The Muslim world view is dominated by a sense of decline. But this sense of weakness is significantly attached to being powerless. There is, of course, a group of fringe Muslims who link Muslim decline to lack of overhaul of knowledge and incapacity to change. But this is not the mainstream view. Muslims long for military dominance which they think they once had.
Let us be clear that Sir Syed was among those who thought that Muslim decline was owed to lack of modern education. More thoughtfully, he connected this decline to the inability to think rationally. He talked of ‘nature’ in the sense that Cicero of the Roman Empire did, meaning ‘reason’ by ‘nature’. But Sir Syed was soon set aside by more ‘suitable’ thinkers who invoked ancient scenes of Muslim military dominance and called the Muslims to recreate conditions of that ascendancy.
The Muslim resistance to mutation as a project of survival and its literalist insistence on a permanently settled dogma has forced them to think of changing the world. The idea is to change the world, not change according to the world. There are two doctrines that spring from this feeling of decline: ‘dawa’, that is, proselytising non-Muslims till they can’t think differently and thus contribute to the universal consensus based on unrevised tenets; and jihad, by which the Muslims mean war.
Jihad is an abstraction and peace-loving Muslims often explain it not as war but as efforts made in the way of achieving obedience to Allah. John Esposito, a British author considered sympathetic to Islam, once tried to register the peaceful meaning of jihad on a BBC discussion with a broad spectrum of Muslim scholars from the Islamic world. He was shocked to hear that the dominant Quranic sense of jihad was ‘qital’ (homicide) not ‘juhud’ (effort). Some new Muslim authors have recommended that jihad be added to the Five Pillars of Islam which are: ‘Kalima’, namaz, zakat, fasting during Ramazan and Hajj.
Al Qaeda under Ayman al Zawahiri has directed jihad inward on to fellow-Muslims. He defeated and then probably killed the founder of al Qaeda, Abdullah Azzam, in Peshawar, who believed in ‘udu al-baeed’ (‘distant enemy’) as opposed to Al Zawahiri’s ‘udu al-qareeb’ (‘near enemy’). Today, the Muslim effort to regain dominance kills more Muslims than non-Muslims. Muslims indirectly support this programme. India’s Zakir Naik and Pakistan’s lady proselytiser Farhat Hashmi, have called Osama bin Laden a soldier of Islam.
Historian Marshall GS Hodgson in his three-volume work The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilisation (2004) thinks that the venture of Islam as a title has emerged from the Muslim view of ‘dawa’ derived from the Quranic verse describing Islam as a special and superior creed and marking the followers of Islam as permanent followers of a faith that demands constant expansion on the basis of constant principles.
Today, Muslim decline is clearly to be seen in the World Bank human development reports. Maulvi Muhammad Hussain Azad thought they needed knowledge that was ‘mufid’ (useful), implying that what they traditionally had was useless. Today, the non-mufid knowledge is making a comeback because it strengthens the two instruments of dominance: ‘dawa’ and jihad.
It is not power the Muslims need. They feel powerless because of the situation created by their resistance to modern knowledge. If they want to become empowered they will have to focus on modern education. Seeking military dominance is foredoomed because those who do achieve it soon lose it to other contenders. Just because medieval Muslim scientists were apostatised by the traditional clerics does not mean that we should not take another look at them and follow in their footsteps.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 25th, 2011.