My Say: Islam’s greatness depends on the Muslim community itself

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AS a Muslim, I am proud of my religion. I believe Islam is a religion of peace, with a great history and civilisation. It has so many positive aspects, both human and spiritual. But if I tell that to non-Muslims, many will not take me seriously, let alone consider Islam a religion that is superior to theirs, as many Muslims believe.  

I don’t blame them. Many non-Muslims see the Muslim world of today as a chaotic one. Mention a failed state and they would refer to the likes of Somalia and Iraq. Outside the rich Gulf countries, the whole of the Middle East and Northern Africa can be considered an unstable region that always seems to be in various stages of political and religious conflicts.

The war now raging in Syria and Iraq threatens to reach a height that has never been seen before in modern Islamic history. Extremist Sunni-led Islamic State (IS) is now attracting fighters from all over the world, battling pro-Syiah militants and now the Sunni-majority Kurds, and many innocent civilians have been caught in the crossfire.

In other areas such as Afghanistan, where the state election has taken place, life remains miserable. It is as if the country has not recovered from Russia’s invasion and occupation from 1979 to 1989. The Russians were eventually defeated by the Muslim warlords and factions, who then battled among themselves, leaving a power vacuum that led to the rise of the Taliban and its strict (but not always right) interpretation of Islam.

The Taliban, which has close links with Osama Bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, is still fighting its battle in Afghanistan and at the same time, threatening to destabilise Pakistan politically.

It is these images — of the brutality of the IS and the backwardness of Islam as portrayed by the Taliban — that we see nearly every day on CNN, BBC and even Al-Jazeera.  

With this background, one cannot blame some non-Muslims in wondering whether there is anything good left in the Islamic world.

To remind myself that it is certainly not so and that Islam has a great tradition of civilisation that once powered the world’s economy, culture and social liberty, I bought a book from the Kinokuniya bookstore at KLCC, 1001 Inventions: The Enduring Legacy of the Muslim Civilisation.

A National Geographic Society publication, the book was edited by Professor Salim al-Hassani, chief editor and chairman of the UK-based Foundation for Science, Technology and Civilisation (FSTC).

FSTC is the world’s leading producer of educational material dedicated to the history of science within Muslim culture and civilisation. Its research draws upon a diverse pool of scientists, engineers, historians and social scientists from the world’s leading universities, museums and centres of learning.

This book basically reminds the world, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, that the aspects of modern lives that we enjoy today are linked to inventions from the Muslim civilisation, notably in the fields of science, engineering, technology, medicine and mathematics.

It also stressed that the world did not live in the dark ages, in between what was discovered by Empedocles (philosopher and originator of the cosmogenic theory circa 490-430 BC), Democritus (a philosopher known for the formulation of the atomic theory of the universe 460-370 BC), Hippocrates (one of the most outstanding figures in the history of medicine 460-377 BC), Aristotle (philosopher and scientist 383-322 BC) and Archimedes (mathematician 287-212 BC) and Johannes Gutenberg (German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer, and publisher who introduced printing to Europe) and Leonardo da Vinci in the early Renaissance (15th century). This vacuum, referred to in the history of the West, was actually dominated by the Islamic civilisation.

The book cited two quotes from well-known non-Muslim personalities of how important the Islamic civilisation was then and how Islam is often misunderstood as a religion that is backward and oppressive and promotes violence.

The first quote is from Prince Charles’ lecture, “Islam and the West”, delivered at the Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, on Oct 27, 1993. “If there is much misunderstanding in the West about the nature of Islam, there is also much ignorance about the debt our own culture and civilisation owe to the Islamic world. It is a failure, which stems, I think, from the strait-jacket of history, which we have inherited. The medieval Islamic world from Central Asia to the shores of the Atlantic, was a world where scholars and men of learning flourished. But because we have tended to see Islam as the enemy of the West, as an alien culture, society and system of believe, we tended to ignore or erase its great relevance to our own history.”

The other quote is from Carly Fiorina, formerly CEO of Hewlett-Packard Corp. At a meeting of HP’s worldwide managers on Sept 26, 2001, not long after the Al-Qaeda-planned attacked on the World Trade Center in New York and when Islam was being widely vilified as a violent religion, she said: “There was once a civilisation that was the greatest in the world. It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its domination lived hundreds of millions of people of different creeds and ethnic origins.

One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known. The reach of this civilisation’s commerce extended from Latin America to China and everywhere in between.

And this civilisation was driven more than anything by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration.

Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic. Its poets wrote of love when others before them were too steeped in fear to think of such things.

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilisation thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilisation, this civilisation kept the knowledge alive and passed it on to others.

While modern Western civilisation shares many of these traits, the civilisation I’m talking about is the Islamic world from the year 800 and 1600, which included the Ottoman empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo (and if may I add Cordoba in Spain) and enlightened rulers like Suleyman the Magnificent.

Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilisation, its gifts are very much our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of the Arab (and Muslim) mathematicians.”

But Muslims of today are often told not to think but follow the leaders (including religious ones) without asking. They are not encouraged to emphasise some of the finer aspects that Islam practises — as highlighted in bold in the two quotes above.

In Malaysia, for example, pettiness often creeps in and the debate is often narrowed to who are the better Muslims and which schools of thoughts we must follow, or else…

The scholars are quick to give their views — which they say should be followed — when it comes to touching dogs but they are so late and indecisive in giving a fatwa that those who fight for IS and kill fellow Muslims will not die as martyrs.

The organiser of the “I Want to Touch a Dog” event is basically being crucified as if he had committed a greater sin than killing fellow Muslims and civilians. One-sided criticism, threatening and abusive calls — which are certainly against Islamic teachings — hurled at the organiser, instead of words of advice, wrongly dominate the argument platforms in the media — print, social and Internet.

When I was a young lad, I often visited Kampung Sungai Lalang in Semenyih. We were normally greeted by Kumbang, the loyal dog that accompanied my grandmother, who stayed alone. Owning a dog was not an issue then.

What ails Islam then? Nothing, it remains a superior religion but its greatness, as seen in the past, depends very much on the Muslim community  as to whether it wants to move forward, accept change, encourage the spurring of ideas and thinking, innovate and be confident of themselves, or remain enclosed within their own narrow interpretation of what Islam is all about.     

Azam Aris is senior managing editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on October 27 - November 2, 2014.