InsightMarch April 2006

Muslims between Challenges of the Present and Questions of the Future

Dr. Muhammad Mukhtar Alam

Reasons for deepening research and dialogue on the reality of Muslims have grown more pressing than ever before as the world has entered a new era of its history, marked by an increasingly rapid pace of radical changes and unexpected mutations which upset the usual and the customary.

Indeed, the achievements accomplished by experimental sciences and technology go beyond any imagination or appraisal, especially in the media. The latter, in fact, have come to transcend all boundaries, cover all the regions of the world and penetrate all walks of life. Humans have, thus, become able to reach out to every corner of the glove, garner all the information they wish on any issue and in a record time and unveil the mysteries that used to be inaccessible and unobstructed. This state of affairs has resulted in the flow of information and products in all world markets, regardless of international borders and of the control of national authorities. As a result, a set of ready-make, marketing patterns of values, standards and ideas have spread, endangering all past beliefs and cultural identities. We have thus focused in this essay on the media, given their crucial role in shaping societies and humanity at large.

Furthermore, our present-day world has embarked on the third millennium, which was marked by the terrorist events of September 11, 2001, the extent and repercussions of which on human societies, and particularly on the Arab-Islamic world, are unspeakable. This has only consolidated the single-poled new world order which leads the fight against international terrorism, while putting the Islamic world in the spotlight and under scrutiny.

Such radical mutations have compelled the Islamic world to ponder on the foreseeable future, especially in the light of this wild progress which is occurring at an uncontrollable rhythm with unpredictable results. For these reasons, the great economic and political superpowers have created centers for prospective and strategic studies that focus on future planning. Countries of the Islamic world are not endowed with such centers that monitor and analyze the present changes, appraise their repercussions and, in light thereof, draw up the outline of the foreseeable future.

Intellectuals and researchers should focus their efforts on analyzing the situation of Muslims and Arabs, far from any tension, prejudices and propaganda for ideologies that have lost their luster and proved weak and inappropriate. Consequently, we should prepare ourselves and our minds to practice self-criticism and reconsider all the set issues and fixed ideas. My presentation will, therefore, lay the focus on issues closely linked to the reality of Muslims and the require self-criticism, while avoiding to associate them with the western policies, which are undoubtedly responsible for perpetuating this situation since the time of colonization.

First of all, I would like to clearly define some concepts that will be using in this analysis and some premises for such analysis.

What I mean by challenge in this paper is the very concept which has been accurately analyzed by the great British historian, Mr. Arnold Toynbee, when he dwelt upon the successive human civilizations and analyzed the reasons behind their emergence and demise, notwithstanding the process of their continuity. By challenge, he refers to man confronting nature of facing problems and constraints in a creative manner and in a way that induces changing behavior in the face of constraints. Throughout history, human communities alternatives: either to yield to the forces of nature such as drought, isolations, food shortages, earthquakes and floods, or else to imminent invasion or social problems such as tyranny, slavery, religious and ethnic strife, which means either exclusions, termination or subservience. The second choice is to turn these constraints into incentive factors that make communities unleash their creative force to overcome the conditions that gave birth to the confrontation, either by changing the way of interacting with in such a way that confrontation gives rise to a new approach of a high potential for victory and creativity.

This is precisely the challenge, in its broadest and most comprehensive sense, which is implied by the challenges presently facing the Islamic world. Muslims shall either give in to these internal and external constraints and pressures that threaten to weaken their structures and undermine their identity or turn these challenges into a strong motivation to change their condition, overcome the crisis crippling them and, consequently, usher in a new era.

In order for the challenge to induce creativity, it should gear the nation or the community toward the future, by spurring their determination to change the status quo and create new conditions likely to bring about a positive interaction with the reality. Therefore, it is impossible to take on the challenge by going back to the past and making it a model for the future. Rather, what is needed is to craft new methods to restore power, consolidate identity and overcome obstacles and constraints. Just as each period of time has its own weapons for humans to defend themselves, each period of time has its won resources of strength, which is the only means of self fulfillment. Therefore, the view that past to shape a tailor-made future, as some would want, is not an appropriate approach to face the challenges and consolidate our standing aggressively in a changing, evolving and competitive world in order to hold control over nature and man.

There is a second thesis that I am intent on making clear. I do not consider the Islam is able to face challenges in a way that some people imagine it. On the contrary, I believe that it is the Muslims, themselves, who take on these challenges. What is the reason for this distinction? What do I mean, especially for societies that refuse the separation between their identity and Islam?

Like all social and religious models, Islam is a sheer set of general principles, creeds and rulings that can only be seen in reality when Muslims adhere to it and strictly abide by it in their life. Can anyone of us, either as an individual or a community, claim to be observing in a perfect manner this religion, except for Muslims who lived during the era of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)? As to out era, there is a quasi-consensus that Muslims only observe in their private and public life the formal aspects of Islam. So why is Islam blamed and required to face challenges?

We could maintain the Islam is facing challenges only if we consider that Islamic creeds and universal values are being threatened by the western philosophies and materialistic and atheist values. In this case, we can assert that only the weakest believe this. Actually, Islamic creed is so strong and unshakable that neither the ancient Greek philosophies nor the modern European ones have succeeded in shaking its steadfast structures. This is a reality that is fathomed by experts among Muslim thinkers and scholars, who strived to make it plain, either through ancient or modern Islamic thought.

Western people who criticize Islam and level against it accusations that I will abstain from discussing or denying in this paper, including the accusation that Islam is fatalist, hostile and intolerant vis-à-vis non-Muslims, and practices equality, have not read texts of the Koran and the Prophet’s sayings. They contented themselves with observing the situation and social condition of Muslims as the only testimony to the nature of Islam. When they get acquainted with the sources of Islam, in terms of creed and legislation, and the relations that the Islamic state enjoyed with Jews, Christians and Magians since the birth of the government of the Medinah as well as the civilizations built by Muslims on the basis of the promotion of science and knowledge, and inference by means of reason and experience, as well as openness onto the ancient civilizations of the East and of Greece, they will then come to the realization that all the accusations leveled against Islam are erroneous.

It is necessary to draw a clear distinction between Islam per se, as texts inspired by Allah, as the prophet’s tradition, which is the pure embodiment of lofty values on the one hand, and the popular beliefs fraught with superstition, mis-representation of the truth, negation of positive principles and blind imitation of ancestors while being unable to tell the difference between changing and immutable principles on the other. Our reality bears testimony to this. There is another fact which has even more bearing on our religious life which is the phenomenon of some circles’ tendency to monopolize the understanding of Islam and the tendency among Muslims to proclaim one another as non-believers. This is a clear instance of Muslims being astray from representing genuine Islam and of their being driven away of its practices.

Some might wonder how the situation of Muslims can be assessed, while disregarding their belonging to their religion, which they basically refuse. The answer is that we are not seeing to it that Muslims are shorn of their religion but we are actually emphasizing the theses expressed by a great number of reformists, to the effect the most Muslims are nowadays living with a false awareness of their own religion. And there are so many forms of such fallacies and distorted awareness that belonging to Islam become a superficial belonging which bears no relevance to its sources of faith and genuine values. Furthermore, ignorance and extremism remain the two main factors of shaping the religious awareness of mot Muslims. While the latter are overwhelmed by illiteracy and blind imitation, they have failed to understand their religion because of rite-related obstacles and false interpretations that have been at the origin of dissensions amidst their communities, as far as these interpretations are irrevocable in their view.

Hundreds of millions of Muslims in Asia and Africa constitute great human communities whose strength and effective presence do not match their exploited by way of propaganda and mobilization in wars against the self. This is what prompted the Sheik f Al-Azhar to call –at the opening of the 15th General Conference of the Egypt-based Higher Council of Islamic Affairs- the Islamic Ummah “a nation of scums” because it has not succeeded, despite its size, in denouncing the injustice and dictatorship of some of its leaders and has failed to stand up to new colonialism, despite its grandiose religious and civilizational wealth. In addition, they have not managed to develop their capacities and impose their interests on the international arena. Consequently, another challenge facing Muslims lies in their self-consciousness and in their consciousness of their religion and of the reality of the period in which they are living.

I would like to make clear a third thesis: in all issues that concern the Islamic world, and the Arab would in particular, we are confronted with a confusion between the national and the religious in analyzing the situation of Muslims. Therefore, we are left with two options: either refer to Muslims as peoples and nationalities, each one having their own cultural features, such as language, popular legacy, social features and inherited traditions. This means that these peoples will be looked at from the perspective of national considerations while, therefore, taking into account separate features of each people. The second option is to consider these peoples as an entity sharing the religion of Islam, with common spiritual, cultural and civilizational foundations. And it is not our objective in this paper to defend or criticize the Arab nationalist thought and the ideologies it upheld to get the Arab nation from the ever gloomiest deadlock.

It is certain the Arab nationalist thought carried within it the same seeds of divisions and partitions as the religious thought had previously done, which led it to face nationalist and ethnic trends inside the Arab entity itself, thus countered by the same logic it followed in building the notion of the Arab nation at the expense of the Islamic Ummah. I would rather opt for the Islamic reality at large, given that Muslims –including its largest component, the Arab nation- represent a global human force present on the international arena, and challenges facing Muslims concern them all. But, are we rightful in considering reason or another, the Islamic unity, but suffice it to remind you, in this respect, of the main ingredients of this unity.

First: The natural geographic and human factor. The Islamic world extends over three continents from the strait of Gibraltar in the north to Nigeria in the south, going through the Great Sahara and stretches through the same continent to reach Egypt, Sudan and Somalia. In Europe, it extends over the Balkan countries to the Black Sea and the North Sea. In Asia, it extends in the center and west as well as in the east t reach Mongolia and western China and southward to the eastern Indian islands and Malaysia. The Islamic presence is more concentrated in the Middle East, both along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coasts. Therefore, the Islamic presence represents a belt around world’s oceans and aseas and accounts for around 20% of the world population, that is over one billion people. Although they belong to different nationalities, they share the same spiritual faith. Inside this unit, they form regional and sub-regional groupings that consolidate the overall union.

Islamic countries re also considered among the world’s richest countries in terms of natural resources, making it possible for their peoples to enjoy self-sufficiency in energy, food and water.

Second: the Islamic faith the unites them. It is the reference of their union and does not contradict the cultural specificities of the national cultures composing it, but rather enriches them. Islam started with a vide variety of peoples and tribes. As a matter of fact, the Quran says the diversity is sought in itself to promote mutual acquaintance rather than rejection and cooperation rather than collision. A basic constituent of this unity lies in the consensus of all Muslims on the same reference, the Holy Quran and the prophet’s tradition. Muslims do not diverge on the basics of religion and on branches of belief stemming form this faith. Therefore, religious brotherhood prevails over kinship, which is the highest manifestation of solidarity and cooperation, whether Muslims adhere to this principle or renounce it.

Third: The holy Qur’an’s message is addressed to Muslims as one Ummah. Unlike, Judaism or Christianity, Islam is not a nationality-based religion and its teachings have been prescribed for all of humankind, regardless of place and time, to regulate the practices of communities and individuals. If this Sharia (Islamic law) encompasses several Madhahibs (rites), it is because these madhahibs reflect the acknowledgment of diversity and variation of environments, times and customs. Given that diversity and multitude are features of human societies, the Islamic Fiqh (jurisprudence) possesses sufficient tools for expansion and Ijtihad (independent judgment) to provide for this diversity, including public interest, juristic equity, the prevalence of customs as well as consensus in its true meaning, as part of a quest of the Sharia’s supreme objectives in as way that suits time and place.

In addition to the above-mentioned features, another proof of the unity of the Islamic Ummah consists in the fact that the West, throughout its history whether during the medieval or contemporary eras, has always considered the Islamic world as a single world and Muslims as a single Ummah united in weal and woe, no matter whether this unity actually exists or is likely to be achieved. In this regard, we could wonder whether we should not conceive ourselves the way the West conceives us at least, given that this conception leads it coordinate its policies towards us and use all its means to contain our aspirations.

I have chosen not to indulge in debating the role of western occupation in disconcerting the Islamic World and sowing seeds of division within it, considering that enough was written on the subject and that observers of the Western policies towards Islam are still confirming the same truths. I have been eager not to hold the West responsible for all of our problems because Muslims are the first to be blamed for their situation. If it is difficult to fine a single problem or challenge in which the new or old colonizer did not play a role, I leave it to the intelligence of readers to establish the link between internal phenomena and their external factors.

The greatest challenge facing Muslims lies in unity and division. Some might say that the division affecting the Islamic world for ages is only a natural manifestation of history. National groupings, especially in modern times, are an aspect of the political and social evolution that led to creation of nation-states. This is exactly what happened in the Islamic world, which is today divided into more than 50 states (2). When the Islamic peoples fell under the yoke of European colonization in the east and in the west, they waged liberation wars spurred by a national feeling and, subsequently, after independence they built entities, based on the notion of the nation-state.

A study of the modern history of the Islamic world, especially as regards its conflicts with European occupiers, clearly shows that the colonizing countries were the ones that established artificial borders inside the same nation without consideration for the interests of the concerned countries and peoples. Islamic nations established by this delimitation considered these borders as a reality before starting to realize, with the passing of time, the contradictions implied by these borders, which triggered armed conflicts between some of them. Brotherly relations, historical realities and the existing complementarity between Islamic countries should have been reasons for these countries to settle their disputes, in keeping with requirements of the Islamic unity, the shared history and the interests of each party. But the Islamic world has been suffering from more border conflicts than in any other region of the world, except for Africa.

According to a scholar who did some research on the issue, the standards that underlie the creation of nation-states did not consist, in most cases, of political, cultural or geographic categories to which the group represented in the state belonged. It was rather based on the balance of strength in the Western occupying powers which dominated the world, divided its peoples and carved up its territories, and delimited borders according to political considerations and to the results of bargains between them. Liberation movements sprang up inside these borders and with the end of occupation, free countries emerged inside the same borders, striving not to reflect the main political group but to become the sole representative of society, with an undisputed authority and a monopoly over the whole range of political positions.

We believe that the existence of nation-states within the Islamic world is a natural historical and political phenomenon. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine the existence of the Islamic world in one single state, as was the case during the dawn of Islamic history. Nonetheless, what is easily conceivable is the emergence of an Islamic union between all these states, where nation-states are a component of the Islamic Ummah, on the basis of diversity and multiplicity while acknowledging the linguistic and cultural specificities of each. Union shall be founded on economic partnership and integration, unification of stances regarding global and international issues and a perfect cooperation between the Islamic world countries (3).

Self-awareness is another challenge facing Muslims. What I mean by self-awareness is an objective awareness of out collective self in relation to the would around us. This is achieved by replacing our social and political existence in its context, distinguishing between the essential and the formal and between progress and retardation, giving to each problem its true dimension and devising an integrated vision that reckons with possibilities and obstacles, sets priorities and restores self-confidence in order to enable our coming generations to stop being impressed by the other o the extent of total assimilation.

Since the late 19th century, many reformist appeals appeared and a great many research papers, articles and books were written to analyze the situation in the Islamic world. However, the sought changes and Islamic renaissance never took place.

If we overlook some manifestations of Islamic resurgence in our era, the awareness that Muslims have of themselves and of their reality still hinders the advent of real renaissance. That is why an intellectual has recently wondered: “how come the Islamic world, which is so huge in size and so meager in strength, has become a telling example of the failure of all doctors who sought to cure it and prescribed so many medicines?”

The Islamic thought literature has been prolific in analyzing the reasons behind this situation. Some have attributed it to occupation, thus putting the blame on the other, while some ascribed it to Muslims’ renouncing their religion. Others cited poverty and ignorance, while still other laid the blame on tyrant government systems. The economic and social reason remains the most plausible explanation. The failure of the huge human resources in the Islamic world to produce, along with the fact that production hinges upon vocational and scientific qualifications, the incapacity of the latter to produce a national educational project with well-devised means and objectives and the failure to spread democracy and civil liberties are all reasons that turned the Islamic world into consumer societies rather than societies of production, societies that imitate rather than create or innovate. This type of societies can only be dependent on the world’s productive superpowers, which exploit them at their will.

I have yet another explanation, which lies in silencing any critical thought as a crucial factor for restoring self-awareness. More than three quarters of the Islamic world are plunged into illiteracy, ignorance, poverty and incapacity to acquire knowledge in an era where knowledge and communication are the foundations of civilization and the mechanisms of progress. The remaining quarter, which is relatively educated, does not agree on a single methodology and does not have shared vision. Some of them live in nostalgia of the past and are not aware of the present reality, let alone their failure to predict the future. Others blame the past and its legacy and just echo the enemies’ opinions and analyses. In between the two trends, opinions are as many as diverse. In the same vein, there is a lack of communication between Islamic societies and each Islamic country is unaware of the reality of the other. The media in the Arab-Islamic countries are either busy relating the events occurring in the West, or else they are biased, thus deepening divergences and differences among Muslims. Meanwhile, the western media are only focusing on the West and their coverage of our reality makes us prisoners of their own analyses and logic.

Muslims are facing a third challenge that follows from the previous one. It consists in the political challenge, meaning the government system which has for long embodied the crises experienced by Muslims both in the past and in the present. In the past, authoritarianism allied with religious rites while in modern history and after the independence of Islamic countries, political systems, be they socialist, liberal, military or constitutional, strived to exclude the masses from governing and prevented them from politically participating in decision-making and in managing public affairs. It is, indeed, the challenge of democracy and human rights, the challenge of establishing effective constitutional institutions likely to generate a vibrant and interactive nation which is mobilized to protect its gains. Experience has shown than an authority deprived of a society that interacts with it is, actually, comparable to the head of a dead, paralyzed or handicapped body. This entity cannot exist and if it ever exists, it shall not endure.

This is deeper than what can be called the political challenge, because it implies collective qualification to keep abreast of a changing world by developing the nation’s forces and unleashing its potentials to entitle it to win the battle of self-affirmation, following in this the method that helped others succeed in this respect. In this context, I would like to refer to idea that formed the basis of the reformist trend of Khair-eddine Attounsi (1822-1889). Indeed, during the 2nd half of the 19th century, the Islamic world had to face the invasion and occupation of the European countries, at a time when Islamic countries proved unable to turn back invasion as it did not possess the same weapons. Khair-eddine Attounsi called for adopting European systems that re based on justice and freedom, i.e. democracy and liberalism, which encourages production, competition and human and material development. He had then stated, “Kingdoms which do not follow the example of their neighbors, in the weaponry they possess and the military tactics they employ, risk to fall prey to them, at least momentarily” (4).

Khair-eddine Atrounsi actually make a special mention of the military tactics because they are tokens of progress in invention and wealth. In this, he quoted the Prophet (peace be upon him): “he who is battled shall battle in the same way he is battled”. Likewise, Abu Bakr Assiddiq said in his recommendations to Khalid Ibn Walid, may God bless them both, on the occasion of the Apostasy War, “battle your enemy with the same weapons as those he uses against you”. This pioneer reformist was aware that the challenge does not lie in the military weakness of some Islamic states, as was the case of the Qttoman Empire, but rather in the basic structure of the state and the nation which are the foundations of military might. He referred to the political and economic strength. In this context, he wondered: “Can we today obtain the preparation mentioned (i.e. military) with progress in science and factors of prosperity that others have?” (5) Is this thriving and progress possible without adopting the appropriate political regimes, like those we are witnessing in the West? These systems are founded on freedom, justice and development of the factors of agriculture and trade, based on experimental science.

This idea produces cogent evidence that Muslims lacked the basis of all types of strength and sovereignty, which is collective participation and involving people in self-government in keeping with the democratic style, and intellectual freedom.

Seen from this perspective, we can only conclude that the Islamic world shall not attain the dignity and sovereignty of its peoples, unless it acquires the foundations of true strength available in the West, which is political democracy, social justice and advanced experimental sciences and technology. In addition, it is necessary to acquire the capacity f continuous development so as to keep abreast of the requirements of innovation and creativity implied by the global changes and mutations. The modern world is an ever-changing world ruled by a frantically-progressing dynamic. Borders separating the peoples and countries have been dismantled and the world has become a single space where knowledge and material goods are flowing and where information engenders wide-ranging effects and dominates all the mass-media, in total disregard of cultural, religious and national specificities.

This political and economic challenge yield yet another challenge consisting in the failure to acquire the ever-renewed and expanding scientific knowledge along with all its requirements in terms of mechanisms, techniques, budget, planning and cooperation so as to entitle the Islamic countries’ coming generations to unleash their creativity and prevent the brain drain of Muslim scientists in western laboratories and universities, for lack of recognition and esteem in their home countries and of opportunities to work and produce in their respective fields of specialty.

Knowing the contemporary would and integrating into its scientific and technological orientations are a must if comprehensive and sustainable development is to be achieved and if the plagues of poverty, intellectual illiteracy and unemployment are to be overcome. Indeed, in an increasingly integrated world in terms of production and marketing and where globalization is an inevitable destiny where Muslims will not fine their place unless they abide by the methodology and means which laid the foundations of “globalization”.

We can legitimately ask the following question: “Do Muslims possess any alternative other than integrating into the West civilization and its globalized economic order?” This is a deep problematic, not only because of the Muslims’ destitute means but mainly because they fail to conform to their faith when they deal with values that run counter to it. I mean that they are not united when confronted with the global mutations that effect their religion’s constant principles, such as how to deal with financial institutions that are based on usury which is proscribed by Islam or with materialistic values that govern economic competition. The world’s economy is regulated by a web of inter-linked and complementary institutions, possessing sophisticated skills of performance and managed, locally and internationally, by an army of experts and administrators who control, on behalf of the great superpowers that protect them, the world economy. In this context, Muslims are left with the only choice of subordination to the world economy, which owns the financial institutions providing the so much needed funds and equipment for the development of Islamic countries.

Hence the questions that may be posed on the future of Muslims and about the possible options of either integration into globalization, with all the subsequent social and cultural implications, or staying aloof and preserving the cultural and religious identity while meeting the requirements of sustainable development and carrying out the investment and development projects that require foreign support. Most governments in Islamic countries are unable, today, given internal constraints and social and political challenges, to do away with the funding of international financial institutions, and cannot but resign themselves to the consequences of subordination in view of the lack of means of modernizations, equipment and financing. This situation has been enduring since the independence of Islamic peoples and the emergence of nation-states which were responsible for drawing up strategies to achieve development, self-sufficiency, national empowerment to put an end to their absolute dependence on other countries. And unfortunately, they have utterly failed in their task, save a few and rare examples.

Actually, the more Islamic countries try to modernize their systems and equipment, the more they are dependent on the West. The reason is the imitation of the West has been a salient feature of their political and intellectual life, to the extent of total alienation. Some categories of politicians and intellectuals are blindly following the West, even as regards Arab literature and the study and evaluation of legacy as well as the Arab culture. This shakes and destroys the cultural and religious identity and, in this context of subordination, results in disruption between the values of modernity and the Islamic values.

The question imposing itself today is: Is the Islamic world, Arabs and non-Arabs, in the present state of subordination to the Western civilization, entitled to a civilizational role that they could play in a rapidly-changing world amidst swift mutations and deep implications of technological progress? Can they claim to possess an Arab and Islamic civilization project which would have a place in the modern world?

We do not rule out the existence of such a role or such a civilizational project, if we succeed in devising this project on the basis of spiritual foundations and values that are deeply rooted in our history and our legacy and of the materialistic principles that can help our generations and the genius of our children to hold control over material and scientific development by acquiring technology and experimental sciences. It all depends on political will and a steadfast rational methodology. A case in point is Japan, which represents today an outstanding example that interacts with the world civilization and competes with its productivity while safeguarding its own identity and specificity.

It is also a question of empowering Arabs and Muslims to produce knowledge and technology, enhancing their ability to produce and marked quality products and give a live example of serious, creative and responsible people.

It is beyond any doubt that shaping creative people who will succeed in taking on challenges depends on gathering the appropriate conditions and circumstances. Above all, there is a pressing need to put end to the present critical and responsible mindset in the name of conservatism, imitation and abstaining form any efforts that match the seriousness of contemporary problems.

Those are multiple questions that, indeed, imply the challenges facing Muslims, and, foremost the Arab nation at the dawn of the third millennium. Keeping in mind that western civilization suffers from spiritual poverty, the dominion of materialistic values, it will be in need, more than ever, of our spiritual values that honor, form time immemorial, human beings and ensure the balance between natural impulse and spirit, between reality by highlighting our rational, mature and ethical behavior and our values of moderation, tolerance and integrity.

Those are our challenges and such is our civilizational mission.

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