the legislative and judicial
branches took a long time to take shape.
Modern democracies are far
from perfect. The idea of checks and balances of power with time limitation
on the person exercising the delegated power provides a self-correcting
mechanism. Those at the helm for a prescribed time may, and have, misused
power, but in time by design they have to relinquish power for the system
to recover. All efforts towards a better system are imbedded with many
concomitant inherent flaws. The effort needs to be directed at being
better than what is. With each new step that makes things better, some
associated drawback creeps in, to be improved upon with corrective laws
in search of a better system under the principles of the constitution.
The Challenge of
The challenge for our times
is to emerge out of narrow nationalism to a truly world wide acceptance
of laws based on freedom, equality and justice. The establishment of
the United Nations was and still is a bold and promising effort. It
is under siege by the powerful states, who seek supremacy or the religious
zealots who seek hegemony of a religion. The principles of the UN are
largely derived from the wisdom of human experience and are very close
to the principles of Islam.
In medieval times, the states
were dominated by religious hegemony of powerful elite. Even in the
best of the circumstances, the religion of the elite held sway. The
idea of us and them was the basis of governance, giving birth to the
concept of Darul Islam (the house of peace) and Darul harab (the house
of war). It was a useful concept because the power was wielded as an
either-or proposition. Very soon the need of darul Sulah (the house
of compromise) developed, where adjacent religious states treated each
others population with dignity. It is time to nurture and fully develop
the idea of Darul Aman (the house of harmony), where citizens of all
countries under the treaty obligations of international law live in
peace and equality and justice as preached by the early Islam before
its political success, and it is imbedded in the modern understanding
of the fundamental human rights.
With hardly any exception,
the civilizations that allow more freedom tend to do better than those
with less. With freedom comes responsibility to exercise that freedom
with care. The predicament for all societies is how to balance personal
freedom and restrictive societal obligations. With freedom, inevitably
vices also increase. The great challenge is to improve the system in
such a way to keep the universally recognized vices down so that the
virtues of freedom would work to the betterment of the society. That
is where the moral religious moorings of Islam can be of great help.
This is inevitably a process of trial and error and takes decades to
develop. Those who shun freedom for fear of immorality, manage only
to destroy the growth and excellence that comes with freedom while the
vices continue without being exposed.
An overwhelming majority
of well-known Muslim scholars from the golden age of Islamic Civilizations
were liberal leaning in their interpretations of the Islamic laws and
recommendations in their writings. They believed that Islam is a religion
of peace; therefore justice was of paramount importance. The Quran unequivocally
teaches tolerance and respect for others in all of the verses that are
of general nature. Verses for specific occasion that enjoin Muslims
to take up arms are in context of justice and defense. The later are
often quoted without reference to the context, to score contrary points.
The freedom juxtaposes the
demands of religion as one interprets it, against the freedom of others
to interpret it slightly or drastically differently. For a civil society
to function effectively, acceptance of restrictive rules and regulations
for the common good is necessary. Yet, with time, many seemingly good
laws designed to benefit the status quo prove to be bad and restrictive,
even retrogressive and draconian. Often good laws degenerate into a
bad caricature of the intended purpose. A confident, pluralistic, democratic
system regularly reevaluates and better interprets such laws, not because
of external pressures but as an internal corrective mechanism.
The idea of self-governing
democracies as large nation states is rather new and has taken hold
in the last two hundred years. The West colonized and exploited not
only the Muslims, but the whole world for more than three hundred years.
The last sixty years have seen tremendous changes and readjustments
in the West as well as other parts of the world. The Iraq war and the
global overreach by the United States is the last gasp of a neo-colonialist
Unfortunately instead of
lifting themselves up, Muslims have been mired in this colonial stance
for more than three centuries. It is time to break free from mental
self-imprisonment and function with courage and conviction to the best
what Islam offers. Islam, neither was nor is in danger, it has been
expanding through the bad times in the past and even now. It is the
Muslim power and self image that has been endangered and can be revived
with the recapture the spirit of enquiry, introspection and freedom
that Muslims practiced and Europe adapted to wake up from its ‘dark
ages’. Political power over others was not the quest of Islam,
nor should it be for the Muslims. Political power for the betterment
of all is an equitable goal and an Islamic attitude.
Civilizations cannot go back
in time to some imagined golden age. Successful systems draw sustenance
from the past, but accept the challenge of the times to adjust and innovate.
When pursuit of knowledge is fettered with the fear of going wrong;
the civilization declines and eventually dies. Knowledge should be allowed
to flower with confidence in the ability of the system to absorb it,
use it wisely and with care.
Time for a new paradigm:
Muslim societies have felt
besieged for a long time. It is easy to take emotional refuge in the
past glories; a backward glance where all sins are washed off in the
pool of selective memory and selective reading of history. This attitude
is a feel good survival mechanism for individuals, but as a community
this indulgence is a recipe for a continued downward spiral.
Unfortunately it is quite
common to justify the actions that people condemn in others. Introspection
and self-criticism leads to self reformation and helps to advance boldly
with the cherished principles. Simply reacting to events leaves communities
at the mercy of those pulling the strings
It is time to learn and adapt
from the Islamic celebrated past as well as the developments in other
civilizations. The pioneers and the great scholars instrumental for
the golden age of Islam did not shun the ideas and lessons from the
great civilizations that preceded them. They thoughtfully considered
new, even seemingly alien ideas from Indian, Persian and Greek civilizations,
not with timidity but with confidence and courage. They debated and
opposed those they did not agree with, in vibrant and as robust a dialogue
as possible, considering the limitations in communications for the age.
This is a great legacy worth emulation.
All new or foreign ideas
are not necessarily good or bad. It is important to consider them thoughtfully;
avoiding the pit falls such as the egregious wars and colonialism of
the 19th and 20th centuries. Adoption or rejection without thoughtful
evaluation, simply because they are from the outside, Eastern or Western,
is indicative of prejudices, anemic to the growth of knowledge.
It is time for a civil, thoughtful
and fearless debate within the Islamic polity. None of the Muslim countries
have true freedoms to do it. In ‘devoutly proclaimed’ religious
countries, the religion is misused to suppress all freedoms and in ‘devoutly
secular’ countries the religion is suppressed at the altar of
secularism. Muslims in democracies have the freedom and opportunity
to take this challenge.
With the passage of time,
tribalism gave way to supra tribal empires using religion for ulterior
motives. Personal or tribal empires made way to nation states and nationalistic
hegemonies in the late 18th century. It is time for a new paradigm to
aspire and work for - a complete universal freedom of religion as enshrined
in the UN charter and was the demand of the nascent Islamic polity when
others were trying to suppress it. The need to have a religion based
state to avoid the suppression from another religious or anti-religious
state is on the wane because of inherent injustice in such a system.
When all religions and ideologies have a level field without the coercive
and corrupting power of the state supporting one over the other, the
best would flourish. All religions and irreligious ideologies claim
to be the best. It is time to strengthen the international institutions
of laws and practice what we preached, but were afraid to practice.
Mirza A. Beg
can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org