The malaise of the Ummah: Diagnosis and Solutions

It is now well recognized that the 1.5 billion people who call themselves Muslims are in a state of multiple crises encompassing all aspects of life. The explanations offered for this devastating state of their political, economic, cultural, and social lives vary depending upon the perspectives used for such analyses, but all answers eventually fall into two broad categories: in the first category are explanations that hold Islam responsible for this state of affairs; in the second are those that consider the abandonment of Islam by Muslims as the main cause of their decline. The former views Islam as a static dogma that is antithetical to progress; the latter considers Islam to be a dynamic system of life, meant for all times and places. The former perspective originated in the West some 300 years ago and has seeped into the Muslim world, where it has now assumed a modified form in which, instead of blaming Islam directly, a circuitous route is used to find fault with it by saying that it is not Islam but a static interpretation of it that is the root cause of the decline of Muslims. The remedy suggested by these people calls for a new and “enlightened” interpretation of Islam–”an interpretation that is consonant with modernity, which is, in turn, equated with progress.

Both explanations offered for their plight, however, accept that Muslims are in a deep crisis. While this is true in a particular sense, this verdict needs to be qualified: the standard used here for ascertaining the Muslims’ present state is not an absolute but a relative measure which actually compares their situation with that of the West. This comparison of the social, political and economic state of the Muslim world with that of the West, or one of the other civilizations that has already surrendered to it, is based on certain standards. Just as a weighing scale is designed to measure weight, similarly other standards are used to measure the decline and progress of civilizations. This inevitably involves definition of primary terms, such as progress, prosperity, and the quality of life. Such a comparison also takes certain basic values, modes of living, and social and economic structures as its baseline. These hidden factors are of extreme importance in this comparison. A yardstick minted in the West will obviously value only what the West holds dear; it will give no merit to things considered important by Muslims but which hold no value for the West.

Let us take the example of the “home”, which holds a primary position in Islam. A home, blessed by the remembrance of Allah, may He be Exalted, is where the first nurturing of a child takes place. The Prophet of Islam, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him, said that homes where the recitation of the Qur’an takes place are like shining stars for the beings that reside in the skies. This means that the angels look down upon such homes as we look at the stars. A yardstick based on Islamic standards will, therefore, give primary importance to the home. This is certainly not the case if the Western yardstick is applied. Thus we arrive at different conclusions about the state of a society depending on which yardstick is used.

Furthermore, there is the question of “norms”. What is held normative in one society may not be considered a norm in another. Over the last century, many aspects have been “normalized” by the Western civilization because they had become a fait accompli in the West. This process of “normalization” of deviations makes virtues out of vices. For instance, divorce, which was once looked upon as an undesirable outcome of a marriage, has been “normalized” to such an extent that now it is accepted as normal. In fact, every third marriage in the US culminates in divorce in less than seven years, but this is not viewed as a matter of much concern because marriage itself has lost all value in the West, with the result that its age-old definition has been altered to legally sanction promiscuity. This is just one example. Numerous other primary definitions have been altered in the West in like manner, resulting in the emergence of a society in which moral and ethical values are no longer considered important. Home has lost the central function it used to have; as a result, most homes have become dreadful places where, instead of love and nurturing, there is violence, abuse, and intolerable suffering. The fact that out of a total of 60 million American children, five million are today considered as “children at-risk” provides an indication of the extent of the calamity that has befallen the West.

When judged from the West’s point of view, a society is considered to be in a state of decline merely because it does not meet certain quantitative standards that give no importance to non-measurable aspects such as love and caring at home, interpersonal relationships, values, and piety. Furthermore, these yardsticks are flawed even for measuring the purely quantitative aspects of society because they measure economic growth, production and distribution and other factors with numerous tacit assumptions that are not valid in non-Western societies. The extended family system, for instance, alters economic measurements in a significant manner. A person who earns $1,000 a month in the US and who has no family support network is economically not in the same situation as a person who earns an equivalent amount in Iran but who has a solid and supportive network of family, where income and resources are pooled.

When these flawed measurements are used, Muslim societies appear at the bottom of the list and Islam is blamed for their sorry state. But those who blame Islam fail to explain how it is a hindrance to material progress, especially when Islam produced a civilization that flourished materially for hundreds of years. This is akin to the judgement of many Orientalists about the enterprise of science in Islam. They say that the Scientific Revolution could not have taken place in the Islamic civilization because there is something inherent in Islam that hinders such developments. Those who hold such a view fail to explain why Islam was instrumental in the emergence of a scientific tradition that flourished for 800 years.

This correction is, however, not being presented to deny the sorry state of the Muslim Ummah but only to gain a true perspective, because without such a perspective one is likely to pass a sweeping verdict of decay against Muslim societies that amounts to demeaning certain primary values. This corrected perspective may also help us to determine where to focus the Herculean task of reconstruction of Muslim societies, because before any reconstruction can take place we must understand the true nature of the malaise and assess the extent of the damage. This, however, cannot be done by using Western yardsticks; such a diagnosis has to be rooted in the Qur’an, which tells us that Allah, may He be Exalted, has a Sunnah, a way, that is constant: “And never will you find any change in Allah’s custom” (al-Ahzab, 62). The rise and fall of nations has always followed a set of rules that have been explained in the Qur’an in many ways, and there is no reason to believe that these rules are going to be changed in the twenty-first century merely because one part of humanity has developed spaceships and cruise missiles.

A true diagnosis of the state of the Muslim Ummah can only be based on the Qur’an because all other formulations are either half-truths or simply figments of imagination, bearing no relation to reality. One of the most important aspects of the Qur’anic mode of understanding the state of a society is to examine the state of individual men and women who make up the society. This emphasis on the individual is also the Qur’anic way of building righteous societies. Thus, in order to produce any change in Muslim societies, a change has to occur in the moral, spiritual and material state of the individuals who make up these societies. Therefore, when it is said that the Muslim world is in a state of decay, it actually means that men and women who call themselves Muslims are in a state of decay, and this cannot be but the direct result of their abandoning the two sources of Islam which provide Muslims with their code of living–”a code that empowers them as vicegerents of Allah on earth. A true Muslim cannot be in a state of decay, because it is a historically verifiable fact that when they truly followed Islam, Muslims were able to establish flourishing, creative societies. Therefore, it must be the abandonment of Islam that is the cause of their present sorry state.

In addition to abandoning Islam as a way of life, a replacement has also been found: the Western way of life. This displacement that has produced a deep malaise in the Muslim world has resulted in inverted values and changed yardsticks, and has clouded the clear vision provided by Islam to such an extent that the artificial glitter of the West has completely mesmerized an odd assortment of despotic rulers, generals and self-proclaimed kings. They want to emulate the West in everything: lifestyle, ideals and modes of existence and force this way of life on their societies as well. When the masses follow these false models, the disease then spreads to the whole fabric of society.

The most pressing challenge for Muslim intellectuals today is to find ways to stem the tide of rapid westernization of their societies. They need to expose the inadequacy of the Western model and show why and how a life based on Islamic principles is the only solution to the numerous problems afflicting Muslim societies. Having understood that it is the individual members who need to be the focal point of a process of reconstruction, we must now identify the influences that form and shape individual lives in society. In other words, we need to understand what makes an individual a committed and active Muslim.

The most important influences in the life of a child come from the home and school. The early years of education not only produce skills, they also form their worldview and lasting habits. This is why the Qur’an used to be the first and foremost Book studied by every child in the Muslim world. This first impression of the Qur’an used to mould lives. Children also used to learn certain basic pedagogical skills through the Qur’an. In the contemporary age, an increasing number of Muslims do not understand the Qur’an. They fail to recognize that the recitation of the Qur’an is not a passive ‘ibadah but an initiative on the part of a believer that is capable of transforming the entire life of the one who is reciting the ayaat of the Book of Allah, may He be Exalted. It is an active process that simultaneously produces an inner shift in the way we look at the entire spectrum of our earthly existence. This interaction with the Book also used to be a life-long process of transformative learning. And it was this Book that used to produce dynamic leadership in Muslim societies–”a leadership at once capable of understanding the complexities of this world and discovering the straight path to the next.

This is no longer the case. Today, the worldview of many contemporary Muslims is not formed by the Qur’an but by secular education, with a smattering of Islam taught in piecemeal fashion. This is the root of all the calamities that have befallen the Muslims. The colonizing powers understood that in order to undermine the Muslim world they had to cut off the roots of the Muslim educational system. They impounded endowments (awqaaf), confiscated properties and destroyed orchards and farms that used to supply material resources for health and educational institutions, and implanted instead their own educational institutions. In time, these implanted caricatures of Western education replaced the entire system of education in the Muslim world, producing Muslims who have been uprooted from their spiritual and intellectual soil. As a result, most Muslims today have a very poor understanding of their deen and its scholarly tradition.

Today, the teaching of Islam and its formidable intellectual tradition have been relegated to a secondary position for the vast majority of Muslims. Secular education can only produce secular Muslims–”individuals who keep Islam in one closet and the world in another; for them, the former is merely concerned with the Hereafter. This malaise has spread to such an extent that it is rare to find “educated Muslims” who know anything about the works of scholars like Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziah, and hundreds of other intellectual giants. Further, most so-called educated Muslims consider this vast body of scholarship irrelevant, outdated medieval texts fit for the dustbin. The real tragedy is that they have rendered this judgement without ever opening a single page of this vast corpus of literature that deals with some of the most important issues facing them in their daily lives.

This is the case of the “educated” Muslims; most of those who do not attend secular educational institutions suffer from another disease. They attend madaris where the religious content of curricula is limited to a few texts and where no attention is paid to the large body of scholarship that deals with the contemporary world; even medicine, mathematics and natural sciences are not taught in these institutions of “religious learning”. Thus they are unable to produce men and women who can assume leadership roles in society, abandoning the task of state and governance in the hands of secularized Muslims educated and trained in institutions built on the model provided by the West. This has produced a deep chasm in Muslim societies: the vast majority receive secular education while a small minority acquire religious education, and the two remain at odds with each other, creating tension and conflict in society because of their divergent worldviews. There are, of course, exceptions to this: individuals who have acquired knowledge of both worlds through their own initiative, but such exceptions are rare.

In order to lay the foundations of a sustainable Islamic movement, sweeping changes are needed at all levels in Muslim societies, especially in the educational sector. While most Muslims realize this need, there are hardly any institutions devoted to the development of new educational resources, which are built on the Qur’anic worldview, that are capable of nurturing the skills and the training required to understand the contemporary world. In the absence of such curricula, Muslim children continue to serve secularized institutions and Muslim societies continue to move away from the Qur’anic worldview; this automatically produces submission to the West because that is what the educational system covertly infuses in young minds.

This is obviously a long-term process; there are no short-cuts to cure the deep malaise of the Ummah. When viewed in the Qur’anic framework of the rise and fall of civilizations, a well-organized initiative to develop new educational resources, and institutions to teach this new curriculum, may well be the shortest way to begin the transformative process that will generate a new kind of Muslim leadership in the next generation–”a leadership rooted in the vision of Islam and able to confront, comprehend and tackle the challenges of the twenty-first century.