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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Islam's forsaken renaissance - Mahathir Mohamad

Children often play a game where they sit in a circle. One whispers
something to his neighbor, who then whispers that information to the next
child, and so on, around the circle. By the time the last child whispers the
information to the first, it is totally different from what was originally

Something like that seems to have happened within Islam. The Prophet of
Islam, Muhammad, brought one -- and only one -- religion. Yet today we have
perhaps a thousand religions that all claim to be Islam.

Divided by their different interpretations, Muslims do not play the role
they once did in the world; instead, they are weakened and victimized.

The Shia/Sunni schism is so deep that each side condemns followers of the
other as apostates, kafir. The belief that the other's religion is not
Islam, and its followers not Muslim, has underpinned internecine wars in
which millions have died -- and continue to die. Even among the Sunnis and
Shias there are further divisions. The Sunnis have four imams and the Shias
have 12; their teachings all differ. Then there are other divisions,
including the Druze, the Alawites and the Wahabis.

We are also taught by our ulamas (religious instructors) that their
teachings must not be questioned. Islam is a faith. It must be believed.
Logic and reason play no part in it. But what is it that we must believe
when each branch of Islam thinks the other one is wrong? The Koran, after
all, is one book, not two or three, or a thousand.

According to the Koran, a Muslim is anyone who bears witness that "there is
no God [Allah] but Allah, and that Muhammad is his Rasul [messenger]." If no
other qualification is added, then all those who subscribe to these precepts
must be regarded as Muslims. But because we Muslims like to add
qualifications that often derive from sources other than the Koran, our
religion's unity has been broken.

But perhaps the greatest problem is the progressive isolation of Islamic
scholarship -- and much of Islamic life -- from the rest of the modern
world. We live in an age of science in which people can see around corners,
hear and see things happening in outer space and clone animals. And all of
these things seem to contradict our belief in the Koran.

This is so because those who interpret the Koran are learned only in
religion, in its laws and practices, and thus are usually unable to
understand today's scientific miracles. The fatwas (legal opinions on
Islamic law) that they issue appear unreasonable and cannot be accepted by
those with scientific knowledge.

One learned religious teacher, for example, refused to believe that a man
had landed on the moon. Others assert that the world was created 2,000 years
ago. The age of the universe and its size measured in light years -- these
are things that the purely religiously trained ulamas cannot comprehend.

This failure is largely responsible for the sad plight of so many Muslims.
Today's oppression, the killings and the humiliations of Muslims, occurs
because we are weak, unlike the Muslims of the past. We can feel victimized
and criticize the oppressors, but to stop them we need to look at ourselves.
We must change for our own good. We cannot ask our detractors to change, so
that Muslims benefit.

So what do we need to do? In the past, Muslims were strong because they were
learned. Muhammad's injunction was to read, but the Koran does not say what
to read. Indeed, there was no "Muslim scholarship" at the time, so to read
meant to read whatever was available. The early Muslims read the works of
the great Greek scientists, mathematicians and philosophers. They also
studied the works of the Persians, the Indians and the Chinese.

The result was a flowering of science and mathematics. Muslim scholars added
to the body of knowledge and developed new disciplines, such as astronomy,
geography and new branches of mathematics. They introduced numerals,
enabling simple and limitless calculations.

But around the 15th century, the learned in Islam began to curb scientific
study. They began to study religion alone, insisting that only those who
study religion -- particularly Islamic jurisprudence -- gain merit in the
afterlife. The result was intellectual regression at the very moment that
Europe began embracing scientific and mathematical knowledge.

And so, as Muslims were intellectually regressing, Europeans began their
renaissance, developing improved ways of meeting their needs, including the
manufacture of weapons that eventually allowed them to dominate the world.

By contrast, Muslims fatally weakened their ability to defend themselves by
neglecting, even rejecting, the study of allegedly secular science and
mathematics, and this myopia remains a fundamental source of the oppression
suffered by Muslims today.

Many Muslims still condemn the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kamal,
because he tried to modernize his country. But would Turkey be Muslim today
without Ataturk? Mustafa Kamal's clear-sightedness saved Islam in Turkey and
saved Turkey for Islam.

Failure to understand and interpret the true and fundamental message of the
Koran has brought only misfortune to Muslims. By limiting our reading to
religious works and neglecting modern science, we destroyed Islamic
civilization and lost our way in the world.

The Koran says that "Allah will not change our unfortunate situation unless
we make the effort to change it." Many Muslims continue to ignore this and,
instead, merely pray to Allah to save us, to bring back our lost glory. But
the Koran is not a talisman to be hung around the neck for protection
against evil. Allah helps those who improve their minds.
*Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister of Malaysia from 1981 to 2003.
*Copyright: Project Syndicate


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