Islamic Perspectives

The Intellectual Crisis of the Ummah — i

By Muhammad al-Ghazali

We believe that the present intellectual crisis and confusion is a consequence of the moral failure of those who have been placed at the position of leadership in the Muslim Community. The post-colonial leaders of the Muslim world have not recognised the Ummah as their reference point. They do profess faith in Islam but do not define their role from the perspective of the Ummah. They are detached from the concerns and dreams of the Ummah which, in a significant sense, encompasses the whole human kind. Our leadership to this day revolves in the orbit of the foreign masters. This liability of the leadership not withstanding, the individuals too, on their part, could not be wholly absolved of the responsibility for placing such people in the position of leadership. Significantly, where the Qur’an condemns the oppressive rulers, it also censures those multitudes that dance to their tune and become instrumental in establishing oppressive regimes. Without latter’s acquiescence, no autocrat could ever sustain himself in history. Hence, though the leader, particularly the ruler, assumes major responsibility, the people could not be wholly acquitted of their lapses and failures.

The leaders of the Muslims, their men in authority in particular, have deviated from their supreme moral duty as leaders of the Muslim Ummah. The present ills befalling the Ummah are consequences of this deviation. When one violates one’s terms of appointment to an office that bestows honour and prestige, one is beset by a blindness of reasoning and rationality. No amount of material resources may then guide such a person or group intellectually. But if one is faithful to his moral commitment with Allah and honestly performs the functions of his office, his reason is guided by the Giver of reason and intellect.

We submit that the moral failure has preceded the intellectual failure of the Muslims and it is responsible for the present predicament of the Ummah.

The most grievous shortcoming of the Muslim Ummah today is the acute inferiority complex from which its leaders have been suffering. This complex becomes acute when it passes to the masses. The causes of this complex are historical. The present leadership is more or less a legacy of the colonial era. Colonial interventions interrupted the natural progress of history in major parts of the Muslim world. Even the few areas and peoples that apparently remained outside the colonial control were not left immune from colonial exploitation. This dark period created conditions in which response to the ascendant alien order became the defining factor for the leadership. It either opposed this order or allied itself with it. And neither of the two seems to have arrived at his instance by any objective or in-depth assessment of its pros and cons, merits and demerits. The present leadership in the Muslim world seems to be mentally confined to the same colonial space.

The various crises facing the Ummah are often attributed to political reasons. To some people, the main problem originates from the loss of political clout. Some find its origins in the economic mismanagement of the human and natural resources of the Muslim world and the resultant decline in GDP, GNP and lesser amounts of calories consumed by the faithful. Others recognize the cause of the whole malaise in the failure of Muslims to maintain the tempo of research in the fields of empirical science and their inability to capture exports’ flow of their value-added goods in the world’s consumer markets. Those regarded as old fashioned assign the present helplessness to the simple cause of going away from Islam. Though these people seem to have rightly diagnosed the causes of our ailment, they fall short of defining precisely what this deviation from the straight path, which has led to our present predicament, consists of.

However, the chief cause of all causes in our humble view remains the moral failure of the leaders. It seems that acute inferiority complex from which the present leadership of the Ummah has been suffering for some time has been visited upon it as Divine recompense for its moral deviation. The reason of this crippling complex is that the mindset of the Muslim leadership has been shaped by the circumstances obtaining in major parts of the Muslim world during the colonial period. This complex deprived them of pride in the past, confidence in the present and faith in the future.

When the Muslim enterprise was derailed from its historical trajectory following the onslaught of the colonial invasion, their response to the challenges of the new order was marked by an exaggerated awe of the colonial power and a cowardly acceptance of its rule. It seemed to them that the colonizer, being inherently invincible in their perception, has filled the whole space of their life-world for good. Some people even accepted this phenomenon as part of their permanent fate and surrendered their will to resist. Others simply refused to have anything to do with alien powers and tried to live in isolation within the islands that they had created for themselves.

The response of both these groups signified defeatism, betraying an unjustified fear of the hegemony of the aliens, something that continued even after the end of the colonial regime.

A third group tried to create a synthesis between the demands of the tradition and the requirements of the new order thrust upon us. However, this group, despite its apparent merit, did not succeed in critically assessing the new developments in any depth and, therefore, failed to accommodate current knowledge and experience to the moral criteria and cultural priorities of Islam. It did not feel the need to challenge Western epistemological presumptions and tried to insert incongruent Western components in the cultural scheme of Islam. This is why this group could not deliver much beyond limited and insignificant results.

Yet all these responses were more or less defensive or reactive in nature, representing an inhibited mindset. When the period of naked colonization was over, the leaders of the Ummah made little effort to revive the dormant germane elements of their culture and to restore their historical continuity and progress.

In short, our leadership in general failed to rediscover our real roots and revive our own distinctive ethos. Hence, we contend that what is often termed as intellectual failure is essentially a moral failure. The perceived intellectual failure is only an effect, not a cause. Because it is the heart from where all moral choices according to Islamic insight emanate and dictate the intellectual apparatus. Return to our own real selves could have been possible if the leadership had recognized the real cause of our decline. This return to our roots and restraining our self identity called for revisiting our past patterns of education. This could have been done by dismantling the colonial education system and re-launching a new enterprise to suit our present needs; however, instead there emerged two dichotomous religious and secular systems parallel to each other with hardly any traffic of ideas between the two. The two parallel streams continued to flow in different and often opposite directions and mainly confined themselves to producing clerics or clerks respectively.  Far from setting out to develop a truly Islamic system of education, our leaders tried to build their new socio-political institutions in the terms defined by the colonial order. Our rulers took pride in wearing the shoes left by the Colonial Usurpers. Basically, our intellectual leadership failed to remember the fact that the supreme status of the Ummah had been defined as harbinger of peace, justice and harmony for the entire humanity. Far from recognizing this status, it accepted its fate as a shrunken community and a reduced entity in the global scheme of things. It failed to heed the call of the Qur’an which required its followers to bear witness to the truth revealed in this Last Book of guidance and on that account the Qur’an had granted the Muslim community the noble status of ‘the Best Community Raised for Mankind’. Instead it remained hostage to the colonial conditions of life. The continuous hostility of many religious groups towards the rulers of the Muslim countries also betrays this mindset.

It has been a Divine Favour that individuals and groups which carry out the Divinely-ordained charter of inviting people to the straight path, enjoin good and forbid evil, have always enjoyed unchallenged prestige and commanded a high degree of moral prestige and dignity in this world. When Muslims abandoned this supreme calling, they lost this prestige and dignity. Therefore, it is the act of abdicating the foremost obligation of the Ummah on behalf of the Prophet (pbuh) which is the main cause of all the crises besetting this Ummah.

The present state of fear faced by the Muslims everywhere is mainly due to this monumental failure of their leaders to recognize their supreme mission and thereby regain their real status in history.

We are under a solemn obligation to invite humanity to the abode of peace that is Islam. This obligation is never suspended in any circumstances whatsoever. It is Islam which can deliver humanity of all kinds of servitude, whether self-imposed or forced by others. Islam promises true freedom, honour, dignity, and felicity here and salvation in the hereafter. It teaches humanity the cardinal doctrine of Tawhid. And as a logical corollary of this emancipating  doctrine, it provides humanity with a programme of pious conduct and virtuous living that could enable it to transcend all man-made forms of pride and prejudice, injustice, exploitation and superiority of men over men. It promises all men and women a direct link of love and obedience with one Supreme Master, their Creator and Sustainer, a link that alone could ensure ultimate freedom of man from all shackles of bondage and slavery.

At present, before anything else, we need to wake up and refresh in our minds the status granted to the Muslim Ummah by the Qur’an.

This is the first part of a slightly abridged version of the keynote address at the two-day international conference on “Intellectual Crises of the Muslim Ummah: Rethinking Traditional Solutions” held at the Alighar Muslim University on 6-7 April this year. The author is a professor in the International Islamic University in Islamabad and a judge on the Shariah Apellate bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. The second and last part will appear in the next issue.