COMMENT: Why Muslims are where they are —Jamal Hussain - Friday, December 31, 2010

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Without conformity, law and order in a society will break down, but rigid conformity leads to stagnation and regression. A correct balance is the answer. But what is the right balance? There are no simple answers

Discussion on religious issues is never easy. Beliefs are well entrenched and, in most cases, leave little room for the accommodation of differing points of views. There is a tendency to look at things as being black and white; the minority that takes a nuanced approach is generally labelled as being composed of bleeding liberals.

Liberalism itself has many shades. Shorn of its negative connotations it means a firm belief and conviction in one’s faith while being open-minded and accommodating to the beliefs of others. A free and open discussion without prejudice and dogmas can work wonders in the opening of minds. Even if one does not agree with the other, it helps to understand the diversity of methods societies have adopted in their search for the Almighty.

Jews, Christians and Muslims are the followers of the Book that was revealed to prophets Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (PBUH), and the message that had earlier been revealed to Abraham, Noah and Adam — the first human being on earth — besides a number of other prophets in between. With the passage of time, the message invariably got altered but, for Muslims, the Quran is the final message in which the Almighty has taken it upon Himself to prevent any alterations. The Quran is still in its pristine form as it was revealed to the Holy Prophet (PBUH)) but that does not mean that the current practices and beliefs of Muslims are necessarily in line with the revealed message. Different interpretations by different sects have led to a division within the ummah.

A study of the history of Islam and its progress during its first 500 years is very revealing. The message of Islam was revealed to an Arab society that, in that period, was considered primitive and of little consequence in the international arena — the Romans, Byzantines and Persians were the super powers of the region then. Within a few decades of the advent of Islam, Arabian society had been transformed by its new faith and, in less than a century, had become the dominant player and force, overshadowing the mighty Romans, Persians and Byzantines in the process. The Muslim empire continued to expand for the next 500 years before stagnation and decline set in.

What transformed that backward and ignorant community so radically that they were able to overcome the mighty Romans, Byzantine and Persian empires, which appeared to be impregnable then? Two factors were primarily responsible for the exponential growth of the early Muslim era. Islam created the environment that encouraged the seeking of knowledge and establishment of a just system of governance. Compared to other societies, Muslims then had acquired a higher level of knowledge and had established greater justice and fair play. For as long as Muslim society stayed ahead in these two critical areas, they dominated all others. About 500 years on, Muslim society stagnated and even regressed on both these issues whereas Europe began to close the gap. The period of the Renaissance in Europe brought them out of the dark ages at a time when Muslim societies had started to move in the reverse direction — from enlightenment to darkness. When the critical stage was crossed, the mantle of leadership passed on to the Europeans who were predominantly Christian. Today, the huge chasm between Christian and Muslim societies is a reflection of the difference in knowledge and awareness and sense of justice and fair play prevalent in the two societies.

Historians have cited a number of factors for the decline of the Muslim empire, infighting amongst the various sects being one of them. The rot started to set in when Muslims became slaves to the form rather than the spirit of their beliefs. This led to dogmas, stagnation, intolerance and a precipitous decline in the quest for fresh knowledge. Ignorance breeds injustice in society and rapidly the Muslim empire was overtaken by others. In conclusion, a society’s progress is dependent on two factors: level of knowledge and awareness and the level of justice and fair play prevalent in society. Religion plays a key role at least in the second aspect as human nature is such that without willing submission to a concept far more powerful than itself, human society has a tendency to self-destruct because of arrogance and pride.

Are there any eternal truths? Yes, and the simpler they are kept by society the more vigorous they become. What about conformity and independence of thought? A nuanced answer would be: “That depends.” Without conformity, law and order in a society will break down, but rigid conformity leads to stagnation and regression. A correct balance is the answer. But what is the right balance? There are no simple answers. The higher the level of knowledge and awareness of a society the more independence in thought it can handle. The more primitive and ignorant, the higher degree of conformity is required

Rather than education, the terms knowledge and awareness are more relevant because education is merely the pathway towards knowledge, which is the means for achieving a higher level of awareness — the ultimate factor that leads to a more enlightened and tolerant society. Knowledge and awareness without formal education is possible but education, while facilitating the absorption of knowledge and awareness, may not lead to them automatically — an educated person may be shorn of knowledge and awareness while an uneducated one may be blessed with both.

Religious intolerance is one of the leading factors behind the decline of the Muslim ummah in general and Pakistan in particular. The future well being of both depends on their ability to rectify this grave malady afflicting their society.

The writer is a retired Air Commodore, former director Centre for Aerospace Power Studies PAF Base Faisal, Karachi, and former Commandant Joint Services Staff College. He can be reached at

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