This lecture sets out with a number of assumptions which, if understood, would assist in clarifying the main thrust of the subject under discussion. First, it assumes that we all know that Islam and Muslims face a number of challenges that call for a reconstruction of their identity on the one hand, and a redefinition of their commitments on the other hand. Second, it also assumes that we are all aware that today, the global community of Muslim nations is no doubt the most unhappy, most unsettled and most backward in the comity of nations with the exception of a handful of Gulf states. Third, it also assumes that we all know that despite the immense human and material resources of the Muslim world, its magnificent legacy and its incomparably comprehensive ideology, it is still the weakest community of nations.
It is indeed sad to note that the Muslim world is dominated by states of varying sizes warring among themselves and in conflict with other nations; incapable of feeding themselves, providing security for themselves and indeed, governing themselves. The simple ideology and creedal structure they inherited has been fragmented into sick theosophical theorizations and weak theological propositions that can neither hold together the internal structure of the groups that uphold them nor engage effectively the groups that are alien to them.
The sad result of these situations is that the Ummah of Islam which once held the torch of civilization for mankind now groans under self-imposed adversities because of its collective moral apostasy that is often covered with deceptive pietism and exaggerated display of righteous indignation. Perhaps nothing better pictures this reality than Dr. Mustafa Mahmud’s tweet on the platform of Aqwaal wa hikamul falaasifah on April 29, 2015:
لقد أخذنا عن النبي صلى الله عليه و سلم اللحية و الجلباب و نسينا عدله و حلمه و مغفرته و مكارم أخلاقه.
We have taken from the Prophet (saw) the practice of keeping beard and the use of Jilbab by our women but we have forgotten to take from him his practice of justice, his patience, his act of forgiveness and his lofty moral qualities.
The 21st century’s ideological world inherited Samuel Huntington’s thesis of Clash of Civilizations in which he postulated that the world is culturally and ideologically divided into two blocs-the Western nations and all of those who have embraced their cultures and the rest of the world. He, however, paid unusual attention to what he calls the ‘Islamic and Confucian states’. He writes:
“The West must exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states to support in other civilizations groups sympathetic to Western values and interests. To strengthen international institutions that reflect legitimate western interests and values, and to promote the involvement of non-western states in those institutions.”
This is no doubt an interventionist and a rather aggressive attitude towards other civilizations to get them to be more western. According to Edward Said, so strong and insistent is Huntington’s notion that other civilizations necessarily clash with the West and so relentlessly aggressive and chauvinistic is his prescription for what the West must do to continue winning, so that the reader is forced to conclude that he’s really most interested in continuing and expanding the Cold War by other means, rather than advancing ideas that might help us to understand the current world scene or ideas that would set the pace for fostering peace in different parts of the world by reconciling between seemingly conflicting ideologies and cultures.
It is disheartening to admit that Islam and Muslims are at the center of most of the conflicts in the contemporary world. It is, however, necessary to assert that Islam neither teaches nor supports the disturbance of social order that is happening in these conflict spots. The nations where these unfortunate incidents are happening are either victims of their own collective rejection of the Islamic ideals or malevolent manipulation of their weaknesses by more powerful nations or both.
In the light of the aforesaid, this paper reflects on the challenges facing Muslims in the contemporary world and calls upon Muslims to confront their multiple identities by revisiting the pristine teachings of their religion with a view to gleaning principles with which they can confront their challenges and reconstruct their world; and this they must do with total commitment which seeks to evolve a global ethic acceptable to all Muslim persuasions through a strategically designed and consciously implemented educational and welfare programmes so that Islam can regain the position of pre-eminence it once held in the world.
MUSLIMS, THEIR RELIGION, AND THEIR CHALLENGES
Islam is the, youngest of the revealed religions. It is rationalistic, transcendentalist and world affirmative. Its truths can be ascertained by human reason; its ideals have both “this-worldly” and “other-worldly” dimensions, i.e. its ethical and legal codes have a Trans-human reference while the entire universe is seen as the workshop of the individual where the establishment of the divine will in the entire cosmos will be achieved through the moral imperatives of Islam as actualized in organized groups of believers, that is the Muslim societies, who uphold these verities. Islam, therefore, sees the Muslim Ummah as the entity that will transform and refashion the world.
This onerous task is to be achieved by the individual and that is why Islam insists that everyone counts. None is excluded by virtue of his ancestry, color, social status or race. Every individual enjoys the full candidacy of responsibility. Governmental and other superstructures of the human society all depend on the individual whose actions are the sole determinants of the success or otherwise of their own actions. Islam thus sees the individual as a vice-gerent or a representative of the Divine who will actualize Allah’s design on earth.
The society in Islam is a threefold consensus. A consensus of minds, hearts and efforts. It is a consensus of minds because its members share with one another the same expression of reality; it is a consensus of hearts because its members share the same ideals and values, and it is a consensus of efforts because its members act in cooperation with one another in realizing the contents of their ideational and volitional consensus. Thus viewed, the society according to Islam is the theatre of ethical action. It is within it that the individual Muslim can be a part of the Islamic vision of transforming the world.
Because of the complexity of this vision, Muslims are faced with several challenges in the contemporary world and the most visible of these challenges is lack of proper knowledge of the teachings of Islam and the application of its laws and precepts in a pluralistic world. Despite the age long-established tradition of Islamic scholarship in different lands and climes, certain assumptions have remained unchallenged and many irrational positions have been celebrated in canonical works and these have opened avenues for detractors of Islam to vilify or ridicule the Islamic teachings. Many juristic views of previous centuries have not been reviewed in the light of new situations and the cosmopolitan many-sidedness of the contemporary world has not reflected in Muslim thoughts.
Several scholars have been shackled by the chains of Taqlid (i.e. blind imitation). While many of the Shiites are mainly shackled by the views of their Imams, many of the Sunnis are shackled by the postulates of schools of jurisprudence, some of them are shackled by adherence to the practice of the Salaf (righteous forbears), several of them who adhere to Tasawwuf are shackled by the opinions of their Sufi Leaders, a good number of them who wish to break free from these ideological shackles, in the name of modernity, get lost in the whirlpool of confusing philosophies.
The contemporary Islamic Ummah is thus faced with the challenge of producing well balanced scholars who will understand the intent, content and context of the Divine message-scholars who can relate to the past and the present with the same commitment, bringing the keys of the past and modifying them to open the contemporary doors without destroying the handles nor spoiling the keys.
The Ummah needs such scholars who will not drag archaic traditions into the modern world; scholars who do not glorify superstition nor clothe absurdities in the garb of knowledge; and in fits of learned psychopathy, attempt to impose it on their followers however irrational it may seem and no matter the cost in liberty and blood, stupidly arguing that it is what their “infallible” forefathers did.
Led by the right scholars, the Muslim Ummah will be well positioned to confront the other challenges which are all connected to the weak epistemological foundations of contemporary Muslim actions. For example, Muslims enjoy rhetoric. We love hearing ‘Islam is the solution to all global problems’ yet more than 90% of our scholars do not know what these problems are; we condemn the global economy on the ground that it is based on usury, yet we have not been able to give the world a workable and functional system that is truly interest-free. Most of what we have is not more than putting old wines in new bottles with new labels.
Similarly, we emphasize that Islam is a religion of peace but have we ever seriously reflected on why there are so many crises and unrest in the Islamic world? Why have Muslims failed to appropriate the lofty teachings of their faith for a better social order? We announce to the world that Islam promotes education but have we reflected on why in 15 centuries the Muslim world has more illiterates than other lands and climes?
When we give premium to empty rhetoric such as these without confronting and engaging our challenges, we develop an awful persecution complex and promote petty conspiracy theories of western manipulation of Muslim countries or blame the media for projecting negative images of Islam and Muslims. Though these may be partly true, the main problem is in our collective refusal to accept our faults and make amends. We do not identify real-life problems and attempt to solve them; we rather engage in sectarian polemics and waste all our time and energy trying to prove who is going to hell and who is not.
Our scholars have continued to reproduce medieval interpretations of Islam written by medieval scholars for medieval audiences and they have refused to develop the competencies that would enable us to understand the sacred text of the Qur’an and its provisions for our times. People now go to the mosques because that is their place of worship not because they believe there is any message for them. Our minds and ears are assailed by stories of Prophets Musa, Sulayman and others narrated in folkloric style without separating the shafts of pious legend and righteous superstition from them.
This sad phenomenon with its multiple manifestations has led to the problem of disunity which plagues us today. We have held several conferences, seminars and workshops on the subject of Muslim unity locally and globally but at both levels, we have achieved nothing. This is because we lack a basic understanding of what constitutes true unity.
Perhaps one of the major contemporary challenges is the management of Muslim organizations in our own social universe. It is disheartening to observe that despite the fact that many Muslim organizations are managed by accomplished individuals who manage their own business concerns effectively, most of these groups are poorly managed. The unhealthy rivalry that often characterizes the relationship between the ‘Ulama (Islamic clerics) and the administrative leadership has continued to draw the organizations back.
Both of them do not seem to realize that their duties are supposed to be complementary and not contradictory. While some clerics have revolted openly against the perceived high-handedness of the administrative leaders, some have kept quiet in hypocritical subjection. Others who abhor such duplicity have boldly left such groups to establish their own.
What is however really disturbing is that the captains of industries who manage these Muslim organizations have not been using their problem-solving skills, conflict resolution strategies and change management competencies to run these organisations. Those who have tried have not been successful because of a wrong diagnosis of the problem.
At the root of the problem is the identity conflict resulting from self-esteem issues. Islamic clerics see themselves as the inheritors of the Holy Prophet (saw) and expect to be respected as such, while the administrative heads see themselves as better positioned to manage the complex organizational structures of the modern Muslim societies and their numerous sub-units. This self-perception on the part of both has deepened the crisis of understanding among particularly with the serious integrity issues that plague both groups.
Both groups, if truly they are in these organizations to serve Allah, should learn mutual respect for each other. While the Ulama should be accorded the respect due to them as the institutional representatives of Allah and His Prophet, they too should realize that they have not been trained in the handling of complex financial transactions that operate within the modern societies.
In light of the above, it is necessary to engage these challenges by going to the roots of the whole issue which is the nature of the Islamic education to which exists in the contemporary Muslim societies. The madrasah system has to be totally overhauled. The system is too much obsessed with the centrality of tradition to think of new ideas. They are not more than centres of acknowledgment rather than of knowledge. They only acknowledge inherited views and traditions and contribute nothing to modern intellectual discourse. Products of such institutions cannot engage the world nor sustain the interest and commitment of people who are exposed to the various ideologies of the contemporary world.
There is also the issue of the remuneration of scholars. Muslim scholars serving as Imams and Missionaries in several organisations are poorly remunerated and this has dealt a heavy blow on their integrity as they resort to unwholesome practices to survive.
Continuous training of the Ulama through refresher courses and workshops as well as periodic Islamic literacy programmes for non-cleric administrators of Muslim organizations will go a long way in improving mutual understanding and conflict prevention.
Revenue generation drive is also a major factor. Muslims today do not sacrifice their wealth as the early Muslims did. They have not realized that their organizations can no longer be managed by occasional donations and collections during ceremonies and festivals alone. In order to survive, there must be a total commitment by members of the organization on a monthly basis based on trust in the system and driven by accountability.
Lastly, conscious wealthy Muslims should rise up to assist Islamic organisations that have displayed sufficient performance credentials in the sphere of social engineering through massive financial investments in their projects and connecting them to prospective governmental and non-governmental funding agencies.
May Allah grant us the humility and the wisdom to acknowledge the truth and abide by it; and may He grant us the courage to recognize falsehood and abstain from it.