Guest post by Anisur Rahman
The Muslim world is now in an utter chaotic and fragmented state both economically and politically after nearly 1400 years of its existence. The cause of its problem lies not so much in its disharmony with the present world but in the very modality of its existence. As the last of the three monotheistic religions (Judaism and Christianity being the other two), it came into existence as the last and final religion proclaiming the ultimate truth from the Creator, the Almighty God. The message was final and nothing could replace it. Whereas other religions kept pace with time and space and evolved (albeit reluctantly) with scientific development and knowledge, Islam steadfastly refused to reform itself. It is indeed utterly constrained by its own proclamation of finality and thereby invariant to changes.
Islam as a political religion had a very tumultuous upbringing right from the start. Even during the Abbasid Caliphate (750 AD to 1258 AD), generally regarded as the “Golden Age of Islam”, the conflict between freethinkers and the moronic religious followers was not too far below the surface. Almost throughout the whole of Abbasid Caliphate, the clash between the Mu’tazilites embracing rationalism and inquisitiveness and the Ash’arités movement embracing anti-rationalist philosophy had been simmering right across. The Ash’arités movement was dogmatic Sunni Muslim movement who held the view that the rationalists were anti-Islamic. Things do happen because God wishes them to happen, not as a result of cause and effect. Rain comes down to earth when God wishes it that way, not due to meteorological conditions.
In the 10th century AD, the Abbasid Caliph Abdul Qadir, even denounced ‘critical thinking’ and called such efforts as ‘counter to Islam’. He ordered his subjects to dissociate themselves from philosophers and free thinkers, despite the fact that numerous verses in Quran exhort believers to think and raise questions. These promulgations from the Caliph gradually became entrenched in the religious text books which became in later days the Sharia laws.
In 1515 the Ottoman Sultan Selim I (1466 – 1520) under the influence of clerics decreed that anyone using printing press, invented in Germany in 1455, to print books in Turkish and/or Arabic would be punished to death. This self-imposed intellectual quarantine pushed not only the Ottoman Empire but the whole of Muslim world to such an isolation that Muslims never ever managed to keep up with Europe. It was not only the printing press but other scientific and technological development also had been banned. In 1580 an astronomical observatory in Asia was demolished at the insistence of the then Sheikh-ul-Islam who argued that “prying into the secrets of the heavens was blasphemous”.
While Islam was content with such indolence, Europe forged ahead with renewed vigour when released from the shackles of the religions. They discovered new continents, progressed in scientific and technological fields to improve living standards of their people. Only in 1838, as Europe had progressed to embrace industrial revolution, did the Ottoman Empire came to their senses and declared that “Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, science serves perfection of man in this world”.
Whereas the advent of Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment in the middle centuries of last millennium had transformed Europe and pulled its main religions to modern ages, the Ottoman Empire had deliberately blocked any ingress of such ideas to maintain the purity of Islam! When Ottoman Empire blocked these ideas, nothing could filter through to the hinterland of Muslim world. Consequently the Muslim world including the Ottoman Empire and the whole of Middle East as well as India had remained in the dark ages.
However, following decolonisation of Asian and African countries in the 20th century, the bright ray of knowledge started to flicker through and enlighten people. But the centuries of backwardness and religious obsession could not just disappear overnight by the modern development. The Muslin society had by then segregated into three sections. The large majority of Muslims, mostly illiterate and innocent, remained obstinately attached to the religious teachings relying on God’s provenance to rescue them and drive them to prosperity. There were two small minority sections on opposite sides of the scale – who had the intellect and foresight to see what is in the offing – one is the reformist who saw no way out for the Muslims but to embrace modern education and culture to survive and the other is the revivalist who hankered after the 7th century conditions to lead lives as existed at that time.
These revivalists pick out verses from the Quran to substantiate their egregious and vicious claims such as (i) kill disbelievers wherever you find them. If they attack you, you kill them. Such is the reward for disbelievers (verse 2:191); (ii) those who ‘spread corruption’ (a vague term widely believed to include blasphemy and apostasy) should be killed or crucified (verse 5:33); (iii) Allah says that you keep fighting until there is no more persecution and everyone on earth is a Muslim. Then you can stop killing people (verse 2:193). There are numerous other exultations of grotesque violence and killing in Quran. The ISIL or Daesh, Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Al-Shebaab and numerous other terrorist groups all over the world as well as Wahhabis/Salafists subscribe to these strand of religious edicts.
On the other hand, the reformists plead for reforming the religion to bring it to the modern age and bring in moral codes and discipline. Religion, the reformists say, should be kept away from the affairs of the State. In other words, secularism should be proclaimed to run the State and religions should be kept exclusively to imbibe moral codes and views.
The problem is that the vast majority of innocent and illiterate people do not want to get embroiled in the controversy of reforming and revivalism. Out of fear of God’s wrath in this world as well as in the next life, they just want to get on with lives pleasing God. In other words, nothing should be done to rock the boat. Mullahs who advocate vicious and murderous actions take advantage of the innocence or lifelong brainwashing of the people. Revivalists want to push the society to their regressive world of bygone ages. In doing so, they take recourse to religious freedom and democratic institutions of the State; but their ultimate objective is to deny both to the people. In order to protect Muslim societies from the poisoned chalice of religion, religious freedom needs to be suspended.
Dr A Rahman is a retired nuclear scientist and a columnist.