From Cordoba to Kabul
As a Muslim, I am more than 1400 years old and have seen good days and bad days of my own. I feel proud of my glorious past and enjoy talking about it, but do not know what made me great. I attribute my decline to my enemies, but do not ask myself why they defeated me. I have argued about the true meaning of Islam, but allowed my rulers and the clerics to decide it for me, not realizing that the Message is addressed directly to me.
When my ruler moved from the floor of the mosque to the palace, the clerics followed him. Those who argued against the move were beheaded, but I liked the grandeur, and applauded. When he stopped sharing his bread with the wayfarer and threw lavish feasts to the courtiers, the clerics dined with them. Those who argued against the neglect of the needy were turned out of the court, but I rejoiced the festivities.
When he cast off his worn-out clothes and changed into bejeweled regalia, the clerics also adopted costly robes. Those who argued against the pretender to the 'shadow of God' were declared enemies of faith, but I was impressed with the glitter.
When he established his 'piety' by going through the motions of prayers, the clerics praised him. Those who argued against the hypocrisy were incarcerated, but I emulated the ruler and believed that the prescribed rituals were enough to absolve me from the consequence of my misdeeds.
When he invaded Muslim states and others without justification, but in the name of Islam, those who argued against him were exiled, but I shared the loot and emulated him in the love of luxury and comforts.
The greatest debate of all began when things started getting bad, and the ruler was held responsible for misrule. He claimed that since nothing could happen without the will of the Omnipotent, Allah, in His great wisdom, ordered all of man's acts, including what appeared to be the wrongdoing and sins.
Some devout and God-conscious people, who were neither afraid of the power of the rulers, nor impressed by the knowledge of the clerics patronized by them, appeared on the scene. They reasoned that Allah has promised to punish man for his sins and that it would be very unjust if He first made him commit a sin and then punished him for the same, and Allah cannot be unjust.
They preached that Allah is, no doubt, the Prime Cause of all that exists and that includes the laws that control the universe, and the free will of man is one such law. Free will gave man the power to discriminate between right and wrong and implied that only man could improve his own lot by using the God-given faculties of mind.
This argument made sense and jolted me out of the stupor of passivity. It propelled me into an age of reason and progress. The parameters of the revealed commandments were already laid down although obscured by simplistic version of predestination. They exhorted believers to wage war(Jihad) against ignorance and darker aspects of human nature, and to acquire knowledge(Ilm). This could be only done through employing the faculties of reasoning and discovering how nature functioned, how matter behaved, how man thought and how societies worked.
If there were apparent ambiguities or lack of clarity in exercising judgment over matters of faith, consensus of the believers(Ijma) was to be employed to resolve the issues. If circumstances posed new challenges to old interpretations, rigorous research (Ijtehad) was to be carried out to obtain guidance from the spirit of the Message.
This approach liberated the scholars in seminaries and infused them with a spirit of enquiry. This led them to search for knowledge from all sources, including the secular philosophy of the Greeks, which enriched their thought process. Teaching and research in Mathematics, Sciences, Philosophy and Medicine thrived in the seminaries of Baghdad and Damascus, and reached its peak in Spain(Andalus).
Their work was used as textbooks and imparted a secular character to the newly founded schools at Paris, Oxford and Cambridge. Fatalism was replaced with endeavor that resulted in excellence in governance, academia, culture, arts and architecture in Cordoba and Alhambra. The period proved to be the high point of my history and a turning point for the mankind towards modernity.
In the words of Ibne Khaldun this was a concept of rational governance with the underpinning of Islamic thought, which unfortunately earned the undeserved connotation of la-deenyat when translated from Secularism. This model of a pluralistic and just society, which, among other things, allowed Christians and all others to contribute and be rewarded, could be called closer to the spirit of dynamic Islam than any other. According to the European scholars, it helped the Christian society of Europe to emerge from the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire.
When I travel from a flourishing Cordoba of 1000AD to the dying Kabul of 2000AD, the comparison tells it all. It is a story of a life-giving fruit of knowledge turning sour because it was not nurtured, but defiled by the selfish. It is a journey through the ruin of a great civilization caused by the brute force of intruders, who took advantage of the weakness created by confusion between the spiritual and the temporal. When the Khwarezm king was advised not to provoke Changez Khan with unjust treatment, his arrogant reply was that nobody could defeat Muslims. When the barbarian ransacked Samarqand, rode into the Grand Mosque on horseback and climbed on the rostrum(Mimber) with his boots on, the faithful who had gathered there were confident that lightening would soon strike the infidel.
Little did they know that the laws of nature do not act the way the believers were made to believe by their religious teachers. One of them cried that instead of miracles this man brought God's Anger,Qehar-e-Khuda, to "punish us for going astray" from the path of endeavor and taking to a course of indolence.
When Halaku knocked at the gates of the glorious Baghdad, ransacking its libraries and slaughtering its residents, no miracle could save the Caliph who was listening intently to a futile debate of clerics to decide whether horsemeat was halal or makrooh.
The process has since been repeated time and again in Damascus, Istanbul, Cordoba, Delhi and most recently in Kabul. My inept rulers had sadly brought the glory that once belonged to me to an end as they fell prey to their own narrow interests, internal conflicts, mal-administration and moral and cultural decadence. To absolve themselves of the responsibility for decline, they found it expedient to reject the doctrine of free will, only to seek refuge behind the facade of "God's will".
A Royal decree reinstating the concept of predestination was issued. It meant that Muslims were to observe compliance(taqleed) of the clerics who alone were competent to interpret sharia, ignoring the fact that the Message was addressed to the individual directly. It implied that the clerics could rule out reason which was an imperfect product of mind and ineffective in matters of providence which controls the human destiny.
Furthermore, reason could always be defeated by miracle if divine grace was invoked through prayers under the guidance of the clerics. The divine exhortation to acquire knowledge(Ilm) was now to be understood as the knowledge of religion only. Ijma could now be practiced exclusively by the clerics, who were the true believers. Jihad was only meant for waging wars against the infidels. The doors of Ijtehad were closed for all times, as new interpretation created heresy and divisiveness. This is the legacy of my faith that I have lived with for most of the past millennium.
The dominating powers have since added new weapons to their old a,rsenals, which I do not possess anymore. They are science, technology, economics, diplomacy and social justice based on the solid ground of knowledge and research. Having abdicated the pursuit of knowledge a millennium ago, which others carried on, here I stand weak and helpless, in the darkness of ignorance.
More than a billion individuals in strength and with vast resources of the earth at my disposal, I cannot defend myself even against a handful of Jews with a state of the size of a small district. The same Jews, whom I picked up from the dirt in Spain and gave them dignity, can now give the whole Muslim world a bloody nose and then rub it in the mud, and there is nothing that I can do.
There is no body who can rescue me as my rulers have bled me to subjugation in every state. They are occupied with squandering wealth on luxuries, creating and maintaining dynasties and selling my dignity and sovereignty in exchange of their own protection. They carve out their own territories on land and in faith, and fight with each other to satisfy their greed. They will neither learn from history nor from those who flourish at the cost of my misery, because I suffer and they do not. They will not change unless I change them, and that depends on which road do I take beyond Kabul.
I could have continued to argue forever, but the events that followed have played out the dialectics of the argument to its ultimate conclusion. There is only one way to survive and to restore my dignity in the world of today, and that is by taking the path of acquiring and developing knowledge with all the energies at my disposal. Only then can I harness the bounties of nature that God promised to me. Only then can I master the material and human resources for the protection and well being of the humanity that lives in my borders. I have been on this path once before when God was kind to me and there is no reason why I cannot take it again.
This is what I should mean when I ask God, "Show us the straight path, the path of those whom thou hast favored; not of those who earn thine anger nor of those who go astray."
The author is an independent commentator based in Karachi, Pakistan.