Muslim view of ‘decline’

Published: December 24, 2011
The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore

The writer is Director at the South Asian Media School in Lahore [email protected]

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.

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Reader Comments (37)

  • Ali Tanoli
    Dec 24, 2011 - 11:32PM

    Seems confused and unanswered to many questians.


  • Ejaaz
    Dec 24, 2011 - 11:33PM

    Muslims are in decline because we did not really follow Islam.


  • faraz
    Dec 24, 2011 - 11:50PM

    People are stuck in medieval era when Turks from Central Asia were superior in warfare because of harsh living conditions of the steppe, excellent skill as mounted horsemen, warrior ethos and brutality. The advanced civilizations had no chance against these hordes of horsemen. Mongol army was almost invincible and Mongol invasions were only repelled by their steppe brethren, the Turks. But with advent of accurate gunfire, the inherent superiority of a steppe warrior was nullified. Europeans developed well drilled infantry that fought in strict formations and advances were made in the use of field artillery. Cavalry, in which the Turks excelled, lost its significance in the battle field. From 1683 onwards, the Europeans dominated the battle field. And by 19th century, they acquired significant technological superiority over other armies. Generalship became an art and a science in the European armies. Contrary to myth, Muslims Ottoman army didn’t lose war after war due to lack of faith or zeal or corruption, but due to outdated methods of training and tactics. The fanatical Janissary corps, the elite strike formation of the Ottoman army, was utterly useless against European infantry formations; after resistance to reform, the Sultan slaughtered the Janissaries. The reforms in Ottoman army came too late. And now, the conventional war is decided entirely in the universities; superior technology cannot be defeated.


  • Moulay Youssef
    Dec 24, 2011 - 11:52PM

    and thus the cycle of madness rumbles ever onward, blinded by lack of critical, independent thinking and free debate… i’m doubtful that your myopic 7th century dogma and obscurantism is going to raise the collective level of technological innovation, scientific research and freedom of expression in the Muslim world. How many internationally heralded research papers have you published today, my friend? 11th century Andaloussi works don’t count.

    you’d best get back to those blasphemy laws, chaps. the world won’t be expecting the next generation of fiber-optics from the land of the ‘pure’.


  • Ali Tanoli
    Dec 25, 2011 - 12:45AM

    @Maulay yousaf
    Then why west building more war fare weaponry and sell it to poor world and why adventures
    happend in the name of intrest why is like that mr yusaf .. and reliegen will stay 7th century
    only u cant changed and its beauty of this reliegen unchangedable written in LOHE MAHFOOZ for ever. and we all know the reasons why we are behind kings dictators blessed
    with crruption and ………..


  • mansoon
    Dec 25, 2011 - 12:59AM

    the present time look very bleak for muslims all over the world.the so called arab spring had resulted in religious parties comming to the forefront.really seems like going back hundereds of year in the pure land of least with husani mubarak there was some sense.
    muslims keep talking about the old time when they conqured the world on force and brutality.
    these are on outdated models and only people who are educated and prosperous will prevail and not someone harping on faith and religion..


  • Apostate
    Dec 25, 2011 - 1:03AM

    You can’t win against Allah’s army. Indoctrination in childhood is so difficult to get rid of. It almost takes 2nd birth. Unless we re-concile faith with science there is no hope.


  • Talha
    Dec 25, 2011 - 1:24AM

    Khaled Ahmed is a great writer, his articles are always refreshing to read and highly informative.

    Keep up the good work.

    In terms of the content, ‘dawa’ can also be portrayed as a form of religious vanity. This is to insure continuous appraisal and value for the religion.


  • Porcupine
    Dec 25, 2011 - 2:16AM

    Muslims and Islam needs a renaissance if they want to compete in modern world.Even Christianity was a fanatic faith back in the middle and dark ages.In fact the concept of holy war started with the crusades.Now look where they are.But if we go by timeline and accounting for the fact that Islam is a comparitively young religion,I think we would have to wait another 400 yearsRecommend

  • kaalchakra
    Dec 25, 2011 - 2:21AM

    It is true that Islam does not adapt to the world. But that is because Islam’s goal is to change the world, not be changed by it. That is the reason why Allah protects it. Every thing else changes, but not Islam. If it changes it won’t be Islam.

    It doesn’t mean Islam is a monolith. Not at all. It is interpreted differently to change everything, to Islamize everything. Knowledge does not change Islam. Islam changes knowledge. Islam today is exactly the same that it was 1400 years ago, and it will be the same so long as the last person calls himself a Muslim of any kind. That is the beauty and the power of Islam.


  • Sameer
    Dec 25, 2011 - 3:10AM

    I do not know about Farhat Hashmi, but I know for sure Dr Zakir Naik never said Osama was soldier of Islam. What he said was that he does not trust BBC. So you should do research before making a claim


  • Syed
    Dec 25, 2011 - 3:19AM

    Looks like Khaled Ahmed has learned Islam from orientalists.


  • Falcon
    Dec 25, 2011 - 4:42AM

    I would go one step further and say…that the fundamental challenge many religious societies including Muslims face is the difficulty in reconciling needs of posthumous spiritual life vs. short-spanned materialistic life…because to a common person, these come across as competing priorities…however, I agree that focus on education is the only way out in solving this dilemma


  • Cautious
    Dec 25, 2011 - 6:00AM

    Maybe the answer is to start viewing yourself and others as human beings first — and quit fixating on the why Muslims are somehow suppose to be superior to others. To my knowledge no other religion spends so much time contemplating why they are in decline and other religions dropped the expansion through violence concept hundreds of years ago. It’s the 21st century and your hundreds of years behind the rest of the World – time to wake up – time to catch up.


  • sanjithmenon
    Dec 25, 2011 - 6:56AM

    Prior to the British entering Indian sub continent the Muslims were good at business, the Muslim inheritance law was much similiar with that of Hindus and sharia laws were not strictly imposed .we can see a lot of Muslims involved in sea trade etc. the British implemented the sharia laws in muslim personal law, which gives one half of a fathers inheritance to the girl child and the rest in equal shares to all sons. Egalitarian, it may sound, the concept of family business lost out, long term consolidation of capital, which the Hindus did, was not done by muslims. they only entered into short term partnerships. Compared to Hindu business, the girl only got a dowry, at the time of her marriage, she had no share in her fathers business inheritance. Recommend

  • narayana murthy
    Dec 25, 2011 - 9:10AM

    @Ejaaz who says “Muslims are in decline because we did not really follow Islam.”

    Perhaps, Muslims are in decline because you really followed Islam?!!!!!!!!


  • ADEEL759
    Dec 25, 2011 - 11:12AM

    Muslims fear Education, Integration, Economic Empowerment and Liberty.


  • Feroz
    Dec 25, 2011 - 12:26PM

    If my views of Islam differ from yours, will you kill me ? That is what the followers of Islam the Religion of Peace are doing to each other. Killing for the flimsiest reason is manifestation of a mental illness not strength and should be treated.


  • Tariq
    Dec 25, 2011 - 1:34PM

    I could not get his point. As for dicline, it must be the opposite of revival, for to achieve revival we must reverse the decline. Revival is defined as intellectual elevation, and from our culture, we understand this to be applied to a society. Therefore, revival is reflected in a specific set of concepts that the society holds, by virtue of which, it solves the problems it faces. It is necessary to expand this further. Intellectual elevation is about building your thoughts on a consistent and coherent basis. Hence, all the detailed concepts related to actions that satisfy man’s instincts and organic needs must be built on a viewpoint about life, which in itself is built upon a creed. This is intellectual elevation, because each concept is justified on a primary concept, and each primary concept is built upon the creed.


  • Ranjit
    Dec 25, 2011 - 1:36PM

    Kaal bhai, good to see you on this web site after…….I remember your theory on how Islam happily coopts a liberal outlook such as Sufi ideology to grab converts from other religions……however, once it converts everyone, it then tries to purify that same population towards an increasingly stricter and fundamental version of Islam……..this ritual of liberalizing as needed and then continuous purification is what keeps Islam as an unchanging faith…….I think your theory is getting vindicated by what is happening in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Islamic world…….


  • You Said It
    Dec 25, 2011 - 1:40PM

    Great article, Ahmedji. But I think there are important elements left unexplored in your thought-provoking piece.

    :”It is not power the Muslims need. They feel powerless because of the situation created by their resistance to modern knowledge.

    A central facet of muslim worldview is that religion is power, ergo “believers” must be powerful. The reasoning has merit. Belief enables people to push themselves further than they might reasonably think was possible. But belief is no substitute for reason, and the two must coexist for man to flourish.

    When man imposes belief on himself, it is faith. When imposed from without, it is orthodoxy. Many muslim societies today impose belief — witness blasphemy laws, restrictions on eating in public during Ramzan, reaction to drawings of the prophet, etc. Thus many muslim societies which fancy themselves as faithful, are often orthodox. The flip side of orthodoxy is tolerance.

    When tolerance is constrained, there is a natural reaction to conform and abjure radical ideas. For muslim societies to be empowered, ideas need to flourish, and for this the role of religion in society must be revisited. I might say that religion should be banished from the street to people’s homes, but that might be blasphemous.


  • With Love
    Dec 25, 2011 - 5:06PM

    Muslims long for military dominance which they think they once had.
    A single sentence puts the summary of the article rather bravely..


  • P N Eswaran
    Dec 25, 2011 - 6:03PM

    Education and economic prosperity cannot bring Muslims to their supposed glorious past. Islam will neither encourage education or will bring in prosperity. The economic boon produced by oil is on account of western technology and not Islam. If Islam does not change it must perish. The Muslims have a choice to make-perish or evolve.


  • Tahir Saleem
    Dec 25, 2011 - 7:54PM

    Muslims need to realize it is a myth that we never achieved total dominance in the Indian subcontinent. Muslims even during the Mughals were only in total control of a few cities and local regions. To survive Muslims had to share power with local Hindu and Sikh chieftains. Remember in those days there no railways or advanced artillery to project and consolidate power. This was the realpolitik of those days. It was not possible to have total power given the geographical and people constraints.

    We should stop feeling sentimental for a time that never really existed. Our false history of past greatness has poisoned our recent history.Recommend

  • Milestogo
    Dec 25, 2011 - 10:18PM

    This is very brave article…


  • RajX
    Dec 25, 2011 - 11:06PM

    @faraz: Fantastic analysis.


  • RajX
    Dec 25, 2011 - 11:09PM

    @kaalchakra: There is no beauty in not evolving. If human specifies has not evolved, we will be still living in caves.


  • Imran Qureshi
    Dec 26, 2011 - 1:39AM

    good article as always


  • pmbm
    Dec 26, 2011 - 11:48AM

    There are ‘muslims’ and ‘muslim countries’ but where is islam in them? Bribery, Dishonesty, Lying, Killings is not Islam, but these things are prevalent in so-called muslim societies.
    Muslims need to first learn what js real Islam.


  • Nisar Khan
    Dec 26, 2011 - 12:21PM

    Good material for discussion, the writer is right in his thinking and those opposing him are not wrong? Lack of clarity among Muslims on very basic issues which are easy to understand.


  • Cynical
    Dec 26, 2011 - 11:53PM


    “Knowledge does not change Islam. Islam changes knowledge. Islam today is exactly the same that it was 1400 years ago,..”
    I hope you are not hinting that ‘KNOWLEDGE’ is only 1400 years old, and no ‘knowledge’ of any substance existed before that 1400 mark.

    All faith and no knowledge is a deadly combination. That’s what is happening to you and your ilks.It’s quite evident, you are 1400 years behind in the evolutionary process.

    “no other religion spends so much time contemplating why they are in decline and other religions dropped the expansion through violence concept hundreds of years ago”

    Well said. This expansionist, jingoistic absolutism is the root cause of the troubles in the Muslim world.


  • kaalchakra
    Dec 27, 2011 - 12:09AM

    I had mentioned that Islam does not promote the situation of ‘no knowledge’ – only of knowledge that must serve the cause of Islam. Only knowledge that destroys Islam is forbidden to every Muslim.
    In general, Muslims have two answers to ‘no knowledge before 700 AD’:
    (1) Indeed, it was a period of ignorance – jahilya (in things that matter).
    (2) True Islam always existed but people forgot about it.Recommend

  • Cynical
    Dec 27, 2011 - 2:42AM


    You are incohorent in your responce.Come up with something of substance.
    These rhetorics of yours passed their expiry dates.


  • observer
    Dec 27, 2011 - 12:30PM


    And which of the two responses is the correct response? Since everything else is definite (how to pray, what to believe, what to eat ) in Islam, why two different responses now?

    And, would you say that ‘knowledge’ of other religions is ‘forbidden’ to muslims as it may lead to their conversion and hence has the power to ‘destroy’ Islam? And would that also apply to sciece as it may lead to people becoming rational and agnostic?


  • I am Sam
    Dec 27, 2011 - 7:40PM

    Hats off to the author for such an objective analysis. He is one of the rare Muslim intellectuals who is able to look at subjects such as language and religion out of love for knowledge rather than a need to push an agenda. Please keep up the good work.


    Most people did not understand what you are talking about but I did. You are one non-Muslim who has studied Islam and have done a lot of thinking about the why, how and what about Islam. Please keep up the good work.


  • Cynical
    Dec 27, 2011 - 8:50PM

    @ I am Sam
    Very well said.
    I am with you all the way, in your commendation of the author’s choice of topics and the kind of intellectual honesty with which he deals with them.

    But, I am not so sure about your identification of kaalchakra as a non-muslim.
    It’s quite possible, that I have missed something.


  • I am Sam
    Dec 28, 2011 - 5:05AM


    Lets say I make a statement – “Air is a fluid.”

    Most people will say – ‘Of course not – Air is a gas’

    A few people (Aeronautical / Civil / Chemical Engrs) who have taken courses in Fluid Mechanics & Hydraulics will say – ” Of course, Air is a fluid”

    So it is with Kaalchakra’s statements.


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