Revolution on all fronts mark new Islamic century

Published June 11, 2015

(This story was first published in the January 1980 issue of the Canadian Churchman.) 

Modern influences in the traditional religion spark conflict throughout the Muslim world

Last November 29, Islam reached a new milestone. The adherents of the world’s second largest religion began a new century, Islamic year 1400.

Fourteen centuries have elapsed since the Muslim prophet Muhammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina.

Now is a good time to reflect on what has taken place in the lives of our Muslim brothers and sisters during the past century, and to consider their mood today. The subject is of considerable importance to both the world and the church.

Economically, the world is virtually dependent on Arab oil. Politically, many of the world’s trouble spots are Muslim areas: Iran, the Middle East, and much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Religiously, Muslims represent one of the great unreached peoples for Christian missionaries. Certainly, for the church of God, the worlds 700-800 million Muslims are one of the greatest challenges with which it must deal. Let us therefore try to catch a glimpse of the main developments of the 14th Islamic century, and their implications for Muslims today.

The last hundred years of Islamic experience have been the most startling and decisive ones since the religion’s founding. At the beginning of this past Muslim century, however, the ship of Islam wallowed in a sea affected by spiritual and social doldrums.

At one stage in its history Islam was alive and vibrant with intellectual power. Islam experienced its Golden Age at the time of the Dark Ages in the West. The period was marked by tremendous richness in almost every field of human endeavour: mathematics, medicine, astronomy, architecture, and craftsmanship of various kinds. Great literature abounded and philosophy flourished. Theology, too, developed as Muslim thinkers wrestled with the great issues of the faith. These achievements later passed on to the West and helped to spark the Renaissance.

Gradually, however, a change set in, especially in the urban centers of the Muslim world, a change that might be described as a kind of creeping fossilization. There is a continuing debate as to its causes and extent. The break-up of the Muslim empire and commercial decline were certainly contributory factors; but fundamental blame has been placed on Muslim theology. As early as Islam’s third century, scholasticism began to take hold of Muslim thought. This “narrow adherence to traditional teachings, doctrines, and methods” eventually limited freedom in the realm of ideas and created a fixed legal system that governed all of Muslim life.

The teachings of the Koran were gradually fixed by the learned doctors of the faith. By a process of consensus they decided that the free and active use of reason was no longer appropriate in theology. Once the main lines of doctrines were established, their gradually narrowing boundaries were regarded as limits for all later thinkers.

What was required was not fresh thinking or private interpretation, but humble and faithful obedience to the traditions of the community. All institutions of Islam, including educational ones, had to conform to this approach. Not a creative engagement with the present, but a passing forward of the past was the accepted task of clergy, teachers, and parents. This development created an atmosphere of conservative traditionalism that suppressed the intellectual activity of Islam.

What happened in the realm of ideas also occurred in the sphere of Muslim law; Islam is a religion of law. The relationship between God and man is best characterized by the picture of servant and master. Every believer is in a sense an Abdullah, a favourite Muslim name that means “servant of God,” and his religion is Islam, which means “submission to God.” In that relationship the servant operates with a set of rules that he must obey happily. These rules for life are revealed by God in the Koran and in the traditions of Islam based on the life of the prophet Muhammad. Drawn together they comprise what is called the Shari’a, the way of Islam.

As Islam developed, so did its legal system that interpreted the Shari’a. Eventually it became a complex and comprehensive code that touched every important aspect of life. That rigid structure of law gave unity to the vast human expanse of the Muslim world, but it hardened the intellectual arteries and reduced the ability of Muslims to deal with new conditions.

Dismembered empire

Islam was crawling into a mental and social shell just when Western Europe experienced its great awakening with the Renaissance and Reformation, followed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. The new power of the West sought release in colonial ambition and imperialist expansion. Western nations soon ruled supreme in almost every major Islamic area of the world. To the regression of intellectual life was now added the bitter potion of political defeat it had helped make possible.

This heritage of the past explains the gloom in which the Muslim world found itself 100 years ago. Traditionalism and inertia characterized the community. Want and disease reigned in many areas. Spiritually, the pious life was overlaid with ritualism. Psychologically, Muslims had a defeatist attitude. Instead of looking ahead, they looked backwards. A sense of loss and nostalgia for past glories pervaded the atmosphere.

The last and only refuge was their religious faith, so they built “walls” to prevent any breach in that last bulwark and a ghetto mentality took over. As Islam retreated into the fortress of faith and salved its wounds, it bitterly declined any messages, intellectual or spiritual, that threatened to take away its sacred inheritance and the hope that was left. Christian missions were shut out and Muslims turned a deaf ear to the gospel when it did occasionally reach their hearing.

What for many seemed like the end of the tragic road – the final deathblow for Islam – came after the First World War when the Ottoman Empire was ruthlessly dismembered and parceled out among European nations. But life for Muslims was far from over. Things were happening within the boy of Islam that were energizing it for a new and lively phase in its history, a phase through which it is now passing.

Winds of change

Today the revival has come. Changes that in Christianity took centuries have been compressed into one generation for Muslims. These have left some Muslims gasping and troubled, and others exhilarated and alive with hope.

A powerful mix of internal and external stimuli has brought about this Muslim revival. Granting that the influence of these factors is complex, I would like to suggest three major ones: the influence of modern education, the recovery of economic and political power, and the pressure of Muslim laity for social reform.

First, modern education was the chief benefit that Islam received from its occupation by colonial powers, although Muslims did not always regard it as such. The spirit of traditional Muslim education was to respect, to memorize, to hand on, and to repeat again what was received from the past. This included all aspects of knowledge, natural as well as spiritual, for all significant truth had been decided. For Muslims, the Koran had become a closed book. Its holy language was to be remembered and recited, not reflected upon and freshly applied.

Western education, with its probing, analytic, and questioning spirit now came on the scene. To some it seemed wildly threatening, and every attempt was made to resist its influence. To other Muslims, however, it seemed like a ray of hope and in the end it is the latter vision that has been victorious.

At the beginning of the past Islamic century stand two individuals who typify two different kinds of approval that were given to modern education. In India, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan accepted rationalism as the guiding spirit for modern Muslims. He taught that modern knowledge does not contradict, but confirms the essential truths of the Koran. There is, he said, no difference between God’s word and God’s work. Both are equally the sources of divine truth and, in fact, revelation must be interpreted in the light of natural truth. Out of his University of Aligarh poured forth a stream of young Muslim idealists for whom the hope of Islam rested in the scientific temper that Sir Syed inculcated and typified.

More Muslims, however, preferred the less radical approach of Muhammad Abduh in Egypt, who held that Islam must be reformed ad returned to its true and original state. Once reformed of ignorance, abuses, and the un-Islamic accretions that have crept in over the years, Islam will be in perfect harmony with modern life and thought.

Muhammad Abduh’s primary thesis, that there is nothing wrong with Islam but a great deal wrong with Muslims, became the basic approach for most Muslims who supported modern education. In the course of time, not only did some form or other of Western education become the model for advanced Muslim universities, but Muslims themselves began to stream to Western halls of learning. Today that stream has become a flood.

A veritable intellectual revolution is taking place in Islam. Ten years ago when the Apollo mission circled the moon, some Muslims in an interior village of southwest India argued that it could not have happened because in traditional Islamic cosmology moon and stars are studded into the seventh and final heavenly layer, beyond which there is no passage. But in Islam today the mind has broken through. What will it mean for the faith?

That is exactly the question that perturbs many Muslims at the close of their 14th century. Christians can understand that problem well. They know how hard change comes, and they realize how difficult it is to define its limits.

Recovery of power

The recovery of political and economic power is the second major factor in the resurgence of Islam. Considering the recovery of political power first, we find that during the early years of their 14th century many Muslims still lived with the dream of restoring pan-Islamic unity. Tat dream was first born in the early days of Islam when the prophet Muhammad organized believers as one community under his leadership.

But divisions occurred soon after his death and the ideal of Islamic unity was never fully realized thereafter. But at the start of the Islamic 14th century, Jamal al-din alAfghani [sic], the great Middle Eastern revivalist, ignited a new fire of appreciation for this vision. “Muslims of the world, unite!” was his call. The primal vision he proclaimed is still held by some Muslim idealists, but for the most it has yielded place to another reality.

That reality is the emergence of modern independent Muslim nations. After the First World War the powers of Europe began their retreat, which accelerated and climaxed after the Second World War.

Colonialism was outdated and outrun. Nation after nation gained its freedom, among them the 46 independent states with Muslim majorities. Each of these nations had its own pilgrimage to selfhood that holds its citizens together.

Although 20 of these nations are in the Arab world, the majority of Muslims live outside that belt, with only 10 to 15 percent having Arabic as their native tongue. In order of size of their Muslim population, the leading nations that have emerged are Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Turkey, Egypt, Iran, and Nigeria. With their emergence, Muslim nationalism rather than pan-Islam nationalism has become the dominant force in modern Islam.

It’s hard to overestimate the importance of the fact that political power has been restored to Muslims. It has placed Muslims in charge of their lives and futures and reinvigorated their self-respect.

It has removed the basic cause of their resentful and defensive attitudes. It has restored to prominence the old Islamic interest in statecraft, and in fact has made salvation by politics the unwritten theme of contemporary Muslim life. Barring the uncertainties of the Palestine issue, Muslim states are now able to feel at ease in the world community of nations.

Muslim nationalism, however, has also produced a number of serious problems, both internal and external. Internally Muslims have struggled with the question of how far Muslim religion shall control a Muslim state. Is there after all a distinction between the sacred and the secular? Islam has always denied that there is. All of life, including political life, is under God. But how is the sacred to be expressed in and through the complexities of a modern nation state?

At one end of the spectrum are countries like Saudi Arabia where the Koran and Shari’a are the explicit constitution of the nation. At the other end is Turkey, which has chosen to be a secular state along Western lines. In the middle are nations like Pakistan that are struggling to find their way.

Externally the development has raised the question of how Muslim nations should relate to each other when they have conflicting perceptions and interests. Muslim nationalism expresses and reinforces the geographic and cultural differences of the Muslim world. The basic unifying elements are still there in the tradition of Islam.

They pray to God with a common prayer, and at the same time. They fast in the identical month. They meet together on the pilgrimage to Mecca, the focus of Islamic unity. They celebrate the same two major festivals: the breaking of the fast and the commemoration of the sacrifice of Abraham. But the divisive forces of national self-interest and cultural self-affirmation frequently overwhelm these unifying elements, a tense fact that received notable expression when the idealistic state of Pakistan split in 1972.

Islam’s recovery of economic power went hand in hand with its regaining of political power. For Muslims to rule their own destiny and not to have the resources to do it was their dilemma. This contradiction was one of the factors that enabled communism to infiltrate the supposedly impregnable barrier of Islam.

New wealth

The poverty and suffering of ordinary Muslims coinciding with political liberation and growth in education provided inflammable material on which secular philosophies could and did feed. Many of these ordinary Muslims who turned to extreme movements did so without denying their faith; in frustration they were following anyone who might relieve their hapless condition. Recently, however, the situation dramatically changed.

The new oil wealth of the Islamic nations has the capacity to dominate global economies for years to come, an utterly astonishing turnabout in world history. The little kingdom of Kuwait symbolizes the change that oil has brought to Muslim lives. Once it was a sleepy, nomadic region, whose most prominent features were the desert, the ruler’s palace, and a Protestant mission hospital. But oil was discovered in 1938, and production began in 1946. Now the people of Kuwait have the highest per capita income of any nation in the world, and its ruler is said to be the world’s richest person.

This new economic power is full of implications for Muslims. On the physical side it gives them the capacity to transform their societies into modern nations almost overnight, and they are doing so. On the psychological side it gives Muslims a strong sense of self-confidence.

There is an élan, a spirit of buoyancy and optimism among them that has not been present for centuries. That spirit percolates through every area of Muslim life.

Muslims therefore face the challenge of how to distribute their wealth. The traditional pattern of almsgiving, worked out in a premodern age, seems inadequate to the new situation. Muslims are being suddenly forced to formulate a system of Islamic economics that is both true to the faith and realistic.

For example, the Koran forbids the taking of interest. What are Muslims to do? Apply the admonition, ignore it, or reinterpret it? A more serious problem is how to deal with mammon and its love. Pious Muslims are already horrified by the growth of materialism and the advance of the secular mood. The faith of Islam now faces the most serious testing in its history.

Intellectual, political, and economic factors have all played major roles in the revival of Islam. Another factor is the spiritual one. Faithful and religiously-oriented Muslims have also been involved in the remarkable changes of the past century. Sometimes it was the oft-maligned religious leaders, the clergy of Islam, who led the way toward renewal. The bulk of the clergy, however, were sincere but ill-educated guardians of the status quo, and were frequently lampooned by other Muslims.

It was from the laity of Islam that the most powerful pressures for reform built up. These were not the mystical devotees of earlier years who made such a spiritual impact on Islam. Rather, they were modern, educated, and socially conscious businessmen, lawyers, journalists, doctors and teachers, who called for pragmatic change. Personally, they were believers, but not theologically trained, and they could not easily integrate the new developments with the old faith. So they held on to the old faith in relatively undisturbed compartments and directed their attention to social reform.

The social reformers directed their attention to community problems of every kind, but especially toward those conditions for which Islam was criticized. They worked to establish colleges and scholarship funds, medical care facilities, job training programs, cultural centres and educational journals; they strove to raise the status of women, to better relations with non-Muslims, and even to reform Muslim personal law.

They called for “revolutionary changes,” defining the revolution as an end to the tendency to blame God or past events for present conditions, and the beginning of self-help and co-operative action.

Gathering clouds

As frequently happens, however, these winds of change have no produced a severe reaction in Islam as it stands on the threshold of its 15th century. The backlash has swept stormily across the Muslim world in the past five years. Cries of too much, too fast, are rising everywhere. The call is ringing out to return to the old verities, and to apply strictly the literal interpretation of the Koran and the hallowed directives of the Shari’a. Fazlur Rahman, a perceptive Muslim scholar, has well stated the phenomenon: “The movement inspired by the initial modernist impulse split into two developments moving in two directions, one in the direction of almost pure Westernism and the gravitating towards fundamentalism?”

As any newpaper reader will recognize, the fundamentalist wave is surging strongly in reaction to all that has transpired in the second phase of the past Islamic century. More and more Muslims today are saying “enough!” to progress; it is time now to conserve the faith of Islam.

As Islam celebrates a milestone and enters a new century, it is engaged in a monumental physical, mental, and spiritual struggle that is full of implications for the lovers of Muslims.

That, of course, is what Christians by definition are: lovers of Muslims. A lover is understanding and sympathetic with the condition of the one he loves, and is equally committed to sharing that which has helped him most in his own experience. Through the turmoil of the past century a favourite Koran passage has been Surah 13, verse 11: “God will not change the condition of a people, until they change what is in their hearts.” Christians who are on the divinely appointed mission of love to their Muslim friends and neighbours believe that in Jesus Christ, whom they adore and Muslims respect, God reveals the power that speaks to the conditions of human hearts as nothing else. It is only the power of God’s love that can bring true and godly change.

An old Arab proverb says: “What comes from the lips reaches the lips; what comes from the heart reaches the heart.”


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