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Islam goes hand in hand with modernity
By Md. Azeemullah

Society in Arabia prior to Islam was utterly uncivilised and uncultured. Social organisation was patriarchal. The absolute head of the family was a man and the fundamental social unit was the tribe. There was no law. Loot, arson, and murder of the weak were common. Superstition was dominant and peace was constantly disturbed by blood feuds and internal warfare between the tribes. Education was completely missing. Men acted as beasts. Girls were looked down upon. In short, total anarchy prevailed.

It was in this environment that Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) was born in 570 A.D. with divine message and glad tidings. He was against idol worship and opposed every form of polytheism. He stood undauntedly against barbarity, brutality and injustice. He was the greatest statesman of his time with amazing wisdom and robust common sense to hold sway over the then fragile social unity. His was a perfectly balanced personality-tolerant, truthful, perspicuous and magnanimous. This was the social and religious environment of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH.), a man who by the time of his death in 632 A.D. had stirred the public consciousness of Arabia.

Afterwards, Islam-both as a religion and a way of life, spread far and wide with its extraordinary vision, much ahead of the time and space. The influence was miraculously deeper and far-reaching because:
"It was the best social and political order the time could offer……..It was the broadest, freshest and cleanest political idea……..(HG Wells: Outline of History).

It had awakened the mankind with its progressive values and high principles. Bernard Lewis in his book What Went Wrong? Says, "For many centuries the world of Islam was in the forefront of human civilisation and achievement."

He continues:
"Islam represented the greatest military power on earth-its armies at the very same time, were invading Europe and Africa, India and China. It was the foremost economic power in the world, trading in a wide range of commodities through a far-flung network of commerce and communications in Asia, Europe and Africa."
In this vein Lewis goes on:
"In most of the arts and sciences of civilization, medieval Europe was a pupil and in a sense a dependent of the Islamic world, relying on Arabic versions even for many otherwise unknown Greek works."

Truly, during the Medieval Age, Islamic culture and learning was far superior and advanced. Muslims translated the Greek classics into Arabic. They cultivated highest standards of learning and were accomodating and receptive when it came to new ideas. The second caliph of Islam, Hazrat Omar, cared to preserve the sanctity of the religious places of the followers of other faiths and displayed exceptional tolerance. Among the sciences, medicine reached a relatively high state of development. The outstanding scientific work of the time was Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine. Roger Bacon owed a major debt to Muslim scientists who were pioneers in mathematics, physics and chemistry.

Generally, empirical spirit governed Arabic scholarship. Historical studies were cultivated, and Arabic educators expanded the knowledge of geography. Such scholars as Al-Farabi, Al-Gazzali, Umar Bin-Abdul Aziz, Imam Ibn-e-Taimiyyah and Ibn-Khaldun were guided by reason and appreciated critical knowledge based on rationalistic method of interpretation.

Universities arose which stressed both scientific and religious knowledge. At Baghdad in 830 A.D. a House of Wisdom was established- a combiantion of advanced centre of learning and museum. In the Middle Ages, Arabic universities were far liberal and progressive. Literature found expression in such works as Arbian Nights and the Rubaiyat. It should not be forgotten that Omar Khayyam was not only a poet but also a scientist of note. While Al-Gazzali favoured faith, Omar Khayyam struck a note of skepticism. Under the Abbasids, Islamic empire enjoyed a brilliant golden age in arts and sciences.

Arabs contributed to the Renaissance by their translation of Greek thinkers and by their encouragement of scholarship. But all was not well for so long. Slowly the scene changed. Muslim education which was once marked by the relationship of freedom and creativity in education discouraged the freedom of expression. Orthodoxy prevailed and by the 15th century, they fell far behind and grew more intolerant. When they captured Constantinople in 1453, many of the famous Greek scholars, fearing death, fled and took refuge in the Italian city states. Thus learning declined. As a result, remarks Bernard Lewis in What Went Wrong:

"With the advent of the New Learning, they advanced by leaps and bounds, leaving the scientific and technological and eventually the cultural heritage of Islamic world far behind."

When Muslim rulers like Haroon-al-Rashid, encouraged freedom, the arts and sciences prospered. When freedom was curbed with narrow socio-political goals, the spirit of inquiry declined and virtually came to an end.

Trade which was once expanding and extending all around received a setback. Technology that credited Muslims with the first use of sailing vessels as warships degenerated. As a consequence, the relationship between Christendom and Islam in the sciences reversed. Those who had been disciples now became teachers, those who had been masters became pupils. What was once a mighty civilization had fallen.

Thus by 1920, it seemed that the triumph over Muslim world was complete. The long struggle between Islam and Christendom, between the Islamic empires and Europe ended in a decisive victory for the West.

With the loss of power and prestige, honour and glory, Muslims in course of time became poor, weak and ignorant finally tempting others to invade every aspect of their life. The community grew restless and was terribly alarmed. 

How is it that Muslim society which was once a pioneer in science, art, and economy collapsed? Some have put the entire dilemma not as "What has Islam done to the Muslims?" but "What have the Muslims done to Islam?".

There is still a hope to revive the old Islamic spirit and glory. The Quran says: "Despair not of the Mercy of Allah." (Surah 39:52, Al-Zumar).

The Muslim Ummah must come forward and give the entire development a thought looking into the shortcomings and weaknesses. The foremost task in the direction may be to shed the inferiority complex and negative attitudes that the community acquired during its colonial subjection under various social and political circumstances. It should grow in self confidence and regain its lost conviction and certitude in its own faith: a conviction which enabled the ancient Muslims to meet all temporal challenges. It should embark upon a kind of intellectual iconoclasm "to clear the contemporary scene."

The philosophy of Islam has encouraged learning from others-their sciences, technology and skills. In fact, there is a tradition of the prophet (P.B.U.H.) which exhorts:
"Obtain Knowledge even if it is in China". Ibn Adi, Behqi (Shariff 1986:15).

This kind of cultural and intellectual cross fertilization existed in the history of Islam when Muslims studied, analyzed and transformed Greek and other sciences and philosophies in the academics of Baghdad or in other Muslim cities.

They gladly accepted what was permissible and beneficial and rejected the Greek concept of dualism and the Hindu concept of plurality of Reality as these ran contrary to the basic Islamic tenet of Towheed.

The Muslim intelligensia should concern itself with all the topical issues of the world. It should bring to focus fundamental human problems in order to assert the Islamic viewpoint. Muslim intellectuals must involve themselves in debates on issues like birth control, the education of women, the inhuman treatment of refugees, minorities etc. Islam offers solutions to all such issues.

The Muslim world must learn from the experiences and inventions of modern societies. Well-known areas for such lessons to be learnt and applied are industrialization, urbanization, transport, broadcasting, education etc.

Islam came to revolutionize and transform the world with new social vision. It does not oppose change. Rather, it urges Muslims to be up and doing. The Quran declares:
"Allah does not change a people’s lot unless they change themselves". (Surah 11:9).

It is time Muslim Ummah came forward and played a vital role in bringing mankind back to its pristine glory of freedom, tolerance and awakening. 

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