The Critical Role of Ideas and Values
Islam and Muslims today stand at a crossroads. They face unprecedented challenges and threats from within and without alike. Most of those challenges and threats evolved, or have been designed, in the eras of post-colonialism, globalization, westernization, liberalism and the information age.
Unlike the past challenges and threats, which were specific, definite and unambiguous, in terms of their origins, objectives and operational strategies, the present ones are often shrouded in obscurities, complexities and perfidies of the highest order. So subtle and canning are they that they are often propagated and spread in the name of such appealing concepts and phenomena as progress, cultural development, democracy, freedom and education. They are further rendered so duplicitous and “flexible” that they could be easily endorsed and promoted through the infinite authoritative power and influence of governments, media and educational as well as religious institutions.
In other words, the challenges and threats have been transported to the realm of ideas, worldviews and values. Just as Muslims were mastering the art of dealing effectively with the predominantly physical rivalries and confrontations, the conflicts and their campaigns were moved to another far more sophisticated and deadly level. The goalposts never stopped moving.
At the same time, all the precautionary measures were duly undertaken in order to keep Muslims as the ummah (community) as long as possible away from coming to terms with what exactly is going on, and from becoming proficient in all the necessary fields and skills required for self-defense and for charting Muslims’ own cultural and civilizational destiny.
As a result, study programs in schools, colleges and universities were designed accordingly, which were sustained by “appropriate” text books and “enlightened” teachers, lecturers and professors. While old and traditional religious and educational institutions had to be re-evaluated, overhauled and constantly watched over, numerous new and at once eminent and standard-setting institutions had to be established, so as to lead the way. To make things worse, in charge of the whole project were as much some foreign hands and minds as local Muslim private and governmental establishments and agencies.
This explains, for example, the chief reason for the existence of the American University in Cairo, Beirut and Dubai. Other westernized educational institutions, representing all levels of learning, have simply flooded the Muslim world, so much so that an article in a newspaper in Dubai titled “Islamic and Arab culture lost in UAE’s foreign schools” recently proclaimed that Western higher education has been packaged as a superior model, causing local sensibilities and knowledge to be marginalized and sometimes even lost. “The core Arab value system, including religion and history, does not exist in course work at most foreign campuses”, it affirmed.
As an immediate corollary of all this, Muslims became lost and strangers in their own lands. They were separated from their own religion, history, values and culture. Constantly pressurized by their misguided, inconsiderate and outright corrupt governments – who, one wonders, existed to help or deliberately hinder, yet crash, their own peoples – Muslims were torn between East and West, this or that superpower or alliance, this rapidly fading and that gradually emerging system and ideology. They lacked orientation, confidence, true leadership and vision. They lacked identity.
Indeed, the matter was a conflict between tradition and modernity, and between the past, present and future, albeit in the spheres of spirituality and epistemology, that is, in the spheres of ideas and values, more than anything else.
It was a conflict between Muslims and themselves, first and foremost.
Bereft of their religious and cultural norms, Muslims were rendered either ignorant or educated along the lines of the Western educational paradigms. Consequently, instead of knowing and appreciating their own history and culture, they learned about and appreciated other people’s histories and cultures, feeling proud of the circumstance. Instead of glorifying their own civilization, honoring their own heroes, they venerated other people’s civilizational outputs, idolizing their own protagonists and champions – some of whom, ironically, plotted and facilitated some of the most painful episodes in Muslim history.
Knowing nothing, or very little, about Islam: its history, culture and values – yet, being eloquent about its supposed outdatedness and inappropriateness for the dynamic modern world, relegating it to an orb of deadening formalism, meaningless rituals, ceremonies and superstitions -- and knowing much about, as well as practicing, other foreign life-systems, became an advocated and encouraged hallmark of a new pretentious Muslim model and identity.
For instance, to quote in intellectual circles, or just refer to, Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, Abraham Lincoln, Auguste Comte, Winston Churchill, Adam Smith, Shakespeare, Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., became a source of pride and a sign of erudition. However, to quote, or just refer to, the Holy Qur’an, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), companions (sahabah), or any of the prominent Muslim figures in various scientific fields – to whom, in fact, the West owes an enormous debt, so much so that it is widely believed that Islam, Islamic learning and Islamic civilization transformed the West and its own civilization – became a source of embarrassment and a sign of backwardness as well as ignorance.
Similarly, speaking English, French, Italian, or any other leading foreign language, was dreamed of and meticulously pursued. It brought about confidence and produced high self-esteem. Arabic, and other Muslim languages, were increasingly viewed as old-fashioned, out of date and anti-progress. They had to be modernized as quickly and as profoundly as possible in order to enable them to cope with the demands of the modern world and the demands of the new Muslim national aspirations and visions.
That is how the conversion of Arabic writing systems in various Muslim languages across the world to the Roman (Latin) script came to pass, rendering in the process millions of Muslims virtually illiterate, and further alienating them from the language of their Islam, Qur’an and Islamic traditions. As a consequence, many of today’s Muslims, instead of reading the Qur’an naturally and spontaneously, and seriously exploring its meanings and practical implications, spend approximately the first half of their lives just to master the Arabic alphabet. The other half they spend trying to gain knowledge of the rules governing pronunciation during recitation of the Qur'an (tajwid), having neither time nor interest to delve into the Qur’an’s heavenly treasures and try to apply them in everyday life.
In addition, major cities in the US, England, France, Italy, etc., became cultural and intellectual pilgrimage sites. They were a source of guidance and inspiration. They were a beacon of hope. Being associated with such places, their cultures and brands, provided a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment for both young and old, men and women. Everything that existed there was deemed superior and first class, while everything back home was deemed low-grade and mediocre, often completely inept and useless. And thus, the myth of the “developed” versus “developing” countries, and the “First World” and “Second World” versus the “Third World” countries, was significantly augmented and was given another unprecedented dimension.
Accordingly, there are Muslim countries – or communities -- where almost everyone is Muslim on paper, but in reality, a great many people are proponents of the ideologies of materialism and modernity (in the sense of questioning, attacking or rejecting tradition, including certain religious values). Everyone speaks and writes about Islam, but in reality, most people live, consciously or otherwise, foreign sets of ideas and values.
A few Christian missionaries are often regarded as a threat, but an all-out invasion of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism, and their innumerable local and foreign agents and bodies, are not only allowed in and to take hold, but are also openly supported and facilitated. In actual fact, they are often adopted, even though unofficially, as formal doctrines. They are given every opportunity to expand and thrive.
Approving and building Hindu or Buddhist temples, as well as Christian churches, regularly become an issue – all in the name of protecting Islam and the rights of Muslims – but building in every neighborhood massive malls or shopping centers, which in effect function as de facto temples, or sanctuaries, of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism -- in their capacities as complex worldviews and ideologies -- is not perceived as an issue at all.
Honestly, a sincere Muslim should feel more comfortable with Christian churches and Jewish synagogues than the “temples” (malls, art galleries, entertainment centers, etc.) of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism. While the former promotes the teachings and principles that are in a way close to Islam and the Muslim consciousness under the auspices of the Qur’anic notion of ahl al-kitab (People of the Book), the latter, on the other hand, generally embodies such universally detrimental vices as greed, extravagance, selfishness, self-centeredness, corruption, unhealthy competition, injustice, merciless exploitation of people and nature, etc.
It’s no wonder Islam declared an out-and-out war against such malpractices, regularly identifying them with certain aspects of kufr (unbelief) and even shirk (associating other gods with Almighty Allah). Those “secular temples” are planned and designed so as to shape people’s desires. They “shape” their souls, too, by forming a conception of the good life, in antithesis to God’s conception. And sure enough, what we love, desire and long for shapes who we become.
We repeatedly hear about fears that sections of the Muslim youth may become influenced by the Christian ideology and values, or may even apostatize. Thus, appropriate measures are recommended to be put in place. Some of those “appropriate” measures include such drastic – sometimes even preposterous -- steps as banning the Bible altogether, banning the translation of the Bible, translating the Bible but under stipulated conditions, denying access to the Bible or any other Christian materials, shutting or blocking access to Christian websites, banning movies and books which were inspired by the contents of the Bible, etc.
Certainly, most of the mentioned preventive steps might make some sense and might have some positive impact in certain milieus, in some countries more, in others less. However, little do we realize that Christianity and its clandestine missionary activities are of the smaller problems Muslims should worry about. While a very few Muslims will abandon Islam in favor of Christianity – no Muslim who is either partly or completely constant will ever do so, such is the nature of Islam and the nature of Christianity; only those who were never Muslims in the first place and who, all of a sudden, got some vested interests in becoming Christians, will be tempted to embark on such an adventure – a great many Muslims, young and old, on a daily basis abandon scores of Islamic teachings and values, embracing elements of materialism, modernity, liberalism and consumerism instead.
Waves after waves of the Muslim youth are lost to the jaws of the latter. Excessively worrying that their coming into contact with Christianity and the Bible may endanger their faith is both simplistic and exaggerated a course of action. The real danger lies somewhere else.
Parenthetically, even Europe, the bastion of Christianity, is becoming less and less Christian. Christianity is simply imploding there amid steady rise of atheism and various secular and agnostic worldviews and ideologies. So worrying is the scenario that some observers wonder if Europe still has the right to call itself a Christian continent. In Britain, for one, a landmark in national life has recently been passed. There for the first time in recorded history, those declaring themselves to have no religion have exceeded the number of Christians.
It goes without saying that the main problem with Muslims today is the lack of ideas and values, whence faith and authentic knowledge could originate, and whereon civilization could be built.
Since Islam itself is a philosophy and a total system of thought and values, it gives preference to and supports most good and creative ideas and values. By the same token, it abhors most bad and harmful ideas and values. That is so because bad ideas and values beget falsehood and counterfeit knowledge, which, in turn, breed and perpetuate nothing but the truest forms of primitiveness and backwardness. Bad, harmful and unproductive ideas and values, regardless of their origins and plane of operation, are Islam’s enemy No. 1.
In passing, Islam intrinsically has nothing against anybody or anything. It only goes whole hog and opposes all forms and degrees of falsehood, deceit and transgression, whoever and wherever they may come from.
Many wise and enlightened individuals have long tried to bring this verity home to other Muslims. For example, Malik Bennabi (d. 1973 CE) wrote a book “The Problem of Ideas in the Muslim World”; Muhammad Iqbal (d. 1938 CE) delivered a series of lectures, which were later compiled in a book called “The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam”; Isma’il al-Faruqi (d. 1986 CE) also wrote a book titled “Al Tawhid: Its Implications for Thought and Life”, while one of his colleagues, AbdulHamid AbuSulayman, wrote a book “Crisis in the Muslim Mind”; Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas’ seminal work “The Concept of Education in Islam” deserves mention and compliment, too.
It follows that the only way forward for Muslims is restoring authentic Islamic beliefs, ways of thinking and values through appropriate means and channels. Such is the case owing to the fact that knowledge and virtue are the substance and lifeblood of the Islamic message. They constitute the soul of everything that is preceded by the adjective “Islamic”.
The Prophet (pbuh) spent more than 10 years preaching mainly beliefs, concepts and values (in short, faith or iman) to the first Muslims. Needless to recall that the whole process commenced with the divine imperative “Read”, for the first revelation revealed to the Prophet (pbuh) was: “Read in the Name of your Lord, Who has created (all that exists); has created man from a clot. Read and your Lord is the Most Generous, Who has taught (the writing) by the pen; has taught man what he did not know” (al-‘Alaq, 1-4).
No sooner had the conceptual (iman or faith-oriented) stage been accomplished, and the raison d’etre of Islamic civilization established, than it became appropriate for the practical dimension of Islam to be gradually introduced. Hijrah, or the migration, from Makkah to Madinah was also performed around that time. The timing of the latter was no coincidence, however, in that Madinah was more conducive for the realization of the new phase(s) of the Islamic mission. Madinah was more suitable for the creation and expansion of the nascent Islamic civilization, unlike Makkah where Muslims had long been denied their basic human rights, such as justice, freedom, equality and human dignity, without which civilization-building enterprise can never take off.
Moreover, Muslims should busy themselves today with the prospect of reviving genuine Islamic education, more than anything else. That will inevitably make them better Muslims. They will respect themselves more and, in turn, will command more respect from others. As a proverb goes: “If you want to be respected by others, respect yourself first.”
It is a slow but assured process. Only with that will the components of an authentic Islamic civilization be initiated. Without a doubt, there are no shortcuts to success and civilization. In equal measure, no civilization can be bought or copied, partly or entirely. Civilization is an effect, its causes are a community’s belief system, values, dedication and hard-work imbued with the highest level of originality and creativity.
Muslims need to enrich themselves with the timeless knowledge and values of Islam first, because empty, hollow, disoriented and clueless individuals can produce nothing, nor contribute anything to their own wellbeing and the wellbeing of others. As another proverb asserts that an empty gun cannot fire or harm, irrespective of how beautiful, awesome and deadly it may look like.
Muslims need to realize that the ages of extraordinary miracles are over. The Qur’an as an everlasting and greatest miracle, and at the same time the source of all authentic knowledge, goodness and virtue, is right there and with them. They are to hold in one hand the power and guidance of the Qur’an (revelation), and in the other the strength and valor of reason, creativity and knowledge, and with such an integrated approach, they are to generate cultural, scientific and civilizational revolutions and miracles. The Qur’an will do nothing on its own. Such is its divine disposition that it gives only as much as sincerely asked by honest guidance and knowledge-seekers. Muslims’ call is to be civilizational miracle makers, to be leaders and so, shuhada’ ‘ala al-nas (witnesses over, or before, humankind).
In other words, there is no genuine Islamic civilization without the Islamic truth, knowledge, ideas and values. There is no Islamic civilization, furthermore, without total Islam and comprehensively true Muslims. Islam is the cause; Islamic civilization is the effect.
In the same vein, there is no Islamic civilization without the crystalized Islamic concepts of man, God, the world, the universe, life and death, metaphysics, society, the environment, etc., which will be integrated into the daily enterprises of Muslims. Muslim personalities and characters will have to become an embodiment of such ideas and their entailed values. So will the elements of Islamic civilization become the unmistaken manifestations of the same.
This is perhaps one of the most formidable Islamic principles, extending into the domain of pure worship as well.
For example, a person is not to pray if he is devoid of the real concept, or idea, of prayer: what, how and why, of himself as prayer-performer, and of Almighty Allah as the One to Whom and for Whom prayer is performed. If, however, prayer is performed without those ideas onboard, or with their inappropriate substitutes, prayer may be categorized as defective and so, unaccepted. Indeed, prayer – just like everything else in Islam – cannot be reduced to mere mechanical and unconscious movements, or to a meaningless ritual lacking any profound spiritual meaning and purpose.
The same goes to all other fundamentals of Islam: fasting, zakat, hajj (pilgrimage), dhikr (remembering Allah), reading the Qur’an, ethics, morality, etc.
Thus, when Islam is promoted, preached and taught, the first and perhaps most attention should be given to the world of ideas and values, that is, the Islamic worldview (iman or faith in its broadest sense).
For example, when teaching prayer, the most important thing to teach is the meaning and importance of prayer, the need for it, the concept of man (the one who needs to, and will, pray), the overall idea of life so that prayer becomes consistent with the rest of life activities, supporting them and, at the same time, benefitting from them, and finally, the idea of God, Who is the Object of prayer.
Asking a person to pray, without instilling the above ideas and meanings in his mind and heart first, will be a time-wasting exercise, for he will always ask – and understandably so -- why exactly he should pray. He will see no purpose in it, nor will he feel that he needs to pray. Likewise, to him, there will be nobody or nothing transcendent to whose will and authority he will feel he should submit.
Therefore, the last thing that a person should be taught is the physical and quantitative aspects of prayer. Similarly, the last thing people should be taught about Islam, as a comprehensive worldview and way of life, is its ritualistic and quantifiable aspects.
It is surely because of this that we in the International Islamic University Malaysia have introduced from the beginning the courses of “The Islamic Worldview” and “Creative Thinking and Problem Solving”, which lie at the core of the agenda of the University required courses. The two courses must be taken by all students. Their contents are related, both in theory and practice, to the students’ chosen fields of interest, such as engineering, architecture, medicine, ICT, economics, law, science and humanities. The main objective of those courses is to bring the scientific fields closer to the message of Islam, and vice versa, and to then embark on the hankered integration, or amalgamation, process between the two poles. That denotes the essence of the Islamization of knowledge concept as the official mission, or doctrine, of the University.
Students are thus equipped with the understanding and skills needed to deal with the challenges of Islamization and integration in their respective scientific fields. They are further taught to become active protagonists in the ongoing holistic project of revival of Islamic civilization. In other words, they are taught to be Islam’s and Muslims’ assets under all circumstances, rather than liabilities.
Finally, many lessons are to be extracted from the recent Arab Spring, which according to some analysts was partially successful, but according to others, was a failure. Be that as it may, when the people across the Middle East and North Africa did what they had long wanted and had to do to remove some of the most entrenched and, at the same time, most brutal and oppressive regimes in the world, they could not carry most of their revolutionary exploits through to the end.
The letdown, in the main, was due to the people’s and institutions’ inability to fill the civilizational voids created by toppling the existing complex political systems and everything that goes with it. There were no comprehensively worked out Islamic civilizational substitutes, or alternatives, waiting to be applied in the most critical spheres of life. There were no adequately practical and workable-for-all Islamic civilizational blueprints to be implemented.
Hence, when the created civilizational voids were not suitably filled, some segments of the revolutions simply disintegrated, yet imploded. Any available, and anyhow suitable, alternatives were then desperately sought. Some patchworks worked, others did not and so, were replaced as soon as they were introduced. The trial-and-error, so to speak, method is still unfolding in most places with some catastrophic results and long-term misery both for countries and their institutional wellbeing, as well as the people.
The people ardently followed their sentiments and emotions. However, civilizations are not thus built. The people were ready, but mere readiness is never enough. They followed their emotional impulses, but what was needed most was rationalization of those emotions. Many people simply thought with their hearts, not their heads. Whereas civilizations are constructed mainly with, and of, inclusive ideas, knowledge and value systems, coupled with strategized programs and plans. Sentiments and emotions will bring a person, or a nation, only as far as they can go.
Surely, it is high time that studying, learning, propagating and practicing Islam get more intellectualized and painstaking, more systematic and effective, and more pragmatic, realistic and outcome-based.