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Decline 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 centuries.

Popular opinions 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 survey:

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 of Islam:

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 system.

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 the times.

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 civilization:

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 Islamic societies.

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.

Religion, personal and public:

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.

Institutionalized 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 mechanism.

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 question.

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 our Times:

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 posture.

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









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