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Absence of Intellectual Freedom an Impediment for Muslim Societies

Mirza A. Beg

May 10th 2007

Muslims, humbly acknowledge that all our intellectual and worldly possessions are by the grace of God. All that is unsavory within us springs from our baser instincts (Nafs). We are strongly urged to use the gift of free-will to rise above our baser instincts to be the best we can be. The paradox of free will has been dissected by many Islamic as well as other scholars, such as Al Ghazali and St, Augustine, but no one has provided a coherent explanation devoid of polemics. One of the most thriving baser instincts is the anti-intellectual indolence that inhibits rationality and logic.

In the late medieval period when the Islamic power was in decline, it was in the interest of the decadent regimes to elicit validation from the state supported scholars to curb the free-will that questions the established authority. The idea that the doors of 'Ijtehad' were closed took hold. The general meaning of 'Ijtehad' is to derive from the Quran and Hadeeth understandings and interpretations of contemporary situations to find better solutions. Though Islam does not subscribe to the Divine right of the rulers, a challenge to the authoritarian system was reduced to being not only a temporal crime, but a crime against God as well.

Intellectual pursuits tend to weaken the bonds of absolute authority. With rampant illiteracy and the support of the state this sinister dogma took root. It was a time when Europe was emerging from the dark ages by challenging the draconian anti-intellectual Church doctrines with the help of knowledge adapted from the work of Islamic scholars. Though the idea of an earthly religious authority intervening between an individual and God is alien to Islam, but in the service of the state such a closing of the mind was considered good. In effect an idea that is patently un-Islamic was misrepresented as Islamic.

In evident dichotomy it is a matter of pride for Muslims that Prophet extolled the virtue of excellence in education. He is reported to have urged Muslims to spare no effort in pursuit of knowledge, if needed, even go to China; a far off land requiring perilous journey.

Few great scholars painstakingly compiled the sayings of the Prophet called Hadeeth, about two hundred years after his death. It is popular to quote piecemeal from the collected Hadeeth and find quick answers to suite preconceived notions. Quick answers are often not well thought out and devoid of intellectual rigor. They even tend to be contradictory. Interpretations from scholars controlled by the state are and ought to be suspect as they have historically proven to be self-serving.

A good example is the nature of the Islamic government. The Prophet was well aware of his impending death. He had preached that all Muslims should be aware and be prepared for death, sure to come. Yet he did not designate a successor to lead the nascent Islamic community, knowing that there were many avowed enemies lurking within and around. It was not an oversight. In effect he willed Muslims to think, evolve and design a system according to our best lights. The nascent Islamic polity did choose, though not without dissentions, within the limits of polite decency. It worked as a proto democratic system for the first 29 years.

After the first four Caliphs, the emerging democratic Islamic political ethos was damaged in 661 CE when Muawiyah governor of Syria militarily challenged Ali's caliphate. Ali was assassinated by Kharijites and Mauwiyah become the Caliph. Though a successful and astute ruler, Muawiyah gave the Islamic political ethos a more injurious body blow in 680 CE. Just before his death he maneuvered the succession of his inept young son Yazid, making the Caliphate a hereditary office.

It is important to note that the hereditary imperial caliphate and later the marginalization of the caliphate could be considered un-Islamic, if the practices of the Prophet and the first four Caliphs are used as standards, as most Muslims believe. But the Islamic jurists subservient to the power of the state could not, therefore did not oppose these developments and the consensus based Shariah (Islamic codes) avoided the subject.

Muslims found 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 11 th 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 alive.

The first half of the Abbasid period saw tremendous flowering in the fields of arts, sciences and medicine, because Muslim scholars though denied political freedom, confidently used the gift of intellectual freedom in arts and sciences. They liberally borrowed, learnt and built upon the knowledge from the earlier Hindu, Persian and Byzantine-Greek civilizations. Though the conquered people were not considered political equals, they found more freedom and peace than they had under their co-religionist. The Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Hindu scholars were not only given personal freedom, but were often celebrated for their learning and given places of influence under the new rulers..

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 of modern day equivalent of 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 12 th century, Al Ghazali (1058-1111) brought about a synthesis of Sufism with the orthodox Islam, gaining much wider acceptance and eventually great popularity.

Freedom of intellectual pursuits continued to be celebrated by many Sultans. Great centers of learning had sprung up in Damascus, Baghdad, Cordova and Cairo . By the time these centers declined the central Asian and Indian states took up the slack.

People who do not understand Islamic history often call for reformation of Islam through a figure like Martin Luther. Clergy never dominated the Islamic civilizations as in European Christendom. Muslims had that freedom. They need to draw from their intellectual liberal past to overcome the sloth of the last three centuries. Mutazallite School (rationalist) that flourished in early Islamic centuries, itself became ritualized. Taken its true rationalist approach it has a lot to teach modern Muslims if taken.

The rate of accumulation of knowledge, particularly the scientific knowledge suddenly increased with the advent of the industrial revolution of the mid 19 th Century. It keeps increasing almost exponentially feeding on the preceding great discoveries. Many Muslim scholars have taken up the challenge. Muslim philosophers, scientists, engineers, doctors and intellectuals in all fields of knowledge are emerging and striving to break out of the sloth of the last three centuries and rise to the principles once considered precious.

Yet there are loud voices who resent the freedom of intellectual pursuit. They tend to read laudatory accounts of past glories of Islamic civilization, but do not like to read or understand other religions and societies. Even when they do, it is usually with jaundiced eyes looking for holes to punch, not to learn from them.

Why is the West ascendant with many obvious shortcomings? One word answer is freedom; 'freedom to think'. The detractors of such freedom selectively quote the pitfalls and mistakes of individuals. They do not understand that there is no freedom to think great ideas without concomitant freedom to think ideas that some would castigate, some ideas may even be stupid and innocuous.

According to Islam, God has given each of us unique gifts and freedom to use them for good, evil or not use them at all. We know the parameters according to which we will be judged. The quest for the hereafter is based on the purity of intentions. Islam also tells us to live life to the fullest and make the best use of our faculties. As we learn more through sciences, we realize how little we know. Each Human life is a mini universe of interactions and memories, yet it is so insignificant in the expanse of the Universe. The Universe appears even more awe-inspiring with our advancing knowledge. Even the definition of the Universe tests the confines of human language.

The exercise of free-will is not easy. All challenges towards excellence are daunting. Caution, bordering on fear curbs creativity and stifles intellectual exploration. Fear of the intellect deprives the community of its best minds. The idea of democracy that gives freedom of thought and expression was an intrinsic part of the early Muslim polity. The intellectuals understood that all human endeavors and system are flawed by their very nature. There is no perfection in human affairs. With tug and pull of debates ordinary people work in small ways to achieve extraordinary greatness. Often taking two steps forward and one back aspiring for a better and better system , and not get lost in the mirage of an illusive 'perfect system'.

Mirza A Beg invites comments. He may be contacted at



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