By Ayaz Amir
July 05, 2013
It took Christendom a long time to get over its troubles but the Middle Ages eventually passed and the papacy lost much of its power and the Renaissance happened and minds until then closed began to open and old certainties were questioned and new ways of thinking developed.
Luther tried to reform the Church. Christianity was split as a result of the Reformation but, if anything, this hastened the rebirth of learning associated with the Renaissance. After all, Luther was questioning old dogma, and questioning of any kind, questioning authority or received wisdom, is the first step of learning.
The western world did not reject religion. It bypassed religion so that the finest universities could co-exist with the most beautiful churches – science and religion on parallel tracks and no one, except professional controversialists, really upset by this dichotomy. The pastor from his pulpit could thunder against the wicked ways of the world. But he held forth mostly on Sundays, the day devoted to the works of the Lord. Caesar ruled unchallenged for the rest of the week.
It has been so different with us, the world of Islam. Early Islam was a rough republicanism but a republicanism centred on the supremacy of a single tribe, the Quraish. After the death of the fourth caliph this model of relative egalitarianism gave way to empire, first under the Ummayads and later the Abbasids.
Empire, sultanate, emirate...for the next 14 centuries this was to be the standard model of government in all the lands of Islam, until republicanism, lost for all these years, made a comeback under the impact of – just think of this – colonialism. With the one exception of Turkey, the Turkish republic, on the ruins of the Ottoman empire, created by Mustafa Kemal and not the gift of any colonial enterprise. But Turkey because of Kemalism stands out for so many other things as well, the resurgence of Islamic sentiment under the present ruling party notwithstanding.
But to return to the theme of knowledge: the torch of learning remained in Muslim hands for some time, Muslim thought adding to its lustre and radiance. But then the lights dimmed and just as the tree of knowledge had passed from Greek hands in earlier times, it now passed from Muslim hands. As dogma became powerful, the spirit of enquiry which alone nourishes the tree of knowledge lay dead. So it has remained to this day.
Magnificent Muslim empires rose and fell – the Mughal Empire a dazzling example of this – but intellectual development was gone. Preoccupation with the hereafter became a more lively concern than salvation in the present.
When Alexander arrived at the gates of Taxila, so Plutarch informs us, the Greeks were amazed to see some yogis transfixed in perfect yogic headstands. This impressive performance did not deter the Greeks from their onward march. In similar fashion, the great Muslim preoccupation with the hereafter was no bulwark against the colonial conquest of Muslim lands. Even as the British imposed a protectorate over Egypt, they did not interfere with the prerogative of Al Azhar University to issue decrees (fatwas) on the finer points of Islamic learning. Even as the British went on to occupy Palestine, the Grand Mufti of Palestine was at liberty to preach what sermons he wished. In all the years that the British were in India they did not interfere with the workings of the seminary at Deoband.
They were concerned with what was due to Caesar, not with what lay in the realm of the spiritual. The empire they ruled in India they did not call the Fortress of Christianity. The past seems a closed book to us. At every opportunity we call our land a Fortress of Islam.
There are some things we just can’t seem to get right. Almost as if to show that we are not really at home with the spirit of democracy, Egypt’s experiment with democracy has just ended in disaster. Mohamed Morsi was the first democratically elected president of Egypt in history, from the Pharaohs to the present. But he lasted barely a year in office. He just couldn’t control his Islamist impulses, more interested in strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood than in courting wider support. The secular classes could not cultivate patience and the army just couldn’t resist the temptation of intervening when the raucous cries from Tahrir Square once again called.
What more did the Muslim Brotherhood want? Their man was the president. Wasn’t that enough? Shouldn’t they have moved more cautiously? But no, they had to rush their horses. And the army, what a comeback it has staged, sounding ever so reasonable and democratic but we in Pakistan know from our experience that coming in is the easier part, getting out is an altogether different proposition. And what if the democratic timetable lengthens, as it always seems to do in these circumstances? What will the secularists do then? Egypt’s first democratic revolution just two years old and already gone up in flames, and many in the Brotherhood who will be thinking dark thoughts of taking up arms and going the way of Al Qaeda, etc.
And Morsi when in office, what business of his was it to call upon Bashar Al-Assad to resign? Unable to manage things at home but already posing as the regional statesman abroad, and the Syrians, for good measure, just when the army was about to strike getting their own back by calling upon Morsi to step down. The Qataris involved first in Libya and now in Syria, and thanks to Qaddafi’s ouster Islamic hardliners now a force to reckon with in Libya, the Saudis concerned about nothing so much as Hezbollah and Iran, Iraq thanks to American benevolence a continuing shambles. And the Turkish prime minister, the Muslim world’s new poster boy, must also make it his business to interfere in Syria and adopt a high-handed style of governance which provokes a secular backlash.
Closer to home Pakistan and Afghanistan exchanging mindless and petty insults and Pakistan, as ever, unable to get out of its Afghan obsession. Only recently we used to protest we had nothing to do with the Afghan Taliban. Now we aren’t exactly rejecting insinuations that we may have helped bring them to the Qatari table. And since the Taliban will always be the Taliban when they opened their office in Qatar they couldn’t help proclaiming that it was the office of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan...driving the Karzai government, or what there is of it, up the wall.
Even as the new incoming government in Pakistan fiercely proclaims its resolve not to accept IMF conditions – which must be a first in economic history, beggars being choosers – its economic team performs a desperate waltz to get a new IMF commitment. And even as this dance of the iron begging bowl is taking place the incoming prime minister walks into the National Assembly wearing a four-million dollar watch. This is beyond belief, that a watch can cost so much and that a political worthy can bring himself to display it...either silliness or courage, in both events beyond the call of duty.
This is not about one prime minister and one country. It is about the Muslim world, from Indonesia to Morocco, lagging behind the rest of the world not by ten or twenty but five hundred years. They are there and we are here but we are still caught up in dogma and old things and the world of knowledge, the torch of learning, passes us by, firmly beyond our reach.
And we are taken up with Musharraf. His real sin was not subverting the constitution but blowing his opportunity. He could have done so much, rolled back the Ziaist tide, abrogated the Hudood Ordinance, cured state organs of their jihadist fever, made Pakistan a less benighted place. In his first three years he was strong and his opposition weak. But he lacked imagination. Such a chance Pakistan is not likely to get in the next 100 years.