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Published in the 1-15 May 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

Ummah's intellectual crisis

The House of Islam is at a turning point today. Muslims around the world are asking themselves: should they reinvent in the new situation or else, allow themselves to perish on the margins of history? As for this sharp-edged vital question, the Muslim mind is alarmingly confused.

Those aware of our centuries long history can rightly point out that the danger was not new though unique it may be, that earlier too we had grappled with such situations of gloom. Confronted yet again with a major crisis, probably the fifth one in our history - the earlier four being; the civil strife leading to the death of the third Caliph, the sack of Abbasid Baghdad, the fall of Grenada, and the termination of the Ottoman Caliphate - we however appear to be a lot devoid of a vision for the future. The psychological fallout of ‘war on terror’, the direct occupation of Iraq, the colonization of Afghanistan, the subjugation of Libya and Iran, the continued humiliation of Pakistan and other Muslim nations in the face of American imperialism and the ever changing-stance of our Ulema/ intellectuals on issues of strategic importance have reinforced the notion that our intellectual crisis is more acute and religious thought more muddled than what meets the eye. In fact, we do not know where do we go from here? 

Our waywardness is a logical outcome of our self-engineered dismissal from the seat of authority and guidance, the God-ordained status of the chosen Ummah. The very first crisis of our history, the civil strife leading to a situation when center could not hold, eventually set our caravan to a road to perpetual crises. With the murder of Othman not only the political authority was lost but the very ‘spatial atmosphere’ of Revelation was sent to exile in which Muslims of the first generation breathed. Since then onward we Muslims have been journeying centrifugally away from the pure revelatory weltanschauung. The message of Islam, that sharp-edged revolutionary dicta of human dignity and liberation that once had taken the world by storm was no longer that attractive owing to the new Muslim colour it had acquired. Confronted with technological prowess of western imperialism, today when we desperately need, more than ever before, that sharp-edged revolutionary dicta, the mesmerizing nay, rather sublime power of revelation, we find it transformed into a set of lifeless rituals. Having been assigned to lead the history till the end of time, we have yet to realize in full that our crisis is of a cosmic dimension. The world without us is doomed to fail. But before we go ahead to reinstate ourselves once again in the seat of leadership and guidance we need to set our own house in order, or so to say, rediscover the divine light of revelation that once had shown our way.

The movement for Islamic Awakening so vociferously launched in the latter half of the twentieth century and the general mood of jubilation that marked the fifteenth century Hijra celebrations made us believe as if a new dawn was imminent. The emergence of pan-Islamic forums in the heartland of Islam further strengthened the belief that a future Muslim Commonwealth can set our caravan to the road to glory. The 1979 revolution in Iran, the expulsion of the Red Army from Afghanistan followed by the dismantlement of the ‘Evil Empire’ and the miraculous recovery of Central Asian Muslim states were yet other factors that contributed to our delusion. Amidst hectic political developments we conveniently ignored the fact that our ideological candor had waned, that our return to the seat of authority and guidance would be a mere dream without mending our ideological fabric, without recapturing the essence of revelation. Even those who considered it necessary to revive the Ummah on religious grounds, they too, were caught up in outer manifestations or at most ended in the implementation of a fiqhi worldview of the bygone days. Neither the alien Commonwealth type model nor a fiqhi Islam can be a substitute for divine revelation that alone has the potential to transform the Ummah into one unit, the bunyanum marsoos, and the vanguard for the unity of mankind. The fiqhi mind is essentially divisive. It likens to send more people out of the Islamic fold than welcoming them inside it. The full-scale display of fiqhi Islam, or fatawaic thinking, not only put the Islamic awakening to a halt, it also pushed us to a head-on collision with other faith groups and civilizational models. The newly founded Islamic centers in western cities remained at their best the protected forts of sectarian strife representing more of the founding sect than the universal message of Islam. The broad based Qur’anic dicta of kalimatun sawaaun for forging alliance with other like-minded nations found little support from those already succumbed to sectarian thinking. The Muslims presence in the West had offered us a unique opportunity to take the ‘revelation-revolution’ to western homes. But this wonderful opportunity was conveniently lost amidst a plethora of hairsplitting fiqhi questions aimed at establishing cultural islands of traditional Islam. The fiqhi mind has now brought us to such a pass that despite our intense romantic hankering for the revival of the House of Islam we find ourselves trapped in a false dawn.

Caught in the imperial ambitions of Bush-Blair nexus, today Muslims are vulnerable to any label that one would like to throw upon them. Having noticed that those fighting a survival battle around the world are none other but Muslims, many among us are asking if Islam is yet another name for anarchy or mindless terrorism? Even those actively busy in survival struggle have strong doubts if this strategy can eventually take us to the glory of a just world order, the mission statement of Islam. The fiqhi mind, trained to think in black and white, in terminologies that capture the social milieu of the Abbasid era, fail to realize the complexity of the new situation and its far-reaching impact on the Muslim psyche. It is split not only into four parallel perceptions but also into innumerable conflicting reportage of mere historical import. Unless it goes back to the pristine purity of revelation it can only add to our woes by monopolizing its perception, as it did, as the only authentic version. If in the past Shia-Sunni dispute and Hanfi-Shafei bloody civil wars caused the fall of the Abbasid Empire, today too, our internal strife is a constant source of inspiration for our enemies. Our Ulema are so rigidly trained to think in sectarian terms that for them a universal identity of Islam without a sectarian mooring is almost impossible to comprehend. The Abrahamic model of Muslim Haneef is a thing of the past.

Our dismissal cannot be taken as a mere internal issue. It has put the entire human history into a wayward mode. A frank, honest and passionate discussion on the causes of our decline, then, is the need of the hour. Instead of relying on the wisdom of the dead souls or mindlessly quoting from this scholar or that seer, the time has come to apply our own minds, to look into the Qur’an for a fresh guidance in our time. Some might consider this idea abhorring or almost a blasphemy to approach the Quran afresh, without solely relying on the great minds of the past. But those aware of the Prophet’s primary mission, so explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an, to liberate human mind from all kinds of colonial impulse – the asr wa aghlaal - be it intellectual or otherwise, will certainly appreciate this call. The Qur’an does not confer on any person, whosoever it may be, the sole right to interpret God’s word. In Qura’nic weltanschauung any attempt to monopolize interpretative activities is highly undesirable and amounts to polytheism. The agency of Ahbar wa Rahban is simply unacceptable. Anyone attempting to intercept God’s message or for that matter come in between God and man is condemnable, be he called a Rabbi, an Ahbaar, a Pope, a Maulvi or a Shaikh. No one is authorized to decide whose faith is valid or who can be taken as an authentic Muslim. Leave Muslims alone, the Qur’an warns us of falling in this evil trap, ever. It’s God’s prerogative, we are told: innaAllah yafselo bainahum yaum al Qiyamah.
As stated earlier, our dismissal has caused the greatest crisis of all time. To redress the situation it is imperative to think what shall we do now? How to do it? Who should do it? And when? To address these and many more such vital questions of our time we have decided to establish a global forum of thinking Muslims. Taking advantage of the Internet, which has rendered geographical boundaries meaningless, we have decided to launch a bi-monthly international journal exclusively devoted to these issues. The journal will be mainly in English with simultaneous translations of important articles into Urdu, Arabic and other languages. The language should not be a barrier for participation in this greatest ever debate in human history. 

Rashid Shaz

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