By M Haider Choudhury
According to a study conducted in 2015, there are about 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, making up one fourth of the whole humanity. Also, Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) consists of 57 countries. These statistics might be heart-warming for many. But a microscopic look inwards will lay bare many rots among the followers of arguably the most scientific and modern religion. Most of these maladies are self-inflicted, and, contrary to what many believe, not caused by any external ‘enemies.’
How Grim is the Picture?
Compared to followers of two other Abrahamic religions, i.e., Christianity and Judaism, Muslims’ contribution toward the core components of modernization, such as arts, science, technological innovations, engineering, medicine, economy, education, social sciences, media, etc. is minuscule. One might argue how works of Muslim scholars and polymaths from Islamic golden age (roughly between 8th and 14th centuries) have expedited human civilization. However, let’s not forget that ruminating on past glories won’t help present flaws.
To put things into perspective, just compare the number of Muslim Nobel laureates vis-à-vis that of the recipients from the Jewish community (as of 2019, only 14.7 million people follow Judaism). According to Jewish Virtual Library, out of 900 individuals and organizations who have been awarded the Nobel Prize between 1901 and 2020, at least 208 (23.11%) are Jewish. In contrast, 12 Muslims (1.33%) have so far been awarded the prize, of whom just three for sciences and two for literature; the rest got it for peace.
According to World Bank data, the OIC states contributed about US$ 6.4 trillion to the world’s GDP in 2016, a meagre 8.51 percent. If we talk of Islamic ideals in terms of economy, law and governance, human and political rights and international relations, no Muslim-majority country comes in the top 40 of the 2019 Islamicity index. Surprisingly, it is New Zealand, where Muslims represent only 1.3% of its population, which topped the list overall, followed by Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Ireland. The top Muslim-majority country is the UAE, which ranked 44th. It is a well-known fact that Muslim world makes news largely for wrong reasons: violation of women’s and minorities’ rights, poverty, illiteracy, refugees, civil wars, absence of democracy and accountability, terrorism and corruption.
Why is it so bad?
The heyday of Islamic civilization didn’t end recently. In fact, its decline started with the destruction of Baghdad and dar-al-hiqmah (the House of Wisdom) by Mongals led by Hulagu Khan, and despite many sporadic glimmers, they cannot recover the lost laurels, at least intellectually, even after seven centuries. If we talk of today, Islamic society is of course being dragged behind by many external factors like the colonial legacy, rise of Islamophobia worldwide and conflicts between superpowers for control over natural resources, of which Muslims often have to bear the collateral damages. However, most of the Muslim problems are of their own making.
The sorry state of Muslims is largely because of lack of visionary leadership, wrong policies, misplaced priorities of ulama and crumbling personal and social values. Muslim world unfortunately cannot adept itself with modern art of democratic governance, the core principles of which include accountability, equality, pluralism and human rights. According to the 2018 EIU Democracy Index, which measures the state of democracy (pluralism, civil liberties and political culture) in 167 countries, the only Muslim-majority country that features in the top 50, is Malaysia (43rd). Most governments in Muslim world are run by autocrats and demagogues, who use religion, nationalism and institutions to linger in power.
Secondly, Muslims are divided into innumerable sects or schools, such as Shia, Sunni, Hanafi, Hanbali, Salafi, etc., and the ulama have so far failed to bring them together. Instead, along with political class they often fan such differences to reap their vested interests. Also, Muslims don’t go for higher studies in sciences, humanities and other secular disciplines, the main reason why they remain passive consumers, rather than producers of technologies. Most oil-rich Islamic countries are flooded with luxury cars, arms and mobile phones, which are made in China, Japan, Europe or America.
Other reasons for backwardness of Muslims are: laidback attitude, lack of honesty, intolerance toward dissents, unwillingness to introspect and course correct, and reluctance to accept changes. In 1515, Sultan Selim I, the Ottoman ruler, issued an edict banning the use of the newly-invented printing press as some Islamic scholars then thought it is disrespectful to the Qur’an and knowledge. As a result, for the next 270 years the Muslim world did not use the printing press, while the technology became widely used in Europe, and this is how they missed the bus of renaissance and modernity. A more recent and closer-to-home example of the clerics’ negative attitude toward modernity is how Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, the founder of Aligarh Muslim University, had been vilified for promoting Western education.
How to Answer the Mess?
In the Holy Qur’an, Allah says, “surely Allah does not change the condition of a people until they change their own condition” (13:11). Muslims have to try to change their ‘condition’ with education, patience, tolerance and wisdom, which are the most liberating and empowering weapons available. Surely there are xenophobes who don’t stop for anything short of annihilation of Muslims, but Muslims can’t afford to be angry and violent. They need to mend the bridge which connects themselves with followers of other faiths and cultures, a bridge that is being bruised by centuries of misunderstanding, extremism, conspiracy theories and prejudice. Muslims must inculcate the ability to tolerate and coexist with those who disagree with them. Ulama, scholars of secular disciplines and leaders should come together to lead youths to unity, peace and prosperity.