Five suggestions for Islamic world

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

There is no doubt or debate that Islamic world is lagging far behind today from others in several important fields including education, science and technology and except a few oil rich Arab nations, it is facing poverty and illiteracy. Also, it lacks sense of unity as some Muslim countries are closer to the West and some hostile to western countries. There are grave ideological differences too. Also, Muslims have poor record about human rights situation and especially status of women.

Support TwoCircles

Here we propose five suggestions which can be debated and discussed by Muslims and add or delete to these suggestions so that Muslims could achieve high status among the nations of the world in all fields. Muslims have tendency to invoke past glory and what they had achieved during Abbasid period in the filed of philosophy, science and technology. It is quite natural that when we have nothing to show in present, we, in order to hold our head high, invoke past glories. However, it does not help.

Before we discuss these suggestions, I would also like to stress here that we Muslims are too pre-occupied with theological issues and rush to ulama for fatwas even in fields where they have no skills to guide. It is again because of poverty and illiteracy of poor Muslim masses in entire Muslim world. Unfortunately the ulama that are trained only in purely theological issues – and theology which was evolved during medieval ages, dominate the Islamic world.

That is why so many fatwas are issued and even the Saudi King had to issue an order restraining ulama from issuing fatwas which become subject of controversies and media focus. Too many fatwas of mutually contradictory nature are issued which hardly help resolve modern complicated issues. Islam does not encourage priesthood and certainly not institutionalized priesthood. Despite this it is thriving in the Islamic world. This can happen only when knowledge ceases to be monopoly of few ulama and Islamic theology also ceases to be stagnant pool and continues to evolve as living and dynamic entity.

The first suggestion

Our first suggestions thus in this respect is that the Islamic world commit itself to spread and consolidation of education. The Muslim nations must compulsorily spend a least 2 to 3 percent of its gross national product on education. The very first aim should be universal literacy. Investment in primary education pays later very rich dividends. Higher education is not possible without primary education. Also, here should be especial emphasis on female education as generally literacy among women is far less that among men.

Also, Muslim nations are far behind in the field of science and technology. At one time west used to learn from Muslims. Today it is Muslim world which is totally dependent on the western world. This reversal needs to be reversed again. It would be no exaggeration to say that Muslim world is most backward as far as progress in science and technology is concerned. Today every nation tries to build centers of excellence. No Muslim country can boast of such centre of excellence in academia and especially in the field of science and technology.

Even country like India which has made tremendous progress in science and technology compared to Muslim world, does not have a university which can rank among the 100 best universities of the world let alone a Muslim country. But that does not mean that Muslim countries should not endeavor to develop one. Today oil rich Arab countries spend millions of dollars in buying weapons from America and other western countries but shy away from spending on education of their own people.

The western countries exploit these oil rich nations in two ways; they make super profit by selling these weapons to them and also use these weapons ultimately for their own security in the middle east by establishing military bases. One does not understand why these Arab nations need such sophisticated weapons? Who are they securing themselves against? Do they expect fellow Arab nations to attack them? If not, why do they need such weapons on which they spend such massive amounts?

Buying such weapons is not only criminal waste of precious resources but also amounts to helping western countries and their armed industries which in turn gets stronger and ultimately helps west to tighten its noose around the Arab world and help Israeli Zionists. One has to break this vicious circle by refusing to buy these weapons and develop weaponry indigenously what is absolutely essential for minimum defense. Also, this money should be spent, instead on fighting illiteracy and on higher education.

Let us remember no Muslim country has even won noble prize in sciences whereas when Muslim scientists like Abdus Salam, when go and work in US they get the Noble. There is no research worth the name in science and technology and no facilities for talented scientists in these countries. Let it be resolved by these countries that in coming quarter of a century at least one of their citizens would be at least nominated for Noble in the field of science. Also, that at least one of the countries in the west Asia would develop centre of excellence in learning and attract people from all over the world for studies.
If Dubai can become huge international market, why can’t one of the countries in that region also become excellent centers of learning and attract students, researchers and teachers from all over the world? It should not be impossible as it appears today. After all Muslims have been precursors of knowledge in the world. And Qur’an lays so much emphasis on ‘ilm (knowledge).

Unfortunately, for Muslims ‘ilm in Qur’an has come to mean only theological and other worldly and not ‘ilm about this worldly matters. In Qur’an here is invitation for believers to think about Allah’s wonderful creation, about nature, about earth and whole universe and it also emphasizes inductive, as against deductive methodology. Deductive methodology hardly adds to our knowledge whereas inductive one which was used by Francis Beacon in the west develops whole lot of new knowledge of nature. In 21st century the Islamic world should consider it its duty and commitment to Qur’an to develop as center of excellence in knowledge and come out of its obsession with theological controversies. Its commitment to Qur’an has to be much deeper and wider than theology, tafsir and hadith.

Religious freedom and tolerance

Qur’an is perhaps the first revealed scripture which made freedom of conscience as divine attribute and Allah, as the story of Adam as narrated in Qur’an mentions, Allah gave freedom even to Satan to mislead human beings and gave freedom to Adam and his progeny to choose between what is right and what is wrong and only warned both of consequences either way. It is only for Allah to punish or reward not for any human being. However, today we find Muslims most intolerant in matters of religion.

Fatwa culture in Islamic world has become a curse for Muslims. On petty matters of theology or jurisprudence fatwas of kufr are issued and even injunctions are issued to renew one’s Islam and even renew ones nikah. There are acute prejudices against the other both within religious sects and against non-Muslims. This is all, as pointed out above, because of tremendous influence even disproportionate influence wielded by traditional theologians on Muslim masses.

This is also because of secular education and over emphasis on madrasa and religious education. Also, partly responsible is poverty among Muslim masses. These are, needless to say, are inter-related matters. One strengthens the other. Traditional ulama’s influence must be contained and restricted to strictly theological matters. Religious tolerance should be accepted as a Islamic duty and as mentioned in Qur’an in Adam’s story and repeated in several places, punishment or reward in doctrinal matters should be left to Allah.

No ‘alim should be allowed to pronounce who is kafir and who is on right and who is on wrong path. Also, mutual sectarian differences are so deep and wide that every other sect for these ulama is on wrong path and would be assigned to hell. And in countries like Pakistan where terror culture is widespread every kafir should be killed. Shias are being massacred and Ahmadias and Wahabis kill Barelvis. Where will it lead us to?
In all our madrasas religious intolerance is taught as Muslims of other sects are denounced as on wrong path and students even encouraged to go for medieval type of munazaras (i.e. polemics) and denouncing other sects. Thus intolerance in built in the very system of religious education today. This must be totally abolished. This is not my opinion but opinion of many educational experts in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries. When terrorist activities were at their climax, many educational experts from Middle East had expressed this opinion.

What is needed is a new bred ulama who can rise above such narrow sectarian approach and who have themselves deeply reflected on Qur’an in the light of modern developments in different fields. They should transcend and go beyond medieval theology. The scope of theology should not be limited to matters of otherworldly beliefs as life in this world in Islam is equally important.

We must realize that the theology developed by the great theologians of medieval ages was in response to their needs and situation. We should also understand that theology is a human endeavor as if in partnership with divine and human needs and endeavors can never be eternal. The greatest problem of Islamic world today is that we are treating past theology as eternal as Qur’an itself. As long as we do this we will never change and this is one of the challenges before us. We should not remain stagnant.

We must make our theology dynamic and responsive to modern challenges. Today Muslim theologians must come forward and lead the world in this respect by developing new theologies like theology of peace, theology of environment, liberation theology, third world theology and so on for which Qur’an provides eminent guidance. This writer has tried to develop theology of liberation and theology of peace. When one reads Qur’an and reflects on its verses in the light of these challenges one is wonderstruck and begins to think Qur’an is indeed a divine miracle. Unfortunately Muslim theologians are so caught in the past that they are unable to realize the importance of Qur’an.

For this what is needed is religious freedom and tolerance. Religious freedom is very fundamental to the Qur’an and no genuine faith (imaan) is possible without genuine freedom of conscience. Today we hardly find religious freedom in Islamic world and it is one of the causes of our stagnation. The moment one exercises such freedom one attracts Fatwa of kufr. Our great institutions of Islamic learning like al-Azhar of which one can just be proud suffer from the same problem. When one of its great scholars Abu Zaid Nasir tried to understand tanzil and tawil (revelation and understanding revelation by human beings) he was immediately declared kafir and even his marriage was declared invalid and he had to flee from Egypt.

Earlier Prof. Fazlur Rahman from Pakistan who also was a great scholar of Islam had to leave Pakistan and go to Chicago and teach there. This is how we treat our great scholars who try to develop new theological outlook and contribute richly to our Islamic heritage. Islamic world would never develop until we break the stranglehold of traditional ulama who have powerful vested interests in perpetuating what is past.

Women’s status

Another problem with Islamic world is status of women which is also result of our stagnant theology. In case of women Muslims are very strong in rhetoric but very weak in practice. Muslims never tire of asserting that Islam gives women equal rights and high status but record of Islamic world in empowering women is very poor. In fact Islamic world’s record in respect of women’s status is one of the poorest in the world. For years modern education was a taboo for them.

Now after great struggle they have won some rights including going to schools and colleges. Even this is not free of problems in many Muslim countries. In Afghanistan even today Taliban burn their schools and throw acid if they do not cover themselves from head to foot. In tribal areas of Pakistan in North-West same fate is in store for women. In Saudi Arabia too they have won some rights after great deal of struggle and still their problems are tremendous.

Though the present king is more enlightened and is encouraging modern education for women but situation is far from satisfactory. Women cannot drive car, cannot go alone from home, cannot do their own business and representation of women in work force is just 17 per cent. They have to cover themselves from head to foot while going out. They cannot vote in municipal elections.

In many Muslim countries apart from mentioned above situation is not very different. Hijab is purely cultural and has not even been mentioned in Qur’an, let alone been made obligatory. Yet hijab is being enforced more and more in all Muslim countries. It is not healthy sign. Muslim societies are highly patriarchal. There are very few women who can make independent decisions and can assert rights over their own bodies and affairs.

Qur’an again is the first scripture which gave them not only equal rights but also liberated them from man’s authority and made her absolutely independent legal and individual entity fully autonomous in every respect. But in entire Muslim world women have failed to achieve such a status. On the contrary women are utterly dependent on man’s authority and she can hardly exercise any independent authority.

There is, therefore, great need for liberation of women in the Muslim world and giving them freedom, individuality and dignity given them by the Qur’an and our rhetoric should match our practice. If our women do not progress our community cannot. We must realize that women are half the population and keeping half the population backward how can the entire community progress. Many Muslim women have shown they are great achievers and given opportunities are not behind anyone. Thus if we give them their rights and full freedom, a great potential of energy pent up so far will be released and Muslim ummah will be in for great achievements.

Democracy and human rights

Like our record on women’s status the record on democracy and human rights is equally woeful. There is great lack of democracy in Muslim countries except few countries. It is because of such lack of democracy that ignorant scholars maintain that there is no place for democracy in Islam or that Islam and democracy are antagonistic. Far from it. There is nothing in Islamic teachings which can go against democracy. Islam is as democratic as any religion can or cannot be.

In fact it is feudal culture and feudal authority inherited by Islamic world that keeps democracy out of Islamic world. And western imperialism and its interests are more responsible for this than Islam. The western countries have kept feudal rulers in power in most of the Muslim countries to serve their own oil interest. Regimes are highly oppressive and violate elementary human and democratic rights of their citizens. When this happens in regimes supported by America they conveniently overlook and launch propaganda offensive if the regime happens to be defiant of the western interests.

The best examples are from Iraq and Iran. Both countries have defied US interests and authority in the region and America sent its troops to Iraq on the false pretext of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and destroyed the whole country killing more than half a million of its innocent citizens. US is also sworn enemy of Iran though it can hardly do to Iran what it could to Iraq for number of reasons.

Apart from what are American interests the Muslim world has to see that authoritarianism does not thrive in Muslim world and democracy and human rights are ensured to its citizens and they can live with full dignity and prove to the world Islam is as democratic as modern political system. It is high time Muslim world overthrew all authoritative regimes or that kings and sheikhs become only nominal heads and power goes into the hands of people.

All that has been suggested above is possible to achieve only when there are democratic regimes responsible and accountable to their people. Today in countries like Egypt any protest is put down ruthlessly and one person is made to win elections no end. This is highly undesirable. America forgets all its obligations to human rights and democracy because Mubarak regime is subservient to American interests.

Intra-religious unity

There are very sharp sectarian divisions among Muslims throughout the world though again here also there is empty rhetoric of unity of ummah. In another article we have examined in depth the reasons for these differences but here we would suggest that Muslims must put pressure on their leaders to sit down and talk to followers of other sects in the spirit of dialogue and promote unity at one level while adhering to ones belief with full freedom, on the other.

It is minimum requirement to cease the violent and physical attacks as it is happening in the Muslim world today especially in Pakistan. Pakistan, unfortunately has become battle ground for such sectarian fights due to powerful interests involved. Even mutual polemics must stop forthwith denouncing each other as kafirs. In India, as its democratic and secular country, all Muslim sects coexist; peace fully though occasional denunciations do take place.

Thus if democratic and human rights culture develops in Muslim world, intra-religious differences can also be minimized and peaceful coexistence can become possible. This can be further ensured with modern education and rational outlook. As suggested above the whole madrasa culture also has to change and moderation and tolerance of mutual differences should be made integral part of madrasa education.


One can say what has been suggested above is a tall order. Yes, apparently it is but one has to begin in right earnest to achieve all this over a fixed period of time. Otherwise we will always remain lackeys of some or the other power in the world and moreover would never be able to fulfill our commitment to Qur’an and Islam. We will never become achievers but tools for others achievements.