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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 4    Issue 22   01-15 April 2010

Muslim Elite and the Challenges of the 21st Century

Professor A. R. Momin

Parts of this paper were presented at an international conference on “The Crisis of the Muslim Mind and the Present Context” organized by the Institute of Objective Studies at Patna on 14-15 March 2010)

I would like to begin with some prefatory remarks. The focus of this seminar is the intellectual crisis faced by the Muslim Ummah in the contemporary global context. I would like to point out that cognitive processes, including thinking, reflection, analysis and interpretation, are inescapably embedded in social, cultural, existential and political contexts. Therefore, while discussing the crisis of the Muslim mind, one must bear these contexts in mind. The second point I would like to make is that our discussion on the intellectual crisis of the Muslim Ummah should have as its reference point the normative paradigm of Islamic epistemology.

Generally, a situation of adversity and crisis produces frustration, despondency and loss of nerve. However, this is neither inevitable nor universal. What is of consequence is the perception and response of what the eminent British historian Arnold J. Toynbee aptly described as the creative minority in a given society: its leaders, intellectuals, sages and men of vision and foresight. The creative minority looks at the crisis faced by the wider society as a challenge and it responds to it with courage, sagacity and determinism. It draws on its moral, cultural and spiritual resources and thereby mobilizes the masses and galvanizes them into action. So a situation of crisis and adversity may release a people’s untapped creative energies and moral and spiritual resources and may thus turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

Adversity, crises and challenges may also be seen as divinely ordained in that God sometimes tests a people’s strength of convictions and their steadfastness by putting them through situations of adversity and crisis (Quran 20:131; 29:9).

The Muslim community has been confronted with formidable challenges and crises since the first century of the Islamic era. This was foretold by the Prophet, who is reported to have said, “I can see crises and adversities visiting your homes like raindrops”. Our illustrious forebears did not allow challenges and crises to overwhelm them. Instead, they responded to them with courage and forbearance. They succeeded in meeting the challenges of their time by drawing inspiration from the Quran, the sayings and precepts of the Prophet and his Companions and the example set by men of learning, conviction and vision in the early centuries of the Islamic era. These perennial sources of inspiration and revitalization remain as fresh and vibrant as ever.

Challenges and crises faced by a given civilization or faith community differ from time to time. It is therefore important to examine them in the context of social, political and cultural conditions prevalent at a given point of time. In other words, what is required is to contextualize the crisis.

A situation of crisis and adversity has potentially positive implications and consequences. It may bestir a people’s collective conscience and prompt them to undertake self-introspection, which may lead to self-correction. It may unleash their untapped creative energies and may thereby bring about moral and cultural regeneration and revitalization. A crisis may also bring about greater social cohesion and solidarity.

Given my academic interest and specialization, I would like to focus on two types of challenges that beset mankind at the beginning of the 21st century. One type of challenge is social, cultural and existential in nature while the other may be described as the ideational, epistemological challenge of present times. These two types of challenges are closely intertwined. The social, cultural and existential challenges of our era include globalization, especially the worldwide diffusion of globalised lifestyles, individualism and consumerism, conspicuous inequalities of income, power and resources, and widespread poverty and the exclusion and marginalization of large numbers of people in Asia and Africa. Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and flagrant violations of human rights pose a serious threat to societal stability and cohesion in many countries across the world. The rapid erosion of moral values around the world has brought about worrying consequences for individuals and societies. Widespread ethnic and religious conflicts and violence and the rising spectre of global terrorism have reinforced the prevailing atmosphere of insecurity around the world. Many countries are faced with societal fracture and fragmentation, which is reflected in the breakdown and disintegration of family, neighbourhood and community and in the falling apart and decomposing of human relationships. Large numbers of people across the world are experiencing cultural dislocation, loss of identity and rootlessness in the context of the new spaces created by extensive migrations, globalization, cultural diversity and rapid social and technological change.

The global intellectual and ideational scenario presents a picture of fragmentation, drift and confusion. The tenet of exaggerated, radical individualism, which has dominated Western thinking and cultural consciousness since the 18th century, privileges the primacy of the individual over society and holds that what is sound and desirable is to be determined by each individual. In his thought-provoking book The Individualised Society  Zymunt Bauman has convincingly argued that the tenet of individualism has become a defining feature of modern Western societies. The tenet of individualism has become an inseparable feature of the globalised lifestyle that is rapidly spreading across large parts of the world.

The thesis of the clash of civilizations, propounded by the maverick American political scientist Samuel Huntington, which generated a great deal of debate and controversy in academic and political circles, has been discredited and rebuked by prominent thinkers and writers, international organizations and politicians and heads of states. However, one often hears the sinister echoes of this doomsday prophecy.

One of the distinctive features of our globalizing era is the increasing prominence and visibility of ethnic and cultural diversity. Most if not all societies have become or are in the process of becoming multiethnic. Most societies around the world have generally followed four models of societal integration: monoculturalism and assimilation, multiculturalism, differential exclusion and integration. Countries like China, France, Italy and Switzerland consider cultural homogeneity and the assimilation of ethnic and religious minorities into mainstream society as the cornerstone of societal cohesion and national identity. Multiculturalism, which has been followed as a philosophy and policy of societal integration in countries like Canada, the UK, the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries for over three decades, recognizes cultural diversity and is fairly accommodative of minority rights, identities and sensibilities. Countries like India, the US, Germany and South Africa follow a philosophy and policy of integration which is premised on the recognition and accommodation of minority rights and identities and which seeks to strike a balance between the conflicting pressures and demands of cultural diversity and societal cohesion.

The monocultural and assimilationist model of societal integration has an inherent tendency to ride roughshod over human rights, especially those of ethnic and religious minorities and has consequently become highly problematic in the context of multiethnic societies. Multiculturalism, on the other hand, has of late become a site of controversy and contestation. The critics of multiculturalism point out that it breeds separatism and ghettoization and impedes societal cohesion. Countries like Britain and the Netherlands, which have espoused multicultural policies for over three decades, are moving away from multiculturalism. One can say, in a nutshell, that the world is still groping for a viable model of societal cohesion and integration.

What I have sketched in the foregoing are the cultural and ideational challenges that confront humanity at large. One needs to contextualize these challenges to the Muslim Ummah. The challenges faced by the Muslim Ummah may be divided into two categories, namely, exogenous or external challenges and endogenous or internal challenges. I would like to focus on three distinctive dimensions of these challenges: (i) social, cultural and existential (ii) theological and legal (iii) theoretical and epistemological. The social, cultural and existential challenges faced by Muslims, especially Muslim minorities, include the growing influence of Western, global culture on the younger generation of Muslims, the pressures of assimilation into mainstream society, the denigration and demonization of Islam and Muslims, the discrimination, exclusion and marginalization experienced by large sections of Muslim minorities around the world, coping with a cultural environment that is suffused with individualism, consumerism and sexual permissiveness, and lack of freedom to comply with the provisions of Islamic law, especially in respect of family matters.

There is a growing perception across large parts of the world that Islamic beliefs and principles are incompatible with modern values, that Islam is the breeding ground for intolerance, fanaticism and aggression among its followers, that the Islamic faith is inimical to modernity and progress, and that Muslims living in the West pose a threat to the security, well-being and prosperity of Western nations. The ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, endorsed by a majority of Swiss voters in November 2009 and the prohibition on the wearing of the face-covering burqa in France are symptomatic of a deep undercurrent of mistrust and hostility against Muslims.

The theological and legal challenge, which is directed at the ulama, relates primarily to Muslim minorities, who constitute about 20 per cent of the world Muslim population. To cite an example of this challenge: how should veiled Muslim women in France respond to the ban on the burqa? Shaykh Muhammad al-Tantavi, Rector of Al-Azhar University who passed away a few days ago, has advised Muslim women to abide by French law.

Some scholars and theologians, notably Dr Taha Jabir al-Alwani and Dr Yusuf al-Qaradawi, have taken a welcome initiative to grapple with the problems and challenges faced by Muslim minorities and to offer guidelines within the framework of Islamic law. They have called for framing what they describe as “jurisprudence for Muslim minorities”. While the initiative is undoubtedly commendable, I would like to make one passing remark. The current discourse on the jurisprudence for Muslim minorities almost exclusively focuses on the problems and challenges faced by Muslim minorities living in Western countries. I would like to submit that the frame of reference needs to be expanded to include Muslim minorities in countries like India and, more importantly, to take cognizance of the legal pronouncements and fatawa that have been issued by Muslim scholars in India over the past eight centuries.

One of the pressing challenges of present times, which involves social, political and theological dimensions, is the spurt in global terrorism, which has resulted in the killing of thousands of innocent people, including Muslims, in which Muslims are prominently implicated and which is ostensibly legitimized in the name of jihad. The response of Muslim ulama and scholars in this matter has been positive and heartening. The Al Azhar University in Cairo and Darul Uloom Deoband in India, as well as many prominent scholars and institutions of Islamic learning around the world have condemned violence and terrorism in unequivocal terms. In 2007 one of Osama Bin Laden’s most prominent mentors, Salman al-Awdah, wrote an open letter criticizing him for “fostering a culture of suicide bombings that has caused bloodshed and suffering and brought ruin to entire Muslim communities and families”. Sayyid Imam al-Sharif, one of al-Qaeda’s founders, who had described the 9/11 attacks on the US as “a catastrophe for Muslims”, said in 2007, “There is nothing that invokes the anger of God and His wrath like the unwarranted spilling of blood and wrecking of property”. A leading Muslim scholar of Pakistani origin, Dr Tahir al Qadri, has recently issued a fatwa, backed by extensive references to Islamic legal principles and precedents and judicial pronouncements, condemning terrorists as the enemies of Islam and saying that suicide bombers will find their final abode in hell. “Terrorism is terrorism, violence is violence, and it has no place in Islamic teachings and no justification or excuse on its behalf can be acceptable,” he said.

The theoretical and epistemological challenges faced by Muslim scholars and social scientists are manifold. One of them is to clear the cobweb of mistrust and misrepresentation surrounding Islam and Muslims in a reasoned, cogently argued manner. The contemporary world is in a state of flux. The existing ideological systems and social and economic models, such as the free market system, market fundamentalism, the Washington consensus and communism, seem to have run out of steam. The world is searching for viable alternatives, for remedies that could heal fractured societies, fragmented polities and shambolic economies. The global financial downturn that shook the world in October 2008 and that continues to reverberate across large parts of the world has prompted a serious rethinking of the capitalist, profit-oriented model of development and the limits of consumerism. George Soros has recently emphasized that we need to curb unbridled capitalist growth and reckless consumerism.

The uncertainty, emptiness and fragility that are looming over the global horizon afford an opportunity as well as a challenge to Muslim scholars and social scientists. They need to work towards projecting Islam as a perennial source of cultural vitality, as a much-needed alternative to existing ideological systems and models. This needs to be done not in a polemical, defensive or confrontational manner, but in a cogent style and within the framework of the contemporary academic discourse and vocabulary. Similarly, there is a need to project and highlight the enduring significance and pioneering role of the Islamic legacy in science and medicine, technology and engineering, mathematics and astronomy, architecture and the arts and the social and human sciences. A pioneering work in this direction has been done by the Frankfurt-based Turkish scholar Fuat Sezgin.

Muslim economists have done commendable work in Islamic economics and finance. They need to work towards making Islamic economics and Shariah-compliant banking and investment a part of mainstream economics. The Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen has written extensively on the close linkage between economics and ethics. This is an area where Muslim economists can profitably draw on Islamic tradition and thereby make a highly important contribution to the subject. Umar Chapra has done commendable work on the Islamic model of development. The scope of research in this area needs to be expanded and fine-tuned so as to make it conceptually elegant and sophisticated.

The Islamic tradition is a veritable storehouse of valuable principles and themes which have great relevance in the contemporary global context and have much to offer to our troubled world. These include Islam’s refreshing perspective on equality, human brotherhood and social justice, its inclusive, accommodative view of knowledge and learning and inter-cultural exchanges, its comprehensive vision of human rights and responsibilities, the Islamic perspective on development, Islamic international law, Islam’s emphasis on tolerance and peaceful coexistence and its recognition and accommodation of minority rights.

The intellectual scenario in the Muslim world is marked by fragmentation and deep cleavages, which is largely a legacy of European colonialism. By and large, the ulama and the university-educated modern elite inhabit two different cognitive, existential and cultural worlds. While the ulama know little or nothing about modern disciplines and are blissfully ignorant of the rapidly changing global scenario, the university-educated intelligentsia, including academics and scholars, possesses an inadequate knowledge and understanding of the classical Islamic disciplines and is deeply influenced by Western theories, methodologies and cultural traditions. Some of them have misgivings about Islamic values and principles. Furthermore, they are cut off from the Muslim masses. The modern elite has served as a conduit for the diffusion of Western ideas, culture and political institutions in Muslim societies. Edward Said, a sympathetic observer of the Islamic world, has perceptively observed that the Muslim world in general and the Arab world in particular has become an intellectual, political and cultural satellite of the Western world, particularly the US. There is a miniscule breed of Muslim scholars who are sufficiently knowledgeable about Islamic values and principles but betray an unfortunate lack of conviction and commitment to the Islamic ethos. Caliph Umar is reported to have said about such people: “I am most apprehensive, from amongst Muslims, about a scholar who pays only lip service to his faith”. When people asked him how a scholar could be hypocritical in his religious affiliation, he replied, “Someone who waxes eloquent about intellectual matters but lacks conviction and is short on practice”.

By and large, the perception and response of the Muslim elite to the challenges of present times is characterized by an inadequate understanding of the rapidly changing global scenario, complacency and self-righteousness, defensiveness, lack of unity and consensus, paucity of coordinated and concerted action, and absence of vision and far-sightedness. On the whole, there is an unfortunate dearth among the Muslim elite of a realistic, critical and balanced perspective on the global scenario, on the prospects and opportunities afforded by the process of globalization and on the challenges posed by it. One of the formidable endogenous challenges faced by the Muslim community across the world is the conspicuous absence of unity and consensus in matters of beliefs and practices, in politics and in social organization. The ulama, who wield an enormous influence on the Muslim masses, cannot escape the blame for fanning trivial sectarian and denominational polemics and conflicts and for wittingly or unwittingly fostering dissension and intra-community intolerance and disunity in Muslim society.

There is a pressing need to heal the divide between the ulama and the modern elite. This can be done by exposing the ulama to modern knowledge, by undertaking a restructuring of syllabi in traditional madrasas, by sensitizing the modern elite to the significance and salience of Islamic civilization’s intellectual and cultural legacy and by launching a long-term project aimed at producing a breed of scholars who would be conversant with both traditional and modern learning as well as modern languages. Self-introspection is as beneficial and necessary for groups and communities as for individuals. Caliph Umar is reported to have said, “Take stock of your actions before you are asked (on the Day of Judgement) to give an account of your deeds”. There is an urgent need for collective self-introspection on the part of the ulama, scholars and social activists. The modern elite needs to drop its ivory-tower pretensions and engage with Muslim society. It needs to subject itself to a process of cognitive and ideational reorientation in order to recover its intellectual and cultural heritage and to carry out its moral obligation. I may conclude by emphasizing that one of the most pressing needs of our time is to open and strengthen channels of communication and interaction between the ulama, intellectuals and scholars and social activists. I am sure this would bring about wonderfully positive consequences for the regeneration and revitalization of the Muslim Ummah. I would like to mention in this connection an amazing instance from 19th century India. British rule over India witnessed growing missionary activity, which was tacitly supported by the colonial government. A German evangelical missionary, Karl Pfander, was sent to India by the Basel Mission in 1839. After spending a few years in Calcutta, he arrived in the city of Agra in 1841 and launched a campaign of vilification against Islam. This engendered a great deal of resentment and disquiet among the local Muslims. Maulana Rahmatullah Kairanavi, a scholar well-versed in Islamic learning as well as in the comparative study of Islam and Christianity, threw a challenge at Pfander for a public debate. The public debate, attended by a large number of Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians, was held in January 1854. Mawlana Kairanavi was assisted by Dr Wazir Khan, who was a surgeon by profession and who had collected, in the course of his stay in England, scores of books on a critical study of Christian scriptures. Mawlans Kairanavi and Dr Wazir Khan offered massive evidence from the Old Testament, the Gospels and the letters of St Paul as well as from the writings of European scholars of the Bible that Christian scriptures had been subjected to interpolation and corruption. Flustered by the wealth of evidence marshaled by Mawlana Kairanavi and Dr Wazir Khan, Rev Pfander admitted that the Biblical texts had indeed suffered interpolation and corruption in the course of their transmission and had to beat a hasty retreat. He was thereafter transferred to Peshawar.

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