Origins of Islam’s crises

Iqbal Jafar digs into the two major crises for modern day Muslims and unearths their historical roots

Origins of Islam’s crises
The decline of the Muslim civilization, a puzzle that remains elusive despite a rich variety of suggested causes from the goat to Mongols, began almost simultaneously with the rise of the modern Europe. The advent of the Reformation that transformed the intellectual landscape of Europe is dated from 1517 when Martin Luther began his campaign against the Church. By a remarkable coincidence an event that helped freeze the intellectual landscape of the Muslim world took place at about the same time.

In 1515 the Ottoman Sultan Selim I, persuaded by the influential clerics of the realm, issued a decree that imposed death penalty on anyone using a printing press, invented in Germany in 1455, to print books in Turkish or Arabic. The ban remained in force for the next 270 years, till 1784, except for an attempt to circumvent the ban in 1729. Thus, it was only after 1784 that the technology of printing could filter to the rest of the Middle East. Even so it was not till 1817 (362 years after the invention of printing) that the first book was printed in Iran. In Europe, however, the printing press had come into extensive use in by the end of the 15th century and is recognized as a powerful engine of the Reformation and the making of the modern Europe.

The first printing press
The first printing press

In 1515 Sultan Selim I imposed the death penalty on anyone using a printing press

The ban on the printing press was not the only ban to reckon with. There were other bans, taboos and restrictions which, compounded by sheer lack of curiosity, placed the Ottoman Empire in a self-imposed intellectual quarantine. It worked in devious ways. An astronomical observatory, the best in Asia, was demolished in 1580, not long after its construction, at the insistence of the then Shaikh-ul-Islam who argued that prying into the secrets of the heavens was blasphemous. Import of European wares was permissible, but export was forbidden. European ideas and innovations (except those connected with warfare) were discouraged, hence the opposition even to the new European methods to contain plague.

The insularity of the Ottoman Empire had its regressive impact on the rest of the Muslim world too because of the fateful contours of the Empire.  Stretching all along the Mediterranean from North Africa to the south-east of Europe, the Empire acted like a vast filter between Western Europe and the rest of the Muslim world. This led to a disconnect between the two civilizations so pervasive that, as observed by Bernard Lewis, “the Renaissance, the Reformation, the technological revolution passed virtually unnoticed in the lands of Islam.” It was only in 1838 that, the Ottoman bureaucracy came to the conclusion that: “Religious knowledge serves salvation in the world to come, science serves perfection of man in this world.” But it was too late in the day to catch up with the West. The Europeans had by then established their colonies in Asia and Africa (and elsewhere) and their empires were relentlessly chugging along like mighty engines of the Industrial Age. This forced the Muslim elite to acknowledge the strengths of the Western civilization and to stir out of their centuries-long intellectual and political indolence.
Shaikh-ul-Islam argued that prying into the secrets of the heavens was blasphemous

However, the attempts at modernization could not gather enough momentum for the simple reason that, unlike the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment in Europe, the movements for change and reform in the Muslim world lacked the supportive intellectual content and political traction. Intermittent and random, those efforts were no more than Westernization through official decrees. While the reformists in the Muslim world did make small gains at a slow pace, the revivalists sulked in anger and frustration. This led to a three-way division of the Muslim societies: a vast majority of moderate and peaceable Muslims; a minority of puritanical revivalists, obsessed with the past Muslim imperial supremacy; and yet another minority, the reformists, fumbling ahead with the westerly wind in their sails. This is how the Muslim societies remain divided till today.

Though the revivalists condemned the reformists as defeatists and lackeys of the West (as they do now), the power of the Europeans was too overwhelming to resist. At the turn of the last century the world appeared to have reached an enduring status quo: the Western imperialism had no credible rivals; and the black, the brown and the yellow races couldn’t match the industrial and military might of the white. The imperial rule of the white Christians was, in a way, the end of history.

The Islamic State – the ugliest form of modern day jihad
The Islamic State – the ugliest form of modern day jihad

US chose to encourage orthodox religiosity, as an ideological shield against communism

All too suddenly challenge came from within the Western civilization.  Emanating from Europe came three global shocks, one after the other: the First World War, the Second World War, and the Cold War. While the first two shocks caused colossal physical destruction, weakening of the empires, and wide ranging emotional upheaval, the third shock posed the greatest ever military and ideological threat to the West, now led by the US.

To deal with this threat the West, especially the US, chose to encourage orthodox religiosity, as an ideological shield against the ‘godless creed of communism’. This strategic reversion to religious orthodoxy and contrived resurgence of militant religiosity came at a time when the Muslim societies had not yet emerged out of the long conflict between the revivalists and the reformists and were only too vulnerable to the tipping of the balance in favour of an activist brand of religious orthodoxy by a four-decade long Western patronage. Worse, the resurgent religious militancy not only found a cause but was also given the means to pursue it. Invoked and empowered, the militant Islam began a Jihad that won the applause of the West.

The Ottoman Empire at its peak
The Ottoman Empire at its peak

The ‘evil empire’ did ultimately collapse for reasons that are a bit complex, but in the Muslim world it was seen by many as a triumph of the jihadists and their beliefs. That only whetted the appetite of the Jihadists. Soon enough the veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad, jobless and restless, found credible, even popular, causes to fight for from Chechnya to Somalia, Bosnia to Philippines. Thus began the second jihad that won the applause of the revivalists in the Muslim world. This led to a general consensus in the non-Muslim world that those conflicts were religious in nature, hence there was just one conflict (Muslims vs the rest or, if you like, a clash of civilizations) rather than several separate conflicts, each having its own history and causes, such as the ones between the Pakistanis and the Indians, the Palestinians and the Israelis, or the Chechens and the Russians. It’s an amusing though somewhat sardonic thought that this is a proposition with which the Islamic militants wholeheartedly agree. It’s their raison d’etre.

It so happens that the Islamisation of the conflicts by the militants and also by those in the West who oppose them, serves the interests of both. For the militants it’s a force multiplier and legitimizer; for those who oppose them it’s an excuse to sidetrack the real causes, and dismiss the whole thing as a global nuisance created and sustained by religious fanatics. This deadly opportunism, on both sides, is not likely to be given up anytime soon.

Bin Laden – early days
Bin Laden – early days

In the haze of the smoke and dust raised by the jihadis, those conflicts have lost their visibility to most of the people around the world. What is visible is the jihad being waged by the militants. There is, however, a twist to the story of that jihad. While the nominated enemy of the jihadis is the West, their immediate target is the Muslim world itself where the rule of the ‘true believers’ (others being apostates) is sought to be established.  It is, in fact, the third jihad launched by the militants. This time round it is against the ‘apostates’ within the fold of Islam.

This was inevitable. Under the influence of the violence-prone reductive Wahhabi sect, the creed of choice of the jihadists, the religio-political beliefs of a large section of the Muslim world have been mutating into an even more exclusionist and militant form of Islam for more than three decades. From orthodoxy to sectarianism to extremism to militancy to global terrorism to jihadism, it has now metastasized into brutal sectarian civil wars from Nigeria to Pakistan.

While waiting for a miracle to happen we might as well reflect on what exactly is the crisis of Islam. Here is an attempt to show that the crisis of Islam is, in fact, a combination of two major crises.
The Ottoman Empire acted like a vast filter between Western Europe and the Muslim world

First, the failure of the Muslim societies to reform and to harmonize their beliefs and practices with the existential realities of the contemporary world. This is reflected in the bitter controversies between various sects on centuries old issues and between the liberal and the orthodox over such issues as democracy, land reforms, family laws, penal codes and the banking system, that have long been settled in other societies. An Islamic Reformation is not even on the agenda of any of the Islamic movements. In fact the opposite seems to be the order of the day as the forward looking popular aspirations are being trumped by the more vigorously pursued atavistic impulse released by the revivalists.

At the heart of this failure is the fact that the most influential Muslim thinkers and scholars of our times (Hassan al Banna, Syed Abul Ala Maududi, Syed Qutb and Ayatollah Khomeini) were all born in the first decade of the last century and grew up during the high noon of the Western imperial rule, often repressive, and were a witness to the decline and defeat of the Ottoman Empire and its dismemberment by the European powers. They could not but have an inborn resistance to things Western and hence to modernization that they equated with Westernization. They, therefore, tended to be revivalists rather than reformists. Their legacy has not yet been superseded. In fact it has only been reinforced by the spread of orthodoxy.

Second, the conflicts between various Muslim and non-Muslim countries and communities that feed the fire of militancy. Most of these conflicts, territorial in nature, were unleashed in the wake of decolonization in Asia and Africa. The consequences of decolonization happened to be destabilizing mainly because the European imperial powers had, in the process of colonization, created quite a few ethnic and cultural anomalies either by arbitrary division of the territory of a homogenous population (e.g.  Somalia, Timor) or by herding together heterogeneous populations under a common administration (e.g. Sudan, Niger, Nigeria) to suit the interests of the imperial powers. Conflicts also arose when an occupying power could not execute an orderly retreat, as in Palestine and India.

The non-Muslim communities were not immune to such conflicts among themselves after the lid of colonial rule was lifted, but the Muslim communities were affected in a larger measure for the reason that the entire Muslim world (excluding only Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia) consists of former European colonies, protectorates and mandated territories. This is the elephant in the room that hardly ever figures in the discussions about the causes of the conflicts that the Muslims countries and communities are involved in. This also explains why “Islam has bloody borders” as Samuel Huntington likes to put it.

These, in brief, are the two major crises of Islam of our times. While the first is the exclusive responsibility of the Muslim umma, the second can be resolved only with the support of the international community. But the umma doesn’t  have the will, and the international community generally is not too worked up to tackle even the likely global disasters looming ahead, such as climate change, proliferation of exotic weapons of mass destruction , or militarization of space . Where do we go from here?

Good question.  But, maybe, we don’t have to exert ourselves to go anywhere. We have the option to relax and enjoy what little the life has to offer, for, as Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, has warned this century could be ‘our final century’.