Islamic Perspectives

Is renaissance possible in the Islamic World today?-ii

Do we see such possibility in the Islamic world today? The Muslim world is supposedly poor and backward. If we want renaissance we need great resources. First of all we have to achieve total literacy in the Islamic world. However, figures are very disappointing. In the entire Arab world put together, less books are read than Greece, a small country in Europe. This shows the extent of illiteracy in the Arab world. In such conditions it is not easy to usher in renaissance in the Islamic world.

 Also, in other African and Asian countries where Muslims constitute either majority or substantial populations like in India, illiteracy is still very high. India has a Muslim population of 180 million, but illiteracy and poverty are quite high as convincingly shown by Justice Sachar Committee. Justice Sachar has shown that Muslims are falling behind Dalits, the lowest and poorest caste of India.

 Yet another criterion could be the number of Noble Prizes won by Muslim intellectuals especially in social and physical sciences. Muslim laureates in subjects like physics, chemistry, economics and biology are far less than among the Jews who are just a few million in number. In physics, there was just one Noble Laureate, i.e., Dr. Abdus Salam and because he happened to be an Ahmadi, Muslims remained indifferent to his receiving this honour.

 Let us remember, we need a very different approach for ushering in renaissance - a non-doctrinaire approach. A doctrinaire approach is the very antidote to high achievements in the fields of science.

I have just referred to the conflict between theologian Ghazzali and philosopher Ibn Rushd. Fortunately, in this case the philosopher stood his ground firmly. In many cases, they just wilt. The Islamic world today is dominated by theologians who are totally illiterate as far as science is concerned.

If any scientist does some leading research, our theologians can issue a fatwa against him and force the scientist to recant. Here I am reminded of a beautiful story written in early seventies by a Pakistani writer called Ghulam Abbas. The storyline is as follows: Pakistan has decided to send a mission to moon and all preparations are made, date and time for landing moon is fixed, great celebrations are going on and the moment the mission lands the whole nation bursts into joy.

However, while these celebrations are going on, a theologian issues a fatwa that it is kufr to send such mission to moon as it amounts to interfering in Divine matters. This fatwa is quickly followed by more fatwas and many Muslims come out on the streets to challenge the moon mission. Some even argued that moon is sacred as with it the month of Ramadan and the month of Hajj begin, so how a human mission can land on it? The progressive Muslims challenged the orthodox and soon a civil war broke out and within a few months the whole country is destroyed and only a desert is left. The story ends with some tourists passing through it on camel and the guide explains to them: here was Pakistan which had sent a mission to moon and it was destroyed in civil war between the orthodox and the progressives. Now only this desert is left. Here are the ruins of a mosque from where the first fatwa against the moon mission was issued.

Something of this did happen and the story came out literarily true. Ziaul-Haque captured power, issued the Hudud Ordinance followed by the Ordinance punishing a person with death for insulting the Prophet and now Pakistan is virtually controlled by Taliban who cannot tolerate any dissent or difference of opinion.

For bringing in renaissance, deep knowledge, toleration of differences of opinion and conflicting views is highly necessary. Knowledge advances through contestations and not through conformity. But our theologians want perfect conformity with their views and any dissent is strongly condemned and lands one in Hell. Our mullas cannot tolerate any other interpretation of Qur’anic verses.

Each sect of Islam claims monopoly of truth and paradise and condemns all others to Hell. How can Muslims become harbingers of renaissance in such despicable conditions?

In India, Syed Ahmad Khan, who founded MAO College in Aligarh, was a great supporter of modern science. He described science as work of God and the Qur’an as word of God and he maintained, rightly so:  how word of God can contradict work of God, i.e., Qur’an and science cannot contradict each other.

Even then the mullas condemned Syed Ahmed Khan as a nechari, one who worships nature and considers nechar (nature) superior to religion. Today, our Ulama may not oppose science openly and blatantly as in the 19th century but they have not been able to reconcile with it either. They still feel religion as superior to science and fundamentally contradictory to each other.

For them the mixture of religion, culture and primitive ideas about nature represents the final truth and anyone who challenges this “truth” challenges Allah’s authority. The problem is that these ulama think their fallible human opinion is divine and any deviation from it is deviation from the Divine opinion. Any rebellion against them is rebellion against Allah. They do not allow any change in the laws formulated by human beings in their own circumstances and on the basis of their own understanding of the Qur’an.

Today, Shari’ah laws are causing a lot of problems, particularly to women. These Shari’ah laws are biased against women, particularly because of medieval cultural influence. There are very few ulama who admit this and consider these laws as mutable. Any attempt to remove gender bias is considered deviation from ‘divine’. Because of their medieval cultural bias and bookish knowledge of Shari’ah, they think what was written hundreds of years ago was final and allows no change.

If changes have occurred in these laws in many Islamic countries, it is due to efforts of secular rulers and despite resistance from theologians. There was hardly anyone who supported the change. In some cases, after the change in regime the orthodox laws were brought back into operations. Progressive theologians like Muhammad Abduh were marginalized.

In order to launch a renaissance movement not only a future vision is required but also our theologians need to be equipped with contemporary knowledge. None of our ulama is a physicist or a chemist or a mathematician. They do not allow us even to prepare a lunar calendar in advance and insist on sighting a moon with naked eye every single month.

All fatwas are issued on the basis of texts in medieval books and no one bothers to reflect on new problems in new context. Even today in our madrasa courses no change is thought necessary. Let alone in matters of manqulat (inherited knowledge), no change has been made in case of ma’qulat (sciences of mind) also.   Under ma’qulat, too, we still teach theories of Plato and Aristotle which are of only historical importance to students of rational sciences.

Our ulama in India (same is the case in other Muslim countries) still strongly resist any attempt for modernization of madrasa education even if they are assured that as far as religious education is concerned, it will not be touched. Hundreds of millions of rupees allocated for the purpose by the government are lying untouched and go waste. Also, madrasas are run on sectarian lines and each sect has its own empire of madrasas and mosques.

It is common that if triple divorce is pronounced in one sitting, they would rather advise the couple to go to Ahl-e-Hadith to solve their problem rather than change their own fiqhi stand. How can two sects have two opposite stands in the matter? Our efforts to codify Islamic Personal Law so as to minimize gender discrimination and bring into practice the Islamic spirit of gender justice, is being met with strong resistance and as some kind of conspiracy.

Is this the way of bringing in renaissance in Islam?


This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2012 on page no. 20

We hope you liked this report/article. The Milli Gazette is a free and independent readers-supported media organisation. To support it, please contribute generously. Click here or email us at

blog comments powered by Disqus