Islam and Modernity

The Quest for Modernity in Islam

(from my Archive: February 3, 2002. Originally published in “Antiwar” by a pseudonym)

The September 11th attack on World Trade Center and Pentagon led people from all stripes and faiths (including Muslims) to search for answers and try to understand the nature of Islam: a religion of more than a quarter of the world’s population living in 52 countries and stretching from Morocco to Indonesia.

Islamic Architecture

Islamic Rich Architecture

A close examination clearly points towards an increasing gulf between the Islamic world and the West in terms of values, aspirations and achievements. While the West has become a dominant force in all economic, political and scientific fields, the Islamic world has been left behind.

There was a time when the Islamic world was the centre of art, architecture, science and economic progress while Europe was mired in the darkness. Science, mathematics and philosophy in medieval Europe found its bases in the contributions of brilliant Muslim scholars like Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and Ibn Sina (Avicenna).

The fundamental question is: what has happened to the Islamic civilization since then? Why has there been a precipitous decline in its influence and prosperity, especially in the last few centuries? Are there inherent weaknesses in Islam that cannot address modern day challenges? Or have Muslim rulers and administrators corrupted the basic tenets of Qurán (the sacred scriptures of Islam, revealed to Prophet Mohammad – peace be upon him – by Allah during the 7th century) to impose their own repressive regimes, causing a perpetual backwardness of their subjects?

Main dilemma

Time for Prayer

Time for Prayer

Muslims believe that every syllable of the Qurán is Allah’s word, and therefore there is no room for change, discussion or reinterpretation. This leads to a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, this is a matter of pride for Muslims. As compared to various versions of the Old and New Testament (perhaps with contradictory implications), there is one and only one version of Qurán in all corners of the world. On the other hand, this rigidity provides no room for Muslims to find solutions to problems of the modern world from any other source than the Qurán (and Hadith – traditions concerning the Prophet Mohammad’s life and utterances). Further, Muslims are obliged to resort to the Qurán for the solution to all of their problems because Islam is a deen (a way of life) and Muslims believe that Qurán (along with Hadith) contains complete guidelines not only for spiritual and ritual aspects of life, but also day-to-day activities for all time.

Do not blame Islam!

With the exception of a few scholars and academicians, Muslims are not willing to even entertain a notion of any limitations in the original message of Islam. After all, for a believer, every syllable of the Qurán is the “absolute” truth for all people, all time and all places. There is no room for any deviation and compromise.

Whenever a question of the relevance of Qurán in this modern age arises, Muslims always assert “we must not blame Islam, blame Muslims for not practising Islam.” The question remains as to why are Muslims unable to follow Islamic principles as laid down in Qurán and Hadith? And more importantly, why do they become offended and respond through violence when any one challenges the relevance of these principles? A majority of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and others are willing to tolerate criticism and try to respond to skeptics through dialogues. Or is it that the Quránic principles can only serve as a source of spiritual guidance, and (like all other Holy Books) cannot be applied in today’s complex world of heterogeneity, diversity and unpredictability?

To circumvent this problem, other faiths have separated religion from the state. But according to Islam, there can be no separation of mosque and state, both go hand and hand. In fact, the sublime responsibility of an Islamic state is to propagate and ensure that religion is practised in daily lives. Qurán and Hadith are “complete” source of guidance for worldly and heavenly affairs. They are not a theoretical basis for spiritual consolation and intellectual pursuit only. They provide complete code of day-to-day business problems, political activities, social and family relationships.

Islamic architect: © Umair Ghani. Photo Net

Islamic architect: © Umair Ghani. Photo Net

The great Islamic civilizations of the past millennium have shown that Islam indeed was a “complete” source of conduct in this life and a means of spiritual connection with the hereafter. Both of these elements could be practised simultaneously. But the world has become more complex and heterogeneous. Solutions offered by Islam were very well suited to the socio-economic need of the past millennium. While Islam may have been ahead of its time at the outset, the world has now moved ahead of Islam.

Is Islam “frozen” in time?

Lets examine some of the fundamental problems that the world faces today in the areas of economics, politics and science. And analyze the solutions Islam has to offer?

Economics: Unlike other religions like Buddhism/Hinduism (Gandhian philosophy of “simple living and high thinking”), Islam encouraged economic growth, prosperity and pursuit of a better life. At the same time, Islam strongly required that believers take care of the “have-nots”. It also provided a very effective mechanism of income distribution. It minimized the possibility of social inequality by establishing systems of zakaat (an obligatory tax on well off Muslims) and Bait-ul-Maal (an agency for collecting and distributing charity and zakaat among the needy). Therefore, economic progress and the pursuit of materialism are consistent with Islamic principles. These principles laid the foundation of a social welfare system and progressive income taxation system, now practised in Western countries.

Business: Still Basic

Business: Still Basic

But Islam failed to address other issues of a modern economy, such as international trade based on comparative advantage, globalization, a monetary system, banking, a fiscal system (beyond zakaat), speculative (stock market activity), venture capital, interest, insurance, inflation, research and development.

These issues became dominant during the last two centuries. In an earlier period, either these issues did not exist or affected a very narrow portion of economic activity. During that era, societies were primarily agrarian. Commercial activities included medieval form of cottage craft and production, carried out among family members. Transaction of goods used to take place at the village market. Jurisdictional and international trade was very limited. Therefore, Islam was in harmony with the prevalent economic structure. It did not have to find innovative solutions to emerging problems.

In the context of Islamic economics, the major problem is that there is no blueprint for interaction between production and distribution. It does not provide an explanation on how land, labour and capital interact with each other to produce wealth in a society. It prohibited riba, (generally translated as “interest”) which is the foundation of creation and circulation of capital of a modern economy. And capital is the most important input of modern production structure, research and technological advancement.

A few Muslim countries have established the so-called “Islamic banking system,” which practically is not different from any prevalent Western banking practice. The only difference is the connotation and technicality. For example, the term “profit-sharing” is used for “interest.” There are some innovations in the area of investment risk sharing – mudaraba and musharaka– but the process is cumbersome and has limited application, especially in a global context.

In medieval days, it was land and labour as means of production. Therefore, even when capital was ignored or defined only in kind (like a ton of grain or a herd of sheep), it did not matter much. The question is: what guidance does the Qurán offer Muslims in their todays economic affairs?

Evolving Technology

Evolving Technology

Science: Qurán is not against most of the scientific progress being undertaking today. However, it does not provide the rationale for these development and how to cope with some of the social and moral consequences resulting from them. If, according to Muslims, all answers can be found in the Qurán, then why did Muslim scholars fail to invent and innovate in modern day mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology and interrelated disciplines? Without a single exception, all of these developments have been taking place in the Western world, at least in the last two centuries. Second, why did Islam fail to provide rational answers on social and ethical issues resulting from these scientific developments, acceptable to the majority of Muslims? For example, issues like family planning, organ transplants, and cloning and genome research.

Politics: During its early period, Islam was very open in acquiring knowledge from other societies. It was also very tolerant of divergent views and opinions. The collection of books in just Qurtabah library in alAndalus (Muslim Spain during 10th century) exceeded the collections of all the libraries in Europe. These books were not just explanations and interpretations of Qurán and Hadith, but covered a wide range of subjects by renowned scholars. The West received the lost Greek philosophy and wisdom through translated Arabic books. Debate and discussions were a common pastime in the Muslim world. There were even groups like Mu’tazilah in the 8thcentury, who were rationalist and used to question the validity of a Quránic verse on the basis of its logical merit. On problems and issues not directly covered by the Qurán and Hadith, ijtihad (or interpretations by any qualified jurist) used to be practised on a regular basis. For example, on issues of daily importance, there were four schools of law (Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali) within the Sunni world alone. All were practised side by side with equal importance. But the door to ijtihad was completely slammed by the Abbasids during 13th century, and remains shut to this day. Does it make sense that when the world is becoming more complex and challenging with new problems in all spheres of our life, options to find solutions from religious sources stay closed in the Sunni world, which represents about 80 percent of world Muslims?

In its early message, Islam also advanced the notion of ijma (consensus) in the area of politics. It also advised leaders to follow the practice of shura (consultation) before making important decisions. However Qurán is silent on how the consultation should take place. It also never laid down a clear mechanism of choosing a leader: should the person be selected, elected or a combination of both by a chosen few or by a common mass? After all, Hazrat Abu Bakr became the first caliph in Islam in a state of confusion when Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) died. Hazrat Omar, as a second caliph, was nominated by Hazrat Abu Bakr. Hazrat Uthman’s selection as a third caliph was controversial and as a result led to the division of Muslims into a new sect, Shiite, followers of Hazrat Ali, who became the fourth caliph after the murder of Hazrat Uthman. Later on, monarchy or hereditary position became the norm in Islam with the establishment of Ummayyad and Abbasid dynasties.

After the French revolution in 18th century, while the West became successful in establishing a well-defined democratic system, the Islamic world continuously remained captive in the primitive political structure of monarchy or authoritarian regime. Presently, most of the Middle East and other Islamic countries are ruled by kings, emirs, sheiks, sultans and dictators. According to Saudis, who claim to adhere to strict Islamic law, the Quránic injunction to “obey Allah, obey the Prophet and obey the ruler” justifies absolute rule.

The real challenge


Adoring Women in Poetry & Painting only

The most daunting task for Islam is to explain and determine the status of women, who make one-half of the world’s population, in a modern society. Other religions might have more restrictive positions on women in their Holy Books, but no one exerts them as forcefully in this age as Muslims do. According to the Qurán, a woman’s input in a decision or as a witness is equal to one-half of a man. A husband can resort to corporal punishment on his wife in certain circumstances. He can take four wives at the same time, after meeting some conditions. Men have the right to “grant” divorce, whereas women can only “ask” or request it. Men can marry outside Islam, but women cannot. These statements are very clear in Qurán without any room for ambiguity.

Veils-still tradition is sacred: © Jon Gausdal.Photo Net

Veils-still tradition is sacred: © Jon Gausdal.Photo Net

The challenge is how to uplift the status of women in Islam to modern day reality. Any attempt to bring the change would have clear implication of violation of Quránic injunction. The status quo, on the other hand, would keep women captive and “unequal” to men.

The other key challenge is how to be “flexible” and “tolerant” to other faiths without violating basic Islamic principles. Today’s world is a global village. People from all religions and ethnicity live in large cosmopolitan cities of the world, especially in the West. Harmony and peace can only be achieved through respect and tolerance for each other’s belief and practice. Those who are blessed with the “ultimate truth,” logically reach the conclusion that all others are “wrong.”

The present state of intolerance in the Islamic world is best lamented by a Kuwaiti Professor, Ahmed al-Baghdadi. Writing in a local newspaper, he states, “Muslim claims that their religion is a religion of tolerance, but they show no tolerance for those who oppose their opinions. … The Islamic world and the Arab world are the only places in which intellectuals – whose only crime was to write – rot in prison.” (Cited in an op-ed column by Thomas Friedman, The New York Times, November 23, 2001.)

For a healthy society to function, it has to adapt according to the changing needs. The urge for possessing the holy grail of “absolute” truth has to be questioned. Social, economic, political and scientific development are evolving and continuously changing. One can address these challenges only by questioning and by being open about an option. Rigidity leads to backwardness. That is what happened to Muslim societies. Their intellectual curiosity is frozen in the past millennium.

Muslims have to reflect into current reality. They need to ask some of the fundamental questions arising in today’s world:

• Can a Muslim be allowed to question some aspects of the Qurán and Hadith without losing his/her faith and perhaps head?

• Can a scholar initiate ijtihad and suggest solutions to modern day problems that may fall outside the realm of Qurán and Hadith? For example, organ transplant, genome research, homosexuality, stock market speculation, etc.

• Can a woman have “equal” rights and responsibilities (both in quantity and quality) in marriage, division of assets, politics, education and economic opportunities without violating the basic tenets of Islam?

At the end…is there a hope?

Islamic Art

Islamic Art

This is the most difficult question to answer with any degree of certainty. Still a large majority of Muslims believe that the true Islamic society was established and practised by Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) about 1500 years back. It is the religious and moral obligation of Muslims all around the world to recreate a society that would reflect that golden period in spirit and in action. Islamic revolution in Iran against Shah in early 1980s and Taliban recent rule in Afghanistan have been attempts to achieve the same goal. After all, necessary path to day-to-day activities are laid down in Qurán and Sharia. Muslims just need to whole-heartedly practice and implement them. They need to transform and conform to what is stated in the Sacred Book. According to a large prevalent Muslims belief those who think that Islam needs to be modernized to today’s reality are the one who are deviated from the path of “truth” and need to be reformed. Under such an environment what hope is there?

© Mahmood Iqbal and 2012


About Mahmood Iqbal

An Economist (PhD) and a Professor (Part-time) at the Carleton University, Canada. The author of "No PhDs Please: This is Canada." Besides doing research on serious economic and policy issues for the last 25 years, like to write journalistic pieces on subjects of interest. An amateur Photographer. ... Blog appears to be appropriate venue to post my wondering thoughts without any peer pressure and academic review process.
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