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High time for Muslims to reject once antiquated clerics and leaders

July 18, 2002
The Iranian

It is high time for Muslims in general and Arabs in particular to stop accusing others of their awkward and largely self-inflicted predicament. It is high time for them to abandon resort to suicide-bombings and international terrorism. It is high time for them to recognize their own shortcomings and work at redressing them.

A few years back, a World Bank report remarked that the total exports of the Arab world (representing more than 200 millions persons), other than fossil fuel, amounted to less than those of Finland (a country of five million inhabitants). The GDP of Spain is greater than that of all 22 Arab countries combined. The most recent Arab Human Development Report compiled under United Nations auspices by Arab scholars and experts, concluded that lack of political freedoms, discrimination against women and shortage of quality education, have led to a substantial development gap between Arab countries and far poorer regions of the world.

These are some truths that bin Laden, sheikh Yassin and other militant Islamic fundamentalists should tell Arab youth instead of sending them toward suicide-bombings. But actually, the decay of the once resplendent Islamic civilization started as early as the 12th century because people of this remote past who resembled today's bin Ladens and sheikh Yassins, triumphed over more liberal clerics and imposed fundamentalist interpretations of the Koran that still constitute the basis of mainstream Islam.

Indeed, in years 1000, the Muslim world was the most advanced and prosperous part of the planet. The West which then steeped in backwardness and poverty stared with envy toward Bagdad and Cordoba . Its academics flocked at the frontiers of Andalusia to acquire manuscripts and learn science. In these first years of the 21st century, all Muslim nations, Arab or not, rich or poor, linger far behind the West and even many developing non-oil producing countries of Latin America and Asia.

How can one explain such a total reversal of fortune?

To answer this question one must first understand how a very limited number of Bedouin horsemen were able to conquer in less than half a century (late 7th and early 8th) a vast empire that became the cradle of a great civilization.

In fact, Persia and Bizantium, the two "superpowers" of those days were exhausted by their continuous wars. Their regimes had become excessively authoritarian and repressive.Therefore the Arab invaders were considered by natives as kind of "liberators".

Lacking administrative skills, the Arabs adopted local institutions and introduced no change in the ways of living of the people. Moreover,being a tiny minority, they could not establish adequate censorship or widespread repression. An atmosphere of relative freedom, unknown in empires of that time covered territories stretching from the Indian to the Atlantic oceans; people resumed their interrupted intellectual activities. Science and philosophy that had languished under the repressive regimes of Persia and Bizantium, flourished anew.

The Arab conquerors, ignorant and backward as they were, opened themselves to alien cultures. For almost two centuries, educated people debated freely philosophical and religious matters. Then suddenly by the end of the 11th century in Mesopotamia and the 12th in Spain, this intellectual effervescence came to a naught and the great Islamic civilization began to lose its vitality. As usual, hitorians and other specialists invoke a host of economic, political, and cultural causes in order to explain the decadence of the Muslim world. Arabs, for their part, accuse Western colonization and imperialism as well as Israel's implant in their midst. This plethora of real and imaginary explanations tend to blur the over-all picture and hide the prime mover of the decline. Indeed the imposition of ultra-fundamentalist readings of the religious texts which narrowed the intellectual horizon of the Muslim world after the 12th century,is the real villain.

As one example among many others, I shall mention here the 8th century theologian al-Ash'ari. His thesis, echoed in the 11th century by Ghazali, can be summed up as follows : Natural phenomena reflect an order instituted by Allah who can change it at will at any moment; it is therefore useless and even sacrilegious to spend time studying the so-called laws of nature as the Creator might drop them for another set; life on earth is but a provisional station imposed by Allah as a test; the real aim of life is the hereafter; one should therefore avoid anything that contradicts that aim and reject, among other things, poetry, philosophy and most sciences; one should rather concentrate on theological and religious law studies that would aid one in the other world.

One can easily imagine the negative impact of such a way of thinking on the intellectual and scientific life of a nation.

Ghazali condemned thinkers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina ) while half a century later the fundamentalist clerics of Andalusia branded philosophers such as Averroes (Ibn Rushd) heretics and burned their books. Fortunately many of the condemned manuscripts were carefully gathered by European universities whose scholars continued the work of their less fortunate Muslim colleagues. The Italian historian Geoffredo Quadri goes as far as to assert that Renaissance would not have been possible without Averroes's ideas.

In other words, without the rising of Islamic fundamentalism, without the bin Ladens and sheikh Yassins of the past, the scientific and industrial revolutions that propelled the West to its present eminence, would have happened in the Muslim world ! Muslims should ponder this fact and draw the inescapable conclusions.

Indeed what happened in the 12th-13th centuries and thereafter, was tantamount to a collective cultural suicide. The anti-scientific zeal of Muslim theologians reminds one of the ardor of the Christian clerics of the 3rd (and later of the 15th century) in destroying whatever they considered contrary to the Bible and the Gospels. To them (as to contemporary Muslim clerics ) all truth was contained in the revelations. They burned the manuscripts of ancient Greece and in the 4th century emperor Theodosius authorized the destruction of Serapeion library.

In the following eight centuries the Muslim world never regained its past splendor. There were, to be sure, a few notable exceptions. Thus in the 14th century the North African historian ibn Khaldun laid down the foundations of modern sociology and in the 15th century the mathematician ibn Massud made striking advances in calculus. As the scholar Marshall Hodgson once noted, an Extra-Terrestrial visiting Earth in the 16th century would have reported back that our world was on the verge of turning Muslim. Indeed three Islamic empires were shining : the Mogul in India, the Safavid in Persia and the Ottoman in Turkey. But the Ottomans in spite of their military victories in Eastern Europe produced no intellectual or scientific achievements comparable to those of their predecessors; and the two others rapidly fell to decadence.

I am baffled when I see fellow Muslims take pride in the contributions of Muslim thinkers to Western science. They forget that these thinkers were condemned as heretics and are still rejected by Muslim clerics.

I feel depressed and saddened when I see fellow Muslims, especially among the younger generations, respond to the nefarious and murderous calls of fanatic hate-mongers who wrap themselves in the garb of religion and brandish the banner of militant fundamentalism. The distorted versions of Islam they proclaim as a cure to the present ills of Muslim countries is exactly what caused the malady in the first place ! Because of their likes, the Muslim world missed the Renaissance and the scientific and technological revolutions of the 18th 20th centuries. Because of them, it is lagging far behind the West and most of the developing nations. Because of them it might for ever fail to catch the community of progressive nations.

It is high time for Muslims in general and Arabs in particular to reject once and for all their antiquated clerics and leaders. It is high time for Muslims to resume the spirit of openness and tolerance that allowed their ancestors of many countries and cultures to create a great civilization. They cannot create their future by hatred and terror. The medecine proposed by the bin Ladens, sheikh Yassins, ayatollah Khomeinis and organizations such as al-Qaeda, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, is sheer poison.

Militant fundamentalism once precipitated the Muslim world into decadence and backwardness. Its resurgence in these first years of the 21st century might prove fatal. Bin Laden and his likes pretend that a Judeo-Christian conspiracy is at work in order to wipe out Islam from the planet. In fact he and his likes are the real conspirators who are working at the destruction of Islam.


Fereydoun Hoveyda is a senior fellow at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and former Iranian ambassador to the UN before the 1979 revolution. He is the author of The Broken Crescent.The Threat of Militant Islamic Fundamentalism (Praeger 1999). To learn more about the Hoveydas, visit their web site.

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