Islam Lost Its Way
By Pervez Amir Ali Hoodbhoy
Sunday, December 30, 2001; Page B04
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan -- If the world is to be spared what future
historians may call the "century of terror," we will have to chart a
perilous course between the Scylla of American imperial arrogance and
the Charybdis of Islamic religious fanaticism. Through these waters,
we must steer by a distant star toward a careful, reasoned,
democratic, humanistic and secular future. Otherwise, shipwreck is
For nearly four months now, leaders of the Muslim community in the
United States, and even President Bush, have routinely asserted that
Islam is a
religion of peace that was hijacked by
fanatics on Sept. 11.
These two assertions are simply untrue.
First, Islam -- like
Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism or any
religion -- is not about peace. Nor is it about war. Every religion is
about absolute belief in its own superiority and the divine right to
impose its version of truth upon others. In medieval times, both the
Crusades and the Jihads were soaked in blood. Today, there are
Christian fundamentalists who attack abortion clinics in the United
States and kill doctors; Muslim fundamentalists who wage their
sectarian wars against each other; Jewish settlers who, holding the
Testament in one hand and Uzis in the other, burn olive orchards
and drive Palestinians off their ancestral land; and Hindus in India
who demolish ancient mosques and burn down churches.
The second assertion is even further off the mark. Even if Islam had,
in some metaphorical sense, been hijacked, that event did not occur
three months ago. It was well over seven centuries ago that Islam
suffered a serious trauma, the effects of which refuse to go away.
Where do Muslims stand today? Note that I do not ask about Islam;
Islam is an abstraction. Maulana Abdus Sattar Edhi, Pakistan's
preeminent social worker, and the Taliban's
Mohammad Omar are both
followers of Islam, but the former is overdue for a Nobel Peace Prize
while the latter is an ignorant, psychotic fiend. Palestinian writer
Edward Said, among others, has insistently pointed out that Islam
holds very different meaning for different people. Within my own
family, hugely different kinds of Islam are practiced. The religion is
as heterogeneous as those who believe andfollow it. There is no "true
Today, Muslims number 1 billion. Of the 48 countries with a full or
near Muslim majority, none has yet evolved a stable democratic
political system. In fact, all Muslim countries are dominated by
self-serving corrupt elites who cynically advance their personal
interests and steal resources from their people. None of these
countries has a viable educational system or a university of
Reason, too, has been waylaid.
You will seldom see a Muslim name as you flip through scientific
journals, and if you do, the chances are that this person lives in the
West. There are a few exceptions: Pakistani Abdus Salam, together with
Americans Steven Weinberg and Sheldon Glashow, won the Nobel Prize for
Physics in 1979. I got to know Salam reasonably well; we even wrote a
book preface together. He was a remarkable man, terribly in love with
his country and his religion. And yet he died deeply unhappy, scorned
by Pakistan, declared a non-Muslim by an act of the Pakistani
parliament in 1974. Today the Ahmadi sect, to which Salam belonged, is
considered heretical and harshly persecuted. (My next-door neighbor,
an Ahmadi physicist, was shot in the neck and heart and died in my car
as I drove him to the hospital seven years ago. His only fault was to
have been born into the wrong sect.)
Though genuine scientific achievement is rare in the contemporary
Muslim world, pseudo-science is in generous supply. A former chairman
of my department has calculated the speed of heaven: He maintains it
is receding from Earth at one centimeter per second less than the
speed of light. His ingenious method relies upon a verse inthe Islamic
holy book, which says that
worship on the night on whichthe book was
revealed is worth a thousand nights of ordinary worship. He states
that this amounts to a time-dilation factor of 1,000, which he puts
into a formulaof Einstein's theory of special relativity.
A more public example: One of two Pakistani nuclear engineers recently
arrested on suspicion of passing nuclear secrets to the Taliban had
earlier proposed to solve Pakistan's energy problems by harnessing the
power of genies. He relied on the Islamic belief that God created man
from clay, and angels and genies from fire; so this highly placed
engineer proposed to capture the genies and extract their energy.
Today's sorry situation contrasts starkly with the Islam of yesterday.
Between the 9th and 13th centuries -- the Golden Age of Islam -- the
only people doing decent work in science, philosophy or medicine were
Muslims. Muslims not only preserved ancient learning, they also made
substantial innovations. The loss of this tradition has proven tragic
for Muslim peoples.
Science flourished in the Golden Age of Islam because of a strong
rationalist and liberal tradition, carried on by a group of Muslim
thinkers known as the Mutazilites.
But in the 12th century, Muslim orthodoxy reawakened, spearheaded by
the Arab cleric Imam Al-Ghazali. Al-Ghazali championed revelation over
reason, predestination over free will. He damned mathematics as being
against Islam, an intoxicant of the mind that weakened faith.
Caught in the viselike grip of orthodoxy, Islam choked. No longer
would Muslim, Christian and
Jewish scholars gather and work together
in the royal courts. It was the end of tolerance, intellect and
science in the Muslim world. The last great Muslim thinker, Abd-al
Rahman Ibn Khaldun, belonged to the 14th century.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world moved on. The Renaissance brought an
explosion of scientific inquiry in the West. This owed much
totranslations of Greek works carried out by Arabs and other Muslim
contributions, but they were to matter little. Mercantile capitalism
and technological progress drove Western countries -- in ways that
were often brutal and at times genocidal -- to rapidly colonize the
Muslim world from Indonesia to Morocco. It soon became clear, at least
to some of the Muslim elites, that they were paying a heavy price for
not possessing the analytical tools of modern science and the social
and political values of modern culture -- the real source of power of
Despite widespread resistance from the orthodox, the logic of
modernity found 19th-century Muslim adherents. Some seized on the
modern idea of the nation-state. It is crucial to note that not a
single Muslim nationalist leader of the 20th century was a
However, Muslim and Arab nationalism, part of a larger anti-colonial
nationalist current across the Third World, included the desire to
control and use national resources for domestic benefit. The conflict
with Western greed was inevitable. The imperial interests of Britain,
and later the United States, feared independent nationalism. Anyone
willing to collaborate was preferred, even the ultraconservative
Islamic regime of Saudi Arabia. In 1953, Mohammed Mosaddeq of Iran was
overthrown in a CIA coup, replaced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.
Britain targeted Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser. Indonesia's Sukarno was
replaced by Suharto after a bloody coup that left hundreds of
Pressed from outside, corrupt and incompetent from within, secular
Muslim governments proved unable to defend national interests or
deliver social justice. They began to frustrate democracy to preserve
their positions of power and privilege. These failures left a vacuum
that Islamic religious movements grew to fill -- in Iran, Pakistan and
Sudan, to name a few.
The lack of scruple and the pursuit of power by the United States
combined fatally with this tide in the Muslim world in 1979, when the
Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. With Pakistan's Mohammed Zia ul-Haq
as America's foremost ally, the CIA openly recruited Islamic holy
warriors from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Algeria. Radical Islam
went into overdrive as its superpower ally and mentor funneled support
to the mujaheddin; Ronald Reagan feted them on the White House lawn.
The rest is by now familiar: After the Soviet Union collapsed, the
United States walked away from an Afghanistan in shambles. The Taliban
emerged; Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda made Afghanistan their base.
What should thoughtful people infer from this whole narrative?
For Muslims, it is time to stop wallowing in self-pity: Muslims are
not helpless victims of conspiracies hatched by an all-powerful,
malicious West. The fact is that the decline of Islamic greatness took
place long before the age of mercantile imperialism. The causes were
essentially internal. Therefore Muslims must be introspective and ask
what went wrong.
Muslims must recognize that their societies are far larger, more
diverse and complex than the small homogeneous tribal society in
Arabia 1,400 years ago. It is therefore time to renounce the idea that
Islam can survive and prosper only in an Islamic state run according
to sharia, or Islamic law. Muslims need a secular and democratic state
that respects religious freedom and human dignity and is founded on
the principle that power belongs to the people. This means confronting
and rejecting the claim by orthodox Islamic scholars that, in an
Islamic state, sovereignty belongs to the vice-regents of Allah, or
Islamic jurists, not to the people.
Muslims must not look to the likes of bin Laden; such people have no
real answer and can offer no real positive alternative. To glorify
their terrorism is a hideous mistake: The unremitting slaughter of
Shiites, Christians and Ahmadis in their places of worship in
Pakistan, and of other minorities in other Muslim countries, is proof
that all terrorism is not about the revolt of the dispossessed.
The United States, too, must confront bitter truths. The messages of
George W. Bush and Tony Blair fall flat while those of bin Laden,
whether he lives or dies, resonate strongly across the Muslim world.
Bin Laden's religious extremism turns off many Muslims, but they find
his political message easy to relate to: The United States must stop
helping Israel in dispossessing the Palestinians, stop propping up
corrupt and despotic regimes across the world just because they serve
Americans will also have to accept that their triumphalism and disdain
for international law are creating enemies everywhere, not just among
Muslims. Therefore they must become less arrogant and more like other
peoples of this world.
Our collective survival lies in recognizing that religion is not the
solution; neither is nationalism. We have but one choice: the path of
secular humanism, based upon the principles of logic and reason. This
alone offers the hope of providing everybody on this globe with the
right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Pervez Hoodbhoy is a professor of nuclear and high-energy physics at
Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.