Much of what we know about Islam rarely comes from our own independent study and reflection on the scriptures. We generally learn from a select class of people who depend on threats and warnings as the basis for social reform.
On Fridays, one can hardly hear a word of God’s mercy, achievements of human beings, or admiration of the natural phenomenon from the pulpit. During funeral gatherings, the sermons typically begin and end with tough warnings of perdition for slight aberrations in matters of worship. In study circles, where the Holy Quran is explained, the speaker reflects more on his own prejudices than on the Quranic worldview. Even more pitiful is the utter disregard of religious scholars for the human side of Islam in words and in deeds.
Man’s distinction as the best of creatures lies in his agency to reflect on the past and make right choices for the future. Unlike animals, he is endowed with a conscience – the moral compass – which, in its pure form, guides him in the right direction. In the absence of this compass, man strays into the animal world where he is driven more by selfishness than by sympathy and magnanimity.
He does not care about who dies of curable diseases; he does not feel the pain of the displaced and dispossessed; and he does not empathise with the destitute living in terrible conditions. He measures his success by the amount of wealth he accumulates, the number of farmhouses and expensive cars he owns, and the extravagant life he enjoys. Up to a certain point, acquisitiveness may be good and necessary but when it becomes one’s obsession, it leaves no time and room for higher things in life.
Islam’s emergence on the global horizon was a remarkable phenomenon in human history. It created conditions for people to transcend their selfish desires and live by ethical principles. It empowered the weaker in society through a just judicial system where everyone, regardless of colour, creed, or gender, was equal before law. It emancipated people from cult worship and tribalism. It helped the oppressed and promoted an egalitarian culture.
Unfortunately, the Muslims world has lost spiritual contact with Islam over time. Two segments of society – the rulers and the ulema – are particularly responsible for the downfall of the Muslim Ummah. After the first four caliphs and a few honest individuals later on, Muslim rulers were no different from Roman and Persian emperors. They used all means, fair or fool, to amass wealth, concentrate power, and perpetuate rule.
Public welfare, development, and dispensation of justice were exotic values for them. They were guilty of negligence in promoting education as the most potent force for human development. Except for the Abbasids, whose passion for religious and scientific knowledge was unprecedented, rulers in the Muslim world hankered after lust and merriment.
Most of the ulema have failed too to set an example for ordinary Muslims in different spheres of life. They have either engaged themselves in trivial theological matters or resigned to fate in matters affecting everyday life. They have not presented Islam as a dynamic religion.
Ijtihad, which was the cornerstone in Islamic tradition, aimed at connecting the immutable principles of Islam with changing conditions of the world, has been put in the cold storage for the last five hundred years. Instead of defending their sectarian turfs, the ulema should have worked for unity of the Ummah and its repositioning as a global power.
The gap between the ideals of Islam and the sordid realities of the Muslim world has manifested itself in growing revivalist movements at different times but the results have been far from encouraging. And today the Muslim world grapples with problems of extremism, terrorism, political instability, and Western domination. There is deep frustration with the existing economic and political order.
One cannot predict where the Muslim world is heading but no one can contest the fact that it is not moving in the right direction. It has drifted away from its original path of constant struggle and renewal.
The writer teaches at the Sarhad University. Email: zebkhan.basuit.edu.pk