Decline and the sense of history

The onus is entirely on Muslims to be proactive in their analysis of their decline and suggest how to invert the declining curve

While trying to figure out reasons for the reactive mode the modern Muslims are completely steeped in, famous orientalist Bernard Lewis, in his book, The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror pinpoints three symptoms, typifying their collective disposition.

Reactionary and agitational response that finds ubiquity among the Muslims for the last couple of hundred years is the outcome of a three-pronged reaction to the Western world, which is dominating in every sphere, from politics and economy to the production of knowledge and determining the social norms on the entire world.

The sense of humiliation tops the order that Lewis formulates, while theorising about radical Islam. He maintains: “the feeling of a community of people accustomed to regard themselves as the sole custodians of God’s truth, commanded by Him to bring it to the infidels, who suddenly find themselves dominated and exploited by those same infidels….”

To humiliation was added frustration which was caused because Muslim reformers imported several remedies from the West to stem the tidal wave of decline, but nothing worked for them and down the hill slide continued unabated. Lewis does not consider Muslims good enough even to find a remedy themselves. The cerebral sterility and intellectual decrepitude had pervaded so deep among the entire body of Muslim men and women that even for the remedy to stem the rot, they had to look westwards.

Thus, when those borrowed remedies failed to rescue Muslims from the subdued state, they were overtaken by frustration. From the late 1930s, Muslims hit the jackpot in the form of crude oil, which gave them wealth, pride, a new confidence and power which they demonstrated to its optimal effect in 1973, in support of Egypt against Israel. It proved to be “a very effective weapon”.

But what Lewis highlights as a significant trait among the Muslims was ‘the contempt’ for the West. Thus, to summarise Bernard Lewis’ conclusion that he draws after quite an extensive and long-drawn deliberation, it is humiliation, frustration and contempt towards the West and particularly with respect to America that defines the modern Muslim and his/her overall weltanschauung.

Radical Islam or Islamic fundamentalism (the terms are used interchangeably) is a very strong and stern articulation of the impulse constituted by these three sentiments. To what extent the inferences drawn by Lewis hold water is what we will scrutinise in the rest of this column.

I hold that the notional thread that binds the entire Muslim world in a singular weltanschauung is the sense of decline. Humiliation, frustration or the contempt are the excrescences of the sense of decline. If looked closely at the human history, one may find out that the sense of decline has been the principal stimulus for revivalism to come to a pass.

Western world had a similar experience at the hands of the Muslims during the crusades. It forced them to do the necessary soul searching but they didn’t squander their time and energy on feeling humiliated or getting frustrated over defeat or decline. Instead, they instead got busy with reforming themselves primarily by acquiring and simultaneously producing knowledge. In that process, a strong sense of history and firm connection with the classical knowledge helped them get on the path of redemption.

Greek knowledge and Latin as a vehicle of scholarly expression catapulted the Western civilisation out of the decadence. Important works were translated into Latin. The earliest known translation of the Qur’an in any European language was the Latin works by Robert of Ketton at the behest of the Abbot of Cluny (c. 1143), which was a testament to the newly found curiosity about other religions, among the Westerners. Countless political upheavals that Europe faced over several centuries, could not distract its intellectuals and academics from their epistemic pursuits.

Thus, the knowledge-seeking and instruction had an independent path to tread despite strictures from the clergy. Since the days of Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo, free inquiry became the norm. It was doggedly followed in their institutions of higher learning. Equally, if not more important was another factor, which had been a healthy interface of religion and local cultures, the latter being a mediatory force in the dissemination of religious message.

Therefore, in the universalised incarnation of Christianity, the local colouring became not only identifiable but also quite pronounced. Put differently, one may aver that Europe had a nationalisation of faith. Consequently, faith ceased to impede the onward progress in the evolution of knowledge and culture.

In the Muslim world, intellectual evolution got arrested from 1258 onwards when Mongols ransacked Baghdad. However, Muslims sustained their political supremacy, which didn’t have intellectual undercurrents. Civilizations are generally sustained when politics and intellect move ahead hand in hand. The civilisational decline that had started by 1258 could not be diagnosed until the 19th century when the (political) dynastic decline gave way to its virtual obliteration.

From the 18th century onwards reforms among Muslims turned them into xenophobic and exclusionary. Ironically, the xenophobia and exclusionary tendencies were demonstrated on their co-religionists. Muhammad bin Abdul Wahab and Shah Walliullah were stark exemplifications of such a trend. Religion is cleaved from culture. Gradually both came to be deemed as antithetical to each other. Worst still was the a-historicisation of faith in a bid to go back to the basics. The overall impact that trend had cast over the Muslims in general was their indifference toward history as a branch of knowledge.

When we analyse decline, it is history that one has to turn to, not only for diagnosing the dynamics that had led to decline but so for the prescription of prognosis. Since Muslims have yet to come up with any theoretical frame which may help them to analyze the process of their decline and suggest the ways and means to turn things around.

Bernard Lewis is right in saying that the remedies that Muslims try to rely on come from the West. But the West is not facing decline, these are the Muslims experiencing decline therefore the onus is entirely on them to be proactive in their analysis about their decline and suggest how to invert the declining curve. Western scholarship can at best observe Muslim decline from a distance. Their prescriptions are not likely to work.

Decline and the sense of history