Issue 102 / November - December 2014
The Islamic world and cultural revival
Question: The Islamic world has been in a period of stagnation for a long time regarding scientific development and cultural life. What are your thoughts?
The most significant task falling on our shoulders nowadays is to serve the development of the world's capacity for knowledge and learning. Falling behind in this mission exemplifies the worst cases of being reactionary, obscuring the truth, or acting with bigotry; it is tantamount to failing to catch up with the world.
It is important to strike a balance between being faithful to the essence of religion and being revolutionary while interpreting God's word, the Prophetic example, scholars' rulings, and contemporary principles of guidance. Otherwise, it will be extremely difficult to make sense of unfolding events, recognize the blessings among them, and motivating yourself to good work. Narrating the epics of the past over friendly gatherings and self-gratifying is not the way to serve faith anymore; today's matters are discussed in auditoriums, and the conditions of the day indicate universities, academic institutes, and research centers are the venues for solutions.
Today, there are plenty of problems to be solved in both the theological arena and the positive sciences. Bediuzzaman, who cautions us and invites skillful minds to contemplate his notable work The Reasonings (Muhakemat), notes that, "From the sixth century onwards (from the advent of Islam), everything began gradually to deteriorate in the nation of Islam" (2008, p. 34). We can then argue that no man of knowledge who was able to address contemporary problems has grown across the entire world of Islam during these several centuries. Yes, there were many men of learning who were advanced in their disciplines during this period and we do show them well-deserved respect. Yet true progress was shown in the first four centuries of Islamic history in the broadest proportions, and these achievements have not been equaled in the following centuries. That level of advancement should not be a distant dream today.
Yes, a period of congelation happened in the fifth century (eleventh century CE). Nizamiyya seems to be almost both a beginning and an end. In a way, it could be said that the last institution that gave what it could to the Islamic world was the Madrasa al-Nizamiyya. Whereas this last fountain had been a well of inspiration to many figures, such as Imam Ghazzali or Fahraddin al-Radhi, it later deviated from its objectives and could not perform the expected mission.
Coming back to our day, similar to what happened to Nizamiyya, there are many among us who have lagged behind in the course of time and events, and have resisted new transformative ideas as alternative paths to serving faith and humanity. It has been so bad that some have even opposed the ideas pertaining to a better education through successful schools and dorms to welcome as many students as possible; they've resisted starting TV networks and other media outlets, opening universities, etc., and their argument was whether such innovations existed and were valid in our tradition!
Some did their best to raise obstacles in the way of progress. Such reactionary ones will not decrease in number today nor tomorrow, for it is not easy to keep pace with our age and follow the developments enabled by computer technology and science. Having said that, people's faith and devotions are exempt from such criticism; we do not speculate on those.
For that matter, the rather harsh accusations against the faithful communities that they are reactionary do have a foundation as the examples above clearly proves. Even if such accusations are not fair, believers should still ask themselves whether they truly follow the injunctions of their faith and live up to being good role models. Do Muslims represent the Qur'an in its true sense? We should perhaps approach this condemnation as a retribution arising from justice of destiny, even if it is maltreatment on the side of the condemners.
To cite an example, the last works on jurisprudence (fiqh) that are covered in classical Islamic scholarship are al-Multahak al-Abhur by Ibrahim Effendi of Aleppo and Durar wa Gurar by Molla Husrev, both from the fifteenth century CE. So much has changed after so many centuries, and scholars could have worked together to produce new volumes to address the needs of each and every age. Yet, as in the example of these two books, Islamic civilization has locked itself on certain matters and has failed to develop.
Muslims today have to solve their problems of education, and contribute to all of humanity's cultural life with the richness of their culture and civilization. Towards this aim, the foundation of universities and substantial research centers is of a great importance. The scholars employed there shall re-examine everything stated in the name of science so far, and interpret science one more time, which is the only way to avoid dualism.
With this last expression, I especially would like to underline this fact: today, the positive sciences, with all their branches, rely on a materialistic philosophy which produces its own so-called "indisputable" truths. Naturally, while Muslims are trying to put forward something beyond these views in reconciliation with a faithful worldview, we can not help presenting issues like a patchwork.
Such an effort to take the present understanding of science and giving it a somewhat Islamic spin produces nothing more than an artificial synthesis. A true contribution of Muslims to our world would be when we can draw on our roots of knowledge and scientific approach, and produce some authentic work which is our property ÔÇô this will only be possible through the work of revolutionary individuals who can think outside of the box.
This universe is a book that has emerged by the might, will-power, wish, and holy knowledge of God Almighty. And the speech of God, the holy book of revelation, is His declaration in the name of this book of the universe. Between these two books, there exists essentially no controversy. The understanding we wish to reach is this peak where these two sources of knowledge are reconciled once again. Academic studies should include a revisiting of classical theological work in the light of today's positive sciences. What we can deduce today could perhaps be much more accurate than what was understood of these works before.
The task for believers should not only be to guide other believers to paradise, but rather, to make all the doors of the world open to the heavens for all.
This aspiration can only be realized by scientific knowledge, wisdom, a sound Islamic understanding, its vivification in one's entire life, and presenting it in its naturally appealing way that all shall welcome. This goal is possible by dealing with all the issues of Islam at an academic level. Common thoughts and views at a lay level can promise nothing for this cause. Our culture will be resurrected and vivified by the people of true culture, and its life will be maintained and continued again by them. To cultivate the people who shall undertake such a mission surely falls upon us again.