Islam and its Challenges in the Modern World

By: Dr. I. Bruce Watson

[Article first appeared in Insight, vol. 12, issue 1 May 1997, no. 33]

Islam today is facing challenges from within and from the wider world. The critical problems are the fundamental tensions within Islam. The attitudes and criticisms common in the outside world can be ignored as misguided or hostile, but the tensions within Islam throughout the world must be confronted. In a simple geographical sense, Islam has to come to grips with its changing centres. The religious centres define the heartland: Saudi Arabia maintains its guardianship of the shrines at Mecca and Medina, and the conduct of the hajj, against the claims of Shii Iran, the Shii tradition, and other sects disillusioned with Saudi Arabia's credentials within the ummah. Saudi Arabia enjoys much of its strength to repudiate other claims because it remains the economic centre of the ummah. It takes a combination of the incomes of Kuwait, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Yemen even to come close to Saudi Arabia's oil wealth. However, this wealth is based on finite resources, and in the years to come the economic centre will shift to those parts of the Muslim world with sustainable resources and reproductive assets. West Asian financial investments recognise this long-term problem, but they remain overwhelmingly located in the Western and non-Muslim economies. The intellectual centre of Islam is Al-Azhar in Cairo. The ideas and attitudes taught here are spread throughout the ummah, particularly through the population centres of Islam: Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Malaysia. The relative power of the different centres is shifting. Over time the claims on and against the heartland from and by the peripheral Muslim communities will exacerbate the tensions already present. The conservative centre will be under greater pressure from the more vigorous, prolific and liberal Muslim societies on the periphery.

Despite the ideals promoting an equitable and productive material life, the overwhelming majority of Muslims experience living standards which are hardly enviable by any standard. This frequently appears to be a greater paradox in the wealthy oil-producing Muslim countries. Where justice and brotherhood are recommended by the ideals, in such countries we see the conspicuous consumption of the very rich, the purchase of very expensive military technology and armaments, and we see the exploitation of 'guest workers': fellow Muslims from Palestine, Pakistan, the Philippines, among others. The plight of these groups was obvious during and after the Gulf War in 1990-1991. Unemployment of masses of people; rapid urbanisation; unbalanced development - all need to be addressed quickly by the ummah, if the ummah is to become the social force of international Islam. The wide imbalances in the distribution of incomes and wealth between Muslim societies are obvious, but since effective redistribution is not happening within most Muslim societies it is unlikely to occur to any major degree between different Muslim societies.

Development investment in Muslim countries is slow simply because investors are put off by the more extremist agitations and the perceptions in the West about Islamic legal proscriptions of such financial mechanisms as interest. Muslim investors appear quite happy to send their money into the non-Muslim economies, where greater profits are available and the political and social circumstances are much more settled. In other cases, where people are trying to help their communities they often encounter problems from unlikely sources. The Grameen Bank in Bangladesh has been lending small sums of money, mostly to rural women so that they can engage in small enterprises, but also to collective groups. The sums are small and the interest is fixed, with the principal being repaid first and the interest calculated on the diminishing principal. Twenty per cent interest per year still seems high, but it is tiny when compared with the twenty per cent per month or ten per cent per day demanded by the traditional money-lenders, or the compound interest at Bangladesh's commercial banks. The Grameen Bank lends money to people who would not be eligible in the normal commercial sense. People are helped to determine the best way to satisfy their needs and are helped by the bank's officers in the villages. The Grameen Bank goes out to its clients and it permits the good sense and honesty of its clients to prevail: it has a recovery rate of some ninety eight per cent. The bank faces conflict from the traditional money-lenders, the commercial banks which claim that the scheme is too small to create the economic growth necessary in Bangladesh, and from the Muslims who see the scheme emancipating women in the villages. The bank fulfils the ideals of Islamic thinking, but is attacked by established interest groups defending their interpretation of Islamic practice.

Economic frustration and unequal opportunities are fertile breeding grounds for dissent and protest. Equally important is the failure of most Muslim governments to confront the demands of general education. "Modernity, the circumstance of being 'modern', is, in a central sense, inescapable. It is the necessary context for every tolerably well-informed life-journey undertaken in the contemporary world."[1] Being modern does not mean being Western but it does mean that some degree of secular knowledge will have to be given far greater prominence in Muslim epistemologies. Dr Mahathir bin Mohamed has made the point that there can be no separation between secular and religious knowledge because all knowledge, all life, is encompassed by Islam. It is interesting that so prominent and successful a Muslim leader as Dr Mahathir had to tread a fine line: advocating on the one hand an independent and progressive Muslim attitude to acquiring the widest possible knowledge, while placating the traditional sensibilities by insisting on the moral rectitude of learning as the only way to protect the faith. There are Muslim intellectuals working to understand what it means to be a Muslim in the modern world, but they do not receive the prominence given to the extremists in Western reports. Western media are more interested in the violent and emotional than they are in quiet, but deeply significant, debates about the eternal values that remain, despite the anarchic individualism of Western communities, the essence of being human. Not only are Muslim intellectuals under pressure from the conservative elements of their own societies, they are not receiving the recognition and support they deserve from the West. Yet it is at this level of ideas and reassessments that Muslim leaders will have to convert the de facto modernisation of their societies into general acceptance. The renaissance of ijtihad will be needed to reinterpret the principles of Islam, to retain the critical moral core while jettisoning the dubious accretions of traditional and worldly Muslim authorities.

The whole panoply of modern knowledge and technology is acceptable, but its Western manifestations are to be avoided if all they achieve is the perpetuation of the Muslim world's dependence on Western developments. A fundamental problem here is that which bedevils Western societies: can the use of and reliance upon new technologies alter perceptions, change desires, force social changes? Do the people who create and maintain the new technologies become the new high-priests. All knowledge and technology entail more than the physical and objective characteristics; they also contain the moral questions about how the new technologies should be used, what controls should be placed on them and who should be responsible for the implementation of the regulations. These are moral questions the simply secular authorities cannot answer, if only because utilitarian arguments lead us only to numerical quantities not qualitative priorities.

There is a very real danger involved if Muslims are not critical enough of Western world perceptions and if they take things for granted. There needs to be an increase in criticism in the light of Islam criteria. Without a heightened critical faculty Muslims are in danger of considering

"Islam as a partial view of things to be complemented by some modern  deology rather than as a complete system and perspective in itself, whose very totality excludes the possibility of its becoming a mere adjective to modify some other noun which is taken almost unconsciously as central in place of Islam...He who understands the structure of Islam in its totality knows that it can never allow itself to become reduced to a mere modifier or contingency vis-a-vis a system of thought which remains independent of it or even hostile to it." [2]

The main danger arises if Muslims accept the more extreme view of the difference of Islam and the insistence on establishing 'the third way'. If everything Western is to be discarded, then the creative and productive dynamism inherent in Islamic traditions will be suppressed yet again. Is Islamic resurgence giving enough attention to the challenges of poverty and hunger, disease and illiteracy? Have Islamic resurgents gone past, or are they still stuck on, their rhetoric regarding education and knowledge, science and technology, politics and administration, economics and management in their preferred Islamic order? To what extent have Islamists become pre-occupied with forms and symbols, rituals and practices? Do they regard laws and regulations in a static rather than a dynamic manner ? Is there a tension between the extremists' positions and the principles of the Quran and sunnah about the roles of women in society and the place of minorities in Muslim societies? Is the main problem a betrayal of the spirit of the Quran in the extremists' exclusiveness in a variety of matters ranging from charity to politics? Are the activities of extremists encouraging sectarianism in the umma through their insistence on their interpretations being the only correct ones? Have extremist views contributed to the factionalism and fragmentation of the ummah. [3]

The moral question is at the heart of the matter. Fazlur Rahman stated the position precisely. Islam needs: "some first-class minds who can interpret the old in terms of the new as regards substance and turn the new into the service of the old as regards ideals". [4] Can the modernists who want modernisation without Westernisation expect to realise their hopes? There is evidence enough in Western society that modernisation, with all its technological developments, has radically changed values by putting traditional attitudes under pressure and then instituting a new ethic.

Untrammelled economic growth and development has resulted in consumerism, institutionalised selfishness, ill-gotten wealth, rising expectations, laxity in sexual behaviours, the dissolution of the family, essentially independent electronic media, the influx of foreigners and foreign values, the materialism of modern science and technology and greater amounts of secularism. [5]

In an Increasing Secular World, can Islam unite a Modern Society?

Western secular politics is based on the notion that sovereignty belongs to individuals who select their governors through political consensus arrived at during free and regular elections. Islam believes, in theory at least, that sovereignty belongs only to God and that a legitimate temporal government is so only for as long as it implements God's will and the Sacred Laws. Whatever the theory asserts, the reality is that governments have to find the equilibrium that produces social prosperity and harmony under the guiding impulses of a strong moral code. The problem is made more complex when the moral code is itself subject to sectarian divisions: between orthodox and heterodox claims to revelation and legitimacy. We have to return to the questions: whose Islam, what Islam, where and when? It is clear that in states which have declared Islam as the ideology of political order, Saudi Arabia, the Sudan, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, there has been little reduction in domestic conflict or the reduction of conflict with their neighbours, Muslim or otherwise. In these states there is little real evidence of effective redistribution of wealth or substantial economic and social benefits flowing down to the general population. The benefits promised by Islam are not being realised.

In the Muslim communities with an emphasis on the secular ideology of politics, such as Turkey and Egypt, the general welfare is only slightly better, although there appears to be a greater freedom of belief and action. The majority of Muslims live under governments with a qualified acceptance of a secular ideology. These states have taken Western models for modern political and social institutions and have imbued them with a strong Islamic character. [6] The problem remains: how does Islam deal with public morality and public order? What institutional frameworks can define, separate, and regulate private vice and public morality? What arguments can be raised in favour of, and against, the devout who insist that there exists already a definitive, well-known and comprehensive path revealed by God? In our reflections on the issues, we must remember to distinguish between the genuinely devout people and those utilising religious symbols to promote their own positions.

Political Islam is under challenge from its own rhetoric and message to be self-critical: to live up to its own standards; to live up to the principles it espouses and demands of others; to avoid and denounce excesses committed by governments and movements that identify themselves as Islamic; to take or share responsibility for the failures of Muslim societies, and not simply to blame the West for all the problems. [7] One of the central questions will be the treatment of minorities under Islamic governments, and the behaviour of Muslim minorities in other countries. At present the political ideology of Islam cannot entertain an equal and pluralist society of Muslims and non-Muslims. [8] This is not just a matter of tolerance: it entails the recognition in ideal and reality of the unqualified equality and citizenship rights of people of all faiths irrespective of whether they are male or female. The role and influence of political dissent, trade unions, and the media will have to be re-examined along with the social and legal issues. A new equilibrium will have to be reached between the legitimate demands of the individual and the legitimate demands of the society in which he or she lives.

In the same way, Muslim minorities will need to reach a new accommodation with the ruling groups in their countries. Indian Muslims (about one hundred millions, or twelve per cent of the population), and Muslims in the Philippines (about six millions, or eight per cent of the population), will have to control the extremist elements within their communities. The examples of Pakistan and Bangladesh are clear demonstrations that separatism is not a viable option. Religious homogeneity is no more capable of establishing a harmonious society than is the ethnic homogeneity being attempted by the Bosnian Serbs. The spread of Islamic terrorism into the emerging Muslim states in Central Asia, in Africa, as well as the sporadic outbreaks in Western countries, will need to be suppressed. At the same time the legitimate demands of Muslim minorities must be recognised by the governments of their countries. Some fifty million Chinese Muslims cannot be ignored even within a population as large as China's.

In international terms, Islamic states are increasingly significant economically, financially and politically. Across the ummah local interests and national politics appear to be more important than simple identification of interests based on Islamic traditions. The Islamic states antipathetic to the West (Libya, Iran, Iraq, Yemen) are balanced by those which are firmly supportive (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Philippines, Brunei). This is not to say that the states with positive relations with the West are not critical of the West. Many of the criticisms of leaders such as Dr Mahathir, Lee Kuan Yew, and Goh Chok Tong (Prime Minister of Singapore), among others, are incisive and go to the heart of many of the problems in the West.

Despite the overwhelming global influence of Western ideas, the West, of course, is not a monolithic presence. The twentieth century has proved beyond any doubt that the ideals espoused in the West do not prevent hypocritical justifications for untenable attitudes towards the rest of the world, nor do they prevent total war between European nations.

The West has to understand Islam; not because Islam is the next great threat, but because Islam contains so many ideas and moral values that the West, for all its rampant secularism, still shares. The West must also recognise the diversity of Muslim experiences across the world. Muslim societies do not only suffer from 'Islamic' problems; they suffer the same problems long familiar in the West: political, economic, ecological, social and moral development. As such, these are shared human experiences and the beneficial resolutions: in science, technology, medicine, education should also be shared equitably. If Western nations believe in the value of their defining concepts: individualism, liberalism, constitutionalism, human rights, equality, liberty, the rule of law, democracy, free markets, and the separation of church and state [9] then they will have to be shared through sympathetic dialogue, not forced upon others. The idea of contending world views which define the good states from the bad states will have to be scrapped. It has not worked in the West's relationships with China, where the hypocrisy of the West's stance on human rights has been highlighted by the West's attitudes towards Algeria and Bosnia. Western support, especially that by the United States, for the authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Pakistan while denigrating other exclusive Islamic authorities in Iran, Syria, Iraq, and the Sudan, does not generate confidence among Muslim societies around the world. Western nations supported the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, yet helped to oppress Palestinians through support for Israel. The continued existence of Israel is not negotiable, but the ways in which Western nations have treated the concerns and sensibilities of the Palestinians have not been sympathetic enough. Neither have the more aggressive Muslim attitudes helped the situation.

Western attempts to propagate ideas about Western civilisation as 'universal civilisation' have resulted in significant reactions against a new imperialism: 'cultural imperialism', 'human rights imperialism', and so on. The religious revivals and reaffirmations of local, traditional values, among the younger generations in Islamic and Hindu cultures especially, are often reactions against the insidiousness of Western cultural influences.

Just as Western societies must reassess their ideas about the superiority of their ideals, so too must Muslim societies understand that their traditions need reinterpretation. It is pointless for the ulama to keep on insisting that Islam is not simply a different tradition: it is a superior tradition. In this light Western ideas are not only inferior, they are inapplicable and irrelevant to Islam and Muslim society. [10] At the level of ideals the arguments depend eventually on the leap of faith: whether divine authority rests in the Torah, the Bible or the Quran. People who accept the superior divinity of only one of these not only have the problem of repudiating other claims, they must also address the people who do not accept the authority of any divine revelation. It is useless to quote the authority of the Quran to people who do not accept it. The arguments have to be conducted on other levels: rational and empirical levels. Here the ideals can be seen to have been debased over the centuries by the practical realities of living. This does not mean that the ideals are worthless, but it does mean that demands for a return to the simplicity of Islamic principles must be tempered by courageous and clear-sighted analysis of the differences between the Quranic ideals and their historical development.

Islam and the West have much to offer each other. Nothing productive will develop while the dominant attitudes are those of suspicion, bigotry, and fear. Islam once played an essential role in preserving knowledge during the ignorance and barbarism of Europe's 'dark ages'. The rediscovery and refinement of this knowledge helped to set Europe on the road to its modern dominance of science and technology. The grip of worldly and corrupted religious leaders was broken in Europe. At the same time the suppression of ijtihad and rational dissent within Islamic societies by similar sorts of rulers caused the decline of the Islamic world, permitting the Europeans to indulge in imperialism and colonialism from the eighteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. A sympathetic exchange of knowledge, flowing this time from Western societies to Islamic societies, may well revivify Islam and permit Islamic societies to enjoy a more creative and significant role in the modern world.

Simple material transfers are not enough. There has to be a reworking of the central ideas in both societies. It may seem an obvious point, but in the bigotry of the religious confrontation it is necessary to emphasise that non-Muslims must recognise as a fact God's revelation of truth to Muhammad. If we can accept our own monotheistic traditions and the role of prophets we must recognise the genuine prophetic claims of others. We can critically examine the traditions but we must do so from recognition and knowledge not from denigration and outright rejection. Islam offers much to Western societies presently dominated by the anarchic demands of rampant 'isms': individualism, materialism, consumerism and secularism.

Islam has preserved the central position of moral values as the defining character of human society. Francis Lamand, President of the French Association 'Islam and the West', considers that: "Islam can contribute to the rebirth, in the West, of three essential values: the sense of community, in a part of the world that has become too individualistic; the sense of the sacred; and the legal sense. This can be the contribution of Islam to Western societies". [11] In return the West has to control its arrogance and reassess its stance towards the rest of the world. The notion of there even being a 'rest of the world', from whatever perception, is something we all have to change.

Notes

1. Shabbir Akhtar, A Faith for All Seasons: Islam and Western Modernity (London, Bellew, 1990), p. 104.

2. Sayyed Hossein Nasr, Islam and the Plight of Modern Man (London, Longman, 1975), pp. 131-132.

3. For an interesting treatment of this issue see Chandra Muzaffar, 'Dominant Western Perceptions of Islam and the Muslim', The Thatched Patio, Vol. 6, no.3 (1993), pp. 25-26. See also Shayk Fadhlalla Haeri, The Elements of Islam (Shaftesbury, Element Books, 1993), esp. pp. 129-35, 143.

4. Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual tradition, (Chicago, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 139.

5. P. J. Vatikiotis, Islam and the State [1987], (rep. London, Routledge, 1991), p. 67.

6. J. L. Esposito, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality? (New York, Oxford, 1992), p. 78.

7. Ibid., pp. 206, 209.

8. Vatikiotis, Islam and the State, p. 97.

9. S. P. Huntington, 'The Clash of Civilisations?', Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, no. 3 (1993), p. 40.

10. Vatikiotis, Islam and the State, p. 16.

11. Cited in M. A. Yamani, 'Islam is not an enemy of the West', rep. Australian Muslim News, Vol 1, no. 5 (1994), p. 9.

Copyright: [ IFEW 1997] This material is published in Insight and is the property of the Islamic Foundation for Education and Welfare (IFEW) [http://www.IFEW.com/].

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[Dr I. Bruce Watson is a Lecturer in South Asian and Islamic History at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia; Coordinator of the Graduate Program in Islamic Studies at UNE; Assistant Editor of "South Asia"; Member of the International Editorial Committee of "Periodica Islamica".]