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The journal > Year 2 N.4 September 2006 > When Islam Addresses its Own Bewilderment

When Islam Addresses its Own Bewilderment

Analysis. It is unusual to leaf through a book by a Muslim author without encountering subjects relating to the decadence and profound crisis of the Muslim world's cultural system and system of values. In recent years, and in particular after 2001, this question has become impelling and was at the centre of a great forum made up of ulema and intellectuals. Here are the conclusions.

Samir-Khalil Samir | 01 September 2006

The attack on the Twin Towers in New York on 11 September 2001, because of its pre-eminently spectacular and terrorist character, unleashed a kind of earthquake in the whole world. The reaction of the United States of America is well known. The reactions of the Muslim world were varying and have not always been known about: on the one hand, at the time of the event, the attack provoked, on the Muslim side, and especially amongst young people, a certain enthusiasm, ('for once the West, in the form of its most prestigious country, has been defeated'), and on the other, following the reaction, political leaders and men of thought became aware of the gravity of the political, social, cultural and religious situation of the Muslim world. They have been asking themselves increasingly about the causes of this situation and the means by which to achieve a way out. It is this second aspect that I wish to address here.
Nobody in the Arab-Muslim world doubts that Islam is going through a profound crisis. It is unusual to open a book written by a Muslim, whatever current or line of thought the author belongs to, without encountering some pages on the contemporary decadence of the Muslim world and the profound crisis that Islam is now experiencing. This phenomenon is not new. The awareness of this decadence, or this delay, or of a disjuncture between the 'Muslim system' and modern thought, goes back to the end of the nineteenth century. Indeed it is this awareness, brought about by the encounter with Europe which was expressed in particular by Napoleon's campaign in Egypt (1798-1801), which provoked the reaction and the rebirth of Arabs and Muslims, the Nahda. This awareness found expression in the past in an evident way in the question posed by Shaykh Muhammad Basyun, 'the Imran of Borneo (Indonesia) to the journal Al-Manar of al-Azhar, which had been founded by Shaykh Rashid Rida, a traditionalist-reformist: 'why have Muslims regressed and why have others progressed?' (Limâdhâ ta'akhkhara l-muslimûn, wa-limâdhâ taqaddama ghayruhum). It was in order to provide an answer to this troubling question that Emir Shakîb Arslân composed in Arab in Lausanne in 1930 his famous work that bore this title.1 It is significant that the work was recently republished in the Lebanon by Shaykh Hasan Tamim.2 The blurb on the cover of the new edition reads: 'the distance between the epoch when the question was posed and our epoch is great; but the problem remains the same and the question is the same despite the distance of time'.3
In recent years this question has become impelling. After the attack of 11 September 2001, this feeling increased: one is not dealing only with a 'delay' in relation to the West but of a profound crisis that is affecting the Muslim world as a whole. Without exaggerating, one can find hundreds of articles that have appeared over a period of a few years written by Muslim intellectuals who call for a reform of Muslim society and propose concrete solutions within the context of this reform both at a political level (the fight against Islamist terrorism, democratisation, respect for human rights etc.) and at a socio-cultural and religious level (the place and role of women in society, the equality of all people, control of the fatwa, a re-reading of the Koran and of Islamic tradition, an openness to the modern world etc.).
Putting off to another occasion the study of these projects for reform promoted by Muslim intellectuals, I will confine myself here to presenting and analysing the official documents issued at the time of the third extraordinary conference of the OIC (Organisation of the Islamic Conference) held in Mecca on 6-8 December 2005.4 The acknowledged intention of this conference was to reach decisions by which the Muslim Umma could move out of the crisis that it is now experiencing. I will base myself on the report of the General Secretary of the OIC, Prof. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu.

A Conference on Disunion
At the beginning of 2005 the King of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah Bin Abdelaziz, made an appeal to the leaders of the Muslim world to prepare the third extraordinary conference of the OIC in December of the same year. He urged them to 'hold meetings of the Ulema and intellectuals of the Umma in preparation for the next extraordinary session of the summit of the Islamic Conference to examine the general situation of the Muslim world, and to look for the best ways and means by which to join ranks and to ensure that the Islamic Umma moves out of its situation of powerlessness and disunion'. The purpose of this meeting will have almost escaped notice: 'to ensure that the Islamic Umma moves out of its situation of powerlessness and disunion'. This would return as a leitmotif in all the declarations of the political leaders and the intellectuals. As a result, on 9-11 September 2005 (is this date perhaps symbolic?) the preparatory forum of the Ulema and Muslim intellectuals was held in Mecca. The participants were organised into three committees: political affairs and the media; economics, science and technology; and Islamic thought, culture and education. At the end of three days they produced their conclusions in line with the subject matter of these three committees (for reasons of space I will not present here the conclusions of the second committee).
The committee on political questions and the media states at the outset: 'although recognising that the Islamic Umma has been going through a long period of crisis, exacerbated by external challenges and hostile campaigns, the intellectuals, redefining the priorities of the Umma, recommended a certain number of measures to be implemented during the course of the next decade'. The intellectuals laid major stress on the need to strengthen solidarity amongst Muslims (3-4). They observed that 'extremism and sectarianism hinder the achievement of real solidarity' (5). They laid emphasis on the need to reform the OIC (6). 'They underlined that the Islamic parameters of good government are compatible with democracy, equality, freedom, social justice, transparency, the fight against corruption and respect for human rights' (7) and 'the importance of a peaceful resolution of conflicts within the Muslim world' (8). With respect to Palestine 'they stress the importance of an overall solution to the problem in line with international law, the recognition of the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people to self-determination and the creation of an independent Palestinian state with Al-Qods Al-Sharif as its capital' (9), but made no reference to Israel.
Terrorism. The question of terrorism is a constant concern of the Muslim states. Point 10 states 'although emphasising the impelling need to combat terrorism and to attack its deep causes, the intellectuals emphasised a lack of agreement in defining the term and laid emphasis on differentiating it from the right to oppose aggression and foreign occupation, as well as the right to self-defence. They rejected all attempts to establish a link between Islam, Muslims and terrorism and observed that all struggles against terrorism with using military means alone only increases violence. For this reason, they made an appeal for the application of the convention of the OIC on terrorism and the creation of an international centre to fight against terrorism, although at the same time exhorting all the member states of the OIC to fight terrorism with combined efforts'.
In this section they emphasised four points. First of all a reaffirmation of the need to combat terrorism; then the need 'to attack its deep causes', which means that 'all struggles against terrorism using military means alone only increases violence', and an emphasis on the distinction that should be made between terrorism and 'the right to oppose aggression and foreign occupation (the Palestinian mujâhidîn clearly belong to this category but perhaps also certain Iraqi actions); and lastly and above all there is a rejection of every 'link between Islam and terrorism'.
the Image of Islam in the West. The question of 'Islamophobia' has been increasingly felt by Muslims since September 2001. It is often seen as being on a par with anti-Semitism. Hence the statement: 'they also invited Western countries to legislate against Islamophobia' (11). Along the same lines the intellectuals 'called attention to the power exercised by the Western world in the field of information and the deviant use made of it by the mass media to portray Islam and Muslims in a negative way' (13). 'In order to correct this distortion the intellectuals invited the member states of the OIC to assure freedom of the press and find an understanding as regards a code of ethics for the mass media' (13). These two proposals appear to me to be essential both as regards the Muslim world and the Western world. They also invited the OIC 'to produce documentaries and films correcting erroneous portrayals of Islam and Muslims' (13). The risk inherent in this last proposal is that of producing apologetic documents rather than providing well-founded information on Islam.
The Muslim minorities outside the Muslim world (12) are causing increasing concern to Muslim countries because of growing emigration. The texts always refer to 'Muslim minorities' and call on the host countries to 'watch over the defence of all their rights and their identity'. The reference to identity in my view raises a problem: can one speak about Muslim identity and is this really the role of the host countries, that is to say should they attend to the protection of their identity? One should in parallel call on Saudi Arabia, for example, the country which organised this conference, to attend to the protection of the identity of Christians. How far should we go in this field?
In my view, this third committee on Islamic thought, culture and education is the most interesting and the one that is richest in points for further reflection.
1. First of all 'the experts noted that the Muslim world is in a critical phase that requires a new commitment to addressing the problems of extremism, illiteracy, the quality of education, diseases to be eliminated, under-development, unemployment, the extension of responsibility to young people and women, and the cultural challenges that globalisation poses to the heritage of the Umma' (35). They formulated important recommendations by which to contribute 'to an improvement in the unacceptable situation in which the Umma now finds itself so as to create advanced societies that will enable it to keep up with modernity' (36).
2. This committee dwelt at length on extremism from a religious point of view. 'Islam prescribes moderation in the various aspects of life in order to establish harmony within society' (38). It was necessary 'to increase efforts at every level in order to represent the image of Islam in a truthful way as a religion of moderation, tolerance and peaceful co-existence' (38). 'Islam condemns extremism in all its forms given that this last is opposed to all human values'. It was necessary 'to work against the causes of extremism, causes that security measures alone are not able to eliminate' (38, cf. 10). It was also necessary 'to adopt a moderate Islamic approach'.
3. Two essential points are addressed in section 38. 'The approach must make a clear distinction between basic principles and ramifications, between what is original and what is derived'. This is a response to the contemporary tendency of radical Islam to place certain details of Muslim social life on the same level as the major principles. 'The intellectuals also emphasised the need to develop an Islamic educational programme which takes into account this perception and to launch in this sphere the necessary processes of revision'.
4. The multiplication of self-proclaimed mufti who issue a plethora of fatwas has provoked numerous reactions in the Muslim press, especially in Egypt. In this context the intellectuals 'wanted to put people on their guard against the issuing of imprudent fatwas by unqualified people who speak in the name of Islam and Muslims and who interpret Islamic teachings in line with their own opinions and preferences, thereby obfuscating the image of Islam both within the Muslim world and outside it' (40). In the same sense a large number of Muslims wish to have a sort of 'unified juridical magisterium' (41). To this end the intellectuals emphasised the need to have an international Islamic reference point based upon a collective and organised jurisprudence in order to provide clarifications on the points of view of Islam on new questions and situations. Here they called for the reform of the Islamic Academy of Fiqh so that it could act as a 'supreme legal authority for the Islamic Umma' (41). At this point there is a notable innovation: 'they also suggested that women should be members of the Academy in line with their legal and academic qualifications and their expertise' (45).
5. Education is the principal engine of progress. 'Illiteracy is the chief and authentic obstacle that hinders the development of Islamic societies' (42). 'Higher educationis the chief base upon which rests the progress of the Umma and its development'. Without such education 'the Umma will always be behind in the field of educational and science' (43). Lastly, in addressing the question of dialogue between civilisations they emphasised that 'this will not be possible if the partners are not equal and there is not a basis of mutual respect, reciprocity and dignity' (45).
6. The last sections (46-51) refer to the rights of women, of children and of young people, but without really exploring the matter in depth. As regards the rights of women one reads: 'Islam has clearly affirmed the pre-eminent role and the rights of women in society'. In the same way an 'improvement in the condition and position of women in society and the member states of the OIC is also called for' (46).

A Plan of Action against Weakness
Two pages end this report and here are some significant passages: 'it is the shared belief of eminent personalities, the ulema and the intellectualsthat the Muslim world is going through a critical stage of historical importance. The Muslim world needs a new vision, an appropriate agenda and urgent interventionThe Muslim world needs thought-through change carried out by itself and not imposed from outside. This requires an openness of spirit and intellectual vivacity as well as a political will and leadership of a much more energetic kind than that seen during past crisesThe Muslim world needs an approach that is able to take on board these challenges and build a brighter future for the Muslims in the worldan approach to achieve a community of nations and states that embody justice, development and moral strength'. 'The absence of a suitable and agreed way of proceeding to achieve this objective could have unpredictable consequences which are liable to bring with them other waves of destruction, alienation, hopelessness, embarrassment and dependence in the Muslim world'. To this end the intellectuals drew up a plan of action. 'It involves large scale measures that should be taken to allow Muslims to move out of their contemporary condition of weakness so as to install a unified, solid and strong Muslim world'.
'To conclude, the whole of the Umma hopes that the passive and isolated approach towards the challenges posed today to the Muslim world will be ended. It also hopes to speak with one and the same voice and to harmonise its actions. A new OIC will be the instrument able to construct for the Muslim world a brighter and more promising future for hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Its success will constitute an authentic historic achievement not only for Muslims but also for mankind as a whole'
There can be no doubt that the events that followed 11 September 2001, namely the spread of terrorism and violence in the Muslim world, intra-Muslim violence, and the propagation of religious extremism, on the one hand, and the anti-Muslim Western reactions, the wars undertaken by Western countries against Muslim countries, and the acute deterioration of the situation in Palestine and the Middle East, on the other, have strengthened the perception of the crisis and the weakness of the Muslim world and at the same time the belief that Muslims are the victims of the West. This complex reality appears to be provoking a deep desire for renewal. It seems to me to be essential to support these attempts in every way to ensure that they are not strangled at birth. The decadence of the Muslim world can only be harmful for the Western world, for international relations, for Islamic-Christian relations and for world peace.

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1. Shakîb Arslân, Limâdhâ ta'akhkhara l-muslimûn, wa-limâdhâ taqaddama ghayruhum, with a preface by Muhammad Rashid Rida ('Isâ al-Babi al Halabi, Cairo, 1939). The author develops the idea that the delay and the decadence of Muslims is due to three factors; ignorance, the absenceof a scientific spirit and moral corruption.

2. Idem, revised edition (tab'ah gadidah wa-munaqqahah) edited by Shaykh Hasan Tamin (Dâr Maktabat al-Hayât, Beyrouth, n.y.), 167 pp. In his preface (pp. 5-9 and in particular pp. 5-6) Shaykh Tamin explains that this sense of inferiority (takhalluf) of Muslims is very recent; it goes back to the middle of the seventh century after the Egira (about 1150)!

3. Ibidem, on the spine, 2.

4. See the sites http://www.islamicsummit.org.sa/fr/9-27.aspx
(French text), http://www.islamicsummit.org.sa/9-7.aspx
(Arabic text), http://www.islamicsummit.org.sa/en/9-27.aspx (English text).

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