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Muslims, the real ‘going back’

Nazir Khaja


Tuesday, September 29, 2009


SEPT 28 — Every Muslim talks about the Golden Age of Islam, and is nostalgic about it. Rightly so. In terms of science, medical progress, scientific achievements, and philosophical, religious inquiries, Islam and Muslim societies were recognised as the gateway to knowledge. While the Muslims derive great satisfaction in recounting the past glory of Islam, no one is interested in answering the questions as to how these things ended? There must be a reason for this. Why Islam suddenly went into a deep freeze intellectually speaking. The process of going from religious commitment to religious confusion begs understanding and inquiry especially by Muslims themselves.


Critical to the understanding of the problem is to note the attitude of the early Muslims; if they had actually been insular and resistant to the ideas and beliefs of other cultures, there never would have been the flowering of philosophy, poetry, ethics, and mysticism, influenced by the best thinking of the surrounding cultures. Their main mission was to lend Quranic authority to contemporary social struggles and engage with local customs, culture and traditions to synthesize and evolve a dynamic culture of their own. The Quranic framework became the matrix of their society and social moral values.


This they could have hardly done without critical thinking and a spirit of free inquiry. In their mind were questions about freedom and tradition. What is it that they were inheriting, as well as what capacities they had for critiquing that inheritance? These questions were in their face as much as they are now in the face of contemporary Muslims. Yet the earlier generation did not falter. They pursued knowledge relentlessly and with an open mind. All of this resulted in the glory of that Islam which the Muslims now pine for and refer to as “going back to”.


The historical imprint left on the minds of subsequent generations of Muslims unfortunately has led to the fostering of an attitude that Muslims are actually the highest manifestation of humanity, a people whose way of life was established not by human convention but by God. How can this claim of Muslims be supported in view of what Muslims and Islam are going through?


The problem here is that even though Islamic doctrines according to how Muslims believe are Revelational, Trans-historical and Eternal, the ummah or Muslim fraternity is contingent and historical. Muslims have become identified with Islam and Islam with Muslims through inescapable historical and cultural processes. This is the reality the Muslims need to acknowledge. The world at large perceives the issue in this manner. At the time of Islam's rise and spread to distant parts of the world, the people understood and accepted Islam through the conduct of the Muslims of that time. Why should it be any different now?


How should Muslims leaders and scholars begin to engage the Muslim masses in a rational, spiritual and social framework referenced by The Quran and the Prophet’s example?


Ideologues whose aim is to uncritically glorify the Muslims in history at the expense of other groups remain in control of the mosque pulpits. Through the fog of deliberate misrepresentation they create an illusion of the unity of the Muslim fraternity or ummah.


Reconciliation of the Quran’s charter of universalism with Muslim claims to be a distinct people or “the best nation” is a serious undertaking, which needs fresh insights. Remaining adherent to outmoded approaches and ways of thinking cannot accomplish it. This is the responsibility of the present generation of educated Muslims and cannot be left to the preachers in the mosque pulpits.


The Muslim societies are under control of leaders with vested interest in maintaining control over the community. They marginalise its value system or spirituality, and promote status quo, opposing any change or co-operational efforts with other communities.


It is not a matter of doubt that the Muslim societies are in need of reform .This will come about only if the Muslims are able to understand the significance of the universal, inclusive paradigm from which the Quran demands the society to be governed with. People who maintain centrality of the value system over historically and culturally conditioned thought, processes and ritual system are less likely to develop attitude of hostility towards each other and also other religions.


At the moment the process of reconciliation and synthesis, if any, remains in the hands of mostly state appointed authorities and few individuals who remain adherent to rigid rules and outmoded methodology of the bygone era; nothing original reflecting the onward progress of history and culture has been added for many centuries. The Muslim masses, adherent to a superficial understanding of their own faith and concerned mainly with performance of rituals and the reward in the hereafter, remain under the spell of these leaders. These scholars and leaders in most instances have very little knowledge of the workings of complex and evolving challenges that modernity brings. It is no surprise that Muslims now find themselves relegated to the margins of social, political and scientific developments.


This lack of critical thinking and holding on to application of old thought-out solutions to present-day problems has given rise to great vulnerabilities and host of issues for which Islam is blamed for in the media; from gender inequality, to failure of social and economic progress, to rights of minorities all are being piled up in Islam’s column. It is obvious that there is an urgent necessity for re-thinking Islam. Ways of reconciling or developing a conception of freedom that incorporates a role for tradition will help in making community and tradition more meaningful and yet not falling into the clutches of control and coercion


Concerned Muslims who have the capacity to think for themselves need not be intimidated and remain silent or marginalised. They need to step forward and engage in this critical task of reconstruction. They have to act nimbly and tactfully if they are to have any influence at all in retaking the lost ground. This is the "real going back to" that Muslims always dream about. — Islamic Information Service

Dr Nazir Khaja is chairman of the Islamic Information Service.

Posted by barred at 9/29/2009 03:01:00 AM

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