The Muslim world is obviously in a mess. Political instability, unbridled corruption, lack of economic development, widespread intolerance and violence, and lack of freedom, liberty and human rights are some of the traits that characterize Muslim societies most glaringly. All indications suggest that things will get only worse over coming decades.
Amongst many factors that differentiate Muslim societies from most other progressive and more peaceful societies are its missing freethinkers, namely critics and reformers, who are able to criticize the troublesome aspects of its societal core, its religious foundations. Other societies—Jewish, Christian, Hindu etc.—had their problems in the past. However, those societies allowed the emergence of progressive freethinking scholars, philosophers and reformers. They exercised variable measures of liberty to criticize, to point fingers at, the underlying reasons, including the religious ones, of the many ills of their societies. Jewish societies produced brilliant minds like Benedict de Spinoza, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein amongst many other; Christianity produced great thinkers like Rene Descartes, Emmanuel Kant, David Hume, John S Mill, Bertrand Russell and many more. Some of these thinkers, Spinoza for example, attracted ire from religious authorities, faced excommunication. Nonetheless, their ideas and views were not choked out; instead, they were disseminated with some measure of ease; security to their life was not threatened. The resilience, the power of their progressive and reformative social, political and philosophical ideas eventually triumphed. As a result, those societies reformed, secularized, progressed and prospered.
But Muslims societies, the core of which is most intimately integrated with its religious ideals, have never really allowed the emergence of its own breed of freethinkers and progressive reformers, particularly over the past eight centuries.
One must not negate the fact that the Islamic world once excelled the rest in the so-called Golden Age of Islam (800–1200 CE). This was, however, possible only because the Islamic world fell in wrong hands soon after its founding by Prophet Muhammad (d. 632). The Arab imperialist Umayyad rulers (661–750) were mostly anti-Muhammad and anti-Islam, except when it served their purpose. For example, they exploited the Islamic doctrine of Jihad at its best for their imperialism expansion, whilst tried their best to prevent the conversion of non-Muslim subjects to Islam, so that they could extract more taxes from them.
During Umayyad rule, all kinds of often-progressive but theologically heretical ideas (i.e., rationalist Mutazilism) prospered unchecked in Muslim societies. Next, the Abbasid rulers (750–1250), who rejected the Arab ways and adopted the Persian civilization further propped up the flourishing of this often-heretical intellectual tradition. The Persians already had a great tradition in intellectual exercise prior to Islam’s birth. The Abbasids promoted science and philosophy even at theological compromise. Caliph Al-Mamun (813–833), for example, even persecuted the orthodox; all his officials had to agree that the Quran was not divine but created by Prophet Muhammad. His policies continued during the subsequent rule of al-Mutassim (d. 842) and Al-Wathik (d. 847). Al-Wathik, embarrassingly for Muslims, became dubbed as the “Commander of the Unbeliever”.
This deviation from true Islam set the emergence of the Islamic Golden Age in motion, albeit on the wings of heresy and theological compromise of all sorts. We see the greatest-ever Muslim scientist and thinker, Al-Razi (d. 945), calling Prophet Muhammad a charlatan, a fraudulent trickster; responding to Allah’s challenge of creating a book like the Quran, he called it an assorted mixture of “absurd and inconsistent fables”. The writings of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and Hippocrates—he asserted—contained much greater wisdom and brought greater service to humanity than the Holy Scriptures, which brought more harm than good.
This was all to change soon. Islamic orthodoxy was gaining strength; it triumphed in Islamic societies by the spadework of legendary Islamic theologian Imam Ghazzali (d. 1111). He called Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina—his predecessor and the brilliant 11th-century philosophers and scientists of Muslim world—apostates, which demands death. Luckily for the latter, they had already left the world. The rational and progressive thoughts became increasing suppressed. Religious orthodoxy, obscurantism and intolerance entered the body of Islamic societies. The Golden Age of Islam was dead. (My just-released book, Islamic Jihad: A Legacy of Forced Conversion, Imperialism and Slavery, discusses in Chapter IV the circumstances that made the so-called Golden Age in the Muslim world a reality).
Progressive thoughts and ideas have been choked out in Muslim societies with the instruments of intimidation and violence ever since. When colonial powers briefly imposed some measure of tolerance in Islamic countries, a few Muslim intellectuals of note emerged. After the colonial powers withdrew, the Islamic world has marched towards orthodoxy and intolerance, particularly after the oil-boom in the 1970s. Its progressive freethinkers, the generators of new ideas and creativity and propellers of civilization, are dealt with intolerance and brutality by authorities as well as by mobs.
As long as intolerance of dissenting ideas remain in force, the Islamic world will unlikely emerge from its current malaise and lack of material progress. It is unlikely to change any time soon. There is, however, a glimmer of hope. Kicked out of their home countries, some Muslim dissidents—harbored by the liberal West—are showing their intellectual prowess. Muslim apostates like Ibn Warraq and Ayaan Hirsi Ali have written best-selling books. Most of all, they, for the first time, are pointing fingers at the debilitating nature of the Islamic theology, which must undergo modernization as have other creeds.
The new-age information technology, the Internet, have also come to their aid. Another lesser known, but more populous, breed of Muslim intellectuals have taken up pens for pointing out the troublesome aspects of the theological foundations of Islam and are airing their views through increasingly popular Websites, such as Islam Watch, Faith Freedom International, Apostates of Islam. More and more intellectually capable writers from Muslim backgrounds are being generated through these Internet-based ventures. As Muslim countries become increasingly networked to the Internet, the pool of Muslim readers, accessing their messages, will inevitably grow and help their enlightenment, which is already happening.
Samuel Huntington, in his Clash of Civilizations, quite correctly points to a prominent ongoing clash of Islam with the rest humanity, which is all there for one to see. It is raging by the day and will undoubtedly accentuate over coming decades. Islam’s history, particularly until the European colonial interventions in the Muslim world, has been a monotonous saga of continual war against non-Muslims; it has claimed hundreds of millions of lives from Asia to Africa to Europe. Even the far-off United States was not spared this Islamic brutality: her ship-crews captured and enslaved in North African waters suffered horribly. The war is being reinvigorated again.
Since the 9/11 attacks, there have been no less than 12,800 Islam-inspired acts of violence committed by Muslim militants and mobs globally as tracked by a Website (a small fraction of them against Western targets). While this battle now claims thousands of lives annually, millions of lives could be at stake in the not-too-distant future. It is Muslims, who are waging this raging new war against their non-Muslim neighbors all over the world; it is in their hands, too, to end it peacefully. Only a dawn of Islamic enlightenment—which entails Muslims’ recognition that there is unjustified violence and intolerance integrated in their religion and that these must be abandoned in order for them to be a peaceful part of the global humanity—can avert this dreadful prospect.
This is a battle not winnable through military might. The global Muslim community’s access to the rather unsavory views of this emerging band of Muslim freethinkers, and their willingness to pay heed to latter’s message may end this long-standing war of Islam against non-Muslim humanity with reduced damage to life and property. Else, humanity stands to lose immensely in this battle of civilizations.
Muslims will lose no less.