At one end of the debate is a small group of liberal elite – consisting of members who are impressed by the West’s extra-ordinary material progress. They have attributed Western progress to the evolution in Western political, social, and economic thought during the Renaissance period. They believe that for the Muslim World to achieve the same progress, it needs to divorce religion from public life as the Europeans did in the Post Middle Age era. They want the Muslim World to adopt Western ideals of secularism, pluralism, women empowerment, rights of minorities, nationalism, human sovereignty, private ownership, free markets, free speech, religious and personal freedom (libertarianism), and democracy. It is these themes which resound day and night in the Muslim World from the liberal circles. It is these ideals which serve as benchmarks to assess the societies in the Muslim World today. The level of Civility and Modernity of Muslim societies is determined based on the degree of their conformity to these ideals. It is worthwhile to note that the West encourages and insists on the same. So Western government and non-government organizations routinely issue progress reports, sharing their assessments about how civilized or uncivilized the Muslim World is based on its performance which is judged in line with these ideals.
However, the liberals have erred in their judgment and choice of the path for revival of the Muslim World. In adopting the solutions for the Muslim World and charting its way forward, the liberals have not utilized deep thinking, but rather have followed a superficial and empirical approach. They saw the extraordinary material progress of the Western World and wanted to replicate it. They saw the evolution in political thought in the Western World and justifiably concluded that West’s material progress is connected to it. However, they empirically (and incorrectly) deduced, without studying their own societies, that by adopting Western Ideals, they would be able to usher with the same progress in the Muslim World. So, what the liberals want to do is to borrow the intellectual experience of 16th and 17th Century Europeand apply it to the Muslim World without regarding the particular factors which gave birth to European Secularism. And herein lies the superficiality of their approach. Firstly, in charting out the intellectual path for the Muslim World, the liberals did not study Muslim society and its realities; rather, they were content with the idea that European Secularism is not “European” but “Universal” and they insisted on its implementation throughout the Muslim World. They ignored the fact that European secularism is a reactionary political ideology which is a direct result of the repressive Christian rule which governed much of Europethroughout the Middle Ages (or as they are now called). It was when the European population’s frustration and anger at their miserable socio-economic and political conditions exploded into a fierce struggle with the incumbent political authority, which happened to be the Church, that secularism emerged as “the new” thinking. The idea was to deprive the Church from its political power by depriving it of its legitimacy, “divine inspiration”. So the liberals (free thinkers) of the time severely attacked religion, arguing it is without a factual foundation, that human reason triumphs over divine thinking, and thus, should be the only source of legislation. So at the heart of Europe’s intellectual revolution was the idea of the sovereignty of the human mind and the rejection (or relegation) of the divine which claimed, and was till then considered, the sovereign authority. Describing the liberal temperament, political philosopher John Gray claimed, “It (liberalism) has been inspired by skepticism and by fideistic certainty of divine revelation.” (Fideism is an epistemological theory which maintains that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other and faith is superior at arriving at particular truths). So, the soul of liberal thought was anti-religious and anti-divine. It was the absence of the contextualization of the European intellectual experience which was overlooked by the liberals in the Muslim World and lead them to the false idea of “Universalism” of liberal thought.
Secondly, the liberals totally ignored the history of the Muslim World in their attempt to repeat the European experience. The European experience with religion was in sharp contrast to that of the Muslim World. Muslims under the banner of the caliphate enjoyed stupendous progress in all realms of collective and individual life and the Islamic state from the time of the second Caliph Umar bin Khattab till the great Osamni Caliph Suleiman Al Qanooni. Although it was a state which was governed by divine laws, science and technology prospered, the economy thrived, and the basic rights of its citizenry – of food, clothing, shelter and health, education and security – was guaranteed. As for knowledge and education, the Islamic State was renowned for its excellent centers of learning and the Islamic State directly supervised and encouraged intellectual discourse and learning. Jonathan Lyons in his book The House of Wisdom, How Arabs Transformed the Western Civilization states:
“Throughout much of the period in question, Arabic served as the global language of scholarship, and learned men of all stripes could travel widely and hold serious and nuanced discussions in this lingua franca. Medieval Western scholars who wanted access to the latest findings also needed to master the Arabic Tongue or work from translations by those who had done so.”
So unlike Christian Europe, there existed in the Muslim world, no frustration or anger with the divine, neither any desire to get rid of its rule nor any massive uprising against the Islamic character of the caliphate. There were of course feuds, uprisings and disputes within the Islamic State, but none were aimed at challenging the divine basis of the state. Even when the caliphate was finally abolished, Mustapha Kamal used fierce Turkish nationalism and brute force to achieve it and it is no secret that this could not be achieved without the direct help and supervision of the allies (France andBritain).
Moreover, from the time the Arabian Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) first presented Islam to the World till today, never have the Muslims ever questioned the divinity of Islam and the sovereignty of the Islamic Code (Shariah) over all other such codes. In fact, the Muslim World never abandoned human reason – the extraordinary scientific and educational accomplishments under the caliphate testify this; rather, it limited its role to science and administrative matters while the legislative matters were solely derived from the Islamic Texts. Even when liberal ideas and democracy were introduced in the Muslim World under the direct rule of the colonialists, it was not presented by the colonialists as anti-religious and anti-divine. Rather, the colonialists sought to legitimize these ideas from Islam knowing well that the Muslim World can never be convinced to accept the supremacy of the human mind over that of the divine. The 19th and 20th centuries saw the appearance of a new brand of reformist Islamic scholars who were mentored, sponsored, and promoted by Western Powers, and who sought to legitimize liberal ideas by providing their justifications from Islamic text. Such an approach was a tacit admission by the West of the incompatibility of the Western ideals, which were deeply and fiercely anti-religious, with that of the Muslim World. The Constitutions of many secular Muslim countries today derive their legitimacy from the political support which Islamic Scholars provided in their passage –Pakistan, Iraq and Afghanistan being a few examples. The perception that the Muslim World was “deceived” into accepting liberal ideals is further enhanced by the huge support which Islamic Political Parties enjoy across the Muslim World, including those who had chosen to operate within the secular constitutional frameworks. The Justice and Development Party of Turkey (AKP), the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt Jordan and Syria, Hamas in Palestine, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, Hizbullah in Lebanon, and Al Nahda Movement of Tunisia are just a few of the many political parties in the Muslim world who openly espouse the idea that Islam should play a central role in the collective life of the Society. The existence of such movements with varying yet considerable degree of public support further cements the belief that the Muslim World, even in this era of decline, has no inclinations in divorcing Islam from public life and adopting secularism. Whether these movements tacitly do so, and may have actually done so, is another matter and is not relevant to the present debate.
So the Muslim World is torn apart in an intellectual tug of War which has been described by some in the simplistic notions of an “identity crisis”. There was never an identity crisis of the sort in the Muslim World. The Muslim World never abandoned its Islamic identity, even after it was introduced to the ideal of Westphalian sovereignty, although it had remained confused about her Islamic identity, and this identity remained dormant for some decades creating an impression of the embracement of Westphalian ideal of nation-state. Moreover, “identity crisis” is too simple a conclusion to approach a much more complex problem of intellectual stagnation. At the heart of the problem of intellectual stagnation in the Muslim World lies the forceful imposition of liberal ideas and solutions – which emanate from the belief in the sovereignty of the human mind over that of the divine – on a population which is deeply conservative with a staunch and un-shaky belief in the divine code (Shariah) and whose experience with the unity of the state and religion reminds her of her past exalted status in the World.
The revival of the Muslim World, as so many thinkers in the Muslim World have correctly concluded, lies not in material progress or in investing in education, military, or morally uplifting the society; rather, the path to revival lies in the power of ideas which defines what a group of people and a society stands for and how its political and governance structures should be organized. It is indeed intellectual progression which precedes and which eventually results in the revival of a nation. At a time when the debate about the role of religion in society and the intellectual foundations of the Muslim World are in full swing, the boundaries of such a debate should be broadened to include new ideas. Until now, this debate has been forcefully limited to how the Muslim World should be reformed according to liberal ideas and how the role of religion in public polity can be reduced and ultimately eliminated. And it appears that this approach has locked the Muslim mind and stopped it from progression as one finds this debate and its basic arguments being discussed by thinkers as back as two centuries ago when the West first introduced this debate to the Muslim intelligentsia. It is no secret that after such a long period, this reformation hasn’t taken place and the Muslim World has inched further from it rather than marched towards it. It is time the basic questions are included in the debate which puts the liberal ideas on the table as well and which broadens the horizon of the debate to bring liberalism under scrutiny and challenge as opposed to the assumption of its universality and exclusion from rational scrutiny. That governance structures based on liberal ideals are the incumbent political structures which have failed to revive the Muslim World is ample justification for such an approach. Questions such as whether Islam and Democracy are compatible, whether a democracy would allow the abolishment of the idea of separation of state and church if the majority demands it, whether a liberal pluralistic society would tolerate a public debate within itself which advocates a role of religion in public life, whether the idea of Westphalian Sovereignty is indeed limited to Westphalia and its neighbors, whether free markets is a form of colonial exploitation, should be asked alongside those of whether the caliphate is a totalitarian and unaccountable system, whether modernity and Islam can co-exist, whether Islam is a universal ideology and whether a comprehensive adoption of the Islamic ideology by the state, as was done by the caliphate of the past is the way forward for the Muslim World.
Those who believe in a rational discourse and a sincere debate should have no objection to such a “broadening of the debate”. For the strongest advocate – which is already forcing this broadening of the debate upon the Muslim intelligentsia – is the Muslim Street which is roaring for change, suggesting that its patience with the stagnation in the Muslim World and the current ideas has eventually run out.
Moez Mobeen is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad who regularly writes on Muslim Affairs.