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A Five-point Agenda for Islamic World to Get Rid of Backwardness

By Asghar Ali Engineer

December 5, 2010

HERE is no doubt that the Islamic world is lagging far behind today from other countries in several important fields including education, science and technology and except a few oil rich Arab nations, it is facing poverty and illiteracy. Also, it lacks sense of unity as some Muslim countries are closer to the West, others are hostile towards western countries. There are grave ideological differences too. Also, Muslims have poor record of human rights situation and especially status of women.

Here we present five suggestions which can be debated and discussed by Muslims and can make additions or deletions to these suggestions so that Muslims could achieve a high status among the nations of the world in all fields. Muslims have a tendency to invoke past glory and what they had achieved during Abbasid period in the filed of philosophy, science and technology. It is quite natural that when we have nothing to show at this juncture we, in order to hold our head high, invoke past glories. However, it does not help.

Before we discuss these suggestions, I would also like to stress here that we Muslims are too pre-occupied with theological issues and rush to ulema for fatwas even in fields where they have no skills to guide. It is again because of poverty and illiteracy of poor Muslim masses in entire Muslim world. Unfortunately the ulema that are trained only in purely theological issues – and a theology which was evolved during medieval ages –dominate the Islamic world.

That is why so many fatwas are issued and even the Saudi King had to issue an order restraining ulema from issuing fatwas which become subject of controversies and media focus. Too many fatwas of mutually contradictory nature are issued which hardly help resolve modern complicated issues. Islam does not encourage priesthood and certainly not institutionalised priesthood. Despite this it is thriving in the Islamic world.

Our first suggestion in this respect is that the Islamic world should commit itself to spread and consolidate education. The Muslim nations must compulsorily spend a least 2 to 3 per cent of its GDP on education. The very first aim should be universal literacy. Investment in primary education pays later very rich dividends.

Our second suggestion is about science and technology. Muslim nations are far behind in the field of science and technology.

At one time westerners used to learn from Muslims. Today it is the Muslim world which is totally dependent on the western world. This reversal needs to be reversed again.

Today oil rich Arab countries spend millions of dollars to buy weapons from America and other western countries but shy away from spending on education of their own people. The western countries exploit these oil rich nations in two ways; they make super profit by selling these weapons to them and also use these weapons ultimately for their own security in the Middle East by establishing military bases.

No Muslim country has won Noble prize in sciences. A Muslim scientist like Abdus Salam was able o get the prize when he worked outside his home country – Pakistan. If Dubai can become a huge international market, why can’t one of the emirates become an excellent centre of learning.

Fatwa culture in Islamic world has become a curse for Muslims. On petty matters of theology or jurisprudence fatwas of kufr are issued and even injunctions are issued to renew one’s Islam and even renew one’s nikah. There are acute prejudices against the other both within religious sects and against non-Muslims.

This is also because of secular education and over-emphasis on madressah and religious education. Also, partly responsible is poverty among Muslim masses. These are, needless to say, inter-related matters. One strengthens the other. Traditional ulama’s influence must be contained and restricted to strictly theological matters. Religious tolerance should be accepted as a Islamic duty and as mentioned in Quran in Adam’s story and repeated in several places, punishment or reward in doctrinal matters should be left to Allah.

No ‘alim should be allowed to pronounce who is kafir and who is on right and who is on wrong path. Also, mutual sectarian differences are so deep and wide that every other sect for these ulama is on wrong path and would be assigned to hell. Where will it lead us to?

In all our madrasas religious intolerance is taught as Muslims of other sects are denounced as on wrong path and students even encouraged to go for medieval type of munazaras (i.e. polemics) and denouncing other sects. Thus intolerance in-built in the very system of religious education today. This must be totally abolished. When terrorist activities were at their climax, many educational experts from Middle East had expressed this opinion.

What is needed is a new breed of ulema who can rise above such narrow sectarian approach and who have themselves deeply reflected on Quran in the light of modern developments in different fields.

We must realize that the theology developed by the great theologians of medieval ages was in response to their needs and situation. We should also understand that theology is a human endeavor as if in partnership with divine and human needs and endeavors can never be eternal. The greatest problem of Islamic world today is that we are treating past theology as eternal as the Quran itself.

We must make our theology dynamic and responsive to modern challenges. Today Muslim theologians must come forward and lead the world in this respect by developing new theologies like theology of peace, theology of environment, liberation theology, third world theology and so on for which Quran provides eminent guidance.

This writer has tried to develop theology of liberation and theology of peace. When one reads the Quran and reflects on its verses in the light of these challenges one is wonderstruck and begins to think Quran is indeed a divine miracle. Unfortunately Muslim theologians are so caught in the past that they are unable to realize the importance of Quran.

For this what is needed is religious freedom and tolerance. Religious freedom is very fundamental to the Quran and no genuine faith (imaan) is possible without genuine freedom of conscience. Today we hardly find religious freedom in Islamic world and it is one of the causes of our stagnation. The moment one exercises such freedom one attracts Fatwa of kufr. Our great institutions of Islamic learning like al-Azhar of which one can just be proud suffer from the same problem. When one of its great scholars Abu Zaid Nasir tried to understand tanzil and tawil (revelation and understanding revelation by human beings) he was immediately declared kafir and even his marriage was declared invalid and he had to flee from Egypt.

Earlier Prof. Fazlur Rahman from Pakistan who also was a great scholar of Islam had to leave Pakistan and go to Chicago and teach there. This is how we treat our great scholars who try to develop new theological outlook and contribute richly to our Islamic heritage.

Our third suggestion is about women’s status. Muslims never tire of asserting that Islam gives women equal rights and high status but record of Islamic world in empowering women is very poor. In fact Islamic world’s record in respect of women’s status is one of the poorest in the world. For years modern education was a taboo for them.

Now after great struggle they have won some rights including going to schools and colleges. Even this is not without problems in many Muslim countries. In Afghanistan even today Taliban burn their schools and throw acid if they do not cover themselves from head to foot. In tribal areas of Pakistan the situation is same.

Though the present Saudi king is more enlightened and is encouraging modern education for women but situation is far from satisfactory. Women cannot drive car, cannot go alone from home, cannot do their own business and representation of women in work force is just 17 per cent. They have to cover themselves from head to foot while going out. They cannot vote in municipal elections.

In many Muslim countries apart from mentioned above situation is not very different. Hijab is purely cultural and has not even been mentioned in the Quran, let alone made obligatory. Yet hijab is being enforced more and more in all Muslim countries. It is not a healthy sign. Muslim societies are highly patriarchal. There are very few women who can make independent decisions and can assert rights over their own bodies and affairs.

Our fourth suggestion is about democracy and human rights. Like our record on women’s status the record on democracy and human rights is equally woeful. There is great lack of democracy in Muslim countries except a few countries. It is because of such lack of democracy that ignorant scholars maintain that there is no place for democracy in Islam or that Islam and democracy are antagonistic. Far from it. There is nothing in Islamic teachings which can go against democracy. Islam is as democratic as any religion can or cannot be.

In fact it is feudal culture and feudal authority inherited by Islamic world that keeps democracy out of Islamic world. And western imperialism and its interests are more responsible for this than Islam. The western countries have kept feudal rulers in power in most of the Muslim countries to serve their own oil interest.

The best examples are from Iraq and Iran. Both countries have defied US interests and authority in the region and America sent its troops to Iraq on the false pretext of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and destroyed the whole country killing more than half a million of its innocent citizens. US is also a sworn enemy of Iran though it can hardly do to Iran what it could to Iraq for number of reasons.

Our fifth suggestion is about intra-religious unity. There are very sharp sectarian divisions among Muslims throughout the world though there is empty rhetoric of unity of the ummah. Here we would suggest that Muslims must put pressure on their leaders to sit down and talk to followers of other sects in the spirit of dialogue and promote unity at one level while adhering to ones belief with full freedom, on the other.

It is minimum requirement to cease the violent and physical attacks as it is happening in the Muslim world today especially in Pakistan. Pakistan, unfortunately, has become a battle ground for such sectarian fights due to powerful interests involved.

Even mutual polemics must stop forthwith denouncing each other as kafirs. In India, being a democratic and secular country, all Muslim sects coexist peacefully though occasional denunciations do take place.

The writer is chairman of the Institute of Islamic Studies, Mumbai.

Source: The Dawn, Karachi